Author’s Note: Thrall is the third book in the Division Zero series. To avoid spoilers, please read the first two novels before continuing.
Enchanted by a fleeting daydream of the perfect fairy-tale wedding, Kirsten watched imaginary guests mingling among the dark spots between trees. Evan grabbed her arm with both hands, shaking her out of the fog of an idyllic day. Fanciful organ music retreated into her thoughts, replaced by the reality of whistling wind and distant commerce. Alas, The tiny nature preserve of Sanctuary Park, five square miles of green contained in a flowerbox of silver high-rise buildings, didn’t offer an escape from the incessant jingles of ad-bots.
She blinked at him, as if surprised by his sudden proximity. The sight of the boy’s defensive posture over Shani made her smile. The look of urgency in his eyes took it away. The little girl seemed confused at the sudden end to their play. Kirsten glanced to her left, as if an explanation for everything had been written on the sienna face of Nila Assad.
“K?” asked Nila. “Are you all right? You kinda zoned out there.”
“Mom…” He pulled at Kirsten’s arm. “Something’s in the bushes watching us.”
The genuine fear radiating from him grabbed her with a sense like she’d awakened from a momentary daydream. “Where?” She put a hand on his shoulders. “Did you see anything?”
Evan shook his head. “No. I just had a creepy feeling like something was there.”
“Umm.” Nila stared at her, reaching for Shani.
Kirsten frowned. “I don’t think it’s a…” She switched to telepathy. Pervert. Shani didn’t see anything. Evan’s too scared. He wouldn’t be this rattled if it was just a man.
Nila relaxed a little.
“A what?” asked Shani.
“Living person,” said Kirsten.
The glare Nila sent into the bushes melted to worry. Shani hopped up on the bench while Evan remained standing, arms folded, eyes fixed on the spot. Kirsten struggled to pull her E-90 out of her too-small purse.
“You know,” said Nila, “you can wear it on your hip. You don’t have to hide it. Besides, it’s against policy to stuff it in a bag that tiny. What if you needed it in a hurry?”
Kirsten brushed her thumb over the molded grip. “I guess. I wanted to feel normal for one day this month.” She rubbed Evan’s shoulder. “Stay here with Nila, I’ll be right back.”
“You’re not going alone, are you?” Nila put a hand on Kirsten’s arm.
“What else can I do? Should we leave the kids here alone while we run off? Or bring them with us after who-knows-what?”
Evan turned so Shani couldn’t see the frightened look he gave Kirsten. Mom, you did kill that bad ghost, right?
Kirsten stood. Her shoes meowed as they absorbed her weight. Evan cracked up giggling. She sighed, glancing down past her skirt at the pink and white Nomz. She suppressed a cringe at the memory of Seneschal’s final obliteration. Yes, I did. Did it feel like him?
“Kinda.” He bit his lower lip. “It’s pretty strong.”
She shivered. The thought of another abyssal stalking her son chilled her blood. The wind going up her skirt didn’t help either. She smirked at Nila.
“What?” asked Nila.
This is why I don’t wear skirts. I’m gonna get into a fight and it’s gonna come off, or I’m going to go headfirst into something with my ass in the air. Kirsten blushed at the mere thought of it.
Nila grinned, hiding her face in Shani’s hair to avoid laughing at Kirsten’s mental grumbling.
“Stay here and protect Shani, I’ll be right back.” She winked at Evan.
“’Kay.” He puffed out his chest.
Shani frowned. “He’s just a kid too. Alls he can do is see ghosts.” Evan floated off his feet, squealing from the sudden telekinetic levitation. He whirled around in a 180 and landed on the bench sitting next to her. Shani folded her arms. “I’ll probably wind up protecting him.”
Evan looked annoyed for a second or two before he held Shani’s hand. “You can’t TK a creepy spirit, and that’s what’s watching us.”
After a reassuring squeeze to his hand, Kirsten went toward the edge of the wooded area with both hands on her weapon, aimed down and to the right. She felt ridiculous brandishing the E-90 while wearing a thigh-length skirt, white sweater, and cat-headed sneakers that meowed whenever she stepped too hard.
Great, I’m the cheerleader from hell.
The mood shifted as she neared the edge of the clearing. Forty yards or so from the bench, a definite unease permeated the area. Dozens of different ad-bot tunes collided at once amid the rustling trees. Whatever energy hung in the air here altered her mood, changing the sound into a sinister calliope that could accompany the carnival of the damned. Primal trepidation swam up her spine. With it came the feeling she wouldn’t be able to find her way out of this forest.
Kirsten paused at the end of the grassy field by the trees, forgetting for a moment the nature preserve only occupied five square miles. It seemed endless, beckoning, as if a malevolence within wanted her forever. Wind fluttered her skirt; the cold air on her legs caused a shiver. It took her a moment, as well as a glance back at the three people she considered family, to gather herself.
Something is trying to freak me out.
Squinting, she searched the foliage for any sign of what caused the twisted mood. The presence clawed at the back of her mind, wanting to make her feel scared. Kirsten tapped her power, raising an active defense against the spectral ambiance. The fear lessened. There’s definitely a spirit here. Her astral ward wouldn’t have affected a living telempath.
Her confidence back, Kirsten straightened her stance and walked into the trees. The entity hadn’t attacked when the kids were close to it, a chance moment when she would’ve been unable to intervene. If it had come to harm them, why hadn’t it made its move then? Evan said it felt strong, which made her worry she missed an abyssal somewhere along the way. Many of them, at least according to her recent research, preferred weeks and months of slow maddening to murder. Certain spirits could derive untold amounts of pleasure from watching a mortal’s slow descent into insanity.
She stepped over a root that encroached on the jogging path, wondering how deep the soil went before it hit the city plate. Enough for trees, apparently. The occasional holographic sign flickered into view as she moved, bearing reminders that park visitors were responsible for any litter. Continued tweaking at her mental defenses kept her on guard, but a presence still watched her.
To the right, a spread of debris outlined a space in the park claimed by vagrants. Three crude shelters ringed a nine-foot-wide metal dish filled with ash, a cover from an articulated cargo mover’s wheel motor. Still, she found no larger trace of paranormal energy. Small bits of trash wrapped about trees, flapping in the wind. A bot the size of a shoebox orbited the camp, itching to issue someone a fine for littering. Detecting her motion, it came zooming over. By the time it reached her, its prosecutorial zeal had faded to a disappointed nose-down approach. A small holo-panel sticking out of its side displayed her face―her official ID image.
“Good afternoon, officer. Have you located the parties responsible for this code violation?”
Kirsten smirked at it. “Please tell me you’re not just going to slap a littering fine on the first person you find who isn’t a police employee.”
The floating bot sagged. “Pardon my enthusiasm. I’ve been on this assignment for ninety-three hours now.”
“I hate to throw sand in your lubricant, but the people responsible for that campsite probably don’t even have citizen registrations. You should move on.”
“I can’t,” whined a petulant male voice, “my program does not contain a logic gate for failure-slash-lack of suspects.”
“Well, what will you do if you find the ones responsible and they don’t have a PID transponder to fine?”
It trailed behind her as she walked. “In that event, I am programmed to use verbal compliance enforcement techniques.”
Kirsten avoided another huge root. “You mean nag them to death?”
“Hmmf.” The floating brick pivoted away, as if offended. “I’ll have you know I perform a very important function.”
“I’m sure you do.”
With a shake of her head, she turned away from the patrol bot and came to a halt. The induced fear was pervasive, omnidirectional. She could walk for hours and never find anything by sight. Maybe who or whatever this is only comes out at night. Ugh, this is a waste of time. One more try. She closed her eyes and reached out with mental energy. Her influence projected into the astral realm and mingled into the emanation teasing at the edges of her mood. She swept back and forth, hoping to feel some sense of direction that would lead her to an entity. After some time, she concluded the effect to be an imprint on the area rather than active radiance. A spirit had infused this section of the park with its desire to frighten the living away from its domain. That would also explain why she didn’t see anything walking around.
She let her head sag backward and sighed at the treetops. “Well, not the first time I’ve chased my own tail.”
“You there,” said the bot. “The fine for littering is—” The pronouncement cut off with an electronic scream. “Assaulting a municipal patrol robot is a crime!”
When she opened her eyes, she found a face less than twelve inches away from hers. With a gasp, she leapt back and collided with another man behind her, who was all too happy to catch her by the arms and hold on. The sudden shock of a grab from behind left her unable to do much but squirm for a few seconds.
The bot glided up behind him. “Now the total fine is 4,942 credits. Please swipe a NetMini or await the police.”
“Well, well,” said the man in front of her, ignoring the nuisance behind him. “Candy cute. Do your parents know you wandered off alone?”
He didn’t appear to be much older than seventeen with frizzed-up orange hair and wore a long, multi-pocketed coat. A glowing NanoLED tattoo wrapped around the right half of his face, a dragon drawn in red. The light darkened with his expression.
“Do yours know you’re assaulting people in the park?” She stopped struggling. “You two should go back to school. Not much future in the UCF for people without advanced degrees.”
They both laughed. A mix of warm and cool gathered at the left side of her neck as the man holding her pressed his face close and inhaled.
“Relax, princess. I got some stuff that’ll make sure it doesn’t hurt.” He slipped his hand out of his coat, holding a refurbished, refilled autoinjector. “Or, if you’d prefer not to remember it at all…” His grip shifted, fanning two more injectors out from behind it like cards. The purple one still had dried blood on the end.
The way the man at her back held her arms prevented Kirsten from aiming the E-90 at the one in front, despite not wanting to kill someone that young. She tried once more to wriggle free, but found her strength lacking.
“This is normally where I would give you one more chance not to make a stupid mistake, but I’ll settle for being happy you two idiots decided to try and grab me instead of some helpless kid.”
“Whoa, Skeev, we found a freak. I think she likes it.”
“Yeah,” she said, as her eyes faded to flat white. “I’m going to love it.”
Her thoughts wrapped around the sentience behind her head, and she pumped a Mind Blast into the cloud of thoughts that knocked the man into a stupor. She held back, hoping to only stun him. Skeev, or whatever his name was, backpedaled the instant her eyes glowed with white energy. Kirsten shrugged her arms free and raised the E-90, her eyes returning to their usual sapphire blue.
“Police, Division 0, on the ground, now.”
Whether by panic, ignorance, or desperation, Skeev howled and charged. Not wanting to shoot him, and not feeling threatened by him, she spun into his attack and guided him face-first into a tree with a ju-jitsu toss. He bounced away and staggered to face her again, so she kicked, slapping him across the face with her sneaker.
He flailed his arms to maintain balance. Kirsten advanced on him as he went for a knife, kicking it out of his grip before he had it all the way out of a belt sheath.
Skeev backed off, cradling his wrist. He glared, reaching for a pistol.
“Freeze.” Light flickered in her eyes.
“Ssssomeone lose a cat?” moaned the stunned punk.
The psionic suggestion had such a profound effect on his weak mind that he ceased all motion—even breathing. Onset of a sudden pallor and cold sweat made her worry she’d stopped his heart.
Kirsten grabbed his shoulder and swept his legs, sending him chest-first to the ground. She swiped a hand at her belt, reaching for binders she didn’t have with her. Crap. She went for her purse. Back on the bench, double crap. The gang punk had a NetMini, though its powder-pink case made her assume it stolen. She relieved him of three handguns, six more knives, and a retractable shock-baton—the cheaper civilian-legal cousin to a police stunrod.
“Bot!” she yelled. “Get over here.”
“Not bad,” said a voice to her left.
Something about the tone made her whirl. A man leaned on a tree, clad in a dingy pair of coveralls somewhere between orange and tan. Copious amounts of black grime clung to him. He tapped a clod of dirt from heavy work boots and straightened up before taking a step. His bulk would have been intimidating, if not for the sense of his being a ghost.
Kirsten relaxed. “They’re just kids.”
The worker spirit laughed. “Kids with guns, knives, and an itch they wanted you to scratch.”
She frowned at the stolen NetMini. “I doubt I was their first.”
“Yes, officer?” The litter bot zipped over, orbiting about her head in a side-slide.
“Outside the trees by the park edge, there’s a woman with two kids. Her name is Nila. Ask her to call for a Division 1 unit to respond to the park right away. When they arrive, lead them here. Tell Nila everything is fine, just some lowlifes.”
“What about the littering violation?”
Kirsten sighed, pressing the cold E-90 to her forehead. “To hell with the littering fine, this is actual crime.”
“But…” It wobbled. “He tried to hit me.”
“Fine, take it up with the Div 1 officers when they get here.”
The worker ghost laughed. As the frustrated bot raced off to carry out her request, she dragged the mind-stunned assailant over and flung him to the ground near his friend. Backing off, she kept her weapon trained on them. A pang of curiosity laced with guilt came on. She could poke into their memories to see what befell the owner of the pink NetMini, but hesitated to look. After a moment of pondering, these two idiots did not give her a murderous vibe. Chances are, the girl who owned it was still alive.
She peeked into Skeev’s head, and instantly regretted it.
The other one moaned, sliding one hand to his face. “Ugh, what happened? Why am I on the ground?”
Kirsten got their attention with a laser blast in the dirt between them. “Police, Division 0. You two are both under arrest for attempted rape, assault of an officer of the law, and illegal sexual contact with a minor.” She tried to keep a straight face. “And for attempted destruction of a municipal service bot.”
“What? Minor? That’s horseshit. If you’re a damn cop, you’re old enough!” Skeev seemed ready to cry, his bravado gone.
“I know about what you all did to your associate Blowfish’s sister.”
Blowfish glared at Skeev.
“I didn’t say a fucking word, man, I swear. The bitch was cool with it.”
Kirsten narrowed her eyes. “I don’t believe you for a hot second. Even if she did agree to have sex with your little gang’s leader, she’s fifteen. I also highly doubt she expected it was going to turn into a group affair. ‘Get off me you fucking assholes’ doesn’t leave much room for doubt. Skeev was stupid enough to try to pull a gun on me. And you!” Kirsten pointed the E-90 at the larger boy. “You just sat in the next room and listened to your own sister scream for help.” Is this what Dorian felt like when he killed those people? She shivered with rage, but forced herself to calm down. “You’re pathetic! By all rights, I should have shot him where he stood. If one of you so much as farts suspiciously, I’ll aerate you both.”
She was glad they were face down and couldn’t see the look on her face. They didn’t need to know she would never make good on a threat like that. More than half of being a cop was sounding the part and hoping she could go home without blood on her hands. The ghost did pick up on her true intention and winked. When he sensed his presence no longer unsettled her, he wandered over to stand nearby.
“I was expecting them to choose someone a little… older.”
“I’m not a kid,” she mumbled, “I’m twenty-two.”
The ghost blinked. “You’re not a great liar.”
“I know, but I’m not lying. I really am twenty-two.”
“Huh.” He shrugged. “Must be those shoes.”
“Yeah, I know I look like I’m still in high school.”
She gave him the finger, making him laugh. “I think these shoes are cute.” Indignation passed, she glanced up at him. “Were you hovering by Evan before?”
“Yeah. Just keeping watch on him. Theodore was trying to find you. He thinks you might’ve missed one of the other things and wanted me to make sure nothing tried to hurt your little guy.”
“Theodore? You know him?”
Skeev and Blowfish looked at each other, then stared at Kirsten talking to nothing.
“Yep.” The sprit held out his pockets as if modeling his clothes. “I used to be in construction.”
“Anything you want me to pass along?”
“Nope. I’m good. Faulty retaining strap decided to teach me I couldn’t fly. Went about fifty meters from the plate to the real ground. I guess the big man upstairs wanted to make his point loud and clear. After I went splat, the plate slipped its moorings, fell, and landed on me. Biggest piece of my ass left wouldn’t fill an espresso cup.” Kirsten cringed. “Anyway, I like my family better watching from this side. No one to remind me how much of an asshole I was or give me shit for cheating on the wife.” He shrugged. “She was a lot happier with number two, course they’ve both been gone awhile now. My kids’ kids have kids.”
“You one of The Kind?”
“Yep. Name’s Andrew. By the way, those two are getting ready to run.”
Kirsten tensed at the two gangers’ subtle shift of weight onto their arms, in preparation to do a push-up. She thought about Dorian’s story of legging a boy ready to shoot Nila, and aimed at Skeev’s thigh. It felt excessive.
“I’m watching you, Skeev. Prison or crematorium, your choice.”
“Someday, someone will call your bluff.” Andrew winked.
“People already have. But they weren’t kids.” She looked at him. “So, what does Theodore want this time? Didn’t he get enough of an eyeful the other week?”
“Actually, he wanted to ask you for help for a change. It wasn’t one of The Kind, but a spirit was attacked. Not a great many things attack ghosts.”
“Dammit, there was another one.” She squinted. “Shit. How the hell am I going to find it?”
“Over here, over here.” The overt cheer in the patrol bot’s digitized voice module drifted closer.
Kirsten unburied her face from her hand and waited. A four-foot-wide orb of cyan hologram emerged from a dim patch of woods, a high-tech will-o-wisp. The litter-bot projected random images around itself to make it easier to follow. Two Division 1 officers in blue armor crunched and snapped past the foliage behind it, arms held up to guard their faces from branches despite their helmets.
“Tell Theodore I’ll look into it.” She gave Andrew a determined look and approached the two Div 1 cops.
“What happened here?” The shorter one regarded her service weapon with an air of trepidation.
“I was trying to enjoy a day off in the park, but got a feeling someone was spying on my son and his friend. While I was searching for them, these two jumped me thinking I was a kid. I have a feeling I’m not the first.”
He smirked. “Guess they like them a little young?”
Kirsten’s eyes narrowed. “I’m not as young as I look. The girl who belongs to that pink ’Mini is only fifteen.”
“Heh.” He grinned. “Never quite sure with Zeroes, I hear they start you guys real young.”
“Only if they’ve got a rare talent that’s unusually strong for the age.”
Both men stood there in silence.
She sighed, caving under their inquiring stares. “Sixteen.”
Officer Burrell gawked at her.
“No, I didn’t read your mind. I figured you were about to ask how old I was when I started. Anyway, these two planned to force narcotics on me and then engage in sexual assault. I identified myself as an officer and the suspect went for a weapon.”
“The bitch’s eyes turned white and lit up! What the fuck would you do?” Skeev howled as the larger cop cuffed him and hauled him to his feet.
Blowfish blinked at the sound of the wind, still woozy from the effects of the Mind Blast.
“Skeev?” Kirsten took a few steps closer, standing with all her weight on her right leg, gun arm lax at her side. “Be a nice young man and tell these officers the truth about everything you did. Tell them about Amy.”
Kirsten had positioned herself at an angle where only Skeev caught the sudden glimmer in her eye. The boy went into a frantic rambling confession about what the Red Dragons did to a fifteen-year-old, and regaled his participation in at least nine other assaults in the park. She smiled.
Andrew shook his head at her. “Now, now. What would your captain say about that?”
She jogged toward the sound of Evan’s approaching voice. “I imagine he’d be happy I didn’t kill them.”