Chapter I: Utah

 

 

VIOLET JUMPED and hurtled toward the troposphere. As she fell deeper and deeper into the thickening air, the wind began to punch, then stab. She fell with no parachute, no personal descent thrusters, and no crash armor. All she had was a sticky suit, and all that could do was stick to things. Her only hope was her target. If she failed to connect with that target, the result could be bad, worse, or catastrophic: She could miss the target and fall to her death, splattered on the rock-hard salt flats below. She could slip into the target’s jets and be incinerated utterly. If she were truly unlucky, Vibeke could pilot the shuttle fast and accurately enough to catch her, and she would never hear the end of it.

V team had spent the last week preparing for the jump. Veikko had infiltrated Skunkworks, no small task, and snuck a peek at the upcoming test schedule and flight paths. Varg and Vibeke ran simulation after simulation of physics and contingencies. Violet practiced the jump online and in the air over the Arctic Sea. They all surveyed the jump location and calculated the altitudes and atmospheric pressure. Vibeke studied the air of the Bonneville wasteland, the toxic air of old industries and old wars, obsolete poisons that lingered on like noxious vapors over a tomb. Varg showed her which abandoned skyscrapers she was most likely to get impaled on if the target dropped her over the ruins of Provo or the last surviving megaliths of Salt Lake City. Veikko programmed up a pretty simulation of what would happen to Violet’s body should she fall all the way to the salt flats, complete with comically inappropriate sound effects. Absolutely none of that made her feel any safer as she fell at terminal velocity toward the white land below.

After falling just long enough to question if she missed the target, she saw it beneath her. A tiny black speck against the white earth, moving at exceptional speed. It looked fast enough to meet her right where it should. It was traveling at just over twice the speed of sound. The shuttle Violet jumped from was moving at subsonic speed, so the acceleration when she hit the target would be fatal without an inertial negation field. The craft would at least be slowing down. It was on its way home after a test of its thermobaric thruster, the speed limit of which was unknown even to those who built it. From earlier tests monitored closely by H team, they knew it could pass Mach 40 with ease in the atmosphere and maintain 350 g’s of acceleration for at least half an hour in space. That was only one of the reasons Valhalla wanted it.

The critical feature of the X-292 Blackwing Impact Resistant Plane was its flex-diamond armor. It made the craft so tough it could fly through solid rock. As Valhalla’s last line of defense was solid rock, Alf thought it best that the craft not belong to anyone but them. Given Skunkworks’s terribly overbudget development of the prototype, there would not be any more if this one disappeared in testing. As GAUNE had stolen the designs from an UNEGA company, which they later sent Skunkforce to massacre, Valhalla had no ethical problems stealing it.

Also appealing to much of the ravine was the idea of a new space-capable vessel. V had flown to Bonneville in Valhalla’s only space shuttle, and it wasn’t one of the finer models. It was a twenty-seven-year-old P-Zero that the ravine stole from the Crystal Methuselah drug gang. When the shuttle was stolen, the gang made no effort to recover it. Once plated in special thermophobic gold to prevent rust, the decrepit P-Zero shuttle developed “Purple Plague” and lost its shimmer within only two reentries. Thus it had to get TK chromed and appeared as the only silver vehicle in the ravine. The interior was as cramped as a boiler room and twice as hot. It was made for two people, and the retrofitting for four was known throughout the ravine as H team’s worst job ever. Any team that used the P-Zero shuttle would relentlessly mock H over the two “jump seats,” which were not so much seats as scraps of jagged metal with bumps in just the right places to irritate the rumps of their unfortunate passengers. Varg especially had height problems and had to man the weapons array by lying flat on his stomach under the front seat. Violet had donned her sticky suit en route in the cargo hold where the smell of old smart-foam made her eager to jump out.

She jumped with her inertial negation field off and set it only to turn on a fraction of a second before hitting the wing. The field would show up on the target’s sensors, but without it she’d be turned into putty as soon as she touched the Blackwing. The field would also render the oncoming air stagnant within so it wouldn’t tear her to shreds. It would even lessen the impact if she were to miss and hit the ground, but only enough to see that her innards exploded from her mouth instead of her back. Veikko had done a great job with simulations of both, utterly realistic except for the sound effect, a file he had labeled as Splort.

Recollections of the simulation ended when the field turned on too soon. She was right over the target when a jagged blue mist appeared under her, halting the airflow. Her inner ears told her she was no longer falling, the ground was moving up toward her. She was in pleasant, calm free fall. She was also visible to every sensor the target had. Nothing to be done for it. They knew she was coming, but it wasn’t like she could turn around. Her perception aside, the field actually turned on only a quarter second too soon. Not a fatal mission error. In that quarter second, the target turned from a distant speck to a wall of black diamond wing right before her. Calculations had gone as well as could be expected, she would hit near the back. Advantage: It would give her plenty of objects to grab. Disadvantage: The time to climb forward. More time for the pilot to prepare. She elected to go for one of the tail fins and reached out.

Her hand stuck to the dark fin like a gecko to glass. The texture of the suit elongated, dozens of small sticky points held onto the craft and distributed her weight among themselves. A solid catch. No time to waste. Hand over hand she pulled herself down to the fuselage and began to scale forward. The inertia field prickled madly, deflecting and stopping tons of oncoming air. The still atmosphere would then fall back and pick up its original speed, leaving Violet in a near-vacuum pocket. She took a deep breath from her Thaco armor holds, but the sticky suit left no room for the exhalation system, the air sucked out from her lungs painfully with each breath. She got just enough to stay functional. The sooner she got to the cockpit the better.

She kept climbing, her suit like a shadow moving over the black fuselage. Her link told her one of the markings on the craft was text. No time to have it read the tag for her. She kept moving, stepping right on it. Apparently it said No Step. Her foot pushed it open, a minor vent cap that dislodged some ice. It was startling, but it didn’t slow her down. She approached the ramjet intakes behind the cockpit. Severe air distortions confused her inertia field and weakened it. The air was hitting again. She ignored it. She was at the cockpit.

She took a thin, flat thermite charge from her back and slipped it into the miniscule seam between the unbreakable canopy shield and the unbreakable fuselage shield and detonated it. H had predicted that although the shielding was indestructible by conventional means, the bolts holding the cockpit door in place would not be, for rescue purposes. She detonated the charge and found that H was right. The cockpit shield flew back so fast it almost disappeared, leaving only an unsurprised and very angry pilot. Another inertia field turned on to cover the cockpit, a heavy-duty aircraft field.

When Skunkworks built the Blackwing, they devoted a special team to finding the right test pilot. Firstly, they had to find someone capable of using the direct brain interface. Not everyone’s brain can interface with raw bolts of electricity from an array around their heads, but it was the only way to link a pilot to a craft with absolute unbreakable security. Valhalla never recruited anyone in the first place who wasn’t compatible with a DBI. Secondly, Skunkworks needed someone who, in the event of a hijacker breaking into the cockpit, could fight them off in hand-to-hand combat. Keith Kalessin was chosen in part because he was champion of personal combat at his academy.

The instant Violet’s inertial negation field had activated, the Blackwing’s alarms sounded. Keith watched her connect, climb toward his cockpit and step clumsily on a vent cap. He smelled the thermite burning through his oxygen mask. When the canopy disappeared and he saw the figure outside, he already had his sidearm ready.

Violet wouldn’t have lasted long if she weren’t expecting exactly that. She watched him level his microwave at her, looking down her leg like the sight on a rifle, poised to kick. She let loose, and her boot knocked the microwave from his hand. The sticky suit held onto it, and she grabbed the weapon from her heel. The bolts of electricity around Keith’s head doubled in quantity as he began to send alerts and warnings to Skunkworks. Violet couldn’t allow that, so she used his microwave to fire a dull magnetic beam into the brain interface, dulling and warping the signals. He lost control of the craft, and it began to spiral and fall out of control. The magnetic wave also interfered again with Violet’s inertia field. A jolt of motion seeped in like a hard slap on the back.

She let the force push her into the cockpit. Keith punched her in the face so hard that the field spasm felt like nothing. The microwave fell to the earth. She punched him right back, but he blocked. Violet wasn’t easy to block. She realized she was up against one tough pilot. Her surprise lasted only an instant, replaced quickly by the worse surprise of getting slugged so hard in the ribs that she fell out of the cockpit and into the ramjet intake.

Her fingers barely snagged the intake vents and saved her from vaporization. Violet’s annoyance was burning hotter than the fuel behind her. Her fingers stuck to panel after diamond panel, and she crawled forward to face the skilled, dangerous man who had just bested her. A man who now knew how she fought and knew she was coming. It was time for extreme measures.

Keith could see her escape the intake, but she disappeared as she crawled up the Blackwing’s diamond skin toward him. He awaited the sticky devil, calculating her most likely attack. She could come from behind and drop in above him. As she would expect another punch, he would deny her that. Then, as she struck, he’d pull her in to break her in half. If she came from either side, she would be at the same angle he saw before. He could see the field generator on the back of her neck, so if he could hit it squarely, he could turn inertia against her, and she’d splatter like flies around him. Keith didn’t expect her to appear in front of him, jumping from the nose of his jet.

Having climbed under the craft all the way to its exceptionally sharp front edge, Violet dimmed her field by 5 percent and leaped toward her enemy with the force of the jet’s motion behind her. The Blackwing’s inertia field was hit with an inverse Boolean effect and dropped to match. Violet was forced in at more than 100 kph. She aimed her foot at Keith’s face with horrific force. His reflexes were superhuman, thanks to the superhuman reflexology project he completed in the academy. He managed to move his head and replace it with his survival knife just as her foot connected.

First Violet felt the pain of her leg breaking against the headrest, then the pain of a twelve-centimeter blade sticking through her foot. She didn’t grow any angrier at the pain because, though he had performed an impressive move, it had left Keith bent over to his side and without the benefit of his seat’s protection. She unsheathed the blade from her foot and cut his belts in a split second. Keith managed two good punches in that half second, but they weren’t enough to push her off him, not with acceleration affecting her at 5 percent—she weighed 250 kilograms.

And it was acceleration, not wind that she was feeling now. The craft was still out of control and speeding up in awkward bursts. They were going into a barrel roll and losing altitude rapidly. Whoever won would have a dangerous few seconds to right the craft and stop it from crashing.

Violet had to act fast. She linked her field back on full and grabbed his oxygen mask, tightly strapped to his head. She yanked the apparatus hard enough that it would snap his neck, or if he was smart, checkmate him and force him to follow the direction. He was smart, but he had lost. The move gave Violet enough leverage to shove him out of the Blackwing’s field and he flew from the cockpit, hit by the air and speed.

As he fell to the ground with his personal inertia fields up and his parachute field ready to deploy, he was filled with admiration for the hijacker who evicted him despite a dagger in her foot. Then came the lamentation that if he ever got out of the desert alive, his salary would be docked until he could pay off the craft he had lost: 220,000,000,000 euros on pilot’s wages.

Violet had worse problems. The Blackwing was in an uncontrolled barrel roll and losing altitude faster and faster. So fast, she calculated, that if she kept calculating, it would hit the ground before she finished. She sat back in the seat and let the electric bolts feel out her head. The interface loaded at once to inform her that she was not its pilot and that the ship would self-destruct in five seconds. She began the system hack, which back in Valhalla she had proven capable of performing in only seven seconds.

Skunkworks had included self-destruct mechanisms in all its craft for ages in case of theft. V team’s research prior to the mission showed they had never sold a single craft without it since 2104. They had, however, lost the prototype for a boat back in 2193 that showed up for sale in 2194. Though the thieves in that case were all killed by Skunkforce, it did strongly suggest that prototypes intended solely for testing were not granted their suicidal charges. Certainly one so expensive as the Blackwing wouldn’t be an exception.

Seven seconds later, Violet had control of the Blackwing, despite the craft’s solemn belief that it had blown itself to smithereens two seconds prior. In ten seconds she had restarted the computers and piloted the Blackwing out of its barrel roll. In twenty seconds she had taken the emergency auto-lattice polymer can and sprayed out a new canopy. In twenty-one seconds the Blackwing crashed full-force into the solid salty ground.

Despite every measure onboard, she felt it. From Mach 6 to 700 kph in an instant. As the concrete-solid salt split around the unbreakable diamond shields, she was pitched forward in a sickening explosive jolt. The thin new canopy cracked to the point that she couldn’t see through it, but the craft’s design did its job and directed the force away from the broken cockpit. The Blackwing held, and Violet managed to pull up out of the salt and back into fresh toxic air. She took inventory of the events and state of things. All were as favorable as could be expected. She welcomed a complex bolt of lightning into her head and told the vessel to set course eastward. North would have to wait until its tracking systems were disabled.

“Sloppy, Vi,” chimed a voice in her head. She pulled off the sticky suit’s face mask, leaving only her Thaco oxygen prongs.

“Vibs is right, that was a ‘rocky’ start,” said Veikko.

Varg linked last. “I can’t think of any salt jokes. But hey, knock knock.”

“Who’s there?”

“Skunkforce! Five wave hoppers on your Arsch, laser armament, unmanned. I’m shooting at the six that aren’t there yet.”

Microwave drones could be a real problem on most missions. They’d managed to spoil one of O team’s attacks on an organ smuggling ring, they’d successfully assassinated Luka Carcass before R could reach him, and only a week prior, they’d shot down Luzie’s experimental reconnaissance saucer. On the theft of any common aircraft, they could foil V team in a dozen ways, from recording telemetry all the way back to the North or simply cutting the wings off with their damn vibrating lasers.

Violet saw the red dots all over the Blackwing. Useless, thankfully, against its armor, they couldn’t even make the slightest scratch in the black diamond. They could tear open the makeshift canopy and cut her to ribbons, but short of fifty more of the things appearing right in front of her, she could keep the canopy aimed away from them.

Eighty-nine more wave hoppers erupted from the ground immediately before Violet’s position. Skunkworks wasn’t going to let the master work go, and they’d committed their entire drone fleet to stopping it. The hoppers burst upward from their salt hangars and flew ahead of the Blackwing, accelerating toward its future position. They were far enough ahead that they could cut her off and cut her up. A turn away from them would only reduce her speed on the bank and let them catch up elsewhere. There was no way around it; she was about to be covered in them.

She had only one chance. Hoppers were piloted by programs. Good programs, programs that know how humans fly. All Violet would have to do was fly in so inhuman a fashion that the drones would lose her or crash. Crash appealed to her more than loss. The first drones were about to land on the canopy. She had only seconds.

Empty skyscrapers began to flash by her sides just as the last drones came into view. They followed her motion for motion as she dodged the towers and decayed factories. She wasted no time and made several hectic course changes that defied the laws of structural integrity and common sense. They continued to follow the craft as closely as possible without crashing, making meticulous course adjustments based not only on speed and direction, but on the programmed assumptions that the craft they followed would try to escape them while also trying not to crash. The latter assumption was incorrect and would prove their undoing as Violet flew directly through the side of an old office building, ripping it from its foundations and spinning it in the air 140 degrees. Most of the hoppers crashed right behind her, and the few that had made it to the Blackwing were sheared off as it passed through concrete.

The force cracked the makeshift canopy further and chips fell away. Chunks of wave hopper and office building poured in through the inertia field and cluttered the cockpit. The Blackwing wouldn’t be able to take another hit until they found its proper canopy, but the mission seemed over for the time being.

With Skunkworks’ external tracking gone, she quickly hacked into the Blackwing’s tracking nodes and silenced them, then finally headed north.

As soon as Veikko linked in from the shuttle to tell her she was in the clear, the adrenaline died and she felt a stabbing pain in her foot. That reminded her she had been stabbed in the foot. The broken leg began to complain right after. She took some platelet packs and a quicksplint from the back of her suit and applied them to her foot and leg. She shot an analgesic syrette into her thigh, and it cleared the pain but not the uncomfortable position she had to sit in with her leg splinted.

Violet looked around at the debris collected from the hoppers and office building, all that fell into the cockpit gently after being struck at Mach whatever. Robotic parts, bricks, dust, two pencils from the office building, and half a wall poster of a cat hanging from a tree. She shoveled out the bits and pieces that shook most noisily in the insistent breeze. The half canopy took whatever air passed the triple field and focused it right on Violet’s cheek. The little nuisances always seemed amplified after the bulk of a mission was over. She couldn’t hit the fastest thrusters and be home in seconds, or she’d be spotted again. She had to wait for the slug-slow Mach 20 ramjets to get her up north.

It took half an hour to arrive in the seas north of Kalaallit Nunaat, where she splashed down and roughly slammed the Blackwing into some underwater rock. That concealed half of it and shattered the last of the makeshift canopy. She left the cockpit outside of the rock face so that she could make her exit. Water was pouring in through the fields and making them crackle badly. She hacked into the shutdown procedures and checked for any coded traps, all the typical thievery, before turning the primary power source off. That cut off the fields and the water flooded in instantly. Damn cold water.

She surfaced to see the old P-Zero shuttle hovering over her. It set down ungently on the water, and she climbed onto its flat chrome wing. A door opened on the slanted side and let her into the same smelly cargo hold she had leaped from hours before. Veikko rolled a scan jamming cylinder down the wing and into the water, then stepped out to toss several Ice-10 crystals in after. They quickly froze a few meters of the sea into a hangar around the exposed parts of the Blackwing.

So ended Project Bentley at 1640 hours on January 3, 2232. Calling it “Bentley” still felt strange. Even after Project Abruptum, Violet couldn’t get used to having made a full spin around the alphabet. She might have been more sensitive to meaningless sentimentality on that day at that time because her parents had died exactly two years prior. She took no notice of the goings-on in her subconscious. She buckled into the cargo hold walls with Veikko for the ride north.

Varg chimed in via link, “Highly recommend we abort lift off, ditch this old junker and fly the Burp back home instead.”

“Blackwing, Varg. Please don’t call it the Burp,” rang Vibs.

“Our shuttle is obsolete. We have a new space-worthy craft.”

“One we can’t show off. Not yet.”

Veikko interjected, “Practically speaking, the Bur—the Blackwing has only one seat and no cargo.”

“Okay,” reasoned Varg, “you three take the P-Zero shuttle, and I’ll take the Belch.”

“Gaseous regurgitation,” laughed Veikko. “Technically it may be a flatu—”

The sound of a light backhand resounded from the hold.

“Thanks, Vi,” linked Vibeke.

Silence prevailed for twenty seconds before Varg spoke up. “If they didn’t want us to call it a Burp, they shouldn’t have named it B-I-R-P. Besides, it won’t be a ‘black’ wing once we gilt it up.”

“We won’t,” answered Vibs. “The flex-diamond hull is better than gold, TK chrome, even natural diamond. It will stay a Blackwing.”

Veikko strained a full five seconds before trying to get on Violet’s good side. “I vote for purple. The Purple Burple. There’s some technical name for a burp, but I can’t think of it….”

Violet was about to threaten a second backhand when she looked down to the white smart-foam and found it covered in blood. Her wound was leaking again.

“I have several fractures in my leg and an impalement through my foot,” she declared flatly. Veikko looked down at her foot. Varg and Vibeke peered in from the flight deck.

Veikko replied, “Yes, yes you do.”

All knew the shuttle was completely lacking in any first aid equipment, and Violet had already applied the best any of their armor had to offer. There was little to be done for the battered appendage. Violet stared at her foot uselessly and exhaled. Soon they would arrive at the ravine, and Dr. Niide would fix the wound. Vibs sent a quiet link back home so he could ready his surgical robots.

The knowledge that she would soon be perfectly repaired struck Violet the opposite way it should have. She felt a subtle wave of apathy. It was an odd thing to feel at the end of a successful mission, and Valkyries were taught to mention any psychological oddities they might experience. So Violet might have told her team that she felt like shit had Veikko not interrupted with a far more dire revelation.

“Eructation! A ‘Ructus.’ That’s the term,” he said, looking proudly toward Violet, “for a burp. Cetaceans call it röyhtäily.” Veikko nodded. Pain seeped into Violet’s foot, and the slow flight home in the P0S felt all the slower.

 

 

SIRAJ/TEPES S.C.S. owned fourteen prisons, jails, and detention centers in Bharat. The Hugli River Detention Center was by far the most infamous of them. Built to house 6,000 inmates, it actually housed well over 25,000 the last time anyone counted, which was over ten years before Mishka was imprisoned there. The “Ergosphere of Kolkata” gave up on prisoner census after 2219 because none of the guards could accurately estimate how many prisoners thick were the piles on which the visible prisoners stood. Since then, matters had only grown worse as every disease from the bubonic plague to swine flu to the hemorrhagic strain of emu fever invaded and mutated amid the human petri dish into unnamable flesh eating pestilences. The culture that grew with equal virulence among the inmates was one of murder, cannibalism, and torture, so Mishka fit right in.

In fact, it was exactly where she wanted to be. Not that she wanted to be in prison, but she didn’t have much of a choice. As long as she lived, Vibeke was going to chase her. From the events in Bangla, that much was clear. After a year on the run, Vibs had come within seconds of dragging her back to Valhalla in chains, and if capture by the Bharatiya Sthalsena was the only way out, it would have to do. She knew she’d be able to escape, so the only real loss was her new eye. They confiscated it as soon as she was processed. She’d grown very attached to her eye in the last year. She wasn’t happy about needing a new eye in the first place, but once implanted it grew on her. The poor thing transmitted from the possessions office until a cauliflower-eared guard smashed it under foot.

That was the least of her immediate problems. She was thrown into a holding room that rivaled the worst days of the old På-Täppan pile. She managed to stay atop the heap of people, which was so thick and unstable that she couldn’t stand upright. All she could do was crawl cautiously over the mess of sweaty limbs, bleeding sticky prisoners, and shreds of prison clothing. Her own was in tatters within seconds; both sleeves and a pant leg were torn off by hands reaching for anything they could grip to pull themselves out of the mess. When they caught her flesh she twisted them off or bit them off. She had to lessen the number of oncoming attacks. One corner of the room had people piled so high they nearly reached the ceiling. She headed for it.

The instant she secured her penthouse, she began to plot escape. The ventilation shafts were unsuitable, as there were none. The heat was so intense and the air was so foul that she estimated less than an hour before she would succumb to the conditions and would be rendered unconscious or insane, as seemed the symptoms. Her first priority was defense. She elected to make a shiv. After fending off several attacks from her inmates, she took the time to break one of their legs more thoroughly than usual. She snapped his femur with force in the right direction to leave a sharp, jagged edge. The terrible sound kept attackers at bay for a time. She estimated the direction of the internal blade and sawed it free to create an opening, then reached into the wound and began cutting through the connective tissue of the hip with her fingernails.

No sooner did she have the bone knife in her hand and ready to go than the crowd crouched still, staring at just about the most disturbing thing most of the pickpockets and petty thieves had ever seen. Mishka had to smile with the knowledge that the creation of her weapon was a deterrent so strong she might never need to use it. Now her mind was free to contemplate an exit. The only one she could see was the way she came in. She worked her way across the man-pile to the trap door through which prisoners were dropped. It was within reach but flush sealed to the ceiling. So she waited. In only seven minutes, it opened to expel a bruised, beaten mess of a woman. Mishka used her as a step to the door, leaving her to presumably worse uses by others.

Microwave fire began the instant Mishka caught hold of the floor above. She took two stun rays to the wrist, losing her femur shiv as the door closed. She expected the crowd to attack her as she fell, but found them all keeping their distance, well aware that she might want to make another blade. Just then a valve on the south wall opened and a heap of humanity poured out into the adjacent ventricle. Mishka leaped and made sure that she was among them. The new room was bigger and smellier, though it had a floor instead of a pile. A sorting area where newcomers were forced by guards into whatever ring of hell came next. It contained men who hadn’t seen her weapon-forging techniques, so as soon as she spotted a guard, she ran for him. In seconds she had cracked his armor like a crab shell. In seconds more she had his doleo and used it to send waves of pain through the other inmates who grabbed for it.

Having quickly mastered the new room, she hunted for an exit. This room had the same rotten walls as the last but no people-heap. The bases of some walls had serious decay. She was looking for something to widen the cracks when a three-meter-tall humanoid stomped up to her. She had fought enlarged gang members back with Valhalla, men who had every bone lengthened and every muscle bloated to provide a fearful visage to their enemies. It had worked so far for this man; he was still alive. But Mishka had seen the schematics. A solid surgery could strengthen a person if it added a decimeter to his height, but this oncoming thing must have added a meter and change. His bones were longer, but they were weaker. He bared his sharp black teeth as he prepared to grab her with a hand that could fit fully around her waist. She didn’t even think of using the doleo as a simple baton to cause pain. She had to get to the wall over lines of cowering prisoners and oncoming guards. She extended the doleo to its full length and ran for Gargantua, forcing the doleo into his mouth to the back of his throat, putting him down to serve as her pole vault box. She flew over him into the wall with enough force to put a deep dent between two of the worst rotting breaches.

She felt cool air from the outdoors. So did others. Mishka elected to stand back as they started beating down the wall, savagely attacking their only hope of escape. Every guard left in the room was on her, and in numbers their armor would be harder to crack. She broke the doleo in half, knowing the inside of a doleo contains a powerful burst-discharge battery. Keeping the other guards at bay with a barrage of strikes, she tore the coating off the battery and threw it to the floor, then flipped one of the guards down and crushed the battery. The discharge nearly vaporized him within his metal armor. Bolts struck the other guards and knocked them unconscious.

Prisoners had since worked the wall loose and began to pour out. The first twenty men had been microwaved by outdoor guards. Another twenty still fled the heat and decay of the indoors before the crowd began to understand that death waited outside. Once they were finished dying, Mishka made her move. Shaking the powdered guard from his armor, she donned the hot metal and ran for freedom. It began to grow hotter as soon as she was outside, hit by microwave beams. She’d hoped to pass for a guard, but they either didn’t buy it or didn’t care. They were roasting anything that emerged.

The situation was difficult. Ten guards running at her on the ground. Ten more firing at her from walls and towers. Thirty corpses around her. Armor keeping the beams off but heating up badly. It would knock her out in under a minute. She burrowed quickly under the thickest concentration of bodies and forced the armor off herself. Microwaves were still hitting the body pile above her. Some were starting to burn. Luckily the ground guards were almost there. She heard shouting, and the microwaves ceased. Soon after, the corpse atop Mishka began to move. They were pulling it away.

Mishka rolled limply to get a view of the guard that was prodding the bodies. He was careless. She sprang and seized his microwave, then used its stock to knock off his helmet. He turned away but exposed his familiarly deformed, bloated ear. She shot through the front of his temple to blind him, and he dropped. Others were coming. She took cover within the bodies as guards opened fire again. She surveyed the weapon; it only had stun, burn, and dig functions. Dig would have to do. She fired at the fattest corpse in the pile and waited for fire to cease again. It ceased after only thirty seconds. Then she felt the guards prying again. They’d be more cautious this time. Using the guards’ motions as cover, she worked her way into the hollow man. If he stayed facedown she could stay hidden. He stayed facedown.

Minutes later the guards had the situation under control. Mishka prayed they would skimp on proper investigation and cleanup. She waited almost twenty minutes, but nobody touched her makeshift tauntaun. She could just make out a hand grab the microwave she discarded. Her prayers were answered when she heard the bulldozer. She wasn’t able to hold on to her cover for long as the bodies rolled, but she didn’t need to; nobody was watching anymore. They pushed the pile straight into the Hugli River.

Once underwater, more accurately under sewage, she swam fast for the opposite bank, where only a razor-wire fence blocked the bank. Halfway across she emerged from the prison’s link jam and ads flooded in. Behind the fence was a market. She cautiously surfaced and scanned for guards. None on this side, none watching from the other. All busy sealing the hole or dumping another dozer-load of bodies. She emerged from the river and spat out the foul slime that had seeped into her mouth, then climbed the razor wire. Climbing the stuff was never her forte in training, and her palms paid the price, but injury training was one of her best subjects. She topped the fence and dropped into the market.

She had three priorities: number three, find a new eye; number two, find her tank; but number one was something she could do immediately. She had to. With great urgency she scanned the signs and link labels of the market and found her destination. After her stay in the prison and swim through the sewage, she had little time. She ran, pushing aside anyone in her way, throwing the door open so hard it snapped a hinge. She jumped over the counter and grabbed a clerk by his collar. Customers ran, the clerk cowered in fear. He could see Mishka was desperate, ravenous, and homicidal.

“Please,” he begged. “Anything you want! I’ll give you anything!”

“Hand sanitizer!” she demanded. “Alcohol gel, antiseptic alcohol gel! Now!”

With her wounds clean and stinging, she broke open the store’s first aid kit and regrew all but one cut in her skin. She stuffed the dermal regenerator in the elastic of her waistband. She ran back outside and quickly hid in an alley—the market was swarming with Bharatiya Sthalsena. She ducked into a weak crate and killed the man sleeping inside, then headed online.

She hacked the Bharatiya Sthalsena net in seconds. It showed every soldier on the streets. None were coming for her. Only a few were following search protocols. To the side of the operations files, she found records. Impounds. Impound lots. HRDC lots, HRDC unconventional vehicles. One listing for a four-legged tank. HRDC lot address—only three kilometers away. Back to the street ops pages. Personnel on duty. Bharatiya Sthalsena soldiers by height. Female. 1.87 meters. Hugli River Marketplace. One: Sanchita Patel. Highlighted, two blocks north, one block east.

Mishka sprang from her box and found her quarry. With the element of surprise, it was an easy takedown. Her uniform was a perfect fit, and her army ID chip was poorly implanted, easy to cut out of her palm. It didn’t even have a removal detector. Mishka walked toward the impound lot and hacked back onto the authority net. The HRDC lot site had the easiest security yet. She created a new log: Sanchita Patel authorized to pick up white quadrupedal tank impounded four days prior. All too easy. As she approached the lot, she stuffed Sanchita’s chip into her palm and hastily healed the last bit of skin. One handshake and her tank was hers.

Such as it was. Her quadrupedal tank now had three legs. She demanded an explanation. The HDRC guard shrugged. Who the hell would take one leg off a tank? She stormed across the lot looking for the missing limb. Nothing. When she came back to the guard, she seized him by the throat.

“That tank had four legs!” She checked the net logs. “It had four when it got here! You’re responsible for this lot?”

He nodded, afraid. She caught a link going out. He was calling in more guards to ask about the missing parts. Guards that might not think she looked like Sanchita once they arrived. She couldn’t waste any more time there. She jumped into the crippled tank and powered up its systems. Tripedal mode was about half as fast as normal. Still over 300 kph. It would do. She locked it in. The tank gave a jolt as it rotated two legs forward and one aft. She left as the new guards entered the complex, never learning that the arrivals wouldn’t have known she was an impostor. Never learning that one of them, Ravi Vasquez, had removed the leg for use as a rocking chair. He would have been happy to resettle his grandmother back home and return it.

Mishka was already hunting the nets again for an eye and a leg as she galloped north. The leg was priority four, and Mishka knew the few places she’d have to break into to find a replacement. All high security. It might not even be worth the effort. An eye was priority three. Bharat was full of cheap eyes. In that same market was an AWB eye, which would, in theory, give her back her depth perception. But it could be hacked far too easily. A few kilometers south was a proper eye doctor, but his stock was limited to low-res wasteware. She kept searching for something useful. In Valhalla, Alf taught her never to fully eradicate the advertising that came with searches, but rather to filter it and skim it for potential results. Often someone was selling what they were looking for when all else might fail. As she drove right past the Vasquez residence, such an ad appeared to her.

Eye-Spy Yaugika 1.2.1 by Krillco with 318 lenses. Capable of shrinking to one centimeter or expanding to three centimeters to fit any orbit and come out easy. Why take it out? Because this eye can fly. Link guidance can send your new eye half a kilometer in any direction with .25 kN of force. Great fun for the casual voyeur or a selling point for the professional private eye! Comes in white, black, blue, or made to match your natural appearance. 75,250 euros. See licenses required?

The loss of her old implant didn’t seem so bitter anymore. If she hadn’t lost it, she might never have met her new Tikari. And there was one on display at a convention at the Darjeeling Dome, right there in Poshchim Bangla. She lacked the funds and licenses, and the convention was closed for the night, but the latter problem solved the former two just fine. The white tank galloped north.

 

 

ALOPEX WAS running 477 distinct routines. About half of them were common ongoing processes to maintain the ravine, track teams, monitor security risks, and so on. Of the rest, there were a multitude of team projects that required special partitions, a few teams doing online work that required surveillance and security, and then some simple entertainment and dream link programs. There was only one medical program in progress. Medical almost always had priority over other systems. Of course, Alopex had never run over 70 percent capacity, so no programs had ever been overridden. There were only a select few programs that could override medical, such as the rampart system, HMDLR defenses, and some emergency shutoffs. There used to be one ultrahigh priority shutoff for an Ares Corporation hydromacrosis test, which could use 100 percent of Aloe’s system and drop every defense Valhalla had. As Valhalla wasn’t in the terraforming business, that program was not only obsolete but dangerous, so it was erased. In any case, the top priority running was a fairly routine program to fix a broken leg and stab wound in Violet’s foot.

The second program was Alf’s, monitoring GAUNE communications for the words “Wave,” “Zombie,” and “Mutagenic.” All words commonly associated with wave bombs, “zombie bombs” to the vulgar public, “mutagenic weaponry” being the most proper term. High-level GAUNE chatter was filled with speculation about UNEGA illegally stockpiling wave bombs, but it was all mere speculation. There was no sign that UNEGA would build or deploy new weapons or try to fool the GAUNE weapons inspectors they allowed to supervise mutagenic wave studies. Alf was certain the threats were null but always kept an ear on the rumors. Given the severity of the issue and its potential to trigger global thermonuclear war and worse, he always had Alopex watching so that Valhalla might prevent any escalation before it grew unmanageable.

The third priority routine was unusual. It was normally a tenth-tier police monitoring program, but Vibeke had programmed it to go ultrahigh priority if it found a hit. In the year since she’d written it, the thing had never activated. For at least that one year, not a single cybernetic eyeball had been stolen. Mishka had bought her first replacement eye legally after some hard work in Africa. But the theft of a Krillco Eye-Spy Yaugika 1.2.1 from its showcase in Bharat was not to be missed. Alopex allowed a full three-picosecond delay in lower priority programs to deliver the news.

“Vibeke,” called the fox. Vibs turned away from the clear med bay wall and brightened her link to see it clearly.

“Yes?”

“Cybernetic eye theft reported.”

Vibeke barely registered it at first. It took her a moment to remember why Alopex would jump in at top priority to tell her. After that she realized it was obsolete, an old program now useless given that Mishka, last she saw her, had a perfectly good pair of eyes in her head. After the last chase through Bangla, Vibeke was sure of that. She didn’t even want to think about it. They had Mishka trapped, and somehow the entire Bharatiya Sthalsena got in the way. It was the last insult in a frustrating year of near misses and hits that hit back. But in any case, Mishka was gone. Vibeke felt bad for making Aloe treat it as high priority. She would just ask one question to be sure it was a null report, and then she’d delete the routine.

“Don’t suppose it was in Bangla?”

“Confirmed, northern Poshchim Bangla, Darjeeling.”

Suddenly Alopex had her complete attention. Mishka was back on the map. Vibs immersed herself online where she stood and began reading every report and every detail of the theft, then of related local reports. She found the prison break, and it all came together—Mishka had avoided their capture by turning herself in to the Bharatiya Sthalsena. Their mass presence was to catch her, and she let herself be caught by an enemy she could escape rather than be caught by Valhalla. Cunning bitch.

 

 

VIOLET WIGGLED her big toe. Then each other toe. Her foot was back, but there was still some pain in her ankle. Dr. Niide looked over the foot and spotted a microscopic air pocket stimulating the nerves. He gave her a quick stab with a hypodermic needle and let it out. She walked around for a moment and nodded. Dr. Niide then simply wandered away.

After leaving the med bay, she found Vibs staring at the rocks. She poked her arm gently with no result. She must have been immersed deeply. And urgently given that she’d gone all the way in while standing. Violet linked in without knocking. Vibeke didn’t notice her, but Violet could hear the reports. Eyeball. Bharat. She was looking for Mishka again. Violet logged out and pushed Vibeke over. She caught her oblivious teammate and carried her toward the barracks.

Vibeke had taken the results of Project Abruptum badly. Worse than Project Omfavnet, their previous run in with Mishka, which was in turn worse than Project Creative: the hunt for Mishka and Wulfgar that began nearly a year ago. But Abruptum was by far the most taxing because it was the closest they’d been. Before a diabolus ex machina that ruined everything, Vibeke had gone to frightening depths of obsession on that mission. Violet was still concerned deeply about the civilians Vibeke was willing to sacrifice, the risks she was willing to take, the irrational raw hatred that consumed her as they drew closer to Bangla. And it wasn’t over.

Violet set Vibs down on her bunk and then sat down on her own. She stared at her. Peaceful on the outside, vacant. She might have been daydreaming. Whatever storm was pounding away in her brain, her body was perfectly serene. Skin pale and smooth, hair getting longer. She sometimes let the stuff grow and cut it instead of freezing it like Violet and the rest of the world. She kept turning it black as well. A strange habit that seemed to give Vibeke some sort of amusement or peace. Soon she’d have to cut it again or start welding it down for missions, which would be a good look. It was already down to the collar of her armor in back.

Cool blue and green armor. Violet’s favorite in the ravine. Not least because of the body in it. Her eyes went straight for Vibeke’s chest. Just plump enough to shift to the sides when she lay down. When she caught herself staring at Vibeke’s breasts, she usually stopped, erased the thoughts as best she could, and focused on whatever mission or project they might have. They didn’t have one just then, and her eyes were on Vibeke’s hands before she noticed they weren’t alone. Veikko’s head slowly dipped in from the bunk above Violet’s.

“Watcha dooin’?”

“Begging for trouble,” she mumbled and lay back on her pillow. Veikko craned around upside down to look at Vibs.

“What’s she doing?”

“I only peeked. The files said Bangla and eyeball theft.”

“You worried?”

“No,” she lied. “At least she has leads.”

Violet did envy her that. The chase for Mishka was frustrating, but it was still a chase. Violet couldn’t muster the obsessive hatred of Wulfgar that Vibs had for her nemesis, only an active vicious hatred that for the last year, had been dwindling from starvation. He was out there somewhere, but what of it? There was no trace of him. There was no murmur of activity, no hint of a gang reforming, not a single whisper on Earth that he was still alive. It was possible that he wasn’t. Dr. Niide couldn’t guess the damage done to his brain from the glimpse they caught of his head. It was entirely possible and, given the lack of developments, more and more likely that whoever stole his corpse couldn’t repair it.

Violet had watched for medical logs, newly grown jaws, crushed corpses, and the like without leads. Unless he had elected to stay broken and faceless, he wasn’t awake.

Vibeke snapped out of the net and sat up, reorienting herself to being in bed. Violet nodded to let her know how she got there, and Vibs nodded back. Violet was trying to come up with a subtle way to ask what Vibeke had found, but Veikko beat her to it.

“What news of the one-eyed monster?”

Vibeke link dumped the answer to her team. Her escape via capture, the stolen eye, all the peripheral notes. Violet took some time to look over it, all solid notes but nothing useful for finding her again. Violet was half-relieved at that. She wanted Mishka caught or dead but hated Vibeke’s distance and cold bitter demeanor when they were on her trail. It was like all sense of fun got sucked out of her. Project Omfavnet was in Varg’s opinion one of the most enjoyable cat and mouse games the Valkyries ever played, but for Vibeke and, by proxy, Violet, it was something like the road rash segment of injury training. It just grated and grated away. And it was coming again.

The door opened. Varg entered and jumped over Vibeke onto his bunk.

“That link dump came a second before I did, ruined everything.”

“Sorry, Varg.”

“My heart will go on…. So what’s the point, though?” he ruminated. “We knew where she was, and she’s not going to stick around Darjeeling.”

“Didn’t you see the link encryptions?”

Violet hadn’t. Varg shook his head as well. All four dove back into the net and reviewed the logs. Vibeke scooped up a folder.

“See this? She hacked into the Dome’s cameras when she went after the eye. Darjeeling’s nets are so old that she could cream the security systems, but the security systems had no self-repair contingencies. They’re still broken right now. They’ll have to be reinstalled.”

Violet didn’t see the significance, but Varg caught it. “Her footprints are still there?”

Vibeke replied quickly, “She covered her tracks and deleted the providers, but you can see the routing they came from.”

“The routing?” asked Veikko. “She was there in person. What’s the point?”

Vibeke enlarged the coding prints for them to see. “Mishka was in prison. Her link was jammed. When she got out, it didn’t hook into the Bharat nets. It went back to the last place she was logged into before she was caught.”

Violet was amazed by the leaps and bounds of logic Vibs took for granted. She was only just grasping the train of thought when Varg derailed it to another track. He took the files and enlarged them further, looking over lines of code and text that she couldn’t make out.

“And it’s all black, Vibs. There’s no code at all. It even lacked—” Varg’s eyes lit up. “It had no contact barriers!”

Veikko seemed to understand it. All three were in on something, but Violet had no clue. She’d suffer the indignity of having to ask. Nothing new.

“What does that mean?”

“There’s only one place that has no barriers.”

And then Violet understood. In their hunt, V team had probed every job offer, every mercenary listing, every possible rumor of Mishka’s specialties on every board and page she might have advertised on. They spent weeks browsing the Underground Nikkei and Dead List. They had a Chanscan reading the busiest, sleaziest imageboards and criminal channels for any sign of her. They even set an unnecessarily large partition of Alopex to look for codes and hidden messages in all of the above. But that would have defeated the purpose. Mishka wasn’t talking in code to anyone. She was most certainly on her own. If she was online, she’d be offering her craft publicly. They knew she had work because they’d gotten in her way. Omfavnet cost her a pretty penny when an employer saw her clash with Valhalla and decided she was damaged goods. Project Abruptum began with a routine investigation. They had no clue at first it was Mishka working for Birlacorp in a black flag operation against themselves. But Birlacorp and Omfavnet Selskap had no listings anywhere V team could probe. C team insisted that there were none. That she must have handled it all in the real world.

C team was insistent about it because they didn’t want anyone searching the one dirty corner of the nets that V hadn’t searched. The only place online that Valhalla wouldn’t risk sending Alopex or any but a senior team because the danger was too great. The only place so reckless it lacked contact barriers and risked all the demented minds who dared to venture there. The place they now knew for certain, despite the checks and assurances of C team, that Mishka had indeed been hiding.

“She’s on the Black Crag!” exclaimed Violet. Her team stared at her, shocked. All four were suddenly back in the barracks.

Varg cringed. “Did you just say that out loud?”

“Oh shit,” said Veikko.

Vibeke closed her eyes. Someone had said “Black Crag.” It was only a matter of time.

“Maybe nobody heard,” suggested Violet. “Maybe the—”

All four heard the link alarm. Then came an Australian voice. The most damnable voice in Valhalla.

“V team to C team office, please. Again,” added Cato.

They skulked offline, and Violet’s face burned red. They had made this walk four times before. Since they first asked for clearance, C had put a monitor on them. Every time they so much as mentioned its name, they got called into C’s office for another little chat. The worst had been in September, and then they had only said the name because two and a quarter teams had just been slaughtered on it. It was the darkest day in Valkyrie history, and C team used it to teach them a damn lesson. And here they were again. Cato let them in with an expression that Violet wanted to rip off its underlying muscles.

Churro sat behind his desk looking like a disappointed father. Cato stood beside him, and Violet tried to amuse herself thinking of the man as a mother. She couldn’t for long. The term “Thought Police” applied more accurately.

“Tell me, how many teams are there in Valhalla?”

Churro wasn’t pulling any punches. He was in full cruelty mode from the start. Vibeke wasn’t going to have it.

“We have proof Mishka was—”

“Tell me, Vibeke. How many teams?”

Vibeke stewed. “Twenty.”

“And how many did we have in August?”

“Twenty-two. But—”

“Twenty-three. We had the beginnings of a Z team. We had,” he said, smiling sardonically, “a whole alphabet.”

Veikko chided, “The runic alphabet actually has—”

“We had, V team, nine junior Valkyries! Nine lives we do not have now! Why, V Team, do we not have them?”

Because of a race war. Because of a fight Valhalla shouldn’t have been involved in. Because C team didn’t do their job and watch over the junior teams. Because the junior teams got in over their heads. Because C team decided to kill nine hacked Valkyries rather than try to get their brains back. Not because V team said a damn name. Violet thought it all but didn’t shout it. Vibeke shouted instead.

“You told us you searched it! You told us Mishka wasn’t on the Black Crag. You missed the bitch, and you fucked up! We have proof that—”

“We didn’t miss her,” Cato spoke softly. “We lied to you.”

They fell silent. Churro looked at Cato, then spoke again, calmly.

“We never bothered to check for her. We don’t go there unless we have to. If a job can be done in five minutes on the Crag or five years in reality, we take the long road. Mishka isn’t going to take down Valhalla. I doubt she wants to. She wants to be left alone. I won’t tell you to leave her alone, but you need to think about your priorities. One is defense. The Black Crag can take down Valhalla. It damn nearly did, and you already seem to have forgotten it. You’re still talking about that damn Crag. Why?”

Vibeke didn’t lose a second. “Mishka’s log from Poshchim Bangla shows—”

“Yes, Mishka is there,” mocked Cato. “You did a great job. You’re doing a great job and chasing a great chase. But it just ended.”

“The hell it did,” Vibs barked.

“The hell?” Claire chimed in. “Let’s say there is a hell. Mishka’s dead, and she’s in hell. Do you follow? Do you drag Valhalla to hell with you?”

Vibs had the good taste not to answer the way she wanted to. Claire went on.

“It’s not your choice if you would. If you set foot there, you put us all in danger. We told you we checked because we need it out of your mind. We still need it out of your mind even if you know for a fact she’s there. We saw Mishka’s missing barriers too. But did you consider what that little bit of clever tracking means? Without contact barriers, anyone there gives up all their security, all their protocol. There’s no such thing as hack armor there, they don’t have to wait for you to touch them to read your mind, they can grab you and kill you or reprogram you without any warning. Valhalla does not go there.”

“We go there every day!” Vibs scowled. “It’s called the real world. You can get shot, and you can get followed and get hacked. And it’s not like we’d go in unarmed, all the shit they can do, we can do better. And we have Aloe to watch out for us.”

“You’re missing the big picture, Vibeke.” Cato kept his voice soft and demeaning. “If you have our computer with you, they can take her over. Sure you know your net combat, and Aloe has the best tricks in the biz up her sleeve, but imagine what would become of Valhalla if she were taken over by a pirate? Or rogue company? There are things in this ravine even you don’t know the danger of.”

Bullshit. Violet knew. They showed her everything. There were no secrets, and she hated Cato enough to speak up. “Like what?”

“Like me,” he replied in all seriousness. Pathetic. He leaned in toward Violet. He nodded severely, tried to be intimidating. Violet hated it when he tried to be intimidating. Violet’s foot hated when he tried to be intimidating. Her foot decided to launch toward his throat. Cato would hardly be a senior team Valkyrie if he couldn’t block a kick. In fact he might be called merciful for not breaking her leg again in the process. He didn’t even flinch. He just blocked, stood, and spoke. “We’re watching you like a Geki. You can’t go, so try elsewhere. Or better yet, lay off the Russian sheila for a while and take a job from the crank file. Maybe nuke Tunisia. Meeting over.”