C.A. Blocke © 2019
All Rights Reserved
One: The Job
“You’re really going in alone?” Edge asked, leaning heavily against the console as James plugged in the coordinates. “I thought you promised Lyra you weren’t doing jobs alone anymore after that last big fuckup.”
James rolled his eyes and sighed. “What Lyra don’t know won’t hurt her. You and your sister are wanted on every planet in Corporate Space, and I’m not about to lose the only good pilot we’ve got by taking Corin along for the ride. Besides, I’m fluent in bullshit. I’ll be fine.”
Edge laughed and drew his oversized ElectroPistol before shoving it toward James’s chest. “You’re gonna need this. They set up scanners every few kilometers to catch travelers with old-school bullets.”
“You know I’ve got one.” James smirked, opening his dark-brown duster to show off his special design. “And mine’s overclocked.”
Edge and his sister, Razor, had been on the ship’s crew since day one, and far too many crew members had been lost one way or another since. To be fair, James knew Edge had a point. The duster was a bit of a showpiece, but even in Corporate Space, they could appreciate fine leatherwork.
Quietly, Razor added, “Careful where you’re scanning with that eye, boss. Peach detection is sensitive to all TechEyes.”
James blinked several times, self-conscious at the reminder of his less-than-human status. After fifteen years on the outer ring, he was starting to feel less man than machine. An eye, a leg, and a full neural interface later, who really could say he wasn’t? “Yes, mother.” James sighed, offering another fond roll of the eyes. “Believe me, I’m in and out. The last place I want to hang out is a Peach Corp research and development office.”
“Eye on the prize.” Edge nodded, clapping a meaty hand on James’s back. “Corin’ll leave the engines running for ya.”
Getting in wasn’t hard; a flash of the badge the client had provided and a few sideways glances at James’s generally unkempt appearance, and he was walking the halls toward the mark’s office. Thankfully, R&D didn’t have half the security protocol most Corporate offices had, and as far as they cared, the dark-haired man in a duster and pressed shirt was Mr. Marquis Benton, in the flesh. However, the short middle manager staring him down didn’t exactly seem convinced.
“So, Mr. Benton, is it?” he asked, stroking his fingers through professionally cropped blond hair before taking off his glasses to rub the bridge of his nose. “And you are here for?”
“I was told the communique was sent days ago,” James bluffed, crossing his arms and giving the manager, Michael, a critical look. “The Rose prototype. It’s being called up for Corporate preview.”
“Well, as much as I’d love to have one less piece of useless technology to deal with, it’s not ready. I never received this…communique…you’re talking about.” Michael’s brow furrowed as he slipped his glasses back on; the frustration apparent on his face was adorable at the very least.
“Fine. Fine.” James leaned in, glancing over the man’s badge to grab a name, only to feel his TechEye activate to read it through the soft fold of his worn blazer. “It’s all right, Michael. I’ll deal with your supervisor.”
“I am the supervisor at this facility.” Michael frowned, shaking his head. “And if that crappy old TechEye wasn’t such a piece of outdated shit running firmware from ten years ago, you would have been able to pull up my personnel file and would know that.”
It wasn’t quite the same as being caught red-handed, and security wasn’t swarming the office yet, so there was that much hope. “Hey, you know how crappy the pay is for runners. I haven’t exactly been able to keep up on the latest and greatest.” James shrugged, and then stepped closer, ready to make a move, if justified. “Besides, I don’t like all that clutter in my HUD. All I need is to get this prototype to my boss.” It was a fair enough statement; the heads-up display on the older chip software was much less cluttered with information of various levels of situational importance. In the long run, it made it difficult to parse the large amount of information that wasn’t actually in front of his eyes but tended to render him at least distracted when it came up.
Michael stood, one hand on his black leather belt and the other casually planted against his desk. “The new heads-up display is actually quite streamlined by comparison, especially if you have the visual upgrade.” He shifted on his feet and, after a moment’s pause, dropped his gaze down to the litter of papers and scraps on his desk. “Look, okay… I don’t know who you are or how you got in here, but contrary to popular belief, just because I’m in R&D, I’m not a fucking idiot. The Rose is classified, and you’ve done absolutely nothing to make me believe you should even be here.”
James had been in worse situations, which really said quite a lot about his chosen profession. He put on his best smile and leaned across Michael’s desk, drawing eyes back up to him. “I’ll level with you, Michael. There was no communique, okay? I know I’m sort of jumping the gun here, but bringing back the Rose and blowing the bigwigs’ minds with it pretty much guarantees a promotion that…uh…well, I need. And I know you’ve got zero reason to believe a word I’m saying, but I can definitely put in a good word for the new head of R&D.”
Michael’s eyes narrowed behind his thin spectacles, and James felt his heart rate raise enough to hear the blood pounding in his ears. Lying was no big thing, but pulling shit in a Peach facility was a damn bold move for someone not looking to end up in a prison colony for the rest of their short, crappy life. Finally, Michael said, “Head of R&D? You have that kind of power? I thought you said you were a runner.”
“A runner for someone with more power than both of us combined. With the right offering, I could do quite a lot”—James whispered, licking his lower lip for dramatic effect, if not sheer nerves—“with a little help from a certain smart and handsome developer.”
A long moment passed, and James realized exactly how that statement had come off. Fortunately, Michael seemed to buy it, and James wasn’t really lying—for everything his bookish appearance gave off, Michael was handsome in a sort of cute tech-nerd kind of way. Michael sighed and shook his head, drawing back. “You’ve got a silver tongue, Marquis. And, I guess I’m just sick of looking at the stupid thing,” he muttered under his breath, heading toward the door James had come in. “I have to get it from the lab; they’re working on it today.”
“Of course, of course.” James feigned a laugh while following him back into the corridor and through the honeycomb of hallways and nondescript rooms toward the lab.
Michael scanned his card and then turned back to face him. “Wait here.”
There was a delicate dance—James couldn’t wait too long out in the open without being checked by security, who would likely figure out his papers were fake, within a few seconds, but he also had to offer Michael the benefit of the doubt, lest his true intention be made even clearer. He nodded and casually folded his arms over his chest, gently patting the pistol concealed within his coat. Beyond the door, he couldn’t see much more than several bodies in white suits with blank faces moving quietly around, and then he was alone in the corridor.
Ten minutes and one close call with security passed, and James couldn’t stop himself from attempting to listen at the door, to no avail. Daring the chance of getting caught, he fumbled out the jack in his coat pocket, connecting it to the keypad first and then directly to the port behind his left ear. Hacking was dangerous in the best possible circumstances. Getting caught was almost a certainty, but the cybernetic jack made it a little simpler to do something as innocuous as jimmying a lock—hell, James had practically grown up forcing locks with or without technological assistance. Unfortunately, Razor wasn’t wrong about Peach Corp being on top of outside tech in their systems. The lock gave, after only a few moments of forcing the code, the door opened, and the first thing James saw after pulling the jack free at both ends in one yank was security coming right for him.
“What are you doing in here?” Michael shouted as James rushed into the room, slamming the door behind him. A steel case was open on a large table, a small purple rose made of circuits and glass seated in a holding point fixed inside the case.
“Okay, so here’s the thing…” James stammered, letting the words come as his most useful form of self-preservation. “There are at least three guys with ElectroPistols on the other side of that door, and I really need to leave with this prototype, so if you could close that case, I’ll be heading out now.”
“It’s not ready!” Michael answered, lifting the safety goggles from around his glasses and tossing them on the floor with an angry sigh. “Do you even know anything about the Rose? You have got to be the most ignorant—”
James cut him off for lack of time more than anything, snapping the case closed. “I may have to use you as a human shield…no worries; ElectroPistols don’t hurt nearly as bad as the real thing.” He was well aware it sounded bad, but to the best of his knowledge, as long as the person being shot didn’t have too many cybernetic parts, the blasts weren’t usually deadly. James grabbed Michael’s elbow, thankful he was a little lighter and a good deal shorter than most.
They made it two steps to the door, and when James touched the latch, a loud popping noise was accompanied by a rush of heat, and everything went black.