The aircar flew lower than Tyoma had ever gone before in his life. As a scientist he’d always believed the work he did was for the betterment of humanity, so he was horrified at the revulsion he felt as the car drew closer to what the sky-dwellers often called The Muck.
The lowest classes were an abstraction for Tyoma, something to be discussed at a dinner party with a furrowed brow and empathy dripping from every word. His skin crawled at the thought of mingling with them. He was certain they would see him for one of the privileged sky-dwellers; they would rob him or beat him or perhaps even murder him. I should have hired some guards to accompany me. What’s the use of having so much money stashed away if I don’t use it when I truly need it?
The autodriver beeped to indicate it had arrived at the specified destination. Tyoma had ordered it not to park. He wanted a chance to scout the area before moving in. He knew from history vids that the statue of Yuri Dolgoruki had once been on Tverskaya Street, but during the reconstruction of the city center in the latter part of the last century, it had been relocated to Repin Park.
The aircar hovered ten meters above the rubble of what had once been the Tretyakov Gallery. Tyoma could see the footbridge across the canal to Repin Park from here and the statue of Moscow’s founder standing across a gravel clearing from the statue of the painter Ilya Repin. Several people milled about in the park, but Tyoma couldn’t pick out Volodya or his captors.
He tapped the windshield and said, “Magnify this point here ten times.”
The view in the window enlarged and focused on the two statues. An elderly lady sat on a bench watching three young girls playing some game in a flower patch nearby, but there was no sign of Volodya. Tyoma scratched his head, unsure what to do next.
The area around the park was a no-fly zone, so he’d have to approach on foot. He looked at some of the pedestrians passing by on the street. They didn’t look so dangerous. A young man who had paused to look up at Tyoma’s car wore a thin suit made from clearly inferior material, but it was well kept nonetheless. Tyoma suddenly felt ridiculous about his earlier thoughts. It was a lovely sunny day out, with poplar seeds floating on a mild breeze, and everyone he could see looked to be simply enjoying the weather. Even the drably dressed kiosk vendors moved with an alacrity that Tyoma would never have imagined. Other than the rubble of the famous art museum, he couldn’t understand why ground level was called The Muck.
“Drop me off at the edge of the road here, then hover at the edge of the zone until I call you,” Tyoma said to the car.
The aircar drifted down until it nearly touched the ground, and the door slid open. Tyoma climbed out and paused to think a moment. He fished in one of his coat pockets and examined the chip he withdrew to be certain it was the correct one, then dropped it on the seat.
“Go on,” he said. The door shut and the car hummed as it rose into the sky.
Tyoma took a deep breath and surveyed his surroundings, still half certain he would be attacked. No one seemed to be paying him any attention. He sighed and set off slowly in the direction of the park.
Are they watching me already?, he wondered. Will they kill Volodya and me once they have the chips? He doubted anyone would do anything to stop an attack, and there was no sign of police anywhere about. What choice do I have? I can’t abandon Volodya.
He slowed some more as he neared the footbridge over the canal. The bridge was famous as a site where newlyweds had once come and placed locks on the small trees for luck, but this was clearly no longer the case. There were no small trees and no sign of locks.
Do people still get married? Tyoma tried to remember the last time he had been to a wedding. He scratched his goatee until he remembered: the wedding of Little Dima just after the turn of the century. It was a topic usually avoided by sky-dwellers, but virtual mates had all but killed off marriages among the wealthy. Did it affect the Muckers the same way? He knew many of the poor still clung to Orthodoxy, and the religious frowned heavily on substituting virtual reality for a true spouse.
Tyoma was about to step onto the bridge when he saw Volodya, leaning against a tree not far from Dolgoruki’s statue. Only two other men were near him, but neither of them was the man Tyoma had seen holding a gun to Volodya’s head. They must be here somewhere.
A poplar seed floated into his eye, and Tyoma picked it out of his eyelash and set off across the bridge. Volodya stood up from the tree and raised a hand in greeting. Tyoma continued scanning the area as he approached.
“Where are they?” he said, when he drew near.
“Close enough,” Volodya said. “They didn’t want to scare you off.”
“It’s all I can do not to piss my pants.”
Volodya smiled wanly. “Look at us. When’s the last time we had a civilized conversation?”
“I converse politely with anyone who treats me with respect. You treat us all with disdain at the best of times.”
Volodya waved a hand. “You just read it that way. I was the youngest of four brothers, and our mother came from a very wealthy family. Competitiveness was drilled into me from an early age.”
Tyoma shook his head. “It goes far beyond that. You never hide your contempt for me.”
“Because you fight back, Tyoma,” Volodya said with a grin. “You’re the only one of the group who makes life interesting.”
“You’re unbelievable. Forty years and you have never been this forthright.”
“The cold muzzle of mortality has never been shoved in my face before,” Volodya said. “Ah, here they come now.”
The man Tyoma had seen on the vid screen was crossing the bridge. A shorter man trailed after him, smoking a simsig.
“How did this happen?” Tyoma said.
“The big ugly one was waiting outside my apartment door.”
“I wonder why security let him through?”
Volodya shrugged. “I asked him that and he laughed at me as if I’d told the funniest joke he’d ever heard.”
The two men came to a stop a few paces away. The big one smiled and held out a meaty paw. “The chip. Let’s make this quick and easy, okay?”
“You won’t hurt us?” Tyoma asked.
“I don’t give a shit about you,” the man said. “My boss wants the chip. If you stop jawing and hand it over, you have my word we won’t hurt you.”
Tyoma glanced at Volodya, who gave a slight shrug. If there had been just the one man, Tyoma had intended to try to pass off the mind scan chip in place of the combat chip. His only concern had been whether the man would insist that one of the scientists try it out first. With two men, he couldn’t risk the trick. Even if the man tried it and killed himself, the other would be there to exact revenge. Tyoma dug out the old combat chip and placed it in the big man’s palm.
The man held the card up to his eyes to read the label, then looked at Volodya. “This isn’t the number you told me.”
“Let me see it,” Volodya said. He read the tiny writing and gave Tyoma a wry smile. “You brought the latest version. I told him two point two.”
The man plucked the card from Volodya’s hand. “You lied to me, tried to cheat me. This is the latest? Two point four?”
Volodya and Tyoma nodded together.
The man glared at them for half a minute. “How do I know you aren’t lying to me?”
“Hey,” Tyoma said. “I did think about bringing an older chip, but I couldn’t take a chance you would know the truth and hurt us. That’s the right one, I swear.”
“You try it,” the man said, holding the card out to Tyoma.
Tyoma reached for it, but the man pulled it back. “What does it do? It’s a combat chip, right? Maybe...maybe you can kill us if you use it?”
Tyoma laughed. At the man’s angry look, he held up his hands to calm him. “Sir, please. If the cards could do that, don’t you think I would have worn it to the meeting? I’d have armed myself, too, for that matter. No?”
The shorter man stepped closer. “Come on, Alexei. The boss is waiting.”
Alexei scowled at his partner. “And what do you think Viktor will do if we bring him the wrong card? Huh?” He looked back at Volodya, then stepped forward and grabbed him by the shoulder.
Volodya opened his mouth, but Alexei shook him and said, “Don’t do it if you want to live. I just need to test this thing.” He reached forward and jammed the card into Volodya’s slot.
Nothing noticeable happened.
“Well,” Alexei said. “Why doesn’t it work?”
“What did you think would happen?” Tyoma asked. “It only helps out reflexes and such during combat. It also provides information. You won’t see that it works unless you try it yourself.”
“He didn’t die, at least,” Alexei said, then held out his hand. “Give it back to me.”
Volodya ejected the card and handed it over.
Alexei looked skeptical. “This is the latest version, huh? We find out you’re lying and we’ll kill you both.”
Tyoma felt an odd compulsion to tell them about the card in his car. Could they know somehow that this card was two versions old? Would it really hurt to give them the latest version? He tried to remember what exactly had been wrong with the version two point four cards. He wavered under Alexei’s glare and was just about to speak up when Volodya spoke first.
“That’s the latest.”
“Come on,” Alexei said, pocketing the card. “Let’s go.”
“You said you’d let us go,” Tyoma said.
“I said I wouldn’t hurt you. Anyway, we’ll let you go once I know the boss is happy with what you gave us. Now shut up and come along or I’ll break your nose.”
Volodya must have felt he was a safe distance away. “You don’t need both of us, do you?”
The big gangster’s face turned red, but his partner said, “Two is dead weight. We know where they live.”
Alexei spat on the ground and wagged a finger under Volodya’s nose. “You better not have fucked with us.” He grabbed Tyoma’s arm in a steely grip and steered him up the path toward the bridge.
“Please don’t hurt me,” Tyoma whispered. He was dazed by the sudden turn of events. Why leave Volodya and take him?
“Walk faster,” Alexei said. “Call the car, Oskar.”