by K. M. Ruiz
SLUMS OF THE ANGELS, USA
“All passengers, please remain seated. For your safety, the protective shutters will be coming down as we pass through Las Vegas. Vidfeed will be available on the train’s public stream. All passengers, please remain seated.”
The computer repeated its modulated tones over a static-filled comm system. Threnody Corwin cracked open one blue eye and watched as the thick protective shutters slid down the graffiti covered windows on the outside of the maglev train, locking into place with the soft squeal of hydraulics. The heavy seal blocked out sunlight, her view of the dry, dead land beyond the windows, and the lingering radiation that still covered most of the country.
“Don’t even think about opening that vidfeed,” her partner said from the seat beside her. “If you’ve seen one deadzone, you’ve seen them all and I want to sleep.”
“Then sleep,” Threnody said around a yawn. She stretched in the thinly padded seat and shoved straight black hair out of her eyes. In her mid to late twenties, she was built long-legged and lean, which made contorting herself to fit inside the limited travel space difficult. “We’ve got time before we reach California.”
Quinton Martinez merely grunted, brown eyes narrowed down to slits as he scratched at the stubble on his chin. He wore the same type of outfit as Threnody, a black-on-black battle dress uniform, and boots that had walked across three continents. Taller than Threnody, with muscles corded thickly against his bones, Quinton’s skin was a deep brown, scarred lightly over the knuckles and the back of his hands from the fire he could control as a Class III pyrokinetic.
Fire wasn’t something he could create, not without external help. That’s what the thin, malleable biotubes containing compressed natural gas were for. The biotubes were grafted along the metacarpal bones in his hands, radiating up his forearms where skin and muscle biomodifications held them in place. The skin at the tip of each middle finger and thumb had been replaced with razor thin pieces of metal. Quinton had given up on keeping track of how many times he’d lost his hands and arms to fire. He’d seen the inside of a biotank for regeneration too many times over the years for it to matter anymore.
“The Rockies, then down to the Slums of the Angels,” Quinton said, thinking of all that was really left of civilization on the West Coast since the bombs fell, a mirror for the rest of the world. “Chasing a blip on the grid into a goddamn warzone.”
Threnody rubbed at her forehead with careful fingers, wishing her skin didn’t feel so new. “You didn’t have to come, Quin. You’re salvageable, according to the psi surgeons. They would have transferred you if you asked.”
“And like a good dog I should have asked, right?” The smile Quinton gave her was thin and hard with anger. “You’re my partner, Thren. The only family I’ve got. I go where you go. End of story.”
Two failed missions back-to-back: Madrid, and then later Johannesburg, where she had opted to let unregistered humans and potential psions live instead of killing them in the face of threats from higher-Classed enemy psions. Their current mission was simply punishment for past failures.
The Strykers Syndicate contracted out enslaved psion soldiers for high-risk jobs. Death was a known and accepted byproduct of those contracts and the dead needed to be replaced for the company to turn a profit. Those children with psion potential she let go were resources she had no right to touch or lose. Insubordination had only gotten them a stint in medical and a black mark on their records. Quinton could have argued his way out of it. She was the one in charge, after all; it had been her decision, not his. Except they were partners, now and always, and he’d opted to come with her once again. One last mission to prove her loyalty. One last mission to prove she deserved to live.
The government owned her, as they owned every psion. Her independence, according to the ruling World Court, had become a problem.
Never could learn to come to fucking heel, Threnody thought bitterly as she reached over and touched a sensor on the side panel of her seat.
A hologrid snapped into existence before her, projected through the air from overhead, the logo for TransAmerica MagLev, Inc. spinning slowly before blending seamlessly into the welcome menu. She dragged her finger over the public stream option and was treated to a view of the stark, polluted ruins of a lost American city. Just a skeleton of a time abandoned generations ago, of a world no one even remembered. The ruins were similar to all the ones in the many deadzones they had been pushing through since departing from what was left of Buffalo, New York.
She reached out to shift the feed to something different. Only this time, when her fingers touched the hologrid, the data flickered, wavered into colored lines, then sizzled into sparks that shocked her. Whatever pain or irritation Threnody experienced, it was drowned out by the frustration she felt at her lack of control. It wasn’t something she could afford.
Quinton yanked her hand away before anyone noticed, reaching over to press the control screen on her seat’s arm panel that would shut down the hologrid.
“Don’t,” he said, mouth pressed close to her ear. “You’re not ready. Johannesburg was a mistake and you’re still recovering. They shouldn’t have discharged you from medical.”
Threnody rubbed her fingers against her knee, the shock of the charge nothing more than a tingle beneath her nails when it shouldn’t have been even that, not for a Class III electrokinetic. Her power, like all electrokinetics, was limited to conduits that she could touch and feed. An involuntary reaction to a machine simply meant Quinton was right. That didn’t change a damn thing.
“Can’t fight orders, Quin.”
“Then we do what we can to work around them. Why do you think I registered our route via train rather than an air shuttle?”
She gave him a sharp look. “Did you even look at shuttles to get us out here?”
“I looked. They didn’t interest me.” Quinton settled back in his seat, closing his eyes against the dim interior lights of the train. “Go to sleep, Thren. We won’t get much of it once we hit the West Coast.”
She knew that. She knew the details of this mission better than he did. That didn’t make working through it any easier, not when they had to travel across radiation-tainted land to a state that was still being fought over by the government and drug cartels beneath the glitz of seedy glamour. The tension wasn’t over the gold California had once been known for—most of the Sierra Nevada had been strip-mined bare decades before the first bomb dropped—but over the government-owned and government-protected towers of SkyFarms Inc. that filled the southern part of the Central Valley. The farming and agricultural company that kept the world fed with its heavily shielded towers of limited produce and animal pens would always be worth dying for.
The world was a different place ever since the first bomb fell in 2124 somewhere in the old Middle East, beginning the world-wide nuclear genocide known as the Border Wars. Five years of bombing hell across nearly all the continents had practically annihilated the human race. The fallout from that time still lingered in a toxic environment, still showed up too many generations later as genetic mutations that caused physical deformities and incurable disease. Since 2129 when the Border Wars finally ended, people hadn’t been living, they’d only been surviving.
What cities that managed to survive the Border Wars and rebuild themselves into some semblance of society again were where most of the world’s population remained. Linked by way of maglev tracks built as a way to jumpstart a broken global economy, or government-built air shuttles designated for the educated rich, countries remade their borders accordingly around deadzones. Travel wasn’t promoted or always permitted, but humanity would never give up the urge to explore.
Two hours later the train finally pulled free of the Central Valley, wending its way toward their destination in Southern California. Sunlight burned into Threnody’s eyes, burned through sleep, as the protective seal finally lifted well beyond the old state line.
Quinton was already awake, even if his eyes were closed. He felt different to her fine-tuned senses when he was conscious. She knew better than he did the electric song his nerves sang at any given hour. Every person gave off an individual charge. Like the mind, it was as unique as a person’s DNA, and DNA was the only thing they had to stand on out here in a place ruled more by street law than judicial opinion. Psion power would always have an edge over guns.
“Time?” Threnody asked.
“Thirty-five and counting.”
She nodded, pushed herself up, and made sure her single bag was still stowed securely beneath her seat. They had a forward row in a middle car with enough space to breathe in, but that was about it. Anyone with enough credit to mean anything traveled by air shuttle and they definitely didn’t travel to the West Coast of the United States of America. Elite society held stock and coveted living space in pockets down the East Coast of Canada and America or in Western Europe. The only thing left in Australia were deserts and firestorms. What remained of South America was overrun by drug cartels and most of Asia had turned into a toxic graveyard generations ago, its barrenness rivaled only by the desert Africa had become.
Threnody could feel the maglev train begin to decrease its speed from 320 kilometers an hour to a full stop when they finally pulled into the only platform still servicing the outer edges of the Slums of the Angels. Ceiling lights blinked their arrival as the doors slid open with a crack that shook every car. Quinton helped Threnody to her feet and made a path for them through the Spanish-speaking crowds of people that were pitching themselves off the train, breathing smoggy air for the first time in days. The pollution stung the back of her throat, made her eyes water. What sky that they could still see above through the ruins was pale gray from polluted clouds, the wind gritty, and the heat was like a weight against her skin.
It didn’t compare to the presence that slid into her mind as they headed for the exit stairwell.
Down on the street, a cautious mental voice with a heavy Scottish accent said. We’ve been waiting a while already. Guess HQ wasn’t lying about you guys coming out here. You going to be able to handle this mission?
Shouldn’t that be my question? Threnody asked as Kerr MacDougal pulled her and Quinton into a psi link with his telepathy.
I’m not the one who spent half a month in medical getting their nervous system put back together.
I’m not the one whose shields are slipping.
I’m walking. That tell you anything?
That you’re a stubborn bitch and your file doesn’t do you justice. Over here.
They had reached the ground below the platform, and her gaze zeroed in on two men standing at the taxi zone with heavy-duty bags at their feet. Threnody schooled her expression into one of polite neutrality and swallowed her pride as they approached the team they were assigned to work with. From the top of the list to the very bottom. From being the best to being a problem. It was a strange feeling to know that the standing she and Quinton had fought so hard to attain and keep in the Strykers Syndicate could so easily be wiped away. People only got assigned partnership with this team as punishment. No one liked working with dysfunctional psions and that’s all these two would ever be.
Kerr was a head taller than she was, whipcord thin and not carrying the weight he should have with his height. The closer they got, the darker the circles beneath Kerr’s teal-colored eyes became. His partner, Jason Garret, stood silently beside him, chewing on the filter of a half-smoked cigarette.
Kerr was the Strykers Syndicate’s only Class II telepath, with mental shields that never stayed up. Kerr should have been able to make his own, but even the best geneticists hadn’t been able to categorize all the quirks that showed up in the DNA and RNA of psions on the human accelerated regions of the human genome. His shields were unstable and his telepathy put him at risk of losing his mind in a maelstrom of the world’s thoughts. Riding along behind someone else’s shields was a stop-gap procedure. It worked for now, but nobody back at headquarters was sure how many years he had left until it stopped.
Jason was Kerr’s patch, his temporary fix, a Class V telekinetic that could teleport, making him a dual psion with average reach and strength. He was also the only Stryker in their entire ranks—their entire history—with intact natal shields that had never fallen. Psychically bonded at a young age by a psi surgeon telepath, Jason’s shields were Kerr’s only saving grace when Kerr’s own shields would fail him. The two weren’t lovers, despite the bond. They weren’t compatible that way. They considered each other family and while Jason preferred men, Kerr didn’t like anyone.
“Threnody,” Jason said with a sharp smile, hazel eyes cool in their assessment of her, but warmer when they focused on her partner. “Quinton. Never thought we’d ever get the pleasure of working with you two.”
“Apparently you’re not doing as good a job as you should be and they sent us to sort you out,” Quinton replied with a steady look. “It’s amazing you haven’t been terminated after so many failures.”
Jason only shrugged as if he’d heard that accusation many times before. Threnody resisted the urge to touch the back of her neck where every psion got a neurotracker grafted to their cranial nerves and brain stem the moment they were brought to the Strykers Syndicate. Government control wasn’t just lip service and removing that collar was a death sentence.
“The Strykers need me,” Kerr said quietly. “Which means they need Jason. The fact that you two, their favorites, have fallen this far means that they don’t need you. Not as badly. Maybe you should think about that.”
Quinton looked like he wanted to argue, but Threnody caught his eye and shook her head. “We’re all on the same side. We have a job to do and a target to find. If we fail this time, then we’ll all be terminated,” she reminded them. “Let’s just get where we need to be.”
Jason stepped away to hail a taxi, the car pulling away from a long line of other service vehicles as he fed credit chips into the pay meter. Down here, credit chips were hacked to be untraceable and they were all anyone used to purchase things, from transportation to pleasure to murder.
They climbed into the taxi and got settled, bags at their feet and silence among them. Jason told the driver where to go in Spanish. It took an hour to get to their destination, driving down damaged streets in a car that had long ago ruined its shock system. They felt every hole the patched tires rode over in the streets that led to an old expressway, the main artery into the wreckage that existed in the shadows of the three environmentally sealed city towers that made up Los Angeles. It was the only part of the city that the American military had managed to save during the Border Wars.
Cars outnumbered the air shuttles that cast quick shadows from above. Threnody stared at the city towers, built high with neon bright adverts scrolling down their sides, until she couldn’t see them anymore as they drove into the murky depths of the Slums of the Angels.
Like most of the world, the West Coast of America had once been a thriving, living place. That was before the Border Wars. That was before the deadly radiation and acid storms that filtered over all the continents, before the earthquake of 2167 that devastated the surviving population of the three coastal western states of America. The only pocket of civilization in the west, settled between large swaths of deadzones to survive the 2167 quake, was Los Angeles, but it lost half a dozen city towers when the land shook itself to pieces. The majority of the ruins were never dealt with, couldn’t be dealt with. They simply became something different.
What replaced the infamy of Los Angeles and the tech-driven north were South American drug cartels running through the Latin Corridor and Mexico, eager to cater to those who didn’t care if their addictions damaged their DNA. The Slums of the Angels became a hole in the world that people with no identities fell into, where a person could buy and sell anything, but the only way out was by death or sheer, mind-boggling luck.
Something which the four Strykers had plenty of.
The taxi driver dropped them off a good fifteen kilometers into the Slums, at a corner braced by a building written over with warring gang signs. He seemed glad to leave them behind.
Where are we? Threnody asked as they stood on the crumbling sidewalk.
We need a cover to get us deeper into the Slums, Kerr replied. Jason and I had orders to build one. This is it what we were able to buy.
A cartel soldier came out of the building and into the grimy sunlight. He spat between them, military-grade gun held steady in his hands as three more soldiers came out behind him, fanning out on the sidewalk. Their presence had the few people scattered around the street ducking out of sight.
“Ident,” he snapped.
Jason spread his hands and offered up a slick smile. “Carlos, you know it’s us. We paid good money to get clearance from you.”
“Ident. You don’t get no special treatment just because you got credit.”
Jason shrugged and stepped forward, body loose and expression bored as a soldier came close enough to scan his eyes. The portable bioscanner fit neatly in the soldier’s hand. The infrared light protruding from the tip scanned the identity of the iris peels Jason had been wearing since he and Kerr had been assigned this mission weeks ago.
“Clear,” the man said in heavily accented English as he stepped back.
“You got our way in?” Jason demanded.
“I got it.” Carlos’ gaze swept over the group, skipping over the pair he knew, lingering a little on Quinton, before finally settling on Threnody. His mouth curved into a leer. “She’s new. La gringa looking for some fun?”
They have orders to kill us, Kerr said through the psi link.
Guess we didn’t pay up to scale, Jason said.
Threnody smiled invitingly at the soldier. “Come a little closer and find out.”
The soldier’s buddies whistled sharply at him as Carlos approached her. Rubbing at his chin, Carlos let his gaze drift up and down her body in an assessing manner, mouth curling up in a hard smile when it became apparent that none of the men with her were going to interfere.
“You’d make more money lying on your back than playing at being a man,” Carlos said with another leer as he reached out and squeezed her left breast hard.
“Whores don’t keep the money they make down here,” Threnody said coolly as she grabbed his wrist and tapped into the bioelectricity that the human body ran on.
Threnody’s own nerves sparked as electricity exploded out of her and into him, their bare skin the bridge she needed to work with. Her power coursed through the soldier’s body faster than his brain could process and he was dead before he hit the ground; skin blackened, burned and cracked.
Before any of the other three humans could react, Kerr was in their minds and burning them out. A telepathic strike that hard, backed by his phenomenal Class II strength, had them dead in seconds. Humans didn’t have the genetic capability to defend against what a psion could do. They weren’t built that way. Their minds winked out on the mental grid, that vast psychic plane full of a world’s thoughts that all ’path-oriented psions functioned on. Tied into Kerr’s mind through the psi link, Threnody could feel through his power the holes those deaths left behind on the mental grid.
“Get our clearance,” Threnody ordered as she peeled the dead man’s charred skin off her bare fingers.
Quinton rifled through the pockets of the dead for the passes they had paid for. Kerr’s telepathy could wipe a person’s mind clean of their presence, but he couldn’t touch machines, and all checkpoints down in the Slums had extensive security. Quinton found what they needed on the second body, pulling out four thin, transparent pass cards.
“Blanks,” he said. “We need someone to program them.”
Jason nodded. “Give them to me.”
Quinton tossed the pass cards to Jason, who caught them with his telekinesis. Jason dug out a slim datapad from his pocket and jacked the first pass card into the portable computer. He was one of the best hackers in their ranks, one of the reasons why he and Kerr hadn’t been terminated yet. The faint gleam in his eyes told Threnody his implanted inspecs were running through the data, connected to it by a wire plugged into the neuroport on his left wrist, as Jason hacked his way through the pass key’s minimal defenses.
Threnody looked at Kerr. “Are we clear?”
The telepath cocked his head to the side, eyes focused on some distant place. “Building is empty inside. Got human peripherals getting curious. I’ll take care of them.”
She bent down, snagged the collar of the nearest dead soldier, and proceeded to haul the body into the dirty office. Kerr followed her lead, pulling one dead man by the arm while Quinton dealt with the last two.
Inside, against the far wall, was a terminal with a single wide vidscreen displaying dozens of security feeds. Threnody glanced at the images as she approached the control console and took a seat in the abandoned chair. She was a brilliant tactician, but a piss-poor hacker. Her body couldn’t take most of the biomodifications that a quarter of the remaining population had grafted to their nervous system. All the delicate biowiring that was required in order to directly uplink with various computer systems wasn’t compatible with her body. That didn’t mean she was useless.
“Nice of them to leave it accessible,” Threnody said as she dragged her fingers over the controls and started pulling up command windows. “Some of it, at least.”
Quinton peered over her shoulder. “You going to fry it?”
“Soon as Jason wipes us from the system.”
It took her half a minute to find the home feed that showcased the corner right outside the office. She pulled up the log for the past hour, getting all the basic information ready for Jason to parse and do what he did best, outside of flinging things around with his mind. Three minutes later he was there, taking over her spot. He jacked into the system through two neuroports and hacked into the feed, hiding the murders they had committed by wiping the system clean.
“Not even going to bother with a loop. Their server farm is onsite, so the damage needs to go deep, Threnody,” Jason said as he pried the wires out of his arms when he finished. “It’s all yours.”
He shoved the chair back and got out of the way. Threnody leaned over and pressed a hand to the console of the terminal. She took a deep breath, steadied herself for the burn, and pushed her power into the electric heart of the system before her. Not the same as burning it through a human body, but electricity was electricity, and enough of a surge could kill anything, especially a machine.
The system crashed. Circuits melted to slag and the vidscreen went dark. Threnody pulled her hand away and clenched her fingers down tight against the heat that tingled across her palm.
“Are you feeling that?” Quinton asked sharply.
“Some,” she admitted. She couldn’t lie to her partner when it might cost them later on.
“I told you that they should have given you more time. If we had argued, Jael would have allowed it.”
“And I told you we had our orders.” She looked pointedly at Kerr. “What’s our destination?”
Kerr’s eyes were closed where he stood in the doorway, hands pressed against the frame, head bowed. Sweat dripped down the skin of his face, falling off the point of his chin. “South. Target’s broadcasting twenty klicks away. So far I’m not sensing any Warhounds in the field.”
“For once,” Jason muttered. “Even if this is their territory.”
Threnody ignored him. “We’ll use that SUV around the corner to get there. The soldiers won’t miss it. Or their uniforms.”
Jason nodded at the bags he and Kerr had been carrying. “We’ve got supplies in there if we need them.”
They stripped the dead for clothes to create the illusion of cartel coloring over the standard black that should have meant neutral, except no one was neutral in the Slums.
Kerr pulled on a flak jacket, buckling it tight over his chest as he glanced at Threnody. “No Stryker has ever discovered the identity of the target since it showed up on the grid two years ago. Jason and I, we’ve been tracking it off and on for the past few months and have never gotten close.”
“I know,” Threnody said as she added extra ammo to her belt pouch for the gun she carried on her hip.
“What are your exact orders?”
“We can’t have a high-Classed psion running around unchecked. The government hates when we’re not leashed or dead. We’ve been ordered to find out who it is and bring them in. If retrieval is impossible, we’ve been ordered to terminate the target.”
She didn’t bother with the rest of the order, about what would happen if she failed. Everyone in the Strykers Syndicate knew about their demotion, this sanctioned death sentence. Threnody stared at Kerr, daring him to say something, anything, in the face of her situation.
Those strange teal eyes of his searched her face for a few seconds before he said, “You belong to one of the best teams we’ve got this generation. Why are they wasting your life like this?”
“It’s not your business,” Quinton said.
Threnody thought otherwise. She didn’t experience a traumatic flashback to their last mission. The psi surgeon in charge of putting their minds back together over and over again was better than that, but the memory of it was difficult to ignore.
“There was a school,” she said, voice steady, even if her thoughts weren’t. “An illegal one, run by unregistered humans. There were children. I wouldn’t—”
Her nervous system remembered that nightmare better than her head. She could still feel that Warhound’s hand around her throat, his electric power cutting past her defenses and into her own body. It was pure damn luck that Quinton had reached her when he did to save her.
“Everyone deserves a chance.” Threnody swallowed tightly. “Even those without identities.”
The Border Wars had made this world 250 years ago, and they all survived in the long shadow of that nuclear aftermath. Education was the privilege of the registered elite, not meant for the gene-damaged masses. Population was regulated, because there were only so many resources to go around, but laws would always be broken.
Threnody thought about those unregistered children and the handful born with psion potential. She should have killed them to prevent the Warhounds from keeping them, but she was getting old for a psion. She could afford to question their superiors when others would simply obey. She’d lived long enough that the punishment didn’t sting as much as it might have if she had more years left to her. Strykers were taught to value human life, or at least the lives of those who belonged to the Registry. The government didn’t care about unregistered humans, but Strykers did. She did.
Threnody’s body still twitched, even now, from that last remembered electric shock before the Warhounds had disappeared with the children in a teleport.
Kerr pushed the memories aside for her.
They’re alive, Kerr said. If you can’t think about the good somewhere in that, then think about the mission.
It was, after all, what they lived for.