Hellcat Released Book 1: Dauntless
The best Marauder around, Dante Shale is famous across the galaxy. He is most comfortable on the wild surface of the Earth. He must endure the big city bustle to get the giant paycheck waiting for him.
Dante Shale stepped onto the platform from the inter-station transport. The lean man in a long, work-stained coat glided noiselessly toward the exit with the grace and deadly strength of a panther on the prowl. Heads turned at his commanding presence, and a wave of whispers swept through the crowd as they recognized him. A handful of comments rose above the sound.
“Hey, isn’t that Dante Shale? Holy shit, the rumors about him coming here were true.” A glance showed the younger guy’s slack-jawed amazement.
“Wow!” a girl marveled while staring at him, starstruck. “I came to visit my auntie in New Tottenham. I didn’t expect to see the greatest Marauder ever in person.”
“I thought he’d be taller.”
“How the hell did he pull off some of that crap? A hundred Dirtwalkers on his last run?” The vaguely Cockney accent caught Dante’s ear.
“Naw, I heard it was more like thirty, maybe forty at the most.”
Dante scanned his surroundings with piercing green eyes. As a Marauder with a legendary reputation his survival depended on constant alertness. Besides his usual enemies, there were always the young wannabes who tried to challenge him to build their names.
A few faces gazed in awe, a promise to fulfill whatever pleasure he could imagine shining in their eyes. Sometimes they were the most treacherous and a thing to be avoided. Mostly the atmosphere was fear-tinged respect as the crowd parted to let him pass.
As he left the boarding area, he heard the muffled computerized announcement: “Shuttle B19 now departing Londonburg. Stand clear of the vessel. Next shuttle ETA is thirteen hundred ten hours.”
Standing outside, he studied his surroundings. The sight of Londonburg never failed to amaze him. The tall spires of steel and synthetics, trees and parks, people everywhere going about their daily lives. A whole city floated in space under a transparent crystal dome whose self-contained gravitic field provided air to breathe and everything to sustain life.
Beyond the barrier was the black of space, punctuated by glittering stars and the net of tunnels and space bridges that connected Londonburg to the other floating Atlantica Stations as they orbited above the ruins of Earth.
He flagged an empty taxi pod, flashed his payment card, got in, and gave his destination address. The pod offered various entertainment options: AI-simulated conversation, music, or videos. He chose silence.
About fifteen minutes later, the pod stopped at his destination and deposited Dante at the curb. As the taxi shot away and rejoined the streams of traffic that endlessly filled the highways, Dante faced the towering structure where he had business.
It was essentially a skyscraper, although vaguely pyramid-shaped, the better to maximize the space available to it while retaining the strongest possible construction. The lower wings were the size of a village square. The topmost reaches were more in line with the dimensions of a typical office building.
The people within undoubtedly needed plenty of space, given how vital their operations were to Londonburg’s economy and Atlantica in general. They provided increasingly efficient technologies for gathering solar power, the main energy source throughout the lattice of Stations. It was easier to collect the sun’s rays when no longer dealing with Earth’s atmosphere.
Before Dante could approach the entrance, he spotted a familiar figure leaving the building and walking toward him. It was Ana Souvanatong, a fellow Marauder. She looked as rough as him in her work clothes except for the hot pink scarf loosely draped around her neck. Dark, braided hair swayed in time with her strides. He’d never worked directly with her but had found her company tolerable enough and a competent ally when they’d bumped into one another during a job.
She looked up, and her eyes widened. “Shale? Damn. I wasn’t expecting to see you here, of all places.”
Dante shrugged. ”Yeah, they got in touch and offered me a job. The money sounded too good to pass up. As long as it’s not a setup.”
Ana shook her head but kept her eyes on his face. “Man, you have some nerve! I heard you sold that last haul to Intra! I take it you’ve never heard of corporate rivalries?” A quick thumb-jerk indicated the building behind her.
Dante was well aware that Intra was the hated foe of his prospective employer. He figured both companies would engage in a bidding war for his services. Which of them came out on top wasn’t his concern, provided they paid well for his work.
The work wasn’t something most people could do. Even regular Plunderers weren’t that common, and the specialized Marauders were a rarer breed still.
It took a particular type of person to brave the hostile wastes that dominated the Earth’s surface in search of what their ancestors had left behind. It required discretion and knowledge as well as courage and toughness. Knowing how to identify the best salvage—high value, low density, so half the profits didn’t get burned up on the fuel it would take to haul it all back in a massive ship.
When it came to such operations, Dante wasn’t personally aware of anyone with more successes under their belt than himself. His payloads had been astonishingly lucrative for a variety of VIP clients. Some said that his expeditions had the power to make or break entire regimes. Firms went bankrupt for the lack of being able to pay him enough to save them. Other clients were able to dominate entire Stations based on the wealth he procured for them.
Furthermore, given all the times he’d fought his way out of seemingly impossible scrapes or pulled through when everyone had written him off as dead, his name commanded a certain intimidation factor. Simply knowing that he was on a given job was enough to scare most other Plunderers away.
“Yeah, whatever. Corporations are always in competition and don’t deserve loyalty,” he growled. “I’ll hear their sales pitch and make up my mind later. I’m too valuable for them to kill me off just for running cargo for Intra that one time.”
Ana retorted, “We’re freelancers! They can’t hold it against us if we want better pay.”
“If those rivals get into a bidding war, all the better for us. They hire me because I get the job done. My word is my bond. Most of them are smart enough to know that I expect the same honesty in return.”
The last man who tried to renege on his deal with Dante Shale hadn’t been able to regret it. He was dead so fast that it took him a minute to realize he had a knife through his heart.
As they moved apart, Ana told Dante, “Well, good luck.” Dante shrugged. “Yeah. Later.”
The sign in front of the building was low to the ground but broad enough to be easily read from either side of the road. Bold lettering identified the headquarters as Slaine Solar Solutions—a company important enough to get away with being abbreviated. When someone mentioned “SSS,” almost everyone knew who they meant. They were more than a fixture of business and industry. To some extent, they were a social and cultural institution.
Cormac Slaine himself was a bit of a celebrity, increasingly involved in politics and commerce or so the gossip went. He’d secured an alderman position for himself and wanted to expand his reach still further. Dante had never met him. He’d remedy that shortly, but as he strode toward the tower’s front doors, he felt no particular nervousness beyond the usual sense of alertness to anything that might go wrong. Slaine was only a man. Being rich and famous made him no different from anyone else.
At the doors, Dante paused for about one and a half seconds as a tiny blue light atop the entrance flashed, scanning him for irregularities and opening with a low, somehow comforting swish. He stepped over the threshold and into the lobby.
The reception area was stunning, befitting a powerful and important company. They wanted to make a good first impression, and Dante supposed that such extravagance would readily woo most people.
The floor tiles were the highest quality synthetic marble, smooth and shiny but with the appearance of deep layers. The smoky black streaks swirled and expanded through the white stone. Atop this lay elaborate rugs in key positions. The six columns arranged around the sides were also marble and trimmed with gold.
There were two long couches upholstered in deep red and gold and end tables to hold view spheres for anyone who might be bored enough to require one while they waited. A small fountain burbled in the corner near the couches.
The reception desk was synthetic wood, as top-of-the-line as everything else, and wrought with intricate carvings on its outward-facing side. Its top was a thin sheet of faux marble.
Behind the desk sat a man who likely served the dual role of receptionist and security guard. He wore a business suit but also had an unobtrusive earpiece. His shaved head, flinty eyes, and muscular frame gave him the look of someone trained to use violence if he had to.
“Hello. Do you have an appointment, sir?” He looked up at Dante without rising from his seat. His demeanor was chilly but polite.
“Dante Shale. Here to see Mr. Slaine.” He didn’t think it was necessary to say more than that. If the receptionist pressed him, he could. His nature was to seek the simplest, most direct solution, cut straight to business, and not bother with many pleasantries, formalities, or technicalities.
The man arched an eyebrow and Dante saw him shift mental gears into a higher state of alert. The Marauder had implied that he knew Slaine was in the building, and he didn’t consider it a special privilege or something to be begged for and granted out of generosity.
Which it wasn’t. Slaine had personally requested his presence. There was no point in wasting words on the subject.
The receptionist said, “I see,” and pretended to scratch his ear. It probably sent a signal through his earpiece to remind the rest of the security team—who were out of sight but surely somewhere nearby—to pay close attention to this particular exchange. “Allow me to rescan you and to double-check our register.”
He flashed a handheld scanner at Dante, mimicking what the door device had done a moment ago, then bent over the sphere on his desk, fingers working rapidly, and touched his earpiece again. It probably linked him to the building’s entire system. Dante waited with growing impatience but said nothing. If he thought he had good cause to confront the man for stalling, he would.
It only took a few more seconds. The receptionist gave a curt nod, pushed the sphere away, and looked up. “You’re all clear, Mr. Shale. Your biometric data checked out and you do indeed have an appointment. The elevators are at the end of that hallway to your left. Take the last one on the right to the penthouse. I’ll clear it for you from here. Once you reach the top floor, you’ll have to pass through a security checkpoint, but you shouldn’t encounter any problems.”
Dante jerked his chin up in a short goodbye. “Thanks.” He went straight to the corridor the guard had indicated, which was blocked off by an electro-fiber barricade. It retracted into the wall as he approached, then reasserted itself, humming and crackling from the slight air interference after he’d passed.
The corridor beyond was high-ceilinged and decorated with quality art prints. Men and women in crisp business suits passed to and fro, heading in and out of the chambers that branched off to the sides. There were one or two individuals he was sure were Marauders, albeit dressed up for the occasion. Important things were going on here. He was amid the Londonburg elite.
Dante was momentarily self-conscious of his worn and casual garb but shrugged it off. He didn’t care what anyone thought of him. The only consideration worth devoting any thought to was the prospect that some security guard who hadn’t got the message would hassle him.
It took a lot to faze him. As he moved down the hall and cast a casual glance into one of the small conference rooms, a man lounging at a table caught his attention sharply enough that he almost missed a step.
It was Ersan Awir. One of the relatively few Plunderers whom Dante considered truly formidable, to the point that he wouldn’t have expected to see the man sitting here of all places. Tall, rangy, dark-faced, with huge hands, Ersan looked like someone who demanded that others take him seriously. They did.
Here he was, probably to receive a briefing on a job sponsored by Mr. Slaine and his firm. It drove home the fact of SSS’s ever-increasing power.
It also made Dante wonder what was so incredibly vital that Slaine had insisted on speaking to him personally.
He found the elevator without difficulty. After pressing the activation button, it took a second for the front desk guard to clear him. Then he pushed another that would take him to the penthouse. It was a long ride—the lift moved slower than it seemed like it should. Perhaps it was a security precaution in case an unvetted or hostile party seized control, and the bodyguards on the top floor needed extra time to prepare.
After a moment it slowed and stopped. Its doors opened to disclose a tight, antiseptic chamber dominated by two electronic gates, multiple scanners, and a team of four burly men in armor with batons dangling at their sides. At least two of them appeared to have cybernetic modifications. Probably stamina-bolstering implants beneath their clothes.
One had a prosthetic hand, although it could’ve been simply a newer model of razorfist. Another man, tall and pale, had eyes that couldn’t have been natural. They shone too brightly, and the way they moved didn’t look right.
The lead guard, a middle-aged man who was probably unmodified, approached with a dour but placid expression on his long face. “Please stand still,” he began in a flat monotone. “We need to scan you and check for weapons. If you’re cleared, you will go only to assigned, permissible areas. When you reach Mr. Slaine’s office, you will do as he or his bodyguard instruct, and if they ask you to leave, you will do so immediately and without hesitation.”
“Yeah,” Dante grunted. “Sure. Whatever.”
They went through the charade of scanning him for the third time. Then the two cyber-bruisers patted him down for armaments or contraband. Normally Dante preferred to be armed, but he knew he wouldn’t be able to get away with it in this case, so he’d left his weaponry with the crew.
Finding nothing, they permitted him to pass through both gates and pointed out the way to Slaine’s office. He felt their eyes on him as he went, especially the synthetic ones of the tall, pale guy. Those felt different.
The corridor beyond the security checkpoint was as featureless as the alcove that led to it. Other halls branched off to the sides, but Dante stayed on the main one, following the floor lights that brightened via motion detection to point out the way. He didn’t doubt that bad things would happen if he tried to bolt into one of the other chambers.
After another bend, the antiseptic hallway ended and opened into a vast suite of rooms that were nothing like what lay next to them. The ceiling rose nearly seven meters to a peak in the center. The walls were primarily broad windows, although someone had activated the shades on three sides. Immediately beyond the hallway lay a carpeted expanse before an informal office, perhaps more like a den. That was Dante’s destination. Beyond an internal wall lay what he assumed were Slaine’s living quarters.
“Mr. Shale,” a voice intoned, projecting in a way that filled the penthouse, even though its owner hadn’t spoken too loudly. “Please, make yourself comfortable.”
Dante eyed the two men at the real, not synthetic, mahogany desk that dominated the office area. Sitting behind it was Cormac Slaine. It couldn’t be anyone else. His voice was a medium pitch, smooth and pleasant as befitted a man in his position. His appearance was oddly nondescript—a generically handsome middle-aged man dressed in finery, inoffensive in every respect.
Standing next to the desk was an individual who couldn’t be any more different. The hulking brute’s cybernetic modifications were both extensive and obvious. He made no effort to hide them. Dante had never met the man, but he knew who he was—Eduardo H. Curtidor, former Reaper, known previously as Mr. Hydraulic. These days, everyone referred to him as Mr. Hyde. It was an old literary reference.
Hyde grinned and stared at Dante like a large, graceless, hungry carnivore.
“Hi,” Dante said. He approached the desk and pulled out a chair. Some men might have been intimidated by the mismatched pair of men, he supposed.
Dante could think of two things and two things only. The job ahead of him and the paycheck at the end of it.
Something tells me that three layers of security checkpoints and countless guards wouldn’t be enough to stop Dante if he wanted to do something. The job he is signing up for must be a big one based on all the hoops he is having to jump through. Find out what Slaine has in store for our hero on May 5th, 2022. Get Hellcat Released Book 1: Dauntless today.