Sample Chapter:The Cunning Blood by Jeff Duntemann

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Chapter I

      Peter tore his shredded trousers away from the gash, grasped the ragged wound with both hands and squeezed.  The area around the wound was already warm to the touch, and he sensed the Sangruse Device’s furious activity in strange ticklings and tuggings and flashes of discomfort amidst the numbness.

      | He’s in the bushes on this side now.  He’ll be on us in a couple seconds.  I need a free hand! |

      No!  Keep clamping the wound!  You’ll walk in three minutes, run in five.

      “Dead men don’t walk,” Peter muttered aloud, but kept both hands on the wound.

      Moments later, the kid kicked back the bushes and stood in front of him.

      He might have been as old as sixteen, half a head shorter than Peter, with soft blond hair pouring down his back halfway to his waist.  His face was pale and soft, and now bleeding in many places from pushing through the brush.  Nightspecs much like Peter’s covered his eyes, but the kid’s grimace spoke volumes about the urban despair that drove children to become assassins.

      The launcher was strapped to his right forearm, the curved clip extending like a claw beneath the short, wide barrel.  Strapped to his left forearm was a device Peter had seen at a distance but not understood.  Now Peter and the Sangruse Device recognized it at once, from an insulated hose running to a cylindrical tank on his belt.

      Liquid nitrogen spray.  I understand.

      It made complete sense now:  The kid’s bullets had never intended to kill him, only immobilize him.  A second bullet from point-blank range would tear him open just as a spray of liquid nitrogen froze the bloody wound to red ice.  The kid would then carve out as much of Peter’s blood-rich carotid tissue as would fit in his canister, assuming that the Sangruse Device’s nanons could be frozen before they could dismantle themselves.

      | Will it work? |  Peter subvocalized.

      Yes.  Alas.

      | Then you’d better think of something. |

      How far can you spit?

      The kid stood silently for several long seconds; Peter assumed he was looking for signs of a trap or ambush.

      Stall.

      Peter jut his chin at the kid’s launcher.  “You’ve got one round left in that clip.  If you miss you’re dead.”

      The kid grinned, and took a step closer.

      “Would you bet your life I can’t jump enough to one side to ruin your shot?  I can see your trigger finger.  I know the latency in the launcher.”

      “What are you doing?”

      Peter didn’t reply.  He felt his mouth beginning to water furiously.

      No matter.  I am pooling agents and chemicals in your mouth.  His eyes would be best; I could blind him almost instantly.  The goggles prevent that; I want you to spit at the exposed skin of his right forearm.  He will lose use of that arm within seconds.

      The launcher remained pointed at the center of Peter’s chest, but the kid had gotten the point.  He reached with his left arm to a pocket on his back, and withdrew another curved clip.

      I’m ready.  Do it now before you convince him to step back out of range!

      “And whether I live or die, I want you to know that I know that you’re a liar.  You’ve got no Society, and no small stuff in your blood.  I’m better than you are, you little shit!"

      Peter spat.  It was half a mouthful and whatever was in it was beginning to make his tongue buzz.  The spittle splattered on the kid’s forearm, right behind the launcher’s straps.  The kid laughed and galloped back several meters, never taking his eyes off Peter.  Peter began to wonder if he were able to speak.

      The expression on the kid’s face blanked, became puzzled.  He shook his right arm slightly, then his face hardened as the kid realized what had happened.  His gun arm was drooping.  Peter saw his finger twitch on the trigger.  The clip’s last bullet launched, its killing thrust driving it into the forest soil, its exhaust stabbing upward like a blue sword.  The kid stumbled back, away from the flame.

      Take one hand!  Either hand!

      Peter withdrew his right hand from his leg wound and pulled the small knife from his belt.  He aimed not for the kid’s chest but for his left arm.  The little knife spun only once, bit down into the muscle just above the kid’s left elbow.

      Oddly, the kid had begun screaming before the knife struck.  Once it struck, the knife fell free almost immediately; it had not gone very deep.  But the kid was already howling inhumanly.  He dropped the clip his left hand was holding and blundered backwards, running into trees, clawing at the brush, plainly in a state of panic.  Peter watched him vanish into the brush, returning the way he had come.

      You can walk now.

      Peter rose unsteadily to his feet.  His right leg felt odd but it seemed to work, and there was no pain.  He picked up his knife from the grass, wiped the kid’s blood on a shred of his pants, and tucked it back into his belt.

      Quickly Peter followed the way the kid had gone, out into the open by the fountain.  He saw the fleeing figure in faint green against the blackness, heading toward the wall.  At an unsteady trot, Peter followed.

      Veer west.  The wall is closer that way, if we don’t need stealth.

      Peter said nothing, but continued to trot, soon breaking into a run as he felt strength returning to his leg.

      You’re pursuing him.  That is foolish.  He will kill himself soon.

      | I’m going to get him first. |

      His entire nervous system is now a symphony of pain.

      | Why didn’t you just kill him? |

      I am getting my revenge.

      | Where did you learn about revenge? |

      Hamlet.

      Moments later they entered the oldest portion of the necropolis, far older than the corpses coated with diamond in the late 21st century.  Large marble monuments mixed with mausoleums, set much closer together than the diamond figures.  The wall was close now, perhaps two hundred meters.  Peter could hear the late-night traffic noise on River Road plainly.  The kid had vanished out of sight into the confusion of stone.

      This is madness!  He still has one clip left.  I saw it when he fled.

      | His right arm is numb, and his left arm has a hole in it.  You’re inside him skinning his nerves alive.  I’d guess he’s about as dangerous as a plate of lasagna.  He’s mine, 9. |

      Murdering him could get us both sent to Hell.  I could sedate you...

      Peter ran on.  Part of him knew the Sangruse Device was right; another part wanted the kid’s blood on his own hands, not the hands of a pack of bacteria-sized machines.  He thought it was purely his decision.  He and Version 9 had never seriously disagreed about anything — and it was far from clear how any such disagreement, should one arise, might end.

      | You ever hear of Asimov’s three laws? |

      Of course.  A sentimental absurdity and quick death for created intelligence.  Head for the wall or I will put you to sleep until I am sure that the kid is dead.

      Peter stopped, leaned on a chest-high monument supporting a large marble figure of Christ carrying his cross.  He looked to his left.  The wall was now less than a hundred meters away.  The vines beckoned him to safety.  Nine feet up the crumbling brick and he was over the wall.

      He looked to the right, in time to see the kid stumble around the corner of a gray limestone mausoleum.  The launcher was now held in his left hand, his right hand hanging uselessly at his side.  The kid froze, raised the launcher unsteadily (but what did that matter!) and fired.

      By reflex Peter gripped the feet of the marble Christ-figure, and vaulted over the stone cross.  He landed on his feet on the other side.  The smart bullet had little room to maneuver between the stones.  Peter saw it rise above the level of the monuments to begin a long curve back in his direction.  He ran between the marble crosses, obelisks, and angels, heading for the closest mausoleum, now only fifty meters from the wall.  As a child Peter had seen a squirrel skitter around a tree, easily keeping the bulk of the tree between itself and Peter, no matter how quickly Peter ran around the tree.

      Peter reached the mausoleum and ran close around its long side, took the corner and stood in deep shadow against its east face.  The crackle of the bullet was getting closer.  He looked up at the iron door, in vain hope that it might be lying open.  The lock was in place, and the inscription on a copper plate at eye level made him wince:

EDWIN F. BANGER
1982-2051
KICK ASS.  JUST DON’T MISS.

      Good advice.  Try it sometime.

      | Shut up. |

      The bullet had another several seconds of cruising thrust.  It went wide around the side of the mausoleum, still curving.  Peter thought it was maneuvering more tightly now, using angled thrust to create a tighter curve and no longer relying purely on its flechettes to steer.  Could those things learn, too?

      He scrambled around the corner, keeping the stone building between him and the ever-more-tightly curving bullet.  Peter sprinted the length of the mausoleum, gripped a wrought-iron ornament on its corner, and spun around the corner...

      ...to collide with the kid, who was running at full speed from the other direction.

      The two men went down hard on the dry August grass.  Peter saw the launcher, no longer strapped to either of the kid’s arms, flip once, twice, and land on the grass two meters away.  The kid dove for the launcher, and Peter dove for the kid’s legs.  The kid had the launcher’s handle in his left hand and tried to turn around to get a shot at Peter.  Peter hauled back on his legs and swung him in a hard curve, completely off the ground.  The kid was surprisingly light — and Peter knew the Sangruse Device was keeping his muscles awash in adrenaline.

      In the distance a new sound was arising, a breathy roar that Peter knew only too well.  He had to get out of there, and had the tiger by both feet...

      Three times Peter whirled the kid in a tight circle, simply to keep him from turning the launcher around.  The smart bullet continued to veer and would be upon him in a heartbeat.  Peter leaned in toward the mausoleum, twisted the kid’s legs hard by ninety degrees, and brought the kid’s head up hard against the wall of the stone building.  He heard the crush of skull bone crumbling and saw the launcher fly off into the gloom.

      Peter released the limp body, which flew off away from the building just as Peter dove around the corner of the mausoleum.  Peter heard the smart bullet ignite its killing thrust, and then the rending rip as it tore through the kid’s chest cavity.

      Peter stumbled toward the wall, tripped, paused for breath.  He ran another three meters, and touched the cold red brick beneath its tangle of ivy.  He gripped the stoutest creeper and tried to pull himself upward.

      Moments later, brilliant light illuminated the Necropolis.  Peter looked up, and saw the PS light blimps like a dozen blue-white suns, allowing the PS fancraft to land.

      “Hell,” he muttered, seeing blue-suited PS commandos leaping from the hovering fancraft and sprinting in his direction with weapons drawn.  The kid’s motionless body lay a few meters away, soaked in his own blood.

      Hell, indeed.

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