The Macao slums, 2176
Nobody lived like this if they didn’t have to, but it all depended on what you were willing to do to get out. Jenny changed her mind a lot on that score. It was amazing how easily real life could mess with your standards.
The vendor in front of her cleared his throat impatiently as she considered his offerings. She ignored him, using the muzzle of her stun pistol to lift the bread and examine the small slab of bloni underneath. Meat substitutes on Macao were a bit dicey these days, but she’d had her last round of innox shots pretty recently and she needed cheap fuel.
She’d been trying to get out of places like this all her life. Except for that one year at the palace, but… frankly, when the grass was really greener on the other side, it was better not to be able to see over the fence. She poked at a second sandwich. Yeah, ignorance was bliss, for sure. Especially when it came to synthetic meat.
She held up the forefinger of the hand holding her gun. “I’ll take those two. And don’t even try to rip me off.”
The vendor scowled, his eyes flicking from her pistol to the coins she held in her opposite palm. “You got any other kinda value?”
“No. Do we have a deal, or not?”
He grunted, chose the coin that looked brassiest, and dropped it into a grease-smeared apron pocket.
Jenny wiped her hand down her vest, then realized the vest wasn’t any cleaner. With a shrug, she replaced her stunner in its ankle holster, picked up the sandwiches, and stuffed one in her mouth. She chased it with a quick shot of alcohol mixed with antibiotic from a flask, both to kill off any newer forms of bioinfection and any flavor.
She ate quickly, an iron grip on her messenger bag, her eyes focused on the people milling about in the square, her ears listening for unusual variations in the droning sound filtering down from the built-up highways and skyways above. The nagging feeling of being watched followed her everywhere.
Of course, people around here watched any female who appeared to have all relevant body parts.
She turned slowly in a casual circle. Observe carefully and pretend you see nothing. And if you do, just keep it steady… keep it steady…
Okay, who’s that?
The guy was too clean for the area. Too fit, too well fed. And his weapons were way too new.
Her second glance was quick, practiced, and if he hadn’t already been staring straight at her, they would never have registered eye contact at all.
Jenny’s mouth went dry, but she’d overreacted and made a fool of herself before; she wouldn’t do it again. Paranoia was a disease down here, blooming out from one person and infecting a crowd with deadly consequences. She stopped turning and stood motionless in front of the sandwich kiosk, only half aware of the bread squeezing under her nails. Her mind skidded through a list of jobs she’d had over the past year. Whom did she know… whom had she worked for… what jobs were unfinished… had she screwed anyone over?
It could be anything, but she always came back to one likely possibility. Parliament. Had they come for her at last?
Well, in all fairness, she’d gone and killed one of them. A man. A very particular sort of man. And if it were her on the flip side, she’d still be looking for her, too.
Members of Parliament rarely stepped outside their realm of influence, even to square up a dispute but—Jenny chewed nervously on her lip—in her case, maybe murder was worth the trip. From a strategic point of view, making an example of someone like her was a reasonable way for them to keep order, to keep Newgate—hell, to keep the whole of Australia—for themselves.
She shuddered as she thought of that place, those men. Hardly men, really. They were more like empty souls, burnt-out husks using opiate to make their sick reality palatable. Creepy men posturing as aristocrats from a time made moldy in memory: the English Regency. And though the members of Parliament had little power in the rest of the world, they ruled with an iron fist clamped around the throat of Newgate City.
And now, just when she was ready to believe they’d forgotten about her, that they’d decided she was small potatoes, that they’d never send anyone out from Newgate just to snuff her… Well, she always seemed to find a reason to keep looking over her shoulder for them, didn’t she?
At the edge of her consciousness, she could feel a change in the atmosphere, the negative charge as the crowd slowly emptied from the market square behind her. A bead of cold sweat trickled down between her shoulder blades. The vendor stared straight in front of him, almost catatonic, as if he could make himself invisible through sheer will.
Jenny made a sound; their eyes met, her look a question. If there was one thing the slummers of Macao had in common, it was a mutual distrust of outsiders.
The vendor’s gaze flicked quickly over her shoulder. He nodded almost imperceptibly; then he picked up an empty sandwich tray from the counter and bent down with it, scattering food as he shielded himself below the table.
Jenny took a deep breath and split to the left, into the crowd. Pushing through bodies, she hurled herself over the concrete slab that demarcated the boundary of the marketplace. Balancing herself with a hand to the ground, she hardly felt the cement scraping her palm. She moved to snatch the stun gun from its holster as she ran, but bobbled the grip. It skittered away across the pavement. Pausing to grab it, she reared up and accelerated into a flat-out sprint. She knew these alleys like the back of her hand and was fairly acclimated to the pollution; there was no question she could lose such a big guy with just a bit more lead.
Her damn messenger bag thumped against her back as she ran. She could unlock it, drop it, but not unless she had to. It held everything she owned: some ratty clothes, first aid, random ammunition—nothing that could help at the moment. She had a couple of low-grade explosives, but she’d run out of ignition clips.
Still running as fast as she could, she glanced behind her to see her pursuer jump the concrete barrier with surprising ease. A double take revealed he was talking into a comm device. Not good.
She ducked down another side street and flattened herself against the wall, sliding awkwardly across the slimy bricks.
Footsteps thundered toward her. “Don’t run!” came a call.
Don’t run? Yeah, right. What’s the one thing you do when some huge bastard with a gun warns you not to run? You run like hell and hope you’re a better shot. Jenny flipped herself face-first against the bricks, took a second to try and control the shaking of her hand from adrenaline, then fired once around the corner. Her stunner flared halfheartedly, then sputtered and died.
Cursing a blue streak, she slammed the side of her hand against its muzzle, shook the gun almost desperately, then tried again.
The stunner worked this time, sending a flare straight down the alley. Bull’s-eye. The heavy grunted and reeled back, losing his footing and falling to the ground. But it wouldn’t stop him for long.
Jenny stared up at the traffic-congested sky, if not expecting a miracle, at least a little inspiration. The sun was already beginning to go down, and against the backdrop of electric-pink and orange neon clouds enhanced by the chemicals in the smog, Jenny could see a copter circling above. There was probably a launch pad on the building. She’d just have to throw herself on its pilot’s mercy.
Swinging around, she looked for the rooftop ladder access for the high-rise behind her, and when she found it she ran, leaping onto its rungs. Halfway up, she looked down. The heavy was already on his feet, shaking his head like a dog ridding its coat of water. Okay, so much for stun. She slammed her pistol back in its holster and just kept climbing.
“Don’t run?” The man stopped abruptly, clearly under the mistaken belief that if he gave the impression of retreat, she’d somehow interpret him as a friendly. Not likely. Not even close. Although, for a nanosecond, she did almost consider surrender on the grounds that it might get the idiot to quit screaming her name at the top of his lungs for every bounty hunter in a five-block radius to hear. For all she knew, Parliament might literally have put a price on her head.
Okay, okay. So he knew her name—or lack thereof. She’d lost her given name what seemed like eons ago, after it stopped mattering who her family was. Well, she’d barely had a family, anyway—a father, mostly in name, who had probably only dragged her around with him to facilitate his scams. “Red” was her surname now, given to her by a couple of slum pals because of her hair color.
“Jenny Red!” The heavy’s dogged pursuit sent chills up her spine, and he ran the length of the alley in what seemed like record time. Jenny just kept moving up the endless ladder.
She was at least seventy-five pounds lighter than him, and gasping for air. Given his size, that this guy could move so fast in this kind of atmosphere meant he had access to oxygen poppers. He obviously worked for someone with a lot of value, to be able to afford that stuff. Definitely not good. Made the idea of trying to kill him a less appealing investment in the rest of her life.
Sweat ran down the inside of her bulky protective gear. Clearing the side of the building, she stepped onto the rooftop and battled a wave of nausea from the combined altitude and pollution.
The rhythmic clang of boots sounded on the ladder below. Jenny focused on the copter resting in idle on the launch pad. The pilot opened the door, and Jenny pulled her stun pistol again. Glancing behind her, she saw her pursuer step off the ladder and onto the roof.
She trained her gun on him, gasping and gulping for air, her finger slippery on the trigger. The heavy stopped in his tracks, obviously unsure, and she finally got a good enough look to realize that he didn’t have the stamp of Newgate on him. It was just a gut feeling, unprovable, and it didn’t provide her any sense of relief. He could have been hired by Parliament through a middleman. Given his obvious Japanese descent, he was likely a local. Closely shaved black hair, angular face, eyes narrowing as he stared back at her—none of that caused much concern. What worried Jenny was that the guy was built like a tank. Taking a hit from one of those fists probably felt like slamming into a side of beef.
Slowly, he raised his gun “I’m—”
She didn’t wait. Swinging around, she ran toward the copter pilot. Shit, she was going to have to go for a hijack.
Suddenly the heavy was right behind her, and she was flying face-first into the ground. Her gun went airborne. She raised her leg up, bent her knee, and bucked her boot violently behind her, a cry of pain indicating she’d hit her target.
He flattened her anyway. “You keep using up your oxygen at this rate, you’ll be delirious within five minutes,” he said into her ear.
He was right, and she stopped struggling.
He sighed. “His Lordship’s going to be pissed.”
Jenny turned her head toward the copter.
Its engine kicked up swirls of filthy air as its pilot strode toward them, charcoal-colored trench coat billowing out behind him. Polarized shades obscured his face, but he looked tough, nasty… and familiar. The Han royal emblem snaked around the upper arm of his coat. Traditionally affixed in hammered platinum, this was fashioned in the raised black leather she’d seen only on one person before.
Holy hell. It was Deck.
D’ekkar Han Valoren, former prince and scion of the Han monarchy, walked up to the pile of body parts that comprised Jenny and his heavy smashed into the concrete together, cocked his head, and removed his shades. “Jenny Red. A pleasure.”
His eyes were as hard as she remembered, but his voice still seeped under her skin in a soft growl.
“Sorry, sir,” the heavy said regretfully as he peeled off of her. “She ran.”
Deck held out his hand, sheathed in a glove made from the finest armored fabric Jenny had ever seen. Still working to catch her breath, she let him help her up and squinted at him through the smog.
“You know, you could just… I don’t know, send a letter. Make a call. What’s with the theatrics?”
The heavy shifted behind her; Jenny could actually feel his breath on her neck. Lovely. He clearly didn’t like her taking such a casual attitude with his boss. Well, that was just too damn bad. She’d spent enough time at the Han palace to know that the trappings of royalty might be special, but the royals themselves were no better than the scum who lived here in Macao.
To others, Deck might command respect, fear even. But he wouldn’t get any of that from her, not anymore. True, he was Prince Kyber’s half brother. He was tied to one of the world’s most powerful monarchies. But to her, he was just Deck—bastard son, black sheep of the royal family, and all-around rebel without a cause.
Oh yeah, plus the worst unrequited crush she’d ever had in her life. But that was then, and now was turning into… who the hell knew?
Deck took her hands and turned them over. One palm was pretty much okay. The other was a scraped-up, bleeding mess. He managed to pick a piece of gravel out of her flesh before she pulled away.
“Nice manners, your guy,” she said roughly, nodding toward the heavy to mask her confusion. Behind the palace gates, you couldn’t so much as lay a finger on a member of the royal family—and vice versa wasn’t so good an idea either. He’d only ever touched her one time before, at the last.
“Jenny, allow me to present my associate, Raidon. Raidon, my old friend, Jenny Red.”
“That’s helpful. I make it a point to always know who’s lying on top of me.” She touched her fingers to her nose; they came away red with blood.
“Old friend, huh,” she noted absently as she searched in her pockets for something to clean herself up with.
“Still leaping before looking?” he asked.
“Still alive,” she countered.
Deck’s hand slid toward his breast pocket, and Jenny flinched out of habit. He raised one eyebrow, then simply pulled out a crisp, white handkerchief.
She had to laugh. Jenny, you are so torqued.
She took the handkerchief. “Ready for surrender at a moment’s notice?” she teased, instantly destroying the fine lawn square with the blood and dirt on her hands and face.
Deck snorted. “To whom?”
“Not me, clearly,” she grumbled. With a rueful look in the direction of the ever-watchful Raidon, she held the mottled cloth back out.
Deck shook his head. “Consider it yours.”
Jenny stuffed it in her pocket, a corner of her mind already calculating how much value she might get for a stained handkerchief made of the finest natural fiber and monogrammed with the initials of a Han prince. Maybe she could get something for it as a novelty item. Maybe not.
“Well? What are we doing here, Deck?”
“We’re picking you up.” He nodded toward the idling copter. “Ready to go?”
She widened her stance and looked up at him through narrowed eyes. “Sorry. Doesn’t work that way. I don’t just go with anyone who asks. What’s on your mind?”
He sighed impatiently. “Two things. One, I need to talk to you, and, two, I would really like to conserve what fuel I can.”
She glared at him in stony silence.
“I need you to come with me. I’m not going to discuss it here.” He quickly surveyed the high-rises around them. “We’ve been in the open long enough as it is.”
She could see his patience giving way, and couldn’t help wanting to push him to the edge. “I’ve been living in this shit hole for two years, and now the… the freaking royal brigade miraculously finds me and I’m supposed to drop everything and follow you? Why the hell should I?”
He took his gun out of his holster and pointed it at her forehead. “Oh, I don’t know. Because the food’s better where we’re going?”
Even Raidon jerked back in surprise.
Holy hell. She swallowed hard, then rolled her eyes, making a big show of moving the muzzle of his gun to the side with her forefinger, and scratching the spot it had touched. “Okay, it’s a need-to-know basis. I get it. Just one thing. What’s in it for me?”
He looked her up and down. “A bath to start.”
She flushed. “For a prince, you always did make a lousy gentleman. A bath, food, medical supplies, ammunition… all the water I can carry. And that’s just to come with you.”
“I’ll throw in tantalizing conversation for free. You have a deal.”
She held out her hand.
“I trust you,” he said.
“I trust me, too. It’s you I have issues with.” She wiggled her fingers. “Put ’er there, Deck.”
The corner of his mouth quirked up in a smile. He met her in a handshake. “A gentleman’s agreement.”
Raidon led Jenny to the copter, with Deck following behind. “Are we going far?” she called over her shoulder as the heavy hustled her into the backseat.
“Not that far.”
“How long is this going to take?”
Deck settled himself in front of the controls. “I only have one major question to ask you. How long the rest takes depends on your answer.”
She frowned. Raidon strapped her in beside him as if he were tucking in a small child. “Well… tell me the question, and I’ll have an answer for you by the time we land.”
Deck looked at her in the rearview mirror. “Have you ever heard of Banzai Maguire?”
He hit the accelerator, one eye still watching her. Jenny hoped he would assume it was the gravitational pull that drained the blood from her face.
Deck stared out the bulletproof window at the Macao skyline. Between the cookie-cutter rectangular skyscrapers and the lasers illuminating the city’s public flight paths, thick black smoke rose up through a huge network of purification tubes into the stratosphere. It was an effort to keep the street-level pollution under control. Red, pink, green, blue, and yellow lights glanced off the tubes from enormous blinking neon billboards, sending rays of color to illuminate the swirling particles being vacuumed upward. This public work he knew well; he’d helped plan the logistics for the test project. He’d still been a prince, then. The House of Han had not continued implementation, but Deck had no idea if it was because the project wasn’t economically feasible, technologically sound, or whether Kyber had simply lost interest.
He sighed and rubbed his eyes. How long ago it all seemed.
Raidon cleared his throat, and Deck swung around. “Is she out yet?”
“I called, sir, but she didn’t answer. I think it’s been a while since she’s last had a hot bath.”
Deck stared at him. “You’re already coddling her.” He should have known his right-hand man and personal bodyguard would get emotional about the girl once they were face-to-face. Hell, Raidon had spoken of Jenny as he would a pet or a little sister since the day he’d been assigned as her tail.
Raidon donned his stubborn face. “We have plenty of time to make the transport.”
“Don’t give me that look. We still need to get her fitted out before we go.”
“Speaking of which, it’s bad enough we’re stuck with junk weaponry to defend ourselves, but to be further constrained by other things we can bring in? Sir, I’m really not comfortable with this level of security.”
Deck scrolled through the to-do list carefully programmed into his organizer, trying not to let Raidon’s rant grate on him. He was aware he still had much to learn about Newgate, Australia, but one thing everybody knew was that anything beyond late-twenty-first-century technology was banned in the penal colony. And that included weapons and defense technology Which made sense if the rest of the world wanted to make it impossible for residents to escape.
He’d probably feel differently once he made it to Newgate, but the idea of being constrained to the historical, to the obsolete, no less, was intriguing. At least it allowed for a predictable playing field.
“The goal is to enter Newgate with a minimum amount of notice,” he snapped. “Now let’s just do what we have to do, all right?”
His heavy chuckled. “A little testy, are we, sir? I can’t imagine why.” He continued checking over a supply chart.
For some reason, Deck couldn’t let it go. He threw his organizer down on his desk in disgust. “Look, it had to be done, you know. Jenny is stronger than you realize.”
It was ridiculous. He’d been blathering about this for the last hour, and he knew he was beginning to sound the fool. But seeing her condition was a shock he hadn’t anticipated. Guilt was not a pleasant emotion, and it was one that Deck usually avoided with success.
Unlike his heavy, Deck was good at taking emotion out of the equation. He’d actually managed to completely forget about Jenny for long stretches of time. And when he did think of her, he didn’t do so as she probably was: living hard on the bad side of town.
We rich don’t like to think about the poor, he thought detachedly. He’d only seen Jenny three times over the last few years, whenever Raidon reported an emergency. They’d been clever; she wouldn’t have known she had a guardian angel. Of course, her guardian angel was playing both sides of the game.
“The ends justified the means in this case,” he argued darkly.
Raidon stopped what he was doing and looked up in mixed exasperation and amusement. “Who are you trying to convince, sir?”
“Stop calling me ‘sir.’“
His bodyguard shook his head, one eyebrow raised.
Deck hated being called sir, like he hated most reminders of his link to Prince Kyber and the House of Han. “Highness” was out of the question now that he was illegitimate, but his heavy simply refused to stop using “sir” out of propriety, and occasionally still paid Deck the dubious compliment of referring to him by the questionable title of “Lordship.” But, then, Raidon had earned the right to a little latitude from Deck. He couldn’t say the same for anyone else.
Well, there was Jenny. But she was a special case.
The first time he’d seen Jenny was behind the palace servants’ quarters. He’d gone out there to take a break from staring at holoscreens and to get away from the palace, as was his custom, and he’d found a group of servants tinkering with some discarded engine parts. They’d all greeted him politely, with deference as usual, but it was the new girl with long, red-blond hair who’d got his attention.
Leaning against the gate, he’d watched her over the top of one of his tiresome protocol manuals. She’d glanced up, ice-blue eyes catching his gaze. They’d stared at each other, a contest of wills, the tiniest corner of her mouth quirking up in amused challenge.
He’d won, of course. But mostly because one of the others nudged her hard in the shoulder and hissed, “Quit staring at him. Don’t forget who he is.”
It shouldn’t have come as a shock that she was no longer how he remembered her. She was filthy and exhausted now, in disarray. Her arm and leg protectors were mismatched, her clothes old and worn. She sported the old-style bulky high-collar armored jacket and outdated leather pants, which explained why the majority of her rather sorry arsenal was strapped to the outside of her body, giving everything away. Only her body language didn’t spell defeat—Deck had been pleased to read mostly defiance there, instead.
She seemed… harder. Certainly she’d already been damaged when she came to the palace, having been dragged from slum to slum by her ne’er-do-well father who’d eventually managed to wreak his havoc on both their lives. But there’d always been a sweetness, one that now seemed faded and worn. She was bitter, most likely. Disappointed. He didn’t blame her. When you finally realized what life had to offer, and that it wasn’t going to get any better… well, it wore down even the strongest. He suspected it was the only thing they’d ever have in common: that feeling of being suffocated by their own lives.
Class distinction had rendered them fundamentally incompatible from the beginning. It was the burr in a friendship that had started as an act of rebellion and become something of a necessity for him, for reasons he didn’t wholly understand. Jenny had always made it clear she thought he was crazy not to embrace the trappings of royalty; but then, she didn’t know what really went on inside the palace walls. He’d preferred to keep that to himself.
“Sir? Did you say something?”
“Hmm? Oh.” Deck ran his palm over the stubble on his jaw. “I think it’s perhaps best if we not mention to Jenny that we’ve been watching her so closely these last two years. I can’t imagine she’d appreciate it.”
Raidon gave a wry grin. “You may be right, sir. She’s pretty independent. But you’ve saved her life a couple of times, that’s for sure. It might help the bargaining process if she knew she was indebted to you.”
Deck waved off the suggestion. “She doesn’t need to know. Not now, anyway.” He added under his breath, “Besides, what’s the point? She’ll never forgive me—but that’s not really necessary, is it?”
Raidon pursed his lips. “No, it’s not,” he agreed. He cleared his throat. “Sir, did we ever have that discussion about mixing business with pleasure? If you’re concerned about the girl’s future safety, I want you to know that I will be looking out for her as I always do. I’m not one to meddle in your personal life, but Jenny’s—”
Deck silenced the man with a look. “What time is the transport again?”
With a sigh, the heavy answered, “Five hours, sir.”
“Are we ready?” Deck punched in a few keys and studied his organizer. “Do I have everything?”
“Everything but the girl, sir.”