Chapter One

Bullets in 2070 aren’t made of metal. Most of them aren’t anyway. Most bullets - and as far as I could tell the one lodged in Vasili’s liver right now - are made of high-density polymer, solid-state when racked in the magazine or fed from the bandolier, then searing-hot plasma as they pick up speed just before slamming home and bursting and cooling into shards halfway through your guts. Cooling in your blood. Not at all designed to leave exit wounds. Only ruin. And a corpse.

I was panting, my back pressed against the chrome-polished wall of Inari’s DataVault, the sweat soaking through my best white shirt, my best black suit, dripping down the single lock of hair I always kept long in front of my face.

“Vas! You’re still breathing, Vas.” It wasn’t a question. But whether I said it to reassure him or myself, I wasn’t so sure.

“We’re getting outta here, Vas.”

It wasn’t the truth, but what else do you say to someone you know when they’re dying? What feeling can you hope to create in them before they’re gone? Why did I actually care? Because I didn’t, not really. I didn’t want to care.

Vasili sucked in a breath, it gurgled in his throat, he only got it halfway down before the reflexes in his lungs kicked the air back out. Blood stained his teeth, dribbled black from the corners of his mouth, pattered on his lap. Vas was a good-looking guy. Blonde, tight-bodied, tall. Not a mod or an augment or a jack on him, far as I could see. I’d be into him probably, if I was into guys at all. But now I’d never get a chance to tell him. Now he was just a fucking mess. He was slouched against the opposite wall, on the other side of the inner vault chamber, the wide open corridor leading to the rest of InariCorp’s impenetrable information fortress between us, our only way out.

His only way out, anyway.

He wiped the blood on the sleeve of his brown suit. Waste of fine linen. His voice was shallow, barely a whisper that rose over the InariSec comm-chatter echoing from the corridor, but I heard him all right.

“Shin… You out?”

Was that an accusation? I hadn’t told anyone - no, not true, I’d told only Ben. How could Vas know? Did Ben fucking betray me? Who else in the Syndicate knew? All the other guys in our Cell were dead further in the vault, churned to soup from the inside-out by InariSec’s plastic fucking bullets. Had the Cell told Vas? Who the fuck else knew?

While the response stuck in my throat, I watched Vas lift his baby-blue eyes up to mine. With some effort, he smiled at me, then dropped his gaze to the revolver in my hand. That’s when I knew what he really meant. I depressed the thumbprint lock and let the eight-chambered cylinder fall open and counted its lone resident. One bullet. Antique. Metal. I once thought to fashion myself a real cowgirl with this heavy thing. Why not? Don’t like who the world made you? Be someone else.

So fucking stupid.

“Not out. Not yet.”

The grating, open-channel comms chatter got louder, punctuated with rubber-soled thumps down the corridor. This was supposed to be easy. A high-level job for sure if you were just some Time-Fiend itching for the money to score your next hit, some off-grid no-name wastrel coming in off the street, but with the high-level recon and taps we’d had in place, raiding Inari’s data vault was supposed to be yasashii - easy, a sake-run. Our SynCell had been planning this for months. Feikes got the call on the last day of summer and we’d done nothing else but work through the routines ever since. And for what? Who was on the other end of that call? A-Matter? Tenjin? Fuji-Rai? Any of the other dozens of Megacorps in the borders of Osaka? Who cares who. Just some corp trying to fuck over some other corp for some slight, real-world, simulated, or misinterpreted. The sprawling city at large, the rest of Japan that wasn’t already ash, and all the little worker-bee salarymen and jin read about it in the manufactured news as “insider trading” or something, something as equally misleading. But we - The Syndicates and the Cells we operated in - we were the drones, the soldiers in the queen-bees’ proxy wars. The criminal elements they paid handsomely under the table to steal information, schematics, proprietary codes, and powerful technology from their competitors. And we - Vasili, Ben, me, and hell even Feikes himself - we were expendable. What kind of public relations nightmare would megacorps unleash if they sent their well armed and armored (and clearly branded) security forces to raid one another? The half-human cybernetic zombies I could hear drawing closer even now.

I didn’t need to tell Vasili how many bullets I had left. Even though half the life had already gone out of his eyes, he could read me well enough. He knew.

“Get over here and do us both, ya fucking cunt.” On the end of that, I caught the edge of the Aussie accent he’d been trying to suppress. I hadn’t gotten to know Vas well enough since I’d known him to bother asking why he wanted so bad to lose that part of his identity. I hadn’t bothered to get to know anyone since signing up with the Syndicate, come to think of it. But Vas knew me well enough to know that I fucking hated it when the guys called me a cunt. Was he trying to goad me into blowing his head to pieces? Probably. But, call it pity for a dying man, I didn’t. Not right away, anyhow.

“What do you want me to do exactly?”

“Oh… I dunno, Shin. Let’s put our heads together.” Vasili’s eyelids fluttered as he turned away, his body rerouting all its remaining strength to lift a smile to his face and his bloody index finger to his temple. “Kkhaa-poosh!” He breathed the sound so softly.

“They’re close now, Vas. You hear ‘em? I won’t make it over there.”

“Know what they do when they catch you? InariSec?”

Why bother telling him I did…

“They’ll put you back together,” he went on. “All the parts that matter. The ones that may know something, ya know… And then they take you apart again piece by piece. Til you give it up… Don’t let ‘em take us, Shin. Please.”

He had me this time, and he didn’t even have to call me a cunt. I considered the final bullet. With the one hand I slammed it home and reactivated the revolver. And without even thinking the other felt through my suit’s inside pocket, my fingers finding the familiar object they were after.

“I’m sorry, Vas.”

The boots drew closer, then stopped. On the blueprints in my head, I saw the InariSec squad parked against the massive steel door, only ten meters away. Their chatter had dropped. The vault was as still as the graveyard.

“Don’t be.” He opened his eyes to tell me with more than his fading voice. I guess it was supposed to be some kind of moment for him, but he laughed when he saw me fixated on the old Shinto charm I held, its worn red ribbon laced delicately between my fingers. “Ha!” The sound was more cough than laugh, bringing up a fresh spray of black. “Didn’t know you were religious.”

“I’m not.”

Then, everything happened at once.

I pressed the charm tight in my fist.

I swung about. The revolver roared and the bullet lanced through Vasili’s skull and slammed against the far wall. Before the line of brains and blood had even drawn itself across the floor, before the resonant sound could even fully crash against against my eardrums, the high-pitched tingling of the flashbang counted down its final ping and exploded in a concussive white flood.

Fuck it, I’ve had worse. I remember thinking that, just before the rest.

Then the bullets came. Polymer patented by Hachiman Megacorp itself, the real Japanese God of War. They tore my body to shreds from the inside out. The pain was absolutely exquisite. The first rounds landed in my brain, the plastic shards blocking the neuron pathways so completely that I couldn’t even register the full sensation of the other rounds that riddled the rest of my flesh. Little stars were born in bright-hot space between my organs. Like I said before, there were no exit wounds.

Amid the swirling smoke and the deafening gunfire, I assumed my body must’ve dropped to the DataVault floor.

Amid the chaos that followed, I assumed the boots drew up around the spot where the killing machines expected to find it. And there must’ve been some kind of algorithms jacked into overload when neither the synthetic nor the organic halves of their brains could reconcile the fact I simply was not there.