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By Taylor Keating
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2012 Taylor Keating
All rights reserved.
"Jesus, River. I don't like this. I don't like it one little bit."
Deep inside the guts of the city's abandoned subway, tucked away in a makeshift computer lab, Nick Sutton slicked his hair back from his face and squared his shoulders. He stared straight at River Weston, but she knew it wasn't really her he was seeing.
River's glance raked over Nick in return, analyzing him with clinical precision and taking in everything from the moisture on his pale skin and how he fidgeted restlessly in his seat, to the way his Adam's apple bobbed crazily as if going down for the third count.
Holding off on tapping into his mind — her skin crawled at the thought of it — River briefly turned her focus from Nick to the strings of code on her monitor, then back to him. With his blue eyes blinking rapidly he held his arms stiffly in front of him, groping and catching nothing but air as he tried out River's newest software invention — Hollow Man. Nick had named it after one of the old movies from the turn of the twentieth century he and Tanner used to watch together.
She shied away from thoughts of Tanner, along with the two other dead members of their former software team. Nothing would bring them back. The best she could hope for was that their souls had found peace, something she now knew no one could guarantee.
Deciding Nick wasn't in any real danger and looking instead for some sort of error in the implant she'd given him, she shifted on the rickety folding metal chair that the Demons — a gang of teens who ruled the city's underbelly — had scrounged from one of the deserted apartment buildings nearby. Consisting of a microchip crafted from living tissue and triggered by River's magic, the implant was meant to replace the need for external gaming gear. She'd also added a few enhancements to it that she hadn't learned about in any of her engineering courses.
The implant was working perfectly. What's more, it was perfectly safe. She'd tested it herself. The Demons had test driven it, too.
"What is it you don't like?" she asked Nick.
He made a face, tossing his dark hair out of his eyes. "I don't like any of it."
Hands planted on her knees, River leaned forward and narrowed her eyes at him. "Can you give me details?"
His right shoulder jerked as if he'd accidentally bumped into something, which was more than likely what had happened. He didn't have good control and hadn't yet learned he didn't need to move his physical body. "It just feels weird."
Relaxing, she slouched back into her chair. He was a medic. Weird meant there was nothing wrong with her implant, because otherwise, he would be more specific.
"It's an out-of-body experience," she reminded him. "How did you think it was going to feel?"
"I don't know," he complained. "But I was hoping for more orgasmic and less like tripping on bad drugs."
After everything they'd been through she wasn't about to waste her sympathy on something so insignificant. "Level one is pretty easy. Stop being such a baby."
"Just because I don't leap before I look, it doesn't make me a baby."
She tapped her fingers on the keyboard. "Sometimes you have to trust your gut and go with your instincts."
He wobbled drunkenly on his chair. "My gut tells me we don't all have your freaky Fae instincts."
River hadn't quite come to terms with her unusual heritage and the reminder was unwelcome. "My gut says we don't all have your instinct for self-preservation," she shot back.
Streaks of red materialized on his cheeks. "I wanted my body back."
She suffered a slight twinge of pity and maybe a bit of guilt. Nick had been shot trying to protect her. The Dark Lord — or Sandman, as Nick liked to refer to him — had captured Nick's consciousness as it abandoned his dying body. River had healed Nick's body with her magic, although too late to save him, and Hawk's consciousness had stepped into it.
Hawk had used Nick's body so he could protect her. Nick had tried to drive Hawk crazy in an effort to get it back.
Maybe she didn't feel quite so guilty after all.
River grabbed Nick's wrist and tugged, impatience lacing her words and making her sharp. "For God's sake, put your arms down. Let your mind control your hologram's movements and make them a little more normal. You look like an idiot and if you're doing this out on the street, I'm sure you're drawing unnecessary attention to yourself."
A sound rose in his throat, a mixture between a snort and a nervous laugh. "And rumor has it the Fae are such gentle creatures." Nick splayed his sweaty hands over his jeans-clad thighs, wiped them dry, then dropped his arms to his sides in helpless surrender. "It feels too much like being dead."
"You're in control, Nick. Just remember that. Once you take charge of your hologram you won't have to do it with me monitoring you. Now tell me, what do you see?"
Nick's arms shot straight out in front of him. "I see people walking around me and keeping their distance."
"That's because you're doing a fine impression of Frankenstein's monster. You don't need to move around, so keep your hands down." Once again, River grabbed his wrists and anchored them to his sides. "Remember, your mind and body are separate."
Nick's nostrils flared, then he inhaled and swiped his tongue over his bottom lip.
"Do you smell something?" she asked, curious about his reaction even though it annoyed her.
The longing in his voice made her laugh. She glanced at her watch and took note of the time. Tim Hortons always brewed a fresh pot this time of day, which meant Nick was responding well to the implant and it wasn't simply wishful thinking on his part.
"Perfect," she murmured to herself and jotted down a few notes.
"It smells good," he said wistfully.
"Grab yourself a double double. On me."
River resisted the urge to point out he could grab one if he ever reached level two. Even though they were underground, deep in the bowels of the subway, through her program they could project themselves onto the city streets — anywhere, anytime. Adding magic to the program allowed them to see, hear, touch, and smell. Out on the sidewalk Nick might be nothing more than a hologram, but to those he encountered he was a living, breathing, functioning human being. Her lips curved in a smile. Although a crazy-looking one.
But despite the enhancements she'd added to Hollow Man through magic, she'd also defined limitations. She wanted the Demons to be able to protect themselves, but a part of her shied away from making it possible for them to kill with a program she had created. Magic allowed the Demons to physically strike an opponent to protect themselves, and it was magic that made certain their blows couldn't kill.
The power of suggestion, however, created serious limitations in itself. Level-one beginners couldn't always tell the difference between a blow to their hollow forms and one to their bodies.
Every member of Dan's gang had to learn how to work the program properly so he could be safe. No one was allowed on the street in Hollow form unsupervised until he reached level two. That included Nick.
But Nick, a man whose self-preservation instincts easily surpassed average, hadn't wanted the implant. He'd been the most reluctant to receive it and the last to concede. The Demons, on the other hand, had been practicing for weeks and had gotten so good at it, the level twos could manipulate their holograms and make their opponents see whatever they wanted them to see. River grinned. An ability to project oneself as a "real" demon could do a psychological number on the unsuspecting. A few of them could even project weapons.
She'd have to think about a prototype for a third level sometime soon. Dan had already mastered the first two and was ready for more.
"I've had enough, River," Nick announced.
She tried to be patient. "The Demons are just kids and they didn't kick up this much of a stink after I implanted their programs. They couldn't wait to try them out."
He mumbled something under his breath and River decided to change tactics. He seemed genuinely troubled, and mentally, the time he'd spent sharing space with a Dark Lord couldn't have been easy on him. It was wrong of her to expect him to be tough enough to get past it after a few short months.
He was no Hawk.
"Come on," she said, shooting him an ounce of understanding and lacing it with unrepentant manipulation. "We just need a few more minutes. Who knows what will happen if we haul you out before the program has had time to completely embed itself in your brain?"
Nick cursed. "And therein lies the problem. You should have figured out what could happen before using us all as your guinea pigs. This isn't a video game. This is serious shit, and the Demons are just kids."
Nick had his faults, but he had a few redeeming qualities as well. He cared about the Demons every bit as much as she did. Despite River being a wanted woman, Dan had taken them both in four months ago after they'd blown Amos Kaye's laboratory all to hell and put a serious kink in his bioengineering program. These kids protected them, and helped keep them hidden, and she wasn't about to do anything to hurt them.
But what Nick failed to understand was that she would be hurting them more by not implanting them with the program, because this had once been a Dark Lord's world. Hawk had told her the Guardians would come because of that, and if they were anything like him, they would shoot first and ask questions later. There were other, more immediate dangers, too. Weres had killed her friends and her family. They were searching for her.
And monsters, bioengineered or not, always found their way underground.
"These kids are going to help save this world, and probably your ass in the process," she replied. "When the Guardians come, they'll be ready. I can't say the same about you."
She and Nick had forged a truce after the hell they'd been through, and maybe she was being a bit of a controlling bitch at the moment. But for months they'd been waiting, planning, and preparing for the Guardians to arrive, and all of the pent-up energy that had been building in the underground was playing havoc with her normally bright and sunny disposition.
Nick opened his mouth to speak, probably to come back with some smart-assed comment, but a shuffling sound at the door had him slamming his mouth shut. At least she thought it was the sound at the door that caused his reaction. There was something odd in his expression and the way he'd cocked his head to the side, as if he were listening very carefully to some distant sound, and suddenly she was concerned.
"Hey, River, Dan wants to see you."
It was Jake at the door. The haunted look in his eyes was a constant reminder of how much had changed for him over the last four months.
Nick had real concerns for her little brother. "Jake is suffering symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder," he'd warned her. "He's jumpy and doesn't sleep well. His pain receptors aren't normal. Dan puts a serious shit kicking on him during training, and he gets up and asks for more."
Nick, however, was a chronic alarmist. Jake had always been mature for his age, and while River admitted he'd had to grow up too fast, he was a survivor. Of that, she had no doubt. He was too much like their dad to be anything else.
Jake's worn sneakers scuffed on the cement floor as he took a step into the room. He started to speak but adolescence cracked his voice. He cleared his throat, embarrassed, and pointed to Nick. "Is he okay?"
"Shit!" Distracted by her brother, she'd missed Nick's increasing signs of physical distress. His fingers had curled into fists and he was shaking almost violently. His head was twisting left and right, his chest rising and falling, and a rapid pulse at the base of his neck told her he was in serious trouble.
"River!" Nick bellowed. "What the hell is going on?" The genuine panic in his voice frightened her.
She placed her hand over his and tried to stay calm. She didn't want to escalate the situation. "You have to pull yourself out, Nick. All you have to do is visualize yourself back here. We've been over this."
"I can't seem —" His words fell off and his back stiffened.
Immediately, River pulled a thread of magic and slipped into his thoughts. A second later she found herself standing beside him on the sidewalk outside of Tim Hortons.
"Hey," she said, curling her fingers into his. She kept her voice light despite the worry she was feeling.
Nick turned to her, confusion apparent in his expression. Something wasn't right. It was as if there was a new energy crackling around them. If she listened really hard she could hear it, although she couldn't quite pinpoint its source. Did it have something to do with the program?
"Come on, let's go back," she coaxed him. She sent out a small surge of magic to help guide him along.
Then they were back in the tiny office off the subway platform. She watched his eyes as he blinked a few times before driving agitated fingers through his dark hair. Relief washed over his face as he took in the familiar surroundings, clearly happy to have his body and consciousness reunited.
"I hate that program," he said with feeling, sweat beading on his forehead.
"What happened?" she asked him.
He frowned. "I'm not sure. I knew something wasn't right. I could hear this strange buzz, then it felt like my wires got crossed somehow and I couldn't pull back."
River really didn't like the sound of that.
"You okay, man?" Jake asked him from behind her.
Nick jumped at the sound of the boy's voice and clutched his fists to his chest. Startled, Jake instinctively raised his own in self-defense.
She'd forgotten her brother was in the room. She didn't want him seeing Nick like this. "Tell Dan I'll be with him in a minute."
Understanding that he was being dismissed, Jake nodded and left as quietly as he'd entered.
River turned back to Nick. "What do you think that buzzing sound was?"
"You heard it, too?" His relief was palpable.
"Yes." But this was the first time, and none of the Demons had mentioned it before. She didn't want to alarm him. He was freaked enough.
"Do you think it's the Sandman?"
"No. He's gone, Nick. Andy destroyed him."
Andy had sacrificed herself in order to save River, and not a day went by that River didn't think of her friend.
The buzzing noise was a concern, though. She wondered what it meant. Did it stem from the technical part of the program, or did it come from her magic?
Nick exhaled slowly, then pulled the sticky heart monitor off his chest and with shaky hands rebuttoned his shirt.
"Why don't you go see what Dan wants?" he said. She watched him rise and move to the door, unable to sit still. Tension rolled off him. "Anyone able to go get me a coffee?"
"I'm not sure. You'll have to ask around."
After Nick left the small office, River powered down her program and yawned, sucking in a mouthful of the subway's clammy smell. God, what she'd give to breathe in air that didn't leave an aftertaste like sewer and burning garbage.
As much as she, too, would love to go topside, neither of them could do so. She'd never risk leading Kaye back to the Demons. She'd seen what his bioengineered Weres could do to a person, and if she and Nick went aboveground, they could be tracked back here by their scent.
No, if Nick wanted to see the outside world he was going to have to get used to his hologram. That had been the carrot she'd dangled to get him to try it.
She suddenly remembered that Dan, the unpredictable seventeen-year-old leader of the Demons, was waiting for her and he wasn't particularly patient.
She stepped from her office onto the platform, then hopped off the side of the platform and onto the tracks. The sound of her sturdy boots hitting the wooden sleepers echoed around her and she kept a close eye out for rats as she followed along the tracks to find Dan.
Her mind raced as she mulled over the strange buzzing sound both she and Nick had heard. The program was working just fine. She knew that. But she'd created the program using skills she'd inherited from both her Fae mother and Guardian father. If the noise was caused by her program, could it be some sort of forewarning that trouble was coming?
Trouble, to River, meant Guardians.
Flashes of Hawk rushed to the forefront of her brain, her body reacting to the vivid memories as if she'd received a physical blow. She crossed her arms in front of her chest and hugged herself as she recalled the comforting feel of his arms wrapped around her. She couldn't help but think of the warmth of his mouth when he kissed her, the energy that poured from her body to his when they made love. Hawk's Guardian instincts were strong, but River was half Guardian, too, and she knew that what was between them went well beyond any sense of duty to protect a Fae he might have.
Excerpted from Fair Game by Taylor Keating. Copyright © 2012 Taylor Keating. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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