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Exponential decay.

Chapter 1

Ward Hollow knelt in the alley and considered the monsters.

They had become his penitence, his life.

His monsters.

One hovered just behind him in rumpled suit of gray wool, her unease poorly disguised by blanched knuckles and sullen eyes.

Monsters were often worried around Ward. With his blackest black suit, scintillating blue eyes under silver-white hair and cheerful smile, the only appropriate response was fear.

He grinned down at two corpses that lay dead before him, their split skulls oozing pink sludge.

‘They ought to be worried,’ he mused. Ward stood, wiping his hands as he turned, “You executed two men with one round. A fine accomplishment.”

The woman shifted, nostrils flaring, “This wasn’t an execution, Commander, I only reacted-”

“Call me Ward. I don’t much go in for the official titles, Inspector General Emery.”

She stiffened, “Commander.”

Ward continued, “You know, I’ve seen some impressive range scores, and your reconstructions are stellar, but I’ve never seen anything like this. You are an astounding shot, young lady.”

She clenched her teeth. “Men are dead. I don’t take pleasure in that.”

“No?”

“As the extension of peace-keeping authority, my mandate is to prevent the loss of life.”

“Sure, sure. Five warning shots didn’t suffice, but the last shot- the one you put through perpetrator A’s jaw and into perpetrator B’s brain- did the trick nicely.”

“Is this an actual investigation? You seem to have already made up your mind.”

The corner of his mouth quirked up in a half-smile, “What is it that you want to hear, Inspector?”

“Am I under review?”

He sighed and took in the scene again: a filthy tableau where two corrupt men had died while trying to evade capture. Ward sniffed, slipped his hands into his pockets and keyed the holography device within. The bodies and brain sludge disappeared.

“Standard in these cases, you know.”

Emery scowled, “Waste of fucking time…”

Ward chuckled, “Well maybe you ought to stop killing people.”

***

Bile seared the back of Emery’s throat. The auditors she’d dealt with in the past were automatons concerned only with cold, empirical data. This white-haired Commander was strange.

Emery couldn’t remember when she’d actually met someone who was happy.

When they’d reached the Hall of Administration, the Commander led her down a high-polished corridor and through a series of contraband checkpoints manned by sour-faced Gendarmerie.

The Gendies’ hostile stares were familiar. Not comforting precisely, but appropriate given the circumstances. Their mistrust reminded Emery that she’d been through this all before and come through unscathed.

Then the Commander began to whistle. A cheery note that echoed pleasantly down the corridor.

‘The fuck is his problem?’

“Dragging your feet will only prolong the process, Inspector.”

They rounded a corner and stopped at a door with CMDR W. HOLLOW stenciled on the window. He pushed it open and waved her inside.

He crossed to a desk. “Sit.”

The office was featureless. She’d briefly hoped to discover evidence of some flaw with which she might obliterate the smirk on his face, but the room provided nothing and it galled her. She sat.

The Commander punched keys on his terminal. “Can you tell me why you are different from every other Inspector in your sector, Ms. Emery?”

She blinked. “No.”

He nodded and began rifling through desk drawers. “Seventeen kills in the last three years. That’s more than twice the number of any other two IGs in the entire Western Hemisphere combined.” He placed her service weapon and credential chit on his desktop and produced a Mylar envelope.

Emery’s eyes darted to her weapon and credentials. “I didn’t- I don’t-” She stopped, fighting a surge of panic.

“You’re worried now? Why not after twelve or thirteen? You should’ve asked for reassignment. In fact, if I’m not mistaken, IGs are required to be reassigned to non-active duty after ten fatalities.”

‘The smug bastard.’  She set her jaw. “You have my jacket; I was reassigned.”

“And yet three months later you returned to active patrol investigations. You don’t find that strange?”

“I follow orders, I do my job-”

“Prevent sedition, maintain order, and avoid the loss of life?” He slid her weapon and credentials into the bag. “Well sweetheart, two outta three ain’t bad.”

A terminal notification chimed. The Commander turned to the screen, the corner of his mouth twisting.

“That’s that. Thanks for your patience.”

“What’s what?”

“You’re no longer an Inspector General, Ms. Emery. The Axis Tribunal thanks you for your service.”

“You said I’d be cleared-”

“Absolutely! Bad men with dangerous contraband were stopped– but that’s apples and oranges. The Axis can’t have an IG with twenty kills on record, think of the public’s reaction. At the rate you were going you’d’ve beaten that inside four months.”

“But I did nothing wrong!”

His eyes gleamed. “I know! And the thing is your neural core is completely free of faults. Your brain physiology seems perfectly normal, so no need to worry there. We ran every diagnostic and it’s near factory mint. Unfortunately, that means this whole pattern of behavior isn’t a hardware issue. So the powers that be have decided you’re no longer worth the risk.”

Rage bubbled inside Emery’s chest.

The bastard smiled still.

“So. We’ll stop by medical, have your core yanked, patch you up and send you on your way. Two weeks severance of course.”

She was on her feet in an instant, “You can’t!”

“It’s done.” Ward stood.

***

He watched her face go slack. “Nothing else to say in your own defense? Last chance…”

Cez Emery, who’d been until this moment an Inspector General in the Axis Tribunal Police Corps, said nothing.

Then he saw it. A tear.

He frowned. “What is that?”

Emery blinked, suddenly confused. She swallowed. “I don’t know-“

“Bullshit.” Ward was around the desk in an instant. Emery raised her hand to swipe at the tear, but he caught her hand.

“Don’t ruin it.”

“I- I don’t understand,” she stammered, utterly terrified.

Monsters couldn’t cry.