This is an experiment, the opening to a novel I’m developing very slowly in the background of my other projects. It’s a little sci-fantasy, a little cyberpunk, a little far-future Indiana Jones. This first chapter is more of a prologue, but I hope it’s a fun little read.
Take care, everyone.
– – –
The heist of a lifetime was already going bad when the slam-pup blew Abel out a ninety story window and into freefall.
It was a long way down. More than long enough for regrets.
Like all get-rich-quick schemes, it began with a tip.
“It’s the All-Mother. Their patron, their deity.” That was Frankie D, a dwarf of a man who hobbled around the Swansong Bar with his ankles immobilised by lattices of surgical steel. His collar was shucked up to protect his cheeks from the sheeting rain – there was a squall coming off the black towers on the east edge of the city, carrying with them great clouds of ozone and acid.
Abel didn’t mind the rain. She’d been born in the shadow of the towers, spent her childhood drinking the runoff from the pinnacle plants. There wasn’t much left in her that wasn’t scarred by the effluent. She hung one arm over the Swansong’s railing, letting the breeze eddy between her fingers.
“How much is she worth?”
“She’s a data god, what do you think? Three hundred years, they’ve been carrying her around. They’ll pay everything to get her back.”
“How much is everything?”
Abel looked Frankie D up and down. He’d contacted her only an hour before, dragged her halfway across the slummiest city in the filthiest colony on Massung with promises of money, power, underworld fame. Instead she was getting vague promises of some backwater celebrity personality loaded onto silicon. “Why would the Ents pay a ransom? If she’s their god, won’t they have backups.”
“Oh, sure, sure. The All-Mother is networked, spread across fifty planets. But the original, the core… it’s holy.”
“I get it, I get it. And they’re taking it where?”
“Pilgrimage. The entropy freaks are doing a five colony tour. They land on Massung tomorrow. First stop, the LN2 arc. Their whole board of directors are Ents. Want to meet their god in person, you know.” Frankie grinned, showing a mouthful of perfect, vat-grown teeth. “She’ll be stored on the eightieth floor. Security you wouldn’t believe – Un-Gul mercs, shock probes, slam-pups – but that’s your job, right? Expect nothing but the best from the bitch queen of code.”
Abel ducked her head, flicking her gaze left and right to see if anyone had overheard. The Swansong was a converted barge, hovering half a click off the coast, far enough from Massing security that she could talk without looking over her shoulder… in theory. “There’s a time and a place, Frank, and this is neither. And it’s a shit moniker, anyway.”
“Damn, woman. You act like the Lux are still after your head.”
“Never hurts to be cautious.” She patted Frankie on the shoulder, wincing at the hard jags of cheap composite beneath his coat. He’d taken a beating last time Massung security decided to shake down his corner of the colony and even the best surgeons on the little moon hadn’t been able to repair the damage. Short of transplants or a complete rebuild, he’d be dragging that frame around with him until the day he died.
“Send me the data,” she called over her shoulder, as she waved for the bartender-cum-valet to fetch her ride. “Top to bottom.”
Frankie D grinned. “You think you’ll go alone, or bring a crew?”
She wagged a finger in reply, but Abel already had a crew in mind.
It’d take three men. Or, in her case, two men and one woman. Not the best in the trade or even the best on Massung, but they’d work the job and wouldn’t sell her out.
At least, she hoped.
They met five days later in the shadow of the LN2 arcology. Abel took in the faces of her crew, all lit in purple by the glare coming off the ocean of industrial waste that sucked at the nearby docks. They studied the concrete pad beneath their feet, the nearby security entrance, the backs of their hands. Anything not to look at each other’s faces.
All but Leslie.
Her crew: Zarren Esco, government headhunter turned freelance, eight foot tall on combat-chassis legs and bristling with ablative armour torn off decommissioned starships. Big, dumb and ugly, and his hourly rate was obscene, but if the Ent’s private mercs caught them in the act he’d happily soak up the flak and hurl it right back.
Number two: Issues Smith. Not the best alias Abel had ever heard. Not the worst, either. The woman was six foot of muscle, laden down beneath the weight of her tools – lock spoofs, explosives in tiny tubes that ate through carbon fibre like styrofoam, little telescoping plasma cutters that sliced a clean lines through glass, steel and plascrete. The woman was a walking warehouse of precision tools and high-powered explosives; Abel wouldn’t have been surprised if Issues turned up with a quantum handbag swinging off her arm.
Finally, Leslie the gutter-punk. Two years she’d been working with the kid, and he still hadn’t learned to hide his opening-night jitters. His hands were stuffed in the pockets of his jacket to mask the shakes, which made everything tucked into those jacket pockets rattle. She’d told him to bring his usual cocktails – sedatives, blockers, aerosol hallucinogens, along with a palm-pistol and a telescoping shock baton. There was equipment hidden inside those pockets she’d never seen used and never asked about. When people up high started asking questions about your crew, sometimes it was better not to know.
Abel threw up a broad sweep ECM fix that masked them from low-flying drones before she spoke. “You got the brief. Any questions?”
Zarren shook his head. Impossible to read his eyes, hidden as they were behind a shimmering visor. He always did like to affect an air of mystery. So long as he got the job done…
Issues, on the other hand, was true to her name. “Exit strategy. If they lock down the elevators-”
“We go up. Rooftop parking. Always something to steal.”
“And if they lock that?”
“Down. Sewage outflow.”
“Always love crawling through the sewage outflow.” Leslie jerked the straps of his pack tight, grimacing as a drone swept over the stormwalls that ringed the arcology. “No names from here. Ready whenever you are, boss.”
The last time Abel had been caught on the job she’d been fifteen years old, running interference while her gang-fathers ripped offworld account details off passing sailors. Her job was keeping the suckers occupied, tripping them up with questions about where they were from, what star systems they’d passed, whether they’d fought off pirates in the Keppler Belt, while the rest of the crew battered the marks with wide-spread EMF and suctioned the cash right out of their pockets.
It was a good racket, right up until one of those idiot marks had figured her game and thrown her face-first to the pavement, twisted her arm behind her back while the rest of the gang melted into the crowds. A messy end. Undignified.
She’d learned something very important that day, as the portside cops pressed her face into the concrete and kicked her ribs to splinters. Always insulate. Keep a patsy between yourself and every major decision. When security arrives – and they always do, in time, no matter how well you plan – never be the one holding the gun.
That was why she let Issues slice the locks on the internal doors, why she ushered Zarren Esco before her up the private staircase to the elevators. Why she kept Leslie at the front instead of the back, ready to soak up automated security flak.
It wasn’t nice, but in her line of business it didn’t pay to get sentimental. Letting your guard down saw you spaced, arrested, or dead. Abel had worked Massung for near a decade and she’d seen a lot of no-names come and go. A lot of pretenders who didn’t take the right precautions shot, electrocuted, pulped and recycled.
It just meant less competition for the big jobs, and this was one of the biggest. Frankie D hadn’t lied – the All-Mother chipgod of the Church of Entropy was, by weight, the most valuable chunk of data in the system. Worshipped by millions, revered by kings and generals… and, best of all, capable of paying its own ransom.
All she had to do was get out alive.
They hit the seventy-ninth floor on schedule. No alarms sounded as Leslie eased out into the midnight corridors – Abel had already torn fistfuls out of the arcology’s surveillance code, and whether by chance or design, security had been relocated to the floor above. Fifty or more Un-Gul mercs watching every entrance, in and out of the All-Mother’s chamber.
But not below.
Issues pointed to the ceiling. “Here?”
Abel checked the data Frankie D had provided. They were standing in a glass-lined hall, one wall slim bare offices and the other a window out over the bay, directly underneath the chamber where the Ents had stored the All-Mother. All that separated them from a half-billion in hard currency was half a meter of plascrete. “Here.”
“Hell of a setup.” Issues was already laying equipment across the floor – tight-burn explosives, detonators, stuff Abel didn’t even know the name of let alone what they were used for. She waved something small and plasticky at the ceiling, nodded, and started unspooling wire. “I’m gonna blow a hole about two meters across and drop it right through. Gonna make a hell of a bang, so get ready for company.”
Leslie was already laying out neural claymores at either end of the corridor while Zarren Esco unslung some meter-long piece of homebrew assault weaponry complete with flechette magazine and a heatsink the size of Abel’s head. They knew their jobs – it was why Abel had hired them and them alone out of the glut of contractors working the streets of Massung. She even trusted them enough to turn her back and take in the view.
Far below, Massung was a labyrinth of lights, slant-roofed prefabs growing like mould in the shadow of the arcologies. Colonist housing glued together from steel cast-offs and plastic sheet straining against the boundaries of the megastructures, sapping stolen power through spliced cables and cowering in the wash of acid runoff. Fifty thousand settlers in each arcology. Ten times that many sweltering, fighting and dying in the gutters.
And beyond that, the ports. Blinkships arriving in fistfuls, biting deep into the fabric of time and space as they leaped the distance between planets, popping out of existence in one system and arriving in another barely an hour later instead of decades or centuries with nothing to show for the effort besides a rippling band of heat and toe-curling radiation. Sometimes ten a day, just in Massung. Sometimes as many as a hundred, all of them toting the raw materials required to build and feed and house and clothe an entire world.
Lots of money to be made from those ships. More than a woman could steal in a lifetime.
Issues clicked her fingers, dragging Abel back to the job. “We’re prepped?”
“Ten seconds.” Issues readied the last of her equipment and retreated to a safe distance, fingers in her ears. Leslie was tensed by his array of claymores while Zarren had pressed into the corner, weapon trained on the ceiling, ready to tear shreds from anyone who dropped through.
“Two, one… and go!”
The charges Issues had attached to the ceiling blew in quick succession, a series of rapid pop-pop-pops that echoed down the glass corridor. Abel blinked back tears as the halls were flooded with dust. Stone chips scored thin red lines across her cheeks. Somewhere above, people were yelling, calling for backup.
The ceiling held. Issues swore. “No way did they reinforce-“
A great, sharp crack rang down the corridor, and Issues danced back as a section of ceiling tore free. The floor burred beneath Abel’s feet as it fell, and she darted into the dust cloud without waiting for it to clear, fumbling for the pedestal where the All-Mother was housed.
Slick glass. Filaments that tingled against her skin. The All-Mother chip was mounted in the centre of a decorative shrine, a cube of glass built to withstand acids, ablation or the heat of a dwarf star.
But not code.
Abel pressed her hands to the glass and closed her eyes. The shouting was growing louder – security running into the chamber where the All-Mother had been installed, staring at the hole newly opened in their floor. She figured she had five seconds, maybe less, before they started firing blind.
Five seconds would be enough.
One: the filaments woven through her fingertips vibrated in sympathy with the circuitry woven through the shrine and she saw, written across the dark space behind her eyelids, the code that kept the All-Mother sealed away.
Muffled curses from above. Confusion. Leslie at her shoulder. She pushed the world away and concentrated on the code.
Two: her programs went to work. Algorithms spliced from stolen architecture. Snippets of AI subroutines, smart enough to skirt the Cordeaux treaty. They cut and rearranged slabs of code as Abel watched.
Leslie touched her elbow. “They’re coming down!”
Three seconds. In too deep to pull away now. She guided her algorithms with practiced hands, directing them through layers of architecture. They peeled back security, seeking the core that would give her access. The code was a lock and locks could always be opened…
An electric hum vibrated in her back teeth. Zarren’s weapon winding up. The first throaty cough of flechettes tearing the air. A cry from above. “Move!”
Four seconds. The code was unfolding, giving way beneath the weight of algorithms. She could see the lock, see it opening like origami-
A hand on her shoulder. Zarren jerking her back to attention. “I said, move!”
She opened her eyes as the last of her code fell into place and the glass cube peeled back. The All-Mother chip was in her hands.
Zarren raked the opening in the ceiling as they ran. Abel was already throwing code at the elevators, but they’d locked down the moment the charges went off. She could cut through, but not in the time they had.
They moved in bursts, Leslie taking the lead while Zarren watched the rear, the barrel of his cannon still smoking. From below came the pop pop of Leslie’s neural claymores firing, followed by hopeless screams. Better than ordinance; you could build yourself a shell strong enough to turn back an anti-tank shell, but there wasn’t a helmet on the market that’d block nightmares. The Ent guards would be insensible for days, maybe weeks.
More than long enough for the four of them to get to the roof, get a flight out and go to ground.
They were coming off the last flight of stairs when Abel heard the slam-pups closing in. There was no mistaking the way they whined, the high-pitched hum of echolocation as they hunted. “Move, move, move!” She shoved Leslie ahead of her as they burst out into the rain, on to the wide concrete rooftop of the LN2 arcology.
Abel’s eyes burned in the wash of acid rain. Three skimmers were parked on the edges of the rooftop, clamped in place as they charged their batteries. She threw out code, reaching for the algorithms that would open their doors just as she’d opened the glass cube.
“Hey!” Zarren had locked the rooftop access behind them. His was already cannon spinning up, hissing in the rain. “We’ve got maybe ten seconds, maybe-”
Ten seconds was generous. The access door shuddered, bent, and smashed open as the first of the slam-pups came through.
The pup was moving so fast Abel only got a glimpse of it – two-foot tall, black carbon-fibre torso, skittering for purchase on all six legs, its skull a mass of spindly sensors. It fixed on Zarren and leaped.
Zarren was faster. One quick spray shredded the pup and the doorway behind it, scattering ruins of steel and circuitry across the rooftop. “Hurry, damn it! Get that-”
Two slam-pups came through side by side, leaping for Zarren’s knees. He smashed the first out of the air with a single squeeze of the trigger but the second got beneath his firing arc, latching on to his knee.
Abel had just enough time to turn her head and shield her eyes before the slam-pup did its job and detonated.
“Fuck this!” Zarren was still raining down around their heads as Issues threw a wad of tight-burn into the centre of the landing pad and unspooled wire. “Plug your ears!”
There was an electric sizzle, followed by the thunk of focused charges drilling down through the concrete. No flames, no sparks or debris. Just the crunch as the concrete caved in, busting a hole two meters wide in the arcology’s rooftop. “Down!” Issues called, hurling a handful of skittering aluminium charges no larger than pinkie fingers at the open stairwell. “You want to die up here? Move!”
Another slam-pup was scrabbling up the stairwell as Issues jumped down the hole she’d blown in the concrete. A thin lick of electricity jumped between the miniature charges and the slam-pup’s front legs, and the whole stairwell erupted in fire. Abel reeled back, the heat broiling her eyeballs. She threw one hand over her face, lattices of code falling away as she stumbled. One foot skidded on the crumbled concrete.
Leslie reached for her as she fell, but it was all too slow, too late. All she could see was rain and code, stars and algorithms, before she rotated end over end and hit the concrete ten feet below.
A burst of light behind her eyes. Pain, dull and deep. Blood on her tongue. The shattered stump of a tooth, ragged in her gums. The corridor swam around her as she struggled to her feet. All she could hear was a high-pitched tinnitus whine. Behind her, Issues Smith was running for a service elevator, dumping more handfuls of those tiny charges behind her. Above was a hole framed in broken rebar; beyond it, Leslie, wide-eyed, screaming soundlessly. To her right, behind glass, the wide bright plains of Massung arcologies, lit by the flares of dropships and the chemical glow of portside wash.
She reached inside her jacket, clenched the All-Mother tight, and cast around for points of entry. Reinforced doors, elevators, CEO ejection pods in case of external attack. Walls of code on all sides, but she couldn’t fix on any of them, not through the pain. Issues was gone, and the best Abel could do was stagger after her.
Above, Leslie snapped to the right. His scream was a blur through the ringing in her ears – “I don’t have it!” – before he was slapped backwards by something heavy and black.
A clatter at the end of the hall. The low whine of servos.
The slam-pup came at her at a sprint, all six legs pedalling furiously, lenses whirring in its blunt black skull. Abel pushed the pain away, forced the wiring in her fingertips to seek out networks. They found the slam-pup’s systems, peeled through firewalls, chewed up security protocols.
Her algorithms were fast, but not fast enough.
The slam-pup detonated in mid-air. For a moment all was light, all was fire, and then she was in freefall, spinning through cirrus clouds of glass and shrapnel. The rain was hot on her cheeks. Far below were the acid-yellow smears of the lamps strung throughout the slums that crawled at the foot of the arcologies, distant but coming up fast, impossibly fast, ready to smash her to paste.
Then a whap, a sudden jerk that almost forced her eyeballs out of her skull. Whiplash folded her in two. The world below vanished behind a haze of black as deceleration forced blood from her brain.
In the moment before she passed out she thought, anti-suicide cannons. Clever fucks.
She couldn’t fight the black any longer.
Abel Williams let go.
– – –
Aaaaand that’s it! I don’t know when this project will wrap – probably not until next year at this rate. In the meantime, if you like my scifi, why not check my short story collection Future Tides: The Collected Works of Christopher Ruz, or my psychedelic sci-fi novella The Eighteen Revenges of Doctor Milan?
The art I used for this blogpost is by the absurdly talented Hassoomi.