Click here to purchase your copy of First Shot: Jin & Tonick, Book 1


Gen-Cor Invisi-Communique




RE: Test Subject


Obtained. Experiment @ 0600


Attendance required.



Chapter One


Locus:  Alter Earth

Bostgo Sector



Date:    11 Pentian

Time:    1600


Minutes after Tonick disappeared, I shrink back into my alley and turn my face toward the brick wall, tucking my chin behind my black leather collar as the Corp officer floats by on his hover bike. I pull the bandana a little lower over my forehead.

I have the shakes, and my heartbeat thunders in my ears. No matter how many times I swallow, my throat stays dry. I can’t let the robos see my hair. That’s the giveaway, and then GenCor would know to scoop me up, too.

The caught don’t come back.

Tonick’s words echo in my brain, and I smooth my hand over my scalp. Damn.

My starfish-hair has grown so much already. The ends are longer than the kerchief, peeking out like neon signs to anybody who wants to collect a sizeable bounty.

I have to get home so I can come back and figure out how to get to Teq and Tonick.

The caught don’t come back, but I’m going to change that. Somehow.

The Corp officer’s siren warbles blocks away. They found something, and I creep toward the mouth of the alley.

When Gen-Cor lost control of their ReProd Cryo-storage a few years ago, I was one of the few half-grown ReProds that made it out, released by some unseen hand that bestowed freedom on all of us and freed us from the evil plans of the “dread-lord.”

At least that’s the way Teq puts it.

GenCor can’t have me.

But I have to find Teq and Tonick. I can’t survive without them.

Who told GenCor about Teq? She’s a pink like me, but she’s always been better at hiding. We’re two of hundreds of thousands of genetically modified embryos-turned-children, traipsing about the UnderCity.

I risk sticking my head out to check the road. Some brave cat trots across the smoggy street like it isn’t a delicacy down here. In the distance, somebody screams, and my heart slams against my chest. Dangerous doesn’t begin to describe the UnderCity.

I jog onto the pavement, replaying the earlier scene.

When the white smocks got close enough, they zapped Teq and dragged her away.

The uniforms spouted off some bogus theft charges as they shot Teq full of taze-prongs. I could hear the electrified bzzzt from twenty feet away. She crumpled to the ground with a panicked look toward the shadows that hid me.

She whispered, maybe she screamed, “Go. Find Tonick.”

I swear she did. I didn’t imagine the words. I heard them.

So I did the coward dance and ran around the corner, tied my hair up and tucked it in a headscarf I had hidden in my pocket. Tonick chased after me. And then, from a hidden place across the street, we watched them shove her into a van and take her away.

Another patrol appears at the end of the street, and I duck behind a dumpster. I’ve still got the post-adrenaline shakes, and tears fight for their turn.

Acidic raindrops bead on the passing patrol’s rear window and twinkle in the light like the stars I read about in a piece of book I found in the dump. The vehicle drifts down the street, disappearing in the smog. I slip out from my hiding place and bolt toward the next cross street.

I have to hurry. My hair isn’t getting any shorter.

In this part of the UnderCity, wrought-iron cages surround dead trees every twenty or so feet, a remnant from a better time that nobody remembers anymore. My thick-soled combat boots don’t make much noise, and bursts of wind grab bits of trash and paper, tossing them around. Broken-down cars lean against the curbs.

Yesterday, Tonick had been right behind me when they dragged Teq away. He ushered me toward safety. Then Tonick disappeared, too, and I’ve been hunting for hours. What if I never hear his voice again? I don’t think I can bear it.

Thanks to Gen-Cor. And Gen-Cor only had to be pointed in the right direction.

My heart pounds in my chest. An artificial cop strolls the sidewalk beyond my alley. Every bit of me tingles. I want to run. I’m wired to run.

But I stand still and twist one of the studs on my wrist cuff. It isn’t worth much but it confuses their heat sensors. My pulse gallops at an insane pace. Patrols capture all the ReProds they can find, routinely scouring the UnderCity for any they’ve missed.

I’m a pro at camouflage, but I’m a delicacy like that cat. I need to become an expert at finding. Tonick and Teq need me.

The robo pauses and tips its head to the side. An hourglass twirls in the sockets where eyes should be. Updating. Fortuitous. They don’t function while they’re updating.

I ease out of my hiding place and crane my neck. They travel in twos. Where’s the other one? Peering through the smog, I take another step.

I shouldn’t have gone out, and I shouldn’t have dragged Tonick with me.

I knew better, but I wanted him to myself for a change.

I’d gone out, hunting for freedom and trying to glimpse the stars. Tonick says stars are lucky in the Undercity. But I’ve only managed to see the bright, winking lights of MidHeight through the billowing haze that never clears. I’ve almost convinced myself the wrap-around solar neons are as good as the real thing.

On my way back, I came around the corner, shocked to see Teq face down on the sidewalk, corp officers crawling all over her. They dragged her into their GenCor hover cars. I had to clamp a hand over my mouth to keep from screaming her name.

When they took her, Tonick gave me a look and shook his head, even as pain tore at his blue eyes. He didn’t want them to find me, and I couldn’t argue.

I should have been brave then. Now Tonick was gone, too.

Dammit. Where do they take the pinks they capture?

Where is Tonick? Today, I haven’t seen him at all. Is he out searching, too?

I freeze on the sidewalk, listening. Nothing’s out and about. Only fools prowl the streets, dreaming for better. I should be home, in bed. Tonick told me to go home. Why didn’t I listen?

The UnderCity is grimy and dirty and filled with misfits a lot like me, ducking between the block-wide trunks of hundreds of buildings that grow upward from the UnderCity streets, stretch through the break in the clouds at MidHeight, and bloom into Swank penthouses in the sunny Crest. Alter Earth is covered in a forest of short, abandoned buildings and armored skyscrapers.

Every inhabitant wants to level up.

We’re all oxygen-starved cockroaches to the Swanks and not much better to the MidHeighters. But I’m something different, no matter what level I’m on.

Another clatter sounds, the source hidden by the smog.

I sink slowly behind the nearest rusted-through dumpster and step into the trash chute that comes from the building behind me. A light drizzle begins as the bricks behind me bite through my pants to graze my bottom. These cops are programmed to target fast movements—runners not hiders.

I lick my lips, and the air tastes bitter and burns my throat. At least the acid rain isn’t caustic anymore, only slightly corrosive. It used to be a death sentence to be outside. Some of the UnderCity oldies have horrific scars that polka-dot their bodies as thoroughly as new gene-splice tech. They say the sun used to shine down here on the surface. I don’t believe them.

Only upper level dwellers, the Swanks, get to see the sun… and real stars.

Another clatter splits the silence, but I hold still. They’re programmed to chase movement. Not heat signatures.

It’s month Pentian, but I wish it were month Sextus already.

Swanks party in the Crest for the whole thirty days, giving gifts and celebrating another year. Last year, during the month of Sextus, the patrols stopped in the UnderCity while Gen-Cor and the Corp all leveled up for the duration.

Last year, Teq and Tonick gifted me a self-aware smart-cycle. Tonick named the curvy, sleek-lined motorcycle Dyad. He didn’t ask for Teq’s input or mine, but the name suits the two-wheeler.

She built her own interactive avatar, choosing a feminine construct. From the interface, she even introduced herself as Dyad the first time I met her, grinning at me from the screen between the handlebars. The monitor isn’t hard, but made of a soft gelatinous material that’s almost like skin to the touch. I’m not sure how Tonick came up with the recipe, but he says it makes it easier to interface with her programming.

We took our first pleasure ride while everyone was busy with their Sextus debauchery, and we’ve been happily darting all over Bostgo ever since. Dyad’s turned into my fellow delinquent. I spend all the time I can spare with her. For Teq, Tonick, and me, last year’s Sextus was a mini vacation from fear.

I need to get home. All my remembering isn’t calming me down like it usually does. My heart still pounds, my limbs still shake, and my starfish dreads are getting longer by the second.

The computerized cop makes another pass in his shiny new flying squad car. “We are only here to help. We are committed to help all ReProds and their unique medical needs.”

What lies.

It—He? I’m never sure—announces the deception to the smog, assuming there are inhabitants hiding in it. Its tinny voice grates on my nerves, and his beady sensors swing from the right to the left, scanning. He’s fastened in the flying cop car, but he has a wealth of weapons at his fingertips. I’ve seen others throw nets, zap people, shoot people. They get what they’re after any way they’re able.

He’s employed by the government, and the government is employed by Gen-Cor—or Gen-Cor is employed by the government. Nobody talks about it, but it’s gotten so nobody can tell the difference between the two, and everybody that isn’t employed by one or the other… starves.

We’re all scared of Gen-Cor, and Gen-Cor controls the Corp authorities down here, using them to hunt down all the ReProds, and especially Pinks. There’s something about us Pinks.

It makes another pass, and I check my wrist heater and then hunker down to wait for it to give up.

Tonick checks on me every morning, except the mornings after he’s been with Teq. Those days, I don’t see either of them until lunch.

My lips pucker at the familiar twinge of jealousy. Tonick never asks me to his bed. Only Teq. And now they’re both gone.

They aren’t a couple, but whatever they are is close enough. We’ve lived together so long that I know when they’ve been amorous and when they haven’t. Teq talks to me about it sometimes. The familiar flare of jealousy strikes again until I stamp it down.

When Teq got nabbed, Tonick tugged on my hand, pulling me away. Then I didn’t stop to look back until he did.

Then he wasn’t there, and the bottom fell out of my world. Tonick wouldn’t have been stupid enough to get caught. He’s smarter than that. Too smart for his own good sometimes.

A siren warbles to the right of me. Static and then a loud beep.

“Halt,” a second robotic voice commands.

I’ve got to duck out. I can’t wait around forever.

Keeping my back to the wall, I lift my hands and check the band on my wrist. If my reception is good, so is his. It’s a green light for the cyborg eye. I don’t have the tracker under my skin anymore. Teq made sure that came out the day they found me, shivering in the gutter outside the bar.

GenCor can’t be sure I’m a pink without the tracker.

At least not until they see my hair.

It takes one hundred and fifty seconds of clear reception for the Corp system to scan me for a tag and then shift to DNA records as a means to identify me.

I glance forward and then behind me. The street is empty in both directions. I have to run. I don’t have a choice. I can’t let them take me like they did Teq. Keeping my hands in the air, I snap my fingers to signal Dyad. The wristlet vibrates, letting me know it sent the message.

I’m not far from Six Corners. I can initiate sewer vents from there. The heat confuses the sensors. Leftovers from some other enterprising citizen hell-bent on staying hidden, the effects made me an invisible prey.

I break into a run, aiming straight ahead, ducking beneath the patrol. I lift my hand, running my fingers along the smooth belly of our flying police force. It doesn’t react. The cold metal has no feeling.

I’ve been here so many times before. Red and white and blue lights reflect off buildings. I’m not far. Not far. I just have to make it.

“Halt,” the copper repeats. “Precautionary measures will be taken.” It follows.

Don’t shoot me. Don’t shoot me.

The words pulse in time with my heartbeat. I’m banking on the fact they won’t shoot a Pink. They take us alive. They need our blood, fresh from our veins. And then I hear the sweetest sound I know. The distant hum of my two-wheeled Dyad, coming up fast. The bracelet pulsates, signaling the countdown.

I count down with the vibrations. 5… 4… 3… 2… 1…

I leap upward, swinging my arms and flexing my middle. I’ve got to get enough height to clear Dyad’s handlebars. Time slows as I curl and then flip in the air. I laugh when I realize I’ve executed the new move perfectly, and time speeds back up. When I land on the seat, the smart motorbike wobbles beneath me, but self-adjusts to keep us both upright.

“Greetings, Jin,” she says. And then I’m grinning like a speed demon as we tear through Bostgo streets.

The officer is blaring warnings behind me.

I try to outrun him, but he keeps pace. Upgrades and updates. I sneer.

God bless Gen-Cor.

The air is wetter now, the rain has turned heavier. It burns all the way down my trachea until I pull at the limited oxygen in the atmosphere, feeling choked and strangled. God, it smells like bleach and ammonia, only it doesn’t kill you as fast. My eyes water until I have to swipe at them with my palms so I can see where I’m going. There’s nobody else on Milwaukee Avenue, only me and the hum of my wheels.

Hit the button at the crossing. I’ll hide on the painted star.

I burst into the intersection. The white, six-pointed star is painted where three roads meet. At Cicero Road, I slow long enough to lean over and hit the blinking button on my display. The pole of the streetlight illuminates.

When the countdown begins, I roll into the middle of the intersection and put the kickstand down in the center of the stenciled shape. The traffic signal changes from a pixilated orange hand to a steadily lit shape of a running man. I’m not a pedestrian, though. I’m a fugitive.

There’s a whoosh and all the manholes leach hot, gaseous clouds.

The patrol sweeps the area. He can’t see me. I’m invisible in the sewer gasses. I’m hidden in the middle of the shape left by other UnderDwellers. They say stars are lucky in the UnderCity. Like a unicorn, they’re a good omen that never happens.

Municipal force warnings replay as I settle into the fetal position, barely able to stay on the stenciled star. On the pavement, I hunker down beside Dyad while the robo-officer keeps searching. Whenever I run, they chase. They track movement.

Horns blare in the distance, and the cops melt into the smog.

“Halt,” the tinny voices echo. “Precautionary measures will be taken.”

Gunshots ring out. Somebody screams, and I squeeze my eyes closed to block out the sounds of dying.

“It’s time to go home,” Dyad says. The words scroll across the interface, and I don’t argue. I have to get home to shave. My pink hair has grown out again. Already.

Someday, the UnderCity cops will get upgrades to beat the safe places. Someday, but for now, we know how to hide. And maybe GenCor will fall before then.

Dyad scans the surrounding blocks, and we ease along the perimeter, stopping only to scan. Tonick programmed Dyad to protect me, and she takes her purpose seriously. On our street, I hop off Dyad and tap the bracelet. She fluoresces in orange and white.

“Have a good night, Jin,” Dyad says and heads down the block.

She’ll tuck herself into an empty warehouse until I’m ready to go out searching again. Outside of Teq and Tonick, Dyad is my best friend. She knows how badly I need Teq and Tonick, and she knows how my pheromones change round Tonick.

At least Dyad doesn’t hassle me about it.

I jog down the street, jump over a low brick wall, and through a glassless window that had been broken out before I moved in. Teq says she tossed a chair through it a few years ago when she was arguing with Tonick.

Outside the establishment, Cheers is painted on the red brick over the door. We never use the entrance. The hinges are rusted shut.

Inside, “Everybody knows your name,” is stenciled on the back wall. Tonick repaints it every few months. He says he keeps it since he can’t handle much change. It messes with his brain patterns or something. And he’s a big fan of irony.

We don’t have electricity, not exactly, but I reach for the switch anyway. Sometimes Tonick’s system syphons off enough energy to power the bulbs in the bar. Most of the time, it’s only enough to fill the rows of batteries in his room. While I wait for the system to warm up, I step behind the counter.

Empty liquor bottles line the back wall. Tables lay on their sides and broken-legged chairs litter the floor. Dust covers everything. Tonick says it was a nice place before everyone decided to live above the clouds. I don’t remember anything before I woke up stretched out on the bar, Tonick screaming obscenities at me, telling me not to die.

The bulb flickers to life. First, I made it to the star, now this. Today is my lucky day.

I laugh and place a lowball glass on the brushed stainless-steel bar, grab a mason jar of white lightning, and fill it. It makes me happy when the lights work while I have a stiff drink, shave my head, and go to work.

I tuck a handful of pink dreads behind my ear to get them off my neck. The pink is unique. These days, everybody and their mother has gene-spliced hair or faces or bodies. It was never popular country-wide, but there were enough others to keep me from standing out.

One of my parents – maybe both – wanted a self-healing pink. Something about lower long-term medical costs, so I got the pink gene.

These days, it’s that simple, as long as you can pay. Some piece of stray DNA from a starfish got spliced into mine when I was a zygote. Only my parents never took me home. Maybe they couldn’t make the payments.

At least I don’t have the perpetual finger twitches of the Tiger-skins. Most of the Tigers have implants to control the twitching now. A gift from the almighty Gen-Cor.

I don’t know what to believe. The news isn’t truth anymore. Why did GenCor need Teq? Why did they need me?

I drain the last of the liquid courage and slam the glass on the metal in front of me, swiping the straight razor from beneath the countertop and crossing the floor to the dartboard. I flip it around to reveal the cheap mirror that’s glued behind the game.

I stare. Tonick calls my skin burnt umber when it’s not sooty and grimy from the UnderCity. Rimmed in navy blue, his mechanical cerulean irises are clear and never miss much.


I snarl at my reflection and blow air through my teeth. My hand tightens on the shaver handle. That shot of booze is thinking for me, blurring the edges between the smart thing to do and what I think I want.

Grabbing my hair, I drag the blade through the base of each dread, as close to the skin as possible. It’s not really a dread. It’s more like a thin starfish arm growing out of my head, a side-effect of the gene splicing. And it makes me stand out in the UnderCity. I can’t pick up work as a Pink. Gen-Cor spread rumors about Pinks having diseases at the same time they put the bounty on our heads.

Once the dreads are gone, I smear my head with a slick of diesel grease and mineral oil and make my scalp baby-butt smooth. I wipe a grimy towel across my head, and then I slick on another layer. It’ll hide the shock of bright pink a little longer as it comes back. I’ll be able to earn one more bite and one more credit than I could otherwise. I clean the razor on the dirty towel and think of Tonick.

I smooth my hand over my skin. My scalp is on fire from the dull blade. Time to sharpen it again. I’ll tell Tonick when I find him. The hair will be back by morning and just as long.

I dip a tiny paintbrush in charcoal and drag it around my eyes, each pass wider than the last. At the end, I grab a bigger brush and dust on the black. Tonick calls it my raccoon mask. I think of it as my Zorro mask. It keeps me hidden in plain sight and makes my green eyes stand out.

I snap another cuff around my other wrist. It’s got more Tonick gadgets hidden in the sharp studs. If the gizmos don’t work, I can stab somebody with it. Or with the small dagger I’ve tucked inside my waistband.

Life would be easier if my body would take enhancements like everyone else’s. But, like my hair, my body replaces cells too quickly, and I’m stuck here, terrified for Teq and Tonick while I take time for a haircut.


Click here to continue reading First Shot: Jin & Tonick, Book 1