[SNEAK PEEK] Gamer: Chapter 1

Gamer: A futuristic techno-thriller. Tagline: Don' class=

Chapter 1

The music pounded in time with her boots, a hard thud thud thud against her ribs. The hip-swinging impact of the chunky block-heel rode up her spine to mix with the rib-thumping beat. 

All around, bodies were jammed together, a sea of skin-hugging denim, leather, and music. Music that roared in her ears and got under her skin, angry voices that yelled defiance and freedom. Outside, wind and winter froze the ground but in here, with the Iron Woods mall’s open walls and unfinished sides, the heat had sweat pooling in the small of her back, the thin black t-shirt sticking to her skin under the hooded leather jacket.

The stink of people and spilled beer rose on that heat, twisting around her as she pushed deeper into the rave, slipping between writhing bodies and swinging arms as easily as the System’s digital highways. She was comfortable here, safe in the anonymity of the heaving throng. Comfortable enough to throw back her hood and let the counter-bugs built into her glasses and clothes obliterate her presence from the countless cams and network sniffers hidden amongst the crowd.

Besides, the death’s cowl would only draw more attention, the kind the dark, wild mane of her hair and full lips would disperse, even as it brought her other trouble. Like the hand reaching from the shadows cast by strobing lights and the dark skeleton of the abandoned mall. She twisted around it, just another over-sexed boy-man trying to grab what wasn’t his.

She was no man’s, no woman’s, answered to no one but herself, a shadow passing through the world. Even if, deep down, that lack of belonging—of family—ached. She ignored it, shoved it aside and stomped it into the icy concrete.

Never let them see you bleed, her grandmother’s memory whispered in her ear.

Not even herself. 

This part of her, stalking the crowd, leather pants and chunky boots, t-shirt tight across her chest, arms covered to the elbow, this was all her. Just like the mall, once destined to house bright shops and gleaming elevators, now alive with the bodies and the music that couldn’t find a home elsewhere. They were both at home here, in the dark and night—

‘Hey, pretty girl. Drink with me.’

A can was shoved in her face.

She pushed it aside, bringing her hand up and under the one that grabbed hold of her jacket.

The man gripped tighter. ‘Drink!’ He shoved the can against her chest.

She stared him in the eye, meeting his small dark ones with her own hazel. He grinned at her, wide and toothy, a little sloppy around the edges, gaze shimmering with alcohol.

She considered him another second—his friends in their dark, band t-shirts and fashionably distressed jeans arrayed behind him—and smiled. The night and the strobing lights cast their faces in stark shadow, lending the short, slicked-back haircuts and clean-shaven faces a menacing cast. The rings on their hands and the neat, manicured nails belied their presence, as did the craft beer shoved against her chest. Fancy business warriors taking a walk on the wild side.

There was a cold spot on her breastbone from the condensation beading the can. 

She wrapped her free hand around the one the fancy man had shoved against her chest. Smiled as she did it, letting her eyes widen, her mouth soften, felt the victory in her veins at the corresponding burst of over-entitled patriarchal confidence in his.

A sharp twist and the fancy businessman was on his knees, all that confidence washed away in the wave of pain creasing his brow, making his mouth wide. She grabbed the can from his now slack hand, shook it, and with a practiced flick of her thumb, sprayed the contents in his face.

A half-minute from the first hand on her shoulder to the final delicious upheaval, and it was over. Vlad bled into the seething crowd before the fancy man’s friends knew what happened, their outraged shouts swallowed by the pounding music.

She wound her way through the dancers, slipping between shadows and lights, the rib-thumping music seeping deeper into her bones. But she didn’t stop, didn’t join the gyrating crowd to lose herself in the pulse-pounding hypnotism of heavy bass. She was here for a different reason and it waited beyond the crowd, in the dark.

The strobes and heavy lights turned the areas beyond the old atrium into a forest. Concrete pillars the width of two people, the trees; the slab ceiling with its forgotten cables and pipes its vine-strewn canopy; beer cans, vape canisters and crumbled trash its leaf litter. Vlad slipped into those shadows, moving from one to the next without fear but not without thought. Every sense reached into that forested darkness, tension riding her spine, the sensors embedded in her glasses and around her collar spewing data onto the back of her lenses.

The rave fell behind, its pounding rhythm drowning footsteps but no longer knocking her ribs, the smell of sweat and alcohol giving way to the sharp sting of chill winter and rot.

Ahead and up a set of unfinished concrete stairs, a new light bloomed.

A man stood against it, legs braced, arms crossed. Tall and lean, the chemical glows strewn over the floor cast his face in shadow, but she knew him. Knew the nose-curling smirk on his face, knew he watched her like a piece of meat on the hoof.

Another man-boy trying to put hands on what wasn’t his. But unlike the fancy businessmen, danger and violence rode under the ink tattooed on Hamish Elwood’s skin.

Vlad stopped at the edge of the lights, the harsh orange glow kissing the carbon-toed tips of her boots.

Hamish smiled. ‘Sam-a-el,’ he said.

He drew her online alias out in an oily drawl that made her skin crawl, but the disgust didn’t show on her face, didn’t so much as curl her nose or twitch her lips. There was Grandmother’s hand on her shoulder, the old woman’s steel in her spine.

Hamish was a steppingstone, a bug she would squash as soon as she was done.

She smiled, while on the back of her glasses more data lit up the night. The silver-on-black watch on her wrist matched logos on the ancient oil drums holding up the makeshift table to manufacturers, barcodes to shipping crates and purchase logs, same as it did the old doors forming the tabletop, the vape hanging out the side of Hamish’s thin, smirking mouth. Moreover, it picked out the three figures waiting in the shadows behind him.

It identified Ru Ping, his bodyguard, by the unique mix of digital signatures from the devices the woman wore, and the network traffic that connected her to the other two heavies.

A hard thought, and Vlad’s watch went to work, analysing the algorithms in the data flowing between them, searching for a crack in their systems, a way in.

Vlad stepped into the light. ‘Do you have it?’

Hamish drew on the vape.

On her HUD, a new network-spike flashed – activity between Ru Ping and Hamish. 

‘I got it,’ he said. ‘You ready to earn it Sam-a-el?’

‘Just give me the target.’

Again that smirk; a greasy stretch of lips around the vape. He oozed around the table, tattooed fingers trailing over the scarred and flaky wood, and stopped before her. Just the too-sweet stretch of his vape between them.

Vlad held her ground, didn’t let the creepy-crawlies chilling her nape make it to her face or ball her hands. Didn’t choke or snarl when he blew smoke into her face, the chemical cherry sticking to the back of her tongue.

Later, she promised herself. Later.

Below, the rave pounded a double-time to her heart.

A ping from the comm behind her ear, the one snuggled up against the port in the side of her neck. A share request popping on her HUD, Hamish still smirking through it.

She accepted.

The file, a packet of maps and schematics, addresses in the real and virtual worlds downloaded to her network. The security algos scanned it for worms and viruses before it hit her databanks. Warnings pinged, automatically tagged and quarantined, problems to deal with later, for now… A less-than-legal treasure hunt spread across her glasses.

Key phrases snagged her attention—core system, pro league, phish, trojan, Meerkat—while dossiers scudded past. There were other words, like rumours, unconfirmed and artificial intelligence, but she ignored them; she’d read all she needed to.

She didn’t like it. Just like she didn’t like the hand reaching for her arse.

A deft sidestep and Hamish’s hand collected nothing but thin, smoke-filled air.

Vlad didn’t glare, didn’t twist her lips or shove her fingers in his throat like the boiling anger in her gut demanded. Instead, she shoved the fury down, deep into a place beyond, the same one she shoved her nightmares and helplessness, and let her face be a mask. Perfectly serene. Brow smooth, a light smile tugging at her mouth, not a wrinkle or frown for miles.

Just like Grandmother had taught her.

That thought, stray as it was, broke the perfect serenity. Just a second, a brief shattering moment in which Vlad could feel her face crack, could almost see the shock in her own eyes, the corresponding, inquisitive twitch of Hamish’s head.

A moment, just a moment to threaten the ground she’d gained.

She turned away, glided around the other side of the long, cobbled-together table, let her fingertips trail over the rough surface, and summoned the mask again. It slipped easily over her face, comfortable and familiar, armour made from the perfect set of chin, the Mona-Lisa-slight twitch of lips, the gaze that looked through and not at. Unperturbed. Confident. Impenetrable.

Everything the hacker-gamer known as Samael, the reigning Scourge of the VR circuit, should be. Everything she was meant to be, even if she didn’t feel it, deep down inside.

The long, narrow table was coarse and uneven, two old wooden doors sitting end-to-end on drums that still carried the smell of engine grease and fuel. The only thing holding them down, the half-crushed beer cans and crumpled trash. It would only take a good shove to send them flying. The strobes from the rave below cast weird, colour-leeching shadows over the old, stained wood, made pits out of the round holes that had once housed locks and the panels where the remnants of diamond panes made ragged teeth.

Vlad halted at the table’s foot, traced those glassy teeth with a naked finger, like it was the most fascinating thing she’d ever seen. Another part of the mask, an energy barrier designed to shield and confuse.

‘Well?’ She could almost hear Hamish cross his arms. ‘What’s the great Samael got ta say about that?’

The plan, he was talking about the plan.

She wrapped her fingers around the glass shard, plucked it free. ‘I don’t like it.’ Had no wish to find herself tagged and system-locked because some handsy arsehole thought he knew shit about the networks; the nooks and crannies and idiosyncrasies she knew like the back of her hand. The very same ones he was paying her to exploit.

Hamish’s snip hunt was just like him, slick and slimy and dangerous, for everyone except himself.

‘And yuu’d like it better if we did it your way then?’ 

‘Yes,’ she said. Because with her plan, the only one getting screwed over was Hamish. Not that he’d know it, not until it was too late.

The thud of fists on rickety wood, and Vlad glanced up, just a flick of her eyes, just enough to appreciate the way the Hamish positioned himself, so the bright, eye-searing lights from the rave cast him in looming shadow.

He leaned over the table, fists supporting his weight, black shirt gapping over his thin, reedy chest. The gloom turned the honeycomb-pattern tattooed on his throat to below his collarbone and over his left shoulder, into hexagon-shaped holes in his white skin. She was half-surprised the smoke from his vapes didn’t pour out those holes. 

‘We ain’t doon it,’ he said.

She kept her eyes on the shard, as if the inch-long glass tooth held the mysteries of the universe, but her attention, all of it, was on Hamish. The way his shoulders twitched, how his mouth twisted, the precise tilt of his shaved-bald head. ‘We are.’

‘Nae.’ He slammed the table with both fists, the old wood giving with a sharp crack. ‘We’re not.’ He snarled the words. ”Cause I ain’t got a death wish, ye little bit—’

A sharp flick and the glass shard flew, the sharp point gleaming red then yellow in the strobes, before it sank into his flesh, seeming to disappear into the hexagon holes on Hamish’s chest.

He jerked backward, stumbling from the table, hand clasped to his collarbone, tearing the glass out of his skin. Outrage and shock clashed on his face, fury following as he held the bloody missile to the light. ‘What the fook?’

Hamish’s gaze went from the shard to her, and she met it this time, no longer staring through him, but straight in his eyes, like she could see all the way to his shrivelled little soul. 

‘Ye cut me, you little cunt?’ 

A tilt of the head sent the chaotic Medusa-like curls sliding over her shoulder. ‘Watch your mouth.’

‘Watch me mouth?’ Incredulity fought the fury twisting Hamish’s face and pulled his lips into a snarl. He held up the bloody glass tooth as if it were a trophy. ‘Me watch me mouth?’  He laughed—a sharp, short bark—and threw the shard on the table. ‘Fook you, ye crazy cunt. You’re the one needing to be watching your mouth, or me and the boys are gonna have to—’

A single kick sent a door careening off the drums and into Hamish’s thighs. He fell, folding over the narrow wood.

Figures melted out of the shadows before the Scot was even on the ground, strobes gleaming off the points of knives and the hard shapes of old-fashioned pistols. Vlad ignored them, already stalking over the door, her chunky black boots making crunching sounds in the half-rotted timber, pinning Hamish to the concrete with her weight. 

She braced her feet where his hips should be, and crouched, pretending like the three heavies didn’t make fear clench her guts, her stomach knot.

Vlad didn’t have a weapon—no knives, no gun—nothing but her nerve, her wit and the steel in her spine.

Hamish screeched as she leaned over his torso, shifting her weight over her front foot and the tender things underneath. Rage still knotted his smooth white face, twisted the narrow nose and hexagon tattoos trailing down his cheek, but pain had washed away the cocky tilt to his head, the knowing smirk, while something very much like fear widened his pale-green eyes and made pinpricks of his pupils.

She leaned forward, imagining her foot was an anvil, and Hamish a worm. ‘The boys won’t do anything,’ she said. A sharp glance up, straight into the lead heavy’s black eyes. ‘Except stand there.’

Behind the thick black rims of her glasses, Ru Ping’s dark gaze narrowed, considering even as her fellows closed in on either side. Vlad ignored them the same way a lioness ignored a pack of hyenas, their movements pricking along her spine. Her focus was on their leader. 

Ru Ping stood tall and lean – toe-to-toe, Vlad would have to lift her chin and stand on tip-toe to meet the woman’s eyes. The bodyguard stood with shoulders back, her own chin held high, midnight hair bound in a skull-hugging braid, the tail end disappearing under her collar. Ru Ping had the uncanny ability to melt into the background, disappearing without a ripple until she chose to be noticed. Like now. And now… now she radiated menace.

Light, like an oil spill, played across the square lenses of Ru Ping’s glasses as the woman’s HUD spat information at her.

For a second, Vlad caught the afterimage of a face on the other side. It was just a moment. There and then gone. Easily mistaken for a playback or a scan, but then there was the twitch in Ru Ping’s shoulder, like the woman had to stop herself from touching a headset sunk in her ear.

That oil-slick shiver embedded itself on Vlad’s retina, and victory clenched her gut. Yes. Finally.

Ru Ping held up a hand. The other two heavies halted. The other woman—in thick black boots just like Vlad’s, the toes capped in shiny steel, and a heavy black leather coat falling to her thighs—took a step back. She didn’t say anything, but that single step was all Vlad needed.

She smiled at Hamish, the expression a long dark slash across her face. There was no humour in it, nothing save the darkness in her eyes.

The man snarled back, both hands on the door, the whipcord muscles across his chest straining as he tried to push it, and her, off.

She leaned harder on the one, optimally placed boot.

‘Fook you c—!’ 

Snake-quick, Vlad twisted, all her weight still on that one boot, but now the other was mashed in Hamish’s face, the grimy, chunky sole stopping up his mouth.

‘Watch your mouth,’ she said. Vlad leaned down a little, strain shivering through her back leg and the tight, knotted mass of old scars gumming up her knee, as she fought to keep from crushing Hamish’s face. 

Not that it would matter, the small, dark part of her insisted. He’d done worse, hadn’t he? Left a trail of destruction in his wake that made a few smashed teeth seem like Christmas with the family. And not even her family, but one of those nice, American TV ones, with stockings hanging off the mantle, and a big fluffy dog. Parents.

And yet… And yet another voice whispered in the back of her mind – the calm, clear tone of reason biting through the anger and pain. In the back of her mind there was a hand on her shoulder, a ghostly apparition made of memory and love, cutting through the swirling dark even as it drove deeper into her heart.

‘You are not this.’ It was her mother’s voice, the memory of her touch. ‘You are better, little warrior. Your light will show others the way.’

Vlad hissed; the anger, the dark pulling lips back from teeth, but she ripped her boot from Hamish’s face.

He stared at her, eyes still wide, chin and lips smeared with boot grime.

‘We do it my way,’ she said. Vlad rose, giving one last extra push on the sweet spot over Hamish’s groin as she hopped off the door.

He was up in a shot, the old door skidding across the concrete with the force of his shove, aimed at her boots.

It didn’t touch her, she was already backing away, attention never leaving Hamish or the heavies arrayed behind. 

‘Then ye on ye own, you filthy—’ He swallowed the word, teeth a grimace; sharp, chiselled nose curled, hate emanating from every pore.

But Vlad wasn’t looking at him, her attention was on Ru Ping, on the oil-slick reflection playing across the heavy’s black-rimmed glasses. 

Their gazes met, hazel on black, and Ru Ping nodded. 

Vlad nodded back.

‘Two weeks,’ Ru Ping said. ‘Have it ready.’