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Exchanges in No Man's Land

Colum has lived most of his life in one place, has never attended Clarion, and doesn't even have a cat. Despite these manifest disadvantages, he tries to be some kind of writer. More of his work can be found in Daily Science Fiction, Kasma SF, Jupiter SF, and various anthologies.

I think that technologies are morally neutral until we apply them. It's only when we use them for good or for evil that they become good or evil." - William Gibson.
I've always wondered what thoughts people have in those moments when they're called to weigh their lives against doing the right thing. Is there an instant of decision, of choice, of strength or weakness? Do the brave undervalue their own lives? Are they brave over and over, or are they sometimes strong, and sometimes weak? Most of all: How would I choose?
Perhaps I'm about to find out.
As I close the car door, I catch my image reflected in the tinted glass, and it freezes me. Her hair is straight and uncolored, the piercings are gone, and the Nazari-Feinstein suit is understatedly gorgeous. She looks great. I wish she didn't. It's like looking through a dimensional portal and seeing an alien you, Anastasia Kapoor: corporate fembot. It's like meeting your shadow-self composed of all the things you rejected, and finding she's living a better life than you.
"You ready?" asks Cat, looking down at something in her hands that glints silver and goes "clickity-click."
I check the load in my own weapon; a Russian PSS Silent, locally sourced. Not quite a Walther PPK, but still fairly exclusive. I thumb the safety off, and tell her, "Yes. I'm ready."
I don't know if I am: ready. When I got involved in the movement I expected marching about with banners, chanting slogans, maybe throwing the odd egg at the police. I never thought I'd be spending months in training simulations, running through abandoned buildings wearing VR goggles and shooting imaginary bullets at imaginary enemies. It was a scream at first; we were all back to being schoolgirls. Not such a scream now. Now, the gun in my hands weighs the same, feels the same as the training toys, but I know this one is different. Still, all we have to do is walk in there, get Zhirov, and take her to the airport where a charter waits to fly her to freedom, or more exactly to permanent, sisterly, house arrest. Somewhere, Louise is playing the decoy, pretending to be Zhirov for the real buyers, whom we've misdirected to a false location. Louise, whom I have lived, and loved, and laughed with. I can't shake the feeling that I'll never see her again.
"Okay," says Cat, "You've got the detonator?" Her voice is glacier-calm. The 'briefcase' she holds is nothing but a single slab of molded XDX. Six kilos of the stuff. We don't even know what a "safe distance" would be from that. It's the last resort if things go south. If we can't get away with the merchandise, then we must destroy it, by any means necessary. And Zhirov too.
"Yes," I say.
She turns towards the lakeside cabin, starts walking down the swing-round driveway, impassive as Anna in that final scene of The Third Man. She's so brave. I wish she wasn't. She makes me feel that I'm a coward.
Suzanna Zhirov peers through the gap of the part-open door, keeping her body behind it, ready to slam it shut, though I doubt she'd last a second in a pushing-contest with Cat. She's quite young, our renegade scientist, mid-thirties at most. One glance at the hand that grips the door edge produces the diagnosis: "nail biter." The hand quivers where it rests. She's terrified: must be desperate to even be here. Confronted with this reality my Jane Bond fantasies collapse. I guess I wanted a leather-clad villainess, lounging in her lair, surrounded by gunmen. At least she could have been a hot scientist whom I could introduce to the decadent pleasures of the West. Well, if I weren't already spoken for, of course. Assuming I still am, spoken for, by the end of this. I didn't want this pathetic, frightened, lonely creature. Who would?
"You're Zhirov?" asks Cat.
Zhirov nods, frowning like something doesn't add up, her eyes luminous with suspicion and fear. She's got to wonder that anyone would send two women to contact her, given the nature of what she's selling.
"What's the matter? Were you expecting someone taller?" asks Cat, grinning a crocodile grin. "Can we come in?"
Zhirov steps away from the door, opens it wider, revealing a room bare of all but a table and chairs. She walks swiftly backwards to the far side of the table, putting it between her and us. I lean against a wall, where I can watch the transaction, hands in my pockets, one hand on the detonator, the other on my gun. Cat pulls out a chair and sits, sliding the deadly briefcase under the table. Zhirov slumps into her chair like a dropped puppet. It's that moment in a thousand movies: secret meetings between men with harsh accents and gravelly voices. In Cat's wineglass voice the line sounds new, "Do you have it?"
Zhirov nods. "C-c-can you get me out of this c-country?" she asks. I know then, I just know, that she sits on the same side of church as me. It could be some other crime, some other thing made newly illegal since the Tzarist Restoration, but I just know it isn't. Out there in a database somewhere are recorded words, text, or pictures from more liberal times, and one day a government search routine will find them, and that will be that. Perhaps the hammer has already fallen close to her. Perhaps she's watched her friends disappear one by one, and knows her time is coming soon.
"Yes, we can get you out," says Cat. "If I decide the merchandise is worth it."
Zhirov reaches to her throat, and unclips a junk-jewelry pendant that hangs there. She puts it on the table. It has a micro-usb connector at one end.
"This is the only copy of your results?" says Cat, pointing to the junk-jewelry usb-drive. "We want exclusive business rights. Like all businesses, we don't like competition."
Zhirov nods. "Yes, this is the only surviving copy of my work."
"A vaccine against girls. Quite a technological achievement," says Cat.
"It was a side effect," says Zhirov. "I wasn't looking for it." Like that would excuse everything, would make nothing her fault.
"What's the success rate?"
Zhirov looks puzzled by the question. I am too: our mission is to get her out, not interrogate her. She says, "I told them--"
"I want to hear you say it myself," says Cat. "And look in your eyes while you do. I want to be sure you're not lying to us. It would be... messy to clean things up afterwards if you were."
"I'm not--"
"Look me in the eyes and tell me the success rate."
"N-ninety percent results," says Zhirov.
"And who is the host, mother or father?"
"The mother."
"Well, that's a shame. The real profit would be in an injection for men that ensures they only father sons. This, they'll have to force on their wives, but I'm sure they'll find a way to do so. So, it's derived from Hepatitis-B, but it's not contagious. You're sure about that? We wouldn't want the product becoming freely available to all."
"Yes, I'm sure. The viral component becomes nonviable very quickly, but by then the changes have been made in the mother's genome."
Cat puts her hand on the usb-drive, slides it across the table. "There are already a hundred million girls missing in Asia, a hundred million of us terminated either before, or after, birth. Do you have no problem with that?"
I see Cat's game now. She wants to rub the bitch's face in it, wants to make her confess to treason. Cat's always been bold, and principled, and certain in everything, and she's never been able to understand that not everyone can be like her.
Zhirov's gaze switches uncertainly between us. "It's just research," she says, "I'm not responsible for what you do with it." The words sound like a mantra that she doesn't really believe, like a peasant chanting Latin that they don't understand.
"Could the effect be flipped the other way?" asks Cat. "A vaccine against boys?"
Something changes behind those beseeching eyes, Zhirov sees some hopeful explanation, and grabs at it. Nodding vigorously and even smiling a little, she says, "Oh, yes. Yes, that would be trivial."
"Well then, everything seems to be in order," says Cat, smiling back. She starts to rise from her chair. Zhirov copies her. Cat suddenly stops midway. Zhirov freezes too. It's as though they're bowing to each other across the table.
"Oh, hang on," says Cat. "There is one place where your results are still stored."
Cat's arm swings up, silver glinting in her hand. The silver touches Zhirov's forehead. There's a pneumatic "pffft!" and the back of Zhirov's head bursts like one of those slow-motion recordings of fruit hit by bullets. She ragdolls back into her chair, knocking it aside, and then she splats onto the floor, a lumpy red-black slick spreading from the back of her head.
A single, instinctive word bursts out of me. "Cat!"
"Death to traitors," says Cat, and then, as though life is seeking to prove to me once again that you never really know anyone, her gun swings to me. "Don't try anything, Annie, your gun's full of blanks. I don't want to shoot you, but I will if you make me."
"What are you doing?" I say. But it's obvious; she's taking Zhirov's research. The real question occurs to me: "Who are you working for?"
"A splinter group. Oh, look at you, so shocked by what needs to be done; to think we once thought we could recruit you. But you're weak, like the rest. You think you can change the world by marching round with banners, writing angry blog posts, and singing we-shall-effing-overcome. But the world remains stubborn." She holds up the usb-drive, "This is how you change the world. You heard what she said: trivial to make a vaccine against boys, and if it's not contagious now, it won't be difficult to change that, too. But how many in the movement would have the courage to use it?"
"It's not a matter of courage, Cat, it's a matter of right and wrong."
"Listen to yourself, 'right and wrong.' Grow up. So what if there are fewer men in the world, there'll still be some. They'll be somewhat overworked, poor things, fulfilling the one purpose for which nature intended them. They'll have no time for art, or science, or politics, but I doubt they'll complain. No one will complain. No one will have to be gassed, or shot, or beheaded, they'll just never be born. Where's the harm in that? Millions of people are never born every day. It's perfectly humane. You shouldn't complain either, fewer men would mean more traffic for the likes of you, hmm?"
"That's not funny, Cat."
"No, it's just the future. 'The future's female,' isn't that what we've always said? Now we have the means to make it happen. Don't try to follow me, dear, I don't want you on my conscience, too." She walks calmly to the door, her gun never wavering from me, then out into the night. I hear her footfalls crunching away up the swing-round drive.
Suzanna Zhirov stares up at me from the floor, a hole in her forehead like a horrible caste-mark. She was prepared to compromise everything just to stay alive. Look where it got her.
Cat's fake briefcase still stands under the table. Has she switched that, like the bullets in my gun? No. No it would have been too risky, if the situation went out of control, we'd have needed "Plan B." Thus, it must be real.
I run to the table, snatch up the briefcase, and bolt through the door. Headlights are coming down the drive. I sprint to the point where the car will pass the house. I only just make it. I throw myself forward. The car's bonnet slams into me, the impact so forceful that it's more an experience of shock than pain. I'm scrabbling to stay on the smoothly sloping bonnet. Cat stares at me through the windscreen, mouth open, amazed. Her face creases into a snarl, and she takes a hand off the wheel to search for something, and I know it will be her gun. I slap the briefcase-bomb onto the windscreen, buying me a moment, blocking her view.
I've always wondered what thoughts people have in those moments when they're called to weigh their lives against doing the right thing. Now I know: when the time comes, you don't think at all.
I see the glint of Cat's gun through the glass. My hand curls round the detonator in my jacket pocket. I stamp my thumb down on the ignition stud.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, February 4th, 2014

Author Comments

William Gibson said that spec-fic writers predict the present. Much that's in this story is already happening. There are about 100 million "missing" girls in Asia, due to parents using sex-selective abortion, or sometimes outright infanticide, to ensure they have sons rather than daughters. The idea has now spread to the Caucuses, where sex-ratios at birth are starting to skew away from the norm. Also real is the rise of hatred towards gay people, both in Africa and now Russia.

Then there are people like Cat, who believe a thing is wrong when it's aimed at one group, but acceptable when aimed at another. Fueled by self-righteousness and radical theory, such people have undermined their ethical firewalls and are capable of anything. The rest of us are moral dark matter: we're invisible, you never hear from us, we don't want to get involved. Everyone knows we're out there, but we're just bending space.

Anastasia Kapoor is about the most designed character I've written. She's just what she needs to be: A person who could collaborate with the brave-new-world, but whose primary allegiance is to humanity as a whole. I cling to the hope that, somewhere, such people still exist. But perhaps that's just science fiction.

- C J Paget
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