(the sequel to A Chip In His Shoulder)
Author: L. A. Witt
Publisher: Riptide Publishing
Formats: ebook, paperback
The noise needled my ears. Dragged me out of a sound sleep.
Whoever was behind waking my ass up was going to—
Clarity jolted me awake. My palm computer’s alarm. The reminder to log into my remote file server. My last resort against my dad.
“All right, all right.” I leaned over the side of the bed and fumbled through my clothes. Found the computer. Switched off the alarm.
Computer in hand, I dropped back onto the pillows beside Liam, who was still out cold. Jackass. I yawned as I rubbed my burning eyes with my thumb and forefinger. The stinging refused to quit, though, thanks to the shit that passed for air in the Gutter.
Still squinting, I picked up the computer again. The signal down here was sketchy at best, but enough to let me access my remote file server. I’d set it up to require logins every twenty-four hours or it would release all the damning documents about my father and his ilk to the media. Or, I thought as my finger hovered over the login button, I could let it lapse now. Release the information and let Dad fall instead of giving him another twenty-four-hour reprieve.
Twenty-four hours. Lucky him. It had been less than that since I’d been waiting to die in my penthouse. Surviving? That had been unexpected. Waking up naked in a cramped Gutter apartment next to my ex-lover assassin? Yeah. That came out of the fucking blue.
But in spite of my father’s best efforts, here I was, and now all I had to do was let my login lapse to make his life hell.
No. No, not yet. This was an emergency backup that would ruin my father’s reputation, but might not land his ass in prison where it belonged. A card to be played when all other options were exhausted. This would only damage him. I wanted him destroyed.
“Here’s another twenty-four hours of safety, asshole.” I pressed the button with more force than necessary. “Enjoy it.”
And now what? Fuck if I knew.
Not sleeping, that was for sure. I exited the login screen and opened one of the local news sites. I swore the device groaned with the effort of streaming information with the shitty Gutter signal. Eventually, though, the page came up. The headline was no surprise, but it still sent cold water through my veins:
Okay, so Liam didn’t technically kidnap me, but otherwise, they had us pegged.
Below the headline,
I chewed the inside of my cheek. Knowing Dad, that reward was substantial, and it applied to capturing Liam me. There was probably a “dead or alive” attached to it too. And since dead men didn’t talk, “dead” likely paid more than “alive.”
I skimmed the article on the small screen.
I swore under my breath and put the palm computer aside. My stomach wound itself into knots. The whole goddamned police force, not to mention Dad’s private security, was probably on the lookout for us.
Unless Liam had some sort of plan. Any kind of plan.
I glanced at him and considered waking him up, but decided against it. Only a few things sucked more than dealing with a woken-up Liam. Better to let him come around on his own.
I couldn’t help smiling as I watched him sleep. The sheet only covered him from the waist down, leaving his flawless torso exposed. He hadn’t aged at all in the five years since he’d disappeared into the Gutter the night it all went to shit. Thanks to the vampire self-healing and the thousands of nanobots in his body, there wasn’t a mark on him. No scars from life as a prostitute, a thief, and an assassin. No discoloration in the smooth skin of his abs to show where two bullets had nearly killed him last night. Probably not even a bruise to acknowledge where I’d dug my fingers into his hips just hours ago. A new cybernetic mod made of titanium and black silicone formed a crescent around his left eye before extending into his sandy blond hair, but otherwise, he was the same Liam he’d always been.
I, on the other hand, had plenty of mementos. My eyes and throat burned from the pollution, and pain like I’d never experienced had carved itself into places I’d never known existed. Rope burns and strained muscles from rappelling down the elevator shaft. Bruises on my knees and arms from the novice errors that had seen me bumping into beams and supports. A dull ache from the crude surgery Liam had performed to get the proximity enforcer chip out of my shoulder; he’d sealed the wound as only a vampire could, but the tissue hadn’t completely forgiven the invasive, anesthetic-free procedure. Whatever wasn’t sore from escaping my apartment ached because Liam and I, in spite of being exhausted, had spent half the day fooling around just to make sure we were still alive. Fuck, but I was a hot mess.
I sat up carefully and swung my legs over the side of the bed. The water-stained plywood floor chilled my bare feet, and creaked as much as my joints did when I reached for the pair of jeans Liam had loaned me. Then I went into the bathroom to take a leak and throw some cold water on my face.
I shuffled back into the main room. Liam’s apartment was sparse and neat, but still had that yellowed look that seemed to permeate every inch of the Gutter. Bare drywall, a single bulb dangling from the middle of the ceiling. Definitely not the chrome-and-glass world in which I’d spent my entire life. Just being here drove home my new reality more than anything else: there was no going back.
Liam stirred. I sat on the edge of the bed, and he put a hand on my thigh. I rested my hand on top of his.
“Morning,” he said, then did a double take and squinted up at me. “Wow. You look like hell.”
“And fuck you, too, jackass.” I glared at him. “I don’t look bad.”
He arched an eyebrow. “Dude, all you’re missing is a black eye and a split—”
“The same look could be arranged for you.”
“Okay, okay, you don’t look that bad.”
A tired grin played at his lips. Then the amusement faded in favor of a frown. “I bruised the shit out of your neck, though, didn’t I?”
I touched the spot just above my collarbone, sucking in a hiss of breath when my fingertips found the tender, slightly swollen flesh. “It’s not that bad.”
“No, but it’s—”
“It was either let you feed or let you bleed to death.” I looked him in the eye as I lowered my hand. “I’ll take a bruise over you being dead.”
He swallowed. His gaze drifted to the bite mark, but then he shook himself. “So did you get some sleep?”
“Didn’t have much choice,” I said. “You wore me out.”
He smiled halfheartedly. “Good. Because that’s probably the last decent sleep you’re going to have for a while.”
“I believe it. So what now?”
“We bring your dad down. Take down the whole fucking Sky if we have to.” He sat up, laying the sheet over his lap. “Question is, where do we start?”
“I was hoping you already had that figured out.”
Liam gave a dry laugh, which didn’t settle my nerves at all. “Not quite, I’m afraid.”
I scratched the back of my neck. “Well, if we present the information we have to the Sky Council, we can bring Dad down for murder and blow open the corruption in the cybernetics companies. Draw enough attention to the exploitation in the Gutter, and they’ll have to do something.”
Liam shook his head. “No way in hell the Sky Council will ever listen to us.” He idly slid his hand from my thigh to the underside of my knee. “We’d never even make it past security. We’re fugitives now.”
The news article’s headline flashed through my mind. “More like terrorists. Which is why we need to get all the evidence we have in front of the Sky Council as quickly as possible. Before Dad catches up to us or has time to do damage control.”
“Which is where things get tricky. I don’t suppose you have too many friends left on high, do you?”
“Do cyberterrorists count?”
He scowled. “Not if we want to get in front of the Sky Council.” Liam watched his finger trace a wrinkle in my jeans. Some unspoken thought darkened his expression.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
Liam drew in a deep breath, apparently oblivious to the taste of the air, and lifted his gaze to meet mine. “Say we get your father charged with the murders and your attempted murder.” He inclined his head. “What’s the common thread?”
“The common thread?” I eyed him. “Besides my father paying you—” The penny dropped. I held Liam’s gaze. “Oh. Fuck.”
I closed my eyes and exhaled.
“I want to bring your father and his company down as much as you do,” he said, “but last night wasn’t the first time I’ve done a hit for your father or any other cybernetics tycoon. We go after him for those murders, I go down right alongside him.”
He squeezed my leg. “Daniel, I did what I did because I was desperate. I know that doesn’t make any of it right, but just take me at my word here: when you’re offered a contract for a hit, you don’t turn it down or you wind up with a contract on your own head.”
I hadn’t given much thought to how things worked in blood transactions, but it made sense. A man who knew about a contract but didn’t take it was a liability, and as someone who’d been deemed a liability by my father and his corporate empire, I was hard-pressed to begrudge Liam the things he’d done to survive.
But that wouldn’t help me take my father down, a mission that had bordered on an obsession for the last few years. I couldn’t stomach the idea of him spending the rest of his life in anything less than the hellish world within the walls of a maximum security pen. He deserved nothing better.
“So if I can’t fuck him over for murder,” I said, “then what?”
“We get him where it really hurts,” Liam said. “In his wallet. Specifically, his company’s wallet. I think the only shot we have here is working with someone who has the clout to get the Sky Council’s attention. Which means we need to find and make nice with someone who that clout.”
“Who do you have in mind?”
I waited for the punch line. When it didn’t come, I said, “You’re serious.”
Liam shrugged. “You said yourself they’re hemorrhaging money into cybernetics companies for research and development.”
“And, if we can prove to them that they’re paying for R&D that isn’t happening, and funding a mod that Cybernetix is keeping up its sleeve, they’ll have the motivation to investigate and take them down.”
“But Cybernetix has covered its tracks a dozen times over. These are people capable of covering up the murder of someone as far up the chain as they are, Liam. We have no concrete proof that the mod exists, and the minute Dad smells a leak, he’ll make all the evidence disappear.”
His gaze shifted toward me. “Then we get the proof before he has a chance to cover it up.”
I eyed him. Oh, goddammit, I knew that look, and I barely kept myself from groaning. “You have an idea, don’t you?”
I fidgeted on the edge of the bed. “What do you have in mind?”
“We get into Cybernetix and take the UV mod prototype.”
“Liam, are you fucking ”
A grin played at his lips. “Do you even need to bother asking?”
“Okay, no.” I exhaled. “But your insanity doesn’t negate the fact that what you’re suggesting is on the absolutely-out-of-your-fucking-mind end of the batshittery spectrum.”
Liam shrugged. “Got any better ideas?”
He cocked his head. “All right. Let’s hear it.”
“We—” I wracked my brain. “We could . . .”
He lifted his eyebrows expectantly, the corner of his mouth twitching.
“Okay, fine. No. I don’t.” I tapped my fingers on the back of my arm. “So we go into Cybernetix and get the mod.”
“And once we prove it works, we’ll have his company’s balls in a vise.”
“Prove . . . prove it works? But how do—” I pinched the bridge of my nose. “Why do I get the feeling you’re really suggesting we install this thing into you?”
“You’d be right.”
“So we put this mod into you. Then what? Have you go running out into the sun in front of some random vampires?”
“Well, not random ones.”
“You already have some in—” I stopped. “Oh, no. No. Liam, you can’t be serious.”
He shrugged. “Seems like a good idea to me.”
“Your parents,” I said. “You’re going to show your face to the same people who put you in the damned Gutter.”
“When they find out they’re being fucked by the cybernetics companies,” he said, “somehow I don’t think my parents will give two shits who I’ve slept with. That said, I guarantee the window of time between getting my father’s attention and being thrown out will be very short, which is why I want to have the mod already installed in my system so I can show him it works.”
I ran my hand through my hair and sighed. “I guess we don’t have much choice, do we?”
“Not really. But first things first. If we’re going up to the Sky, then we’re going to need to doctor our appearances a bit. Our faces are probably plastered all over the Sky Gutter by now.”
Eyeing him, I said, “I’m assuming this is going to be more complicated than putting on a pair of glasses and a fake mustache.”
Liam chuckled. “Yeah. Just a little.”
After I’d endured an hour of a chemical that I was sure was going to eat through my scalp, Liam was satisfied the job was done. He had me rinse my hair, and then I looked in the dingy bathroom mirror to check out his handiwork.
So much for the dark-rooted blond look I’d so painstakingly maintained. Now my hair was ink black, walking the razor-fine line between appearing natural and screaming . I abandoned my customary spikes and smoothed my hair to the side, parting it so it looked meticulously arranged.
I swallowed hard as I met my reflection’s eyes. With this uniformly dark, conformist hairstyle, the only thing that set me apart from my father or half brothers was the plain, gray shirt and faded jeans. Well, and the mess of bruises.
My skin crawled. The longer I stared at this new me, the faster my heart beat. If anyone down here figured out who I was, I’d be fucked, and no amount of altered hair or nondescript clothing made me feel remotely inconspicuous. Even dressed as a Gutter rat, I was still a Harding. What if footage from the surveillance cameras of my apartment building had made it this far? What if my reputation as an economic terrorist had preceded me? What if anyone so much as caught a scent on me that didn’t gel with the Gutter?
“Done admiring yourself, beauty queen?”
I turned around as Liam came into the bathroom, and I pulled in a breath. His sandy blond hair was more of a reddish brown now, bordering on bronze. False lenses darkened his blue eyes to a deep brown, and the mod on his left temple had disappeared. No, that wasn’t right. It was still there, but covered, pushing up the layer of false skin to create the appearance of a crescent-shaped scar.
He glanced past me at the mirror, running his fingers over the edges of the false skin. Then he shifted his attention to me. He looked me up and down, pausing to adjust a few strands of my hair before he grinned. “You know, I like the half blond look, but this?” The grin broadened. “ suits you nicely.”
“Yeah, right.” I faced my reflection again. “This will never work.”
He put a hand on the small of my back. “Of course it will. You don’t look like you belong in the Sky anymore, do you?”
“I don’t look like I belong in the Gutter, either.” I glared at the mirror. “Fuck. I look like my”
He scrutinized my appearance for a moment. “No, you don’t. Not as much as you think.” Before I could say anything else, he leaned in and kissed me. “You look fine. And no one will recognize you, which is the important part.”
“We’ll see.” I ran my fingertips across the false skin over his mod. “You covered it up.”
“Visible mods are a liability down here.” He looked past me and eyed the mirror again, finger-combing his hair over the uncovered part of the mod. “You can’t walk half a block without getting mugged, but mods are an open invitation for someone to stick a knife between your ribs with no obligation to clean out your wallet.”
“Oh. Great.” Fuck, I really was in a different world.
Liam finished smoothing his hair over the mod, and then stepped away from the mirror with a muttered, “All right, let’s go.”
Wearing a borrowed duster, I followed Liam out of his apartment and into a hallway lit by a buzzing half- burned-out bulb. As he locked the door behind us, he said over his shoulder, “I know you don’t like the idea, but this is going to get dangerous. You need—”
“I’m getting modified.” I waved the idea away. “It’s out of the question.”
Liam shoved his keys into his pocket. “You want to see this to the end? You do what you have to do to stay alive.”
“I understand that, but I want to stay ”
Liam’s eyes narrowed; mine flicked toward the camouflaged mod on his temple.
“That’s not what I meant,” I said. “You know it isn’t.”
He set his jaw and brushed past me down the hall. “Let’s go.”
“Liam, I didn’t—”
“I know what you meant.”
Mouthing a silent string of profanity, I started after him. “Goddammit, you can’t honestly expect me to let go of my issues with mods overnight.”
He spun around and stabbed a finger into my chest. “I can, and I do. Don’t think for a second your pretty little principles are going to keep you alive anymore. People want you, Daniel.”
“Yes, I know they do,” I said through my teeth.
“Which means you get to make hard choices and sacrifices, just like—”
“Don’t talk to me about making sacrifices.” I batted his hand away and stepped closer until our faces were nearly touching. “Just because I’m not a fan of mods, don’t you dare stand there and assume I haven’t had to sacrifice anything. You know about how much I’ve sacrificed the last few years.”
“Oh, I’m sure you’ve made sacrifices,” he growled. “Wasting away in luxury—”
Liam caught my fist before I even realized I’d thrown the punch. He didn’t blink, didn’t break eye contact, just kept on looking right at me as his fingers dug into the back of my hand. “You done?”
“Don’t you dare lecture me about sacrifices, you son of a bitch. You have idea.”
His lips pulled back over clenched teeth, revealing the edges of his unnaturally sharp canines. “Enlighten me.”
I jerked my hand free from his grip, but the sudden ache in my throat stopped the words from coming. I managed to snarl, “Fuck you,” and then shoved past him and kept walking.
Tried to, anyway. I only made it two steps before Liam grabbed my arm.
“Daniel.” His voice was much gentler than his grasp. “I’m sorry. I really am just trying to keep us both alive.”
“I know. But look, don’t just assume things about me. My life isn’t what it was five years ago.”
“Then what . . .”
Holding his gaze, I swallowed hard. The truth was right there on the tip of my tongue, itching to be told, but anyone could be listening. The fewer people who knew my secret, the safer we all were.
“Daniel?” Liam loosened his grip on my arm. “What is—”
“We don’t have time for this now. Let’s just go.” The question lingered in his eyes, and I added a whispered, “Please, Liam.”
He was quiet for a moment, then nodded, and we kept walking.
In silence, we stepped outside.
The pollution was more intense out here. The foul taste on my tongue and the sick sweetness in my nose dragged bile up my throat. One breath had me coughing hard enough to double me over. Hard enough I was sure I was going to puke. I braced myself against the building until the worst had passed, and stayed that way as the world spun around me.
Liam’s hand materialized on the back of my neck. “You all right?”
Jaw clenched, I drew in a cautious breath. The air stung the back of my throat, but I didn’t cough quite so violently this time. Though my stomach didn’t exactly settle, the danger of getting sick was—I hoped—gone.
I straightened up and squinted against the noxious air as I buried my face in my collar. “Is it always like this down here?”
He nodded. “You’ll get used to it.”
“I’m sure.” I rubbed my burning eyes and muttered, “And how do you fucking ?”
“You’ll get used to that too. Come on.” He tugged at my arm, and I let him lead me while my eyes slowly adapted to the pollution.
The legends about the Gutter didn’t do it justice. Maybe it had to be breathed to be believed. Or maybe this kind of polluted, poverty-stricken place simply didn’t translate to low-res photos and bootlegged videos. Thick haze obscured upper floor windows and shrouded streetlamps in greenish yellow halos. A downdraft from above blew into the back of my collar and kicked trash and debris around on the streets and sidewalks.
The atmosphere made my skin crawl, but it was the glassy-eyed bleakness of the people that gave me chills. Workers shuffled in and out of factories, the ones in the oncoming shift as lethargic as the ones on their way out. People regarded each other—and us—with shifty eyes, everyone hunched and guarded.
All sorts of coughing—from throat-clearing to the kind of hacking reminiscent of end-stage tuberculosis—filled the background like an improvised band with no sense of rhythm. Much as I tried to muffle it, I added my own out-of-sync contribution to the perpetual lung clearing.
The only one who didn’t was Liam. I envied his effortless breathing. Probably the result of a mod of some sort. That or being a vampire. Same thing, really.
People walked around an animated altercation like the fight was a lamppost or a park bench. I didn’t see anyone glance at the passed-out drunk, the rat lapping at a pool of vomit beside him, or the mangy cat perched on top of a trash can. No one seemed to notice the man with his pants around his ankles fucking a barely dressed woman against the graffiti-covered bricks. I couldn’t decide if the woman looked bored, wasted, or both.
How did a world like this exist so close to the Sky? The sleek glass landscape to which I was accustomed was mere meters above that opaque, seemingly impenetrable haze hanging over the decaying streets and buildings.
“I can’t believe people live down here,” I said into my collar.
Liam’s gaze slid toward me. “You think they would if they had a choice?”
“Don’t fucking start, all right? This is the first time I’ve seen this all firsthand.”
“Point taken. Well, this is it.” He gestured around. “It doesn’t get any prettier down here.”
I said nothing, just tried to take it all in. If our task of bringing down the cybernetics companies was daunting in the light of Liam’s apartment, it was herculean out here in the wilds of the Gutter. All the white-collar espionage and cloak-and-dagger games we played in the Sky, stealing and swapping information and little pieces of technology, suddenly seemed as effective as chasing away the cat and hoping it didn’t come back for the rat five minutes later.
“We’ve got one stop to make,” he said after a while. “And then I say we head up to the Sky and contact some of your people.” He glanced at me. “You sure they’ll help us?”
“At this point, the anti-mod movement needs all the help it can get. Now that they know Dad’s willing to kill me?” I whistled and nodded. “Ooh, yeah. They’ll help.”
“Even if that means working with a cyborg vampire who tried to kill you?”
“Beggars can’t be anti-mod snobs.”
“Speaking of which . . .” That damned eyebrow arched. “Daniel, you need some mods.”
I closed my eyes and groaned. “We’ve been over this.”
“We have, and I still think you’re being an idiot.”
“Look, I’m not asking you to replace bones or organs, for fuck’s sake. Nanobots. Nothing more.”
“Nothing more?” I laughed. “Yeah, okay. Sign me right up.”
He stopped and glared at me, the stark light from an overhead streetlamp picking out all the tiny contours of his covered mod. “They’re not that big of a deal. They’re invisible, and they saved my ass more than once last night.”
“No.” I put up my hand. “Maybe yours have saved your ass, but the only mod I’ve had so far almost killed me.”
“That was an entirely different kind of mod.” He shifted impatiently. “Think about it. In the parking garage last night, what if you had taken those two bullets instead of me? You’d be”
My stomach lurched at the memory of Liam covered in his own blood.
He touched my hand and his voice softened. “Look at the world you’re living in now.” He gestured at everything around us. “Just walking down the street is dangerous here. And what we’re involved in? This is bigger than the hacking and computer shit you’re used to. We’re not just playing corporate espionage anymore.” He stroked the side of my wrist with his thumb, the light intensifying his artificially darkened eyes to the point I was almost compelled to draw away, especially as he added, “This is war, Daniel.”
Lowering his voice, Liam said, “Your father wants you I guarantee before this is over, there will be bullets flying and shit exploding, and if you want to survive to the end, you have got to get modified.”
I shifted my gaze away from him. I couldn’t tell if the sick feeling in my gut was from the air I’d breathed or what Liam had said.
He reached for my hand, and waited until I looked at him to speak. “Please. Twenty-four hours ago, yes, I was ready to kill you myself, but now . . .” He lowered his gaze, watching his thumb rub the side of my hand. After a moment, he met my eyes. “I don’t want to lose you again.”
I gritted my teeth, alternately looking straight ahead and glancing down at our hands. “You are such a sap, you know that?”
He laughed quietly. “Maybe I am. I’m serious, though. I know you hate mods, and quite honestly, I don’t blame you. But if it means the difference between life and death, will you please consider getting nanobots?” He paused. “They can be removed, you know. They’re not a permanent mod.”
I eyed him for a long moment, trying to come up with an argument for not getting nanobots in light of our situation. And I couldn’t come up with a damned thing.
“Fine. Nanobots. Nothing more.”
“ you.” He squeezed my hand. “Now let’s get the fuck out of here.”