He finds love on the eve of a war he doesn’t plan on surviving.
A Cybershock story.
Dante knows the price of rebellion. The Grid created him in its likeness, turning him into a killing machine—tested, modified and enhanced to be a “better citizen”. Years may have passed since he escaped that freak show, but the scars are still fresh.
Without the mandatory implant, Steel scrapes by, living free of the Grid’s control. When a job goes bad, everyone around her dies, their minds crushed by the notorious Cardinal. But he doesn’t kill her. He takes her to a secret lair filled with fascinating, forbidden pre-Grid knowledge. Who is this man—ruthless murderer or eccentric loner?
Bad-mannered as she is, Dante can’t bring himself to silence the abrasive, cigarette-addicted Steel. Something about her calls to him, though trusting her could be a mistake. Should she betray him, it would wipe out years of patient waiting. Waiting while the Grid hunts him for the priceless information he carries within his living data vault. Waiting while his dish of revenge turns ice cold.
For Dante intends to go back. And this time, he intends to be the only one left standing.
Contains violence, offensive language, a tattooed woman, a man who’s ready to light a few fuses, several variants of the F-word, machines behaving badly, thugs and PVC fashion. But no ninjas. That’s for the next book.
Steel knew they were trouble as soon as the half dozen young men trooped into the sky metro. They wore the colors of one of the drug gangs and reeked of adrenaline enhancers, the sharp, peppery smell stinging her sinuses. One of them turned around, and even if he didn’t look directly at her, Steel saw his face.
“S**t,” she breathed.
Six. Named for his extra finger, Six had once been her boyfriend before he made it into the big time as his gang’s right-hand man. He’d been the sort of boyfriend who hadn’t shied away from using violence to get his way. She still bore marks from their short-lived episode together. Although he probably still had some from her as well.
Steel scooted down into her seat, crossed her arms and planted her booted foot on the bench perpendicular to hers. She had her back to the wall—she always did, in more ways than one—and so would only need to cover one angle when s**t hit the fan. With Six around, it would. Too bad, because she couldn’t afford the trouble, not tonight, not with what she had in her backpack. As soon as the metro rattled into the next station, she’d sneak out unnoticed. Hopefully.
The metro, its graffiti-covered, dirty yellow panels and dirtier windows vibrating, left the station and rumbled toward its next stop. The only other occupants, an older couple who sat on a pair of seats a few rows in front of her, stood to approach the door. One of Six’s thugs, a skinny guy sporting even more piercings than she did—thus, her moniker—barred the old couple’s way and made a comment about the woman’s figure, to his buddies’ vociferous delight. Morons.
Skinny must have spotted her at the other end of the wagon because he looked over the old man’s shoulder and sneered. Steel cursed inwardly. So much for trying to squeeze out from the metro unnoticed. He nudged his closest friend, who turned and grimaced. She knew what must have triggered their scorn. Spiky white hair, facial tattoos, piercings and clad in black from boots to hood. None of it was sexy but worked perfectly at keeping her below guys’ radar, and therefore, safe. Then Six turned too.
Keeping his hand on the iron bar running along the ceiling, Six nonchalantly walked the length of the wagon, his eyes never leaving hers. His teasingly slow progress ratcheted up her heart rate, and by the time he stood a couple paces from her, Steel had sat up straighter and slipped both arms in the straps of her backpack. In her jacket pocket, the gun felt slick with sweat against her palm. She hadn’t had to use it in weeks and hoped the charge still held.
The metro’s comms announced the next station. The Grid’s own system didn’t reach up so far above the city, three hundred meters above the highest roofs and giving her a splendid view of what had once been a beautiful, cultural hub but was now a mined out, desolate and putrid ghetto housing too many people. At the center of it all, sitting on top of the city like a dragon on its hoard, the bunker. When one messed up, that was where one was brought. Up to the bunker. No one came out of there. Ever.
Creaking from the wagon’s old doors forced her attention back to the train. One of the few remaining places free of the network’s God-like omnipresence, the metro lines weren’t maintained anymore and people regularly died on the deathtraps. The Grid was letting them rot, slowly but surely. Soon, everyone would be using newer transportation methods like shuttles and hovercraft, where the Grid could access comms and do what it did best, control.
Air pressure changed and popped one of her ears. She fought the urge to look at the door so Six wouldn’t know she wanted to bolt. Outwardly, she must have looked her regular self. A scowling bitch with attitude for three. Inside though, fear gripped her by the throat, just like Six had when they were together, except he squeezed much harder.
He took a good long look at her. “That’s new?” He pointed to his cheek to indicate the recent tattoo on hers.
“One thing I miss, innit. You don’t do that girlie-mouth s**t.”
Her first reaction was to flip him off. His buddies, none of whom she recognized, gradually converged on her end of the wagon, blocking the door. Skinny grabbed the metal pole separating her seat from the next row, and with his hands squeaking, mockingly slid down, stripper-like, to a crouch.
Sweat beaded down Steel’s temple and bled into the fabric of her hood. She stood. “You getting off here? I am.”
Six planted a hand on her shoulder and shoved her back into her seat. “No, I’m not getting off here.”
“And neither are you,” added Skinny. He cocked his head and leisurely licked the grubby rubber backrest from bottom to top corner. God knew what he collected in the process.
At the other end of the wagon, the older couple stood as close as possible to the door, waiting for it to open and no doubt counting their blessings someone else had caught the thugs’ attention.
Steel fought the rising panic with all her might. The fear that wanted to crawl up her spine, pierce her skull, rape her mouth and make her scream until her lungs burned. Instead, she squeezed the gun hard enough to hurt her knuckles. The small discomfort was an anchor.
“What are you playing at, Six? I have to get off here.” After years of practice, her voice no longer betrayed her. She could’ve fooled anybody into thinking she wasn’t afraid, not even a little. Just mildly pissed, maybe.
The station finally came into view beyond the windows to her left. She pretended not to gauge the distance between the door and her seat, or the exact zigzag pattern she’d need to run if she wanted to rush out before any of Six’s buddies grabbed her. Four running paces forward and two skips sideways had never felt so damn long. She also pretended not to be holding a gun in a death grip inside the pocket of her bomber jacket.
“What’s in your bag, Steel?” Six suddenly asked.
She’d been so busy preparing for her escape that she hadn’t realized how much she’d dug her elbows in. Like a girl afraid someone would steal her bag, which was exactly how she felt. Six’s drug lord was the last person on the planet who should know what was in her pack. Competition. That’s what’s in my pack. Her slip must have been obvious to Six, who, for all his atomic temper and vengeful ways, was no idiot.
With the metro’s deceleration, Steel leaned sideways, widened her feet and grabbed the pole Skinny had used to crouch.
“Just girl stuff,” she replied through a scowl. “It’s my time of the month. You know how I get.”
It worked on a couple of the guys, who surreptitiously drew back as though menstruation was a plague they might catch. Six arched an eyebrow, sneer rising. She knew the look. Trouble. A product of a prostitute and drug-smuggler, she knew her way around violence and had a knack for seeing it coming.
She timed it perfectly.
The metro, with a last lurch, rumbled to a squeaking stop. Undoubtedly relieved to get away unharmed, the older couple pressed the release to open the doors. Good thing she knew this old line, where every door opened, no matter if a passenger waited to disembark or not. As soon as the one closest to her did, Steel bolted.
Gun in hand, she jumped from her seat, crammed the weapon in the crook of Skinny’s neck. A single electroshock discharge decked him. Six roared something she didn’t hear for the thunderous rush of blood in her ears. She leaped over the row of seats in front of her like a hurdle jumper would. A pair of Six’s buddies converged toward her—one swinging a fist that sported knuckles the size of walnuts. She barely avoided it by tucking in her chin. It still clipped her by the ear. Pain exploded in her skull then spread in a warm wave down her neck and shoulders.
“Don’t let her out!”
Six’s bark spurred her on despite the pain.
She launched a kick that caught Knuckles in the crotch. He looked surprised for a split second before crumpling in a heap. His buddy got a taste of stunner in the chest and he, too, collapsed. To her relief and some shock—people helping strangers in this sector just didn’t happen—the older couple took their time exiting the wagon, which meant the motion detectors would keep the doors open for another second or so. Steel leaped over both men and gripped the doorjamb. She’d made it!
A violent jerk backward tore a groan from her. The older couple rushed out the last two steps and the doors closed. The woman’s face flashed by in the windows, her expression a mix of fear and shame, both of which Steel was on a first-name basis with.
She managed to block Six’s first punch to the face. But not the second. Or third. Or however many hits she took in the next few moments. All she knew was that by the time her kneecaps hit the floor, a red veil had descended over her vision and points of pain lanced all over her body. But she placed a few good ones too, dammit.
“So, Steel,” Six panted, smiling a bloody grin. “What’s in the bag?”
Her ex-boyfriend’s smile had always worried her more than his anger. Much more.
“N-nothing… Nothing interesting.” Swelling was already thickening her bottom lip. One of her eyes was closing fast.
“Take her bag.”
Instincts kicked in. They couldn’t take that bag. Everything would turn to s**t if they did. Worse than now.
She clawed a good five paces away, managed to ram her boot under a guy’s chin and push him back. But Six delivered a kick in the ribs that made her gag and cough. She couldn’t stop Skinny—who looked mighty pissed after his encounter with the electroshock weapon—and Knuckles from roughly yanking her to her feet. A third man ripped the bag from her shoulders. Her neck crunched.
Six licked his bleeding lip. “Go through it. See what’s in there.”
She knew she couldn’t stop any of it, but still fought. This bag contained her last card out of the slums. She’d tried to do it the honest way and it hadn’t worked s**t. Without an implant that linked her to the Grid and its dangerous security protocols, she’d fly below radar wherever she settled next. She could even change countries. Not that they were called that anymore. No, countries and place names were now numbers, coordinates and datum, while people had been reduced to mere numbers. The Grid had changed it all, taken over everything. But she would escape that. All she needed to live undetected and unbothered was credit. A lot of it. And it was in her bag. Well, the means to it anyway. She yanked on one of the bag’s handles. “Get your paw off that!”
Air left in a great humph when Six shoved her back against the wall and pinned her there with his body. “Wotcha packin’ in that sack to make you even more of a bitch? Hmm, sugar c**t?”
“None of your damn—”
He raised his fist. Steel winced, ready for the black and red explosion. It never came. Instead, Six smiled and held her by a hand against the sternum while he peeked inside the bag Skinny held open for him. His face tightened. His smile turned cold.
“You wouldn’t do runs for me, but you’ll do ’em for that tosser, Leech?”
Steel looked away. She was doing runs for Leech. Delivering drugs from the slums to the good part of town. The better part of town anyway. He paid relatively well and didn’t try to get inside her pants, unlike Six and pretty much every other guy she’d known. They kept reminding her how ugly she was, though.
“So you’re daddy’s girl after all, huh?”
A fist filled her vision and blood her mouth. She spat something hard. A piece of tooth? Part of a piercing? Hard to say. She punched too, high and low, kicked and struggled and aimed a head-butt at the much taller Six, only to catch his chin, which hurt her more than it did him she was sure. Laughter needling her pride, Steel grunted when Six shoved her to his buddy, who spun her roughly around and bent her over a backrest. The unmistakable click of a switchblade was like an electrical jolt down her spine. She arched. Her head connected with his face. His curse splattered blood on her cheek. More hands replaced his.
Her hoarse cry shamed her. “No!”
Then everything stopped. Or so it seemed. Steel raised her head and caught someone, a man judging by the height and shoulders—center of gravity never lied—standing at the other end of the wagon. He slowly rocked left to right with the metro’s movements. The next station was announced.
“Oh f**k me,” Skinny breathed. “It’s him.”
Steel had no idea who the man was, but Skinny seemed to know him. And fear him.
“What are you looking at?” Six demanded, obviously not as impressed as his goon. He zipped himself back up, and she realized how close she’d come to a nightmare. Another.
Someone behind her cursed. “It’s the Cardinal, man. I don’t want—”
“Shut up,” Six cut in.
The man said nothing, but advanced by a few steps. He wore a blood-red robe-thing, cinched at the waist and with a deep hood that hid his face, and black glossy gloves. It did make him look like an old-world priest, back when such concepts as gods and moving on after one’s death still existed. People knew better now. The Grid had made sure of that. Humankind didn’t deserve a place beyond death. They’d created—then lost control over—intelligent machines, f**ked up the planet, and would be forever stuck living with both.
“He asked you a question, Cardinal,” Skinny said to the strange man. He smoothly pulled a long knife from his jacket. Maybe he’d found his balls after all. “Six hates it when people don’t answer his questions. Ask her.”
Steel just managed to bite back the groan of pain when Skinny grabbed her hair in a fist and forced her to nod a pronounced yes. She killed him with her eyes. Bastard.
“And I have a query for you, gentlemen,” the Cardinal said. Or rather whispered. She’d never heard such a gentle voice coming out of a grown man. Barely more than a quiet murmur. Like a warm, soothing breeze. “However limited your intellect and shallow your breeding source may be, what sort of brute maltreats a woman this way? And more importantly, what sort of punishment befits such an affront to respectability?”
Skinny released her to take a threatening step toward the red-clad man, with Knuckles flanking him. She doubted either had understood a word the man said, except maybe for “punishment”.
“You leg it at the next station,” Six replied, “and I might let you keep ’em.”
The strange man’s shoulders jumped, and Steel realized he was chuckling.
“I fear you misunderstand my motives for being on this archaic and malodorous form of transportation.” He took another step forward, rotated a quarter turn. The air charged like storm clouds just before the first thunderclap. “I am here to kill you.”
Six laughed as he pulled the telescopic baton he always kept under his coat. Once deployed, the thing measured a good meter. She’d had a couple of encounters with it in the past and knew its exact dimensions and reach. “F**k, Cardinal, you really have a death wish. Maybe you think your boss will give you a pass. Get him.”
Skinny lunged, blade raised for a horizontal slash, but he never made it to the stranger. With a yelp he collapsed, holding his head with both hands. Blood trickled from his ears. Knuckles and two others charged, which left only Six and another to guard Steel. Much better odds. She surreptitiously stepped sideways when her former boyfriend released her. Her fingers twitched as she glanced at the backpack unzipped on the seat by her knee.
Knuckles brought a meaty fist crashing down on the stranger’s face, probably hoping the hammer punch would break the man’s nose or at least incapacitate him enough for reinforcements to arrive. Moving faster than anyone she’d ever seen, the Cardinal whipped back his upper torso and let the downward hit go harmlessly by, which overbalanced Knuckles. While simultaneously pivoting, the stranger grabbed Knuckles’s collar and violently tugged sideways. Steel didn’t hear the sound, but by the jerky snap of the head, she knew the Cardinal had just broken the big thug’s neck. Twitching like a fish out of water, Knuckles collapsed against the wall then slid in a heap. His point man was already pulling something out of his jacket—Steel couldn’t see what it was—then he, too, began screaming as Skinny had, even though nothing had touched either man. Blood burst out of his nose as he whirled around, clumsily waving an old-fashioned gunpowder pistol. More or less by chance, he fired. Thunder clapped inside the wagon. The shot rocked the stranger back by a step.
Steel gasped. Her one chance to get away.
As if he hadn’t just taken a bullet in the chest, the red-clad man kicked the gun out of the bleeding thug’s hand and placed his open palm on the thug’s forehead. Six’s brute must have been close enough to see the veins in the strange man’s eyes. The grunts of pain turned to wails of agony as veins bulged at his temples, along his neck, and as though tremendous intracranial pressure had formed, the man’s eyeballs burst in twin spurts of fibrous, grayish gunk. He fell to the floor, clawing at his face.
Steel gritted her teeth. What the hell could do that?
Just as she knew he would, Six pushed his man in the Cardinal’s arms. He still managed to place a sneaky hit behind the stranger’s knees. A low grunt of pain preceded her would-be savior grabbing the baton when it came down for another strike, before he easily took it out of Six’s hands.
Six rushed down the walkway and reached the door leading to the next wagon. Air pressure made her ears hiss when he wrenched the door wide and slipped out. From the relative safety of the next wagon, he yanked on the emergency brake. By the time the sky metro stopped completely, it had already rumbled into the next station, though only by a few wagons.
The abrupt deceleration propelled Steel forward, where she stumbled, doing a face-plant that stole the air from her. By her side, the backpack spilled some of its precious content on the floor. Multicolored pills clicked inside narrow plastic tubes. While the last thug battled it out with the stranger, she gathered her run’s content, stuffed it all back into the pack and zipped it tight. When the man began to howl in pain, Steel didn’t need to turn around to know what was going on. She crawled on her hands and knees until two rows of seats separated her from the closest door.
When the man suddenly stopped howling, silence deafened her. The metro’s comms system calmly announced security was on its way to respond to the emergency brake system. Nobody would come. No one had in decades.
Steel floundered forward a few more paces before she saw a shadow stretch out in front of her. She rolled to a sitting position, an arm raised to fend off the attack that would surely come. He’d just killed or maimed half a dozen armed men. What could she do to stop him?
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