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A con game from the past and a gamble on love in the future hold the key for world order in a cybernetic age.
Max Turner awakens to a sterile cryo lab in 2484. Assisted by a renegade scientist, a rebellious cyborg, and his newfound wife, Max lays out his plans. His greatest asset is Maddie, a beauty with a calculating mind to match his own and startling new cybernetic skills. Can the lovers process their con game fast enough to survive the Riley Family’s attempts on their lives?
A tremor, followed by a marrow-deep shiver, shot through Max Turner. His eyes cracked open. Ice crystals dusted his body and a frosted glass coffin enclosed him. Exhaling harsh gasps of fog, he struggled to breathe, his lungs wheezing as if they had forgotten how to work.
Knees buckling and back arching, he clawed at his chest—pain, searing, scalding pain. His heart stuttered, skipped a beat, kicked in, skipped another beat. A split second later, it raced like a horse galloping down the last furlong.
Uncontrollable shaking accompanied the pins and needles of muscles coming to life, joining the spasms convulsing through his body and his mounting panic.
He inched a hand up and cleared the mist-covered glass. Illuminated shining walls faced him. Two floating, metallic, rectangular tables occupied the center of the room. Counters floated from the walls without legs, dominating one wall beneath a large, framed blue-green screen.
Where the hell am I?
It didn’t matter. He was getting out before whoever had trapped him returned.
A seam between the glass and metal plate curved beneath his fingertips from his face to below his hipbone. A door—an escape from this icy Hell—did it open by swinging outward or slide free?
Leaning back, he rested his head against the metal tube-like container and, fighting dizziness to stay upright, locked his knees. Maybe he could apply pressure to the door using his body, not just his hands. Bracing himself against the tube’s back, Max pushed forward. The door didn’t budge.
Hands flat on the front panel, he examined the door more closely. It was a slider. Gasping for air, palms flat on the door’s surface he pushed sideways. No movement. One foot braced against the back of the tube, he pressed his shoulder against the glass and metal door and shoved.
Struggling to stand when all he wanted to do was collapse, he rested a moment. A second later, without further touching, the door slid open along the inside of his tube.
Warm air blasted him.
Hanging onto the edge of the opening, Max bit back a groan and dragged himself from the slender, bullet-shaped crypt. Blinking against the bright light, he surveyed his surroundings. The room glowed from silver walls imbued with light. Rows of blinking lights, panels and flickering pictures lined the far wall.
Leaning against the outer metal casing, another shiver tore through him. Damn, how could he be so cold clothed in wool work pants and boots?
He twisted back to the tube. Over the opening, a strip of glowing green letters read Max Turner across a mat of black. A touch of the letters produced no raised signal of paint or ink and no corresponding depression of carving. Odd. He staggered to the tube to his right. The sign above: Madeline Turner.
What the hell? He pressed a hand against the front and wiped the glass. Internal frost blocked his view.
Sliding to the floor, he rested his elbows on his knees and cradled his head. Where was he? The last thing he remembered was...that’s right. Old man Riley had blown the mine, sealing them inside. Jackass didn’t realize his daughter, Max’s intended, was with him. Intended? What a joke. Nothing like being told he couldn’t buy his way into society and she refused to be bought. Maybe not, but her father sure could sell her.
“Ah, good, you’re awake,” said a deep voice.
He looked up and stared at three people: one petite blond female, two tall men—one a quadroon, the other white—dressed in tight, blue longjohns and matching boots that capped off below their knees. Over the left breast, two of them had a bronze serpent coiled around a silver staff with wings at the top. The white man had a red “C” in the same place.
“Who are you?”
“Doctors.” The woman motioned to herself and the other man with the serpent staff. “I’m Doctor Carson and he’s Doctor Tom Roberts. The other is a cyborg named AID3C,” she said in the precise drawl of the overeducated with the thread of condescension of the self-importance.
When did women become all-powerful and men subservient? Concentrate. “What’s a cyborg?”
“According to the one hundred ninety-eighth unabridged edition of the New World Dictionary, I am an organic and cybernetic amalgam.”
Tendrils of fear and confusion kept Max momentarily still. Only his years as a professional gambler enabled him to bury his mounting terror behind a bland, unemotional
expression. “Organic, cybernetic amalgam?”
“Biologic, living being,” the creature said.
What was he talking about? He stared up at the tall, fair-haired cyborg. At a glance, he’d swear AID3C was human. Don’t get distracted, he ordered himself. “Where am I and how did I get here?”
“You’re at Cryogenics for Life, New Denver. You were recovered from a mine outside Leadville in a stasis condition.” AID3C moved forward. “Let me help you up.”
The cyborg grasped his forearm and with a flick of his wrist, Max was on his feet and held steady in AID3C’s grasp. “How much do you know about me and my...wife?”
“A fair amount. You had papers on you. Our research indicates you were a riverboat gambler, born in the lost city of New Orleans.”
“It washed away in the great flood of 2095.”
He started to turn away, and Max touched his arm. “What else did you find?”
“You were engaged to a Madeline Riley. No record of your marriage was discovered, only notation of your joint disappearances on, November 23, 1875. We surmised the woman wearing the wedding band was your wife, making you related to the First Family Riley.” AID3C tilted his head and studied him. “Was Doctor Roberts wrong?”
“No.” He mimicked AID3C’s movement. Max made his living playing poker and long ago learned not to project any tells, especially when cleaning rich marks of all their money. AID3C had several tells, as did the doctors.
They might be all smiles, but something was off. If he wasn’t careful, he’d end up with his insides being studied. “Madeline and I married earlier that day.”
Roberts joined AID3C beside Max. “Can you tell us what happened?”
With the ease of a con artist, Max’s “trust me” smile slid into place as the doc and AID3C continued examining him. He knew too well when someone was searching for a weakness. “I’m not sure. You probably know more than me.”
“Three days ago, GPR—ground penetrating radar—data classified three life forms, in the mine. We arrived with the cryo tubes in hopes you were still alive. Discovering you and the two women in a stasis-like condition without atrophy was an exciting find.” Roberts shrugged. “Unsure how to bring you out of it alive, we placed you in cryo until we worked out a safe reanimation protocol.”
“When’s now and what changed that you awakened me?”
“August 10, 2484. As to what changed,” Roberts shrugged, “I don’t know. Your cyro chamber and your wife’s began processing your reanimation without our input.”
“How did you get trapped in the mine?” AID3C asked.
His sympathetic smile rocked Max. It looked as real as his own, but then his was a ploy. “There was a cave-in.”
“Yes, yes, we know that. But how did you and your wife survive?”
“I’m not sure. There was a cave-in, the ceiling cracked and a purple gas poured in. One minute we were there, the next here. You keep talking about my wife and me. What about the second woman?”
Dr. Carson cut off AID3C’s answer with a terse wave of her hand. “Enough of this chitchat. Brief him later. Right now, we need to rehydrate you and implant the microchip.”
Mouth pressed into a thin line, Max met her openly scornful stare. “Excuse me? Microchip? Implant? What the hell are you talking about?”
“We all have them. Scientists, doctors, regular citizens have a small mechanical disc implanted at the base of the neck, just under the skin. They’re inserted at birth.” Carson lifted something the size of the head of a pin, with two silvery filaments sticking out of the bottom. “These,” she touched the almost invisible wires, “anchor to the disc between the first and second cervical vertebrae. It allows the government to monitor your location and assist you when needed.”
Max jerked free of AID3C. “Do you mean the government can track wherever I am?” His snort turned to laughter, masking his growing alarm. “I don’t think so.” Too much of his business relied on secrecy, and he didn’t see that changing in any lifetime.
She sniffed. “It’s SOP and it’s perfectly safe.”
“Standard Operating Procedure.” She lifted her long dark hair, looked at Roberts with a raised eyebrow and nodded.
Roberts’s gaze narrowed on the female doctor as he took a long black cylinder with a thin luminescent green screen from his top pocket. “Tilt your head little to the left, Helen.”
Max inhaled through clenched teeth. He’d found it hard to believe a colored man was a doctor, much less one who called a white woman by her first name without Miss. “I see they allowed you to get an education, Doctor Roberts.”
Helen flashed him a pitying look. “Why wouldn’t he? He’s a free citizen of Earth and her colonies.”
Max froze. Earth and her colonies?
“With the top echelon more free than the rest,” Roberts muttered through clenched teeth as he held the cylinder next to Helen’s neck. A series of numbers scrolled, including longitude and latitude. As a red dot blinked, he snapped the reader back into his pocket.
“See, it’s no big deal,” she said, her eyes having changed to flint as she glared at Roberts.
He didn’t miss the Roberts’ guarded look, at her stare. “What’s the problem?” An uncomfortable silence met his question. Interesting. “What’s the red dot mean?” Both docs appeared almost unsure how to answer.
AID3C’s gaze shot between them. With a shrug, the cyborg said, “It’s the explosive. Try to remove the chip…” He held his fists in the air together, opened and thrust them apart in an abrupt movement. “Cervical vertebra erased.”
And your life. Not the response he was expecting from his less than subtle question. “I’ll pass on the chip.”
“You can’t. It’s required.” Helen nodded to AID3C. The cyborg hesitated. “AID3C. Now.”
Max backed up. Helen and AID3C moved forward in concert, giving no leeway as the smooth blue-green screen on the wall vibrated and turned into a blurred watery plane.
Almost human features surfaced out of waves of lines, connections and circuits. Only a partial forehead, yellow eyes, a blade nose and sculpted lips showed with clarity. “Pod number two has revived and is ready for removal and chipping.” A high, lilting female voice filled the air.
“Thank you,” Helen said.
“An AIHI.” At his frown, Helen sighed. “An Artificial Intelligence Holographic Interface. They’re in every room.” She nodded at the tube to the right of his. “Your wife is waking. Once she’s out, we’ll hydrate and chip you both at the same time.”
Like hell. Max pivoted and waited beside the frosted glass and metal door as it receded into the container. Ah, they thought Bridget was his wife. “Madeline,” he whispered and scooped her into his arms.
“Set your wife on the table. We’ll rehydrate and implant the chips now.”
“He—” Bridget’s mossy green eyes flashed wide.
Max pressed his lips to her ear. “Play along, love.” Cuddling Bridget to his chest, he met the gazes of his three jailers while he planted a kiss on her temple. “When can we leave?”
“When you’ve been chipped, re-educated and can meld into society. You have six hundred years of history to absorb,” Helen said.
“How can we avoid being chipped?” Max asked.
Roberts fiddled with the console as Helen laughed. “Only the very rich aren’t chipped. They’re all members of the Ten Families. You have a choice in our world: obey The Families, do the work you are assigned, or be sent to mines, or service the army and miners in special brothels.”
Bridget jerked against Max, her fingers fisted in the back of his jacket. “Shush, love. You still haven’t told us where my wife’s friend is. Did she die in the cave-in?”
“No. She died yesterday in cryo. We aren’t sure why she didn’t survive,” Roberts said quietly.
With Roberts’ slit-eyed glare toward Helen, another piece of the puzzle fell into place. They weren’t meant to awaken. Someone had intervened, triggering their resurrection to thwart Helen’s plans. Why kill them after saving them? What was the game? Where was the con?
With one hand tangled in Bridget’s—no, Madeline’s—hair, Max held the trembling woman tight against his chest and caressed her back in slow circles. “I need a blanket for my wife, Madeline.” He rested his chin on the top of her head. “Calm down, love. The chills will pass.”
“She’ll feel better soon. Why don’t you both lie on the table and we can start.”
“I think not, Doctor Carson.” He met her scowl with an affable grin. “We have money, a lot of money. Not to mention the gold and silver in that mine, along with everything the Riley family stole from me when we disappeared.”