Data broke in waves against the caged arena like high tide. Nuri’s green eye collected the feed, harvested it from the nanotech swimming in the crowd’s guts.
The women in the cage each bent, tensed, muscles corded, instructions from the chittering cortex rigs on their backs cracking through them like whips. They stalked each other like lionesses. Nuri and Marquez could see changes in the vitals, brainwaves, could see the enhancements spinning up and bodies overworking to compensate.
They’d been given ring names. Mojave, or at least his voice, called out each as she’d entered the ring. One with a red rig on her back grew claws. She was Bastet. Curved, braced titanium between each knuckle, enhanced speed. Bastet launched herself at Fury, a tattooed girl, green rig, with spiking adrenaline and strength bursts. Fury was sweating bullets and looking everywhere at once. She caught Bastet in mid-air and slammed her to the ground in a fluid motion. For a split second Fury looked like she was trying to back away, but the thing on her back flashed in argument. Instead, Fury drove her heel down into Bastet’s face, again and again, coming up bloody.
The scene played out in pairs across the cage. They went at each other like polar opposites, the crowd got louder and the fighters’ vitals rose with the noise. A purple-rigged fighter covered in iridescent hexagonal scales - She was Ariel - hurled herself in a series of spin-kicks into Medusa, a fanged nightmare with serpentine eye implants. Calypso had a segmented tentacle prosthetic where her right forearm used to be, using it to strangle Morgana, a girl with devil horns.
The projected landscape boiled and shifted and the fighters reacted to it as reality. So did the crowd. When one of the women in the cage fell into an illusory pit of blue flame, a section of the crowd shrieked along with her. Nuri heard the shatters of dropped glass.
Nuri glanced at Marquez, whose attention was riveted to the fighters and their vitals. Nuri nudged her over the shared link. [Talk to me.][If they don’t kill each other in there, they’ll start going into shock. You said there were more of them chained up backstage? They’ll most likely bring them out as these drop. This is bullshit, Snowball.]
Nuri ran her tongue over her teeth. She toggled through the fountain of data feeds pouring through the place, found the thread she wanted.
Mojave. Once the fight started, he’d gone quiet. Her subroutines had broken his countermeasures. It had taken longer than she’d expected, now she knew why. He was shipping data parcels from this event directly to a Bellerophon biomech lab.
Desi Mojave hadn’t stolen a damn thing. This was the pegasus’ show all along. Which meant Nuri was here because either a rival outfit was trying to shut this down, steal the tech or both.
Or it was an inside job. Internal competition among executives certainly wasn’t uncommon, and that could get just as ugly just as fast.
Nuri watched the fight in the cage and the datastream overhead. She followed Mojave’s trail until she finally found him. Miles away.
Marquez was right. This was bullshit. [He was never here.]
Nuri dropped into tactical. Her vision became a data curtain, the flames, stars and Mayan illusion vanished behind wireframes and target acquisition. Everything fell into bullet time. Immediately, her threat assessment routines picked up guns. Lots of them. Everywhere. Every mook in the shadows with a bomb logo on his facemask was strapped, and every inch of the place was covered.
[TALK TO ME, FREEBIRD.] Gardener’s presence on the link became a square icon in the corner of Nuri’s visual field, like an anchor. [Yeah, ditto that, Snowball. Your back is arched and everybody’s packing. I suddenly feel very underdressed, here.]
Marquez’ link presence was now a black star outlined in red, pulsing. Her own wetware’s contributions to the shared link were overlayed in red outlines.
But there was something else, briefly, at the edge of Nuri’s vision. A blue flash, then gone. No register, no trail. A glitch? Someone trying to break in? She set a hunter subroutine to chase it; her hunter looked like a black dog in her tactical data curtain. [Snowball? You with us?]
[Yeah. We’ve been had. Mojave’s running a game for Bellerophon.]
She brought them up to speed.
Meantime, Marquez was right about the cage. Broken bodies twitched. Mermaid, Bastet and Calypso were on the ground while their cortex rigs still tried to jolt them into standing.
Meanwhile, Divebomb mooks were frog-marching new contestants in from the back, where the bus was parked behind the partitions. They hung new rigs on their backs. The machines gripped the women like some kind of alien, wrapping six articulated spindles around their shoulders and torsos, and driving interfaces into their spines in eight places.
As each one came online, a fighter prone on the floor went dark and stopped twitching. Left for dead. But not yet dead.
Fury, Morgana and Medusa were still on their feet, and three more fighters entered the game. One, called Charlotte, didn’t even touch the floor, but came in clinging to the cage cieling. The second, called Athena, was a giantess, was obvious musculoskeletal enhancements, and the third, named Kiss, seemed completely normal until Fury closed in to tussle.
Fury jerked her head to the side, her hands to her face. [Tongue.]
Nuri slowed down the feed so Marquez could register the three-meter-long thing come from her mouth and dig a gash just under Fury’s eye.
Shaking her head, Marquez turned her attention to the crowd. [The drinks weren’t just laced with nanoware,]
Marquez guessed, [Had to be some kind of amphetamine. That wasn’t alcohol. Look at their eyes. No one’s paying attention to anything but that cage.]
Marquez was right about the crowd, too. Some of them were even drooling on themselves. Blood mad.
Then Gardener and Marquez realized what Nuri had already figured out, what the guns and the microwave emitters were for.
[YOU TWO GET THE FUCK OUT OF THERE. NOW.]
Nuri knew that was the right move. She glanced at Marquez. [Doc, Mojave is my target. He’s flown. The pegasus is about to clean house of anyone who has feelers out for their stolen tech. We’re out of here.]
The doctor shook her head, mouth set. [We have to get the prisoners out. If the crossfire doesn’t kill them, the rigs will.]
Nuri pressed her tongue into the roof of her mouth. She thought of Daraja. Saving her while getting Rask was one thing. This was something else. Her target wasn’t here. Her business wasn’t here. If she could get the job done and do some good on the side, she’d always sleep better. But this? [Marquez, I know it’s shitty, but even if we could blow this thing open, extract all the fighters alive somehow, where would we go? This is Bellerophon’s show, which makes them all CoreCorrect. Company property. Like I was in CorpSec, except they don’t get paid.]
[They get spent.]
Marquez was ice. [I understand, Snowball. Bellerophon will come to collect. CorpSec and lawyers don’t bother me. Leaving these women to about three or four ways to die bothers me. And if it doesn’t bother you, then why did you bring me here? To watch?]
The exchange had taken only a second or two inside the link, but Nuri still registered the power signatures of the microwave guns spinning up. The crowd was a surge of adrenaline and rage. The fighters took the brunt of both and spent their own blood on the floor of that cage. Hundreds of cameras hummed along, catching all of this for a global audience.
Nuri pressed her tongue to her teeth.
Then her green eye caught a blue flash from the ring, gone in an instant, but long enough for her to notice something else where the flash had been.
In the cage, Fury, broken and bloody, chest heaving, the shoulder of her bodysuit torn away by another one of Kiss’ kisses. Nuri’s attention was nailed to the tattoo on her shoulder, spattered with blood but unmistakable, made clearer by auto-zoom.
The tattoo depicted a witch. Pale white skin. White hair. Green, burning eyes. Riding a broom wreathed in green flame, a black cat with an arched back seated behind her.
Are you a witch?
There was code on the fighter’s neck. Nuri’s eye grabbed a file from it.
Are you a witch?
GOSAZ Corporate Corrective Transferee. Are you a witch?
CASTELL, EUGENIA M. Age 17. Terrorism. Conspiracy. Fraud. Theft. Unlicensed bioware.I’m not Nari. I’m Gina.
Nuri’s green eye went black, with a bright green mote in the center.
[TALK TO ME, FREEBIRD. STATUS.][We’re leaving, Garddog.]
Marquez cut in. [The hell we are, Snow-][Right after we shut this down.]
Marquez grinned her there’s-my-girl grin. Gardener groaned strangling noises into Nuri’s earpiece. Nuri just stared at the cage, at the little girl in her mind’s eye with the black cat made of t-shirts. [Doc, you have medivacs on standby already, don’t you?]
Marquez nodded. [They can be here in five.][Give them the greenlight.]
[This place is too hot, Snowball.]
[It will be cool soon.]
Marquez smiled, shook her head, sent her call-out signal. [Gonna need UAS support here in a sec, Garddog.]
A sigh. [BURNING A LOT ON THIS ONE, KID.][Are you telling me no?]
Nuri shrugged out of her jacket, tossed that to Marquez.
He was quiet for several heartbeats. [John. Are you in this with me?]
[I’m not going anywhere, Freebird. What are the targets?][Anyone with a bomb logo and a gun.]
Nuri’s data curtain lit up, outlining every Divebomber in the hangar. She’d tagged and tracked them all while sitting in that air scrubber housing. [I’m not worried about the stagehands. I’ll handle the microwaves and the ones around the bus.]
Nuri strapped on her respirator.
Marquez stared at her. [This place is huge. That’s a lot of ground to cover.]
Nuri handed Marquez her shoes. [Then I’d better get moving. It’s about to get loud, Doc. You good?]
[Always. Be in touch.]
Nuri winked, and sent a signal to the roof.
Where she’d planted her bombs.
The air scrubbers along the ceiling vanished in in a parade of fireballs that flung debris across the floor and sent people scattering in panic. Partition curtain caught fire. Fire retardant automatically engaged, dousing the room in foam, and the toilet sky crashed the party. In seconds, the hangar smelled like a burning septic tank.
Marquez uncovered her eyes, turned to deliver the mother of all curses for what had just happened to her dress, but Nuri was gone.
Nuri’s thighs, calves and arches extended and contracted like springs, launching her forward, catlike, hugging the perimeter of the hangar like a white bolt. Her feeds caught the panicked chatter among the Divebomb crew as she barrelled through the confused crowd. She swept through them like a white storm, breaking Bomber bones, punching windpipes, smashing skulls against walls, the floor, each other. Guns hit the ground. She didn’t pick one up.
The hangar was a shitstorm. Some in the crowd were still fixed on the ring, others coughed up a lung and struggled to find their respirators. Still others panicked in a drugged haze. The confusion bled into the cage. The fighters were now unfocused. Attention split between killing each other at the bidding of the electric teeth in the backs, and trying to draw a breath not filled with toxins.
Nuri sifted through more network and radio chatter. The Bombers were starting to coordinate, get over the initial shock. Some fixating on her. Others gearing up to carry out their plan, locking and loading.
She sent another signal to the roof. Topside, cases unfolded, spat out flat discs the same way a casino dealer flung cards. Each disc hung in the air. Seconds later, A few hundred tiny drones swarmed in from the roof through the holes made by Nuri’s bombs. [Show’s yours, Garddog. Here are your bunnies.]
Nuri updated and highlighted target information she’d gathered from her lap around the hangar.
They were like bees. Three-inch-wide assassin drones, all printed from the same pattern, each one rigged to deliver a single charge to a target’s forehead with the punch of a .40 caliber slug. One shot only, kill the target, destroy the drone. Around the hangar they went off like popcorn, dropping Divebombers who never saw them coming. Nuri tallied them in a background routine.
The microwave guns spun up. Nuri marked Marquez’ location in the shared link. She was in range. [Doc, hit the dirt. They’re about to cook the room. Sorry about your dress.][It’s okay. I’ll lay on your jacket.]
Nuri extended her legs like pistons, pushed with the magnets in her feet against the ferroconcrete floor and took a running leap at the cage, fired herself up to the top of it, knees drawn up to her chest, then down again to land in a run on the wire roof. She magnetized her bare feet as she went, thunking her way across.
Screaming from the floor. The microwaves were on-line, and the crowd of people all forgot the cage as their skin cooked. The fighters in the cage dropped to the mat, catching the rays full-force and from all sides.
Nuri tracked the power signature. Generator was outside. Take too long to get to it. Six projectors. All around a huge, crowded hangar.
Fuck it. [Cover your ears, and shut your eyes, Doc.]
[Snowball, what the hell-]
[MARQUEZ. DO IT.] Gardener co-signed, realizing Nuri’s play.
Nuri targeted all six projectors, opened irises in both palms. Automatically, a protective blast lens slid into place over her natural left eye, and dampener plugs swelled in her ears.
She held a palm out to a projector. A thin laser pencilled a line between her and the machine, connecting her to it in a line of charged ions for a single fraction of a millisecond.
Then, the hangar exploded in white light and a sonic boom. The walls shook. The cage shook. Nuri’s hair rose. The projector became a pillar of smoke and melted components.
Five more times, rapid succession. Target, laser, boom. Six melted projectors. The hangar vibrated like a bass drum.
Nuri blew on her finger.
Gardener sighed over her earpiece. [NEED A CIGARETTE?][Interesting, Snowball. I’ve been meaning to buy new ears, anyway. What in the hell was-]
[Electrolaser. I’ll explain later. Too out in the open up here-]
Nuri was cut off when her threat assessment gave her a red ping on her six o’clock. She dove forward off the cage, somersaulted, landed on the floor, putting the arena between her and whatever the problem was. Just in time, as a hail of bullets roared past where she’d been and followed her down, shredding the chain links.
Nuri hit the ground in a squat, keeping the raised arena floor between her and the threat, which was now also between her and the buses holding the rest of the prisoners.
The gunfire had quit. Nuri clicked into the satellite feed again, toggled around until she found the hangar’s cameras. She surveyed the room.
In the cage, the fighters struggled to stand, the cortex rigs still goading them to go at it. Clusters of moaning people surrounded the ring, hugging themselves, still jacked up from the microwaves and the nanotech-amphetamine cocktail, coughing from the fetid air and covered in fire retardant foam. Ridiculously, The hologram projectors kept repeating Mojave’s Mayan temple program against the smoke from destroyed air scrubbers and the slagged microwave guns. The hangar looked like an apocalyptic dream.
She caught sight of Marquez. Somewhere she’d found herself a rifle and a pair of low-light goggles from a Divebomber. She’d made it most of the way to the bus curtain, but now she stayed put behind the corner of the arena’s raised floor, eyes on the gunman.
Nuri saw him, too.
Apollo, the door bouncer. Ex-CorpSec. He’d be hardier than the Divebomb crew, harder to take down. He’d taken cover behind a light rig. Didn’t look as if he knew Marquez existed. [Doc. That Kalishnikov clashes with your shoes.]
[Your Frankenstein boyfriend from the door is pining for you, dear.][I noticed. Do you have a shot?]
Nuri watched Marquez sight down, her back against the cage. [Negative.]
[I’ll work on it.]
Threat ping. Six o’clock, again. Nuri turned, palm out.
Inside the cage, inches away, Fury/Gina was laying on the mat. Her face was a wreck. She gripped the chain link with one hand. She squinted against the bright ion laser from Nuri’s palm, which put a feiry white dot on Gina’s forehead.
Nuri clutched her hand and killed the laser.
“It’s you.” They said it in unison. Gina’s voice burbled, liked she’d been punched in the throat. Nuri’s eye was scanning automatically. Gina’d taken a beating in addition to what the rig was doing to her.
“Try not to move,” Nuri said. "Trauma team is coming."
“Can’t help it.” Gina coughed up some blood. Broken ribs. Punctured lung. “Thing on my back won’t let me stop.” Illustrating the point, the rig pulsed with light. Gina’s legs spasmed. She winced, gripped the chain links with both hands, tried standing.
Nuri gritted her teeth. [Doc. These cortex rigs. What if I EMP them?][You might as well rip them out with a magnet. We have to do it carefully, Snowball. Surgically. Like taking out shrapnel.]
Gina was on her feet, still clutching the cage. The mat rumbled. Morgana, the devil-horned fighter, was running up on her from behind.
It happened so fast that even Nuri almost couldn’t follow it. Gina stayed motionless, her head against the cage until the last second, then jumped straight up, clinging to the metal as Morgana slammed into it below her. She planked her legs straight out and dropped, catching a devil horn in each fist and twisted like a drill bit as she went down. She hit the mat with her back. Morgana hit it with her face. She didn’t get up. Gina rolled, slowly, with an agonized expression and a weak thumbs up.
Nuri returned it. Message received. Gina could take care of herself. For now.[Garddog. How many bees do I have left?]
[ABOUT 30. MAYBE TWO MINUTES ON BATTERY.] Gardener lit up the assassin drones for her on her display, hovering without targets.
Nuri reached out with her green eye again, toggled through her feeds, this time found the projection server. She’d broken through it earlier. Wouldn’t do any good to change the hologram; Apollo would have his own tactical system, could see through projections as well as she could.
But Apollo wasn’t her audience.
The projection beacons swerved and clicked, and the Mayan temple vanished. The hangar went dark except for small fires where the air scrubbers and microwave guns used to be, and the multicolored pulses from the cortex rigs in the ring. [Snowball?]
Then she toggled through her feeds again, found a different server. She smiled. [Garddog. If I give you the keys, can you drive one of those?]
[ALWAYS WANTED TO.]
Nuri bolted. She sprang, thighs and calves extended and contracting, bounding over piles of Divebombers, destroyed equipment, and party guests coughing and hacking, now trying to run or crawl toward the exits. She opened the irises in both palms, let flow with a dialed-down electrical release, no target. It glowed around her like an aura.
She moved like a pinball, magnetically bounding from support pillar to floor to the fighting cage to the hangar cieling and back down again.
Apollo waited as long as he could, but Nuri jerked aside when the muzzle flash started. She drew him out, bounding wide right and high, forcing him to follow with his aim. Anti-armor shredded the walls and ceiling of the hangar in Nuri’s wake.
She hit the floor in a crouch. Apollo, confused, took aim. But then he noticed the threat ping in his own tactical display, suddenly twisting to swing his huge rifle around.
Not fast enough. The teamster drone smashed into the pillar, forks at eye level. Ripped it out of the floor and shoved the structure into Apollo, knocking him prone. Rifle skidded from his grip.
He was big, but fast, on his feet almost instantly, only to find his entire torso and face covered in tiny projections.
Little bomb logos.
The bees had their targets, and bit him all at once.
Marquez had her target, too. She emptied her magazine.
Nuri opened one palm iris all the way. [Get clear.]
She put the laser on Apollo’s center mass. The hangar thundered white one more time.
Then it was quiet.
Apollo was on his knees, looked like cooked hamburger. As much metal as muscle showed beneath shredded, smoking skin, and he bled in more colors than red. His heart was beating. Nuri could see it. One of four backups. Heavy assault models carried them. The Bellerophon logo swelled and contracted in steady rhythm.
Apollo raised his head, sideways, grinned sideways. Half his face was gone, titanium skull beneath. Looked at Nuri with a flickering red eye, the CorpSec signature. He hadn’t switched his out. She wondered who else might still be looking through it.
Then again, she was starting to suspect.
“I got you.” Apollo’s voice sounded like a garbage disposal.
Nuri glanced down at the pooling red on her shirt, under her other palm. She was gut-shot. Twice, clean through.
“Dammit, Nuri. Let me see.” Marquez stepped up, pulled Nuri’s palm away to look.
“S’okay,” Apollo burbled. “She’s got…same nano I do, right? Sew her up good.” He had a slight trace of an accent. Somewhere British. “Only mine can’t work fast enough….”
Nuri killed her laser and let her arm drop. He wasn’t capable of anything now. She looked at the ring, where the women were still fighting, or trying to. “How do we shut the rigs off?”
Blood fell out of his mouth. “No idea. I was…door.” He nodded his head toward the bus curtain. “That way maybe. Equipment.”
Nuri started to move.
“Wait,” Apollo grunted. “You…were in the Life, right?”
Nuri stopped. Nodded.
“Knew it. Famous. White Witch.”
He labored to take another breath.
“Do…something for me.”
Nuri scanned him. He could be stalling. She checked her feeds. Checked the cameras. No bombs in his guts. No one sneaking up behind her with a bazooka. But every second she stood there, those cortex rigs were killing the women in the ring, or paralyzing them for life.
“What?” Nuri bit off.
“I…have a daughter. Crystalline. She’ll be…fixed for money. Flashbank…behind my ear. Could you. Make sure. She.”
He was gone.
Minutes later, Marquez’ medivac teams started tearing up dust clouds outside, along with a few police response units Gardener could find that Mojave hadn’t paid off. Marquez herself was a sight, EMS jacket over her party dress, directing traffic like an incident commander.
Party guests scattered. Bigger fish got away, but the minnows were rounded up and hot-lighted. Still twitching from the drug and nano cocktail and all half-deaf and starry-eyed, some told the cops a wild story about a glowing white lady with green eyes that killed the Divebomb crew with a swarm of hornets from her mouth and lighting bolts from her hands. Some said she was a dragon. Some said she was a white rabbit.
Nuri found the main transponder for the cortex rigs, hidden in an airscrubber unit on the roof of one of the prison buses. It was as big as an old gaming console. Nuri powered it down, put it under her arm, took her own cue and melted away before a cop saw her and put a kernel of truth to the mass hallucination. But not before she glanced back to make sure Gina was making it into an ambulance, along with the other women from the ring.
Gina, strapped into a stretcher, was looking around for something. Someone. Then they put her into an ambulance.
Nuri pressed her tongue to her teeth when she saw the Bellerophon logo on the side of the ambulances. Of course it would be there. The company owned the women. Owned the prison they were going back to. They owned everything. Terrorism, Conspiracy, Fraud, Theft, Unlicensed bioware? What the hell were you doing the last ten years?
Nuri thought, running Gina’s file again. I’m sorry, girl. I’ll find you.
This was not over.
She pulled her hand from her pocket, and looked at the flashbank she’d extracted from the slot behind Apollo’s ear. She thought of his daughter. Crystalline.
No, not over.
But something else gnawed at Nuri as she crunched across the gravel to where she’d stashed her bike, wincing with each step at the pain in her side. That blue flash at the edge of her vision, always chasing across her data field. It showed up once, then again right where she’d first noticed Gina. Like it was trying to guide her?
Wait, she’d set a hunting routine to chase after it, what the hell happened there? She ran down that routine, found it. It had been a black dog when it started. Now it was a cute brown puppy making adorable whining noises, scratching perpetually at nonexistent fleas. It had a ribbon on one ear.
Nuri stopped walking. She tapped the brown puppy. It dissolved into bright motes of blue light and vanished.
She shook her head, I’m going fucking crazy
Her side throbbed. Apollo had been right. Her nanoware was sewing her up as fast as it could, but that would still take time. Marquez had given her two injections of that foam they used in the field for bullet wounds. She carried the damnedest things in that car of hers.
At least she wouldn’t bleed out. She still had one more errand to run.