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 Community Service
a short story by Molly Brown

- Prologue -

Kathy Lopez was asleep in her cardboard hut on the bridge between the twenty-fourth floors of two buildings protected by the Spiders when she was wakened by the sound of spinning blades. No, she thought, it can't be. She stuck her head through the little flap that served as her door onto the walkway and looked up, but it was hard to see what was happening in the perpetual twilight of the ramps, far below the thick web-like netting that had been draped from roof to roof. Then to her horror, the sunlight broke through. She raised a hand to shield her eyes and saw the net had been sliced in half. Beyond it, dozens of blue and gold helicopters hovered, guns trained on the people below. "Terrorism will not be tolerated. Surrender now," a voice bellowed from a speaker as the choppers began their descent, "and you will be treated fairly."

The bridges swayed wildly from side to side as people ran towards the buildings.

Windows were flung open up and down the towers as Spider soldiers ushered the bridge people in to safety. Then the helicopters opened fire. Several walkways collapsed, plunging homes and businesses and screaming people to the ground. Kathy stumbled along the bridge, wheezing and gasping for breath. She'd just reached a window when the footpath fell away behind her. A Spider soldier caught her by the shoulders and pulled her inside. "You okay, Kath?"

The soldier was a corporal named Raymond and she'd known him all her life. They'd grown up together; he'd been her younger brother's best friend, before her brother, Louie, had been captured and executed. The room she was in was a food store the Spiders maintained for the bridge dwellers. It was filled with row upon row of metal shelves holding bags of flour and stacks of cans. She sank down onto the floor and reached inside her jacket pocket for her inhaler.

"Come on, Kath," Raymond said, kneeling beside her. "You gotta keep moving. Everybody's supposed to head for the basement. We've been in contact with the Cobras; they're gonna open up the tunnel."

She shook her head; she couldn't do it. She'd never make it down all those flights of winding stairs.

"You can't stay here, Kath."

The roar of engines became louder than ever; a helicopter appeared outside the window. Raymond pushed Kathy's head down and leapt to his feet, reaching for his gun. The room had been strafed with gunfire before Raymond could manage a single shot.

Kathy lifted her head to see Raymond lying only inches away from her. His blood was in her hair and on her clothes and she was covered in debris from the shelves; there was spilled food everywhere. Outside the window, the helicopter rose slightly, disappearing from sight. Keeping close to the floor, Kathy slowly began to edge backwards, towards the door. Then she heard someone coming through the window.

"Freeze, terrorist."

Kathy froze where she was.

"Now stand up."

She lifted her head to see a man in blue and gold armour pointing a very large gun at her with one hand while he unhooked a rope from the harness around his waist with the other. She couldn't see much of the man's face behind his helmet, but she'd know that voice anywhere. No, she told herself, it wasn't possible. She carefully got to her feet, raising her hands in surrender. She was still clutching her inhaler.

"Drop it," the man ordered her.

"It's just -"

"Drop it!"

The inhaler hit the ground.

"Against that wall," the man said. "Now!"

She stood gaping at him, open-mouthed. It wasn't just his voice, it was his mouth, his chin, the way he stood, the way he didn't hold his head quite straight. If only she could see his eyes, then she would know beyond doubt...

"I said move!" the man barked.

"Louie? It is you, isn't it?"

The man raised his gun to her forehead. "Move!"

"Louie, what are you doing? It's me, Kathy, your sister..."

He pulled the trigger.

- I -

I was working the day shift at Traffic Control when I noticed that someone was making obscene finger shadows on one of my computer screens. I turned around and saw a couple of the guys standing at the back of the room with a flashlight. "Very funny," I said, turning back to the screen. Then a rubber band bounced off my head. I knew who'd done that, and I was determined to ignore it.

Jimmy Rodriguez slid his chair over next to mine. When I still ignored him, he nudged me with his elbow. "Hey, Nora!"

I looked up from my terminal, giving him my iciest stare. I was furious at Jimmy that morning, though it seemed he hadn't figured that out yet.

He pointed to a crack in the left front wall, between two banks of screens displaying a line of nearly stationary cars stretching across most of the fifteenth sector. That was Angela Greenman's sector, and she was just about tearing her hair out trying to get things moving again. Rather her than me, I thought.

"Is it my imagination," Jimmy said, "or is that crack getting bigger?"

Jimmy had been calling maintenance about that crack for the last two months. And he was right, it was definitely getting bigger. But I wasn't going to tell him that because I wasn't speaking to him. I just shrugged.

I turned back to my own set of screens. I had a bottleneck forming in Valley View Road; I reduced vehicle speed to 20 kph and diverted every second car to an alternate - longer - route. I zoomed in on one particular driver, watching his face contort as he tugged at his steering wheel, trying to pull it the opposite way. It didn't do him any good; I was the one in control and he was taking the scenic route, whether he liked it or not. The man finally let go of the wheel to shake a fist at the camera.

Jimmy laughed and patted me on the back. He loved it when drivers tried to resist, and the more upset they got, the more he loved it. I couldn't blame him for that. The poor guy was stuck monitoring sector nine, the most boring sector you could imagine. Semi-rural. Nothing ever happened in sector nine.

The look on that man's face as he shook his fist at me was so comical I almost started laughing myself. Then I remembered I was supposed to be angry. I bit my lip and stared straight ahead at my screen.

Jimmy got out of his chair and sat down on top of my desk. He bent forward, blocking my view of the terminal. "Nora, is something the matter?"

I shook my head "no".

"So how come the silent treatment?"

"Silent treatment?" I asked innocently.

"You've hardly spoken a word to me all morning."

Hurrah, I thought. He'd finally noticed. "Haven't I? Well maybe I just thought you might be all talked out after your long conversation with Officer Stone last night."

Jimmy's mouth dropped open. "You mean Francie? Is that what this is all about?"

"All what about? And will you please get off my desk before I punch out all your teeth?"

He switched back to his chair. "Don't be like that, Nora! We were only talking about work."

"So that's why the two of you went off to sit alone in a booth, is it? So you could talk about work?"

"Exactly." He lowered his voice to a whisper. "There's things going on that we're not supposed to know about. Since Francie's moved upstairs, she's overheard some pretty amazing stuff."

"Like what?"

"Apparently there's some big -" Jimmy stopped mid-sentence. "I'll tell you another time," he said, nodding towards something behind me.

I turned and saw a man in the blue and gold torso armour of the Airborne Patrol walk into the room.

Everyone looked up. As far as we were concerned, this guy was one of the elite; his uniform had shoulders out to there, and it looked as if he had enough firepower hanging from his hip to blow up an entire block.

The airborne cop took off his helmet, revealing an angular face framed by a tangled mop of curly black hair, and began to move slowly up and down the rows of terminals, as if he was looking for someone or something.

I directed my attention back to the bottleneck in my sector. A truck had started backing into Valley View Road. Great, I thought, just what I do not need.

I looked up a minute later and saw the airborne cop looming over the back of my terminal. He looked about twenty-five - a couple of years younger than me - with large dark eyes and full lips. Dishy. "Can I help you, Officer?" I asked him.

He raised a hand to his forehead, then hurried from the room.

The guy was waiting in Larry's Bar when we got off shift. I didn't recognize him at first, without the blue and gold. He was sitting at the bar, staring straight ahead, a half-empty glass in front of him. Dressed like a typical cop off duty: jeans and a leather jacket, loose-fitting enough to conceal a shoulder holster. He was alone.

I was with about eight or nine others from the office. Other than the airborne cop at the bar, we were the only customers, but it was early yet. Things would pick up later, when the Armoured Vehicle Patrol changed shifts. Then the place would be a madhouse; those guys knew how to party.

"Hey," Jimmy said as we all sat down at our usual table, "isn't that the guy who came nosing around this morning?"

"He wasn't nosing around," I said. "He just took a wrong turn or something."

"He could take a wrong turn with me anytime," one of the women said. "Whoever he is, he's absolutely gorgeous."

I agreed with her, just to annoy Jimmy.

"Never seen the guy before," Jimmy muttered, "now we see him twice in one day." He tapped his nose. "He's not from our area, and even if he was, since when do airborne cops come slumming it down in traffic? You ask me, there's something funny going on."

"Funny like what?" I asked him.

"I don't know. It's just a feeling I have." Then he turned away and started talking to Angela Greenman.

Okay, I thought, two can play at that game. I got up and walked over to the bar, planting myself on the stool next to the airborne cop. I reached into my bag for a handful of credit chips and stacked them in front of me on the bar. "Buy you a drink?"

There was a mirror behind the bar; I could see Jimmy and the others reflected in the glass. Angela was talking to someone else now, but Jimmy still seemed to me making a point of ignoring me. He got up, walked over to the holovid box and pressed some buttons. I sighed in dismay as a woman in a low-cut dress at least two sizes too small for her appeared on a tiny stage at the far end of the room, in full colour 3D. She began squirming and gyrating, her digitalized voice screeching inane lyrics at a decibel level that shook the walls. He had to be kidding; did he really think he was gonna make me jealous with a holovid?

The airborne cop downed the last of his drink in one gulp, grimacing as if he was in pain.

"Are you all right?" I asked him.

"Headache," he said.

I turned to call across the room, "Turn it down a little, will ya?"

Jimmy didn't hear me. He was up on stage with the holovid, doing something that looked like a rain dance.

There was a bowl of nuts on the bar. I popped a handful in my mouth. They were coated in salt, of course. As if the guy who owned Larry's really thought cops needed encouragement to drink.

The airborne cop slid his empty glass across the bar. "My name's Rico Salvo. I work helicopters out of South Central. Does that offer of a drink still hold?"


"Then I'll have a triple Scotch," he said. "Neat."

"Cheap date, aren't you?" I reached into my bag for more credit chips. "Hey, Freddie," I called down to the bartender. "One triple Scotch and one beer."

Freddie poured the drinks, then counted the stack of chips I'd placed on the bar. He took every single one of them.

"Cheers," Rico Salvo said. He gulped down the contents of his glass, then swivelled around to face me, his head tilted slightly to one side. "Do I seem drunk to you?"


He sighed. "I didn't think I was. Though it's not for want of trying." He pointed to the glass he'd just emptied. "I've had four of those within the last hour, all triples, but nothing seems to work."

"Really?" I said. I could still taste those salty nuts. I took a long drink, swirling the beer around my tongue before I swallowed. "And I came over here thinking I would drink you under the table."

"How long you been working traffic?"


"And how long's forever?"

"Six years."

"Six years?" he repeated, his eyes widening slightly.

"Well, almost. My anniversary is next week. Depressing, isn't it? All that time I spent in the academy, all that riot training and target shooting and unarmed combat, and where do they send me on graduation? To an office where I do nothing but sit on my butt all day, staring at a bank of screens. What kind of work is that for a cop, I ask you?"

"But you weren't always working Northwest, were you? You used to work in another area and got transferred here within the last couple of months, right?"

"No. I've always worked Northwest."

He looked back at the table where the others were sitting. "And what about them? How long have they been working traffic here?"

"Most of them were already around when I started." I shrugged. "We've all been here for years."

The guy practically turned green.

"You sure you're okay?" I asked him.

"Yeah, I'm fine." He stood to leave. "Thanks for the drink."

"Hey, wait," I said. "I buy you a triple Scotch and you don't even ask me my name?"

"All right, what's your name?"

"Nora. Nora Kelly."

"Thanks for the drink, Nora Kelly."

He walked out the door without looking back.

Freddie came over to clear away the glasses. He gave me a sympathetic look, then poured me a beer on the house. "Forget him, sweetie. He wasn't your type anyway."

"So who is?" I asked him.

He nodded towards the stage. "You know that better than me, honey."

The holovid came to an abrupt end, leaving Jimmy alone on the little platform, his lips puckered into a kiss. "Ah, hell," he said, stepping down to put more chips in the machine. Then he saw I was alone. He crossed over to lean against the bar. "Well?"

"Well what?"

He rolled his eyes. "What did you and that guy find to talk about? Was it love at first sight?"

I shrugged. "What's it matter to you?"

"Oh please don't be like that, baby." He gave me one of his little boy lost looks. "You know how I feel about you, so how come you always wanna fight about everything, huh?"

I could never resist him when he looked at me like that. "Let's get outta here," I said.

Next morning at work, all anyone could talk about was the news that a cop bar in Northeast had been bombed the previous night. The local branch of the Spiders had claimed responsibility, saying it was in retaliation for a police raid in South Central, which they referred to as "an unjustified massacre of the poor and homeless". The death toll so far was in the thirties, but expected to rise to at least fifty, which would bring the number of police killed so far that year to nearly four hundred.

There was a jam building up in my sector. I started to divert a couple of trucks, and then I stood up.

"Something the matter, babe?" Jimmy asked me.

There was something the matter, all right. My father and my brother had both been killed by the terror gangs, and this latest atrocity by the Spiders had brought it all back. I hadn't become a cop so I could sit in a basement monitoring traffic while terrorist scum were getting away with murder. "Cover for me, will you?"

I went upstairs to the personnel office and demanded a transfer to patrol. "I don't belong behind a desk," I told them. "I should be out there on the streets, where I'm needed."

"Sit down, Officer Kelly," the woman behind the desk said, "and let's have a little talk."

- II -

I was ordered to report to a room at East Central Headquarters, where a woman in a Captain's uniform asked a couple of routine questions before telling me that I was being assigned to Armoured Vehicle Patrol in the seventeenth sector.

Vehicle patrol! I couldn't wait to tell Jimmy.

The captain pressed a button on her desk. "Send Kopalski in."

There was a knock at the door, then a tall man entered, wearing the blue and white torso armour of a vehicle cop, his helmet tucked beneath one arm. He was in his late twenties or early thirties, with pale blonde hair, cut very short. His face was round and boyish, and his eyes were the brightest shade of blue I'd ever seen.

"Officer Kopalski," the Captain said, "this is Officer Kelly. I'm assigning her to be your partner."

Kopalski grabbed hold of my hand and shook it up and down. "Nice to meet you, partner."

"Officer Kopalski," I said, wincing. The guy had quite a grip. I pulled my hand away and turned to face the Captain. "When do I start?"

"Tonight. Report to sub-station four at twenty-one hundred hours."

"But I left all my stuff -"

"That's all been taken care of," the Captain interrupted. "Your possessions should be en route to your new quarters within the hour." She reached into a desk drawer and handed me a key. "Accommodation Block B. It's just around the corner."

The elation I'd felt a few moments earlier had vanished. Everything was happening so fast. I'd thought I'd have at least a couple of days to arrange everything. I'd thought I'd be able to spend some time with Jimmy and say good-bye to all my friends and maybe have a big farewell bash at Larry's, and now it looked like I wasn't going to do any of those things.

And I didn't like the thought of strangers in my room, going through all my things.

I dumped four heavy bags on the lobby floor of Accommodation Block B and held my I.D. out to the clerk behind the desk. "Ah yes, Kelly," he said, checking the name against a list on his computer. "Been shopping, have you?"

I turned the key in the door of my new quarters on the thirty-first floor and switched on the lights. Not only had my possessions been delivered in my absence; they'd been unpacked. I blinked several times, shaking my head in disbelief. Everything was exactly the same, the same standard furnishings, the same light blue paper on the walls. I could have been back in my room at Northwest Area, if it wasn't for the fact that this place was so much cleaner.

But that won't last long, I thought, flopping onto the bed. I rolled onto my side was asleep within seconds.

Officer James Rodriguez
Room 1728
Accommodation Block A
Northwest Area

Dear Jimmy,

I must have written you at least a dozen times over the last two months, so how come I haven't heard anything back from you?

Everything's okay this end, though I miss you and the rest of the old traffic gang something terrible. None of them have written to me either. What the hell's going on, huh?

Bruce (I told you about him, he's my partner) and I get along just fine, but - this is going to sound corny - he just isn't you. Goofy, huh? I can almost hear you laughing over the net.

Please Jimmy, please please write back.


I re-read the letter I'd typed on my bedside screen before I pressed the key to mail it. I'd tried to keep it short and light this time; my last couple of letters had sounded kind of desperate. But what was I supposed to do? This not hearing anything was driving me crazy.

I got up and made a cup of coffee.

A couple of hours later, I opened a bottle of Scotch. Jimmy still hadn't written back.

Kopalski knocked on my door a little after eight. He lived a couple of floors above me, and we'd got into the habit of leaving for parade together. But this was our night off.

I opened the door, holding the Scotch bottle in one hand. It was only half empty; I still had some way to go. "What do you want, Kopalski?"

"Looks like I've come at a bad time," he said, eyeing the bottle.

"You think there's any such thing as a good time?" I stepped aside to let him pass. "Come on in."

He sat down at my kitchenette counter. "You okay, Nora?"

"I'm fine."

"It's just... you seem upset."

I took a long swig from the bottle. "Do I?"

"Maybe it's none of my business..."

"It isn't."

"But as your partner... and I hope... your friend..." He sighed and shook his head. "Drinking alone out of a bottle is not what I'd call a good sign."

"Kopalski, what I do on my night off in my own room is my own damn business, okay? And for the record, it doesn't affect me." I held out my hand to show him. "See? Steady as a rock. I could drink five gallons of this stuff, it wouldn't be any different."

"Sounds like an even worse sign," he said.

"What do you want, Kopalski? Just tell me what you want, okay? And then you can piss off outta here and leave me alone!"

He stood up. "I'm going."

Damn, I thought, why am I doing this? We got along fine when we were on duty. I liked the guy. I put down the bottle and spread my arms to block his way. "Look, I didn't mean that, okay? Sit back down, I'll make us some coffee."

He nodded and sat down.

I went around behind the counter and started heating up some water. "So what brings you knocking on my door tonight, Bruce?" I asked him, keeping my voice light and casual so he'd know we were still friends. "Don't usually see you on a night off."

"I knocked on your door because I wondered if you might like to go out for a pizza or something," he said, looking away.

"Go out with you?" This wasn't the same as going for a drink at the end of a shift; I wondered what he was getting at. "Why?"

"No reason," he said. "It's just that it's my birthday, and I felt like maybe going out or something and I wondered if you'd like to come." He threw up his hands. "Just forget it, okay? I'm sorry I bothered you." He stood and started walking towards the door.

I glanced at the blank screen of my bedside computer. Jimmy would have been off shift for hours now. I knew he wasn't going to write back. Not ever. "Wait," I said.

Kopalski kept walking.


He stopped and turned around.

"Why didn't you tell me it was your birthday? I woulda got you a present or something."

"Oh yeah?" His cheeks turned pink. "What would have got me?"

"Something cheap." I reached for my coat. "So where you wanna go?"

A week later we were called to a disturbance near the Heights, a housing estate the locals referred to as "the Fortress" because its hilltop location had made it a stronghold for the East Central branch of the Spiders. Cops never went into the Fortress, but this was just a domestic tiff in the no man's land on the outskirts near the bottom of the hill, too easily accessible from outside to be much use to the terror gangs.

It was my turn to do the driving. The sun was setting as the car approached the hill. I couldn't resist the urge to gaze up at the high dark towers of the Fortress set against a glowing red sky. While other terror gangs like the Cobras and the Blades had moved their operations to underground tunnels, the Spiders had taken to the air. They were famous for the huge nets they draped across their roofs and their networks of suspended walkways. They said there were people in the Fortress whose feet had never touched the ground. The Fortress represented everything I hated, everything I was sworn to fight against - but at that moment I couldn't stop thinking that those tall black silhouettes also had a kind of strange, almost thrilling, beauty. I noticed that Bruce was looking up at them too, and I couldn't help smiling.

A group of children appeared out of nowhere and started pelting the car with rocks. I gritted my teeth and kept driving; children with rocks were just one of those things you got used to on vehicle patrol.

The address we'd been given turned out to be a converted garage at the end of an alley. I stepped on the brakes, rolled down the window and listened. "No sound of breaking glass, no yelling. Maybe they've already kissed and made up."

"Let's hope so," Bruce said.

We got out of the car and walked towards the door. I reached up to ring the bell and a window above my head flew open. There was a sound like an explosion. Bruce toppled forward, clutching at his chest. "Officer down!" I shouted into my radio. "We need help! Now!"

There were more shots from overhead. Spirallers: those spinning rocket-type bullets with a tail of flaming propellant that can burn a hole through nearly two inches of solid steel. This was no domestic call; this was an ambush. I crouched down with my drawn weapon in one hand, trying to shield Bruce's body while I dragged him back to the car. "Don't die on me, damn you," I warned him. "Don't even think about it."

A spiraller spun past my head, melting a hole in the side of my helmet. I fired several times into the window the shots were coming from. There was a moment's silence, then a spiraller grazed my arm, scorching the sleeve of my jacket. Another grazed my leg.

I kept tugging at Bruce with my one free arm until I managed to get him around the back of the car. I fired over and over at that upstairs window, tears streaming down my face. Bruce wasn't moving.

Suddenly the air was filled with the hum of spinning blades. There was a loud burst of gunfire, then a figure in blue and gold slid down a rope, landing directly behind me. I turned to see a woman holding a hypodermic needle. "Just relax," she told me, "you'll feel better if you just relax."

- III -

I woke up in some kind of clinic, with an acrid smell of disinfectant in my nostrils and a terrible chemical taste in my mouth. A man in a white coat stood at the foot of my bed. "What's your name?" he asked me.

I had to think about that. I noticed a jug by the side of the bed and sat up to pour myself a glass of water. "Kelly," I said finally. "Nora Kelly."

"And what do you do for a living?"

That was easy. "I'm a police officer."

"Do you remember anything else?"

I suddenly became aware of a throbbing pain behind my forehead. "My father worked Armoured Vehicle Patrol in West Central," I said, reaching up to rub my temples. "He was killed on duty when I was just a kid. I entered the academy the year my brother was shot."

The man shone a narrow beam of light into one of my eyes, which made the pain in my head even worse. "Then what?"

I raised a hand to block the light. "Six years of boredom in Traffic Control. What am I doing here?"

"You had a little accident, but you're all right now. Good to have you back with us, Officer Kelly," the man said.

I was assigned to a small station in the seventeenth sector at Southeast, which immediately erupted into full-scale war between us and an alliance of the Cobras and the Blades. I remember the next few months as a blur of shootings and bombings. The fourth time I was wounded, they gave me a medal. And then they told me to get myself a set of blue and gold because I was being transferred to airborne.

I had to go back to Northwest Area, one last time. I had to show them.

I went down to the basement and found myself in a room full of strangers. A man looked up from his terminal. "May I help you, Officer?"

"I'm looking for someone," I said. "Do you know an Officer James Rodriguez?"

He shook his head.

I started to wonder if I was in the wrong room. Then I saw the jagged stripe of mismatched plaster where someone had finally filled in that crack Jimmy always used to complain about. I mentioned some other names of people I had worked with.

"Try personnel, on the second floor."

"I'll do that," I said. "By the way, how long have you been working Northwest Traffic?"

"About eight years."

"Eight years? Here? In this room?"

He laughed. "Sad, isn't it?"

I went across the street to Larry's Bar, but it wasn't there. A squat prefab stood in its place. A sign above the door read: "Colette's Lounge".

I went inside. No one in Colette's had ever heard of Jimmy Rodriguez.

They hadn't heard of him at his old accommodation block, either.

I spent the long drive home trying to make sense of it all, but I couldn't.

I got off the elevator at the twenty-ninth floor and opened the door to my quarters. Though the room was dark, I couldn't miss the outline of that familiar figure standing in the shadows beside my window. "Jimmy!"

I raced across the room and threw my arms around him, words pouring out of my mouth in a rush. "Jimmy, for God's sake where have you been? Why didn't you write? And what are you doing here? Oh God, it's so good to see you!"

He pushed me away and switched on the lights. When I saw his face, I was horrified. There were deep lines around his eyes and mouth and his hair was streaked with silver. He looked like an old man. "Jimmy, what happened to you?"

"Hand over your weapon, Officer."

It was then I noticed he was wearing a Captain's badge. "When did you make Captain?"

"I said hand over your weapon, Officer! Now!"

"Okay, Jimmy." I handed him my gun. "What's going on?"

"You've been breaking regulations, Officer. Leaving your own area without permission is strictly prohibited, even the greenest rookie knows that. But you went to Northwest today, didn't you?"

"I only went to see you, you jerk," I said, playfully punching him on the shoulder.

He batted my hand away as if he couldn't stand the thought of me touching him. "Don't do that again."

"Jimmy, why are you acting this way? This is me you're talking to! Me, Nora. Remember?"

"Don't you dare," he hissed. "Don't you dare!"

My eyes filled with tears. "Jimmy, please. This isn't like you..."

He slapped me across the face, hard. "Shut up, you murdering terrorist scum!"

"What?" I croaked. The tears were rolling down my cheeks now; I couldn't stop them.

"Scum, that's all you are. You used to make bombs for the Spiders in a tower in North Central. But you don't remember that, do you, Officer?"

I cursed myself for giving up my weapon. Jimmy had gone crazy. I took a step backwards and found I was up against the wall. "Jimmy, you need help..."

"Don't move," he said, pointing my own gun at me. "You really think you're Nora, don't you? But then so did all the others; you must be the fifth or sixth by now. I remember the second one used to bombard me with letters, the stupid bitch. But you're the first to actually come looking for me."

"Jimmy," I said, keeping an eye on the gun, "you're not making sense."

"Aren't I? Then let me explain. Officer Nora Kelly agreed to take part in an experiment -"

"I remember that," I interrupted. "I went up to personnel to demand a transfer and they asked me if I would be willing to take part in some new programme, then they sent me to some doctor for a physical, but all he did was some kind of brain scan or something..."

He scowled, then carried on. "Nora Kelly's memory was downloaded into a computer. Everything she'd ever learned, done, seen or felt."

I didn't remember that part.

"She died in a terrorist blast at Larry's Bar seven months later. That was twenty years ago, and they've been making new Noras ever since. She's just one of hundreds we re-use every three or four years."


"What other choice did we have? Fatality rates for police were at an all time high; and thanks to the anti-police propaganda being spread by Spiders and the other terror gangs, recruitment had never been so low. So we started taking convicted criminals and terrorists who'd been sentenced to death, wiped out their previous identity and programmed them with the memories and personalities of dead cops, then sent them into the most dangerous sectors. They were disposable, like cannon fodder. It didn't matter if they got killed on duty - matter of fact, that's what was supposed to happen. Rather than putting them on the chair or giving them a lethal injection, the courts gave us approval to make some use of them before they died. Of course it's always been very hush hush; it's hardly the sort of thing you make public. But I'd say at least half the force at any time - on patrol, that is, not on desk jobs - are convicted criminals doing community service."

I thought back to that long ago evening in Larry's Bar; it seemed like yesterday. "I remember an airborne cop came into the room while we were working at Northwest Traffic. He seemed confused, like he was looking for someone... Like I felt today, looking for you. I remember I bought him a drink that night, while you were dancing with some holovid. He was so sad... He said his name was Rico Salvo. Was he...?"

Jimmy finished the question for me. "Another ex-Spider with implanted memories of working at Northwest Traffic?"

I nodded.

"His real name was Louie Lopez, and he couldn't follow regulations, either," Jimmy said. "Though in his case, what happened wasn't really his fault. It seems some idiot in dispatch screwed up and assigned the guy to South Central, which happened to be his home area and I guess somebody there recognized him, which completely blew his programming. Assignments are supposed to be carefully orchestrated; no one is ever stationed any place where they might encounter past associates. And that includes other cops who might have known an earlier version of the implanted personality. But whether Lopez was the victim of an administrative fuck-up or not was not the issue. Insubordination was the issue: it's the one thing we cannot and will not tolerate." He sighed. "His original sentence was carried out the next day."

I felt my eyes widen. "You can't mean what I think you mean..."

"Don't look so upset. You never even met the guy. You only remember that particular incident because it happened to the real Nora before her memories were downloaded, and we still haven't figured out how to edit the damn things." He sat down on my bed, keeping the gun pointed at me the whole time. "How about a guy named Bruce Kopalski? Remember him?"

I shook my head.

"Of course you don't. No more than the current Kopalski remembers a woman named Nora Kelly. Though word is that once upon a time, those two became quite friendly, if you catch my drift." He picked up the empty bottle I'd left on the bedside table. "This was despite the fact the third Kopalski was more than a little concerned about the second Nora's drinking." He laughed. "The original Nora liked a drink now and then, but she could never handle her liquor. The times I had to carry her home from Larry's..."

"Doesn't affect you though, does it? And drugs don't do anything for you guys, either... There's always stuff it's better not to leave to chance." He dropped the bottle, letting it crash into pieces at his feet. "Your name used to be Martina Wiley, by the way. Just in case you were wondering..."

He clicked back the hammer on my gun.

"Jimmy, please don't do this. No matter what you say, I know what I remember and the one thing I can't forget is that I've always loved you."

His face softened briefly. "I doubt it's any consolation, but after you there won't be any more Nora Kellys. She wasn't a bad cop, but she was too emotional. This isn't the first time a Nora's caused problems."

I brought one leg up in a sweeping kick, knocking the gun from Jimmy's hand. As he bent forward to pick it up, I brought a hand down on the back of his neck; I heard it crack.

He crumpled onto the floor. I knelt down beside him, cradling his head in my arms. "Oh Jimmy, Jimmy, why?"

My world was falling apart. Jimmy, my best and only friend, the man I loved more than I'd ever loved anyone, had tried to murder me.

He wasn't breathing.

"No," I sobbed, rocking his head like a baby. "Don't be dead. Don't leave me!"

Something fell out of his jacket. I picked it up and saw a faded photo of a redheaded woman, with large green eyes and a round face dotted with freckles. Written across it were the words: To Jimmy, love forever, Nora.

She wasn't me.

I heard the sound of running feet out in the hall. I reached for my gun and stood, letting Jimmy's head drop to the floor. Someone pounded on my door, and then they tried to kick it in.

I climbed out onto the window ledge and started making my way around the outside of the building. I seemed to have a head for heights.

© Molly Brown 1996, 2001

This story first appeared in Interzone 107, May 1996, and is reprinted in Molly's collection Bad Timing and Other Stories.

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