R O N   B E N D E R


Book I

⊶ 1.1 ⊷

Raven and Brios


The lunch crowd left as I arrived, and now the Siffre’s on Seventh is empty except for the sweet barista who smiles at me from the far counter. On my table, the miniature holographic waitress stands frozen, waiting, just like I am….

Brios is late, and he’s not the type to be late for anything.

I catch myself checking my reflection in the café’s mirrored back wall while I sip my drink. Keeping one eye on the flirty barista and the other on the rainy street, I try not to get twitchy. My palmscreen flashes ads for counseling, stress medication, and heavy-g yoga. I hit the clear all tab.

I stifle a yawn. The coffee isn’t doing squat aside from tasting excellent. Last night had been busy and not in the way I liked. It started with a mugging and ended with me killing a guy. Between running around town avoiding a carload of bully boys and dropping the goods off in my stash, it was a late night. When Brios called, I was barely conscious enough to set a meeting time and crawl into the shower. Definitely not the best start to this girl’s morning.

I’m tired and pissed that I have to sit on the stuff I’d lifted off the body last night. Having to wait for the heat to drop before I can make a profit slowed my hustle down to a crawl.

I’m hoping Brios’ job tip proves solid, or I’m going to be bored and broke. Two of my least favorite things.

It’s hard to miss him when he finally appears; he’s a head and a half taller than the salarymen who part around him as they head back to the Corporate Core.

He sees me through the window. I nod at him as he steps through the projected ads that crowd the front door. He ignores the barista’s interested hello and slings his wide frame into my booth, squeezing himself onto the bench seat.

The shoulders of his black jacket are painted with a seeping darker tone from all the rain. He looks like he’s been out in it for a while. It’s a new coat, and it looks good on him, kind of cute. I’ll never tell him that; he probably bought the damn thing just to impress me.

As I tap the console for a second black coffee, I reward his style efforts with a sidelong flash of a smile. Yeah, just as I suspected, he catches the smile and puffs up a bit, trying to look bored.

He’ll never learn. I’m not going to sleep with him again, no matter how hard he works at it.

To make sure he remembers that fact, I sit straighter and stare at him, one eyebrow arching.

“Nice jacket, but we’re not dating.”

“Right.” He looks away, watching the rain distort the holo-ads that line the street.

It’s been the same deal for years. He tries to woo me and I shut him down. It’s our little game, and he always looks away first.

I can’t fault him for wanting to sleep with me again. I look really good today.

I have a mental list of all the local coffee shops and diners where the lighting works with me, and this is one of them. There are a lot of reasons to like this place.

“You’re late.” I take the coffee out of the table dispenser.

The projected mini-waitress smiles and cheerfully reminds me to be careful and that the coffee is hot.

Brios clears his throat. “I had to turn down a job offer. This other one I’ve got is more important. So, have you heard the one about a guy who stole from the rich and gave to the poor?”

“Yeah.” I slide the cup over to him. He’s got my attention. Brios rarely calls a job ‘important.’ “Some guy named Robin Hood. Had the worst business plan ever.”

I peek past Brios’ wide shoulders toward the door. Two guys have ducked in out of the rain and are casually giving us the once-over. Construction workers on a break? I start a mental map of all the building sites I know in the area. It’s possible they came from a site up the street.

Brios falls silent at my distant gaze, his expression switching from friendly to patient killer. He isn’t always the smartest guy, but he is my favorite go-to-gunslinger. He leans forward to take the sugar bowl. his free hand easing his pocket-cannon into his grip.

The two guys sit at the counter. They can cover the front door and kitchen entrance from there. They place an order for coffee with the smiling barista and look around the place.

Real coffee is expensive. Real coffee served by a svelte French barista is a novelty that costs considerably more. It’s the only way to order it at the counter. We’d be sitting there too, if we weren’t talking business.

So these guys are well-off construction workers?

The helmets they set on the counter are blue and shiny, not beat up and covered in stickers. The helmet liners look new.

There’s the tell. They’re going to be trouble…. Just not the kind of trouble a girl might want on a rainy afternoon.

One of them catches my stare. I ease my shoulders back as I look away.

Maybe he likes my new top. I bought it on my way here, and it hadn’t been cheap. It’s this season’s newest look, a skin-tight dark burgundy rig that does nice things for my cleavage.

I refocus with my new eyes so I can keep the two jokers in line of sight without tipping them off.

I love my new installs. I went to a Doc Ripperkin’s clinic for the upgrade last month. I always buy the best, and Ripperkin’s is the best TopSide has to offer. Short of going directly to Japan, you can’t get any better. I’m not going to die out here because I didn’t spend the cash on basic gear. Not if I had the cash to spend.

Of course, sometimes that’s the problem….

The one guy keeps his attention on me. I do look really good today. Or maybe these guys followed Brios. In that case, I’ve just been tangled in the fallout from the big dummy screwing up his exit plan.

I want to sigh. Instead, I answer Brios’ unspoken question with a bored frown and a lopsided shrug.

“Robin Hood?” Brios picks up our conversation like it never stopped. “That’s not the tag of the guy they found dead in Nu Hong district.” He tries his coffee, his eyebrows going up at the result.

“Please tell me you’ve heard of Robin Hood.” I’m not surprised, just kind of disappointed with my partner’s newly revealed level of ignorance.

“Nope.” He points with his nose at the cup. “This is really good coffee.”

“Yeah, it costs a shit-ton more, but the coffee’s real. The owner has a mysterious connection to a grower across the Gulf.” I lean back and catch a glimpse of myself on some reflective signage. I fight the impulse to go shopping.

I’m too slow.

My palmscreen blinks with a dozen really good deals within walking distance of the café. Crap.

Brios hasn’t even gotten to the details about his job tip, and some of these deals are timestamped. Again, crap.

Brios snorts. “How the hell do you save enough money to eat?”

“Hey, would you rather I turned into an airship-shaped balloon?” I would’ve said Hindenburg, but I’m sure he wouldn’t catch the reference.

He gets sullen. Part of me wants to smooth down his damp hair. I didn’t notice earlier, but he got a new haircut. It’s the same one we saw on a billboard last week. I’m pretty sure I made a favorable comment about how it looked on the model. I decide not to mention it.

I have another sip of coffee and tap open the lunch menu. The mini-waitress flickers back into existence with a cute little curtsy and points out the deals of the day.

Brios looks past me. His eyes flick along, following something going by on the street.

“Truck.” He fills me in. “Billy’s Fish.”

I get back on topic. “I can’t believe you don’t know Robin Hood,” I mutter.

Brios growls. “Not all of us had the pleasure of a misspent youth. Hanging out in libraries and schools wasn’t a privilege of mine.” The guys at the counter get twitchy at the sound of his rising voice.

I shrug. “So tell me what’s so special about this guy? People die all the time in Nu Hong, and it’s not exclusive to that part of town. In case you haven’t noticed, it’s the middle of summer; UnderCity smells like a morgue with no power.”

“Well, this guy didn’t go by Robin Hood. Get this, his tag was Shadow.” He snorts louder. “These wannabe guys from uptown are such a joke.”

“With a name like that, he should’ve just hung a lumio-target on his head,” I say. I don’t want to let on, but I’ve heard of Shadow. He swam in a way bigger pond than Brios and I.

Brios nods. “It would’ve been better for everyone if he’d just gotten shot. You know, a nice ranged-in rifle round.”

Something registers in my brain. A red flag on the play.

“What do you mean?” I lock eyes on Brios, a sinking feeling hitting my gut. I’m not interested in breakfast anymore.

“My guy at the police station says this Shadow got himself carved up pretty good.” He keeps his head down like he’s reading the menu, but he lifts his eyes to meet mine. “Carved up like you like to carve.”

The guy I tried to mug last night drew down on me and things went sideways from there. I hadn’t known who he was. Now I do….

Brios has his I-knew-it face on.

Before I have a chance to process how any of this relates to Brios’ job tip, everything changes. The software running my peripheral vision triggers a warning and amps my augmentations into overclock mode.

In slow motion, I see the construction guys at the counter reaching for guns.

I cut off Brios’ smart-ass comment before he can say it. “Gun. Gun. Gun.”

The guys still have their hands under their jackets as my boost system hammers me full of synthetic adrenaline.

I surge out of the booth. Electricity pulses along coated graphene nerves and flashes into augmented muscles.

The guys turn to face us, but they’re too slow.

My beloved Italian-made double barrel double cylinder dial-a-round .45 roars. The barista inhales to scream as my rounds rip her last clients of the day to jelly.

It occurs to me that I’m not going to get to the deals on my palmscreen. A new pair of pumps would’ve been nice.

Brios pushes up and out of the booth. His gun swings to cover me as I crouch and bull rush the counter, pulling a pop-up as I move.

“Get down,” I yell at the barista.

She listens well.

I get to the end of the counter and cover the kitchen and front door. At my nod, Brios moves down the hall to the bathroom doors.

I catch my full reflection in the mirror. My ass looks awesome when I crouch like this. JabbaJeans cling to every curve. My palmscreen lights up with local denim sales. The delivery truck, also in the reflection, bearing down on the windows behind me looks way less awesome.

“Truck,” I yell as I move for better cover.

“Goddamn Billy’s Fish.”

It has to be the same truck as before. I kick myself. There’s no Billy’s anywhere near here.

A big truck from a big franchise means bigger players pulling strings. What kind of shit was Brios into to draw this kind of heat? No time now.

My Doc Ripperkins are linked to muscle manipulators and my trigger finger. It’s the first of a list of highly illegal aftermarket modifications I can’t live without.

I see the driver, flick my desire for his death into my arm, and the rest is hi-tech perfection.

As I’m diving behind the counter, my arm tracks him and squeezes the trigger. Plate glass bursts onto the street, and the bullets pound through the truck windshield. The driver’s head explodes as pedestrians scatter.

Killing the driver makes no difference; the Billy’s Fish truck tears through the pop-up bollards and slams into the building. What’s left of the windows, glittering fragments and tumbling shards, hurl toward the counter front. The explosion of noise is impressive.

The truck lurches and stops.

Two more construction-commandos come through the kitchen door, zipper guns firing as they run the length of the café. I know Brios has this. I fling myself flat to escape the hundreds of ricocheting, super-light, hyper-fast bullets.

The barista looks up at me from her prone position.

“Stay down,” I yell over the gunplay. I half-climb-half-slide over her. “They aren’t here for you.”

As cute as she is, I bite my tongue about her need for a better bra.

I scramble, cutting my angle of fire to get the drop on the guys I suspect will come through the front door.

My palmscreen lights up once more.

Brios lobs a hand packed grenade into the path of the submachine gun wielding construction guys.

The detonation shakes the counter front. Another reason I like this place: solid granite countertops and fronts. A girl never knows when she’ll need dependable cover.

The zip guns stop shooting.

“Sweetie, watch your door,” Brios calls as he heads to the back of the building.

I hear his cannon go off twice, then twice more. That means the exit to the alley has been breached. These guys are getting an ‘A’ for effort but an ‘F’ on timing.

I pop up long enough to grab a chromed creamer off the counter and drop back into cover. Yet another reason to like this place. It has practicality and high style. I lift the container over the lip of the counter and peek at the doorway in the curved reflection.

On cue, three skinny boys in ninja pajamas shove their way through the front door, the holo-greeter flickers as they run through him. Yakuza? What were they doing here?

I pull Little Tommy out of my back holster. The backup gun looks small beside the hulking .45’s metal shrouded length. I shove the big gun over the counter’s edge. I fire twice to suppress with the Double-Double and rise up to snap fire my off-hand.

Little Tommy rips a smoking line through the air. The ninja on the receiving end is instantly on his way to the floor, his chest making a perfect landing pad for the two stage micro-rocket.

The .45’s blind fire dropped one ninja for bonus points. That leaves the third to come at me.

I don’t wait around. I duck as the micro-rocket’s second stage kicks off inside the one guy’s chest. The flechette payload fills the room with an eerie noise, like a kid pull-starting an old gyroscope. It only takes a second.

I stand and look over the counter. Meat puree.

“Job’s done here,” I call as I eye the street for more trouble.

Brios doesn’t answer.

“Brios, sound off.” I yell louder.

No answer. Cop drones will be here soon. I frown as I jump over the prone barista. “Stay put.”

As I move, I sneak a peek at the wicked deal on bras at the Uptown Lingerie. Nice. But I just launched a kBit worth of cash to wipe out the pajama boys. I need to make money today, or I really am going to go hungry.

The short run to the bathroom is cluttered with bodies. Three of four are missing limbs. Brios’ cannon did its job.

I hear sounds of a fight from inside the ladies’ room.

Just to be sure I’m not going to get flanked, I head to the backdoor and do a poke-check: head out, around, and back. Little Tommy tracks with my eyes.

A getaway van is parked tight to the building; the side door is open. No driver. What I can see of the alley through the rain looks clear. No surprises there at least.

Behind me I can hear the smart mirror in the bathroom.

“AlphaTek Global Security has individualized contracts to keep you safe. An altercation has been detected. Would you like to speak with an intake advisor about a new contract or a service upgrade?”

I mule kick the bathroom door open in time to watch a burly son of a bitch use Brios as a sheath for a long tapered blade. He shoves hard to get it through Brios’ body armor.

I send a destroy signal to my gun-hand.

The .45 keeps firing into the guy long after he drops.

I rush over to Brios.

“You frak-headed idiot.” I crouch and pull the now ruined jacket away from his injured side. “I’m the hand-to-hand on our team. Now look at you.”

He lies there breathing shallow.

“Would you like to speak to an intake advisor now?”

“No,” I bark at the mirror.

The ad cycles back to a VR-travel advert for high-end yachts in Ibiza.

“How do I look?” Brios’ eyes meet mine. This time, he doesn’t look away. “Is it gonna leave a sexy scar?” He tries to fool me with his pretty-boy smile.

“Nope. Because I’m going to get you fixed up.” I shoot him a tight smile of my own as I double-check him for other injuries.

A heavy gouge runs down his right forearm, exposing the cyberware beneath. The sleeve of his new jacket is ribbons of faux leather twisted up with sliced synthskin. I ignore it. Biological trumps mechanical.

“Besides, you know I hate scars on my men.”

“Yeah, because it means they’re wannabes, or they’re too poor to get’em removed.” The tension goes out of his spine.

This is bad.

I glance at the dead guy’s knife. It’s a special ops hypo-knife. The injector is open and spent.

“Brios, that blade was pressure filled with anti-coagulants and maybe something worse. We have to move you fast.”

I think about getting a medical screening; my palmscreen scrolls. A mobile medical clinic is two blocks away doing inoculations for a new outbreak of some shit or another.

“Ugh.” His voice is sluggish. “Sure thing, Sweetie. Just give me a minute to get up some steam. I’m right behind you.”

I leave him and sprint to the wall by the sinks. I tap three quick sales. A handful of eBits draw from my account. I yank a tampon and two pads out of the dispenser.

I make it back to Brios, cut the straps of his armor, and flip it away from the hole in his side.

“Hey,” he says softly, “why don’t you ever want to go out with me?”

“Shut up, Brios.” I tear his shirt open, ignoring his gasp as I rip the packaging off the tampon and insert the foam plug into the wound. I pack the pads over the outside.

I rummage Brios’ pockets and find a single shot of Suspend. I push the discharge tip against his neck and thumb the switch. The drugs vape through his skin.

“Why is that, Raven?” He drifts as the Suspend kicks in. His heart rate drops. “We never go to movies or for dinner anywhere nice.”

“Goddamn it, Brios.” I yank the belt off dead-guy’s pants and loop it around Brios’ chest. “Breathe out, you dumb mother.”

He tries his best, and I reef the belt as tight as I can over the pads. At least there’s hemostatic pressure on the wound.

He moans, and his eyes swim.

“You pull through this and I’ll take you to dinner,” I say loudly. “TopSide, someplace nice.”

“Deal,” he whispers. “Be straight with me, Raven. It was you who carved up that guy last night wasn’t it?”

“Crap and Jesus, Brios. Talk later.”

I struggle to get him upright enough for me to dead lift him to my shoulder. My muscle augmentations kick in. The system burns a lot of calories. I really am going to go hungry today.

We borrow the getaway van, and I get us to the MobiMed in under a minute. The med-techs on board are surprised to see me as I shoot the lock off the rear door and heft Brios inside.

“We’re doing inoculations here, not treating street savages,” the lead EMS declares as I kick the privacy screen aside.

I shut him up, the Italian Double-Double .45 pressed hard under his chin.

“Everyone else in this crap wagon likes money, right? There’s 5kBit in it for each of you if you patch him up.”

The rest of the medical team starts working. The lead EMS looks ready to argue. I grab medical tape, shove him down into a chair, and wrap him into it.

“See, they earn money and get to live,” I say angrily into his ear as I work. “You don’t get money and I’m still thinking about the living part.”

“What’s this guy’s name?” a nurse asks.

“Brios,” I answer. “Who’s the driver of this rig?”

She points to the one team member seated behind me. I turn. He looks up at my face. His expression changes fast, but not before I notice how much he’s enjoying the view. I wear JabbaJeans just for that reaction.

I look back at Brios. His color is better. I promised him dinner. He’ll think we’re dating….

A whole different level of crap.

I vent. “You drive this vehicle?”

The guy’s slow to answer so I keep busy yanking open the service panel above his head. This is the same type of medi-vehicle Brios and I jacked behind enemy lines in South Am. Thank God for standardization.

I hunt around and tear out the tracker. As I throw it into the disposal unit, I remember Brios’ favorite line during that whole conflict. “Good times…,” I mutter.

“Um, yeah,” the driver finally answers. “I’m the driver.”

Cute accent, even if he is a little slow; he sounds Aussie. Easy on the eyes too.

“Are you ready to do your job?” At his nod, I rattle off an alphanumeric string. “Roll us to that address but use the alley when you park.”

He climbs into the front seat, loads in the data, and stares at the transit screen. “This address is for a lingerie shop.”

“You can drive, or you can join him.” I point my Double-Double at the bound EMS.

“What are you going to do when we get there?” the driver asks over his shoulder. The MobiMed pulls smoothly away from the curb and heads for the TopSide causeway.

“Well, your friends are going to keep earning money and as for you….” I glance back at Brios. He’s going to be fine. “You’re coming inside with me.”

“What?” He jerks his head around.

“Eyes on the road, cowboy.” I wave the gun barrel toward the front. “I figured since you were staring so hard, you’d want to help me pick out a few things.”

I have a promise to forget and some steam to blow off; a little action would be just the thing.


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