The future of mankind unravels beneath a past built on a web of deceit and treachery. Tuke discovers that the Earth is poised on the edge of destruction at the hands of an Alien race. She can possibly prevent it…but only if she is willing to lose herself in the process.
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Raised in the bosom of Corporate control, Tuke now traverses the edge of two worlds. Forced to hide her psionic abilities from both sides, she is as disgusted by the fanatics of the alien Nibiran cause as she is by the fanatical religious element in control. She profits by selling information and services to the highest bidder, with herself as the only thing she holds sacred.
Her latest assignment: Locate the Underground rebel who is circulating the anti-Corp newsletter that holds information the Corps would rather not have come to light. Using every resource available, Tuke finds much more than she bargained for when forced to work with Baell, a psion who pulls her deep into the heart of the Nibiran Underground.
The future of mankind unravels beneath a past built on a web of deceit and treachery. Tuke discovers that the Earth is poised on the edge of destruction at the hands of the Nibiran race. She can possibly prevent it…but only if she is willing to lose herself in the process.
Emotional repression is a beautiful thing. No fuss, no muss, no having to deal with the mind-numbing turmoil of awareness. I’m all for awareness of my surroundings—it’s necessary for survival, especially with the state of my surroundings these days. What I’d rather dump is the state of awareness I have for emotions—in particular, where those emotions have to interact with other people.
I’ll be the first to admit. I hate people. Well, the majority of people, anyway. There are a few who still manage to surprise me, despite the depths of cynicism I have for dealing with humanity. I do my best to ignore most people and stay out of their space—and I expect them to stay the hell out of mine.
The downside to repression is that the stupid subconscious mind always wants to get its digs in there somewhere. At least you can control the conscious mind. It’s the insidious subconscious that creeps up and slaps you in the back of the head to get your attention. I’ve actually gotten pretty good at controlling my every thought and action throughout the course of my waking hours. If I could get a handle on how to do the same while I’m asleep, I might even have half a shot at sanity. I really don’t think it’s in the cards for me. The stupid dreams that my subconscious pulls up from the dregs of emotional crap I have buried will push me over the edge one of these days. I wouldn’t want to be around me if and when that ever happens.
Dreams are disturbing—or at least mine are in their many and various forms. Sometimes I know when I’m dreaming, sometimes I don’t. Even when I know it’s all a dream—or a nightmare—there’s nothing I can do but follow it through until the end, no matter how much I’d like to wake up and put an end to emotional meanderings down paths long ago buried and best left untouched.
This time I knew it was a dream. The surrealism of my surroundings left no doubt in my mind. The steady, rhythmic beat of my heart rose through the levels of dream consciousness, beckoning to my mind to follow. But my mind was stubborn. It didn’t want any part of the waking nightmare that awaited it outside.
Voices murmured through the darkness, bringing me closer to the surface of the dream. I fought it. I knew this nightmare—it was the worst of the lot. Unconscious, I could avoid the fear that my life had become.
“What do the readings say?” One of the voices came through more clearly than the rest.
“It didn’t have an effect,” was the hollow-sounding reply.
My mind screamed, and I tried to suppress the sound. Despite my efforts, it escaped in a slight gurgle of noise with a rush of breath. No, no, no, no. Shaking my head back and forth, I tried to beg without words. I opened my eyes, but the lights were too bright, the images of light and shadow blurring around me.
“She’s awake, sir,” the hollow voice said.
“Do it again,” the first voice instructed.
It broke me. I couldn’t go through it again.
“Daddy, please, no.”
I whispered the words for the millionth time since the whole traumatic experience had begun. I lost track of how long ago. A large form stepped in front of the light, leaning over me. As it drew closer, the body blocked the light from shining in my eyes. I could make out my father’s face—, along with the look of disgust etched into his features.
My heart fell. There would be no reprieve, no pity from that quarter. It was in that moment that I knew—my father would never see me as anything other than a freak.
He searched my face, the coldness of his eyes piercing my soul. It was the breaking moment in my life, the one instantaneously defining moment that changes who you are forever. At twelve-years-old, my heart hardened, turning away from the man who was supposed to protect and cherish me.
I focused on the monitor that was hooked up to my finger, the wires trailing like chains to link me to a square metal box that displayed my vital signs. Only the electronics around me seemed to indicate that I was alive. Obviously my father didn’t think of me in that way, nor the doctor who never stopped the endless round of pain that was now my life. Only the non-living, non-breathing world around me acknowledged me as living.
“Do it again,” my father drew away from me.
“As you wish, sir,” the doctor replied.
As my father stepped back away from the bed, I tried to focus harder on the monitor, not wanting to give them any satisfaction. If I could screw up their test results, I would. But I wasn’t that strong. The tingling at my wrist was the only warning that the pain was coming. My face scrunched with involuntary anticipation. It hit me all at once. The scream was torn from my throat and my eyes flew open in time to watch the monitor flatline, registering the stopping of my heart, even as darkness took the image away. Not even the cold machines saw me as alive anymore…
Jolted into awareness, I flung myself out of bed. The blankets tangled around me, damp with sweat. Dark spots danced in front of my eyes as I tried to focus. The blood rushed to my head and I sank back with a moan.
Loud trilling rang in my ears, in synch with a light electrical tingle at my wrist. Panic flashed through me for an instantaneous second, the dream world merging with the reality of my waking one. Through a foggy haze of awareness I pulled myself out of the dream zone and honed in on the tingle. The red light on my wrist comm flashed insistently, signaling an incoming call.
The throbbing in my head pounded in pace with the blinking light. Closing my eyes to shut out the glare, I sighed and pressed the button to signal communication.
“Yeah?” my voice grated across the open line. The loudness of it echoed in my head and my jaw tightened with painful protest. I can be a real crab when I wake up, no matter what the time of day. There was silence for a moment.
“I’m looking for Tuke.” There was hesitance in the voice on the other end.
My eyes rolled upward inside lids still closed against the light. Shaking my head, I held back a groan of frustration.
“Start talking, Gator,” I managed irritably. “This had better be good.”
“I always call you with the best,” Gator said quickly. I could almost see his broken grin coming over the voice-only line.
“Yeah, sure,” I snapped, squeezing my eyes tight to control the dull throbbing in my head. “And I’m a stinkin’ Nib. Get on with it.”
“I can get this kind of abuse elsewhere,” he said indignantly.
“And I’m losing interest,” I growled a warning. “Fast.”
“A’ight, take it easy,” Gator said hastily. “Must have been one of those kinds of nights, eh?”
“Anyway, got some choice biz for you. The client needs to move fast, though. Wants to meet in an hour down at the Neon Knights in the Entertainment District.”
“Neon Knights, huh?” I filed the information away. “What’s the stakes?”
“Better let the client explain this one,” Gator replied after a slight hesitation. “Gets a bit lengthy for a comm call.”
“Great,” I sighed, going silent for a moment while calculating the time. “I’ll be there, but I can’t make it in an hour—give me two.”
“You got it,” Gator chimed with a lively note in his voice. “See ya there.”
A short chirp signaled the cut of his connection. I flipped the switch and closed down my end of the link. For several minutes I lay there, trying to collect my thoughts. Rubbing my temples to soothe the ache in my head, I sorted through the jumbled mess. A sharp pain shot through my right shoulder. I tentatively flexed the muscles to check for damage.
Last night was a fog, hard to recall. There must have been a fight or something. Unable to focus on a particular detail, I shook my head and sat up. The familiar rush of blood from my brain left me a bit unsteady.
“Damn,” I muttered to the empty room. “I’m really gonna have to quit this.” Hangovers tended to dull the senses. It obviously dulled common sense too. I smiled ruefully. Enough that I kept falling into the same bad habits.
Pushing myself off the thin mattress that vaguely passed for a bed on the rare occasion I made it back home, I got up with resolution. The scrap of cloth I used for a blanket dropped to the floor, and I kicked it aside. Absent-minded fingers combed through my hair. I sometimes did that when agitated or thinking hard. This time it was agitation. Cropped shorter on top, the tawny ends of my hair stuck out in disarray. The length reached past my shoulders. For practical purposes, it was braided to keep it out of the way.
Rummaging through a pile of clothes in the corner, I found a T-shirt less offensive to my sense of smell than the rest, and exchanged it for the one I had slept in. I tucked the wrinkled bottom into the waistband of my pants, along with the Desert Eagle from next to the bed. Strapping a lethal-looking Fairbairn-Sykes blade to my leg before pulling on heavy boots, I slid its mate into place at my side. I threw on my long coat, while several other unobtrusive little toys found their way to various stashes about my person. It was the ritual performed each time I left. In the neighborhood where I lived, it was as necessary and automatic as breathing. With a last-minute check to ensure all was in order, I headed out the door.
The littered hallways outside my apartment received my full attention as I walked through the building. It was all familiar, but I still took note. On the lower landing, I took a lengthier stride to avoid a broken step. A stabbing pain radiated across my back and chest as I hit the door at the bottom with a solid shove of my shoulder. Damn. I needed to keep better track of these things. I wasn’t up to my best yet this morning. Shaking my head, I stepped into the alley behind my apartment building.
It was warm outside, but a chill wind whipped through the alley, making me glad I had on my leather. Soon enough it would be winter, which in Minnesota meant a deep, biting cold that few in the States could begin to comprehend. In the sun, the leather would be a little warm, but it was more than protection from the weather. It was my protection from the prying eyes of others around me.
A quick glance to either side assured me that I was alone. Long strides took me to the end of the alley where it met the street. Sunlight marked the edge of dark shadow, and without missing a beat, I reached up to drop dark sunglasses into place. Adjusting the angle slightly for comfort, I put my hands into the pockets of the long coat and walked confidently down the street toward my destination.
My eyes constantly scoured the area around me as I walked along. The shades were only a habit. The dark lenses hid the focus of my attention. Never let ‘em know what the plastiglas hides. The eyes give away too many secrets. Retinal modification, among other things, allowed my vision to compensate for light adjustment. The results were instantaneous. I never had to wait for my eyes to focus in any light.
Movement in the shadowed recesses of an alley drew my attention. I stared pointedly into the darkness as I passed.
“Pick on someone your own size, Scrappers,” I growled a low warning at the two street punks lounging casually within the entrance. Their attempt at nonchalance didn’t fool me. I could see the jerkiness in their agitated movements. These guys were looking for an easy mark. I wasn’t easy. With my hand still in the pocket of the long coat, I flipped it open far enough to allow a glimpse of the blade at my side. “Unless you feel lucky.”
I looked the other way, giving them the option for action. From the shuffling noises, I could tell they had chosen to back further into the alley. Good for them. I wasn’t in the mood to play.
The light rail was a short, five-block jaunt from my place. Convenient—I liked things that way. Unfortunately, I had to head off toward the nearest shuttle stop. That was a good fifteen-minute hike up to Hennepin Avenue. My apartment sat at the edge of the International District. At one time, it was off-campus housing for University students. That was before my time. It was an open school then. Now the University is nothing but a factory for producing corporate clones.
Changes happen to a person by the time they get out of that place. There is something not quite human about them. That’s the way the Corps seem to like things. It disgusts me to think I was born into that world.
The International District was a place for clone wannabes. If you couldn’t afford the going rate for personality surgery, you had to sit around and wait for one of the Corps to decide they needed another no-mind and buy the tuition for you. I usually opted to take the longer route and then strike out toward Hennepin to avoid the hopeless gazes of the zombies wandering around the heart of old Dinkytown.
Walking normally relaxes me, but lately it makes me twitchy. There’s tension in the air wherever you go. Everybody seems to be waiting for the expected to happen unexpectedly. I figure if it’s going to happen, there’s not a hell of a lot I can do to stop it. The down side is that I need to make sure that whatever it is, it’s not gonna happen to me.
I spend a lot of time in reflective thought. Thoughts that if the morality police were ever to get wind of, they’d have me off the streets in a heartbeat. Morality police. That’s a joke. They were nothing but a contingent created at the turning edge of the transfer of power from the old government to the newer, zipped-up corporate controlled one. Half the population never even knew the bill was up to be passed, let alone that it did. People had reached the point of not caring about anything unless it directly affected them. They care now and, as always, it’s too little too late.
I reached the shuttle drop and caught one headed west toward Central. From there I caught another headed north, away from the city. At 18-1/2 Street, I hopped off and headed into what used to be an old roller skating center. People weren’t into the public recreation thing anymore. If they had the bucks, they had their own recreation facilities—usually corporate—to play with. If not, they weren’t interested anyway.
With a passing nod to the new guy inside the door, I brushed by before he could start with the grill routine given to unwanted visitors. I knew most of the guys who had taken over this building. I wasn’t about to stand for that crap.
Inside, the place was much as I remembered. I hadn’t been here in a while, but some things never seem to change. Open and dirty, piles of junk were scattered everywhere. I knew the second floor with rooms had been added only over the last ten years or so, along with more storage and rooms in the basement. It was little better than a warehouse now.
The hardwood floor that was once a skating rink was in broken disrepair. Pity. If these guys had been smart, they would have taken it up and sold it to a Corpse for one of their living rooms. That stuff was a premium these days. A meaty hand slapped my back. The pain in my shoulder made me grimace as I turned to mumble a gruff greeting to Tom.
“Haven’t seen you around in a while,” he commented with a grin at my discomfort. “Where’ve you been hiding yourself?”
“If I told you that, it wouldn’t be much of a hiding place, would it?” I scowled. Flexing the shoulder brought more pain, but proved to me that the thing was still in one piece. “Aside from the fact that being around you guys could get a person dead.”
Tom grinned lazily. Tom Cat. That’s what he called himself. T. C. for short. Every time I came around, I felt like a mouse being sized up by a big ol’ tomcat. I didn’t feel much like being his toy today. He was a hefty guy, not really fat, with a round, lazy face. I could look straight into his blue eyes. At six foot, I was fairly tall for a female. He smiled a lot, accounting for the crinkles around his eyes.
The smiling part I never understood. He always seemed to be in one sort of trouble or another. His hair was dark and usually tied back. Today it hung loose about his shoulders.
“Sure don’t seem to have much of a problem when you need something.” He raised an inquiring eyebrow.
“I need to be in the Entertainment District for a meet.” I shrugged, looking away from his knowing glance. “I’d prefer to be able to get around town quickly.”
Tom was the head of the Bloodhawks. They drove their obsolete gas-guzzling motorcycles around town trying to look ferocious. Sometimes they even succeeded. Not with me. I helped to strengthen their fund situation.
A handful of known pagans were attached to the group. The rest were supporters of the pagan cause. That’s what I meant with the remark about winding up dead just hanging around these guys. They were actual practitioners of the dark, forbidden arts. Religious hypocrisy drove me away from the Corps in the first place, so it really didn’t matter to me one way or the other.
I guess the thing that always struck me as stupid every time I thought about it, was that before my time, this country of ours was supposed to have been built on the premises of freedom. In the world I grew up in, that freedom didn’t exist. Freedom of religion was supposed to be one of the big ones. Then it seemed as though overnight, the whole country gave away their freedom to a single religion.
Okay—I could maybe even get that part. But in order to enforce the religion, the worst of the fanatics of the entire religious spectrum took over control and started wiping out anyone who refused to follow the party line. It caused the start of the Pagan Wars that happened just after the turn of the century, not too long after I was born. With decimated numbers, people who didn’t toe the line became a shadow to the system—like the Bloodhawks.
The Corps would eat these guys for breakfast if they ever caught on. For the most part, I could care less. But some of these guys had grown on me, even if I hated people for the most part. I just wasn’t about to be caught up in the middle of some war I didn’t give a crap about.
“What’s the take?” Tom caught my wandering mind off-guard while turning on his business mode.
“Don’t know yet,” I replied truthfully. “I’ll negotiate when I know the biz.”
“Twenty percent,” he announced, taking on his best bully stance with legs set apart and hands positioned on his hips. “I’ll escort.”
“No good.” I shook my head. “I don’t know what the biz is yet, and I want freedom of movement. I’ll give you five. No escort. I know you’re down on funds.”
“Fifteen no escort. It covers damages and maintenance.”
“Eight. I’ll cover damages and gas. You cover maintenance.”
“Ten with damages and gas.” his tone of voice said that it was a final offer. I twitched. Gas was costly.
“Done—when I finish the biz.”
Tom left to ready my transport. Looking around, I saw a couple of lounging Bloodhawks. I wandered among piles of crates stacked to serve the dual purpose of separating personal areas and providing cover against attack. Near the back wall, I peeked into the remodeled work area that had been gutted out from storage cells. A collage of motor and electronic components lay in random disarray. Buried amongst them was a short guy with a full black beard, puttering as usual with some new project. Or maybe it was one of the old ones he had never gotten around to finishing.
“If you’re gonna stand there, at least make yourself useful,” Jake growled. He held a long strip of metal bent in an arc at the edge of some large, bowled disk. Pointing in a general direction toward me, he waggled his finger. “Bring me that doohickey there, will ya?”
Looking down at a low pile of junk, I grabbed the closest object. For his inspection, I held up long cylindrical tube with a wire at one end.
“Not that,” Jake snapped. “The one next to it.”
Dropping the tube, I picked up a small rectangular box with a clear dial that had colored wires poking out from one corner. With a quizzical glance, I checked for his approval, and handed the unfamiliar object to him. He grabbed it and went back to work without another word.
Jake loved to tinker. Some of the things he came up with actually worked. I had yet to be on the receiving end of one of his failed test toys, but I’d heard stories. When he was hot in the middle of a project, there was no dealing with him. I decided to leave him be.
Tom caught up to me as I went back across the warehouse. Keys flew my way through the air. He stepped up as I grabbed them mid-flight.
“Best be careful,” he said. I never knew that he could speak quietly.
“I’ll bring it back in one piece,” I reassured him, turning toward the door. He grabbed my arm and pulled me back. His look was intense. I figured it might be worth hearing what he had to say, so I shrugged off his touch without hurting him.
“That’s not what I meant,” he said with the same intensity that was in his eyes. He glanced around to see who was standing close enough to overhear. “The natives are getting restless. Something is going to break soon. You don’t want to get caught up in it.”
“Your big mojo tell you that?” I teased, lowering my voice to match his. His eyes narrowed. I grinned and pushed him away. Tom was a pagan. These things were not supposed to be spoken aloud. Before this, I never had. “Lighten up, Tom.”
“I’m serious, Tuke.”
The smile vanished from my face. “I know.”
He eyed me carefully. Nodding as though satisfied, he stepped back and let me pass.
Outside, I found a chopped version of some old bike that was a conglomerate of parts probably found on the floor of Jake’s work area. Even so, it didn’t look half bad. I just prayed it ran. I took a glance at my wrist comm. Six o’clock. A little over half an hour to reach the meet. With a turn of the key and a healthy kick to get it going, I headed back down Central for the long haul to the Entertainment District.