“Okay everyone, you know the drill.”

Alex’s partner didn’t break pace between the doorway and the register, and she swung her gun around with the precise grace of someone who had done this far too many times. Her features were hidden behind a fuzzmask, and the sharp tips of her black hair poked from the base of the thin helmet. Nis was a professional: professional thief, professional manipulator, professional drug courier, and professional counterfeiter. She was a professional at everything that skimmed beneath Federal radar. Alex was not a professional. Alex was a nineteen year old boy who’d never pulled the trigger of a pulse rifle.

Behind the counter, a teenage register kid went white.

“Alex,” Nis called without taking her eyes from the boy. “Damage control.”

Alex nodded. He continued into the back of the restaurant, rifle at chest level, listening through the hum of microwaves for hints of movement. Pulse rifles weren’t lethal, which is why they used them. Murder was a level one crime. Robbery was level three. There were two employees in the kitchen: an attractive blond girl no older than twenty five and a man no younger than fifty. At the sight of his weapon, the girl screeched something incomprehensible while the man stepped away from the burger assembly line and coolly lifted his hands to his head.

Quietly, almost calmly, he backed into the wall and listened to his partner’s voice fire orders like the guns he’d heard on television. “Into the back,” she finally said, and the kid appeared in the doorway with Nis’s pulse rifle motionless against his skull. He didn’t look so hot; eyes wide, skin pale, breath coming and going at a rate that couldn’t be maintained for long. His legs moved beneath him like the legs of someone who’d had too much gin, and he stumbled forward to hold his weight against the assembly line.

Despite her panic, the woman was breathing slowly, deeply. The man remained calm. Nis gestured with her head towards the cooler, then nudged the boy’s neck with her rifle. He closed his eyes. “On with it,” she said as she shoved him forward with her other hand, and he promptly dropped to his knees. Alex went to pick him up, and a second later, his world exploded into stars.

Somewhere, there was yelling and movement. His vision was dark and light at the same time, and a dizzy pain pushed its fingers forward from the back of his skull. It took him several seconds to understand that the floor was beneath him, and another second to feel the man’s weight on his chest. The man wasn’t moving. There were three still bodies on the tiled floor. Only Nis remained on her feet. “Get up!” she yelled. Alex tried, but the man’s body was heavy and his own was heavier, so Nis pulled the worker off of him and yanked him to his feet. Alex pressed his hands against the wall to maintain his upright position. “Pulses,” she said, and pushed him towards the register kid. He stumbled but somehow managed to fall only to his hands and knees, then he dug his fingers into the boy’s neck. A dull, rhythmic throbbing. “This one’s cool,” he said, but there was no reply.

“Christ,” Nis said quietly a second later. “Oh shit.”

Alex tried to get to his feet, but failed. “What?”

“She’s cold.”

“She can’t be cold.”

“Oh God. No. No fucking way.”

Alex crawled over to verify. Nis ripped away the girl’s shirt to reveal rubbery skin, perfectly formed breasts. Most importantly, a thin, black line tracing an indented rectangle across her torso.

“She’s an electric ant,” Nis said. There was a thick rope of panic drawn across her voice. “Registered. Let’s move. Right now.”

Alex looked into the girl’s open blue eyes. Polymer. Polymer and pigment. Nis’s hands dug into his shoulders and pulled him to his unsteady feet. Before him, the fleshy pile of shorted circuits lay as still as an unconscious human. Nis ran to the door, but outside, the street was already bathed in red and blue. “Christ,” she whispered.

“It’s been less than five minutes!”

Nis backed up to the register. “Get beside the door,” she ordered as she changed the battery of her pulse rifle. “And don’t let anything get through.”