Why? The simple question asked by Ravenhawk, the creation of a corrupt corporation used to covertly infiltrate and steal data—or lives—at her creator’s orders resulted in the synth escaping their control. Unsure what her purpose for existence was, she nevertheless wielded her considerable combat abilities to cost those hunting her dearly.
Viktor Chernovich, in desperate need of a webrunner to keep his reputation as a fixer from utter destruction, reaches out to the infamous "murder-bot" to hire her. With embedded technology so ubiquitous that lacking it is considered treasonous, Ravenhawk is perplexed confronting her first pure human. Together, they discover something even more terrible than the insidious corruption of the world governments by corporations.
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Unlike the northern region of Sangelas, the weather in the south did not vary to any significant degree ... except for rain. The upper deck acknowledged as the megacity of Sangelas enjoyed the cleansing provided by winter downpours. The old city beneath, known as Evernight, experienced rain in a much different fashion.
Channels captured and directed most water that fell to scrubbers before being sent to storage tanks positioned all over the region. The rest flowed through cracks in the deck in drops or cascades. It left Evernight with a permanent layer of grime that never washed away.
The rush of sound from the rain muffled the constant sounds of traffic, sirens, screams, and other urban sounds the dome reflected to the ground. In a section with low buildings, a man wearing a duster and baseball cap carrying a small plastic cooler walked into a storefront within a singular five-story structure. The interior was plain but clean and sterile. Small doorbells chimed.
"Welcome to Bennie's Body and Bling Emporium, Insert Citizen Name Here!" The storefront automaton's cheery greeting only added to its comical, surreal appearance — propped against the counter as if it were drunk. "How may I service you today?"
The man arched an eyebrow. "'Service' me?" He shook his head with a grin. "Bennie! Your robot wants to 'service' me! You know I prefer women," he called out with amusement in his thick Russian accent. "Real women. You give me squeamish feelings!"
The man of Asian descent emerged from the back, laughing. "Viktor Chernovich, don't insult Old Bean. He has far better taste than the likes of you."
Viktor put a hand over his heart. "My friend, you wound me." He set the cooler down then removed his battered baseball cap and ran his fingers through dark hair bearing several threads of white. "Brenden sends his regards along with the repairs you requested." Resettling his cap, he leaned against the counter. "He said the blue eye was not worth trying to repair. You will get more from material recovery."
Bennie sighed. "Too bad. The blue was such a lovely shade." A sharp whistle summoned a crane bot from the back and he handed over the container. "Put these in the sorting room, LUU-C." The bot rolled away, taking the cooler with it. With a casual motion, Bennie switched off Old Bean. Its head dropped forward, the ill-fitting wig slipping askew. "How's business been for you, Viktor?" he asked as he opened a heavy drawer and took out a nondescript tote bag to transfer stacks of cash into as they spoke.
The Russian's expression turned sour. "Bah. I let myself get conned into a job I cannot complete."
Bennie arched an eyebrow in disbelief. "I find it hard to believe there is anything you can't accomplish. The North Bridgeton incident is legendary."
Viktor held out his hands in a helpless gesture, his shoulders hunched up. "It sounded easy! Find a webrunner. Put them in touch with the client's representative webrunner." He pulled out a flask, tipping it back. "Not a single webrunner will take it. Word gets out I screwed up a job, my reputation as a fixer tanks. No idea if I could rebuild it."
Dark eyes sparkled with keen interest. "You are looking for a webrunner, hmm? Who is the client? If I may ask."
"Someone who calls herself 'the Queen.'"
Bennie stopped and stared at him. "Are you kidding? The Queen?"
Viktor looked surprised and perplexed at the normally unflappable body shop owner's reaction. "What? You know her?"
"Them," Bennie corrected. "They don't claim a gender for themselves. And yes, of course. Anyone with even the most minor bit of tech installed has heard of the Queen. If only as the proverbial monster under the bed, able to reach through the interweb and stop your heart."
Viktor frowned. "Yeah?"
Bennie sighed, shaking his head at Viktor's naiveté as he shifted the stacks in the bag to make room for more. "Honestly, Viktor, you should make an attempt to understand what life is like for those of us with embedded tech. You have no clue the dangers people face when they have embedded tech."
"Well, of course I have no clue. No tech, no connect." The man crossed his arms with pseudo bravado. "So, educate me. What is so terrible?"
Bennie smirked at him. "When you get tech embedded, you are opening yourself up to outside influence. You are tracked from near birth to death, sometimes not only by the government or corporations. Even just having a mere ident chip for holding various data bits means someone could hack it, copy it, and gods forbid erase or clone it. Many people have implanted ports to experience immersive media, so they literally plug themselves in to receive sensory input beyond just audio or visual."
"Like those virtual experience places?" Viktor asked before shuddering. "They have non-plug-in versions, too. Makes my skin crawl thinking about it."
"You could say that," Viktor muttered. "Just the idea of wires being shoved in my brain bothers me." He shook himself. "So ... what? Does not explain why none of the webrunners I work with will take the gig. Until now, nothing I brought them spooked them and I had gotten a lot of weird requests over the years."
"Webrunners connect to the interweb on a whole different level than most people. For them, they use an interface that interprets the entire interweb as a virtual world for their minds, but that level of immersion has consequences. Specifically, they can suffer physical damage if something injures them while on a webrun. And it can kill them because what the mind believes the body echoes."
Viktor frowned. "The Queen is a ...?"
"Ever hear the idiom 'gods in the machine'?"
The fixer did not look any less confused, and he crossed his arms. "Yeah. Ancient reference to dangling actors like hooked fish to be gods in plays."
Bennie laughed. "Well, yes, that is the original definition; however, the Queen is damned close to being a literal god in the machine. Some rumors claim they are not a human but some synthetic intelligence. They aren't, but they have been webrunning for more than a decade. Just the amount of knowledge they gather is terrifying, much less what they can do in the real world through the interweb." He zipped up the tote and leaned forward, lowering his voice. "Imagine if your life depended on your embedded tech and someone took control."
Viktor turned a sick pale at the concept. "Something like that is possible?"
The other man nodded. "Not just possible. There are several whose deaths have been linked to interference from the interweb. Nigh impossible to trace after the deed has been done." He straightened and continued on. "Most consider an encounter with the Queen near certain death. If not immediate death, then later in some bizarre, horrific manner."
"Well, fucking hell, that is just great." The fixer sighed. "Not looking forward to having to rebuild my reputation." He shook his head, reaching for the bag. "Thanks, Bennie. Least I know the shitstorm I am in for."
The shop owner held the bag, stopping Viktor from leaving. "You need a webrunner to complete this deal? Someone who wouldn't shy away from the Queen?"
"Yeah." He frowned, suspicious. "And?"
"If you have the balls for it, I know just the webrunner you need." He answered the silent question. "Ravenhawk."
Viktor's eyes went wide. "You want me to approach Cybercorps' fucking rogue murder machine? Are you insane?"
"Viktor," Bennie chided. "Think about it. Ravenhawk has been loose for a year." He leaned on the counter with crossed arms. "Hear of any murder sprees by rampaging synths?" The other man frowned, guardedly thoughtful. Bennie pointed out, "She has made no deposits since she got loose, but she was one of my best resources."
The fixer stared. "You did business with it?"
"For many years. Some of the cleanest kills and she was very respectful. Only ever killed one customer, and that idiot tried to attack her while she was standing right there." Bennie pointed at the floor where Viktor stood. "Clean kill, even apologized for it."
The Russian glowered, grinding his teeth. "So, the murder machine is for hire."
Bennie showed all his teeth as he smiled. "You don't know until you ask." He laughed at Viktor's rude gesture. "Seriously though. If you do not threaten her, she will not hurt you. Ravenhawk will try to scare you off. Most flee or attack when she postures. She will take notice if you do neither."
The other swore under his breath. "Feh. Why the hell not? Dying is less work than rebuilding my rep. Not like I am not used to facing death." He exhaled. "Where do I find it?"
"The North Sandrean ruins. The scavengers have been finding most of the cyber hunter wreckage with her signature damage for the past six months from there." He called out in a singsong fashion, "Happy hunting!" then laughed at the rude gesture the fixer tossed over his shoulder as he left.
* * *
FEET CRUNCHED through the debris of broken glass and crumbled concrete, the rubble of the twin catastrophes of natural disaster and human neglect. The sunlight filtering through gray overcast skies did not lend itself to illuminating the deep shadows of abandoned buildings or the slumped walls of those that had collapsed. A gust of wind sent a plume of dust spinning across the expanse of fractured asphalt and set the tall figure's long coat fluttering around his legs.
Viktor paused, removing his baseball cap to run fingers through his hair, offering a sour look to the synthetic raven that settled on an outcropping of a concrete wall nearby. "I swear, if Darcy is leading me on a wild-goose chase, Brenden," he grumbled in his heavy Russian accent, leaving off the promised result of his threat.
Light glinted off metal feathers, a blue internal glow flashing within its synthetic eyes. It looked to the side, projecting a hologram of limited detail. "I told you dozens of times before, Viktor. Webrunners are hard to find when they are human. You are trying to find a sentient machine that acts like a webrunner and is a skinhacker that kills anything and everything that crosses its path."
"I have it on good authority it is more than just a machine," Viktor replied, running his fingers through his hair again in a habitual, nervous motion before putting his cap back on. "Bennie says it can be reasoned with."
"And Bennie," Brenden replied in an acerbic voice, "is insane."
"Bennie," Viktor responded in a voice mimicking Brenden's tone, "is respected in the upper and lower cities. No one crosses him, not even those corporate prats running the government. I do not care if he is insane; the man is connected. If he said it is possible to hire a rogue synth, I am willing to try. You know what the job I need it for is." The hologram spat a rude comment before it shut off, and the raven took to the air again. Viktor muttered, "Besides, I would rather die than have my reputation as a fixer tarnished with failure. I am getting too old to start over again."
Viktor followed the meandering flight path of the mechanical avian down the concrete ravines for several more minutes. It landed atop a stack of fallen concrete and rebar slabs framing an opening into a darkness so deep, the daylight could not penetrate it. He stopped short, staring at it then up at the raven as it tapped the side of the slab it sat on with repeated insistence. "You want me to go in there? Are you insane?" The robotic avian cocked its head, turning one eye on him. He sighed. "Of course you do. And yes, you are."
Viktor took several minutes to gather his nerve before he forced himself to enter the pitch blackness. He froze at the sound of sliding metal hissing followed by the tink of something locking in place. A shudder ran through him as a prick of metal bit the flesh of his throat just above his Adam's apple. "Ah, you ... must be Ravenhawk." The man kept his voice from quavering too much and kept his pants dry. "Pleasure to meet you." As his vision adjusted, he could see the cybernetic woman standing kitty-corner to him in the dim light.
Her eyes narrowed at his words and she scanned him with a faint frown. "You have no cybernetics."
"Ah, no. I do not. That a problem?"
"I have never seen a human without even a single monitor chip in their flesh." The cyborg narrowed her eyes on him again. "It is illogical for Cybercorps to send hunters that cannot at least equal me in physical functionality. Do they think to use me as their personal executioner?"
The man blinked at the vague hint of bitterness in the question but forced himself to focus on the immediate danger to himself. "Would be if I was one. I am not." When her hostile expression did not change, he added in a rushed afterthought, "I do not work for them, either."
The silence stretched out for several minutes until the sound of the data spike retracting echoed in the chamber. "Leave."
Viktor felt his muscles twitch with a keen desire to obey the order and flee while he still lived. However, his faith in Benjamin Ouran's assurances and his pride kept him in place. "You have not asked why I, a normal human, am here."
The cyborg's cold gaze focused on him with inhuman intensity. "Why you are here is irrelevant. You do not want to be here. Leave." She turned to go deeper into the warren of the collapsed rubble.
It was Viktor's turn to frown. "Look, I came here to talk." She looked at him over her shoulder, the silver of the metallic half of her face giving her an even more alien appearance. "My name is Viktor Chernovich."
"Unnecessary information," she responded, her tone clipped. "Leave."
Indignant, he crossed his arms, his fingers resting on his biceps to prove he was not reaching for any weapon. "I thought you were the Ravenhawk." The click of a gun port opening on her arm echoed in the darkness. He swallowed but held his ground. "Everyone talks about the Ravenhawk as this lethal murder machine and that crossing its path is like the old superstitions of bad luck from black cats."
"I kill," she stated in a measured tone, an edge of irritation coloring it to Viktor's surprise, "those who threaten my survival. You are harmless."
"Well, I would not say I am completely harmless," he replied, then held his hands up in a gesture of surrender. "But I am not here to harm you."
"Why are you here and why do you not leave?" Her heavy metallic footsteps showed the ground had been swept clean, nothing crunching under her feet until she reached him. "You are in more danger than I am."
"I need a webrunner. Bennie said you are the best, so —"
"Benjamin Ouran? The owner of the Body and Bling Emporium?" Ravenhawk blinked once, then stared at the palm of her left hand for several moments before looking up, her eyes focused over his shoulder. The sound of the raven's squawk came moments after she grabbed Viktor's shoulder and shoved him to the side so hard he slid several feet before the wall stopped him. Debris from a small missile exploding where she had been standing showered him. In a daze, he watched her figure disappear through the entrance as she bolted outside.
Against his better judgment, he crawled toward the entrance and stared as four cybercops called hunters — humans with so little of their original bodies left they hovered on the edge of cyber-madness — attempted to surround Ravenhawk. Bullets of such high caliber institutions argued whether they qualified as rocket shells showered the ground around the cybernetic woman. The cyborg dodged them with such grace Viktor would have sworn she had a supernatural ability to foresee where they would strike and thus avoid them.
She grabbed a steel rod that had once been embedded in concrete as support and flung it at one hunter. The chunk of concrete still on it caved in his chest, the steel rod still having enough momentum to penetrate the chestplate. Crimson blossomed around the crack the concrete had made as he collapsed in a heap. She had not even paused to watch whether her strike had been effective, instead sprinting toward another mound of a collapsed building, leaping up the jagged face by creating handholds or footholds if there were none already there.
Viktor's mouth dropped open when, instead of fleeing, Ravenhawk leapt at the nearest of her attackers in a dive worthy of an Olympic event, driving the data spike through her victim's head. The maneuver twisted her arm as she landed and attempted to roll back to her feet, her hand still lodged in the armored skull of the second dead hunter. She raised her other arm at the remaining two, her open gun port gleaming in the overcast light. The remaining two turned and fled.
"Fucking hell," Viktor muttered as he staggered out of the urban cavern. Ravenhawk turned a narrow-eyed look to him. "I did not know anything could take those down."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Ravenhawk"
Copyright © 2019 Lexy Wolfe.
Excerpted by permission of BHC Press.
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