Lisa Mason
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright 2019 by Lisa Mason.
Cover, colophon, and art copyright 2019 by Tom Robinson.
All rights reserved.
Bast Books Ebook Edition published July 9, 2019.
Bast Books Print Edition published August 13, 2019.
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage or retrieval, without permission in writing from the publisher.
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March, 2020 Excerpt
Snatch Job
Creepin’ cryptids, Kinyonga hates hot bloods. Especially young hot bloods with their stink of fur and sweat and mating hormones. Especially young rodents, the humblest Blend of the hot-blood humble.
Let’s face it, ol’ Jimi the One and Only hates kids. He is a walking no-kid zone and not just baby goats, which is what “kid” means, if you want to get technical. He hates Chrome kiddies of every Blend, including baby chameleons.
So they’re cute. So what. Baby leopard Blends are cute. Baby boa constrictor Blends are adorable. Baby scorpion Blends are the darlingest things. Until they grow up big enough and mean enough and poisonous enough to rip out your throat, strangle you, or sting you to death.
Now that is a fitting meditation for Blend Day. Day of grief. Day of despair. Chrome wouldn’t have baby leopard Blends, baby boa constrictor Blends, or baby scorpion Blends if it weren’t for the Tweakers and the Twitchers.
So what happened to the Emirk technicians of two-and-a-half centuries ago? The Tweakers or the Twitchers, as they’ve come contemptuously to be called in the Chromian lexicon. What became of them?
Kinyonga snickers. You can’t fool Mother Nature for very long.
Soon after Kinyonga’s human ancestors were modified with chameleon genes, an aerosol-borne Plague struck Chrome. A genetically mutated mix of bird flu and swine flu and a touch of fascist flu. The Plague killed every human being, every last Tweaker and Twitcher on the planetoid.
Only the Blends with their radically tampered chromosomes could resist the swift, virulent, and highly contagious affliction that started out with a sore throat and violent sneezing and, in a day or two, resulted in death by excruciatingly painful paroxysms.
So don’t fool with Mother Nature, the Blends often snicker.
Kinyonga smacks the rat girl across her pointy gray face. She snaps at him, sinking her teeth into his wrist, drawing blood. Dang, these Feralists and their freakin’ fangs. Why don’t they have the decency to file them like every other civilized Reformist?
The cabbie glances in the rearview mirror with his big bovine eyes. But he doesn’t open the Security Eye on his dashboard or tap his Tatt and wink the cops about a suspicious altercation in the backseat of his cab.
So, okay. A stand-up bull.
“Don’t worry about it, quarryman,” Kinyonga says to him, slugging the rat girl’s jaw hard. He shakes his wrist loose from her nasty little fangs. Considers stabbing her with a dart from his blowgun, knocking her the hell out. Then he decides against it. A waste of good poison. “There’s another twenty credits in it for you when you get us where we’re goin’ to and keep your snout shut.”
The Big Boss had advanced him a generous allowance of free-trade credits to grease paws and claws in this latest installment of the secret evil endeavor. That suits Kinyonga just fine. He should require such generosity in every client’s contract from now on. Free-trade credits are the best kind of currency. Untraceable, good for everything everywhere you go, and tax-free. Don’t leave home without them.
Naturally, he’d skimmed fifteen percent off the top for Number One. Plus he didn’t lease a hydrocar like the Big Boss had told him to, but hired the cab instead. Which saved him another bunch of credits for the better purpose of lining his own pockets. Maybe he’ll remember to thank the Big Boss for the working capital. Or maybe not. Jimi Kinyonga doesn’t do gratitude.
The rat girl flops on the car seat, stunned by his punch, a stain of blood on her thin gray lips. The cabbie continues to stare in the rearview, his hand edging toward the Security Eye.
Perhaps an explanation is in order. Kinyonga sighs, an appropriately heartfelt long-suffering sigh. “She’s, like, my step-niece, three times removed. Messy, messy bond-mate breakup, y’know? Her dad kidnapped her after using up his visiting days. I’m just returning her to her ever-lovin’ mommy. Rats, they are the best when it comes to family. Love them rat kiddies to death. Watch the freakin’ road, okay?”
“Try your step-niece forty times removed,” the cabbie lows gloomily but obediently returns his eyes to the hectic traffic.
Every vehicle on Chrome uses polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cells, the blue and pink canisters of oxygen and hydrogen gases bubbling merrily on hood or boot. But there all similarity among the vehicles ceases and the Blend of the driver often shapes the vehicle’s style.
A utility vehicle the size of a canary’s country cottage lumbers by, the flap-eared elephant driver plowing through traffic without a glance left or right. Dim-witted or oblivious? Both and then some, in Kinyonga’s astute psychological analysis.
A lean, muscular sports car helmed by a lean, muscular jaguar slinks swiftly amid knots of stalled beetle cars. Chunky flatbed trucks driven by rams or impalas bully their way through the gridlock. Bang! Two trucks trade fenders, and the burly drivers climb out, antlers curving from their foreheads. They push up denim shirtsleeves over buff biceps, spoiling for a fight.
The pastel avian cars are the most ridiculous, in Kinyonga’s aesthetic opinion, with their winged front fenders, fancy feathered tails on the back. Some birdbrain of a driver glides her gorgeous hot-pink Falcon sedan through the traffic in erratic swoops, suddenly switches course, and, amid squealing brakes, honking horns, and angry curses, flutters off in the opposite direction.
High above the herds and swarms on the streets swoop sleek silver flivvers. These are the exclusive transportation of visiting Emirk executives and the elite Chromian Blends who staff the Emirk Intelligence Agency. Emirk Corporation leases its used flivvers to the Chrome City police. By Emirk regulations, the Chromian police are only permitted to use the worn and dingy second-hand flycraft, and only for high-alert emergencies.
How can Emirk justify its control of Chromian skies, ol’ Jimi wants to know? Because Emirk claims exclusive legal ownership of the airspace over Chrome. Emirk claims exclusive legal ownership of everything on Chrome. Who can challenge that?
We Chromians can. Kinyonga snorts in disgust at the arrogant insectile flivver droning in the sky above him. Emblazoned on wing and tail, the Emirk corporate mark, the stylized blood-blue “E” inside a silver square.
“One of these days,” he mutters, the scarlet and turquoise patterns swirling up and down his arms in the heat of his anger, “one of these days, we Blends will ride in the sky, too. Our sky.”
But his Chromian revolutionary sentiment doesn’t jive with the task at hand. He gets down to it.
The rat girl, recovering from his punch, lurches up squealing. Wiggling her pink fingers behind her back. Kinyonga whips her around, winds more duct tape around her wrists so she can’t tap her yellow Tatt and wink for help. Dang, these kids. Have they no respect for their elders? She’s sobbing and squeaking. Far more trouble than he thought she’d be when he’d spotted her on the trash-strewn street of Mysburgh.
Two uniformed dog cops on hydrocycles cruise by, lane-splitting amid the traffic. They slow down, glance inside the cab the way dog Blends do. Not keenly curious like a feline, but looking around. Snuffling around, picking up scents. One cop has the long, narrow snout of a German shepherd, the other flat-faced and pug-nosed like one of them Oriental breeds. Pekinese? Lhasa apso? Kinyonga can never keep straight all the breeds of domestic dog Blends on Chrome. Like he should know about some person with a tongue hanging out of his mouth.
Kinyonga shoves the rat girl face down on the car seat, sits on top of her. Summons up the image of someone respectable who typically would be riding in a commercial cab. Camouflage, baby. He camouflages himself as a young corporate executive. A spaniel in a smart three-piece business suit, button-down shirt, and necktie. The chunk of a faux-gold watch on his wrist. His hand resting not on the rat girl’s neck, but on a shiny black faux-leather briefcase. He spreads his jaws, smiles pleasantly.
The dog cops nod and speed away.
He hisses with relief and reassumes his chameleon identity. That was a serious stretch of his transformative talents, camouflaging himself out of whole cloth. Out of a stereotype, without an actual surrounding background for him to feed off the images. Camouflaging out of his emotional need of the moment.
That’s the only time when his unruly chameleon emotions work in his favor.
Awesome, Number One, he congratulates himself.
The rat girl lies quietly beneath him, subdued. He doesn’t want to suffocate her. He’s supposed to deliver her, like, alive. He slides off her, and she starts squeaking and flailing around again.
His brilliant mercurial mind hits upon a solution. “Muzzle up and sit still,” he commands her in an adult voice. “No one is going to hurt you, honey.”
That settles her down. If only everyone was so easy to lie to.
The bull cabbie pulls out of the stream of traffic on Broadway, speeds onto an off-ramp leading to Outer Chrome Road. The highway stretches before them, a bleak ribbon of concrete taking them far away from the hustle-bustle of Chrome City. Far away from the littered streets of Mysburgh, from Rodentia Valley. Far away from everything civilized on Chrome.
It’s good to head away from the City. Too many cops. Too many diurnals with their prying eyes. But Kinyonga frowns, not relishing where they’re going. He leans back in the seat, mulls the job over.
Who witnessed this latest sorry caper? No one, that’s who. Almost no one. There’s the cabbie. Kinyonga may have to take him out later, as in a snuff job. But maybe killing him won’t be required? Kinyonga considers the question. The cabbie and his sponsor will want to do more business, lucrative business, with a cut-throat mercenary like Jimi Kinyonga. The cabbie will keep his snout shut, if he knows what’s good for him.
Everyone wants to do more business on Chrome, the Blends like to say.
Then there was the little turtle he spotted camping out on the sidewalk. In Mysburgh, of all places for a reptile to be. That made no sense. Which arouses his suspicions. He took note of the black-and-gold design on her carapace. Pretty, pretty. Unusual, too, from what he’s seen of turtles and tortoises, who live on the east side of Cretaceous Way. The turtles and tortoises he’s seen mostly have unremarkable carapaces of drab olive. She—he knew she was a she on account of the frilly dress—seemed to be asleep.
But maybe not. The turtle could have been watching him from inside her carapace. Number One does not discount the watchful reptilian eye of a Blend who set herself down where she did not belong.
They watch. They listen. They spy.
And no one knows they’re spying, huddled up inside their carapaces. He’s heard strange tales about turtle Blends. Tortoises, too.
She could have witnessed the kidnapping. Could have seen him, with his own distinctive markings. Could have seen the cab with that tacky billboard on the roof.
She could have seen everything.
This information isn’t something he will share with the Big Boss anytime soon. This information is Kinyonga’s very own personal business. He may have to take out the turtle, too, as in eliminating her. But later. Later.
The bull cabbie speeds down Outer Chrome Road, navigating the cab toward the district where the Big Boss has instructed Kinyonga to take the snatch job. It’s a long drive, but the streets will be emptier. Everything is emptier in that forsaken place.
After this gets done, he’s off to the second part of the job. A much tougher assignment than the snatch job. He’s not looking forward to it. Hades.
“Step on it,” Jimi Kinyonga hisses. Then clamps his jaws shut. Dang, he hates having to small-talk with a cabbie.
Naja de Capello
Do not taste the air. He resists the ancient urge, applying all his will. All the years of his schooling, his self-discipline. He clasps his shapely cold hands beneath the table. Clasps them so tightly, his knuckles ache. He blinks his eyes against the overly bright lights in the conference room on the sixth floor of the Capitol Building. Concentrates on the voices around him. Yapping, growling, hissing. Lilting.
Facilis est descensus. The descent to hell is easy.
Do not taste the air. Do not.
A human being—an Earthian, a pure Earthian—presides at the head of the conference table, the ebony tabletop so polished it shines like a long, black mirror. The lilting voice belongs to her. In the course of two centuries dealing with the Plague, Emirk Corporation has vastly improved the safesuits. This latest visiting corporate executive sits comfortably inside a transparent bubble surrounding her entire body. Her oxygen supply and waste products units are tucked in a sculptural nodule below the base of her spine.
The safesuit amply reveals her perfect human face. Her eyes as blue as jewels. The crisp curls of her peach-colored hair. Her perfect womanly figure, a figure fashionably clad in a business suit the color of Emirk blood-blue. The Emirk corporate mark—the stylized blood-blue “E” inside a silver square—decorates her lapel, the earrings on the lobes of her tiny pale ears, a ring on the finger of her right hand. The ring on her left hand is a gold-and-diamond wedding band.
Her six human bodyguards, in safesuits and blood-blue uniforms, form a phalanx around her, gripping the latest deadly make of handheld assault weapons from Earth.
Two dozen Chromian bodyguards stand watchfully around the human entourage, gripping less powerful, less modern guns. But they’ve got guns, too. Also serious assault weapons. The Chromian bodyguards wear blood-blue uniforms, the Emirk corporate mark on their lapels. “Emirk Intelligence Agency” flashes across the backs of their jackets. With their perfectly filed teeth, smooth waxed faces, and no trace of a tail, you might almost mistake them for human beings.
Except for one thing: they don’t wear safesuits. That’s the tip-off. They don’t fear the Chromian air, the Chromian water, the Chromian food. Why should they? No matter what cosmetics they’ve applied or surgeries they’ve endured, they are Blends. Extreme Reformist Blends, to be sure. But native Chromians immune to the lingering Plague.
Naja de Capello happens to know these particular bodyguards are Doberman pinschers. In spite of the filing and waxing and cosmetic surgery, there is no concealing the lean ferocity of their ancestral beast. Not from his eyes.
De Capello doesn’t often see any kind of weapon carried openly by Blends on Chrome. Since Liberation Day, weaponry on Chrome has been declared illegal by Emirk Corporation, except for the imported guns worn by the elite E.I.A. officers. Worn, too, by Special Forces officers patrolling high security areas—the Emirk space shuttle launchpad in the Airfield District, the Emirk headquarters in downtown Chrome City where the visiting executives must sequester themselves when they’re not presiding over meetings like this.
As a Chromian government official, of course De Capello carries an illegal concealed handgun. An antique Walther PPK with eight rounds, which he bought for an exorbitant sum on the black market. The rounds he parcels out judiciously. Blackmarket bullets are difficult to come by and expensive. He sniffs, indignant. As a high-ranking official in the Bureau of Human Affairs, he ought to be able to carry a weapon legally. He’s exposed to Feralists every day.
These days, criminals and crazies get their weapons, all kinds of weapons, on the black market. Chromian politicians, too.
Do not taste the air. Do not.
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