Street thug Riko has some serious issues—memories wiped, reputation tanked, girlfriend turned into a tech-fueled zombie. And the only people who can help are the mercenaries who think she screwed them over.
In an apathetic society devoid of ethics or regulation, where fusing tech and flesh can mean a killing edge or a killer conversion, a massive conspiracy is unfolding that will alter the course of the human condition forever. With corporate meatheads on her ass and a necrotech blight between her and salvation, Riko is going to have to fight meaner, work smarter, and push harder than she’s ever had to. And that’s just to make it through the day.
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I plunged into brutal consciousness.
The light searing through the thin barrier of my eyelids did its best to fry my already scrambled brains, leaving me groaning as I threw an arm over my aching eye sockets. My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth, glued by a gummy layer of what felt like mange. Given the taste, something furry had crawled inside my mouth and spawned a litter.
That would explain the three-legged tango my guts were attempting, and possibly the incessant drone flattening all the wrinkles in my brain. Whatever chemical slank I’d gotten into last night, it wrecked me. Hard.
Keeping my eyes squeezed shut, I managed to work up enough foul-tasting saliva to rasp a groan. “Who do I have to fuck to turn that light off?” My voice, ruined by the mother of all hangovers, graveled.
I didn’t get an answer.
I tried again, too hoarse to inject it with my usual impatient demand. “Lucky?”
I cracked an eye from under my arm. Shafts of light branded my retinas. My vision went supernova despite the shade, and what was left of my brain dried into a crusted scab. Groaning, I squeezed my eyes shut again and desperately tried not to throw up all over myself.
Not my finest hangover. Not my first, either. I had a habit of waking up in places I couldn’t remember blacking out in. Some called it one of my better traits – usually because it involved at least two of us fucked up and naked.
The problem here was that I wasn’t supposed to be doing that anymore. I’d promised my girlfriend I’d tone it down, at least when she wasn’t with me. What little I could glean here made it clear Nanji was definitely not with me.
Goosebumps rippled up the skin of my calves. I shuddered, which only drew my attention to the feel of my bare ass plastered against equally bare metal—both made colder by the frigid temperature of the room.
I’d gotten the fucked up and naked parts down okay, but where? The air smelled way too clean for a hostel. I couldn’t pin the scent. It wasn’t perfume or even that so-called refreshing crap the average air scrubber spat out to mask the usual nasal mugging. I’d never gotten olfactory analyzers installed, so while I knew mercs who could list off every molecule in a fifty-meter radius, I couldn’t make it past clean.
That alone was enough to tell me I wasn’t anywhere near my squat. Nothing short of an industrial air filter would make that ratfest smell good. I wasn’t even sure what good smelled like. Not this.
This smelled like nothing. Sanitized, sterile.
Breathing took effort; it tasted like I was licking something’s fecal afterbirth with every swallow. The dull bass beat pounding in my skull was either my chipset shorting out or the aftereffects of whatever I ate, drank, smoked, shot or snorted last night at the self-congratulatory hey, we screwed the pooch and didn’t die revel. Hell if I could remember what I’d ingested, how much and with who. Knowing me, it could be anything, anyone, anywhere.
All I remembered was the club. Lights, skin. Sweat. I was fresh off Lucky’s chopshop miracle table, celebrating the life I almost wasted on a job gone bad, and then...
Nothing. I’d blacked out.
All the pins and needles streaking through my body made sure I knew how pissed they were, at least. Crashing on bare metal hadn’t done me any favors. It was freezing beneath my ass, slick, and creepy as necro-balls to wake up on.
I shifted my arm aside.
The overhead light boiled. Yeah, still sucked. Swearing, I rolled to my left, raising my right hand to shield my sensitive eyes as the afterburn of six circular bulbs popped like sparklers in my vision. The sharp clank of metal on metal spiked through my mental diatribe as my left arm screeched across the surface of the table, almost pitching me right off it.
I hunched, shivering, a blur of bleached hair sliding over one eye as I struggled to suck in air. The table didn’t even shake. Bolted, maybe.
The pressure sensors on my cybernetic limb sent all the right impulses to my brain, which told me that the chipset installed in the base of my skull wasn’t completely fried. Relief. Quickly buried when the rest of my brain caught up and decided by the way, today’s gonna be a shit day for that arm you don’t have.
I hissed out what air I managed to inhale as pins and needles gave way to a crashing surge of white hot pain. It rolled up through the reinforced enhancements woven into my left biceps, streaked into my shoulder so high and tight I seized until I could crest it.
That I remembered.
It hurt like a son of a bitch. Not the sharp burn from a shank, or even that teeth-gritting shock of a broken bone. This went deeper than bone; an ache that settles so far under the surface, there isn’t a biological name for it. How do you classify something only your soul misses?
Cybernetic limbs don’t hurt, not within the synthetic parts. They don’t process pain or pleasure, like or dislike. They process facts. In the corner of my left eye, a series of values flickered rapidly, fainter than usual. They told me the temperature of the table under my hand, its surface tension – and other miscellaneous information I didn’t understand and mostly ignored – calculated a variance and estimated that I propped my synthetic elbow on aluminum.
There was no setting for today, I will feel like shit. That was all me and my fleshbag brain, which hadn’t yet figured out how to let go of the limb I’d already lost.
Probably a good sign. It meant I was still human enough to know what I was missing. If I were approaching my tech threshold, that point where the human body wasn’t advanced enough hardware for the tech it housed, phantom pains and overcompensating muscle would be the least of my problems. I could count myself lucky on that score.
I cradled my arm with my other hand – a useless gesture that only served to remind me that a plated hunk of nanofactory diamond steel wasn’t supposed to be hurting as bad as it did – and tried to think through the slurry my brain had become.
Unknown location. Definitely not my bed. Probably not the kinked-out pleasure palace of a seriously freaktastic fuckup, either – which only sort of worked out for me, but I’d deal with that part later. My girlfriend would understand. Maybe.
If she ever talked to me again.
The room boasted white panels for walls, the kind of seamed decorative choice you’d get from a mental institution but with none of the padding. The circular lamp over the table was fuckingly bright. The tile underneath the table was the cleanest I’d ever seen in my life, and the slab I perched on looked too much like an autopsy table for me to be comfortable staying on it.
The only color in the room was mine. Against the pristine cleanliness of my environment, my tattooed body stood out like an artistic temper tantrum. A quick pat revealed that the three sets of piercings I kept were gone. The stud in my left nipple was usually protected by body armor, and although I’d been kicked square between the legs once or twice, it didn’t hurt the hood ornament any, so I’d kept them. An awkward grope at my ears mirrored the loss—no plugs in my open earlobes.
Medical reasons? This place looked like an operating room, without any of the usual equipment. That didn’t fit the puzzle. Lucky made it a condition to detach everything that could be removed prior to any operations. The stuff messed with his system. Maybe it messed with whatever joint I’d been dropped in?
Obviously, I wasn’t in my mentor’s hands. Wasn’t in a familiar place, either. Didn’t remember getting here.
Didn’t have my gear.
And my head felt like it’d been stuffed full of white noise and jammed on crooked.
No time to panic. I’d spent too long living in a world that didn’t give two shits and a used condom whether I lived or died, I wasn’t going to freak now. The sweat on my skin was just standard operating procedure – my body, boosted by overworked nano agents, was trying to bleed out whatever junk I’d shoved in it earlier. Adrenaline and nerves tangled with my hangover and left me shaking.
My skin itched. I needed answers. Maybe a goddamn drink.
But most of all, I fucking needed out. Especially when the white lights in the ceiling flashed abruptly red.
I forced my body to move, to slide off the table and force my knees to hold my ass up when my feet hit the floor. My muscles screamed with the effort, joints popping like they’d locked into place while I slept. I blew my cheekbone-length hair out of my face and promptly regretted it.
Oxygen efficiency fail.
The blood drained from my head, left a mass of pins and needles in its wake. The red-lit room flipped sideways on me. My stomach surged violently towards my sinuses.
I caught myself on the end of the slab, hunched hard enough that the corner gouged into my sternum, and retched.
Nothing came out. Damn if it didn’t keep trying. Sweat congealed on my forehead, across my shoulders as I gagged and heaved, choking on everything that wasn’t there. The dried-out husk of my guts wrung out everything they could, but I didn’t have anything left inside me to puke. Whatever I’d eaten last, it’d been long enough that it didn’t exist anymore.
The floor was cold under my feet, the edge of the table colder. I forced myself to open my eyes, squinted through the red glare and had to wait until the floor and ceiling swapped back to where they were supposed to be.
This was bad. My nanos were already struggling to catch up. I needed food to replenish the energy the little fuckers consumed to fix me. If I waited too long, nanoshock would put my shit on lockdown faster than any threat of security. Double fucking luck.
A clipboard hung from a narrow hook bolted into the edge of the slab, its transparent screen blank. Bleary, shaking, I grabbed the device, which woke it up and lit the screen to an opaque glow. My name greeted me in plain pixels.
My real. Cunting. Name. No one but Lucky should have known me and that name went together.
I blinked crusty eyelashes, clearing enough of my scummy sleep to peer at some basic physical facts. My height, 177.8cm. My weight and physique, in healthy ranges, edging more towards muscle than ideal feminine physique. I wouldn’t win any bikini contests, unless it was for a Miss Universal Ass-Kicker. My body fat percentage was down. Too far down. I’d need to lay off the iso blends for a while.
Brown eyes – hazel, assholes – brown hair bleached out, no identifying scars and a shit ton of listed ink. A chart of haphazard racial markers didn’t mean dick to me. Most I ever knew about my genetic makeup was that I didn’t come out white enough for my anglo reserve mother.
Underneath it, a bulleted list catalogued my tech. Cybernetic arm (functional) with netware tools (disengaged) and extra ammo slot upgrades (empty); ocular interface with linked lateral display (active); accompanying chipset (modified basic).
Great. These assholes had disconnected my netware, which meant I’d get dick-all done if I needed to access anti-sec measures. Given the looks of this mess, I’d be running into security issues fast.
My role on the street was more of a splatter specialist than anything else; a killing jack‑of‑all‑trades. Anything more technical than drilling the bandwidth is turf that belongs to linkers and projectors, and I was happy to let them have it. If I can’t punch it? I don’t want to mess with it.
This mindset has its limitations. Like when my netware fails. Fuck me.
I scrolled to the final line in the chart.
System failure: 14:37.
What the tits?
I checked again. Scrolled back up, but saw no date. Sloppy. I must’ve been too jacked up to make it through the night. My hangover could attest to that.
Was I in a hospital? Did I do something stupid at the club that landed me clinically dead for a while?
Not the first time I’d flatlined. You get used to that on a chopshop table, but I was usually on Lucky’s and he hadn’t let me down yet.
The lights overhead gleamed in uniform lines, painting the room in shades of blood and sickly pink – the off and on and off and on again damaged my calm. Definitely not a familiar place. And too quiet for any ER my criminal ass’d be accepted in. “Zen it, Riko,” I rasped, forcing the words past the tightness in my jaw. The old mantra barely helped. Zen was the last thing I was.
What would my team linker tell me?
First, he’d ream me a new one for fucking around on his sister. I wasn’t sure if that was true – wasn’t convinced it wasn’t – so I mentally glossed that part.
Linkers are masters of the signal, ground-floor operations with all the overhead intel to lead a team of mercs on the missions we take on. Without my linker’s bird’s-eye view, I was running on pure luck and wild guesses. Even if I had more info here, I didn’t process data the way Indigo did. Laying down massive amounts of hurt was my specialty. Keeping me pointed in the right direction was his.
I was on my own.
There was no other data in the file to help me out. It didn’t list my nano agents, either. Not surprising. Nanos are so commonplace that only people without are worth mentioning. If you’re conceived in the city, you have nanos. The first thing they do is carve a SIN – a Security Identification Number – into the fetal brain, and that’s that. Marked for life on a registry; a born sinner.
Babies conceived outside the city – if they manage to survive the seventy percent mortality rate – only end up with nanos if a parent is carrying. Even then, they won’t do much against the unshielded electromagnetic radiation. A self-correcting issue.
If you’re me, born nice and legal, you get those nanos reprogrammed and the SIN burned out. Not so nice and totally not legal.
So how did they get my old name? DNA database? Unlikely. They’d have to know exactly where I came from. Nobody in my sphere knew that. Not even my street doc. Without a SIN to go by, they had nowhere to start.
Except they’d gotten it from somewhere.
Popping out on-grid, even in a genetically cultivated anglo zoo, meant my mother had my DNA registered with the community when I was still a baby. No way around that – short of a skilled projector and a price I couldn’t afford – but if these fuckheads had access to that fiercely guarded database, then I was definitely dealing with the corporate sector.
That gave me an obvious next step: move from this room. Find a weapon somewhere.
Kill with impunity.
As a plan, it lacked detail. I was exhausted, running on empty and nursing the worst hangover I’d ever had. I was in no shape to take on anything, but fuck it. I’d be nothing but a victim if I stayed here, and I didn’t do victim.
I took a deep breath. Pain lanced through my skull. “Fuck,” I hissed between my teeth. “Taintlicking mother of a…” I dug the heel of my hands into my eye sockets, grinding out the grit so hard that sparklers flared behind my eyelids.
White walls. White floor. Blood splatter as pain lanced through my forehead.
“Fuck!” The best I could manage as a jarring cacophony of images collided, denying me answers. I did not have time to bleed.
I forced my eyes open, pushed myself upright against the table’s edge. The colors inside my head – incessant white, a bloody arc of red – congealed in front of me. Security lighting, pristine tile painted by red bulbs. I was battling the kind of fatigue that turned the brain into a cheap shock show, but I’d done this before. A runner learns how to channel fear and adrenaline into something useful.
Street rule number one, the first thing Lucky had taught me: survive, and everything else could be dealt with later.
My legs were stiff, my knees uncooperative. It took way too much effort to make it halfway across the twenty-foot room. As I got close, the smudge of gray at the far end turned into the outline of a door. My optimism raised a notch when I didn’t see any obvious signs of reinforced security. The door opened of its own accord, leaving me blinking into a darker corridor lit by the rhythmic wax and wane of alarm red. Shadows swallowed the end of the hall on either side.
So they’d fucked up their whatever operation, stuck me on a table and waltzed out without locking the damn door, huh? Shitlords. I’d show them what it’d cost to mess with me.
Hopefully, I’d manage to do something more than dry-heave on them.
The white noise in my head crackled, accompanied by a wave of nausea as my guts turned that intestinal tango into a thrashdance. I’d already tried puking. It didn’t help. Moving on.
The hall was quiet, save for the aggravating throb ringing my skull and the slap of my bare feet on what felt like smooth metal flooring. I had to stop and lean against the wall more than I wanted, and I didn’t see any signs of life along the way.
That didn’t exactly herald victory. A place like this should have had something – security, technicians, something other than my battered meat staggering through the dark.
Anger simmered, but underneath, my nerves frayed.
I passed other doors. Two opened as I triggered sensors, but they remained dark inside. Finally, as I reached the end of the strip, red lights reflected off precisely aligned letters spelled out on the wall in front of me.
B L O C K – C.
Block. Like cell block?
All personnel to be armed beyond this point.
Footsteps pounded down the hall behind me. I spun, muscles tensing. A bad move. My stomach sloshed, then seized. I locked my jaw when my throat expanded in preparation for vomit I didn’t have, fresh sweat spreading like a stain across my chest and shoulders.
“Get to the uplink lab,” snapped out a voice that echoed from the sporadic black. “All units, disconnect from main generators! Backup sources gamma-four. Do not connect to main sources.”
I shoved myself into the only corner available, my heart slamming as two, then four, then six men in black BDUs passed at a dead run. The lights glanced off visors and heavy-duty assault rifles held at the ready. Sauger 877s, bearing 5.56mm caseless rounds. Some serious firepower. Those are crunchers, spitting out half a thousand rounds in seconds. It chews through a magazine at an ungodly rate, but anything not outfitted with heavily reinforced dermaplating wouldn’t make it past the first burst.
I wasn’t dermaplated. No real fortification. Hell, I wasn’t outfitted with a lot of the illegally available upgrades. I’d made the conscious choice to keep my tech streamlined to the necessary – and a few nominally risky cosmetics – out of sheer self-preservation.
The men filed past in triple-time, boots thumping the floor. The double doors pulled wide, then closed again behind them. Their footsteps vanished into the new corridor.
Whatever was going down at the uplink lab, it was big enough to need six men geared to the teeth with killing power.
I didn’t have to wait long before the seventh sec monkey, the talker, made his entry. He hit the ground hard with every step, a full-on sprint that emphasized what looked like borderline panic to me. Grim, bloody panic. “Pull everyone off the street if you have to,” he barked, his eyes wild beneath his raised visor. Like his buddies, he wore body armor and black fatigues, but didn’t carry a Sauger. Coordinator, I’d guess. The corp version of a linker but with more bureaucracy up the ass. “Code six, do you morons hear me? Code six. This is not a fucking drill, get those goddamned sweepers down here!”
I held my breath as he darted past me. The door in front of him slid open again, hummed a note that grated a disconcerting counterpoint to the beating inside my skull.
Unlike his pals, he didn’t roll through. He hesitated.
His head cocked.