The mission was simple.
All Mace Armstrong had to do was get into a press conference being held in one of the most secure research facilities in the world, bug the scientist in charge of their bio-engineering team, and then walk out the door.
As an ex-army ranger, he could do it with his eyes closed—once he’d managed to get into the building in the first place that is.
He just didn’t want to do it.
“Tell me again why this is our problem?” he grumbled into the mic hidden in the lapel of his bespoke suit.
“Because of it bein’ the right thing to do, mon ami,” his team leader’s Cajun drawl sounded in Mace’s ear. As usual, Luke “Striker” Boudreaux was laid back and unbothered by Mace’s complaints. It’s what made him a great leader, and a pain in the ass as a best friend.
“Why is this our problem?” An outraged voice filled his ear as Striker’s wife, Friday Boudreaux, added her unwelcome ten cents to the conversation. “People will die if that microchip is implanted in their heads. We can’t let CommTECH release a faulty chip. No decent person could.”
“Who said I was decent?” Mace said.
“He is so infuriating,” Friday huffed to her husband.
“It’s his main skill,” Striker said.
Mace snorted as he walked up the front steps of one of Houston’s premier nightclubs. The club where his target was currently located—the woman who could get him into CommTECH’s research facility so he could get this job over with and get on with his weird, displaced life.
But first, he couldn’t resist another poke at Friday. She was just too damn easy to wind up, and if he was going to suffer through this job, so was she. After all, it’d been her idea.
“This isn’t our world,” Mace said, “and this datachip isn’t our problem. To everyone outside of our team, we died a hundred years ago, protecting a country that no longer exists. We don’t owe our allegiance to the former US. It’s time we focused on protecting ourselves, not a Territory that couldn’t care less about who they kill. If CommTECH gets their hands on us, it’s game over. They’ll slice and dice us to get to the bottom of our freaky Red Zone DNA just so they can sell what they find to the highest bidder. That’s a big risk to take to stop a bunch of people from dying because they’ve got to have the latest gadget installed in their brains.”
“It’s everyone’s responsibility to stand up for what’s right,” Friday said. “If we don’t do something to stop that datachip from being sold, the loss of life will be as much on us as it is on CommTECH.”
Mace snorted. “Or maybe that’s just guilt talking. You were one of CommTECH’s pet scientists up until a couple of months ago. Who knows what the company did with your work when you weren’t looking? Maybe you’re just trying to make amends for past ignorance and dragging us all along with you? This mission was your idea. You pushed us all into it—even when some of us couldn’t care less about it.”
“How can you be so hard-hearted?” Friday demanded.
Striker answered before Mace could wind her up further. “He’s just messin’ with you. Don’t pay him no nevermind. He gets off on it.”
“Asshole,” Mace grumbled.
“You’re welcome,” Striker said, sounding amused as usual. “Just do your job and find the press secretary. If she doesn’t add you to the list of reporters, this mission won’t happen anyway, and your whining will be wasted.”
Which is all right with Mace.
“And people will die,” Friday just had to add. “Millions of people.”
She was like a bug in his ear. Stuck there, buzzing away, irritating the hell out of him.
“I don’t like blackmailing innocent women.”
And there was the crux of the matter. He was the first to admit he was a bastard, but even he had lines he didn’t like to cross.
“Keiko Sato isn’t innocent,” Friday said. “She runs CommTECH’s publicity machine, which means she must know there are problems with their latest tech.”
Mace wasn’t so sure about that. CommTECH’s CEO was pretty good at keeping things to herself. Otherwise, half the world would know she was screwing them for power and profit. He didn’t see why her press secretary should be any different.
He shook his head. So many things had changed while he and his team had been asleep for a century. After years of big business influencing governments from behind the scenes, they’d decided to get rid of the middleman. Now, instead of elected officials, CommTECH, the most successful company to emerge from the chaos, ruled the former USA and Canada. The Northern Territory, it was called, and it was a nation of people obsessed with having the latest tech implanted in their bodies—something Mace didn’t understand at all.
He’d heard the arguments for implants at the start of the Technology War, a hundred years earlier—All the gadgets around you are becoming smarter; they can talk to each other, wouldn’t it be great if you could talk to them too? Imagine a world where you can send an email with nothing more than a thought, restock your fridge with a blink of your eye, and never miss out on the latest news because it’ll be streamed straight into your head.
Yeah, it’d sounded like hell to him then, and it still did. And yet, just like then, he was fighting for a cause he didn’t support. Back then it had been the US Government and their desire to see everyone implanted. Now it was his team wanting to make sure the fools who implanted the tech were safe when they did it.
And he still didn’t see how this was his fight.
“I miss being an American,” Mace grumbled as he held up his hand to the scanner at the nightclub’s entrance.
“What’s he talking about now?” Friday said to Striker.
“Just go with the flow, bébé, just go with the flow,” Striker advised.
The datachip hidden in the sleeve of Mace’s suit was his ticket into the nightclub. Thankfully, the machine couldn’t tell it wasn’t under his skin where it should have been. Unlike everyone else in the Northern Territory, no one on the Red Team had tech implanted in their bodies. Which meant they couldn’t communicate with the computers around them with just a thought, they couldn’t read emails on a contact lens inserted in their eye, and they couldn’t wave their hands to enter buildings or pay for things. But for this mission, Mace had datachips stashed in his clothing to fool people into thinking he had implants. Otherwise, his lack of tech would have set off all sorts of alarm bells and made going undercover damn near impossible.
The green light flashed, allowing Mace into the building, and uploading his cover story to the nightclub’s database. The club now knew him to be an entrepreneur, in town for the night and out for some fun. They also knew his marital status, his drink preference and any criminal history he might have. Which he didn’t, because the Red Team’s tech guy knew how to build a cover.
“The target’s on the fourth floor,” Striker said in his ear, reminding Mace they’d already hacked into the club’s information system, allowing them to keep track of everyone inside.
“Copy that,” he muttered before following the gently sloping ramp that wound around a central atrium, leading up into the heart of the building.
According to the nightclub’s promo, its design was based on the Guggenheim Museum in New York. People could stand on the ramp, lean over the railing, and watch everything happening on the floors beneath them. It was nirvana for voyeurs and exhibitionists alike.
“This would make the perfect sex club,” he muttered to his team.
“Mace!” Friday reprimanded, making him swallow a grin.
Lights flashed in the darkness, mirroring the rhythm of the beat. On the walls, a never-ending cycle of images played—photos taken by people in the club, shown in real time as they appeared on the web, interspersed with footage of the long-dead artists whose music played throughout the building. Mace shook his head at the sight of a holographic Elvis gyrating in midair. Above him, in the apex of the atrium, silver fireworks detonated, and a shower of sparkles floated down to the ground floor, fading to nothing before they hit the dancers. The place was bursting with bored, plastic people looking to lose themselves in the latest high or riskiest assignation.
He was an alien amongst them.
As he prowled up through the building, a path cleared for him. As it usually did. At six and a half feet tall, with a face that’d seen battle, he found most people swallowed hard and got out of his way.
With a casual wave of his hand, he dismissed any servers brave enough to approach him. Each one was dressed head to toe in their standard, fiber-optic-infused white uniforms, with ever-changing messages flashing over body parts, enticing patrons to try new drinks or take advantage of special offers. They were walking billboards for the club, background noise in a place packed with wealthy businesspeople and celebrities.
The crowd thrummed. Bodies rubbed against each other in time to the eighties synthetic pop that permeated the one of the floors he passed. The noise, pretending to be music, reminded Mace why he was glad he’d been born late enough to miss the eighties the first time around.
As he hit the fourth floor, Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” began to play, and a transparent image of the singer danced above the crowd.
“I love this song,” a woman beside him squealed.
“I don’t understand why you like this old music,” her friend complained, but let herself get dragged onto the dance floor.
“This place makes me feel ancient,” he said to his team leader.
“We are ancient, mon ami,” Striker said.
“You aren’t old,” Friday said. “You’re just…displaced.”
Mace hated to agree with his nemesis, but that about summed it up. “I wish our target hadn’t picked a nightclub that markets nostalgia. Some of these music styles should have stayed dead.”
“Tell me about it,” Striker agreed.
“The target’s just left the restrooms,” Friday informed him, obviously eager to get everyone back on track. “She’s with one of the CommTECH scientists. It looks like they’re having a girls’ night out. I’ve never had one of those.” She sounded almost wistful.
“One day, bébé.” Striker purred the words, making Mace roll his eyes.
“If I hear you two making out, I’m gonna vomit,” he said.
“Just locate our target and let’s get this over with,” Striker said. “She’s wearing red. And she’s shorter than you, so don’t forget to look down.”
“Everybody’s shorter than Mace.” Friday sounded confused.
“That’s the joke,” Striker said.
“And no matter how many times I hear it, it still isn’t funny,” Mace grumbled.
“Remember, she has a thing for Vikings,” Friday needlessly added. “She’s famous for it, even jokes about it in her press conferences. Which is why you got this assignment, you need to play up the fact you look the part.”
Unlike her, he wasn’t new to this game. “I know,” he forced through gritted teeth. “I was there when we went over this.”
“And you have to smile so you don’t scare her off,” Friday carried on, oblivious to the fact she was pissing him off—as usual. “Or maybe it’s better if you don’t smile. That can be scary, too. Just focus on trying not to say anything stupid.” She paused. “Maybe he shouldn’t talk at all,” she said to her husband.
Mace growled as his team leader laughed. He’d deal with them later. Right now, he had an innocent woman to entrap. One who’d spent her whole life in the sheltered corporate world. He’d seen videos of her talking to the press. She was tiny, delicate, fragile. The kind of woman who’d burst into tears at the sight of him and make him feel like a monster.
But then, that’s exactly what he was now—a genetic freak. A monster.
When a flash of red caught his eye, he turned his head to follow it. And everything within him stood to attention. Keiko Sato was even more alluring than the video images had conveyed. From her hip-skimming cherry-black hair to her petite curves, she oozed sensuality.
But as she turned her oval face toward him, and her large, dark eyes crinkled with laughter at something her friend said, it wasn’t her beauty that made him stumble and his palms sweat. It was the voice that whispered in his head at the sight of her. A voice he hadn’t heard before.
A voice that wasn’t his but belonged to the other half of his mutated DNA.
The animal that lived within him.
And it said, Mine.
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