Sneak Preview of the mini-adventure that opens Episode Seven of THE MINUS FACTION

Six days ago . . .

 

The fight turned ugly within moments of its start. There was no trigger, no insult or questionable shot to the groin, but it was clear to everyone in the audience that the two men in the pit were filled with the rage to win and that one of them would have to be carried away.

The bald man with the beard stood a head taller than his opponent and was clearly the crowd favorite. Most of those in attendance had already seen him nearly decapitate a German mercenary the previous week. He was both bearded and bare-chested, both rarities for a street fighter, which seemed to be the point—to intimidate his opponents with both size and lack of fear. With each punch, spittle flicked from his lips in a thin spray that caught the single bare fluorescent light that illuminated the pit from above. A Chechnian military tattoo stretched across his hairy back, and there was a red skull painted crudely on his chest. Whether it was blood or pigment, no one could say.

The bald man connected for the third time, and his opponent’s head whipped to the side. But the man recovered immediately. Although shorter than his gargantuan rival, he was still tall, athletic, and seemingly impervious to pain. He wore a dark, featureless mask that matched the nondescript combat fatigues that covered the rest of his body. Just below his shoulders, a number six was hand-painted in white on both sides. He was taking a beating, but returned each punch in kind—sometimes doubling-up with two quick jabs—and what he lacked in strength, he made up in ferocity.

The largely African crowd fed on the spiraling aggression as the two fighters traded blows. The men had burst from their corners like runners off the block and proceeded to beat each other back and forth without pause and without any attempt to block or parry. At first, jostling onlookers moved casually through the stiff, salty air as they searched for space on the tiered rows of benches that surrounded the pit. But in just moments, as the slap-slap-slap of tit-for-tat strikes echoed off the walls of the hexagonal room, everyone in sight of the bout went to their feet, waving money, twirling colored towels, and whooping at the top of their lungs.

After five disappointing matches, they finally had what they came for. One of these two men would bring the pain.

But after several minutes, it became clear that jabs and crosses would put neither man down quickly, and the referee—a three-foot man in a neat dealer’s vest and slacks—rang the bell and the first round was called to the groan of the crowd. A pair of hats were passed, one marked with a skull and one marked with a six, but few in the crowd parted with any money. It wasn’t time. Yet.

“What do you think it means?” A thin Ethiopian with high cheeks spoke to the old man next to him as he passed one of the hats down the line.

“I’m sorry?” The old man lifted his head to the ceiling.

“The number. On the masked man’s arms. What do you think it means?”

“I’m afraid I can’t see it.”

The Ethiopian turned. The eyes of the man next to him were frosted gray, and they danced over the flapping red tarps of the ceiling. Although he couldn’t say why, he was immediately angry that a blind man was there. He turned back to the beating. “Why do you come to the fight if you can’t see?”

The second round was for mixed martial arts, and as soon as the bell rang, the combatants danced in a spiral around the beach-sand floor before launching into a series of blocks and kicks.

The masked man connected at the knee and the crowd hushed at the audible snap, and for a moment it appeared that the fifth match of the day would end early, just as all the others.

But the bearded man with the red skull roared with bulging eyes and got to his feet, and the battle resumed.

Everyone stood and cheered.

Except the blind man. “There’s more to a fight than the spectacle.”

The Ethiopian sat back down with the rest. “What is a spek-tackle?” he asked without turning from the contest. Perhaps he would find another seat. If one opened closer.

“You’ll see.” The old man’s head was oddly shaped and mostly barren, with just a few long wisps of gray hair that floated up and down gently in the hot breeze.

The bare-chested colossus punched with such force that the masked man flew into the plywood wall, which shook on loose nails. As he pulled away, one of the nails exited the flesh of his arm, trailing blood.

The crowd cheered again but groaned immediately as the little man rang the bell and ended the second round. The hats were passed again. This time both filled nicely.

The Ethiopian pointed. “Number Six wears a mask. Do you think it means something?”

The hats were collected impatiently and the referee counted the money in each. There was enough for machetes, but no more. A pair wood-handled blades was tossed to the sand. Some people cheered. Some booed.

“Why do they object?” the blind man asked.

“They had hoped for chainsaws. We have not seen a chainsaw battle in many weeks.”

“Which one did you pick, my friend?”

“The masked man. I like him. He is smaller, but tough.”

The old man smirked. “I hope you will not be disappointed.”

“What do you mean?”

The bell rang and the pair grappled for the machetes. With his mobility hampered, the bearded man hobbled forward and missed his weapon, but he tackled Number Six and ripped one free with bulging biceps. Blades met even as the masked man lay on the sand. The bearded colossus leaned over the crossed blades, using his weight to force them down onto his opponent.

But lying on his back, the masked man’s legs were free, and he kicked his opponent’s swollen knee twice, then in the balls three times, drawing mixed reactions from the stands as the beaded giant stumbled back. Six rolled away and got to his feet. He leaned over and gripped his machete with two hands, panting, as his adversary glowered with hate that, to the audience, seemed to presage the end of the bout.

The fighters faced each and circled the pit, machetes in hand. The red-necked giant hobbled, then swung. He was reduced to powerful but mostly wild swings, which the masked Number Six dodged easily. And so it became a battle of endurance rather than strength.

“You see?” The Ethiopian pointed, on his feet again along with most of the rest. “Six will win!”

The blind man kept his seat. “Of that, I am certain.”

Machete blades met again. Three time. Four times. Ten. The bearded man lunged again and his masked opponent spun out of the way suddenly, turning 360 degrees and bringing his blade down two-handed onto the giant’s scalp. There was a sharp crack and another burst from the crowd.

Number Six dropped the blade and leaned against the wall as rivulets of blood seeped into the already damp sand.

As the body was dragged away, Number Six limped to his corner and pulled the covering from his head, revealing a swollen and bloodied face.

The crowd hushed instantly.

“He” wasn’t a he at all.

A heavily-tattooed woman with short hair, like a soldier, drank from a bottle of water. She had swollen cheeks, one fat eye, and a cut lip that seemed already to be healing. A couple men in the audience booed, but most were too shocked to utter a sound.

Someone threw a beer bottle into the pit, and it almost struck the woman’s head, which brought everyone to their feet again and the jeering started in earnest.

The dwarf in the dealer’s vest fired a greasy revolver into the air, two-handed, and the crowd moved from deafening to merely unruly, hurling insults and shaking their heads as the woman wiped the sweat from her scalp and spat blood into a bucket.

She had light brown skin but wasn’t African. Hispanic, maybe, or native. She ignored the jeers and tended to the puncture wound in her arm.

The old man listened as the Ethiopian next to him turned livid at a presumed betrayal.

After a quick calculation by the fight’s organizers in the booth above, it was decided the decapitation had earned the woman enough points to face the latest champion, a new crowd favorite who had only been crowned three days earlier. Whether she actually had, by the rules, jumped three spots or not, no one cared. The crowd wanted blood. And they’d pay to see it.

The hexagonal auditorium went quiet as the woman bent and listened to the dwarf describe both the unusual opponent and the rules of a title match. Many grumbled, but then, even a woman had a right to know what she was facing.

The crowd whispered a name over and over between them. “Cano . . .”

When she nodded in assent, cheers burst with such force that the plywoods walls shook and the old man grimaced.

The Ethiopian tapped his shoulder. “Now you will see. Now Cano will show that bitch.”

“I’m afraid I won’t see anything, my friend. But if I were you, I would be careful about paying any more money.”

“Why? Marcel pays the cartels to run a clean fight. That is why we come. Your money is safe here. Not like with the Triads across town.”

“Oh, it’s not the little man I would worry about. Or the cartels. It’s the other two.”

The dwarf returned and explained that Cano wouldn’t face a woman. The crowd booed and the little man suggested they raise the stakes to entice him.

Wads of crumpled bills were passed man to man and dropped in hats and buckets as the titillated, half-drunk revelers gave the last of their weeks’ wages for a chance to see something none of them ever had before: a woman in a fight to the death.

The dwarf disappeared up the stairs again, and when he returned, there was quiet.

Then cheers as Cano appeared.

“This is the best night!” the Ethiopian exclaimed.

The roars and taunts faded as the crowd repeated the man’s name over and over. “Ca-no! Ca-no! Ca-no! Ca-no!”

The man was tall, but no taller than his opponent, nor even as muscular as the burly woman. He wore a hood and jeans. His face was covered in a colorful plastic mask, a red-and-blue devil dog held to his head by a thin piece of elastic. He raised his arms and the crowd fell silent. He pointed a gloved hand behind him.

The roars returned.

Chainsaws.

Within moments and without fanfare, motors revved loudly, drowning out the crowd, and the man and woman faced each other.

The dwarf rang the bell and the fighters wasted no time. They swung their saws amid clangs and sparks.

The old man kept his seat and felt the motion of the crowd around him. The Ethiopian was almost went cataleptic as his body tensed with each swing, each parry, waiting for the blow that would sever an arm in a splatter of blood—or a head.

But as the battle raged over five minutes, then ten, the fighters began to tire from swinging the heavy saws and dancing about. The woman named Six and the man in the devil dog mask were too evenly matched, it seemed, and each time one maneuvered to an advantage, the other would parry with a skillful roundhouse swing, or simply lean artfully out of the way and return with a thrust of their own.

Soon the crowd began to despair of the hero, and whispers fell into the pit amid shaking heads. Cano was supposed to handle the woman named Six easily. But she was wearing him down.

Cano the devil dog let his saw’s engine sputter, and so drew a death strike from Number Six. With his adversary bearing down on him, he met her saw with his and used her momentum as leverage to run his feet up the wall behind him in an attempt to flip and cut her in half. But the plywood cracked, and the man fell to the sand.

The crowd hushed as the woman was immediately upon him.

She swung hard as Cano tried to regain his feet. He parried on one knee, but with only one hand to his opponent’s two. The woman’s swing was deflected but not before her saw sliced through Cano’s shirt and tore into his left arm just below the shoulder. Blood hit the wall.

Cano dropped his saw as Number Six raised hers again.

She had him, and he raised his right arm out of instinct. The crowd gasped as the revving saw came down.

And stuck metal with a clink.

The crowd hushed.

The chain stopped and the engine sputtered to a halt as soon as it hit the man’s arm, tearing his sleeve and nothing else.

Cano reached for his silent saw and, grabbing it by the handle, swung it. It struck the woman across the forehead like a club and she stumbled back, blood dribbling into her eye. She yanked the cord on the weapon in her hand, trying to start the engine, but Cano went for it and knocked it to the sand. Then he swung his back and forth. The woman tried to defend herself, but the motionless chain tore at the skin of her arms all the same. In moments, the dog-faced man had struck her three times across the scalp and she went down.

The masculine crowd roared as the dwarf ran into the ring and declared the bout over. The woman was dragged away, and Cano watched as the diminutive referee counted a thick stack of bills into his hand.

“You see?” The Ethiopian turned.

But the blind man was gone.

 §§§

Artemis Killjoy, the half-machine once known as Barricade, tossed the devil dog mask into his bag, pulled his hood over his metal scalp, and walked onto the street, where cars and motorcycles fought the evening crowd for space. Clothes and colorful plastic trinkets hung from curved metal awnings, advertising the wares inside the identical square stalls underneath.

The mercenary kept his hands in his pockets and his head down as he walked the seven blocks to his temporary lodging, relying on his largely unseen face and a week’s worth of dark, curly facial hair to keep him invisible to the network—not that his former employers were likely have many people snagged in the slums of Dar es Salaam.

But you never knew.

He turned his face away from the men on the stairs of his apartment as he walked into the building and up three flights. Everything smelled of goat meat and incense. At the top, a heavy African woman with her hair wrapped in a high bun ignored him equally well as he ignored her as she closed her door behind her. The locals in this neighborhood, he had discovered, didn’t much care for those of mixed parentage.

Artemis stopped at the end of his hall. He didn’t need his faceplate sensors to tell someone was in his apartment, but he dropped his bag and took it out all the same. He pulled his hood back, revealing the grooved metal that replaced his scalp, and affixed the pointed hexagonal plate over his face.

As it locked with a click, his sensors booted and warning messages scrolled across his field of vision reminding him that his armor was missing along with his tactical limbs. He was reduced to the spindly medical prosthesis he picked up in Dubai until he could reach his stash in Tangiers: replacement limbs, tactical over-armor, and a second railgun.

He switched to infrared and scanned his apartment. A single occupant sat inside with no hint of a weapon.

Artemis tuned his high-frequency audio array, filtering out chatter and kitchen noise from the surrounding apartments and the sound of dogs fighting in the street.

A single heartbeat. And the unforgettable labored breath of a man he never thought he’d see again.

He looked around. There didn’t seem to be anyone else. And even if there were, everything he needed was inside the apartment.

Artemis walked down the hall and opened the door.

The Wisper sat in the cracked leather chair by the window, the one with the exposed arms and the missing leg.

“You’re in my bed.”

The old man jerked his head around, as if making a mental image of the room before he ascertained the meaning of the words. There was no mattress. “Ah. I see. You’ve been prospering, it seems.”

He nodded to the open squat toilet yawning in the floor of the water closet, the only other room in the flat. There was no door, and the faint stench of sewage wafted freely. The “kitchen” was directly adjacent and nothing but a single portable electric burner on a rolling, two-drawer cabinet.

Artemis leaned against the frame to catch his breath. He was tired from a full day of fighting. And apparently there was more to come. “Do me a favor. Pull that trunk out from the corner.”

The Wisper stood with a groan. “That was quite a fight.”

“You catch it?”

“I thought perhaps you noticed me in the crowd. You look different without the faceplate. Not as I expected.”

Artemis snorted and walked toward the open bathroom. “I thought you knew everything.” It was creepy the way the blind man built his sense of thing from the minds of those around him. “Still twisting the world to your will, I see. Like it’s a script in your head and the rest of us are just puppets being tugged in time with the tune.” Artemis hung his forearms from his elbows and wobbled his head.

“Script?” The old man’s frosted eyes danced over the ceiling as he tugged a long wooden crate free of the colorful knit blankets that covered it haphazardly. “The only performance I saw today was the one you gave in the ring. With inimitable Ms. Six.”

The mercenary turned on the water, and it dribbled brown into the once-white sink, now stained a permanent yellow, and fell through the black iris around the drain. “Betty’s always good for a score,” he said softly. She had needed the money just as much as him. Maybe more. He had split everything with her. They had plans to repeat the performance across town in a few days time.

“I wonder.” The old man cleared his throat.

“What’s that?”

“Which one of you would win in a fair fight.”

Artemis snorted. “Betty doesn’t fight fair. Never has. Don’t worry about her. She walked out of there with a fat wallet.”

The Wisper raised his eyebrows. “Still. A dangerous game.”

“What’s that?”

“Scamming the cartels. And all those men.”

Artemis cupped the water and ran it over the cut in his arm. It stung, and he hissed slightly. “Yeah. Well. The ‘men’ in this part of the world pay good to see a woman get beat. So fuck ’em. And as for the cartels . . . There are only two types of people in this world: the complicit, and the soon-to-be. If you’re not scamming, you’re being scammed.”

“Ah, yes. Misanthropy. Last stronghold of the coward.”

Artemis turned from the sink. “Coward?”

“Yes. Coward. It’s not difficult to despise. To kill. I should know. I’ve done it enough. We risk nothing. Boom. Dead. It’s over. And we feel powerful, don’t we? Righteous, even.”

The cyborg returned to the sink, now dribbled in pink, and kept washing his arm.

“There is no bravery without risk, Mr. Killjoy. To trust. To accept. To love, even. To relinquish the illusion of control. Of power. To place yourself—the only part of yourself that truly matters—in the care of others, knowing full well that one day they will you down. That is hard. That is courage. It’s much safer to just blow a man’s head off and keep moving.” The old man returned to his seat with a grunt.

Artemis looked at his guest in the mirror. “Whatever. You forget, I know you. You’re looking out for yourself, old man, same as anybody, so don’t expect appealing to my humanity will—”

“Humanity? What humanity? Every dollar you save goes to replacing some part of your body with a machine. You have no interest in humanity, Mr. Killjoy. I doubt you ever did.” The Wisper shifted in his chair from one side to the other. “And for a man who thinks so highly of himself, you’re not very intelligent.”

Artemis spun again. “Insulting me, on the other—”

“Are you threatened by the truth?”

“Is that what you call it?”

“Yes!” The old man yelled. “You’re embarrassed. Embarrassed that you lost. Embarrassed you had to run. Embarrassed you’re here, hiding. Embarrassed that I found you. Fighting in a pit for money. Like a dog. Or some strutting cock. I could feel it in your mind from the end of the hall.

“You think I went to all this trouble, found my way to this goat-stinking shithole, blind, to discuss humanitarian philosophy? You and I are in a position to help each other. I assumed my presence demonstrated the importance of the matter, but apparently not. And since we’ve already established I’m beyond your trust, along with the rest of the world, I’ll do as any reasonable person and appeal to your self interest instead.”

The cyborg waited. It was the only assent he would give. Truth was, it was nice to have company. And whether he brought trouble with him or showed up ahead of it, the old man was at least letting Artemis know it was coming.

The Wisper sat back like a villain on a throne. “In two days time, the world as we know it will end.”

The mercenary scowled under his faceplate. “The countdown isn’t up until next week.”

“I’m not talking about the countdown. Although there’s that as well. As I tried to explain to you and your colleagues, time is not a straight line. It is a bramble. Pulling one vine often tears another free. When I interfered with your team, I thought I was righting an imbalance. But there were repercussions.”

“Aren’t there always?”

“Sometimes. But not all of them are bad.”

“So what happens now? Wait! Don’t tell me. Aliens are coming.”

The blind man scowled. “There is at least one alien already here. What do you know of the people you faced in Chicago?”

Artemis wrapped his wound in gauze. The sooner he got his arms replaced, the better. “They’re powerful. Probably more than anyone realizes. They pulled one over on Veronika easy enough.” His colleagues had been unprepared. That wouldn’t happen again—not if Artemis were still on the team, anyway.

But he wasn’t.

“But?” the Wisper urged.

“They’re inexperienced. And way out of their league. They got lucky. We underestimated them. But sooner or later, luck runs out. It always does. The Prophet can’t protect them forever.”

“The Prophet doesn’t exist.”

Artemis turned his head.

“It’s a computer program. Built to beat the stock market by using vast quantities of metadata to predict the immediate future.”

Artemis scowled under his faceplate as he cut the gauze and fixed it tight. “So who’s been buying up all those arms? Running with the Faction?”

“The program’s author.” The Wisper paused. “An eleven year-old girl.”

The mercenary shook his head as he laughed out loud. “You should’ve stuck with aliens.”

The old man shrugged. “She is the most tangible threat I’ve ever witnessed.”

“Whatever.” Artemis walked out of the bathroom and opened the crate. There was a long bolt-action rifle inside, three clips, a string of cannister-shaped grenades, and a loaded German 9mm.

The Wisper’s eyes danced over the ceiling. “Did you know that when Captain Cook sailed around the Pacific, visiting all those little islands, he left stowaways?”

Artemis holstered the pistol. “What are you talking about?”

“Rats. On his ships. They had no natural predators on the islands and spread like wildfire. So predators were introduced. Cats. And snakes. But such creatures have more than a taste for rats, and they decimated the native species. The Law of Unintended Consequences.

“You were right about one thing, Mr. Killjoy. The team you faced is powerful. Too powerful, now. Thanks to me. And so the bearer of the Oric must survive. He must survive to face Ms. Andrews.”

Scarab.

Artemis wanted to spit. He could still feel the stiffness in his leg. Permanent frostbite. Damn near got him killed in the fights. “Survive? I thought you just said they were too powerful?”

“Indeed.”

Artemis waited. But the old man was silent. Whatever. “So you want me to save the kid?” Something must happen to him after he runs into Scarab, something the old man wants to make sure takes place.

“No. I want you to take your revenge on the woman who beat you and forced you into exile.”

“Ha. The others would kill me before I got the chance. Haven’t you heard? The ‘emperor of the world’ has promised me to the Vorgýrim.”

“What did you expect? You like no one and so no one likes you. You’re selfish, have a bad attitude, and are constantly insubordinate. In a word, you’re an asshole, Mr. Killjoy. What’s more, you’re not a true believer. If I were in The Red King’s shoes, I imagine I would have made the same trade.”

The cyborg threw his bloody towel over the door. “Your concern is touching, old man. But when do we get to the part about what’s in it for me?”

“In approximately 18 seconds.”

Artemis snorted in derision. He crossed his arms and started a countdown inside his visor. The numbers appeared in the lower right of his visual field. He watched the jumble of microseconds as the timer ticked to zero.

But nothing happened.

“Time’s up.”

“I said approximately.”

Artemis opened his mouth to speak but stopped as his entire visual field turned red. The proximity alarm he’d installed downstairs was set to track armed visitors. Someone was already in the building. He switched his vision to infrared and scanned the floors beneath his feet. He counted seventeen, plus a dark hole—a heat-less mass in the shape of a woman. They had the whole building surrounded.

“Fuck.” He was in no condition to fight Scarab, let alone that many others. Without his armor. Without his railgun. He looked to the Wisper.

“Now.” The blind man stood. “If you want to live, you’ll do exactly as I say.”

The mercenary lifted the rifle and slung the grenades over his shoulder.

The old man stepped back. “You know the building across the street?”

Artemis brought the bolt of the rifle back to confirm a bullet was in the chamber. Armor piercing. Just like the rest.

He nodded.

“Without stepping in front of the window, shoot through the third window from the left, top floor.”

Artemis spun and switched back to infrared. Sure enough, there was a sniper down on one knee. He fired. The weapon was loud and the recoil was heavy. People on the street yelled and ran.

The bullet went through the brick of his apartment and hit the man in the chest. He was wearing body armor, and the round had lost enough force that it didn’t kill him, but he was down.

The Wisper was already crawling out the window to the fire escape.

“We’ll be trapped on the roof,” the cyborg objected.

“You must trust me.” The blind man didn’t stop. He just started feeling his way up.

“Fuck.” The mercenary slung the rifle over his shoulder and followed. But the old man was slow. “Hurry!”

At the top, someone had put plywood across the gap in the buildings, and the pair went across one at a time as their pursuers came up behind them.

Artemis kicked the wood away as they opened fire from the door of the stair well.

That was stupid. Should have waited for a closer shot.

The Wisper was already out of range. He pointed to the base of the water tower the rose over the roof. “Throw a grenade at the far support.”

The mercenary pulled one from his belt. “This is a Christian mission.” He tossed and stepped in front of the old man with his back to the blast.

“So?”

The concussion hit him hard and he stumbled into his new ally. “And here I thought I was cold.”

The tower leaned and fell over the gap. It cracked on the side of the squat apartment block, and wave of water ran across the roof and fell to the street, where people were ducking for cover.

As the mercenary and his companion made for the next rooftop, Artemis turned to see Scarab emerge from the stairs and walk past her men on the ground. As she strode, the pool of water froze solid in an expanding circle from each footstep.

She turned to the men freeing themselves from the ice. “Building by building.” She stormed back to the stairs and pulled out her radio. “Target is mobile. Send the gunship.

 §§§

Artemis fed the last clip into the rifle, pulled the bolt, pushed it forward, and took aim. He was trapped with the old man inside in a classroom on the third floor of the mission. The mercenary had chosen a room facing a narrow alley on the east side. There was only a few feet between the buildings, meaning there wasn’t enough space for anyone to rappel down from the roof. He had tilted a number of desks and chairs in the hall. It was an effective barricade, and he was so far doing a reasonable job of keeping anyone from getting out of the stairwell.

He fired again. The bullet pierced the steel door and impacted block concrete.

But he was running out of ammunition. And he’d used the last of the grenades booby-trapping the door, which had bought them just enough time to settle in.

The Wisper turned his head sideways, as if catching wind of a faint odor or listening to a distant sound. “We don’t have much time.”

“No shit.” Artemis moved his head in the same way. The sound was distant, faint. But unmistakable. “Chopper inbound.”

Fuck. Scarab wasn’t taking any chances. He wondered if he should feel honored.

The cyborg listened to the men in the stairwell pulling back. He leaned the rifle against a sideways desk and walked to the middle of the room. There had to be a way out of there.

The helicopter hovered overhead, and its heavy blades chopped in the air in deep staccato thuds.

The Wisper felt his way along a row of cabinets covered in children’s artwork and dropped to the floor under a poster of the human body.

Through his sensitive audio filter, Artemis heard the cock of a very heavy machine gun. “Shit.”

He dove toward the old man as bullets ripped through the building. Papers flew about with gravely debris as sockets burst and windows shattered. The chopper was sweeping the floor, and after a short pause, the rain of bullet continued again from the opposite direction.

“We can’t stay here!” The mercenary pressed his hands to the ground, ready to push himself up after the next pass. Assuming he survived.

But the old man held up a hand. “Wait.”

Wait?

The bullets streamed through the wall, focusing on the makeshift barricade the cyborg had constructed. Artemis watched helplessly as desks and chair flew apart and his only rifle splintered into pieces. No way he’d make it out with only a sidearm.

The Wisper pointed.

Artemis turned his head. The stream of artillery fire had cut a hole in the wall of the mission next to a window, and there was room for the two men to leap through a similar hole in the next building across the narrow gap.

So that’s what the old man was waiting for.

The mercenary didn’t hesitate. He jumped as the helicopter circled the building. He didn’t look to see if the old man followed. Right then, he didn’t much care.

The third floor was offices. Real estate, apparently. The second floor was part of a small department store. Both had been evacuated as soon as the shooting started.

“What are you doing?” The Wisper hobbled down an aisle between racks of clothes.

“Getting out of here.” The cyborg had acquired some nylon. “See you around, old man. Thanks for the chat.” Artemis walked toward the front. He glanced at the shelves of brightly packaged food next to him. He stuffed a pack of snack cakes into a pouch on his pants.

“You think it’s an accident that four of the most unusually talented people in the entire world just happened to stumble into each other right when the world needed them to?”

“You said the Prophet was a ghost.”

“Indeed. Making it all the more suspicious, don’t you think?”

The mercenary stopped. “Who are we talking about?” The Americans were clueless. The Russians and the Chinese were playing ball. The Faction was a joke. And there wasn’t a corp yet operating at this level. Too risky for a publicly-traded commercial entity.

“There is something else. Something larger. Beyond your former masters. Beyond the Vorgýrim. Beyond the hive mind and its endless scheming.”

“As far as I can see, you’re the only one with the schemes.” Artemis shook his head and turned back for the stairs, raising one finger to the sky. “And I told you aliens would come into it eventually.”

The Wisper followed with a limp. “I never said aliens. I am agnostic on the source, in fact.”

“Then how—”

“One can see a shadow around a corner without seeing that which casts it. You don’t have to believe me, Mr. Killjoy. But don’t tell me you don’t have your own suspicions about those four.”

Artemis turned around again on the landing between floors. “Okay. Let’s say you’re right. It still doesn’t have anything to do with me.” It was half challenge, half question.

“Doesn’t it? If the machine goes live, The Red King will be able to find you anywhere on the earth. Not even you can run forever. Surely you know that.”

“Look who’s talking.”

The Wisper nodded. “But then, you and I aren’t the only ones who want to ensure that machine never reaches its apogee.”

Artemis shook his head. “Something tells me I’m really not going to like this next part.”

The old man stepped forward with dancing eyes. “You must surrender to the Vorgýrim. It’s the only way.”

Artemis dropped his head. Yup.

“They’ve agreed to trade for you, sent their Russian colleagues to conduct daylight business. They’re waiting a few blocks from here.”

Artemis snorted. Scarab was awfully sure of herself. Her and Veronika were practically twins. For all her tinkering, Maria never could get either woman to listen.

“Ask yourself, why would the Vorgýrim trade for you? Why not Ms. Andrews, or Ms. Molotov herself?”

The cyborg was silent.

“You are an experienced soldier, a mercenary with a certain reputation. Everyone knows you’re not a true believer. But you have tactical expertise and detailed information about the China facility stored inside that head of yours.”

Artemis lowered his face. It was a slaughter in Uzbekistan. Veronika and the others were so confident in the master plan, it didn’t once occur to them there might be serious repercussions. The Vorgýrim would never be satisfied with a few heads, not after losing an entire clan. They would send a message. Honor demanded they return the favor in kind. Slaughter for slaughter.

In the middle of that was no place to stand.

Artemis walked down the open stairs.

The Wisper walked to the railing. “Where are you going?”

Nothing.

“Do you understand? If the bearer dies now, the world is finished!”

A red-face soldier came around the corner at the end of the hall, dressed in full SWAT gear. He had followed the pair through the hole. The Wisper had sensed him coming, and a single man was no threat. He turned with a scowl to spike the man’s mind, exactly as he’d done numerous times.

But in the moment he inserted himself, he saw flashes of a family. Of a small child with leukemia. Of a worried mother. Of hospital bills and a need for money. The man hadn’t been told who he was after. Just that they were criminals.

Filled with the laughter of children, the embrace of a spouse, weekends going to soccer games and mowing the lawn, the Wisper did the unthinkable.

He wavered.

The soldier’s rifle swung around as he turned the corner. There was nowhere to hide in the open hall by the stairs.

A shot.

The soldier fell.

Wisper turned to see the cyborg riding a motorcycle up the stairs.

“Tell me again how you and Lady Death managed to get out of that silo alive.” He holstered his sidearm and revved the engine. The wheels bounced up the steps to the second floor. “They’re gathering outside.”

The old man was visibly shaken. And confused. He cleared his throat and tried to compose himself, but his gyrating hands gave it away.

The gunship flew overhead.

“Ms. Andrews had to believe it was all her doing,” he said softly with a crack in his voice.

“Yeah. Right.”

“I don’t know what . . .” He stopped. Something was wrong with him. He was . . .

Captain Regent.

That was it.

That would not do. That would not do at all. But he would have to deal with it later.

“Take care of yourself, old man.” Artemis Killjoy revved the bike’s engine and jolted up the next flight of stairs.

Up. Not down.

The Wisper nodded. The mercenary was going to fight. It was time for him to go.

 §§§

A motorcycle crashed through the upper floor windows and flew into the air.

“Shit!” The pilot pulled the stick hard to the left as the bike nearly struck the helicopter and fell through a roof below.

The maneuver turned the chopper on its side as it moved, and the gunner looked up just in time to see a metal-faced man let go of a swinging rope and fall through open air right at him.

He struck the gunner and nearly knocked him from the vehicle, but the man’s brace held him tight. The pair struggled struggled as the pilot gained altitude.

“Target inside! Target inside!”

The co-pilot turned to shoot the intruder, who kicked the man’s hand, sending the shot wide.

The gunner wrapped his left arm around the mercenary’s neck and locked it in place with his right, trying to choke the man, but Artemis’s left shoulder and the left side of his chest was encased in metal, and the rim of it kept his airways open eve as the gunner squeezed with all his strength.

The cyborg kicked the copilot again, then kicked the man’s seat to push the gunner to the back wall. He reached down and pulled the man’s sidearm and in one smooth move, shot the copilot in the head, then the pilot, then the gunner in the leg. The man released his grip as he shrieked in pain, and Artemis turned, kicked him to the back wall again as he pushed the aircraft stick forward amid the screech of warning sirens.

The chopper headed right toward a brick building . . . where Scarab stood watching the action. She turned for the stairs as Artemis shot the gunner and jumped from the aircraft.

As he fell twelve meters to a nearby roof, he turned just in time to see the blades of the tilting copter chop through brick before crashing into the building and exploding in a massive fireball.

 §§§

Three Russians on motorbikes were stopped on the road in front of an open van. Seven more men with automatic rifles paced inside. They were here for a trade. But as they watched the flames from the chopper consume the building down the road, it looked like that wasn’t going to happen. The fire was spreading amid a cacophony of sirens and wails.

A man with bleached-white hair and a stout set of Siberian prison tattoos stepped forward from the back of the van and zipped open the black body bag on the floor. There was an Asian kid inside, unconscious.

He looked at his watch. He stood. He drew his side arm. He cocked it. He pointed it at the kid’s head. He looked at his watch again. He released the safety.

One of the men on bikes called out, and the white-haired man looked up to see a figure emerge from flame. A pointed hexagonal plate covered his face. His scalp was metal, as were his left shoulder and most of that side of his chest. His entire right leg and his left leg from the knee down were completely artificial, as was his right arm, but the prosthesis lacked covering and so were thin and spindly.

The metal man’s clothes were half on fire, and he tore them off as he walked toward the van. All weapons pointed to him, but he neither flinched nor raised his hands.

“Let’s just get this over with.” He stepped into the back of the van. “And you fuckers owe me some snack cakes.”

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