Karenina Arelia shot bolt upright, chest heaving. The bedroom was still dark, the curtains still drawn and her boyfriend still snoring slightly beside her. She put her head between her knees and breathed deeply. Only a dream, she told herself. Her heart rate slowed to normal, and she glanced at the clock. 6:00AM. She had to be up in half an hour anyway, so she may as well get up now.
Karenina slipped out of bed, pulling a shirt over her head and closing the bedroom door. “Lights dim,” she said, and the a soft glow illuminated the kitchen and living room. She and Jackson Forbes, her boyfriend, had just moved in a week ago, when he had been promoted to lead programmer at Andronetics Tech. They could afford a better place, but Karenina was grateful for the small, cozy London apartment in the early morning. She picked a mug out of a packing box and slid it into the synthesizer pod. “Coffee, dark roast, medium sugar,” she instructed, then dug around in the small fridge for some eggs and sausage packets. Dropping them into a pan, she added some milk and water, and waited for them to rehydrate. Taking her coffee cup, she sat on the counter, savoring the caffeine and replaying her nightmare.
She had been 18 again, as though the last four years had never happened. It was late at night, and she was still awake, hacking her way into the British General Bank. There were serious firewalls, but no one had made a firewall that she couldn’t beat. This was going to be huge; the program she’d written would overwrite the withdraw policy, sending multiple small withdrawals from hundreds of accounts to her own encrypted account opened in Switz-
That’s when the feds had busted her door down, dragging her off kicking and screaming. She was thrown in a cell, and as the door slammed shut, she knew no one was ever going to know where she was.
Karenina shook herself. That nightmare had almost been her reality; she had been a high-profile hacker only a few years ago, angry at the world around her and out for blood. The only reason that she was not in that deep, dark cell was the tech newspaper, Tech News Today (TNT) Editor Jackie Paulson had tracked her down and offered her a full time gig. Karenina still had no idea how Jackie had found her.
“You’re good, Kid” Jackie had said, her chic figure looking hilariously out of place in Karenina’s dirty hut of an apartment. Karenina’s own thick, curly brown hair was pulled into a bun, and her black jeans, leather jacket, and combat boots were all old and dirty.“Really good. I need you on my team. I need someone to tell it like it is, stick it to the corporations. It won’t be easy, and I’m not starting you at the top.”
Karenina had laughed in her face. “What makes you think I would work for you?”
Jackie had smirked, and taken a file from her purse. MI5 had found Karenina’s hacker tag, and had been trying to trace her algorithms. They were closer than she had thought. Jackie watched her carefully. “Come work for me, because I will pay you better than anyone else, and I can protect you.”
That had been years ago, though. Karenina had quickly established herself as a tough but fair tech reviewer. When companies had a new piece and wanted the best possible ratings, they called Karenina. As a result, she had many early releases of products. Her favorites included glasses that changed with your eye prescription and adjusted for sunlight, the very latest upgrade in her Heads Up Display (Commonly known as HUD, a technology that far surpassed the phones of beginning of the century), and her Elytra 5’s. Elytra was a personal transportation company that had recently branched into flight machines. The 5’s were actual wing models. Karenina used them all the time.
Half an hour later, she heard movement and Jackson appeared. His hair, black with an electric blue streak, was adorably messy. He was pushing his square-framed glasses up his face, and grinned crookedly at her. “Good morning, beautiful,” he said, kissing her on the top of her head. He pulled some cereal out of a cabinet and Karenina handed him a bowl from yet another box.
“Hey you,” she said. Wow, she thought. How lucky was she, to have this guy standing in just sweatpants in their kitchen, calling her beautiful. Pretty damn, was the answer. “How’d you sleep?”
Jackson shrugged. “Alright. Still getting used to a new place. Different noises, you know?” Karenina nodded. “What’ve you got going on today?”
“Jackie needs a review of InfraSight’s new line by this Friday, so I’ve got two interviews and some testing today, and writing tomorrow.”
“Solid.” Jackson crunched on his cereal, made a face, and got up to get milk. Karenina snorted into her plate.
Twenty minutes later, she pulled on her helmet and clipped the Elytra pack onto her torso. It worked like a backpack, with gloves that connected to the expansive wings stored in the back. She stepped out onto the balcony and released the latch on her chest. The wings unfolded themselves, and synced with the gloves. She tested it out, loving the movement of the feathers. She climbed up on the railing, took a deep breath, and jumped.
Throwing her arms out to the sides, the wings following suit, she caught the current high above the London streets. A passing hawk dove out of her way as she flew, heading for the InfraSight HQ. The morning air was cold, and Karenina was glad for the plush windbreaker with heating circulation. She soared over London, thinking how beautiful this new architecture was. Everything was curves and odd angles, bright colors outside and in. The fashion extended to people, too. There were beautiful outfits of carefully constructed materials, and the hair was bigger than the 1980’s. Hover cars, early teleportation, and obviously flight, were in vogue. She couldn’t believe she was living in 2130.
While she arrived early for her 8:00 interview, there was some sort of snafu that the CEO was dealing with, and she didn’t finish with the second interview until after 12. She was starving, and needed more coffee. Thus, flying home with the newest InfraSight glasses in her pack, she was perhaps less careful than necessary. Thus, she didn’t notice the arms reaching out a window in the back alley street she was racing down, dropping a bundle out the window.
The bundle, wrapped in what looked like a slightly bloody drop cloth, was obviously intended for the dumpster below her. Unfortunately it landed directly in the square of Karenina’s back. The impact nearly knocked her out of the air. As it was she lost control and nearly slammed into a lamppost. She managed to clumsily land a bit further down and the bundle fell off her. She knelt down and gingerly poked it.
It moved slightly. Karenina stared at it. The drop cloth was undoubtedly bloody, and wrapped around something that was alive. Bad signs all around. Her curiosity got the better of her, and she carefully unwrapped the drop cloth.
What she saw almost made her throw it back in a dumpster. She absolutely did not need this. Not at all. But she couldn’t just leave it.
“Fuck” she whispered. She rewrapped the bundle, tucked it in the Elyra pack, and took off like a shot.
“No.” Jackson crossed his arms. “Absolutely not.”
“Jackson, there is a story here. A real story. I could break a criminal operation wide open,” Karenina cajoled, splashing water out of the sink. She was making a complete mess of the kitchen, but having never washed a dying crow before, she thought she was doing well.
The issue wasn’t the crow, exactly. It was the crudely, very hastily inserted camera replacing its right eye. An amateur case of bio-alteration, commonly known as cyborging; and, since about ten years ago, the most highly punished crime in the country. It was deeply inhumane, violated several parts of the Geneva convention, and was extremely difficult to successfully perform without killing the subject.
Karenina knew she had something big. This was not one case; the crow had been altered by someone who was learning, who had done this before. The job wasn’t as messy as she had originally thought. There were some scratches around his eye socket, but once most of the blood had been sponged away, he was mostly unharmed. Karenina suspected something had been added to his brain as well, to send signals to the camera.
Jackson rubbed his hands over his face. Karenina had burst in the balcony door, windblown and panicked, holding a bloody sheet. He had assumed the worst, without really knowing what the worst was in this situation. But when he saw the crow, he couldn’t believe that his girlfriend could be so foolish. How could she endanger them like this? “Ren, you have to get rid of it. Or turn it in. Just get it out of this apartment.”
She whirled around and glared at him, soapy hands on her hips. “Jackson Forbes, look at him. He is not the first animal to be worked on by this person. He was just a reject. There is an operation going on here. I will go to the police when I have the facts, but until then, Jedediah stays with us. We will not be arrested, and Jackie will cover-”
“You named it??”
“That’s not the point!” She almost yelled. “He’s a living thing, and someone is altering animals in this city! If they’re operating on birds, that means they’ve already had success with smaller animals. Don’t you see?”
Jackson groaned. There was no way he was going to win this. After all, didn’t he love Karenina for her fiery, adamant determination? “Fine,” he said, pouring himself a whiskey, “but please work fast.”
Mollified, Karenina extracted Jedediah from and drained the sink. He croaked gratefully. Jackson came over to his girlfriend as she held the shaky bird. It looked at him warily. He put out his hand. Jedediah put his head down, allowing Jackson to scratch his neck feathers. “Nice birdy,” Jackson said. Karenina snorted at him. “What? He’s very well beha- HEY!” He had just noticed Jedediah gulping his whiskey.
Karenina could’ve sworn Jedediah chuckled.
Over the next few days, Jedediah improved by leaps and bounds. Jackson had bandaged his eye, and they found foods that he liked; walnuts and chicken, specifically white meat that was just undercooked. He was extremely partial to whiskey. Jackson had taken to pouring him a tiny portion of a shot glass after dinner some nights. Karenina had tested his wings, taking him on short flights around the building when she got home in the evenings. He stuck close to the two of them; he seemed afraid of any and everything outside.
They also discovered exactly what his alterations allowed; He could record video or pictures, and could project a hologram image of the footage. He had an implant in his brain that allowed him to connect to the wifi, thus having the ability to upload his footage to a computer wirelessly. Karenina guessed that the reason someone had tried to toss him was his personality. He was quite a sassy bird; he would caw incessantly if dinner were slightly late, or if Karenina accidentally bumped him off the table he would sit on the chair she was trying to occupy. He occasionally stole walnuts out of the bag once he figured out how to open the cabinets. He also insisted on mostly walking around, or riding on someone’s shoulder. He only flew when Karenina forced him to exercise once a day.
Karenina had told Jackie the day after she rescued Jedediah. At first her boss told her exactly what Jackson had said, and reminded her that her position was a Tech Reviewer, not a investigative reporter. “Who else is going to take this story?” Karenina asked her. “I have proof, I know how and where it happened, and frankly I am one of the only people in the office who had the fucking balls to pull this off. This story could be the biggest tech reveal in a century, and innocent animals are being hurt and killed.”
Jackie looked at her appraisingly for a moment. She was very nervous about this, but she knew Karenina was right. She sighed. “Alright. But on your own time, and you must continue your regular articles as well. Capiche?”
Karenina smiled. “Capiche, boss.”
Jackie shook her head. “Be careful, Kid. I’m not losing my best employee over a cyborg crow.”
Karenina had staked out the window from which Jedediah had been thrown. She perched on the roof of the building across the way, and used a pair of binoculars to see into the apartment. While old tech, they were undetectable, so she was safe to peer into the window. She couldn’t observe much, but she knew operating tables and tools when she saw them. These were pretty brazen criminals; they didn’t even bother to cover the windows. Of course, it was a tiny view and they were on the top floor. They weren’t facing any windows in the building Karenina perched on, so there really wasn’t a reason to cover them. But they had sealed them (presumably after they had chucked Jedediah) and she saw soundproofing materials over the walls.
According to her old contacts in the hacker scene (who had contacts in pretty much every scene), the international black market for bio-alterations was growing. China, Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Russia had outlawed cyborging, but the UK was far and away the most technologically advanced. Former drug operations had slowly changed into cyborg trade, which was far more lucrative. Karenina’s contact in this area’s slums had heard chatter about a gang called the Downtown X: former exotic animal and human traffickers. They had been extremely active lately, but only this week had their imports increased. The rumor also was that they had recruited a once-arrested doctor – one that had stood trial for cyborging.
After a week of this, Jedediah accompanied her to her stakeout. He was very nervous; he knew where he was. But he had refused to be left behind today. She finally let him fly beside her, and he was silent the whole way.They landed at 6:00AM. The city was already busy; so busy, no one noticed a hover transport coming down the back alley. Jedediah perched on the fuel cell tank next to Karenina. She heard the very slight beep of his camera beginning to record. She crouched below the ledge, folded her Elytras, and focused her binoculars.
Several figures slid the huge downstairs doors open, and the truck backed in. The covering on the truck was a large cloth. As the truck backed in, it snagged on a chain hanging from the ceiling. Karenina caught sight of an arm sticking through a wooden cage. Her breath caught in her throat. It wasn’t human; probably a monkey or ape, but if the gang was already moving to primates, that meant humans were next.
A few hours later, nothing else had happened. Karenina packed her bag, and she and Jedediah took off for the central police station.
The Flying Squad Chief was bewildered. Never before had a young woman stormed into his office, sat down in an entirely too important manner, and delivered the most extraordinary case of his career. Not only was there an extremely proficient cyborging unit in the city, this journalist had more information than his sergeants ever had about the operation. The young woman then demanded to be allowed to take part in the sting operation. How she knew that they handled these situations with stings was beyond the Chief. The journalist was incredibly knowledgeable about the building, the operations of the crew, and somehow had video surveillance.
She also had a plan, and the Chief found himself listening with great attentiveness. He knew talent when he saw it, even if it appeared in a thin, leather jacketed form.
Two hours later, every undercover cop was surreptitiously surrounding the building. There had been areal confirmation of known gang members entering and leaving the building, as well as camera footage from across the street collaborating Karenina’s story. The Chief had, to her immense surprise, given her the benefit of the doubt (after 3 hours of intense questioning). He overruled his sergeant’s, after detailing her plan.
It was very simple, really, an old-school sting. Karenina and her “team” (she hadn’t divulged who this team was, but she was oddly confident that they would not double-cross her) would infiltrate first. They would come in from the roof, cause a distraction, and the MI5 and Flying Squad teams would collapse from the roof and surround the doors. The Flying Squad Chief insisted on a protective vest for her, and made a private note to petition the commissioner for a full set of Elytra 5’s. He couldn’t resist the pun.
Karenina and her team huddled on the roof. She activated her InfraSight glasses. Immediately, she could see movement two floors below. The InfraSights showed her two people on that floor, directly under her, and at least 7 on the top floor but at the other end of the building. They all surrounded one person, whom she assumed was the leader. She brought up the building floor plans on her HUD, and saw the old rafters high above the top floor. She unholstered the laser cutter the Flying Squad had given her, and sliced the lock on the drophatch.
The Downtown X leader (ominously known only as Giovanni) was in his office, preparing his crew. They had three days to perfect the alterations on the monkeys.
“If there is not a perfection of all alterations in three days,” he said now, as his men looked at him with their typical fear and awe, “You will be the first human subjects.” He grinned, but no one thought it was a joke. “Doctor, are we ready?”
A man stepped out of the shadows. The crew looked arguably more afraid of him than they did of their leader. He was thin and extremely tall, with long bony fingers and a sallow face. “Everything is prepared,” he said in a thin voice.
“The lab, then,” Giovanni stood and gestured down the hall. The doctor nodded and led the way to the lab. The crates of monkeys were already there, each animal drugged and quiet.
“Gentlemen,” Giovanni said, “today, we take the next step towards the future of science. With our cyborgs, we can control the highest positions of power.” He slapped one of the crates. “Now is the time to-”
He stopped, suddenly realizing someone was talking over him. Everyone turned. There, on the nearest operating table, was a holographic image of Giovanni. “Gentlemen,” it said, repeating the last ten seconds. The crew all drew their weapons.
They glanced up to the rafters and several men jumped backwards. Every inch of rafters, 10 feet above them, was covered in crows. They roosted, perfectly still and staring. In the center, crouched a girl. Her small frame was nearly hidden in the shadows.
The girl grinned. She spread her arms, wings expanding from her shoulders. She looked at Giovanni, straight in the eye, and said “Caw caw, mother fuckers.”
Several days later, TNT debuted a huge cover story. “Bio Alteration Busted: London’s Biggest Cyborging Ring Taken Down.”
“Nicely done,” Jackson said, reading the second page at the kitchen table. “The video quality is quite good.”
Karenina smiled at him from the stove, where she was stirring orange chicken. “Thanks, she said. “I’m still sorry.” When the Flying Squad Chief had informed Jackson that she’d put herself in the operation, he’d sped to the police station. He had just missed them. When they returned, scratched and bruised but otherwise unharmed, he had grabbed Karenina and hugged her so tightly her ribs almost cracked. Then he told her off. Then he hugged her again.
The entire crew, including Giovanni and the doctor, had been arrested. Karenina had personally overseen the transfer of the altered birds, mice, rabbits, and reptiles into a rehabilitation center. A crow, however, simply refused to leave, and the Flying Squad Chief was eventually forced to allow it to remain with her.
Jackie had immediately ordered Karenina to take a week off. Karenina didn’t argue. She had finally been able to unpack the apartment. Karenina plated the orange chicken, and brought it to the table. Jackson put down the magazine. When she tried to sit down, though, Jedediah flew onto the back of her seat. “Oh come on,” she scolded, setting down her plate and waiting for him to hop away. Instead, his camera turned on, and he projected a picture. It was a gif of a card opening, and the message read:
“Will you marry me?”
Karenina covered her mouth and whipped around. Jackson was kneeling next to her, holding a small, thin ring with a sensible diamond. “If you’re going to fly around saving the city, I’m going to able to say ‘That’s my wife,”’ He said, a tear in his eye. “Will you take pity on a worrying, lame tech nerd and make him the happiest man alive?”
“Yes, yes you dork!” Karenina said, dragging her fiance into a kiss.
Jedediah cawed happily, and drank whiskey in their honor.