Street Freaks: Chapter One
Street Freaks has already received a number of industry book reviews. But my favorite is from Booklist:
“Fans of Brooks who are curious how the fantasy master deals with a science-fiction world should like this one.”
That sums up my feelings on it quite nicely. Street Freaks might be science fiction and a futuristic thriller but it still feels like his fantasy work. Like a BrooksBook. Great pacing, intriguing characters, imaginative settings, and a whole lot of danger.
To celebrate artist Marc Simonetti’s Chesley Award win over the weekend for his Grim Oak Press work on The Sword of Shannara, here is the first chapter and the first Simonetti interior illustration from Street Freaks!
Click HERE to learn the best ways to pre-order the book—in hardcover, ebook, audiobook, and signed editions!
– 1 –
When the soft beep of his vidview sounds and the chip implanted in his retina flashes red in the corner of his eye, Ash Collins thinks nothing of it. It has been two years since his father’s warning, and nothing has come of it. There is no reason for this message to be anything special. Ash never took any of that BioGen stuff seriously in the first place. He still doesn’t.
So he almost ignores the vidview. He is right in the middle of taking notes on robo-prof Faulkner’s lecture about matter transmission. But he is bored by the lesson, so he uses the vidview as an excuse to tune out. He touches the tiny node imbedded behind his left ear to activate it, and the message projects onto an air screen.
And there is his father’s face, darkly intense and clearly frantic, his words stumbling over each other as he speaks.
ASH! GET OUT NOW! GO INTO THE RED ZONE. GO TO STREET FREAKS. DON’T WAIT . . .
The connection terminates. His father’s face disappears, wiped off the screen. He is gone, taking the rest of whatever he was going to say with him.
Ash thinks his father was messaging from BioGen, but he can’t be certain. He was in a stairwell, moving quickly, climbing if Ash isn’t mistaken, maybe fleeing.
For a moment, Ash doesn’t move. He replays the message—sees his father’s face and hears his voice anew. The strain of whatever threatens him is reflected in both. Which is not at all like his father, who is always so completely in control. Brantlin Collins, cool nerd guy. He reveals almost nothing of how he feels. He never seems stressed out. A cocked eyebrow is as much as Ash has ever seen in the way of a reaction.
Except when his wife died. Ash saw him cry then. For one day, his father was a real person.
So what is going on here? Is it happening? Actually happening? The warning his father gave him two years ago? The instructions? His father’s fears realized?
His father must think so. What he told Ash that night was so out of character it was laughable. He said he was in danger. He said he had crossed a line he shouldn’t have, but he didn’t regret it. He warned Ash that if the truth of what he was doing were discovered, they would come for him. When that happened, he would get word to Ash and tell him what to do. Because they would be coming for Ash too.
Faulkner is still talking, unaware that Ash has stopped listening. The bot is a rental, a tutor his father secured for him about the same time he gave Ash the warning, claiming he was far enough advanced in his studies that he needed private instruction. But what if that wasn’t the real reason? What if it was something else altogether? Maybe his father didn’t bring him home from boarding school to improve his education but to better protect him by keeping him?
Ash blinks. He is suddenly afraid. What if his father wasn’t crazy? What if he was right about being in danger? If so, Ash can’t waste time questioning what he was told. He can’t ponder the pros and cons. Either he does what his father told him to do or he ignores the warning.
“Excuse me, Faulkner,” Ash says, getting to his feet.
Faulkner is like family. He lives with them. He frequently sits at the dinner table, even though he doesn’t require food. Ash knows Faulkner is just a bot, but his intelligence quotient is much higher than his own. His father once said that if Faulkner had a sense of humor he would be human.
Ash slips past him without slowing, saying something about being right back.
I have to get out of here, he thinks, the decision made. But where should he go? He is supposed to go to Street Freaks, which is in the Red Zone. But his father has told him for years to never, ever go into the Red Zone.
He passes Willis4, the robo-cook, wheeling down the hall with a collection of dishes and linen piled in his arms.
Master Ashton, the machine intones.
Always calls Ash that. Master Ashton, not Ash. Can’t seem to program it out of him.
“Willis4.” Ash tries to sound nonchalant.
Do you need anything to eat?
“Not just now.”
There are three of them working the suite—Willis4, Faulkner, and the robo-maid Beattie. Willis4 and Beattie are not rentals. Both came with the penthouse when his father took the lease on it after returning to L.A. following Ash’s mother’s death. Ash was bounced around a lot during his early years because his parents traveled extensively and were reluctant to leave him behind. At least, his mother was reluctant. Not so sure about his dad. Probably didn’t matter that much to him. His father has never admitted it and probably never will. But he once said the research was all that really mattered to him.
He’s aware that he’s moving without a destination in mind.
Just moving to be moving. But he has to get out, doesn’t he?
Think, damn it! Choose a door, a window, but get out! No, wait! The backpack!
It has gathered dust in a laundry room cupboard for all this time, waiting for the day it would be needed. Which was the day Ash had thought would never come. But he had packed it anyway. Still not sure why. Maybe because his father had suggested it, and it hadn’t cost him anything to do so. Maybe because he was thorough about things, and at some point had decided that being prepared couldn’t hurt. His K-Bar knife, some clothing, some packets of prefab food . . . what else? Is his ProLx in there? Did he remember to pack any? He hadn’t paid close enough attention to remember. And he can’t leave without his medication . . .
He reverses course, rushing now, heading back down the hallway and up the stairs. He can’t do anything without his medication. He has to retrieve his ProLx, then go back down to the laundry for his backpack and—
The front door explodes in a shower of wood and metal shards that take out half the entry wall. The sound is deafening, a concussive force that blows through the entire penthouse. Smoke and dust boil out of the hole left behind, and figures in crimson jumpsuits rush through.
He freezes. Hazmats. Scrubbers. Cleaners. Scorched-earth guys.
The Hazmats are carrying weapons. Big, heavy automatics and lasers. Sparz 200s and Gronklins. From high on the staircase, Ash recognizes them at once. They blow up Faulkner in mid-sentence. Metal parts and wires erupt in a shower of sparks, springing out of the bot’s midsection as he crumples to the floor. They charge after Willis4 and Beattie without slowing, down the hall toward the back of the house. Ash doesn’t wait to see how that turns out. He bounds up the remaining stairs, gaining the next floor in a rush, tearing down the hallway toward the back rooms. He is screaming inside, terrified.
How could this be happening?
Weapons discharge below in electric spizzes and hollow crumps. Willis4 and Beattie are gone too. Ash grits his teeth in anger and frustration and pain. Why are they doing this? The bots never hurt anyone. They don’t even know what is going on! What is the point of destroying them?
What do they have planned for me?
Whatever it is, he doesn’t want to find out.
Even though he has had two years to think about this, he hasn’t done so more than a couple of times. How could he? It’s so bizarre. As such, he is unprepared. Choices flash through his mind. Using an elevator to get to the lobby is not a safe option. He can’t jump out a window; his home is at the top of the building, eighty-two stories up. He could chance using the exterior delivery door. But there is every likelihood the Hazmats will have someone out there on the loading platform, waiting for him.
He rushes into his bathroom, grabs what remains of his supply of ProLx, and rushes back out again.
He hears footsteps pounding up the stairs. Hazmats, coming to find me. Hazmats, between me and the backpack.
The laundry chute is just down the hallway. Without stopping to think about it, he runs to it, flings open the door, and dives in headfirst. He is slender, so he goes through the opening easily. Because it operates on spring-loaded hinges, the chute door closes behind him. Maybe they won’t know where he’s gone, he thinks, as he tumbles away. The drop is twenty feet, so maybe he’ll just break his neck and his problems will be over.
But he lands in a pile of dirty linen instead, shaken and a bit banged up but otherwise with everything still working. Now he is seriously panicked. He scrambles from the bin, finds the backpack, and fumbles it open. It contains clothes and food but no ProLx. Good thing he grabbed what he found upstairs. He digs deeper and at the bottom finds the vintage K-Bar army knife he bought as a souvenir when they lived in Africa many years back. Not much of a weapon against a Gronklin, but at least something. He cracks the door and peers out. Smoke roils down the hallway. His heart is pounding like a jackhammer and his composure is out the window. What remains of Willis4 lies in a heap several yards away. More explosions sound. He searches the smoke for phantom movement, hearing most of the noise coming now from the floor just above.
Just get out, you idiot!
He closes the door to the laundry, locks it, and hurries over to the window that opens onto the service ledge used by the maintenance staff. The ledge is two feet wide and ten feet long—just big enough to stand on. But it is almost a thousand feet to the street below if he falls. Or a little bit closer if he should happen to land on one of the many public transport vehicles moving through the elevated traffic lanes.
He finds himself wishing he had thought this through earlier, but it is too late for regrets.
He opens the window and steps outside.
It is three floors down to the hive level where his father keeps a jumper. Jumpers are supposed to be reliable; everyone says so. You just have to be careful to harness yourself in nice and tight and stay in the traffic lanes. Ash has flown a jumper two or three times and survived to tell the tale. But he has heard plenty of stories about people who didn’t.
Not that it matters if he falls while trying to get down there and breaks every bone in his body. But getting down there is exactly what he has to do.
He tamps down his instinctive fear of being outside in the open air of L.A., reputed to be among the five worst in all of the United Territories. You can breathe the air in some places. He’s done it in other countries. But not here. Not in L.A. If you venture outside the sanctity of the buildings with their connecting corridors and tubes and filtered air without wearing a mask, you better hope your immune system is sufficiently bolstered by all the vaccines they inject into you growing up.
The prospect of what he faces terrifies him. But what is he supposed to do? He can’t go back inside. He has to get out of there.
The rungs cut into the side of the vertical cornice are there to accommodate maintenance workers. They are supposed to be used in conjunction with safety lines. They are not intended for climbing up and down untethered. Anyone doing so could only be a fool.
Ash hesitates. The Hazmats will be inside the laundry in moments. He edges his way over to the cornice and steps onto the narrow rungs, not stopping to think further. He descends quickly and does not look down. The rungs hold his weight; he does not fall. Once at the hive level, he works his way over to the platform fronting unit 82C, punches in the locking code on the exterior pad, and when the door swings up, he slips inside. By now, he just wants to get this over with. Maybe using the jumper won’t be as bad as he thinks. Maybe he can escape without anyone even seeing him.
Maybe pigs can fly.
He is almost to the jumper when the lock on the interior door to the storage garage disengages. A second later, it nudges open and an arm reaches through.
With no time to ponder choices, Ash does the first thing that comes to mind. He rushes the door, slamming into it. The door is constructed of a weather-resistant composite metal that seals the unit against the outside atmosphere. Its programmed function, if pressed sufficiently hard from inside the hive, is to close. So when Ash throws himself against it, that’s what it does. Forcibly. The Hazmat tries to push ahead anyway, his arm struggling to find the release. But the door’s mechanics are much stronger than he is; it keeps closing, drawing in on itself, the pumps and sealing devices grinding away.
Ash realizes suddenly that the man is not going to quit. “Pull your arm out!” he yells in spite of himself.
But the Hazmat has waited too long. His arm is trapped now. He continues to struggle, but it is futile. The door closes on his arm, severing it.
Ash looks away, horrified, waiting for the screams. But there are none. The severed arm rolls past him on the floor, and he sees pieces of machinery and wiring hanging out one end.
It’s a bot!
He loses it momentarily, laughing and shouting in a mix of relief and anger. He’d never thought that maybe the Hazmat wasn’t a man! He’d fought to save a man, and it was only a bot!
Then he catches himself. Only a bot. Like Faulkner. Like Willis4 and Beattie.
He brushes aside the surge of relief that floods through him. No time for that. Quickly, he leaps into the jumper—an efficient little two-man blue-on-blue Neo—slamming the hatch shut. He does it without thinking, reacting instinctively, scared to death. No time for donning protective gear; no time for caution. He needs to get out of there.
For one terrible moment he can’t remember what to do. His mind screams: Do something! Anything! He finds the starter that ignites the solar-powered engine and listens to the whine of its drive as it engages. A surge of relief rushes through him. Seizing the handles to the lifters, he hauls back. The jumper lurches forward and drops away from the platform.
And immediately goes into a spin that threatens to turn into something worse.
He gasps in dismay, fighting to bring the Neo back up. A few frantic seconds of working the controls steadies the little craft, and he maneuvers into the designated traffic lane. He points for a nearby cluster of residential sky towers, intent on gaining one of their public landing platforms and getting down to the street and into foot traffic as fast as possible. Jumpers have limited range and are not intended for anything but short hops, so he doesn’t bother struggling with the thought of trying to pilot this one all the way to the Red Zone. Another mode of transportation will be necessary. Which is not an inviting prospect. He can take a robo-taxi or a substem, neither of which requires anything beyond showing up and boarding. But they are both public transport, which means being out in the open air again. And they aren’t always there when you need them. So, although it makes him nervous even to think about it, Ash might spend the credits needed to use a matter transporter. But how desperate is that? He doesn’t trust jumpers, but he really doesn’t trust transmats; there are stories about people who transport to one place and arrive somewhere else—sometimes with their limbs missing or body pieces rearranged in hideous fashion.
Still, a transmat will slow anyone looking to find him. Transmats are untraceable. Tracers are embedded in all jumpers and robo-taxis, but there is no way to track someone using a transmat without contacting a coding station and tracking the source.
He is only marginally less panicked than earlier. He no longer doubts that his father was right to warn him. But it would help if he knew exactly who was chasing him. Hazmats, sure. But someone had to send them. Was it BioGen? There is too much he doesn’t know and no time to sort it out now. He pilots the jumper toward the public landing platform that services the residential sky towers he has been pointing toward. Fighting to hold the little craft steady, he sets her down on one of the empty landing pads, coasts toward the storage bays until an air lock opens, continues inside, and waits for the air lock to close again. Disengaging the drive, he grabs his backpack, releases the hatch lock, and steps out.
He half expects to find Hazmats waiting to intercept him. But except for the attendant, the bay is empty. He hurries toward the elevators that will take him down to transportation services. At least the worst is behind him.
Except it isn’t.
It is waiting up ahead.