THE encrypted firewall looked to Connor like an enormous, shimmering ball of reddish light as he flew around it in cyberspace, gauging where its ports were located. They were blocked, of course, but the slight dimples in the surface of the sphere where data was allowed to go in and out were the most likely points where he could create a breach. There were long tubes connecting some of the ports directly to other servers, including his ultimate target. But those were generally too secure for a direct attack. If he could slip inside the server through one of these less guarded ports, he could then hop into the secure links and enter the server he’d been contracted to destroy.
But just as he began to slide his hands into the translucent digital jelly that made up the sphere, attuning his glowing blue “skin” to the protocol of the port, an alarm went off in his head. Not the kind of alarm that indicated an attack in cyberspace—this one was warning him of danger in the real world.
The alarm was sensitive to movement near where his physical body lay jacked into a virtual reality port and unconscious to the real world. It could be anything from a rat rummaging through piles of garbage in the corner of the room to corporate security kicking down a door.
Connor felt himself somersaulting through space as bright colors exploded inside his skull. This was so absolutely the wrong way to exit cyberspace. He’d be lucky if he didn’t go into a seizure. But there was no choice. If somebody had found his body in the real world, he needed to wake up—fast! He was helpless as long as he was jacked in.
His eyes opened upon a darkened room. Only a faint glow from a street light outside the cracked window illuminated the walls and the broken debris that had once been office furniture. He’d deliberately left his LED lamp off to avoid letting people in the street know that he was squatting here. This office building had been abandoned for over a year—long enough to have been thoroughly looted. But Connor had been lucky enough to discover one bank of live VR connections that the company had missed when they shut the building down. It had been a rare find, and he cursed his luck if he was going to be forced to give it up now. It had only been a week since a Failinis security team had raided the last building he’d been operating from.
He listened intently, resisting the impulse to cough and stretch his cramped muscles. The building seemed silent, but his alarm system must have detected some movement nearby….
There it was. Quiet footsteps in the hallway downstairs and some low murmuring. Then silence again. Meaning that they knew he was here. It wasn’t just someone breaking into the building to loot it or find shelter for the night. But how did they know?
At any rate, he didn’t have time to puzzle it out now. They were coming up the stairs just outside the door. Quietly to be sure, but he could hear their soft footsteps echoing in the stairwell. They didn’t waste any time but headed straight for the room he was in.
Though most of the furniture in the office had been stolen or broken long ago, there was a massive, steel desk by the window that had been too heavy to remove. It was here that Connor was hiding, so the intruders couldn’t see him when they entered. He had a view of the door if he pressed his face to the floor and peered through the desk legs, but he couldn’t see much beyond their feet. There appeared to be three of them.
As quietly as possible, he reached into his pocket for his Taser. It wouldn’t be very effective against three men—three men who were probably armed, themselves—but it might buy him a chance to break for the door.
One of them stood in the doorway, obviously anticipating this maneuver. The other two split up, circling around the perimeter of the small room, stepping carefully over broken chairs, one man’s feet crunching softly on the shattered remains of a glass coffee table.
“We know you’re here, netrunner,” one of the men said quietly, breaking the silence at last. “And there’s three laser pistols pointed right at where you’re hiding. So I suggest you give up whatever idiot plan you’re thinkin’ of to escape, and stand up… very slow.”
Connor knew his only hope of getting out of here alive was to cooperate. Maybe if he was lucky, they’d just take his deck and everything else he owned. It would be costly—decks weren’t cheap—but he could recover from that as long as they didn’t kill him.
Dropping his Taser, he inched out from the nest he’d made under the desk and stood slowly, his hands in the air.
They weren’t dressed in the tailored black suits corporate goons were so fond of, and they weren’t wearing Failinis security uniforms. Judging by their grubby, synthetic leather jackets and torn jeans, they were just street thugs. Maybe gang members. Connor placed them at about his age, mid-twenties.
The one who’d been doing the talking, an unattractive blond man with pock-marked skin and a nose that was too big for his face, stepped into the light from the window, his gun trained on Connor’s head. “Shit. You’re not half-bad looking.”
Connor frowned at him but didn’t bother to answer.
The one standing in the doorway spoke. “Let’s just get him back to Torres.”
Shit. They weren’t just going to steal his stuff and let him go. For some reason, they wanted him. This situation was getting worse by the second.
But Big Nose gave his companion an annoyed look and retorted, “When we’re done with him.”
“Torres isn’t going to like it if—”
“Shut the fuck up, Varela!” the third one snapped. “Until you’re initiated, you do what we fuckin’ tell you. Got it?”
Varela didn’t answer, but Big Nose took a step closer to Connor, apparently to get a better look at him. “Not bad, at all…,” he commented, reaching out to touch the skin on Connor’s face.
Connor flinched, and his stomach contracted nervously. He suddenly felt as if he might be ill. This prick wanted to rape him before kidnapping him! Connor had been cursed with pale skin, red hair and delicate features—delicate enough that even guys who normally preferred girls were sometimes willing to have a go at him. He’d had to fend off unwanted advances for most of his life.
But he’d never been raped at gunpoint.
“Make him strip,” the third guy said, and Connor could hear the sexual excitement in his voice. Connor decided to call this one “Pervert.”
Big Nose waved the gun under Connor’s nose and smiled at him. “You heard him. Let’s see if you’re a redhead all over.”
“I can only be a redhead on my head,” Connor pointed out, willing his voice to sound defiant rather than scared shitless. “But yes, my pubic hair is red too.”
“Don’t be a wiseass,” Big Nose snarled, though to Connor’s relief, the man didn’t strike him. “Just fucking show us!”
Connor gritted his teeth angrily and began to undress. Fine. It was a typical Seattle night in September—cold and raining—and the building was no longer heated, so stripping down to bare skin wouldn’t have been pleasant even if his companions hadn’t been forcing themselves on him.
At least the guy at the door, Varela, wasn’t getting into it. While his two companions leered at every inch of skin Connor uncovered, Varela looked away, embarrassed. “Do we really have to do this?”
“Fuck off, Varela. You don’t have to take a turn if you’re too much of a pussy to get it up.”
Connor dropped his pants and underwear in one motion, not in the mood to drag this out any longer than he had to. While his pants were still around his ankles, Big Nose reached out to fondle his dick and run his hand through Connor’s red pubic hair. “Yeah, that’s nice….”
Connor could deal with the ham-handed—and not at all erotic—groping of his privates. But he was dreading what would come next. These guys weren’t likely to be carrying lube. He’d be lucky if they used a little spit. It was going to tear him up inside, and the thought made him tremble.
Unfortunately, the idiot pawing him interpreted this as arousal, though Connor’s dick and balls were practically trying to crawl up inside his body. Big Nose leaned close, until Connor could smell the stench of teeth that probably hadn’t been brushed in years. “You want it, don’t you? I can feel it.”
It was hard to speak with his voice starting to shake, but Connor managed to choke out, “Just get it over with, fucker.”
That got a quick squeeze to his balls that made them throb. He wasn’t sure if it was meant as punishment or if this moron thought it was foreplay. Then Big Nose shoved him sideways, forcing him to sprawl face first over the desk. “Get your feet out of those pants,” he ordered. “I want those legs spread.”
Connor did what he was told, kicking his pants away under the desk. From where he was now, he was looking directly at Varela. For some reason, the man had left his post at the door and was quietly coming closer. Maybe the bastard had decided he wanted a piece of the action after all.
“That’s it,” Big Nose sighed as he placed his gun on the desk and unzipped himself. “Keep covering him while I’m busy,” he ordered Pervert.
But both of Connor’s soon-to-be rapists were so focused on him that they weren’t watching Varela. To Connor’s shock, the man suddenly whipped something out from beneath his trench coat and swung it in an arc toward Pervert. Connor got a whiff of crisp, ionized air as something buzzed through the air inches away from his face, stirring his hair. Then Pervert screamed, and warm liquid spattered against Connor’s side.
Blood. Connor could smell it, along with an acrid smell like burnt wiring.
Big Nose had just long enough to shout “What the fuck!” before Varela swept the plasma sword over Connor’s head, and the netrunner felt a spray of hot blood against his naked back. Big Nose collapsed on top of him, his arms splaying out on the desk, grasping wildly at the air as he slid off onto the floor.
Pervert was still alive, having just lost a hand. He clutched the stump of his wrist to his chest and made a break for the door, but he wasn’t fast enough. Varela spun in a graceful pirouette, and Pervert’s head was severed from his body. Both came crashing to the floor, and the head kept rolling until it bumped into the far wall.
Connor felt the bile rise in his throat and swallowed hard.
“Well, so much for getting into the gang,” Varela said calmly as he turned off the plasma sword and slipped it back into its scabbard, then allowed his trench coat to hide it once more.
“Jesus Christ!” Connor gasped, unable to think of anything else. He was completely covered in human blood. There was a corpse at his feet, and the murderer was standing just a few feet away.
“You’re supposed to say ‘thank you’,” Varela stated as he came around to Connor’s side of the desk and bent over Big Nose’s body.
Connor wasn’t really in the mood to chat with Varela, but he didn’t want to provoke him either. “Uh… thank you.”
For some reason, Varela was wrestling with Big Nose’s boots, trying to get them off. Connor thought maybe the man wanted to keep them for himself, but when he did succeed in yanking them off, Varela simply tossed them aside. Then he pulled the pants off. “These managed not to get too much blood on them,” he said, as he stood up again. “They were around his ankles, when he went down. His underwear was, too, but I don’t think he changed them very often.”
Connor screwed up his nose at that. “What do you need his pants for?”
“To wipe you off. Turn around.”
He obeyed, and Varela rubbed the torn jeans along his back and ass, trying to clean the blood off. Connor might have objected to the man rubbing his hindquarters, but he was so businesslike about it that it didn’t really feel like he was making a pass. The jeans were filthy and not very absorbent, so Connor was still streaked with drying blood when Varela finished.
“You’ll probably want to shower off somewhere.”
That meant a trip to the gym or a hotel, which always made Connor nervous, since those places tracked identification. His digital ID was fake, but it could still leave a trail.
The fact that he still had wet blood on his skin also meant he had to stand around naked for a while longer in front of this guy if he didn’t want it soaking into his clothes.
“My name is Luis,” Varela said, tossing the pants away and extending his hand. Up close, Luis Varela was a strikingly handsome Latino, with smooth coppery skin and jet-black hair cut short but still long enough to show some curl. His heavily lidded eyes had irises so dark they appeared black.
Connor looked at the hand in surprise for a moment before taking it and replying, “Connor.”
“I have a proposition for you, Connor,” Luis said conversationally, as if he weren’t speaking to a naked man covered in the blood of the corpse at their feet.
Connor wondered if this man was entirely sane. It wasn’t fair to fault him for being an expert fighter. That was a skill anyone living on the streets of Seattle would envy. Obviously, this guy had done a lot of killing, judging from the almost-offhand manner in which he’d done it and the calm way he behaved afterward. But despite the fact that he’d saved Connor from being raped, Connor had to wonder just how trigger happy he really was.
When Luis saw Connor eyeing him warily, he amended, “A business proposition, that is. It seems to me you’re pretty vulnerable when you’re jacked in.”
“I guess so.” It was actually one of the biggest problems with being a netrunner if he didn’t have a corporate safe house to operate from. Since he was generally trying to steal or destroy data from rival corporations, their security forces were constantly trying to track his location and stop him from operating—permanently. Connor was a freelancer, meaning that he hopped from location to location, doing odd jobs for different companies while trying to stay one step ahead of security.
“So how would you like a bodyguard?”