Warpaint

DESCRIPTION: Cady discovers that the war she’s been fighting alone is about to overrun all of settled space, and that to save what she loves, she must become what she most hates. This is the second novel in the Cadence Drake series of linked stand-alones.

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When a job she was sure was going to be simple nearly devours her instead, Cady retreats to the only place in settled space where people both know her, and know that she’s still alive.

There she discovers that the nightmare she’s been fighting alone has grown to become everyone’s nightmare, and that if she and the tiny group of people who can help her don’t succeed, humanity is going to cease to exist.

Soon.

It’s five against the universe, and the only way to survive is to go through the fires of hell.

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WARPAINT includes a link in the back of the book for additional downloads. Songs, Minecraft models of the spaceships in the books, and more as I add books and goodies.

Warpaint
Chapter 1

CRAZED, STARVED, THEY clung all over my shuttle’s hull, bashing at it with anything they’d been able to grab. Those crammed up against the moleibond forward viewport were trying to bite me, unable to understand why they could see me, but couldn’t reach me. The screeching and clicking of their teeth and claws on the hull made my skin crawl.

Insane, all of them. Staring, mindless monsters—Legends, they called themselves when they were functioning normally, or vampires, though in truth they were neither. They were humans who’d changed themselves into horrors.

They’d bled dry the little moon I was trapped on, and without fresh human blood to drink, hadn’t been able to hang onto their sanity long enough to escape. Starvation had stripped them of their pretense of humanity, revealing their pure essence. But it didn’t kill them. It would eventually kill them…probably. I knew they could exist in this nightmare state for months. Maybe they could go on this way for years. I’d never seen one dead of starvation.

But they had to starve to death sometime, didn’t they?

I would have destroyed them, had there been fewer of them, had there been more of me, had I had a way to shoot them with the one weapon that would have destroyed them—my blood. Only by my best guess, there were a couple thousand of them on and around my shuttle, swarming over it and me like ants on sugar. Like rats on a corpse. Like…name your own nightmare.

They blocked my sky.

My shuttle hull was moleibond. Best stuff in the universe, moleibond: light, impervious to radiation, tough as hell. You can subject it to massive gravities, hit it with fire or light of any composition or in any concentration, slam it with projectiles of any composition, and you won’t scratch it. You can shoot massive shock waves through a moleibond hull and turn the entire contents into pudding, and a cleanup crew can come along with a big hose and a pressure sprayer and have the flawless hull ready for resale in the time it takes to wash out the goo.

Moleibond is indestructible unless you have an Anabond drill or Anabond cutters—but even a little resort moon will have a few Anabond tools on it, because you do have to fix the stuff that breaks inside.

So my theoretical outside survival time was limited to the arrival on the moon of a fresh meat shipment—a transport full of live tourists. The second one of the Legends got fresh blood, his mind would start working, he’d realize that my survival was their destruction, because I had seen what they were, and he’d go get the damned Anabond cutter and come after me. All he had to do was cut a hole in my hull. One hole, and I could not leave the atmosphere.

My real survival time was under a week, though, because I’d failed to fully stock the emergency rations. Carelessness on my part, or exhaustion, maybe. I had three days worth of water, and almost no food. It would have been enough had I been hoping for quick rescue from my home ship, in orbit around the moon.

Only problem there was that my home ship belonged to me, I flew alone, and at the moment, I was on the damn shuttle.

And I couldn’t call out via com-link for help from anyone else, because once I landed, I discovered that all live com to and from Tropica Petite had been cut. Tropica Petite was running a stream of programmed fake chatter through its com, making the resort seem like someplace real people would still want to go, and someone had set its autodrone to handle shuttle landings.

No rescue would be coming.

Meanwhile, I was—judging from the appearance of my attackers—the last source of living blood on the verdant, terraformed moon, and at least two-thousand mindless monsters were determined to have me for lunch.

In my favor, I had myself, my shuttle, my wits and my rage.

So things weren’t looking too good for my long-term prospects.

And this had started with a job I took just because I had to keep my ship in space, had to pay my docking fees and refueling, had to pursue the monsters I hunted. This was not supposed to have anything to do with the damned Legends. This was supposed to have been a milk run, a simple job of locating two women who’d extended their vacation without notice and getting them back home to their worried, waiting husband.

#

Less than twenty-four hours earlier, I was sitting in the Hammergirl Lounge in the bleak, windowless core of the Hammerfield Mining Station, a space station that spun just outside the farthest edge of the Hammerfield asteroid belt. The miners were indies. They owned their own rigs, and mined and processed the rare ores civilization craved. The indies had a nice setup going. They owned their own means of production, and they were partners in their methods of distribution, and between hard work, intelligence, and skill, they’d made a name for themselves as a station full of winners. Hammerfield Station’s biggest byproduct was billionaires.

However…

The Hammergirl Lounge was a strip club, and not, as I had requested, a quiet, comfortable restaurant.

Worse, my client was late. This annoyed me, because I had better things to do with my time than fend off scantily-clad women who wanted me to buy them drinks, or drunk drill jockeys who wanted to buy them for me.

In all fairness, a woman sitting alone at a table in a strip club is going to cause that club’s denizens to make certain assumptions.

I had the long blonde hair and blue eyes of Candibelle on the stage at that moment, the coffee-with-a-touch-of-cream skin of Torch—who looked anatomically impossible to me—and the Old-Earth Asian cast to my features, including the almond eyes and epicanthic fold, of the drink girl who’d just asked me if I wanted to buy a lap dance from any of the girls on stage. All of that courtesy of three biological fathers, and the psychotic mother who’d bought their genes and paid some illegal gene-hack to rearrange them to make me. On the other side of the equation, I had the height and solid muscle I’d earned living at two Gs aboard my ship and working all those muscles through daily combat routines. And I was wearing a ship suit, which fit like skin because it was designed to stay out of the way.
While I doubt I was anyone’s particular fantasy, I apparently looked like someone who intended to be on one end or the other of a financial transaction that included the removing of clothes.

My name is Cadence Drake, but I was officially dead, so I was using a deep-cover alias created by a friend of mine named Storm Rat.

My client had contacted me as my alias, JT Loggins. The real JT Loggins had been murdered by space pirates, and one of Storm Rat’s minions had identified the body during a salvage sweep, and had grabbed all details of her identity, which Storm Rat had cleaned for resale—JT had been from some low-tech world with abysmal document security, so Storm Rat had been able to alter the few records that described her short, miserable arc through existence to make her look like me. Not having to have melanin lifts or bone restructuring or any of the other things I’d had to live through to get the job done in the past was a surprising benefit to being officially dead. It was, as far as I could tell, the only benefit.

My client’s name was Nat Phangar. We hadn’t met, we hadn’t spoken, and billionaires can buy excellent security, so I was having no luck worming my way through Hammerfield Station’s comlinks into the station data. All I knew about my prospective client was that he was rich, and that he paid a lot of money to keep his personal life and details completely off the datastream.

And that he was late, and getting later.

I don’t work for people I don’t know, so I hadn’t yet accepted the job. I wanted it, though. A two-hundred-fifty-thousand-rucet retainer was sitting in escrow, verified and validated, to be dropped into my—well, JT Loggins’—credit account the instant I greenlit the contract.

But I didn’t get a dime of the money if I didn’t agree to the contract, and fuel and supplies for a TFN ship are expensive, so I kept my ass in the chair, ignored the naked bump-and-grind up on the stage, cringed at the loud music, and nursed my non-alcoholic drink.

Then a short, blonde woman dressed in a miner’s jumpsuit, her hair mussed and her skin flushed, pushed her way into the club like someone in the middle of having a very bad day. She looked around, studied me, frowned, and walked toward me, her steps hesitant.

“Red and black ship suit,” she said as she reached my table. “You’re JT Loggins?”

“You are…?”

“Nat Phangar,” she said, and held out her hand.

I stood, took her hand, and tightened the muscles in my right palm just enough to shoot the microfilament nanoviral needle into her palm as our hands touched. She didn’t even flinch. “JT Loggins,” I said. “With the first name you gave, and you referring to yourself as the husband of the two women named in the contract, I assumed you’d be male.”

The corner of her mouth twitched. “Knowing Cherry Korvitch, from whom I bought the recommendation, I assumed you’d be a petite, curvaceous, green-eyed red-head. Life is full of surprises.” She studied me for a moment, assessing, the added, “She raved about you.”

“It wasn’t because of anything personal, I assure you,” I told her, sitting back down. “I did a job for her, she liked the results. I don’t get involved with my clients.”

“That had to have been a first for Cherry. Not that you’re her type, but I could see where she would have made an exception. As for me and my situation, though…” She sat carefully in the seat opposite me, and her eyes narrowed. “I’d figured when Cherry recommended you, you’d be…” She paused.
You can see people working their way through the thicket of gender politeness and prejudice. I could have jumped in, but generally it’s better to let them get where they’re going in their own way.

She sighed and shrugged, “I assumed you’d be lor. Not hinter.”

“You lost me. Lor?

“Women who prefer women and who want multiple permanent relationships. Hinter is anyone who isn’t lor. I figured you for lor because Cherry was so pleased with you, and thought it meant you wouldn’t have a problem with my arrangement with my wives.”

I shrugged. “Within a few exceptions, I have no interest in my client’s personal lives. I won’t work for slavers, thugs, pedos, or killers, and before I sign off on your contract, you’re going to give me proof that you’re none of those, and you’re also going to convince me the women you want me to find are not hiding from you.” I took a sip of my drink and continued.

“And you must understand that while I will find your wives, if they refuse to come with me, I will not use force to bring them to you against their will. I’ll record their statement, present it to you as my evidence, and you’ll still owe me costs and follow-through for having found them. As for who you choose to be with, I don’t care. If you’re all adults and all there because you want to be, I have no problem helping you.”

She studied me, and sighed. “But you don’t go my way, do you?”

“No. I don’t go any way anymore. The man I loved was murdered, and the part of me that could love anyone, or desire anything, died with him.”

“Then I apologize. From my assumption, I figured this place would appeal to you. And I like it, and the food’s good. Speaking of which.” She waved one of the barely-dressed drink girls over and said, “Pepper, two Surface Specials.”

The girl left, and Nat turned back to me. “The work out here is hell, but when you own your rig and can run processed ore straight through the station system, the money’s amazing. So I can afford you. And my wives love me. I take good care of them, I make them happy, I make sure they get to live the lives they want.” She grinned. “And I get to live the life I want.” Her eyebrows furrowed and her eyes unfocused. She didn’t say anything else.

“But…” I prompted.

“I’m not sure why they’re running through so much money at the resort, but it isn’t like them. And neither is the fact that they haven’t sent me any personal coms since they got there.”

I nodded, getting a feel for the real issue. “You realize people change,” I said. “You think you know them, and then you discover they’ve met someone, they’ve been seduced by some other sort of life…”

“Not Nicci, and not Sugar. They’re the two best wives I have.”

I sipped my drink to keep from saying anything stupid.

“Seven,” she told me with a little smile, so apparently my eyes asked what I’d manage to keep my mouth from blurting out. “I have seven wives. Most of them I met here.”

The food came, brought to us by a woman introduced to me as Summer. The food was all real. Fresh fruit, fresh meat, fresh vegetables, all surface-grown, all flavored by a real sun in a real sky. I ate everything my client put in front of me.

And I watched her. She ate the food, too, but I’ve discovered they are capable of eating food. They simply can’t digest it. They chew, they swallow, the food sits unchanged through their atrophied gastrointestinal system until—best guess here—they regurgitate it.

I was looking for a sign that she was one of them. The microfilament I’d injected into the palm of her hand carries only a few dozen copies of the nanovirus that lives in my bloodstream. That nanovirus, injected into the bloodstream of a Legend in large numbers, reacts with the nanovirus that changed the normal human being the Legend had been into a blood-drinking, nearly immortal, almost unkillable, superhuman nightmare. Within minutes of a full dose of the nanovirus, the pseudovampire would swell up and explode.

All it did to humans was turn their blood into a substance poisonous to vampires.

To my way of thinking, win-win.

Sitting across the table from someone who suddenly swells up and explodes, scattering bits of flesh and blood across a large room, however, causes unwelcome attention.

So I’d paid Storm Rat to have his weapons guy develop the microfilament injector for me and implant it into the palm of my right hand. It allows me to make sure that my client is not a vampire already, and to guarantee that my client will not become one between the time I take the job and the time I return to get paid.

I found from my one experience working—unknowingly—for a Legend that you can’t count on collecting your money. They think they don’t actually owe you for services rendered, you being what they consider lunch.

In half an hour, the virus would reach a level in my client’s bloodstream that would, if she were a vampire, cause her skin to develop a fine sheen of sweat. It would have no effect physical effect on an unmodified human.

If I saw the sheen, I would publicly, verbally, and somewhat loudly accept the job instantly—because any time you eat someplace public, someone somewhere is recording everything you say. I would then tell my prospective client I would require the upfront portion of my fee two days from that date, sign the contract, and leave. She would accept that I was in her employ, and return to her plans. I would put as much space as I could between myself and her, because within twenty-four, the nanovirus with which she’d been injected would reach critical mass, and overrun the nanovirus she’d put into her own bloodstream when she decided to become a monster, and she would come to a horrible, messy, permanent end. And I’d have an alibi. I was someplace else when it happened, and with my client dead, I wouldn’t get paid.

Only she didn’t develop that sheen of sweat.

So we ate good food, and she watched women take off their clothes and told me which ones she was considering as possible future wives, and I took her contract because she sounded very much like she liked the wives she had, and like she was afraid someone might be taking advantage of them because they were beautiful and young and rich and trusting, and because they were staying at a pricey, elegant resort even I was willing to admit could be full of people who wanted to be friends with women like that for less-than-honorable reasons.

It all made perfect sense, it all seemed so clean and clear and obvious, and I thought the thought you never, ever permit yourself to think if you want to survive, which is, “I need the money, and how tough could it be?”

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