Sadia has been betrayed. Get in. Get the data threads. Get out. It was a standard job. But when Sadia arrives, she finds her contact dead and the only ones who could be responsible are from her own faction. Unable to trust anyone, she goes looking for answers. When she witnesses another unjust death, something inside her awakens. A power takes control of her body and in front of millions of witnesses, Sadia brings the dead man back to life. Suddenly, she’s the most sought after woman in Novus City. And while some factions want to make her a martyr, others want to dissect her. Or worse. Hunted by every faction, every corporation, and every authority, Sadia flees. If she can escape the city, she may survive long enough to learn the secrets of her past. If she fails, instead of giving life back, her power will be used to take it away. She will become the instrument of annihilation, and no one will be left alive to remember Hollowfall.
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Chapter 1Razorcorp Slums It isn’t murder if the person you kill is an echo. The words of her handler looped through Sadia’s mind. She held the heavy gun between her hands, but it bounced up and down because her hands were resting on her knee and her knee wouldn’t stop jigging like a techtoo needle. She told herself murder was not going to happen. Part of her believed it. The rattling sound of the gun’s moving parts on vibrate made a counterargument. She waited inside the storage container that had been converted into a six-bedroom condominium, thanks to the blankets that had been hung on ropes to compartmentalize the space. The amenities included a solar/kinetic-powered LED lamp, complete with fringed shade, bolted to the ceiling upside-down. There was also a puddle of standing water on the floor and a round hole in the corner that smelled like a sewer. Mattresses lay piled on top of shipping palettes and the one-and-only chair was made from pieces of rectangular fruit crates that had been nailed together crosswise to fashion a seat, of sorts. Sadia had seen worse. Her contact was ten minutes late. Sadia’s knee jigged faster. Antsy was not a feeling she enjoyed. She was here, actually, to do a favor for her contact. That was half the reason anyway. The echo wanted to move up in her faction and if Sadia helped her complete her task, the android might be promoted. Sentient androids had ambitions just like everyone else and Sadia liked helping people. Sadia was here to help herself, too. The Dawnlight faction would pay Sadia top credit for the Razorcorp datathreads she was supposed to collect from the echo. Her handler had given her the antique revolver just in case somebody besides her contact showed up. There were all kinds of dangerous street sliders and gutterpunks who might wander in. There was also the possibility that the echo had other intentions. A substantial number of echoes were openly in favor of eradicating humankind. If the echo attacked her, Sadia would have the gun. Her handler had told her to come in, sit down, and wait, but Sadia felt a need to do something besides sit. Dawnlight had promised to make her a recruit if she did what she was told, but again, antsy was turning to intolerable. She told herself to be patient. If she was patient, she’d be able to sleep in a faction rack instead of her hidden closet tonight, which was the aforementioned worse place than this. She sucked in a sigh and let it out. On the floor, navigating around the puddle, a cockroach skittered toward her. It stopped just outside the reach of Sadia’s shoe. The cockroach was all black. Black body. Black legs. Black antennae. The antennae flashed tiny blue lights. Only the tips. Twin flashes that blinked. One-two-three. Then again. One-two-three.What the hazy-crazy-blazes? The roach turned around and skittered to the other side of the puddle where it stopped and turned again.Blink-blink-blink. Blink-blink-blink. As if it were sending a message.Fol-low-me. Fol-low-me. Unless it was saying something else entirely.Come-and-die. Come-and-die. Sadia shook her head, clearing her mind. Her caution over the past two years had kept her alive, but a couple of blinking lights didn’t have to mean anything. She watched the roach disappear under the edge of the blanket that divided the rest of the container from the space Sadia sat in.Yes. Go away. Where was her contact? The roach reappeared. Blink-blink-blink. Blink-blink-blink. Sadia considered using one of her six bullets on the roach. If she took a shot, however, it would be loud inside the small space and she might scare off her contact, now fifteen minutes late, and defeat the purpose of her being here. She stood up.Screw this. She didn’t care what her handler had told her. Fifteen minutes was Sadia’s limit for antsy and if her contact wasn’t here by now, maybe she wasn’t all that ambitious. The roach turned around again and Sadia followed the insect deeper into the container. It zig-zagged erratically through the adjoining spaces, making ticking sounds on the metal floor, and stopped at the edge of the next blanket-wall where it repeated its blink routine, then scurried off again. Sadia followed cautiously, room after scummy room. The final chamber, if it could be called that, was surprisingly clean. The covers on the mattress were tucked in and smoothed out. There were women’s shoes on the floor, set next to each other neatly. In the middle of the bed was a pizza box. The lid wasn’t quite closed. On top of the box, a paper square, centered, with the words “For Sadia” written on it in a tidy script. Sadia’s thoughts raced. Had her contact left the box for her? Was that the reason for her not being here? Did her handler know? The thought of pizza sent a flood of saliva into Sadia’s mouth, and her stomach growled. The customary aroma that accompanied pizza, however, was absent, and when she lifted the lid with the nose of the gun, there was some type of plastic toy inside instead. In the same hand as the note on the top of the box, another note bore four words: “Dog, Cow, Horse, Cat.” Sadia put the gun on the bed. The animals listed on the note were also on the toy, their pictures arranged around the center. All of the rest of the paper that had been stuck to the toy had been torn off, leaving only sticky white scraps. There was a pointer of sorts in the middle and a lever on the side. The pointer was already directed at the dog. Curious, she pulled the lever. A scratchy sound emanated from the toy, then a man’s voice. “The dog says”—there was a pause—“you are being set up, Sadia.” Sadia dropped the toy onto the bed and stepped back like she’d been bitten. She wanted to curse but the words wouldn’t even come. She looked around the space. Her handler had told her this would be a clean site. No chance of listening devices or any other electronics that would allow someone to interfere with her mission. The voice on the toy had called her by name somehow. And the voice was certainly not the voice of a female echo. The cockroach with the lights on its antennae was suspicious enough. This was even worse. Looking around, she tried to spot the cockroach, but it had vanished. Tentatively, she picked the toy back up from the bed. She turned the pointer to the cow and pulled the lever again. “The cow says . . . I am your friend and you need to trust me.” “This is too . . .” Sadia stopped speaking; her own voice was strange to her ears, sounding hollow in the enclosed metal space. She hesitated, but only for a moment. She turned the pointer to the horse and pulled the lever. “The horse says . . . follow the cockroach and you’ll see you’ve been betrayed.”Betrayed? Sadia felt a tingle of warning on the back of her neck. She refused to believe she was being betrayed. This was her first mission. Why would anyone want her to fail? Why would anyone betray her when she hadn’t done anything yet? She spun the pointer around to the cat and snapped the lever. “The cat says . . . follow my directions if you want to know the truth, Sadia. Only the truth can save you.” She dropped the toy back on the bed. This was stupid. Nobody was going to betray her. She had no reason to believe the pronouncements of a toy over the people who had reached out to her and offered her a chance to belong. Only belonging would give her a chance to improve the hand she’d been dealt at birth. Get what she needed. Maybe be needed by someone else, too.Blink-blink-blink. Blink-blink-blink. Cocky as you please, the roach had scuttled up the palettes and the blankets to sit on the corner of the bed. Sadia didn’t want to follow the cockroach. She didn’t want to listen to a toy. On the other hand, her contact was twenty minutes late now. So. The voice on the toy had said to follow the cockroach and she would see. Okay. She would follow. For a minute. She wouldn’t go far. At the first sign of anything worrisome—or the first sign of her contact—she’d come right back. It wasn’t like the cockroach could stop her. Retrieving the gun, she rested her other fist on her hip. With no expectation that the roach could hear her, let alone understand her, she said, “Lead on, moron.”Blink. The roach spun around. With her attention on the insect, Sadia heard its tiny feet go from ticking sounds to tapping sounds as it went from metal to wood. It scooted under the blanket that divided this corner of the storage container from the nearest corner opposite and the tone changed again, back to a metallic sound. Sadia moved the blanket out of the way and saw a metal plate on the floor with another metal plate on top of it. The bug wedged itself under the edge of the upper plate, and then it was gone. “Where are you going, little beast?” She didn’t expect an answer. Sadia knelt. She put the gun on the floor so she could use both hands, but even with her fingers, strong from life on the street, she had to try harder than she’d expected to shift the plate a few inches. Beneath it, an opening in the floor gaped wide and dark. She shoved again, harder, and the steel plate shifted a few inches more. The weak light seeped down, tentatively, almost as if it was afraid to leave the confines of the storage container. Down in the shadows, under the steel plate, a scrap of pale blue fabric waited.Blink-blink-blink. The cockroach beckoned from the dark, where a warm, earthy smell was wafting up. There was an incline leading from the hole down, down, down into the shadows.Blink-blink-blink. “Just a second,” Sadia said. She touched the blue fabric, tested its texture, grasped it, tugged on it. A body fell onto the slope. The very shape of it instantly triggered whatever template resided in the human instinct that also triggered screams, and Sadia screamed loud. The body slid partway into the shadows. The cockroach scampered out of the way, then clambered over the body to sit on its chest and blink some more.Stop screaming. Sadia had to make a conscious effort. She’d screamed once, breathed deeply to get a second scream out at full strength, and then realized she might be heard outside. She covered her mouth with her hands. Wanted to run. Didn’t.Who is she? She’d seen dead people before. Been close to them even. Touched her father’s face in his plastiboard casket before he’d been buried in the waste. She’d never caused one to fall down a hole though. That was new. Placing her feet carefully so she wouldn’t slide, she reminded herself not to make noise before uncovering her mouth so she could brace herself on the metal edges of the hole and lower herself down. The loose dirt was treacherous, and she squeaked once as her foot shot out from under her before she caught herself.Easily. Quietly. She stepped cautiously down the widest part of the slope until she was next to the dead girl. The blue fabric was part of the girl’s blouse, cut high at the waist but with long sleeves. She was staring blankly, with dirt on the lids and surfaces of her eyes. Her hair still smelled freshly washed with hints of citrus. In the center of her forehead there was a bullet hole. A trail of thick crimson blood painted a line sideways, tinting her hair. When she’d been shot, she had fallen on her side. The blood also ran over a tattoo on the girl’s neck. Sadia was loath to touch the blood. Viruses. Bacteria. Instinctive revulsion. She used the girl’s collar to wipe the blood away. The tattoo was recognizable. The graceful oak-shaded curve over the three aqua lines were typical of Waterborne, and Sadia had been told to look for it. This girl was her contact. Had been. The one she’d been waiting for. But this girl was supposed to have been . . .It’s not murder if the person you kill is an echo. The dead girl wasn’t an echo. Echoes didn’t bleed. She was human. Sadia looked up. There was a shelf of dirt on the side of the hole. Whoever had shot the girl had jammed her under the edge of the floor and then covered the hole with the plate.Oh no. She scampered up the slope, slipping on the loose dirt and sending the dead girl farther into the dark. She snatched the gun back and fumbled to release the cylinder. She tilted the gun and the bullets fell into her palm. There were five complete bullets. There should have been six. One was just a casing. The bullet had been fired.The dog says . . . you are being set up, Sadia. The air-beats of an incoming gravcraft let her know her time was up. Strong lights flared to life overhead and shafts found their way through the crevices and rusted-out holes in the walls of the storage container. In the same moment, a Law Enforcer’s klaxon broke the quiet. Bwoop-bwoop. She felt the urge to run again. Didn’t. Whoever had shot the girl could be down here. Waiting. The cockroach blinked at her. The walls of the storage container reverberated under a barrage of heavy fists. Sadia jammed the gun and the bullets into her pockets and ran.