I asked you to help me crack the Top 100 Free bestseller list on Amazon last night, and you delivered! Thank you! If you grabbed a copy of Without Bloodshed yesterday, let me know so I can add you to my circles/friends list/etc. I like to stay in touch with my fans. If you didn’t get your free copy yesterday, you can still get one today until midnight in Seattle.
I’m currently at No. 59 overall on the Top 100 Free list. Today, I want to hit No. 1. That’s right. I want to shoulder aside all the romance and new-adult and erotica and claw my way straight to the top. And I need your help to do it!
A Small Reward
To reward my fans, old and new, and to entice new fans, I’m going to give you guys a little treat. Check out the first scene from The Blackened Phoenix, which continues the story I started in Without Bloodshed.
Chapter One: Operational Security
Morgan considered the Adversary candidates guarding the doors to the conference room in which his former superiors held their daily meetings. He recognized neither of them, and resorted to his implant’s facial recognition software. Adversary Candidate Koontz was tall and well-muscled; he held a Kalashnikov at port arms, and thumbed the fire selector to single-shot. Morgan stopped four meters away, glad he came alone. These trainees think me an intruder, not a guest, and certainly not one of their own. What would they do if Naomi, Eddie, and Sid came with me?
The ebony-skinned woman whose freshly shaved head gleamed beneath the lights was Adversary Candidate Williams. She was as tall as Naomi, but more slender. Her hand hovered over the hilt of her smallsword as she approached. “State your business, sir.”
She curled her fingers around the hilt as Morgan raised his hand. He stopped, lest she draw her sword. “You will not need your blade, Adversary Candidate Williams. I possess a letter of marque issued by one of the Executive Council in my pocket. May I show it to you?”
She shook her head. “Koontz. Cover me while I search this man.”
Koontz adjusted his grip. Though he did not point his rifle at Morgan, the slightest false move would instantly change that. “You sure that’s a good idea, Williams? Don’t you recognize him? That’s Morgan Stormrider.”
Williams snapped at her partner without taking her eyes of Morgan. “I don’t care if he’s the Devil himself. Director Del Rio’s orders were explicit. Nobody gets in unless they’re XC or a representative.”
The Sephiroth wouldn’t permit this. What the hell are they doing? The first ten human-equivalent AIs made using technology developed by the AsgarTech Corporation served the Phoenix Society, and named themselves for the ten nodes of the Tree of Life at the heart of Hebrew mysticism. Though the Adversaries normally dealt with Malkuth, other AIs also played active roles in Society operations. “Why are Adversary Candidates like you pulling guard duty instead of training? What happened to Gevurah?”
Williams shook her head. “I’m not authorized to answer that.”
Fine. I’ll get the answers I want without you. Morgan opened secure talk and shot a message to Claire Ashecroft. [The New York chapter's on lockdown. We've got Adversaries on guard duty because Gevurah's off the job. Check up on the Sephiroth.]
Williams narrowed her eyes. “You just transmitted a message. What was it, who is the recipient, and why did you send it?”
Morgan glared at the Adversary. “I consented to a search to allay your concerns about concealed weapons. I will not answer your questions without a lawyer present.”
“I can have you arrested.”
Morgan added a predatory smile to his glare. “You have the authority to do so, but I will remain silent in the absence of legal representation. Now, are you going to search me for the letter I mentioned because you fear I will pull a concealed weapon, or will you and Koontz oblige me to force my way past you?”
Williams drew her sword, but kept it pointed at the floor. “Show me the letter. Move slowly.”
Morgan reached into his coat’s inner pocket and withdrew the folded letter of marque Elisabeth Bathory provided him. Two weeks later, it still carried a hint of her perfume. He unfolded the letter before offering it to Williams. “Read it. Get a record of it in Witness Protocol, so Del Rio can’t blame either of you for letting me in.”
Williams read the letter as Claire replied. [I found the problem. Somebody's running a distributed denial-of-service attack against the facility housing the Sephiroth, making it seem like they've gone autistic. The truth is the routers aren't nearly as robust as the Sephiroth themselves, and can't cope.]
[Thanks. Any idea who's responsible?]
[I found a stream of network traffic consistent with DDOS command-and-control tools emitting from a crackerspace in Brooklyn. Naomi said she'll take care of it with Eddie and Sid for backup.]
Morgan smiled, pleased that they now worked together sufficiently well to handle such raids. [Convey my thanks, please. Anything else?]
[You can meet them there after you get that warrant for the Murdoch job. The funny part is that I found a secure talk session between that crackerspace and someone in that office using a laptop registered to Karen Del Rio.]
[I suppose I can spare a few minutes to ask her why she'd help a cracker gang knock the Sephiroth offline. Thanks.] Morgan turned his attention back to Williams, and held out his hand to reclaim the letter of marque. “I trust you both read that letter?”
Williams sheathed her sword, and Koontz thumbed the safety back on. They answered in unison. “Yes, sir.”
“Good.” Morgan studied them a moment before resuming. “The Executive Council authorized me to investigate the possibility of corruption in the Society’s ranks. Until this letter is revoked, I outrank Director Del Rio.”
“Sir?” Williams lifted her chin, not yet cowed. “How far does your authority extend, and to whom are you answerable?”
Morgan smiled at Williams. She’ll make a good Adversary, asking questions like that. I bet she’ll have a low Milgram Factor. “I outrank the Devil, and answer to no authority you’d recognize. Stand aside.”
Rather than wait for the Adversary Candidates to comply, Morgan accelerated. Though he did not trust the flowseeker who held Edmund Cohen’s marker, Desdinova understood Morgan’s abilities as an asura emulator and proved willing to explain them. The ability Morgan understood as a kind of time compression was nothing of the sort. Instead, Morgan accelerated his mind and body until milliseconds seemed to pass at the pace of minutes.
He slipped past Williams and Koontz, careful to avoid brushing against them, or worse. His mass combined with the speed at which he currently moved resulted in force capable of endowing a careless touch with the severity of a punch to the throat. He was likewise careful with the door, intuitively conscious of the level of force required to open the door without splintering it or ripping it from its hinges.
He closed the door behind him, and studied the tableau before him. Karen Del Rio sat at the opposite end of a long table from Saul Rosenbaum and Iris Deschat, two former North American Commonwealth naval officers who joined the Phoenix Society after Nationfall. They brought the Navy’s traditions and doctrines with them, lending a sense of martial discipline to the Individual Rights Defense Corps. The senior officers seemed to be remonstrating with Del Rio. Del Rio, in the meantime, appeared to scorn their protests while typing furiously at a laptop.
Morgan flowed through the room, and studied Del Rio’s screen. Claire had been right; Del Rio was all but frozen amidst a furious conversation with somebody hiding behind the alias 2MegaTherion. The cursor blinked on at the end of the word Del Rio had been typing, and remained on. It would remain thus for a thousand milliseconds — all the time in the world for Morgan, unless his concentration lapsed. He considered the last message from 2MegaTherion, which read:
Don’t fuck with me, Del Rio. If we don’t get our money, the Sephiroth stay offline, and the Society finds out you sit in your office with your hands in your pants while tripping balls on WWE.
A old lyric sprang to Morgan’s mind as he read the secure talk log. Is there such a drug as World Without End? What does it do? Why would Del Rio use it, and why would 2MegaTherion think a martinet like her uses at work?
Seeing Del Rio’s purse on the table beside her laptop, Morgan muted his conscience and rifled its contents. He found a square foil packet bearing the label “World Without End”. Despite the warnings about safe and consensual sex printed on the back of the packet, it did not feel like it contained a condom when Morgan pressed it between his thumb and forefinger. It felt, instead, like it contained powder.
Morgan held onto the drug, and drew his sword. The newly forged weapon gleamed, its edge yet to be bloodied. Del Rio doesn’t deserve to be the first this blade claims.
He ceased his acceleration, and his subjective experience of time returned to normal. He threw the drug packet across the table, and watched it skid across the surface until it came to rest before Saul and Iris. “Sorry to interrupt, but were you aware of former Director Del Rio’s drug habit?”
Iris collected herself first. “Stormrider, why are you here?”
“Never mind that.” Del Rio twisted in her seat, her emaciated face shining with spite and fear. “What do you mean by ‘former Director’, you pathetic excuse for a former Adversary?”
Instead of answering, Morgan leaned over Del Rio and lifted the laptop. He placed it before Saul and Iris. “See this? One of the crackers responsible for the DDOS attack against the Sephiroth is blackmailing Del Rio. It seems she uses a drug called World Without End while on duty.”
A secure talk request from Naomi came through, and Morgan accepted it. [We've arrested the crackers. Claire's got control of their botnet and is shutting it down.]
[Thanks, Naomi. I'll meet you there with the Murdoch warrant.]
The wallscreen flashed into life, displaying Malkuth’s avatar with an expression Morgan had never seen on his face before. “Karen Del Rio, you are hereby stripped of your office as a director of the Phoenix Society’s IRD corps. Do not attempt to flee or resist arrest.”
Del Rio ignored Malkuth’s instructions, only to run headlong into Adversary Candidates Williams and Koontz. They dragged her outside, and the conference room door muted her incoherent protests as they notified her of her rights.
Morgan accelerated again, holding it just long enough to reclaim the packet of World Without End. He slipped it into his pocket, and settled into a seat before downshifting again.
Saul struck a match, and relit his cigar. “Malkuth says you and your new girlfriend helped with our little electronic warfare problem. Looks like we owe you a favor.”