Metal Blade, Chapter One

Here is the first chapter of my sci-fi actioner, Metal Blade, available now on Amazon.

 

‘So there we were, Blade and me, the anti-gravs on the bikes were screwed, we’re following these clowns from ground level, they’ve got the Sci-President’s daughter in the back of a goddamned cherry red Mustang floater, top down, like the least inconspicuous vehicle in the world, skimming along about forty feet in the air. Now, I didn’t have all my tech back then, but I did already have an ear done, so I can hear her screamin’ fit to bust, I can hear one kidnapper tellin’ her to shut up, and the other one just generally screamin’ himself. Obviously not a damn clue what they were doing.

‘So anyways, eventually, and with some kick-ass fancy manoeuvres, I get myself under their car, Blade’s right behind me and, I shit you not, he throws his goddamn katana, from the back of a moving bike, and it lodges right in their engine. Yep, right in the engine! Black smoke starts fallin’ out of this thing like it’s going out of fashion, they start weavin’ round in the air, and of course they start comin’ down a bit, what with that Mustang suddenly not bein’ quite so aerodynamic.

‘I’ve turned my ear off at this point, ‘cause I can hear them just fine without augments, and when they get low enough I used the old power knees and jumped right on up to grab their car. Damn shame about that bike, loved that bike, but hell, this was the Sci-Pres’s daughter, so I knew if we got her back in one piece I could buy all the damn bikes I wanted.

‘Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, so I’ve jumped up and I’ve grabbed hold of a door handle, I’m just about to pull myself in when-‘

‘Listen, do you want a drink or not? I’ve got other customers, Duane, and I heard this story before.’

Dragged back from the golden wonders of Memory Lane the big man blinked and reoriented his mind to the less salubrious reality of Present Day Road. A bar, a barmaid, another night of realising his best days were gone forever. With a quick nod he indicated that yes, she should indeed fill his glass, noting as he held his wrist over the payment scanner that the number flashing up both on her piece of hardware and on the internal screen in his right eye was worryingly low. Almost out of NEDs, but that could be a worry for another day.

Still, for the first time in weeks he didn’t ask her to leave the bottle.

Not that he was being careful with his money (though it was becoming a concern, his stock of New Earth Dollars having been diminishing at an alarming rate), that wasn’t how Metal rolled. No, he was staying (relatively) sober because of the other alarm flashing up on his retina screen, an appointment reminder. Just ten minutes to go before his mysterious potential employer arrived. With a blink and a slight tightening of the muscles around his right eye he cancelled the alarm.

He was tempted to call up the message he had received to his personal comms box for the hundredth time, but in truth he didn’t need to, knowing the line he wanted to read again by heart.

We request an audience with the illustrious warrior known as Metal, bounty hunter and fighter of great renown.

Great renown. He liked that, it made him feel like he wasn’t the only one who remembered when he was a somebody.

He turned to walk away from the bar, intending to head to one of the empty booths across the smoky room. As he took his second step, though, he found his left leg dragging and stumbled, spilling some of the cheap generic brand native whiskey on his hand.

‘Dammit,’ he swore under his breath, realising with horror as he tried to bend down to his injured limb that his shoulder had similarly frozen up. He knew what the problem was, but that didn’t help him with time ticking down to his appointment. He had to look his best for their arrival!

‘Jesus, Buddha and Kali, Duane, you still not been to the Doc-Mech? I’ve been telling you for weeks to get it looked at!’ Martha-Jane, bless her, coming out from behind the bar to help him. The big man felt his cheeks flushing red with embarrassment as she reached him, knowing that the other patrons of the cheap bar were laughing at him behind their hands.

Dammit, once upon a time they would have cheered when he entered the room, now he was nothing but a broken-down laughing stock.

‘It’s the servo’s, MJ, seized up on me again. They just need a good-argh!’ His involuntary grunt of pain came as the tiny barmaid forced his shoulder into movement with a strength that belied her petite frame. She then bent swiftly down and did the same with his knee, causing another grunt and finally a weary smile of gratitude.

She was absolutely right, he should have been to the Medi-Mech centre by now, but that cost money, and money was something Duane Steele, the once great bounty hunter Metal, was in short supply of.

Still, she had forced his frozen joints back into action, and he could now limp across to the booth in plenty of time. When his guest arrived he would be sat down, and his failing cybernetics would be hidden.

As his ass touched the threadbare cushions of the seat he looked back up to see Martha-Jane making her way back behind the bar, and the door opening to the harsh mid-afternoon light of downtown New America Central. A figure appeared in the doorway, remaining a featureless silhouette as it paused, obviously surveying the room. At last, satisfied, or having found what it was looking for, the figure stepped forward and became an extremely attractive young woman, dressed in an outfit that probably cost more than the bar she was standing in.

Auburn-haired, tall and athletic, she moved with a dangerous grace at odds with her business suit. To the naked eye she appeared to be a cold, aloof professional, disdainful of the surroundings she found herself in. To Metal’s experienced and augmented vision she appeared to be a cold, aloof professional with a small handgun of indeterminate type in a well-hidden shoulder holster, along with two slim blades strapped to each wrist beneath her exquisitely tailored jacket.

She had a warrior’s walk, perfectly balanced and constantly alert, she was armed, and she was making a beeline straight for him. Old, long-dormant instincts kicked in and the big man pushed his drink away from him without having even taken a sip.

This felt like a meeting he should be sober for.

‘Metal? Or should I say Mr Steele?’ There was a mockery about both her voice and the tight smile she gave him, but it had been too long since anyone had approached him for anything more than menial labour for the former bounty hunter to be able to take offence at her tone. Hells, he just couldn’t afford to.

‘That’s me. And you are…?’

‘A representative of an organisation interested in offering you employment. My name is of no consequence, nor is it necessary for you to know it. After this meeting you will never see me again.’ The ice queen sat down opposite him as she spoke, perching on the very edge of the chair on the outside of the booth. Possibly afraid of catching poverty from her surroundings if she made herself too comfortable.

‘OK, fair enough,’ Metal replied, unwilling to allow her superior attitude to rankle him. Gods above, he was still the one they were courting for a job, right? Even if they had sent Lady Snootypants to offer it to him. ‘What’s the gig?’ he continued, consciously restraining himself from reaching for his drink.

In answer the dangerous woman reached into her jacket and pulled out a multi-comm, a top of the range latest model. It made the tech inside the bounty hunter’s skull look positively antique by comparison. Placing her device on the table she tapped a quick series of commands onto the upward facing screen, causing a holographic image to appear in the air above it. It showed a young man dressed in the generic uniform of a junior Sci-Minister, white lab coat with black trim at collars and cuffs.

‘Fifty thousand New Earth Dollars for his elimination.’ Well, she certainly didn’t beat around the bush, though her direct statement caught the big man off guard. For a moment he thought he had misheard, speaking before his brain could catch up and tell him, no, this bitch almost certainly means every word she ever says.

‘You mean capture, right? Like this guy’s wanted, and fifty K is the bounty?’

‘No, Mr Steele, I mean elimination. Had I meant capture I would have said so. Are you interested or not? I can have half the funds transferred upon acceptance of the contract, the other half upon completion.’ Again the minor pause while the ageing hunter’s brain caught up with the ramifications of just what this aloof cow was saying.

When the penny finally dropped he realised that he wasn’t going to be looking at a payday after all. No matter how down on his luck he was, no matter that she was offering enough money for him to live relatively comfortably for a good few years as a down-payment, this was very definitely not something he could be a party to.

‘Whoah there, lady, I think you’ve got the wrong guy. I’m a bounty hunter, one of the best. True, I’ve punched a few targets’ tickets in my time, but only when I had to. I only hunt when there’s a legally recognised and registered contract out for the target, and that contract will always say Dead or Alive. Never just dead. You want this guy taken out you need a whole different kind of schmuck, this one’s not for buying.

‘I’m no godsdamned assassin.’

A perplexed line appeared between her perfectly sculpted eyebrows for a moment, though it was soon replaced with a look that no longer hinted at mockery, but instead jubilantly screamed out “I am ridiculing you”.

It was not a pleasant look.

‘Do you know, Mr Steele, I think I knew before I even walked into this…establishment…that you were not the man for this job. That, in fact, you were no longer a man at all. Enjoy your decrepitude.’ With that the Ice Queen of New Earth casually picked up her multi-comm (also worth more than the bar in which she now found herself), stood up on her expensive stiletto heels (likewise pretty damn pricey) and walked immediately out of MJ’s and back out into the smoggy air (free for the moment, until the Oxygen Tax Bill was passed).

Wow. Just wow. Over the years Metal had hobnobbed with toffs, he’d partied with animals and he’d hunted his prey amongst some of the seediest of seedy denizens of various cities’ underbellies, and he had never in his life come across someone who had been quite as much of a Bitch with a capital “B” as that woman had been. Somehow he felt cleaner just for no longer being in her presence, though still in need of a good, hot shower to take away the taint of Miserable Cow.

‘Meeting not go well, hun? You want another drink?’ Martha-Jane, as always ready with a few words of support…and the enticement of spending yet more of his NEDs in her bar. Sadly those NEDs were almost completely depleted, and for some reason Metal didn’t feel like wallowing in his own misery…again.

‘No, no thanks, MJ, think I’ll take your advice and see about seein’ a Doc-Mech. Thanks, though.’ And he meant it, grateful for her solid friendship, no matter how motivated by his being a paying customer it was. Still, he liked to think that her parting smile was genuine, not that he had ever had much experience of reading women. His first, second and third ex-wives would all attest to that. Though if his former interactions with any of them was anything to go by, they would do so while asking for yet more of his money…

These melancholy thoughts almost made him turn around before he reached the door, changing his mind about an early exit, but thinking about his dire financial circumstances also kept him moving. It was this self-denial which saved his life, the assassins waiting for him outside the bar having not been expecting him for several more hours.

“Assassins” was actually far too generous a term to use to describe the dregs of humanity who reacted with surprise, recognition and very badly concealed lethal intent as soon as the big bounty hunter emerged into the weak afternoon sunlight. “Hired blades” would have been more accurate, especially as their weapons of choice seemed to be a variety of vicious looking cleavers and hunting knives, though even this would probably have made most other hired blades feel slightly insulted. “Evil thugs” was probably the most on-the-money description, especially if you added “foul-smelling”, “ugly” and “in dire need of a bath”.

There were four of them, gathered in a huddle across the hard-packed dirt road that passed for a street in front of MJ’s. To a man they almost jumped out of their skins as soon as they saw Metal emerge, three of them then instinctively reaching into their coats to pull forth the aforementioned lethal cutlery.

The final thug, obviously the most intelligent (or the least stupid), had looked quickly away from his target after his initial reaction, but upon seeing his comrades tooling themselves up he quickly decided that, as the die was cast, he might as well join his friends, pulling out a knife which only avoided being described as a sword because Metal couldn’t bring himself to describe the piece of filth holding it as a swordsman.

Had they been gathered outside the door, weapons already in hand, there was a very good chance they could have taken the big man by surprise. So, had Metal followed his usual pattern and stayed in the bar drinking until he was either thrown out or passed out, the odds were he would have been killed by these idiots. A chill flowed down his spine as he realised he had been targeted for death, and by someone who obviously knew his routine.

Someone who had vetted him.

Someone who might now want him dead as he knew too much about what they wanted.

Someone whose description rhymed with “Crosty Titch”.

And far more importantly, someone who had misjudged him, and whose little assassination plot was going to fail.

Hopefully.

‘OK, boys, looks like we have some business together. Though you guys have lost the element of surprise. Sound about right to you?’

‘Yeah, but there’s still four of us and only one of you, mister Hunter. I still like them odds.’ It was indeed the almost-swordsman who had spoken, revealing himself to be the leader of this little tribe of Neanderthals. Naturally Metal killed him first, and immediately.

The other three thugs blinked slowly with surprise as their leader fell, the hilt of a slim throwing blade still protruding from his forehead. They had barely seen the former bounty hunter move, and he was still stood a good twenty yards away from them.

‘Cybernetic arm, guys, linked with the best neural fibres to the eye and brain. Between the three of them I can pretty much put a knife in anything I can see, and I’ve got about a dozen more blades on me right now. Gonna give you this one chance. Run.’

Metal hadn’t been lying to the Ice Queen when he had told her he was no assassin. It did not mean that he wasn’t a killer. There were four, well, now three, armed men in front of him who had accepted money to take his life. As far as he was concerned they had brought their fate on themselves.

Still, for a brief second he hoped they would take his advice and put the rubber on their soles to good use. He might well be able to kill them (even though he had lied baldly, having thrown his one and only weapon to take down their leader), but he would rather not.

Two of them were tempted, he could see, but the third was a hothead and they were going to now follow his lead.

Dammit.

The fight was short and bloody, and Metal emerged victorious. Not unscathed, though. A line of fire ran across his ribs, one of the thugs having come damn close to a lethal strike when the bounty hunter’s once-graceful defensive manoeuvres had failed him. His joints were stiff and aching, his servos were locking up, and his cybernetics were failing on an alarmingly regular basis.

Had the thug possessed any skill at all the big hunter would now have been dead. As it was he had picked up an injury in a fight with three street punks, so there was still a chance he could die of shame…

The Ice Queen had badly under-estimated him, but she had also tried to have him killed. This told him two things. The first was that she really, really didn’t want anyone left alive who knew that she wanted the unnamed young Sci-Minister dead. The second was that he should probably start carrying more weaponry than just the one throwing knife.

There was no way she was going to leave it at one failed attempt, so the big man would need to be on his guard.

As it always did in times of crisis his mind leapt to the one man he knew he could rely on in all the world. The one man who had always had his back. The one man he trusted implicitly.

Unfortunately this was also a man who had, when last they had spoken, told him to never, ever, ever get back in touch, even if the world was ending in fire and flood and Metal was the only man with an extinguisher and a canoe.

Still, surely that had been an exaggeration, right? And this was an emergency…

Calling up his old friend’s contact information on his retina screen, Duane Steele called the man who had once been the other half of the bounty hunter team Metal Blade.

And prayed he would answer…

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