Araphel | Chapter One

Shattered bits of glass crunched under Risa’s boots in a dark, subterranean alley. She dragged herself away from the heart of Primus City, wandering among a sea of people, seeing figures but not faces, hearing voices but not words. Men, women, and children became little more than smears of background color. Had any of them meant to attack her, she wouldn’t have seen it coming―nor would she have cared.

Bright lights danced and flickered in midair around a thick column at the center of a courtyard intersection where two main tunnels crossed. Dozens of holo-panels displayed everything from cartoons to NewsNet stories about dancing poodles to Gee-ball games. As far as she could tell, no one had ever really paid much attention to the ubiquitous screens. They’d been there longer than she’d been alive, but no one seemed to know why anyone had bothered to install them.

She trudged away from the bustle into the relative quiet of the shadowed southeast corner, where a tangled mass of heavy cables, most as thick as her wrist, draped from the wall. Risa climbed without thinking, a mechanical execution of an oft-repeated task. Soon, she pulled herself up onto a metal ledge. Her perch, a vent cover for an ancient atmosphere purifier long since fallen into disuse, had not changed since her last visit. Thick, warm air fell from heater vents in the ceiling of the underground chamber, whipping her hair about in a stiff, gusty breeze. The once-silvery plastisteel bore a patina rendered in shades of green, layers of dried industrial coolant and oil.

Her sanctuary.

Risa cloaked herself in the dark, out of sight above the people of Primus, as physically removed from society as she felt. The NetMini in her hand chirped with the thirty-fourth message from Tamashī begging her to call. Holding the device hurt enough; it contained a recording of Pavo’s last minutes of life.

The little hacker had told her of it. Helmet-cam footage of him fleeing soldiers, only to get shot in the back and fall. Different versions of what it might have looked like played out in her mind, each more terrible than the last. She curled up and rested her head against her knees, clutching the device to her chest.

In the past, Risa had come here to reflect on guilt. Seldom had she taken a life and not considered it wrong. Many had died by her hand, the majority never having laid eyes on her. All this time, Garrison had insisted those who had perished to her bombs had been enemy combatants―soldiers enslaving the people of Mars. How many times had he told her she did things no one else could do? How many times had he attempted to justify the use of indiscriminate explosions? The Front’s justification had never sat right with her, yet her anger at what the UCF did to her father had kept her objections from becoming action more than guilt.

Dalos had always said, ‘What did it matter if ten civilians got caught in it when the blast neutralized hundreds of enemy military targets?’ He’d died in a failed attempt to take supplies from an ACC outpost almost two years ago.

Risa had come to her perch this time to seek absolution for Pavo’s death rather than some faceless people one of her bombs killed. She had yet to think of a way to blame herself for it, but his loss burdened her as though she’d been the one to slit his throat. How close she had come the day they’d first met. Garrison had sent her with him as a test. Had Pavo put one foot out of line, she’d have taken out his throat. Up here, far away from the people of Primus City, surrounded by the stink of metal and grease, Risa wept.

She peered over the side at the people passing six stories down. She could be with Pavo again, lean too far forward and let go. Risa daydreamed about falling, embracing the freedom of death. Ivory fingers clasped the edge, squeezing, preparing.

Kree.

Thinking of the little girl’s probable reaction to news of her suicide stalled her. Would they tell her Risa had killed herself? Or would Garrison blame her death on ‘the enemy’ and groom the little girl into a killer as he had done with her? She let her weight settle back from the edge and scowled again at the NetMini. Once, she had been immune to the fear of death. She taunted the reaper, dared it to take her, dared it to interrupt her single-minded search for revenge on whoever murdered her father.

The truth had crushed her more than hearing him die.

A broken Angel of Death had been her persona for years. It would be easy to put the shroud back upon her shoulders and dedicate herself to finding Pavo’s killers. So what if she died on the way; that wouldn’t be suicide.

Raziel? She closed her eyes, tracing her thumb back and forth over the cold, smooth NetMini screen. Why did you let Pavo die?

She sat, eyes closed, tense and bracing for the paralytic weight of his presence to descend upon her―but he did not speak.

Have you abandoned me, too? Tears rolled down her cheeks as she leaned her head back to stare at the grimy square tiles five feet overhead, picturing the sky beyond twenty-five meters of rock. What did I do to earn your scorn?

When no response came, she let her head sag and breathed in the metallic taste of her environs. Long, ebon hair whirled about, a wavering tunnel around her vision. Hundreds of people wandered back and forth, oblivious to the tragedy in the air above them. She glanced at the NetMini and swiped it unlocked. A gold star marked one icon as new―the video file. Tamashī had titled it, ‘Gomenasai. Do not watch alone.’

Risa glared at it until she perceived individual pixels making up the yellow frowny face. When the gaps between the dots felt as though they would swallow her, she poked it.

A ten-inch holo-panel opened, paused on a view looking down the length of a metal-walled corridor with grating for a floor. Heads-up display information surrounded the edges, including a small map, bio stats on the left, ammo and tactical info on the right above ‘MDF-1C52F Sgt. P. Aram.’

Her index finger brushed the holographic play button, eliciting a faint chirp. The image sprang to life, wobbling back and forth as he ran. Pavo’s voice whispered, “Shit, shit, shit, shit,” repeatedly as the sound of gunfire accompanied azure flashes reflected on metal walls. Boots clanked; sparks flew from a near miss.

‹Warning: incoming fire› flashed red in the middle of the view.

“Thanks for the heads up,” grumbled Pavo. “I wouldn’t have”―he ducked as a loud gunshot went off―“noticed.”

The sound of his voice squeezed her throat like a crushing hand.

Risa watched from Pavo’s eyes as he ran to a locked door, leapt away from another burst of sparks, and ducked down a different hallway. He seemed to be in some manner of abandoned complex. ‹Weapon link failure, unable to update ammunition display› scrolled across the bottom of the screen.

Risa gasped when Pavo’s run staggered slow and his bio monitor went haywire. The vision tilted forward; bloody hands slid in at the bottom of the screen. His camera peered further down at a hole in the front of his armor.

“No… Risa… I’m sorr―”

As the ground came up to meet the helmet, she stopped the playback.

“Pavo!” she yelled. “Raziel, you bastard! Why did you let him die?!”

She fell sideways across the angled slab, bawling. The acrid-sweet scent of chemicals flooded her nose as her forehead touched the warm, oily metal. Grief wracked her with each convulsive sob. A little voice in the back of her mind told her she deserved this for everything she had done.

Time faded in and out; eventually, she realized her cheeks had dried, though the moment she’d gone from uncontrollable weeping to lying still, like a broken doll abandoned in some forgotten corner, escaped her. One hand pushed her upright, the other pulled her hair off her face.

Why bother killing them? It won’t bring him back.

She let her legs dangle over the edge and leaned forward to watch the crowd. Her attention leapt around, seeming drawn to the outburst of every tiny voice. Each time she spotted a child, an irresistible urge welled up within.

I’ve gotta get Kree away from this war. She sucked in a breath. To hell with Mars. To hell with whatever happens to me. She doesn’t deserve this. Those people don’t even care about freedom from Earth.

Risa pulled her feet under her and grabbed the wires to begin the long climb down.

I need to get her away from Mars, away from the MLF, away from… me.

A rat’s nest of hoses and wires upon the wall provided an easy route to the floor. Easy, at least, for anyone with their agility ramped up beyond mortal limits. Risa set her boots on the thick cables and grabbed smaller lines only as wide as her finger. As long as she’d been using this place for solace, she had no idea what they held: fiberoptics, old copper electrical wires, or hoses full of fluid. For all she knew, none of them did anything useful anymore. Countless times had she climbed the techno-ivy to her roost, yet never had she thought of them as anything more than a way up. So many things in the underground sections of Elysium City had been left to rot. The government only cared about what people could see.

She jumped the last six feet, landing in a graceful, silent squat. Not one person in the concourse reacted to her. Society went on as if she didn’t exist. Risa straightened on her feet and shook her head to settle her hair behind her back. The edge of her NetMini pressed into her side.

Raziel? She stared at the grimy floor between her boots, brown-green smears of lubricant dried on plastisteel grey. I need you. I need to know if the video is real.

Silence.

Her jaw clenched. Damn it, Raziel. I’ve done everything you’ve ever asked of me. Why do you turn away from me when I need you most?

Simultaneous rage and grief left her unable to cry or fume. She shook her fists; a turmoil of emotion stormed behind a stoic face. It seemed impossible for her to have angered the angel. He had not wanted her to pursue General Everett, but even after she learned of her father’s true identity, he’d been there for her. The UCF Military hadn’t betrayed one of their own; they’d killed a spy from the Allied Corporate Council. At Arden Settlement, Raziel had saved her life, even manifesting in the physical world to do it. No, his silence could mean only one thing―he couldn’t bear to confirm the truth.

Her legs moved on autopilot, carrying her forward without a conscious decision of where to go. Perhaps she didn’t have a destination and no longer felt like standing still in the shadows. Her life could take two paths from this moment. She could go on fighting for the people of Mars, put Pavo behind her, and try to protect Kree as best she could; or, she could go back to the familiar non-life of revenge and hunt down anyone and everyone involved in Pavo’s death.

Kree would be better off without me anyway. I’ll only get her killed.

Distracted people stuffed themselves together in the aperture of a wide exit tunnel by the western edge of the courtyard. The congestion came with commuter hour, everyone on their way home from work. Risa shoved her way in, pushing anyone light enough for her to move and getting shoved back three times as much. The citizens of the Elysium City underground didn’t consider it rude. Hands and elbows bumped and rammed her from all sides. Someone grabbed her breast and recoiled.

“Sorry, didn’t see,” yelled a man.

She ignored him, though a distracted older woman paid the price for that man making her think of Pavo. The middle manager and her dark skirt-suit went flying, kept on her feet only by the sheer number of bodies in close quarters. Twenty or so meters later, she entered a connecting corridor where the walls widened to a street lined with gadget shops, clothing stores, bars, and restaurants.

Her body-hugging ballistic stealth armor had one advantage over normal clothing: an obvious lack of pockets. All the little thieves in the area gave her a disinterested berth. She made eye contact with one boy; a touch past thirteen, he regarded her with curiosity likely piqued more by her outfit than by what he might steal from her. She looked like death in black, and he seemed interested in watching the fight.

The boy tailed her for a few minutes before boredom sent him back to the denser crowd. Flickering yellow-green light at an upcoming corner caught her eye. A blonde woman―quite a rare sight on Mars―leaned against the wall outside an unlabeled doorway cut from a plain silver wall. A wreath of emerald leaves adorned her head. Matching greenery formed a skimpy skirt. Holographic two-inch faeries, projected from the gem in her crown, danced around her bare chest and thigh-length hair. She looked too thin to be real, and the tops of her ears tapered to graceful points. As if in a daze, she reached out and played with the imaginary flying creatures.

Now that’s Cat-6. Risa grumbled. Or high as hell.

People lounged on sofas in the room behind her, visible through a long round-cornered shop window. Their almost-nonexistent attire, ensembles of black strips and transparent gauze decorated with bright cobalt blue light strips, made their profession obvious. Four men and two women inside winked at her as she went by. The ‘elf’ didn’t react whatsoever.

Maybe a sub-sent.

Three people emerged from the alley behind the brothel, falling in step behind Risa. A muscular figure in the middle flanked by a thin silhouette on one side and a normal-sized man in a long coat on the other. They made no move to get too close, but didn’t bother hiding that they followed her. Risa glanced out of the corner of her eyes, left and right, catching bits and pieces of them in reflections on storefront windows. They had the look of Vykes, a disorganized group of street toughs with a techno-Nordic mindset. Suppose living in Elysium’s gotten to their heads.

Unconcerned with the threat level they presented, Risa kept walking, gaze on the ground. She’d have changed course to throw them off, but had no particular destination in mind and didn’t need to disguise where she went. Tamashī had seemed quite convinced of the authenticity of the file showing Pavo’s death. A sharp squeal broke the steady din of shuffling feet; a child’s startled yelp gave way to giggles. Risa didn’t look; in her mind, the sound had come from Kree.

Option three. Risa stopped. Take Kree and leave Mars. Get away from this madness before whoever got to Pavo finds the safehouse.

“As good a place as any,” said a male voice.

Guess they want to play after all. Risa let her posture slacken and spread her fingers. They all think I’m an assassin anyway.

A different man circled to her left. “Pretty little thing y’ar. This don’t gotta be bloody.”

“This bitch real?” The high-pitched voice came from the right; a scrawny man with no shirt and a permanent tremble looked over. Between his huge nose, wild black hair, and thin face, he resembled a raven on cheap street amphetamines. “Think you tracked down a busted fuck doll. Wot, Bax? Lookit da way it standin’.”

“Hah,” said Bax, the largest of the thugs and the first one to speak. “Dolls don’t have body heat.”

Pavo’s gone. Risa closed her eyes. I don’t care anymore. She tensed, preparing to leap into a death spiral. She flexed her hands, but her claws remained dormant. Her eyelids parted to slits; bare fingers, no blades. She tried again, and the left half of her vision exploded with a stream of red text going by too fast to read. The word ‘system fail’ on the far right of each line froze her blood.

“Class 3’s do,” said Risa, no trace of fear in her voice. “You shitheads aren’t worth the paperwork. Get lost.”

Her sense of 360 vision faltered and shut down; the two grey wraith-forms behind her evaporated to whiffs of digital smoke. No claws, no ‘eyes in the back of her head,’ and no explanation. A synapse fired, commanding her speedware to kick on―she still had pistols. Time dragged to a crawl, but slid back to normal in less than a second. Another stream of red errors ran down her field of view.

“I don’t think you’re a doll at all,” said the white-haired one in the middle. An indigo NanoLED tattoo formed circuit-line patterns around his eyes like a raccoon mask, glowing with blacklight. Silver wires in his dark blue coat matched, though they seemed only decorative. He reached for her cheek. “This’ll only hurt as much as you want it to.”

“Not much to her, ‘eh?” The scrawny one let off a hoarse laugh. “Best go easy Bax, not like last time.”

Risa crossed her arms, reaching for her pistols, and kicked white hair in the groin. The bird-man pounced on her from behind, wrapping his arms around her and keeping her from pulling out her guns. She drove her head backward into his huge beak as hard as she could. He let off a growl, but didn’t loosen his grip.

Bird-man laughed, bloody spittle flying. “You right, I/O, not a doll.”

I/O sank to his knees, grabbing his balls and moaning.

Bax jammed a sparking handheld stunner into Risa’s gut. Though her rubberized armor shielded her from the effect, the impact knocked the wind out of her. She fired both lasers still in their holsters; green light streaks scorched the ground on either side of Bird’s boots. He laughed. Bax went for her face with the stunner. She kicked his hand aside, growling and grunting as she struggled to get out of Bird’s grip. The wiry bastard had a lot more strength than his size implied.

“Oh, this one’s frisky.” Bax swung again, more of a punch.

She let her weight hang in Bird’s arms and torqued her entire body into a kick for the stunner. Bax lost his grip on the device, which flew across the street and fell amid the scattered trash with a piff. I/O drew a straight-bladed boarding party gladius from under his coat in one smooth motion as he forced himself to his feet, putting the tip beneath her chin. Risa froze.

His left eye seemed unable to open fully, and his face had gone beet red from pain. He twitched. “Now, bitch. You’re gonna hurt for that.”

Risa clenched her jaw, shivering, staring at the glowing circuit lines around his eyes, stark icy blue on blacklight-violet skin.

I/O held her at sword point while Bax rummaged for the stunner. Once he found it, he grinned, tossing it up and catching it as he walked closer.

No! Dammit, come on! What’s wrong with me?!

“Hold still, sweetness,” whispered Bird. “You’ll probably wake up if you behave yourself.”

Risa closed her eyes, trying over and over to get her speedware to activate. For years, she’d hated herself for becoming a machine. For years, she’d dreamed of becoming fully human again. Fate, it seemed had a cruel sense of timing. She’d gotten her wish.

Normal.

Helpless.


Chapter TwoChapter Three

AraphelDaughter of Mars • Back to PreviewsBooks Main