Chapter 1

Vick

Not Quite Up to Specs

 

I AM a machine.

“VC1, your objective is on the top floor, rear bedroom, moving toward the kitchen. Rest of the place scans as empty.”

“Acknowledged.” I study the high-rise across the street, my artificial ocular lenses filtering out the sunlight and zooming in on the penthouse twelve stories up. A short shadow passes behind white curtains. My gaze shifts to the gray, nondescript hovervan parked beside me. In the rear, behind reinforced steel, my teammate Alex is hitting the location with everything from x-rays to infrared and heat sensors.

Our enemies have no backup we’re aware of, but it doesn’t hurt to be observant.

I switch focus to Lyle, the driver, then Kelly in the passenger seat. Lyle stares straight ahead, attention on the traffic.

Kelly tosses me a smile, all bright sunshine beneath blonde waves. My emotion suppressors keep my own expression unreadable.

Except to her.

Kelly’s my handler. My counterbalance. My… companion. My frie—

I can’t process any further. But somewhere, deep down where I can’t touch it, I want there to be more.

More what, I don’t know.

Midday traffic rushes by in both directions—a four-lane downtown road carrying a mixture of traditional wheeled vehicles and the more modern hovercrafts. As a relatively recent colonization, Paradise doesn’t have all the latest tech.

But we do.

Shoppers and businessmen bustle past. My olfactory sensors detect too much perfume and cologne, can identify individual brand names if I request the info. I pick up and record snippets of conversation, sort and discard them. The implants will bring anything mission relevant to my immediate attention, but none of the passersby are aware of what’s going on across the street.

None of them thinks anything of the woman in the long black trench coat, either. I’m leaning against the wall between the doctors’ offices and a real estate agency. No one notices me.

“Vick.” Kelly’s voice comes through the pickups embedded in my ear canals.

She’s the only one who calls me that, even in private. I get grudgingly named in the public arena, but on the comm, to everyone else, I’m VC1.

A model number.

“The twelve-year-old kidnap victim is probably getting a snack. He’s hungry, Vick. He’s alone and scared.” She’s painting a picture, humanizing him. Sometimes I’m as bad with others as Alex and Lyle are toward me. “You’re going to get him out.” A pause as we make eye contact through the bulletproof glass.

“Right,” I mutter subvocally.

Even without the touch of pleading in her voice, failure is not an option. I carry out the mission until I succeed or until something damages me beyond my capability to continue.

Kelly says there’s an abort protocol that she can initiate if necessary. We’ve never had to try it, and given how the implants and I interact, I doubt it would work.

“Team Two says the Rodwells have arrived at the restaurant,” Alex reports in a rich baritone with a touch of Earth-island accent.

The kidnappers, a husband and wife team of pros, are out to lunch at a café off the building’s lobby. Probably carrying a remote trigger to kill the kid in their condo if they suspect a rescue attempt or if he tries to escape. They’re known for that sort of thing. Offworlders with plenty of toys of their own and a dozen hideouts like this one scattered across the settled worlds. Team Two will observe and report, but not approach. The risk is too great.

Which means I have maybe forty-five minutes to get in and extract the subject.

No. Rescue the child. Right.

“Heading in.” My tone comes out flat, without affectation. I push off from the wall, ignoring the way the rough bricks scrape my palms.

“Try to be subtle this time,” Lyle says, shooting me a quick glare out the windshield. “No big booms. We can’t afford to tip them off.”

Subtlety isn’t my strong suit, but I don’t appreciate the reminder. Two years of successful mission completions speak for themselves.

I turn my gaze on him. He looks away.

I have that effect on people.

The corner of my lip twitches just a little. Every once in a while an emotion sneaks through, even with the suppressors active.

I’m standing on the median, boots sinking into carefully cultivated sod, when Kelly scolds me. “That wasn’t very nice.” Without turning around, I know she’s smiling. She doesn’t like Lyle’s attitude any better than I do.

My lips twitch a little further.

Thunder rumbles from the east, and a sudden gust of wind whips my long hair out behind me. Back at base, it would be tied in a neat bun or at least a ponytail, but today I’m passing for civilian as much as someone like me can. I tap into the local weather services while I finish crossing the street.

Instead of meteorological data, my internal display flashes me an image of cats and dogs falling from the sky.

This is what happens when you mix artificial intelligence with the real thing. Okay, not exactly. I don’t have an AI in my head, but the sophisticated equipment replacing 63 percent of my brain is advanced enough that it has almost developed a mind of its own.

It definitely has a sense of humor and a flair for metaphor.

Cute.

The house pets vanish with a final bark and meow.

The first drops hit as I push my way through glass doors into the lobby, and I shake the moisture from my coat and hair. Beneath the trench coat, metal clinks softly against metal, satisfying and too soft for anyone around me to pick up.

The opulent space is mostly empty—two old ladies sitting on leather couches, a pair of teenagers talking beside some potted plants. Marble and glass in blacks, whites, and grays. Standard high-end furnishings.

“May I help you?” Reception desk, on my left, portly male security guard behind it, expression unconcerned. “Nasty weather.” A flash of lightning punctuates his pleasantries.

Terraforming a world sadly doesn’t control the timing of its thunderstorms.

My implants reduce the emotion suppressors, and I attempt a smile. Kelly assures me it looks natural, but it always feels like my face is cracking. “I’m here to see….” My receptors do a quick scan of the listing behind him—the building houses a combination of residences and offices. If we’d had more time, we could have set this up better, but the Rodwells have switched locations twice already, and we only tracked them here yesterday.

“Doctor Angela Swarzhand,” I finish faster than the guard can pick up the hesitation. “I’m a new patient.”

The guard smiles, and I wonder if they’re friends. “That’s lovely. Just lovely. Congratulations.”

“Um, thanks.” I’m sure I’ve missed something, but I have no idea what.

He consults the computer screen built into the surface of his desk, then points at a bank of elevators across the black-marble-floored lobby. “Seventh floor.”

“Great. Where are the stairs?” I already know where they are, but I shouldn’t, so I ask.

The guard frowns, forehead wrinkling in concern. “Stairs? Shouldn’t someone in your condition be taking the elevator?”

“My condition?”

“Vick.” Kelly’s warning tone tries to draw my attention, but I need to concentrate.

“Not now,” I subvocalize. If this guy has figured out who, or rather what I am, things are going to get messy and unsubtle fast. My hand slips beneath my coat, fingers curling around the grip of the semiautomatic in its shoulder holster.

“You’re pregnant.” The giggle in Kelly’s voice registers while I stare stupidly at the guard.

“I’m what?” Sooner or later this guy is bound to notice the miniscule motions of my lips, even speaking subvocally.

Alex replaces Kelly on the comm. “Dr. Swarzhand is an obstetrician. She specializes in high-risk pregnancies. The guard thinks you’re pregnant. Be pregnant. And fragile.”

Oh for fuck’s sake.

I blink a couple of times, feigning additional confusion. “My condition! Right.” I block out the sound of my entire team laughing their asses off. “I’m still not used to the idea. Just a few weeks along.” I don’t want to take the damn elevator. Elevators are death traps. Tiny boxes with one way in and one way out. Thunder rumbles outside. If the power fails, I’ll be trapped. My heart rate picks up. The implants initiate a release of serotonin to compensate, and the emotion suppressors clamp down. Or try to.

In my ears, one-third of the laughter stops. “It’ll be okay, Vick.” Kelly, soft and soothing.

Of course she knows. She always knows.

“Just take it up to the seventh floor and walk the rest of the way. It’s only for a few seconds, a minute at most. It won’t get stuck. I promise.”

“Thanks,” I say aloud to the guard and turn on my heel, trying to stroll and not stomp. “You can’t promise that,” I mutter under my breath.

“It’ll be okay,” she says again, and I’m in the waiting lift, the doors closing with an ominous thunk behind me.

The ride is jerky, a mechanical affair rather than the more modern antigrav models. I grit my teeth, resisting the urge to talk to my team. Alex and Lyle wouldn’t see the need to comfort a machine, anyway.

Figures the one memory I retain from my fully human days is the memory of my death, and the one emotion my implants fail to suppress every time is the absolute terror of that death.

When the chime announces my arrival on seven and the doors open, I’m a sweating, hyperventilating mess. I stagger from the moving coffin, colliding with the closest wall and using it to keep myself upright.

There’s no one in the hallway, or someone would be calling for an ambulance by now.

“Breathe, Vick, breathe,” Kelly whispers.

I suck in a shaky breath, then another. My vision clears. My heart rate slows. “I’ve got it.”

“I know. But count to ten, anyway.”

Despite the need to hurry, I do it. If I’m not in complete control, I can make mistakes. If I make mistakes, the mission is at risk. I might fail.

A door on the right opens and a very pregnant woman emerges, belly protruding so far she can’t possibly see her feet. She takes one look at me and frowns.

“Morning sickness,” I explain, grimacing at the thought on multiple levels. Even if I wanted kids for some insane reason, I wouldn’t be allowed to have them. Machines don’t get permission to procreate.

The pregnant lady offers a sympathetic smile and disappears into the elevator. At the end of the hall, the floor-to-ceiling windows offer a view of sheeting rain and flashing lightning, and I shudder as the metal doors close behind her. I head for the stairwell—the nice, safe, stable, I’m-totally-in-control-of-what-happens stairwell.

“Walk me through it,” I tell Alex. I pass the landing for the eleventh floor, heading for the twelfth.

“The penthouse takes up the entire top level,” his voice comes back. “Figures. No one to hear the kid call for help. Stairwell opens into the kitchen. Elevator would have let you off in a short hallway leading to the front door.”

Which is probably a booby-trapped kill chute. No thanks.

“Security on the stairwell door?”

A pause. “Yep. Plenty of it too. Jamming and inserting a playback loop in the cameras now. Sensors outside the door at ankle height, both right and left. Not positive what they trigger. Could be a simple alarm. Could be something else.”

Could be something destructive goes unsaid. I might have issues with my emotions, but that doesn’t make me suicidal. At least not anymore. Besides, with the kid walking around loose in the penthouse apartment, all the doors have to have some kind of aggressive security on them. Otherwise he would have escaped by now.

“Whatever it is, I won’t know unless you trip it,” Alex adds.

Oh, very helpful. I’m earning my pay today.

My internal display flashes an image of me in ballet shoes, en pointe, pink tutu and all.

Keeping me on my toes. Right. Funny. I didn’t ask for your input.

The display winks out.

I take eight more steps, round the turn for the last flight to the top floor, and stop. My hand twitches toward the compact grenade on my belt, but that would be overkill. No big booms. Right. Give me the overt rather than the covert any day. But I don’t get to choose.

I verify the sensor locations, right where Alex said they’d be. He’s right. No indication of what they’re connected to.

And time’s running out.

If it’s an alarm, it could signal the Rodwells at the restaurant. If they have a hidden bomb and a trigger switch….

“Wiring on the door?” I weigh the odds against the ticking clock. They don’t want to kill their victim if there’s any chance they can make money off him. If I were fully human, if the implants weren’t suppressing my emotions, I wouldn’t be able to make a decision. Life-or-death shouldn’t be about playing the odds.

“None.”

“Composition?” Some beeps in the background answer my request.

A longer pause. “Apartment doors in that building were purchased from Door Depot, lower-end models despite the high rents. Just over one inch thick. Wood. Medium hardness.”

“The door at the bottom of the stairwell was metal.”

“But the one on the top floor isn’t. It’s considered a ‘back door’ to the apartment. It’s wood like the front entries.” Alex’s info shifts the odds—odds placed on a child’s survival. I try not to think too hard on what I’ve become. It shouldn’t matter to me, but— The suppressors clamp down on the distraction.

“Give me a five-second jam on those sensors,” I tell him and count on him to do it. Damn, I hate these last-minute piecemeal plans, but we didn’t have much time to throw this together.

“Vick, what are you—?”

Before Kelly can finish voicing her concerns, I’m charging up the last of the stairs, past the sensors, and slamming shoulder-first into the penthouse door. Wood cracks and splinters, shards flying in all directions, catching in my hair and driving through the material of my jacket.

Medium hardness or not, it hurts. I’m sprawled on the rust-colored kitchen tiles, bits of door and frame scattered around me, blood seeping from a couple of cuts on my hands and cheek. The implants unleash a stream of platelets from my bone marrow and they rush to clot the wounds.

I raise my head and meet the wide eyes of my objective. The kid’s mouth hangs open, a half-eaten sandwich on the floor by his feet. I’m vaguely aware of Kelly demanding to know if I’m okay.

Her concern touches me in a way I can’t quite identify, but it’s… good.

“Ow,” I mutter, rising to my knees, then my feet. “Fuck.” I might heal fast, but I feel pain.

The kid slides from his chair and backs to the farthest corner of the room, trapped against the gray-and-black-speckled marble counter. “D-don’t hurt me,” he stammers.

I roll my eyes. “Are you an idiot?”

“Oh, nice going, Vick.”

I ignore Kelly and open my trench coat, revealing an array of weapons—blades and guns. “If I wanted to hurt you….”

His eyes fly wider, and he pales.

A sigh over the comm. “For God’s sake, Vick, try, will you?”

My shoulder hurts like a sonofabitch. I try rotating my left arm and wince at the reduced range of motion. Probably dislocated. I’m in no mood to make nicey nice.

“You’re not the police.” Oh good, the kid can use logic.

“The police wouldn’t be able to find you with a map and a locator beacon.”

My implants toss me a quick flash of the boy buried in a haystack and a bunch of uniformed men digging through it, tossing handfuls left and right.

“I’m with a private problem-solving company, and I’m here to take you home,” I continue. “Will you come with me?” I pull a syringe filled with clear liquid from one of the coat’s many pockets. “Or am I gonna have to drug and carry you?” That will suck, especially with the shoulder injury, but I can do it.

Another sigh from Kelly.

I’m not kid-friendly. Go figure.

My vision blurs. We’re out of chat time. A glance over my shoulder reveals pale blue haze filling the space just inside the back door, pouring through a vent in the ceiling. A cloud of it rolls into the kitchen, so it’s been flowing for a while. “Alex, I need a chemical analysis,” I call to my tech guru. I remove a tiny metal ball from a belt pouch and roll it into the blue gas. Several ports on it snap open, extending sampler rods and transmitting the findings to my partners in the hovervan.

A pause. “It’s hadrazine gas. Your entry must have triggered the release. Move faster, VC1.”

Hadrazine’s some fast and powerful shit. A couple of deep breaths and we’ll be out cold, and not painlessly, either. We’ll feel like we’re suffocating first. If I get out of this alive, my next goal is to take down the Rodwells.

“Report coming in from Team Two.” Alex again. “You must have tripped an alarm somewhere. Rodwells leaving the restaurant, not bothering to pay. They’re headed for your location.”

A grin curls my lips. Looks like I might get my wish.

I know I’m not supposed to want to kill anyone. I know Kelly can pick up that urge and will have words for me later. But sometimes… sometimes people just need killing. But not before I achieve my primary objective.

I’m in motion before I finish the thought, grabbing the kid by the arm and hauling him into the penthouse’s living room. Couches and chairs match the ones in the lobby. “Tell Team Two not to engage,” I snap, not bothering to lower my voice anymore. The boy stares at me but says nothing. “They may still have a detonator switch for this place.” And Team Two is Team Two for a reason. They’re our backup. The second string. And more likely to miss a double kill shot.

“You’re scaring the boy,” Kelly says in my ear.

I’m surprised she can read him at this distance. Usually that skill is limited to her interactions with me.

“Jealousy?” she asks. “What for?”

Or maybe she’s just guessing. Where the hell did that come from, anyway? I turn up the emotion suppressors. Things between me and Kelly have been a little wonky lately. I’ve had some strange responses to things she’s said or done. I don’t need the distraction now.

“Never mind,” I mutter. “Alex, front door. What am I dealing with?”

“No danger I can read. Nothing’s active. Doesn’t mean there isn’t some passive stuff.”

“There’s a bomb.”

I stare down at the boy by my side. “You sure?”

He nods, shaggy blond hair hanging in his face. I release him for a second to brush it out of his eyes and crouch in front of him. He’s short for his age. Thin too. Lightweight. Good in case I end up having to carry him. “Any chance they were bluffing?”

The kid shrugs.

“The café manager stopped them in the lobby, demanding payment,” Alex cuts in. “Doesn’t look like they want to make a scene, so you’ve got maybe five minutes, VC1. Six if they have to wait for the elevator.”

Maybe less if the gas flows too quickly.

Right.

I approach the door, studying the frame for the obvious and finding nothing. Doesn’t mean there isn’t anything embedded.

There. A pinprick hole drilled into the molding on the right side of the frame. Inside would be a pliable explosive and a miniature detonator triggered by contact or remote. Given the right tools and time, I could disarm such a device. I have the tools in a pouch on my belt. I don’t have the time.

“Um, excuse me?” The boy points toward the kitchen. Blue mist curls across the threshold and over the first few feet of beige living room carpet.

I race toward a wall of heavy maroon curtains, shoving a couch aside and throwing the window treatments wide. Lightning flashes outside the floor-to-ceiling windows, illuminating the skyscraper across the street and the twelve-story drop to the pavement below.

Oh, fuck me now.

“Lyle, I need that hovervan as high as you can get it. Bring it up along the east side of the building. Beneath the living room windows.”

“Oooh. A challenge.” He’s not being sarcastic. Lyle’s the best damn pilot and driver in the Fighting Storm.

Too bad he’s an ass.

The van’s engines rev over the comm, and the repulsorlifts engage with a whine.

“Vick, what are you thinking?” Kelly’s voice trembles when she’s worried, and she rushes over her words. I can barely understand her.

“I’m thinking my paranoia is about to pay off.”

I wear a thin inflatable vest beneath my clothes when we do anything near water. I carry a pocket breather when we work in space stations, regardless of the safety measures in place. I’m always prepared for every conceivable obstacle, including some my teammates never see coming.

So I wear a lightweight harness under my clothes when I’m in any building over three stories tall.

Alex teases me about it. Lyle’s too spooked by me to laugh in my face, but I know he does it behind my back. Kelly counsels that I can’t live my second life in fear.

Sorry. I died once. I’m in no hurry to repeat the experience.

Using my brain implants, I trigger an adrenaline burst. The hormone races through my bloodstream. I’ll pay for this later with an energy crash, but for now, I’m supercharged and ready to take on my next challenge.

The hadrazine gas is flowing closer. I shove the kid toward the far corner of the room, away from both the kitchen and the damage I’m about to do.

For safety reasons, high-rise windows, especially really large floor-to-ceiling ones, can rarely be opened. Hefting the closest heavy wood chair, I slam it into the windows with as much force as I can gather. My shoulder screams in pain, and I hear Kelly’s answering cry over my comm. With her shields down, she feels what I feel. They’re always down during missions. I hate hurting her, but I have no choice. I need her input to function, and I need the window broken.

The first hit splinters the tempered glass, sending a spiderweb of cracks shooting to the corners of the rectangular pane. Not good enough.

I pull my 9mm from a thigh holster and fire four shots. Cracks widen. Chips fall, along with several large shards. There’s a breach now. I need to widen it. I grab the chair and swing a second time, and the glass and chair shatter, pieces of both flying outward and disappearing into the raging storm.

Wind and rain whip into the living room. Curtains flap like flags in a hurricane, buffeting me away from the edge and keeping me from tumbling after the furniture. I’m soaked in seconds. When I take a step, the carpet squishes beneath my boots.

“VC1, I think the Rodwells made Team Two in the lobby…. Shit. I’m reading a signal transmission, trying to block it…. Fuck, I’ve got an active signature on the bomb…. It’s got a countdown, two minutes. Get the hell out of there!”

Alex’s report sends my pulse rate ratcheting upward. Other than not being here in the first place, no paranoid preparation can counter a blast of the magnitude I’m expecting.

Judging from the positioning of the explosives, anyone in the apartment will be toast.

I take off my coat and toss it into the swirling blue gas, regretting the loss of the equipment in the pockets but knowing I can’t make my next move with it on. The wind is drawing the haze right toward the windows, right toward me. I grab gloves from a pocket and yank them on. I unsnap a compartment on my harness and pull out a retractable grappling hook attached to several hundred coiled feet of ultrastrong, ultrathin wire.

Once I’ve given myself some slack in the cord, I scan the room. The gaudy architecture includes some decorative pillars. A press of a button drives the grappler into the marble, and I wrap the cord several times around the column and tug hard. I’m not worried about the wire. It can bear more than five hundred pounds of weight. I’m not so sure about the apartment construction, given the flimsy back door.

The cord holds. I reel out more line, extending my free hand to the kid. “Come on!”

He stares at me, then the window, then shakes his head. “You’re crazy. No way!” He shouts to be heard over the rain and thunder.

My internal display flashes my implants’ favorite metaphor—a thick cable made up of five metal cords wrapped tightly around each other. Over the last two years, I’ve come to understand they represent my sanity, and since Kelly’s arrival, they’ve remained solid. Until now.

One of them is fraying, a few strands floating around the whole in wisps.

Great. Just great.

The image fades.

“Die in flames or jump with me. Take your pick.” The clock ticks down in my head. If the boy won’t come, I’m not sure I’ll have time to cross the room and grab him, but my programming will force me to try.

He comes.

I take one last second to slam myself against the pillar, forcing my dislocated shoulder into the socket. Kelly screams in my ear, but I’ve clamped my own jaw shut, gritting my teeth for my next move.

One arm slides around the boy’s narrow waist. I grip the cord in the protective glove.

“Five seconds,” Alex says.

I run toward the gaping hole and open air, clutching the kid to me. He wraps his arms around my torso and buries his face in my side.

“Four.”

“Oh my God,” Kelly whispers.

“Three.”

Lyle and the hovervan better be where I need them. The cord might support our weight, but it won’t get me close enough to the ground for a safe free-fall drop.

“Two.”

The sole of my boot hits the edge and my muscles coil to launch me as far from the window as I can. There’s a second of extreme panic, long enough for regrets but too late to stop momentum, and then we’re airborne. Emotion suppressors ramp up to full power, and the terror fades.

My last thought as gravity takes hold is of Kelly. My suppressors have some effect on her empathic sense, but extremely strong feelings and emotions like pain and panic reach her every time.

If she can’t get her shields up fast, this will tear her apart.