Within the city lives Liane, a girl trained since childhood to be an unfeeling, unthinking killing machine known as an Agent. Beautiful and deadly, Liane exists in a world of constant surveillance and brutality, living only to carry out the orders of the all-powerful Agency. This secret government organization enforces the laws of Libertas, killing anyone who threatens the tenuous peace within the country. Liane's only human contact comes in the form of her Handler, Damian, who demands perfect obedience from her and desires for them to be far more than Agent and Handler. Chafing under the rules of the Agency, Liane secretly longs for a normal life and steals away to the ruins to spend time with the mods.
But when mods begin to turn up murdered and mutilated around the city, Liane finds herself wanting to help protect the people who have been her only friends. Working alongside Seth, a young police officer on the Genetic Modification Task Force, Liane defies her Handler in an effort to find the killers. Together, Liane and Seth weave their way through the dark world of cyberpunk London, following whispers of the next genetic advancement known as the Titan Strain.
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Above the streets of London, the sun was setting in a fiery display. It brushed the horizon line made of hazy skyscrapers, coloring them in shades of burnt orange and blood red. A few splinters of sunlight pierced the thinnest layer of smoke and fog, shining feebly through the windows of the tallest apartment buildings. In one of the buildings, sprawled across the white sheets of a bed, Liane lay sleeping.
There was very little color in her flat; the carpet, walls, and furniture were all a pristine shade of white. Windows stretched across the wall on the west side of the bedroom from floor to ceiling. The blinds were raised, allowing sunlight the color of fire to creep down the wall until it fell across her face. Her eyes opened and she sat up, stretching her lean, muscled body in the dying light.
Across the room, a screen turned on with a timer, and a promo gave way to two newscasters caked in makeup and false smiles.
"Good evening, London," chirped the female. "Our top story today is the continued tension between members of the majority Libertas Party and their political opponents. Several key members of the opposition have vanished over the past weeks, with some found murdered. The Party, whose members include the Prime Minister and members of the cabinet, has been adamant that the accusations are false and the deaths tied to black-market infighting over the control of the mod serum trade ..."
As the newscaster chattered on Liane stood, pushing back her thick, long hair. It fell almost to her waist, and even in shadow it shone like ripe wheat. She walked to the windows, resting a hand against the glass to push it open. The breeze that flowed into her room was stifling and carried the acrid, familiar scent of exhaust.
She stood there for a moment, leaning against the window frame and feeling her skin grow clammy with sweat. Thirteen stories below lay the streets, already emptied of people. The only sound that rose from the city was the muted siren of a police car far in the distance.
As she closed the window she caught a glimpse of her reflection in the glass. Liane rarely paid attention to her appearance unless she had to, but she liked to look at her eyes; one blue, the other green. Heterochromia iridium, differential pigmentation of the irises. Fifty years ago, it had been unusual, but now the condition was almost extinct. The Program doctors who had monitored her childhood development had worried about that, fearing that the odd coloring of her eyes had been a sign of past head trauma. She herself had never worried, and privately she liked possessing something that made her different from the other Agents.
Liane pushed away from the window, walking to her closet. While most of her clothes were simple and classic in black and white, there was a small section of black clothing and shoes in the back corner with a distinctly street-punk look. She never went near them until nights like tonight, when there would be a full moon. Bundling up an armful of items, she went to the bathroom.
The flat was dark by the time she was dressed and ready to leave, but she didn't bother with any lights. She moved around the few pieces of furniture with perfect ease, as comfortable in the darkness as most were in daylight.
Her front door opened to a hallway as white as her flat and just as empty, save for a decorative plant placed at the end by the building staff. She pressed her thumb to the door's keypad, her face illumined by the blue glow of the scan. Once she heard the door lock, she made her way soundlessly to the stairs.
The lobby of her building was also deserted. The staff had an office hidden by a wide grey screen; one-way, of course. They could see out, but Liane had never so much as seen one staff member. It was good business these days to be ubiquitous and anonymous.
When Liane walked out into the street, the doors locked behind her. Soon the steel-paneled security door would lower, sealing the building shut until daylight.
The steady beat of her heels on the pavement was the only sound on the street. People rarely ventured outside after dark. Even during the day, they tended to stay safely within buildings or cars, anything but the open street. Too risky, even with the police patrols who were often over eager in making arrests. It was in the interest of public safety, the commissioner had argued, considering the rise in nocturnal mod activity.
Liane stepped over a battered blue flyer on the ground, glancing at it long enough to read: "Genetic Modification: The Dangers of Treatment Abuse". She lifted her head, almost able to recall every word of the flyer.
Warnings on modding were nearly everywhere, and had been since genetic modification had first appeared ten years ago. Touted as an answer for the post-war cancer crisis, modding treatments promised immediate muscle development, higher energy levels, and an increase in strength. What the manufacturer didn't explain was what the injections contained. So countless customers poured into the private clinics, each emerging fit and healthy, and didn't know that what caused the change was a veritable toxin of steroids, amphetamines, animal genetic material, and God knows what else. It didn't take long for people to notice the personality changes in the mods, the most unpleasant side effect being the urge to hunt and kill living things ... By the time the government banned it, modding was already flourishing on the black market, and outlawing it only seemed to increase its popularity. It was there, on the streets, that the process became truly imaginative. Mods could soon specify which animal they preferred and custom create their injections to best suit their needs. Some addicts used modding as it was intended, to look and feel young. Others embraced the side effects, in any number of ways. All of it was illegal now.
Liane's involvement with the mods had begun two years ago, when the activities of nocturnal mods first caught her attention. It had seemed inevitable, considering the similarity with her abilities and those of the genetic alters. She had moved among them, unnoticed as an outsider, through the groups of mods that prowled the ruins along the edges of the city. Not all of them had been pleasant; the leopard mods used their meetings as an excuse to indulge their most basic desires, and the reptile mods asked too many questions. But Liane had been patient, joining a new group as soon as she grew dissatisfied.
She turned down a long, straight road, walking down the center of the street along the white traffic line. When the pavement crumbled into bits of gravel and the electric lights no longer lit the surrounding buildings, Liane stopped and looked around. There was no sign of the police patrols, or anyone else. She turned back and started to run.
The wind whipped through her hair, and the world seemed to pass by in a blur. Her feet made no sound on the pavement, her breaths barely audible even to herself. Liane ran as fast as she could, filled with the familiar exhilarating rush that running always gave her. She could feel the strength of her body, the power of the muscles in her legs. She had clocked her running speed once, a few years ago, at fifty miles per hour. Even mods weren't that fast, which was why she always made sure she was alone before really running.
Liane came to the drop-off, where the road ended in a sheer thirty-foot cliff. She slowed her pace slightly before she jumped, and the world fell away beneath her. For a moment it felt like flying, the ruins nothing but an interesting patchwork far below. Then her feet hit the uneven group, and she almost had to skip to a stop.
Liane glanced at a nearby shell of a building to gauge her location. Her destination wasn't far, but the rest of the ground was uneven, and it was fifteen minutes before she spotted lights within one of the crumbling structures. There was a steeple and cross still standing at one end, but the four walls of the church were pocked with holes.
She walked up to the building, hands in the pockets of her jacket as she picked out the sentries from the gleam of their eyes. They were meant to be hidden, keeping an eye out for uninvited visitors, but there was one mod standing directly in the largest hole of the nearest wall. The figure was drowning in light from inner flood lamps that obscured any features, but Liane called out, "Hello, Jeanelle."
The woman stepped away from the entrance, her dark hair swinging behind her as she came out to greet Liane. "I didn't know if you would come this month. Crispin was such a shit last time."
Liane shrugged her shoulders, "He wasn't sure if I was a threat or not. We have an understanding between us now."
"Yeah — you could kick his ass, but you won't. Mind if I ask why?"
"I don't want to be alpha. It's hard enough being responsible for myself."
Jeanelle smiled and gave Liane a light slap on the shoulder. "Alright, have it your way. Go on in and enjoy yourself."
Jeanelle resumed her post by the entrance, her large dark eyes fixed on the darkened ruins. Liane walked into the church, the pure white light blinding her. She stood just inside, blinking away the green and blue afterimages and taking in the scene that met her.
The interior of the church was just as ruinous as the exterior but the largest chunks of stone and beams had been tossed along the edges of the walls, freeing up the center of what used to be the sanctuary. The whole of the space was filled with people, all of them mods who had all chosen the same animal; the wolf. The atmosphere was joyous, celebratory ... mods were laughing and talking, and everyone was moving. At the far end of the room was a group of mods absorbed in play fighting, testing their newfound strength. Another group was scaling the soaring walls, leaping up the concrete until the ceiling stopped them. Some mods were racing around the sanctuary, dodging those in their way. Over all the noise was the occasional growl or nervous yelp, animal noises that had no business coming from human throats. Liane looked at it all with mixed emotions; foremost was relief to be surrounded by people similar to her, and sadness that they weren't exactly like her. But she had to come here ... there was nowhere else for her to go.
Near her, some of the more experienced mods were loading syringes full of clear serum as nervous newcomers sat nearby. Liane shrugged off her jacket, letting it fall to the floor as she watched them.
One of the mods, a man with spiky hair and extensive black tattoos on both arms, plunged his needle into the arm muscle of a teenager. It took a moment for the serum to hit the teen, and then he hunched over, muscles contorting as snarls came from his mouth. The mod chuckled and slapped him on the back, saying, "Ride the wave, friend; just wait until you see what you'll be able to do now."
The man spotted Liane watching them, wiggling the syringe as he asked, "You need some?"
"No, thanks," Liane said, lying as she explained, "I dosed at home." Without waiting to hear his reply, she sprinted after the mods as they raced past.
She had been running for an hour, holding back just enough to avoid rousing suspicion, when she heard someone call her name. Slowing her steps gradually until the rest of the mods had passed her, Liane looked towards the sound. A muscular man with darkly tanned skin was smiling and waving to her from his seat on the old altar. She walked over to Crispin, stepping around the various mods that were resting around him. Liane was careful to stand where she wouldn't have to give anyone her back; she was good at hurting people, but a dozen mods at her back wasn't something she wanted.
Crispin looked pleased to see her, opening his arms in a gesture of welcome, "Liane — wonderful to see you again."
Liane kept her face blank, knowing that he didn't smile because he was happy. When he smiled, his whole face became more than handsome — he became magnetic. All of the mods were crazy about him, and he led them as best he could.
"You're faster than anyone else here, I think," Crispin went on, his hazel eyes fixed on her. "I'd love to see you run out in the open."
Liane glanced away; his teeth had elongated due to modding abuse, and they distracted her. "I heard the police increased the ruin patrols last week. Have the sentries seen anything?"
"Not a soul," he shook his head. "Don't worry, they'll sound the alarm if the patrols get close." His face brightened, and he asked, "You know, I've asked everyone about you. No one seems to know much about your non life. What do you do, Liane?"
Non; non modified. She thought for a moment, then said, "Odd jobs. You?"
"Oh, I'm a true pillar of the community," he grinned, causing several of the other mods to chuckle. "I uphold the law and protect the innocent. If you're ever arrested, call me; I'm good."
A lawyer ... figures. "You'd be in for it if they ever caught you," she noted.
Crispin nodded, "So would every other person here. But soon it won't be necessary to hide what we are."
"Do you know something I don't?"
He smiled, and there was something cold and nasty about it. "When there are enough of us, the nons won't be in a position to tell us what to do."
The sounds of a struggle caught Liane's attention, and she, Crispin, and the rest of the mods all turned towards the source. A huge man, a mod who called himself Ox, was coming through one of the gaps in the farthest wall. He was grinning, sweat shining on his shaved head as he tossed someone into the room and shouted to Crispin, "Look what I found outside!"
Liane crossed her arms, watching emotionlessly. The person was getting to his feet, staggering slightly from the fall. From where she was, she could make out a tanned face with high cheekbones under a mess of brown curling hair. The man drew a gun from a back holster, but Ox leapt towards him, swatting the gun aside so hard that the man's arm snapped at a wrong angle. He fell to the ground again, cradling his hurt arm. The other mods were slinking towards him, their yellowish eyes gleaming. The man realized what was happening too late, dove for his gun a second after the first mod took hold of him. They had formed a circle and were smiling and snarling as they tossed the man from one to the other, casually scratching and biting hard enough to get the taste of blood in their mouths. Playing with him. The man screamed once when a set of sharp teeth clamped on his broken arm, his neck thrown back in agony as he fought to get away from them.
Liane took several steps closer, her eyes on his face. The man looked up for a split second, his face twisted in suffering. She stopped where she was, lips parting in surprise. Heterochromia iridium ... one of his eyes was cerulean blue, the other a golden green. Just like hers.
Her ability to make snap decisions helped her now as always. The man screamed again, and Liane jumped towards the group, landing on her hands and knees beside them. Another short leap and she was in the center of the mods and crouching above the wounded man, her arms creating a protective "v" around his head. He immediately tried to push her off, striking at her stomach and torso out of fear. She stayed there, muscles tensed to absorb the blows, feeling his body twisting beneath hers even as her eyes remained on the circle of mods surrounding them. They were hesitating, unsure, though their eyes showed no tangible sign of understanding or humanity. Liane lowered her head and growled at them; that was something they understood.
The mods slunk backwards, gleaming eyes on Liane. They knew she was higher in the ever-shifting ranks, and it was her right to take away their prey. Once they had backed far enough away, Liane looked down at the man beneath her. He was watching her with his eerily mismatched eyes, blood drying in rivulets down his cheeks. The man was breathing hard, but he had stopped fighting her. She wondered if it was because he believed she wouldn't harm him, or if he was merely preparing to die.
"Can you walk?" she asked him softly, hiding her face behind a curtain of wheat-colored hair.
The man flinched when she spoke but nodded.
"I'm going to get you out of here alive if I can, but you have to do what I say."
He showed no relief, no flood of gratitude. He only said, quietly and in an oddly accented voice, "My name is Seth." He spoke like it mattered, as if all he wanted was for someone to know who he was.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Titan Strain"
Copyright © 2018 Virginia Soenksen.
Excerpted by permission of Sunbury Press Inc..
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