Shortlisted for the 2019 Compton Crook Award for best first Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror Novel
When college student Emery Driscoll is blackmailed into being a courier for a clandestine organisation, she's cut off from the neural implant community which binds the domed city of New Worth together. Her new employers exploit her rare condition which allows her to carry encoded data in her blood, and train her to transport secrets throughout the troubled city. New Worth is on the brink of Emergence - freedom from the dome - but not everyone wants to leave. Then a data drop goes bad, and Emery is caught between factions: those who want her blood, and those who just want her dead.
2018 SFR Galaxy Award Winner — a “standout” book in Science Fiction Romance
File Under: Science Fiction [ Under the Dome | Blood Courier | Disconnected | Bright Future ]
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My implant, working in concert with the arcade’s rec suite, mimics the sensations of fists striking flesh and bone. The pain reverberates back to my brain, but I don’t bruise, I don’t bleed, I certainly don’t break. And I don’t feel the crawling animal need to survive – or fear that I won’t – the way I would in real life. Fear I know firsthand.
Considering all that, beating the shit out of computer-generated thugs is only so satisfying, but I take what I can get.
The immersive generates my next wave of opponents, and anything goes. That’s the whole reason I chose this particular street combat scenario to complement the hours of martial arts training I’ve logged. When your life’s on the line, form and philosophy can hinder as much as help. Setting up kicks or chaining together moves burns time you may not have. With the arcade’s AI tweaking the level of difficulty each round, I have to draw on every technique I’ve picked up over the years.
The fear found in the arcade may be a simulation, but it’s still a good way to learn how to stay on your toes. Especially down here.
The abandoned warehouse has rows of cargo containers I can hide behind or otherwise use against my opponents, but I try not to resort to that if I can hold my own in the open area toward the center of the building. Ancient fluorescent lights buzz overhead, adding to the derelict ambiance.
Anticipation blazes bright and hot as the two gangbangers circle me. There’s a story mode about infiltrating a drug ring, but I’m just here for the realistic fight mechanics. The taller one on the left is the first to oblige. He steps forward, leaving his buddy to watch on. After a few more rounds, the AI will make it so they fight in teams, but for now I have the luxury of taking them on individually.
My opponent’s gaze sweeps over my avatar, and he smirks. He sees a petite woman – not far off from my true stature – and assumes he knows what he’s in for. But he’s wrong wrong wrong.
His eyes widen in surprise when I duck his first swing and follow up with a quick jab to his side. Whatever else, at least the game gets character reactions right. He throws a wild punch. I knock it aside, then catch him in the chin with an uppercut, driving into him with my shoulder. He sags to the floor.
His friend wastes no time and charges after me. I barely have a chance to reset when he wraps his arms around me in a bear hug. My implant hijacks my olfactory system, and all I can smell is his cheap cologne. I tell myself I can handle the swamping claustrophobia, the choking sense of being smothered.
It’s a lie, but a practiced one. One that allows me to kick out, my foot catching him in the knee. Lucky. He groans, and his grip loosens enough for me to slip out from underneath him. To land a solid punch along his temple. He falls, and I fall with him, pummeling him with my fists.
Anything to feel, to inflict pain tenfold, even if he’s not the true recipient of so much rage.
||| Level complete. |||
A harsh cry rips through me as I stagger to my feet. I give my opponent a kick in his soft belly for good measure. Dull, gnawing pain radiates up from my toes. Still worth it.
||| Would you like to continue? |||
I’m tempted, even though it’s a struggle to slow my breathing. But I have an appointment I’ve gotta keep.
I log out of the game. Gone is the industrial, early twenty-first century warehouse. In its place is a capsule-sized room scented with lilac, housing the latest cutting-edge tech for super‑immersive simulations and games. The arcade provides a much-needed escape from everyday life in the domed city of New Worth, but some days I need the ritual more than others.
With sleepwalker precision, I pry myself out of the harness that lets me interact with the game’s augmented environment. The feedback mitts are next, and it takes a moment for the sensation to return to my hands as the data receptors embedded in my palms and fingertips disengage from the tech. My implant projects messages and alerts that arrived while I was at the arcade into my field of vision. I scan through them with a series of eye movements, trashing a reminder for Brita’s party tonight. As if I’d forget.
Rik pinged me while I was under. For a moment, I want nothing more than to reach out and have his consciousness brush against mine, a connection fostered by our implants. But I don’t dare. Not with the risk of emotional bleed from what I’ve tasked myself with this afternoon. He’ll have to wait.
With a hard blink, my implant’s ocular interface recedes into the background. I fit my day gloves over my hands, grab my bag, and exit the suite.
Kenzie, the jockey on call, gives me a nod. Feeds from all the recreation suite rentals scroll across his monitors, tracking account balances, vitals, and hardware performance. Although arcades in the Canopy are closer to my dorm, this is the one I grew up going to, only a few blocks away from my parents’ apartment in the Terrestrial District. The jockeys all know me and ensure I get the best functioning suites. They tend to do a better job cleaning up after the previous occupants, too, when I have a reservation on the books.
I drift toward the exit but hold off on joining the late afternoon crowds that always plague New Worth’s lower levels. I’m a few minutes ahead of schedule. Just as well. I try to shake off the brawl from the game – I need all my focus for what’s next.
With the Promenade – the biggest thoroughfare that traverses the length of the Terrestrial District – only a few blocks away, the bustle and hum of people are everywhere. Down here in the perpetual twilight, streetlamps burn day and night. Holographic projections and bioluminescent paint cover every flat surface with advertising. I adjust my ocular boost accordingly to help me make sense of the chaos as I search. Not everyone gets the night amplification filter – only the lucky few in the Terrestrial District who can afford it. My father never got one, but he worked overtime for a year to ensure I had it by the time I started middle school.
“What are you doing, Emery?” Kenzie asks, suddenly at my side.
I whirl toward him, fist at the ready, then relax at the sight of his startled, pale face. Guess I’m still amped up after my session.
“Whoa.” He holds up his hands, faux leather wristlets protecting his data receptors. “Sorry I scared you, but you looked a bit lost.” Up close, I can make out the metal plates along his forehead and cheeks, just under the skin, where he can magnetically mount different accessories. Anything from devil’s horns or reptilian frills to carved bone ornaments. But he’s just himself today.
“Oh, I was just…” I tap my temple, signaling preoccupation with my implant, and hope he’ll drop it.
“Well, don’t let me interrupt a conversation with one of your blink buddies. Or maybe a confidant?” He waggles his brows suggestively at the idea of me having an implant contact I share everything with, but to trust someone with that much of myself? There’s an extremely short list of potential candidates. “You know I’d calibrate with you any time,” Kenzie continues. “Just say the word. Isn’t that why you started coming round again?”
He usually doesn’t let me leave without some form of banter, but I’m not up for it today. Perhaps sensing that, he saunters back to the desk. “Put you down for the same time tomorrow?”
“Nah. Sunday,” I call after him.
“You’re taking a day off? What’s the occasion?”
“I have a life outside the arcade, believe it or not.” I keep my gaze trained on the crowd, scanning for a very specific shade of brown hair.
“Sure you do.”
“Jealous?” I say over my shoulder. But before I can give as good as I get, a guy with the exact tint of brown hair comes down the street.
For a moment, all that aggression from the game flares up at the sight of Breck Warner. It’s him all right. His easy stride camouflages his lean strength. The mop of curls hanging into his eyes softens his slightly beady gaze as he tracks his surroundings. By day, he’s a mild-mannered assistant tech at an implant clinic in the Understory. Decent job, good benefits. He doesn’t need to prey on the people down here. That he does anyway…
Death-gripping the shoulder strap to my bag, I make my decision. Actually, I already made the decision when I came here today. I just keep expecting it to get easier. “Gotta go,” I tell Kenzie.
I brace myself for not only the increase in humidity as I pass through the arcade’s automated doors but also the crowded stink that permeates everything dirtside. Leaving the arcade behind, I walk the cramped streets of the Terrestrial District. Mile-tall towers hulk overhead, blocking any possibility of natural light filtering down.
New Worth’s just one of the domed cities around the world shielding humanity from the elements that rage on the other side of the glass. After too many years of storm-leveled towns, receding coastlines, drought, flood, pollution, and devastating fighting over food and resources as governments tried to provide for their people, domed cities became our only option to escape the ravages of a world that had finally turned against us after so many years of abuse.
While everyone in New Worth is granted equal protection from the hostile environment outside, our lives inside the dome are dictated by status, credit balances, and career potential. Those with the right credentials have every advantage as they literally ascend through society, living out their lives in the city’s luxurious upper levels. Everyone else remains landlocked in the Terrestrial District – choked off from light, constrained by space, and constantly inundated by others tied to the same fate.
The one bright spot on the horizon is Emergence – the day when the glass can finally come down, and we return to the land of our ancestors. So, as we wait for our rehabilitation efforts beyond the dome to take root, implants not only help us pass the time, but also make our lives a bit more bearable.
With a simple eyecast command, I can filter out the incessant noise down here. No more crying babies or shrieking feral children. No more desperate pitches from beggars with homebrew credit transfer devices clutched in their bare hands. Or the aggressive advertising jingles piped out of every storefront. No windy grumble from the maglev tracks crisscrossing overhead or the creaking drone of air ventilation shafts that pump cool air into the Canopy. The resulting relative silence gives you the space to think – something I didn’t know I needed until I got outfitted with my implant at age ten.
The smells are harder to get rid of, requiring expensive implant add-ons or body modifications. Most people learn to live with it. There was a time I was noseblind to it all, but my time in the Canopy has since put an end to that.
Crowds trickle along, eddying at intersections or swirling around busy storefronts, as garbage bots and far too many people fight their way through the constant gloom. The government keeps saying they want to clean things up, but with buildings constantly being appropriated to better support the Understory, and by extension the Canopy above, instead of something useful like retrofitting them for capsule residences to accommodate the waiting lists, life in the Terrestrial District can only continue to degrade.
There are too many people stuck down here for it not to.
Following someone through a crowd, especially in the lower levels, isn’t difficult with the sheer numbers of us out and about. But when the people thin out and there’s less of a buffer between you and your quarry, it’s a lot harder to go unnoticed. Something I’ve learned the hard way shadowing Breck these last few weeks.
One wrong move, game over.
But this is no game. My first unencumbered glimpse of him through the press of bodies sends a wash of cold down my spine. He’s shouldering a large pack. It’s going to be today. Intellectually, I’ve known every time I follow him he might act. Moisture floods my gloved palms, and a knot of panic coils tight in my sternum. But I know what I need to do. Can’t lose it now.
His target, a girl in her late teens, wrestles a canvas bag full of groceries from the corner market. She’s as unaware of him as he is of me. We navigate the twisting streets, moving further away from the more populated blocks that feed off the Promenade. In the Terrestrial District, there’s a certain safety in numbers. A safety we’re forgoing with each step.
She’s barely aware of the danger, probably lost to her implant to pass the time. She should know better. But it’s impossible to go through life always on your guard. It’s unfair that’s what’s required of those of us who live dirtside instead of the lofty heights of the Understory or beyond in the hallowed upper levels of the Canopy.
That’s one of the reasons why I vowed to get out of the Terrestrial District as soon as possible. Growing up on the fringes of the Bower, a rough neighborhood only a few blocks away, I watched my parents do everything they could to create careers that would let them rise through the ranks – to no avail. I was lucky enough to get accepted to the College of New Worth in the Canopy and didn’t look back. I thought nothing could make me return. Not after experiencing the golden light and fresh air of the upper levels.
But that was before I realized scum like Breck use the Terrestrial District for their hunting grounds.
There’s hardly anyone about now. I fall back, sticking close to the shadowed façades as best I can. The girl turns left toward an abandoned construction site just a few blocks away. Supposed to create some much-needed new housing for the area, it has been stalled by permitting issues and lawsuits, while the rest of the neighborhood rots around it. Making it the perfect cover for his purposes.
And, coincidentally, mine.
He glances back once, and I busy myself with a secondhand clothing store’s sidewalk display in just the nick of time. The racks are full of cheaply printed fabrics that’ll only withstand a few wears, but most people down here can’t afford to be picky. I wait three painfully long breaths, then ease back into the street.
They’re both gone. For a moment, my heart jackhammers in my chest. I could simply return to my dorm in the Canopy, levels upon levels above, and forget whatever happens here today. No one would know the difference.
Except for me.
My gloved fingertips toy with my throat for a second before I realize what I’m doing. I force my hand back to my side. Swallowing my doubts, I approach an emergency kiosk. Not everyone in the Terrestrial District can afford the subdermal implants that make life under glass worth living. Thankfully it’s still functional – not always a guarantee down here.
“Hello. I’d like to report an attack. I heard screams at the 100 block of the Bower. I saw a man with a knife.”
“Who am I speaking–”
I end the call before things go any further. Hopefully that’ll be enough to bring the police. If not, there’s still me.
The next block over, I catch up to them. Breck’s yet to touch the girl, but she’s picked up her pace, throwing nervous glances over her shoulder. By now she’ll be trying to use her implant to send synch requests to friends or family members. Maybe even the cops. But Breck’s close enough for the implant-blocking device he no doubt has in his pack to put an end to that.
I want to tell her not to run, to stand her ground, to fight back, but she yelps instead. Her grocery bag rips as she takes a turn too hard, scattering day-old produce across the ground. Running scared.
Breck’s there in two strides, his painful grip on her arm propelling her toward the dark alley alongside the empty construction site. We’re on the outer edge of this sector’s police coverage, something he no doubt factored in. What if they don’t come in time?
Stealing myself, I follow. The arcade sessions are supposed to psych me up, file off the edges of my anger so I don’t do something foolish, thoughtless, reactive, whenever I’m down here. But instead of calm poise, I sound like I’ve run a marathon. I try to get control of my breathing as I reach into my messenger bag. All those arcade scenarios I’ve thrown myself into over the years won’t matter if I don’t get this right.
The taser’s awkward in my hands, slippery on account of my gloves. I should’ve practiced this part more. The construction site rears up in front of me, skeletal I-beams and rebar. It disappears overhead into the underside of a concourse that links it to another building.
A shout pierces the air, then it’s quickly muffled, but it’s enough to guide my feet. I find Breck crouched over the girl, a hand clamped over her mouth.
Before I make a conscious decision, the taser recoils, and a jolt of blue slams into his back. He seizes up, eyes rolled back in his head. He never even saw me.
With a sob, the girl pushes him off her. Tears track down her cheeks, the pale skin of her neck rubbed red where he put his hands on her. “Thanks. How did you–”
“The cops are on their way,” I say as I help her to her feet.
“My implant–” Her hand reflexively covers the small square on the back of her neck where the device lives under the skin.
“Don’t worry. It’s temporary.”
“No, I mean I thought he wanted…” She trails off with what’s better left unsaid, and gestures to his pack and the surgical tools and miscellaneous tech from the clinic that have spilled out of it. “But he was after my implant, wasn’t he?”
I nod, not trusting my voice. A scrapper dealing in black-market, gently used implants taken from people he could easily overpower. Some of the Disconnects down here are so desperate for the implant tech they could never afford legally, scum like Breck have turned that desperation into a lucrative cottage industry.
He moans. Oh no. What if he wakes up before the police get here? The taser needs more time before it’ll be able to discharge another blast.
The girl ducks behind me. “What do we do?”
I hand the taser off to her. I’m moving before I even register the action. As though he’s just another thug I need to end in an arcade scenario, I snatch up a discarded brick and slam it into his head. The impact rattles up my arm, buzzes into my shoulder. Definitely not a simulation. But that doesn’t stop me from doing it again.
“Hey.” The girl grabs my arm, gives it a shake, and I drop the bloodied brick. “Pretty sure he’s out after that, if you didn’t kill him outright.”
Hands shaking, I take a step back, trying to look anywhere except for the trickle of blood oozing from his scalp. The alley presses closer, moldering brick and old flyers, the stench from a nearby dumpster wreaking havoc on my stomach. This isn’t what I planned. I thought–
Police sirens peal, and I practically jump. Get it together. I turn to the girl. She’s stopped crying. That’s good. “I was never here, OK?”
She nods slowly, then gives me a look that bruises. “I get it.”
Some of it perhaps, but not all. Not enough. I don’t bother correcting her. She’ll have enough to worry about when the police arrive.
“But tell me, how did you know?”
I squeeze her forearm, as if by touch alone I can impart as much fortifying sympathy as possible before I bail. “Doesn’t matter after today.”