Araphel | Chapter Two

Wet breaths puffed over the top of Risa’s head, laden with the flavor of greasy salami. Bird’s bear hug crushed the air from her chest, pinning her crossed arms and trapping her weapons in their holsters. Risa strained to lean back from the sword point at her throat, staring down the length of gleaming metal at the man holding it.

NanoLED tattoos of glowing indigo circuit lines lit I/O’s paper-white hair cobalt blue where it draped in front of his eyes. Red tinted his cheeks, the aftereffect of her kick. He shook with rage, glaring at her as though he wanted to make her imminent death hurt as much as possible. All the strength in her legs shoved against Bird as the tip teased a droplet of blood from her neck. She locked eyes with I/O, feeling more anger than fear.

These idiots shouldn’t be a threat. What the hell happened to my ‘ware?

I/O’s malignant rage seemed to evaporate in an instant. “Now, play nice.” He tapped her under the chin twice with the flat of the blade.

He leaned back to give Bax plenty of room to raise the handheld stunner to her cheek. The scent of ozone filled her nostrils as the blue glowing tip neared. Primal panic took over. Risa thrashed and screamed. Not since the flames had filled her childhood bedroom had she experienced such terror. A lucky high kick knocked the stunner out of his hand yet again. Bax roared incomprehensible malformed words and punched her in the gut. She let off a noise like a stomped-on goose, and hung limp.

Risa screamed inside her head, hating every ounce of feeling weak and helpless.

“I thought you liked ‘em feisty, Bax?” said Bird.

I/O frowned. “That’s not what this one’s for. Four-hundred-grand, boys.”

“Yeah, man,” wheezed Bird, grunting from the effort of restraining her. “But he didn’t say we couldn’t―”

“Argh!” Risa yowled, and slammed her head into the man’s teeth.

Pain exploded in a starburst at the back of her skull. She rammed her head into his nose a second time. Bird squeezed her harder and she thrashed, growling and kicking. I/O grabbed her left leg and fumbled to contain her other wild limb.

Bird staggered; hot blood flowed down the back of her neck, under the high collar of her armored suit. Sensing his grip weakening, she forced her arms apart while letting her weight hang dead in his arms. Risa wriggled away, falling to the ground as Bax rounded another ham-fist. The punch caught Bird in the chest, knocking him stumbling for a few steps before he fell. Risa, still fighting to breathe, kicked her leg free of I/O’s grip. She rolled onto her front and squeezed the trigger on the pistol under her right arm. Judging by the howl, the laser had scored a hit on Bax.

“Fuck!” he roared.

“I’ve ‘ad enough of this bitch.” I/O advanced. “We’ll still get half for a corpse.”

Risa dragged herself upright, one hand cradling her gut while her left arm gyrated in a desperate search for balance. Bax sprawled on the ground, both hands clamped around his left thigh. Blood and smoke oozed between his fingers from the half-inch hole burned straight through his leg. I/O swung his blade in a wide, telegraphed arc. Risa ducked at the cost of one or two hairs. Bird pulled a ballistic handgun off the back of his belt. It’ll hurt, but it won’t pierce. Risa instinctively held her fingers in claw posture, but her implanted blades refused to deploy. Expecting a bullet any second, she gritted her teeth and braced for impact. Air finally found her lungs as she leaned away from I/O’s backswing and pulled out her weapons. The usual floating crosshairs from her cybernetic eyes failed to appear.

“Outta the way man,” yelled Bird, raising his weapon.

The sword pulled back, entering the start of an overhead chopping motion. She shot a nanosecond glance to the right where an alley offered cover, but to go for it would put her right in the path of the descending blow. With the grace of a matador, Risa slid to her left. The blade came down hard enough to spark on the plastisteel floor. Woozy from the stomach hit, she swooned backward, raising her pistols. I/O brushed them aside with a twist of his sword, but not fast enough. Emerald laser light streaked from her left-handed weapon, pierced his shoulder, and hit Bird in the cheek.

Before I/O could recover his sword for a counterattack, his chest exploded in a series of red spurts. A flurry of faint pops came from the dark alley to her right. An infrared light dot appeared at the center of I/O’s forehead, and the back of his skull exploded in a sluice of gore. He lingered upright for a second before collapsing in a heap. More pops rang out in time with metal clanks on the ground; sparks appeared in a trail, walking over Bird as bullets riddled his body. Risa stared at the targeting assist invisible to those without cyberware or visors.

What the… silenced ballistic weapon?

Risa whirled toward the source; her throat dried up at the silhouette of another man emerging from the alley with luminous green spots for eyes. She took a step back as the figure advanced. His arm went out to his right side, though his gaze never left her. He walked forward, firing two quick shots into Bax’s chest, and two more in the face.

Bax slumped in a heap.

Oh, shit.

She aimed both her Hotaru-6s at the new arrival, angered by the fear so visible in the wavering barrels of her lasers. The man let his gun pivot on one finger, weight pulling the barrel to point upward. Another step brought Shiro Murasame into the light.

Shiro… Her heart thumped in her chest; she let her arms drop. Raziel, did you send him?

His lip curled with a cocky grin. “Hope I’m not interrupting. I’m sure you had that handled.”

She squatted, arms crossed over her bruised stomach, and gasped for air. “Umm. Yeah.”

Shiro slipped his pistol inside his dark suit jacket. He glanced at the three dead men and offered her a hand. “Glad I went looking for you.”

He’s never going to let me forget this.

“How did you find me?” She coughed, rubbing her gut. “Bastard hit me right in the sweet spot. If I still had real eyes, I’d be seeing stars.”

“Call it a hunch.” He offered a hand, pulling her upright. “You don’t look so good.”

Thanks for noticing. She glared at what remained of Bax and shivered. “Any chance of a ride?”

“I thought you’d never ask.” He held out his arm as if about to escort her to a private club. “Shall we have dinner at The Azure?”

I… no. I have to find Pavo. Risa wobbled to her feet. “I can’t. I’m in the middle of something.”

Shiro brushed the back of his hand over her cheek. She cringed inside, but kept it from showing. Red text appeared at random in her field of vision, errors about diagnostic failure. One panel suggested updating the firmware version of her NIU, but the MarsNet link showed as down. She navigated a fritzing menu with eye motions, and triggered a diagnostic routine. Random text messages full of hexadecimal code appeared here and there, flickering in and out too fast to read. Nine seconds in, the self-check process crashed, and her vision went dark. Green text lingered, fading gradually as if burned into her retinas.

‹Diagnostic routine has failed: neural memory overflow – too many errors.›

‹Unrecoverable fault at address: FF0A:82B1. NIU Link error code 02. Kernel panic.›

‹00:00:0A:42:84:9… ›

Blind.

“Shit,” she whimpered, trembling.

“Risa?” asked Shiro, a touch over a whisper. He grasped her arms.

“I-I’m blind.”

His arm slid around her back, supporting most of her weight. “The purple lights went out.”

“That’s not good. Something’s wrong with me.” No. No. No. Terror raked an icy claw over her heart. Pavo was dead, and she had one foot in the grave right behind him.

“You’re shaking.” He tried to gather her in his arms.

You’re not Pavo. She cried, wanting Pavo to be the one to carry her broken body to the medical pavilion. No… The shutdown of her augmented hearing came on with a sensation like cotton swelling up inside her ears. While her hearing had become ‘normal,’ she felt deaf.

Shiro overpowered her pitiful struggle and lifted her off the ground. “Come on. You’re in no condition to be out here on your own.”

Her eyes didn’t reboot. After two full minutes of darkness, she stopped wriggling and let her head lie against what she assumed to be his shoulder. Soft bouncing motions rocked her as he moved. Never before had she felt so helpless.

Not even the night her father died.

Lost in a world of darkness, Risa clung to memories of a time before her life spiraled out of control. Between glimpses of her old bedroom and her father’s smile, scenes of fire and blood appeared with the roar of his scream. She embraced the sight of it, staring defiance at the flames with her mind’s eye. No longer did the nightmare control her. She summoned it, reveled in it, owned it. Deep within, she knew the same political machinery responsible for her father’s death had also killed the man she had dared love. Too fast… I killed him. It had taken her years to trust the capricious whims of fate not to take Garrison away enough to lower her guard. She couldn’t remember how old she’d been when she’d finally stopped sleeping in the vents and allowed herself to attach.

Wicked memories of flames fed anger instead of fear, and she found herself snarling into Shiro’s shoulder as he guided her along for a short walk. He stopped, and she reached out to find a smooth, cold object. At the beep and hiss of actuators, she recognized the side of a small car. Shiro lifted her off her feet again and set her down on a cushioned seat. Her hand brushed a surface reminiscent of suede, cool and soft, and the scent of a man’s cologne mixed with the lingering remnant of green tea.

Risa’s voice cracked with emotion. “Shir―”

The door closed to her right, stalling her question. A moment later, he got in at her left. She decided against speaking, and sat straight with her hands over her face, replaying the day she’d agreed to have her eyes replaced. General Maris favored the tactical superiority of artificial eyes instead of a semi-external implant like a ViewPane. He’d said it would be easier to hide, and couldn’t get knocked off her head.

Dustblow. Glowing purple dots are so inconspicuous. You just wanted the money a young girl’s eyes would get on the market. Shame fell on her shoulders. Normal people don’t give up perfect organs for machines. I was so idealistic… and pissed off.

She clung to her anger in an effort not to give in to panic. Inertia pushed her to the side as the car took a corner. The lack of warning left her unable to get her hand up in time to prevent her head colliding with the window. Shiro put an arm around her, triggering an involuntary stiffening of her back muscles.

“Hey, easy. You’re safe,” said Shiro in a soothing half-whisper. “You can relax. You’ll be able to see again soon, and I’ll stay with you until you can.”

If Pavo’s ghost is watching me, I don’t want him to think it only took me hours to get over him. “I’m okay.” She reached her right arm out until she found the wall, and braced herself. “Thanks, but―”

“Too soon.” He lifted his arm. “I understand.”

What? How could he know? “W-what do you mean?”

“That Imari woman has not been subtle in her search for your associate. Your NetMini went offline within seconds of a call from your Japanese friend, and your current mood gave away all I needed to infer.” He grasped her hand, pausing for a moment. “I’m sorry, Risa.”

Trembles in her arms ceased. In place of sorrow, determination swept over her mind. I will not cry for Pavo until they all pay. “I will find the people who killed him.”

“That didn’t work out so well for you the last time you chased revenge.”

A mental image of the smug grin he might’ve had caused her fist to clench. “You know so much about me.”

She flopped into him as the car swerved into a hard left. He muttered a curse under his breath about idiot pedestrians. As soon as the vehicle straightened out, she pushed herself upright and grabbed her head in both hands, fingers splayed in her hair. I can’t stand this. Over and over, she concentrated on the mental command to activate the Wraith implant. Almost seven years I’ve been able to see in the dark, now I’m blind. I’m going to go crazy.

“Risa?”

“How?” She pulled her hands up and over her head, gathering her hair out of her face. “How do you know so much about me?”

“I thought I mentioned I have research people. Well, rather the company does.”

Risa swiveled her head as if to glance toward the sound of his voice. The same featureless darkness surrounded her on all sides. “You never did tell me which company you worked for. Can those ‘research people’ help find who I need to kill?”

“Starpoint, and possibly… but―”

“They’re in bed with military intelligence, so if C-Branch is involved, they”―Risa made air quotes―“won’t be able to find anything.” She let her arms fall dead in her lap. “Shit.”

Shiro chuckled. “I was going to say ‘but people would start asking questions I don’t have answers for.’”

She lurched forward as the car stopped, but managed to get her hands up in time to avoid kissing a hard, plastic barrier. The soft chirp of a NetMini’s credit scan came from her left, seconds before the door opened on a whirring automatic arm. Sounds of an open area with a large number of people moving about flooded her dulled senses. She held absolutely still and focused. Minimal conversation existed. Most of the noise consisted of footsteps. A courtyard. Muted melodic tones framing automated announcements paging medtechs or waiting family pierced the ambient din every so often. Primus Medical Pavilion. She caught herself trying to glance at Shiro again and fumbled her way out of the taxi, cursing under her breath while taking baby steps to feel for the curb. A hand caught her by the bicep and she instinctively drove her elbow backward, aiming for the solar plexus of an adult male. Shiro let off a weak “oof,” and threw his other arm around her, trapping her against his chest.

“It’s me. Calm down.”

“Sorry.” She stopped squirming. “Little warning please. People who sneak up on me tend to end up dead.”

“Shall I carry you?”

Again, her mind painted a smile on his face that made her want to punch it. “My legs aren’t broken. I’m only a little stiff.”

“That’s your agility wiring. You’re so used to having boosted reflexes that when they’re gone, you’re worse off than if you’d never had them. It’s not permanent; your body would adjust in a few weeks.”

“Would?” She moved to the side and put a hand on his shoulder. “I can walk.”

“You should be back online in a few hours, so your body won’t have to adjust to the lack of boost.”

Disappointment welled up inside her. As close to a normal person as she’d been in years, and he brought her here to ‘fix’ it. His shoulder pulled her hand forward; her legs moved as if on their own. What’s wrong with me? A ‘normal’ girl would’ve been killed by those shitheads in the alley. Her free hand teased at the front of her neck where I/O had poked her with a sword. The more she thought about him, the more she seethed about feeling so helpless. She’d gotten so used to being augmented; that she missed it left her feeling sick. The eyes. The glowing purple dots made her feel the most inhuman of anything, and she could wear a visor. Of course, she couldn’t afford a regen procedure, nor would the Front pay for cutting-edge eyes that looked like real ones. They had better things to do with a hundred grand, and they’d never pay millions merely to regrow biological tissue. Her mind filled in images of Kree playing ‘speeware’ to make up for the darkness burdening her heart. The child didn’t seem at all frightened or put off by the augments. In fact, she adored them. Risa smiled despite herself, even if the girl had attached to her out of the belief that whatever had killed her mother wouldn’t stand a chance against Risa.

Can I accept who I’ve become?

The presence of sound changed like they’d gone into an enclosed space. She lifted her head in another futile effort to look around. A hiss from in front startled her, but Shiro didn’t slow. She wobbled on stiff legs as he pulled her forward into a standing wall of cold air. Pneumatic doors closed behind them, transmuting the rush of the crowd into the soft ambiance of distant conversation.

Soft electric pings interspersed with a pleasant female voice. “Attention friends or relatives of”―the voice changed pitch―“Haoru, Ishikawa”―the voice returned to its former tone―“your friend or relative has completed his procedure in good health. He should be emerging within twenty minutes.”

Risa followed Shiro’s lead through a slalom of chairs and people. How could I have wanted to be weak? She ran two fingers over her face, shuddering at the realization she’d technically been blind since seventeen. I miss my eyes.

Shiro stopped after a few minutes of walking, guided her to a seat, and patted her on the back of the hand before letting go. “Wait here. I’ll make the appointment.”

She reclined, closing her eyes despite the uselessness of the gesture. Time dragged by in quiet silence. Shiro took a seat at her side in a few minutes, but kept quiet. Why hadn’t Raziel said a word since she’d watched the video of Pavo’s last moments? Is he avoiding me because he knows what I’d ask him? He’s an angel. How could he not know something was going to happen to Pavo? Why didn’t he warn me? Her fingernails crimped the armrests, squeezing her anger into the almost-cushioned chair. He knew I’d have gone to help Pavo instead of Arden. Rage faded to guilt at the memory of Tara. I didn’t save the settlement, but most of the people survived. She slouched forward, face in her hands. Even Pavo wouldn’t have wanted to trade so many lives for one.

“Miss Aum?” asked a neutral-toned male voice.

It took her a few seconds to remember the false identity she’d used on her first meeting with Shiro; her head popped up. “Yes?”

“The doctor is ready for you. I understand your eyes aren’t working, so I brought a hover-chair.”

“Great.” She stood and reached for where she expected the chair to be, swiping at air. Someone attempted to take her hand, but she jerked away. “I’m okay.” A few seconds of flailing later, she whacked her hand on the backrest of the hover-chair and spat a series of muttered obscenities.

“Miss Aum?” asked the man.

“I said I―” Risa scowled. He didn’t have to know she had to fight to keep from trembling. True darkness held threats she couldn’t react to. “Where’s the damn chair?”

“Calm down,” whispered Shiro, wrapping his arms around her from behind.

She tolerated his embrace only until she realized he tried to guide her to the chair. Wriggling and squirming, she snarled and tried to get away. “I got it. I’m not… I don’t need…” When he refused to let go, she focused all her energy on resisting the urge to cry.

“It’ll be fine.” He let go once she stopped struggling.

Risa seethed in silence.

“Might want to let me hold your gear,” said Shiro.

She shrugged out of the harness and faced ninety degrees left.

“You’ll be fine.” Shiro patted her on the arm and took her pistols.

When something bumped her calves, she reached back to find the chair behind her, and lowered herself onto a floating seat, which bobbed up and down for a few seconds until it corrected for her weight. The hospital worker pushed her at the pace of a brisk walk; Risa kept her hands in her lap rather than the armrests, not wanting to risk having her knuckles slammed against unknown obstacles. She remained quiet through a right turn, two minutes in a cramped elevator, and another series of hallways. A soft hiss came from an opening door before a wave of even colder air brushed her face.

“Okay, we’re here.” The man swiveled the hover-chair over a few small bumps and scooted it sideways several feet. “I’m going to ask you to lie on your stomach on the table. You can take your boots off if you want, but it isn’t necessary.”

“No tank?” She fumbled in the dark until her fingertips found the edge of a table.

“Not yet. We’re going to run a diagnostic first. Where’s your M3? Ear or neck?”

“Behind my left ear.” She slid from the chair onto the table and rested her right cheek on her folded arms. “I’m not military.” At least this thing is soft.

He wiped the area behind her ear with a cold, wet lump. The scent of rubbing alcohol followed seconds later. “Hmm. You’ve got dried blood in the port. I’m going to clean it up first.”

Risa lay still while he rummaged among what sounded like trays of small tools. A cold droplet crept down the back of her neck, triggering an involuntary shiver. He moved closer and set one hand flat on top of her head, holding her down with a light, even pressure.

“I’m going to be as gentle as I can. Most people find this unpleasant. Try not to move. Hmm. There’s a lot of blood on the back of your neck.”

“It’s not mine. Some idiot grabbed me from behind. I think I broke his nose.”

Her calm lasted until he stuck the tip of a delicate tool into the socket and worked it back and forth. The scraping of metal on metal reverberated in her skull. Between scratching sound and the feeling of the tool snagging on hard clumps, her jaw clenched and her right leg twitched. She clawed at the cushion, squirming side to side in an effort to resist the instinctual urge to do whatever she could to escape.

After a moment, he paused. “Is something wrong?”

“Ugh. It’s scratching in my head; my spine is twitching.”

He put a hand on her shoulder to hold her down. “Please stay still. I’m sorry this is uncomfortable, I’m trying to be quick. You’ve got dried blood in the port that looks like it’s been there a while.”

Hell lasted another forty seconds until he withdrew whatever tool he’d been using and connected a standard interface plug. Compared to the cleaning, the click that echoed in her brain felt wonderful. She relaxed and closed her eyes, as if lying on a massage table.

“Oh, there’s your problem,” said the man.

“That was quick,” muttered Risa.

“Your NIU is toast. No signal at all. I could’ve plugged this in your nose and gotten the same result.”

“That’s why nothing works.” Central link down. “Let me guess, I need brain surgery.”

“I’m afraid so.” He pulled the wire out. “I’m going to check with another wire and another diagnostic unit just to make sure… but we won’t know what else happened until we get a functional NIU in there.”

“How much is this going to cost?” As if I could put a price on being able to see.

“One moment.” A few electronic blips chimed overhead. “Oh, looks like everything’s covered by your insurance.” The man patted her on the shoulder. “I wish I worked for Starpoint. That’s one hell of a package.”

Risa blinked. Shiro…

Random sounds from the medtech fiddling around with equipment grew distant for a few minutes and returned. The exam table upon which Risa lay jostled when he leaned his weight on it. As his hand pressed down on the side of her head, she gritted her teeth, bracing for the sensation of a metal prong sliding into the M3 socket mounted to bone. Her fingers clenched tight on the cushion as the scrape of metal on metal vibrated her skull and stopped with a click. Distinct tapping of a fingernail upon glass came from somewhere above and behind her. She tried to relax and not to think about how helpless she felt, lying prone and blind.

An angry digital buzz/chirp from her left made her eyes snap open on instinct.

“Yep,” said the medtech. “Something fried your NIU. I’ll send a notice to Doctor Avora. She’ll be with you in a few minutes. Can I get you anything?”

“No, thanks.” Risa lay still for a few minutes after he disconnected the wire. Every distant noise or scrap of conversation reminded her she couldn’t see the source. One finger tapping became a hand twitching, which became fidgeting. No matter how wide she tried to open her eyes, her world remained a void. She amused herself for a moment clicking a fingernail against her plastisteel eyeball. When that ceased distracting her, she rolled upright and swiveled to let her legs dangle over the side. “This is going to require surgery, right?”

“Yes. We’ll have to replace your neural interface unit at the very least, and we won’t know what else is damaged until that’s been done.”

Risa raised one boot. She flicked the five fasteners on the outside edge open, one after the next. A minor nudge let gravity pull it off.

Clunk.

She switched, opening the other boot. “Is the tank in this room?”

“Yes. Umm…”

She removed her other boot. “Guide me?”

“If you prefer an AI or a woman to help―”

“I’m past the point of caring. Besides”―cold air brushed over her bare chest as she opened the MolWeave fastener down the side of the ballistic suit―“you’re a medical professional, right?”

“I am, but I can’t know what people are comfortable with.” A squeak of his shoe gave away a twist of posture, and he raised his voice. “Windows, tint maximum. Door, close.”

A pneumatic hissed somewhere behind her. She pulled her arms free from the rubbery material and pushed her suit down around her hips before hopping off the table. All conscious thought ground to a screeching halt as soon as her toes touched freezing metal. Teeth chattering, she shoved her armor down around her ankles and stepped out of it. Damn, it’s cold in here.

“O-okay.” She rubbed her hands up and down her arms. “The gel’s w-warm, right? W-where is it?”

Fingertips settled on her left shoulder. “Turn left ninety degrees. Take six steps straight ahead and stop.”

She estimated a quarter turn and walked until he tugged her to a halt.

“The tank is right in front of you,” said the medtech. “The base is a short step up.”

One searching foot probed out the edge of a disc raised six inches from the floor. Having been in medical tubes more than she cared to be, she found it easy to picture it and hopped up as if she could see. She spun to face her estimation of the room. “Okay. F-flood this thing before I freeze.”

“Have you been―”

“Yeah. Too many times.” Risa fidgeted.

She crossed her arms over her stomach, shivering. A moment later, sound changed as the cylinder closed around her. Weak vibration in the floor started a few seconds before syrupy liquid touched her toes. Body-temperature gel engulfed her legs in a warm blanket that couldn’t cover her fast enough. When it reached her thighs, she let herself collapse. For a moment, she lay submerged on her side curled in a ball, holding her breath and adoring the warmth. Come on, get it over with. She let the air out of her lungs in a slow series of bubbles. Holding a lungful of air proved easier than trying not to breathe with them empty. Survival instinct kicked in before she could ready herself, and she inhaled fluid.

Despite her frequent visits to medical tanks, the sensation of liquid entering her lungs awoke a primal fear. Risa clamped her arms around her shins to keep from scratching at the tank wall as she choked and gagged in small twitches. I can breathe this. I can breathe this. She chanted in her head until her subconscious mind accepted she wouldn’t drown. Once she breathed at an even rate again, she relaxed and let the rising fluid carry her upright.

“That was pretty smooth.” The medtech’s voice seemed to come from everywhere. “Guess you spend a lot of time in tanks?”

She nodded. The liquid in her ears made the thrumming of the pump loud and mesmerizing; it lulled her into a meditative calm. I’m as helpless as a baby in its mother’s womb. Naked, blind, and defenseless. She raised one arm to wipe at her face. Maris was wrong. Giving up my eyes wasn’t worth it. Even if something happened to the visor, I could still see. In quiet weightless comfort, the urge to sleep washed over her brain. It seemed like only seconds before a woman’s voice echoed in the fluid-filled chamber, startling her awake.

“Good morning, Miss Aum. I’m Doctor Avora. Sorry to keep you waiting. I had to attend a situation with another patient. Please don’t worry; a colleague required assistance. You are in excellent hands today.” The woman sounded fiftyish, and her accent suggested she’d grown up in the more comfortable parts of Primus City. Risa imagined a confident woman in a white medical coat with a reassuring smile. “I understand your neural interface is unresponsive. I’ll get started in a few minutes. We’re waiting for the replacement component, which is on the way.”

She sounds like what I’d want my grandmother to sound like if I had one. Risa gave a thumbs up.

“Charles tells me you have no idea what happened?”

Risa nodded.

“Are you seeing anything at all? A diagnostic screen or error message?”

Risa shook her head.

A mechanical whirr overhead gave her the impression of a small door or drawer retracting.

“Your new NIU is here. I’m going to introduce the anesthesia now. Are you ready?”

Risa held two thumbs up.

Her head grew heavy as tingling spread over her entire body. She knew she shouldn’t be able to feel the millions of nanobots depositing micro-doses of sedative in her blood, and blamed it on her overactive imagination. Vertigo lasted three seconds before the words ‘System Restart’ glimmered in bright green letters upon the blackness. Currents of viscous liquid swirled around her, causing her arm to brush against her side. She made no effort to move as she stared at the first thing she’d seen in… How long was I out?

The glowing words faded, replaced by an explosion of text in a font too small―and too fast―to read, which scrolled along the left side of her field of view. A beep sounded in her skull, and the infinite void gave way to a view of her nude figure, pale white skin tinted peach by the medical fluid.

I can see! She allowed herself a few happy tears. No one would notice.

“Welcome back, Miss Aum,” said the doctor.

Risa looked up. Floor, walls, and ceiling of metallic aqua-green bristled with machinery covered in blinking lights. Her suit lay folded in a neat bundle on a padded exam table in the middle of the room. Hoses and wires of various diameter hung from the ceiling like the canopy of a techno-rainforest. A woman a few feet away clutched a datapad like a clipboard and flashed a reassuring smile. Silver hair in a neat updo, white coat, and a metal headband with electronic components poised in front of her right eye lent her an air of competence and authority.

Doctor Avora pecked at the datapad with one finger. “I’m sure you have questions, but they will have to wait for a moment. I’m going to run a diagnostic on your implants.”

Past the doctor, a man in a teal coat collected packing materials into four empty boxes. Marsborn, and likely in his later twenties, he wore his shoulder-length ebon hair in a short ponytail. Risa rubbed her face; being able to see again felt like the weight of a death sentence had been lifted from her heart. Floating panels bearing system status checks opened all over her vision. She stared through them at the medtech, the doctor, the room, savoring every tiny visual detail.

Within a minute, all seventeen panels collapsed to thin lines and shrank to glimmering points, which faded away. Two beeps sounded in her head, followed by the doctor’s face and shoulders in a panel a few feet in front of her. Fluid swished back and forth between Risa’s teeth as she forgot laughing doesn’t work while breathing gel. She didn’t even care how the doc had overridden the option for her to answer or decline an incoming call to her headware.

「I’m seeing green down the board, Miss Aum. Your wireless connectivity is back up. All of your systems are online. Does everything feel right?” The doctor glanced at her screens. “You had some superficial flesh trauma, which I’ve cleaned up. Do you have any pain, discomfort, dizziness, disorientation, or anything out of the ordinary?」

「What happened?」 Risa ran her hands over her body, squeezing and prodding places she expected to be sore. 「Nothing hurts.」

Doctor Avora approached the tank, holding the datapad at her hip. The change in angle altered the bust in the floating holo-panel to resemble the view of a small child staring up at an adult. 「All of the circuitry within your NIU was fried, but it doesn’t look like an EMP. I had to replace the component, as well as your wireless uplink module. Not much data remained in the buffer memory, but from the appearance of the damage, my guess is that your transmitter overloaded.」

「How? Overloaded?」 Risa blinked. 「Did someone hit me with a virus or something?」

「I don’t think so. The software scans are clean.」 Doctor Avora waved her hand over the datapad, cycling a few screens to the left. 「It looks like a simple electrical melt. Too much power ran through components not designed to handle it. Something disabled the upstream bandwidth throttle, and your upload speed peaked out at fifty or sixty terabytes per second… about ten times normal. That cooked the hardware, and drained the battery.」

Risa squinted. 「Battery? I thought it got power from me moving around?」

「It still has a battery.」 The doctor held up a triumphant finger and stabbed it into the ethereal viewscreen. The thrum of pumps filled the gel. 「Kinetic energy harvesting only generates power when you move, which is used to recharge the battery. The cell was not merely drained―something sucked the power out of it so fast it melted. The good news is your expensive parts weren’t damaged, only power starved. I don’t know where you got a Wraith, or that Japanese neuroaccelerator, and it’s probably better for me I don’t ask.」

The fluid level in the cylinder plummeted. Risa made no effort to stand; her legs folded under her as she sank. She tried to stay under the surface as long as she could for warmth. Far too soon, she wound up on all fours, unable to follow the warm fluid into the drain. Her teeth chattered around burbled mouthfuls of gel as frigid air assaulted her wet body. As the last of the slippery ooze slurped into the grating between her knees, she assumed the position―face down, ass up―and cleared her lungs of fluid. Still, she found the process of going from gel to air less scary than the reverse, and tolerated the coughing fit with as much dignity as she could carry in such an ungainly posture. Tendrils of slime clung to her bottom lip after she relaxed. After a few full breaths, she wiped her mouth with the back of her arm and sat back on her heels.

Doctor Avora greeted her with a robe made of towel material when she stood. Risa gathered it around herself, holding it closed with a fist as she hurried on the balls of her feet to the exam table, eager to escape the icy floor. She again sat on the edge, hacking on the occasional wisp of gel doing flips in her trachea. For several minutes, the doctor waved small instruments over her. Fragments of conversation from the hallway outside proved her hearing enhancement had come back online.

“Any idea what could’ve caused damage like that?” Risa held her right hand out straight and extended her claws, grinning at the way the light glinted on the transparent blades. So small, yet so reassuring. A momentary daydream of how her meeting with Bax and his crew should have gone played in her mind.

“I’m not a forensics expert,” said the doctor, “but I can tell you it wasn’t an external attack. My best guess is you had some malware that used your uplink to push far more data than it could handle. Whatever did it used your components as a short-term burst transmitter, and deleted itself when it finished. For what purpose, I couldn’t even guess.”

Her claws snapped back into their implanted sheaths. Risa made a fist, rotating her hand to keep droplets of blood running over her fingers instead of falling. I’m not helpless anymore. It had to be C-Branch attempting to disable me with some kind of new weapon. “Don’t worry about it; I think I have an idea.”

Doctor Avora swept a handheld device over Risa’s face and chest. “You show signs of mild nerve damage, but I doubt it came from that fancy wiring. Provided you don’t push yourself too far, you should recover in a few months.”

“My old speedware was on the cheap side.” Risa picked at the robe’s hem where it exposed her knee. “What’s it cost to regenerate eyes?”

“Regenerate?” Doctor Avora pursed her lips and leaned in close to appraise her eyes. “Well, you’d have to go to Arcadia City for that… we don’t have that sort of equipment here. Assuming you mean DNA reconstruction of your own tissue, probably four to five million credits and about two weeks of being blind. The ones you’ve got would get about 30,000 trade in.”

Heaviness welled up at the base of her heart. “Yeah. Don’t have time for that now.”

“Surgery on the optic nerve is delicate. There aren’t a lot of people who specialize in that sort of thing, and they don’t work for peanuts. People go for cybernetic implants because they are far less expensive.”

Risa glanced to the side, feeling a twinge of shame. “You know what kind of hardware I’ve got. Do I need the eyes, or would everything work with a visor?”

“The only difference is wearing a slab of metal on your face. Not exactly easy to hide.”

“Oh, like these are subtle.” Risa flared her eyes wider.

Doctor Avora laughed. “Yes, well…”

“So… is that it? Am I done?” Risa shifted her weight forward, ready to stand.

“New NIU, comm link, battery, and M3.”

“The port went too?” Risa rubbed her neck behind her ear.

“Everything’s connected and delicate. A power spike like you experienced could’ve fried everything, even your brain. Your Wraith survived, but I had to replace the connectors. That’s five million your employer won’t have to spend.” Doctor Avora shook her head. “I’m honestly surprised you walked away without brain damage. You’re a very lucky woman, Miss Aum.”

“Lucky…” Risa slipped off the exam table and padded over to an autoshower hidden behind a medical curtain. “Yeah, that’s one way to put it.”

“I must attend to other patients. If you need me, please contact the medical center and they will relay your message.” Doctor Avora rendered a bow of farewell, and left.

Jets of warm water and unscented soap massaged Risa’s body from the metal ring passing up and down the inside of the autoshower tube. She kept her eyes closed and her mind occupied with murderous daydreams of what she could have done to the three idiots until the wash and rinse gave way to the dry cycle. Three minutes later, the tornado of hot air died down with the fading whine of tiny fans. Risa exited the steamy tube and sprinted to the exam table where her armor draped like a deflated body. An involuntary squeal escaped her lips as she slipped a leg into the smooth, freezing material. Having had enough of the icy floor, she stuck her feet in her boots before bothering to pull her armor up past the knee.

Faint whirring, inaudible to those without boosted hearing, crept up behind her. She recognized the sound of an orb bot, and glanced over her shoulder at an eight-inch plastisteel ball with a glowing violet lens, which flickered in time with its speech.

“Greetings Miss Aum. I am happy to report your bio-scan shows no anomalies. Please follow me when you are ready to leave.”

The orb glided to the door and rotated to face her. After she pulled her suit closed and fastened her boots, Risa followed the floating sphere down an antiseptic hallway decorated in white and silver. She traced her fingertips over the glossy wall, grinning at the ability to see again.

Shiro sprang from his seat in the waiting area and jogged over. “It’s wonderful to see your eyes have that special glow again.”

Her mood soured. “It’s not special; it’s violet.” She swiped her weapon harness from his outstretched hand. “Metal eyes don’t have any emotion.”

“Risa,” he whispered, putting a hand on her shoulder.

She tensed, managing to suppress the urge to flinch away, instead staring downcast.

“You are too critical of yourself.”

“Am I?” Be nice. He saved your ass. Anger drained from her voice, leaving it a resigned quiet. “I’m not in the best place right now, Shiro. Everyone thinks I’m an assassin.” She made eye contact. “I’m about to give them what they want.”

“Can we talk?” He slid his fingers down her arm and clasped her hand. “Dinner? You’ve got to be a little hungry after that. Tank time always leaves me starving.”

“That’s because you’re a man. Everything equates to hunger.” Risa pulled the harness on and secured the nylon straps across her chest, one above and one below her breasts. “I’m not dressing up.”

“I know just the place.” Shiro smiled, and gestured at the door. “Shall we?”

“Lead on.” Her tone, and expression, remained flat.

He led the way back to the car. Something in his pocket chirped and the doors opened on motorized struts. Risa slipped in and reclined in the passenger seat, gazing through the moon roof at the bland cut stone overhead. Gouges, scrapes, and paint smears flashed by once they got underway. Primus City had little in the way of starry nights, being underground. Shiro lives in Arcadia. Why was he here? A knot of unease gathered in her gut. He knew about Pavo.

She spent the entirety of a fifteen-minute ride hiding her face. Everything outside reminded her of Pavo somehow. Shiro steered into a small parking lot attached to a Great Red Burger franchise. A hologram by the door resembled a cheeseburger stretched and shaped in the likeness of Mars. It struck her as the kind of place with a bigger crowd at one in the morning than at the time normal people ate dinner. Her choice of attire―body armor and weapons―wouldn’t draw much notice here.

She sat still as Shiro got out and closed his door. A moment later, guilt dragged her along behind him into the restaurant. Risa didn’t so much want to be with him as she felt obligated for everything he’d done for her, money notwithstanding. The whole damsel-in-distress thing sucks. She fell seated in a booth, gazing at her lap.

Shiro broke the silence first. “I hope you’re not making that face because you’re with me.”

“Thanks.” She didn’t look up. “For saving my ass.”

He leaned forward, flashing a rogue’s grin. “Why do I get the sense it hurt you to say that?”

Risa opened her hand in her lap and stared at her fingers. “I’m not the girl who needs saving.”

After a quiet few seconds, Shiro peered to the side out the window. “You were once, but you’re not a child anymore. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry. It’s beyond unfair what happened to you when you were so young.” His serious face melted into a smile as a young waiter walked by with a ‘be right there’ nod, returning to its former grimness as soon as the boy’s back turned. “It’s cruel beyond words. The thought of you shivering in the vents… I―”

“I don’t need your pity.” Risa picked at her nails. “Besides, you’re not that much older than I am. Not like you could’ve done a damn thing about it.”

“That doesn’t mean I can’t share your feelings toward the people who’d do such a thing to a little girl. Your father was―”

“A spy.” The scent of seared sirloin from another table gave her more of an appetite than she expected.

“What can I get you guys?” asked a fifteen-ish boy, face lit in cyan light from an oversized transparent visor.

You’re wrong. Risa squinted at Shiro. Even little, I saved myself. Not every kid would’ve crawled off in the dark on their own. “Steak sandwich and an unsweetened green tea, please.”

Shiro straightened in his seat, as if the weight of her glare pushed him away. He perused the in-table menu for a few seconds. “Mushroom Swiss burger, with seasoned fries.”

“Drink?” asked the boy.

“Another green tea.” Shiro kept quiet until the waiter walked off. “Risa, I’m sorry about Pavo. Really. Words will sound hollow. If there’s anything I can do…” He let the air out of his lungs in a long breath. “The kind of change we’re trying to bring about isn’t going to come without a tax of blood. I’m sorry it hit so close, but I’m grateful it wasn’t you.”

Why Pavo? Why did I have to tell him I loved him? She tightened her jaw. I knew what would happen if I said it, and I said it anyway. Any attempt to speak would break the flimsy wall holding back tears. While sitting in awkward silence with Shiro, she imagined herself killing I/O and the odorous bastard who’d grabbed her from behind.

A few minutes later, the boy returned and set a plate in front of each of them. Her steak sandwich, a perfect disk of one-inch-thick meat atop a bun sat open next to a stack of greens, onions, and tomato slices. A generous pile of fries occupied the entire right half of the plate.

Risa added the veggies to the meat and squished the top bun down on the pile before dumping black pepper on her fries.

“There’s something inherently wrong about steak that’s perfectly round.” Shiro winked. “I realize they grow it in that shape, but it still feels odd. Have you ever wondered if it tastes the same as real beef?”

“I’m not going to Earth and killing a cow―if I could even find one―to test that.”

“I can’t say I blame you for disliking Earth, but it’s not the planet’s fault. It’s a handful of greedy people. Life is completely different down there. Peaceful, almost boring.”

“Sure, if you have money.” She nibbled on her sandwich, getting mostly bread and hydroponic lettuce with a hint of beef flavor. “Mars is my home.”

“What kind of home is this for you?” He set his burger down and gestured at the window. “For anyone? Think; really think about what happened to you.” He paused, trying to make eye contact, though she kept her gaze on her food. “I want you to know I’m here for you. This planet has been nothing but cruel. As soon as you find a sliver of happiness, it gets torn away from you.”

One Nano claw emerged from her right index finger and speared a fry. She held it up, staring over it at him. “Thanks for reminding me.”

Shiro reached across the table and clasped her wrist, brushing his thumb over the back of her hand. “I respect you, Risa Black. I know I said when we first met that my intention was to keep our relationship strictly one of business… but, much like the ACC, I never saw you coming. You are a unique and strong woman.”

She watched his thumb moving for a few seconds while gratitude warred with grief.

He let her arm slip from his fingers as she stuck the lone fry in her mouth. “I’m not asking you for anything. I’d just like to be here for you when you decide to stop allowing the world to kick you around.”

Risa glanced from her plate to his chest as she chewed. She retracted the claw and lowered her arm flat. When she made eye contact, her somatic response system surrounded his face with lines and indicators measuring stress, perspiration, heart rate.

“So, you’re concerned about me?”

“I am.”

The fluttering bar graphs and squiggly lines indicated truth. “It’s too―”

“Soon?” Shiro held a hand over his chest and rendered a shallow bow. “Of course. I didn’t mean to suggest anything more than being someone to talk to. You only learned of his death hours ago.”

She drew in a breath and broke eye contact.

“I came to Mars to help your cause, but I’d rather help you.” He looked to his right at passing pedestrians in the underground street outside. “You deserve a better life than this. So does that child you’ve taken in.”

Now he’s cheating. Her gaze fell onto the table. Pavo’s dead. For all I’ve done to fight for Mars, why do I always seem to hurt innocent people? She thought about Shiro’s offer, taking Kree and going to Earth with him. Pavo would want me to be safe and happy. Risa gnawed on her sandwich, entertaining a different daydream of being a corporate man’s wife. The more she contemplated it, the stronger the sense of guilt stabbing her gut became, sucking the flavor out of the steak.

Pavo’s face appeared along with his words in her memory. Thousands of us have already died for independence. If we walk away now, all that life would have been wasted.

“Am I condemned to this?” she whispered.

Shiro raised an eyebrow. “Your opinion of going to Earth is being condemned? I hope that’s a reflection on the government and not me.”

“Pavo died for what he believed in.” She stared through the small bit of food remaining on her plate, eyes focused on a point far beyond. “If we give up now, everyone I’ve ever known will have died for nothing.”

He offered a hand across the table. “You said you’ve lost the urge to kill, to plant bombs. At least think about my offer. The children would be much safer on Earth.”

Risa stared at his palm; she almost reached out to grab his hand, but couldn’t do that to Pavo so soon. “I’m not sure what I’m going to do when the dust settles, or if I’ll even be alive. I am not going to let the people who killed Pavo walk away.” She made a fist to keep from pointing at him. “These are the same sons of bitches who killed my father. They think they can do whatever they want. They think their little government is above consequence. They’re wrong.”

His eyes widened with a wounded look. “Throwing your life away won’t bring Pavo back.”

She studied her lap while he finished his meal. After a few minutes of silence, the waiter collected their plates and he paid. Neither spoke as they stood and made their way out to the street. She trailed a step behind, watching him walk, wondering if she could ever feel for another man the way she felt for Pavo. Shiro had saved her life in the alley, and his company paid for her surgery―an amount she’d not even seen. Maybe I shouldn’t be alone. He’s going to invite me to his apartment… A dull metallic clank echoed in her memory, Pavo walking into the pipe.

Risa whirled away to hide her tears.

“Risa?” Shiro moved up behind her. “What’s wrong?”

He’s not dead two weeks, and I’m already… “I can’t…”

“I understand.” He set his hands on her shoulders.

She caught herself imagining Pavo holding her, and took a step forward, whirling to face him. “I can’t. Not now. I need time to mourn…” Time to kill.

“Let me drive you somewhere safe?”

Where would I go? Some shitty hotel? I can’t go to Pavo’s apartment… I can’t go to the safehouse, and I definitely don’t trust myself alone with Shiro. I’ll either kill him or hate myself. She backed up two steps. “You’ve already done so much…” Scenes of destruction from Arden Settlement flashed before her eyes. “I don’t deserve it.”

Shiro closed the distance between them in a single stride; she raised her hand to push him away, but he caught and held it. “You’re wrong. You deserve so much more than what I have to offer.”

“Please.” She looked down. “I need…”

“Time.” He squeezed her hand. “I understand.”

Risa sighed.

Shiro smiled. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“No, I’m not.” She forced a false chuckle.

“Vid me if you need anything.” He glanced at the car. “At least let me offer you a ride?”

“I’m not going anywhere a car will fit.” She stared into his eyes for a moment, ashamed of the sound her own voice, afraid of what she might say next. I want to be with him and far away at the same time. He’s an easy escape. Her mind wandered to when she’d shown Pavo the picture of herself as a kid, before the war stole her life. Shiro’s offering me a chance to be that little girl in the pink dress again. Another life, a world away: a little girl who loved dolls and fancy things, afraid of all the scary shadows lurking outside her home. That’s not who I am anymore, is it?

Pavo’s voice laughed in the back of her mind, calling her adorable. Ghostly fingers tickled her sides; she closed her eyes and let his memory embrace her.

Sadness hardened to resolve.

I’ve got work to do. “Thank you, Shiro. For saving my life, for dragging my broken ass to the med center… and for dinner.” She stared for several minutes at the deserted street, silent but for the sound of their breaths. “I don’t know how I feel right now. I don’t know how I’ll feel when this is over.”

“You think I don’t understand, but I do. You’ve closed yourself off from every emotion aside from anger for years. When you finally open yourself to love, it is torn from you before you can even enjoy it.” Shiro grasped her arm above the elbow, as if to escort her to the car. “There will always be politicians. This war started before you were born and it will continue after we’re both gone. It’s taken away everyone you’ve ever loved. Don’t throw your life away. Revenge will never make you feel better.”

“I’m not doing this to feel better.” She started to walk away, but stopped when he spoke again.

“What’ll you do after you find the people responsible? If you find the people responsible.”

“Kill them.”

The chill in her voice stalled his answer for a moment. “After that?”

A brief memory of Kree pantomiming speedware weighed on her heart. “Perhaps I’ll visit Earth, if the offer’s still there.”

“I’ll hold you to that.”

Risa glanced back at a grin that almost made her feel foolish for not going with him. Her lingering, guilty stare sank to the ground as she walked away, headed into the heart of Elysium City. Shiro represented a chance at a mundane life, the kind of life she had spent years angry with every mythological deity humankind ever invented for taking away from her. Why is this my fight? She let off a weak chuckle. An angel chose me.

She wandered without destination, unable to make up her mind where to go. Glowing electronic eyes watched her from one dark alcove after another; pale yellow, green, and orange spots tracked her.

Where is Raziel now?

The people who killed Pavo wouldn’t be easy to track, and with Walsh and the Syndicate coming up a dead end, she had little to go on. Her aimless march halted as skittering broke the stillness. Risa followed the sound to a narrow gap between a kid’s clothing store and a Triton Manufacturing Corporation outlet shop. An uncountable assortment of household items, consumer electronics, and toys packed the window on the right. Small outfits in the other made her look away.

Being near me will only get her hurt.

Fifteen meters in from the street, a cyclone of detritus whorled near a large ventilation duct. Her body moved on instinct, stopping crouched in the midst of a strong wind that flung her hair about. The cover opened with a light tug, rising on assisted struts. Risa glanced at the street for a moment, feeling separated from everything.

Once more alone.

She crawled into the depths and pulled the cover closed behind her.


Chapter OneChapter Three

AraphelDaughter of Mars • Back to PreviewsBooks Main