Andromeda McKee rebuilt her life in the violent embrace of the Legion of the Damned in the days when cyborgs were first being introduced. Now she must choose between her conscience and her desire for vengeance...
In a different world, Lady Catherine “Cat” Carletto would never have left her pampered life behind. But when Princess Ophelia became Empress Ophelia in a coup that claimed the lives of the princess’s brother and all who supported him, including the Carletto family, Cat had to hide—or die.
She became Legionnaire Andromeda McKee, and now she’s a battle-scarred veteran who knows how to kill.
Summoned to Earth to receive the Imperial Order of Merit from the empress herself, Andromeda learns that she isn’t the sole surviving Carletto—her uncle Rex is not only still alive but also the leader of a resistance group determined to overthrow Ophelia.
Caught up in a web of intrigue, Andromeda realizes that the moment is coming when her revenge will be at hand. But will she be able to act, or will she be betrayed by those she has come to trust?
Whence it is to be noted that a prince occupying a new state should see to it that he commit all his acts of cruelty at once so as not to be obliged to return to them every day, and thus, by abstaining from repeating them, he will be able to make men feel secure . . .
The room was large enough to accommodate a hundred people if necessary. Harsh lights threw short shadows from above, the walls were bulletproof, and a large drain marked the exact center of the concrete floor.
The televised executions took place every Monday at exactly 3:00 p.m. And although Chico Martinez didn’t want to watch, he always had, even though the sight of fifty or sixty people being murdered made him ill. It wasn’t unusual to see women holding their babies, children playing on the floor, or old people strapped into their hover chairs. Some stone-faced, some crying, some praying. All guilty of what? Making a critical remark to a government informer? Spray-painting an antigovernment slogan onto a wall? Or spitting on an image of the Empress? Yes. All such offenses were punishable by death.
The images were intended to frighten the population into doing whatever Empress Ophelia wanted them to do—and, for the most part, the strategy had been successful. But there were those, Martinez among them, who were sickened by the executions and determined to stop them. So he joined the underground, took part in two flash-mob protests, and had been caught in spite of the hoodie he wore.
How? That was the sad part. His sister had sold him out. For money? For suck points? Martinez didn’t know. And with only seconds of life left it didn’t matter. He was the one standing in the execution chamber this time. And as the synths entered the room, there was nothing he could do other than control the way he died.
The thought caused Martinez to elbow his way up to the front rank. Millions were watching, he knew that, so he waited until the robots had raised their weapons before ripping his shirt open. Blood had been used to paint the words onto his chest. His blood. And during the last few seconds of his life, Martinez had the satisfaction of knowing that people all around the world would see them. The robots fired, and Martinez fell.
Bright sunlight slanted in through tall windows to splash the floor of the beautifully decorated room. Both Ophelia’s father and brother Alfred had both been in love with the summer residence in the Rockies. But the so-called sky castle had very little appeal for Ophelia—who preferred to live in the ancient city of Los Angeles. And that’s where she was, sitting cross-legged on the floor, spending some quality time with her five-year-old son Nicolai.
He was a bright boy, with tousled hair and inquisitive eyes. The wall screen was on, and as the synths prepared to execute fifty-seven of Ophelia’s citizens, one of them ripped his shirt open. Ragged-looking letters were visible on his bare chest. “FF,” Nicolai said. “What does that mean?”
Ophelia felt a surge of anger as the synths opened fire. Someone should have checked. Someone was going to pay. “It means he was a traitor,” she said. “A bad man who would kill us if he could.”
Nicolai stared at the screen as the last person fell. He wasn’t shocked. Why would he be? At his mother’s insistence, he’d been watching the Friday afternoon executions for months. Because, as she put it, “A future emperor must be strong.”
“Why?” Nicolai wanted to know. “Why do they want to kill us?”
“Because they want what we have,” Ophelia answered simply. “They want our money, our possessions, and our power.”
Ophelia watched as one of her functionaries appeared on the screen—and began to talk about the need to support the government, especially during a time of war. “The Hudathans attacked Orlo II,” he said sternly. “And they would have won had it not been for Empress Ophelia and her leadership.”
That wasn’t strictly true since Ophelia hadn’t been there, but it was fair. She had sent the Legion to Orlo II to put down a revolt—and they’d been able to stop the Hudathans. Nicolai turned to look at her. She could see something of his father in the boy’s eyes. Not her secretary, as many people assumed, but a man selected based on a lengthy list of qualifications. A man who had been killed three months into her pregnancy lest he try to influence the boy later on. “Mother?”
“The copies make my head hurt.”
Ophelia felt a surge of guilt but pushed it away. Her brother had been weak. Too weak for an emperor. Nicolai would be strong and, thanks to the digitized personalities that had been downloaded into his brain, he would be wise beyond his years. Unfortunately, the eight minds with whom the boy was forced to coexist could be quite contentious at times. And their arguments gave him headaches. “I’m sorry,” Ophelia said sympathetically. “But your advisors were great men and women. Later, when you’re all grown-up, you’ll be grateful for them. But right now you have something important to do.”
Nicolai looked hopeful. “Can I ride my pony?”
Ophelia stood and offered her hand. “Yes, you can.”
Nicolai took her hand, and, together, they walked through a pair of French doors and out into the bright sunshine.
Rex Carletto lived in the Deeps, the name given to the levels of habitat below the city of Los Angeles, and the streets that were controlled by the government. There had been two attempts to “sanitize” the labyrinth of underground nightclubs, casinos, and brothels during the last few months, but neither one had been successful. The invaders had been no match for the denizens of the Deeps, who had consistently outmaneuvered them. The result was an uneasy standoff in which the authorities controlled what went on aboveground and what the government called the “criminal element” continued to hold sway down below.
That made the Deeps the perfect place for rebels like Rex, a man who was number 2998 on the government’s death list and had been forced into hiding. The Deeps weren’t safe however. Far from it. The warren of dives, weapons dealers, and sweatshops was lousy with lice, meaning men and women willing to sell a reb for some suck points or a handful of credits.
So as Rex exited the flophouse where he had spent the previous night, he paused to look around. There were no municipal authorities or taxes in the Deeps, so there were very few services. Just those that the owners of various businesses saw fit to provide because doing so benefited them. So the streets were littered with trash, and rats were a common sight.
But Rex was worried about a different kind of vermin. That’s why his hand strayed to the cross-draw holster as he eyed the people in the immediate vicinity. Two drunks were staggering toward a bar, a prostitute in a Day-Glo dress was lighting a dope stick, and the beggar two doors down was looking his way.
Rex stuck a hand into his pocket, gathered all of the coins there, and dumped them into the beggar’s cup as he passed by. She was little more than a head, a torso, and one mechanical arm. An ex-soldier perhaps, or an accident victim, left to rot. All because they couldn’t afford one of the civ forms that wealthy people wore like suits of clothes. Forms designed and manufactured by his brother before the purge.
Rex made his way down the street, crossed over to a pedestrian ramp, and joined the flow of foot traffic up to L-2. It was more commercial than L-3 and, therefore, better lit. Multicolored signs strobed, crawled, and oozed over every surface, including the pavement beneath his feet. Ironically enough, the power required to keep the underworld running was obtained by tapping into LA’s grid. And if Ophelia wanted to stop the practice, she’d have to send another army down into the Deeps.
There were a lot more people on the street compared to the level below. And that represented both a comfort and a threat as Rex passed a garish tattoo parlor and sidestepped a black-robed Sayer. The robot damned him to hell as he walked away. I’m already in hell, Rex thought as he entered what had once been the Hollywood and Vine subway station.
Rex’s bodyguards seemed to materialize out of thin air. An emaciated-looking young woman with big eyes, biosculpted ears, and a love of cold steel appeared first. She was known as Elf and claimed that she could communicate with the dead.
Hiram Hoke emerged from the crowd a few moments later. He was six-three, weighed 225, and was armed with a truncheon in addition to the pump-style shotgun slung across his back. Hoke’s skin was brown and covered with an intricate tracery of white tattoos. His eyes were filled with good humor, and his voice was a deep basso. “Morning boss.”
“Hey, Hoke, where’s Percy?”
“I’m right here,” a voice said from above, and when Rex looked up, he saw that the spherical cyborg was hovering over his head. Like Rex, Percy had been a member of the Legion and left during Alfred’s rule. Now, with Ophelia on the throne, he had returned to duty. Even if the Legion hadn’t been informed of it.
Rex grinned. “Okay, I’m glad you got the ARGRAV unit fixed. We were going to scrap you.”
Hoke guffawed and stopped as Percy’s laser beam touched his arm. “Ow! That hurt.”
“Grow up,” Elf put in crossly. “I thought we had a meeting to attend.”
“Yup,” Rex said, “we do. We’re scheduled for a sit-down with the Sayers and the Combine. There’s no way in hell that the Freedom Front will be able to bring Ophelia down all by itself.”
“But the Sayers are growing more powerful every day,” Percy observed, “and the Combine is making money hand over fist. Why would they cooperate?”
“Because the present standoff won’t last forever,” Rex said. “And they know that. It’s only a matter of time before Ophelia finds a way to root them out.”
“Enough already,” Elf said impatiently. “Let’s get on with it.”
Percy led the way as the group passed a fountain that was spewing motes of multicolored light into the air and turned onto the Street of Dreams, where the most popular nightspots were located. There was the Coliseum, which was well-known for the gladiatorial battles staged there every night, and the predictably high body count. Next came the Roxy. It featured the quiet elegance of a bygone era, and cuisine so good that members of the glitterati often came down to sample it in spite of the dangers involved.
And, finally, there was the Blue Moon. Its sign consisted of a beautiful woman clad only in glitter reclining on a sliver of blue moon. The image seemed to wave at Percy as the cyborg flew past her. The nightclub’s facade had an art deco feel that was reinforced by the retro suits the doormen wore. Both were large, heavily armed, and edgy. Hoke approached them palms out. “Colonel Red is here for a meeting.”
The man on the right had slicked-back hair parted in the middle and a pair of beady eyes separated from each other by a large nose. “We’re expecting you,” he said. “The weapons stay here.”
“No, they don’t,” Hoke said flatly. “Not unless all of the other participants will be unarmed. And we would have to verify that before surrendering our weapons to you.”
Beady Eyes didn’t like that. But, after whispering into his wrist mike and listening to the reply, he opened the door. “You can go in.”
Hoke smiled beatifically as he entered the nightclub, closely followed by Percy and Rex. Elf brought up the rear, her eyes darting this way and that.
A formally attired maître d’ was waiting to receive the visitors and led them up a spiral staircase to the second floor. It was circular, and a large hole in the floor allowed guests to look down onto the stage, where a scantily clad grav dancer was performing a series of weightless pirouettes. A dozen robo spheres, each programmed to move in concert with the music, orbited the girl like planets around a sun.
Once on the second floor, the maître d’ led them between the tightly packed tables to a door marked private. A small camera was located above it. Perhaps that was why the barrier slid to one side before the maître d’ could knock on it. Another nattily dressed guard was there to greet the party as they entered.
The room was circular, and the silvery walls were lit from above. The man Rex knew to be Vas and the nameless Sayer were seated at a round table with bodyguards arrayed behind them. Those who worked for Vas wore period attire—and the Sayers were dressed in their usual head-to-toe grim-reaper outfits.
Rex spent all of ten seconds wondering if the Freedom Front should have distinctive uniforms before dismissing the idea as ridiculous. The FF was all about everyday people and was going to remain that way. “Welcome,” Vas said. “Please have a seat.”
There was no telling what Vas had looked like originally—back before what might have been a million credits worth of biosculpting. Now he resembled something from a bad dream. His head was clean-shaven, his eyes were an impossible violet color, and his nose had been reduced to little more than a bump and two slits. That, combined with skin that appeared to be lit from within, made Vas look more alien than human.
Rex took the vacant chair, knowing that his bodyguards were stationed behind him. The meeting was important, and he felt nervous. It wouldn’t do to let that show, however, so he adopted the same blank-faced look he used when playing poker. “Thanks for hosting the meeting.”
As Vas spoke, Rex saw that his teeth were filed to points. His voice was soft and well modulated. “You’re welcome. As you know, we’re here to discuss the possibility of an alliance. I suggest that we begin with short statements about the organizations we represent. Reverend Sayer? Perhaps you would be willing to speak first.”
Due to the hood she wore, only the lower part of the Sayer’s face was visible. Rex was struck by how well formed her nose and mouth were. “I walk the true path,” she said, “and others choose to follow. We believe that what has been built must fall—and when it does, spiritual balance will be restored. It is our duty to hasten that time.”
Vas nodded. “Thank you. Colonel Red?”
Rex was a wanted man. So rather than use his own name he had chosen to operate under the nom de guerre Colonel Red. A name that married his Legion rank with his favorite color on the roulette wheel. He took a deep breath. “The Freedom Front is an opposition group dedicated to overthrowing the monarchy and replacing it with a representative democracy. We believe in freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and equal rights for all sentients.”
Vas offered a toothy smile. “Including computers?”
“If they are truly sentient, yes.”
Vas nodded. “I represent the Combine, which is a group of for-profit organizations.”
“Which is to say a group comprised of criminals,” the Sayer put in.
“That’s how Ophelia sees it,” Vas said evenly. “Although her main complaint seems to be our failure to pay Imperial taxes.”
Rex chuckled. That was true. As far as he could tell, Ophelia’s motives had very little to do with traditional morality. And, to the extent that the Combine was fleecing what she considered to be her sheep, the Empress was unhappy. “So,” he said, “we have a lot in common.”
There was a loud crash as the Sayer opened her mouth to respond. Then a huge drill bit came down through the ceiling, quickly followed by a cascade of debris, dirt, and a steady stream of water. As it struck, the table shattered, causing all three participants to stand and back away. Rex had seen the technology used on enemy bunkers. But never from that perspective. “It’s a penetrator,” he announced. “Once they jerk it up and out, troops will drop through the shaft.”
There was a loud whining noise, and more dirt fell as the penetrator went into reverse and was withdrawn. Somehow, some way, Ophelia’s security people knew about the meeting and where it was being held. Then, having positioned the necessary equipment directly over the Blue Moon, they’d struck. “I think it’s time to leave,” Vas said, as he drew a pair of energy pistols. Rex had to agree. The meeting was over.
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