*This is a sample chapter from the revised Grand Slam Edition. Cover by IMbeta.
The Circuit Breaker warehouse was by the train depot in the kingdom’s eastern industrial district. The walls of the dark office were hit by softly sparking light, showing three computer terminals and desks, dirty ashtrays, and a motivational poster with a green frog.
Sparks shot from the portable server strapped to a man with many roles. He was an Urban Archivist, a Street Scribe.
The man’s black gloves flew over the metal computer tablet he’d placed on the corner desk. A spray can was Velcro’d under the backpack and a data cable was extending from a hole beside it, its connector tapped into the first terminal storing the warehouse’s reports.
He wore a black soccer jersey with a white stripe across his shoulders and black athletic pants that fastened around the ankles inside his black high-tops. His elbows and knees were cushioned by thick black pads while slim guards protected his forearms.
As far as anyone could possibly know him, he was a hooligan.
The Hooligan dug through the facility’s archived emails. The last one they received was dated a few days earlier, three simple words in the subject line: ‘Close Up Shop’, sent from Vikky Relay. There it was: the next clue in his investigation, now he needed to copy the drive.
He typed a few commands and a green progress bar filled until a large ‘EXECUTE’ button popped on the screen. He smacked it with his thumb.
The square backpack whirred and was soon shooting sparks from the side vents as it transferred the data. When it was all copied, his backpack sent a surge of energy to the terminal and overloaded the drives. They burped smoke. The Hooligan unplugged the jumper from the front port and let it zip back into place under his pack. He was confident this data would accelerate his investigation. His city counted on it.
Now that the data was being processed, the Hooligan photographed the small office, documenting its layout. Aiming his camera shots, he snapped three pics and moved on.
No sooner had he stepped away from the window did a hooded young woman with black gloves dart over the gate in its view and book it to the wall below.
Alex hugged the side of the building as she ran to the edge. With a train passing close by, she cautiously peered around the dark corner; delivery trucks were backed up to the warehouse dock and two pairs of men pushed hand carts back and forth between them. She searched for a pattern in their routine, a way to get a closer look. It didn’t take long, as two men passed each other, the closer wheeling a stack into the truck’s container.
The thug dropped the box on the ground halfway in. Turning to leave, he got the full end of a long metal canister straight to the gut. The blow knocked the wind from his lungs and him to his knees. Alex cupped her hands over his mouth as he tried to suck air, making his ears pop and him pass out. She pulled him into the shadows as the next scheduled thug made it up the neighboring truck’s ramp.
When her captive’s twitching legs went limp, Alex propped him against the inside wall. She could hear the other thug as he trudged down the metal ramp next door.
After sliding the canister back over her shoulder, Alex pried open the unconscious man’s box and removed a fist-full of Circuit Breaker 9000 phones. She was at the right place.
“What the hell?!” a voice said from behind.
Startled, Alex found a third thug staring at her from the outside ramp, holding a bulky box in his hands. Alex vaulted from the container as he dropped his haul and pulled a pistol from his jacket.
But before he could raise it at Alex, she’d rerouted his hand to smash him in the nose, forcing his finger down on the trigger. The guard’s face was badly scalded by the bullet’s exhaust and his ears rang from the bang. He gripped his burning face in time for Alex’s strong right hook to simultaneously knock him out and give him arthritis.
With her stealth mission blown, Alex raced through the warehouse. She maneuvered the hallway to the back and found the remaining two guards just outside the office door. Quickly closing the distance between them, Alex reached to the black rubber grip over her shoulder and popped the lid. The look on her face scared both men.
Back in the flashing office, the Hooligan’s black gloves continued over the tablet’s face, the sparking light reflecting off its screen. He had progressed to the second terminal and was antsy to beat feet out of there. A window popped on his log, a directory that listed a location.
It said, ‘Received from Lorelai’s Field’.
He didn’t recognize the location from his maps, but he’d have to investigate it on the trip home. His tablet finished ripping the terminal’s drive. He swiped the log away and executed the overload to kill the machine with a smack of his thumb.
On the hit, the two thugs crashed through the door and landed in a pile. The Hooligan turned as the long shaft of a metal baseball bat sprayed with ‘.357’ introduced Alex into the room.
She wasn’t expecting the person she found.
His face was covered by a large black handkerchief over a balaclava, a flat-billed black ball cap, and squared black ski goggles. She looked him over from head to toe but didn’t see any skin. He was completely anonymous, a Crypto.
Puzzled by the Princess standing over the two men, the Hooligan reached up and squeezed the right corners of his goggles. It clicked like a camera shutter and saved a picture of the moment to the server on his back.
The four figures stood there in silence, then the computer snapped and crackled, and smoke puffed out the top.
“Waddup, playa?” the Hooligan asked with verbal flourish.
“Your mask,” Alex said, studying his style. “You’re from Animos, aren’t you?”
“Have you been to the city?” the Hooligan asked, pulling the jumper out of the terminal. “The air really carries the light this time of year.”
“Didn’t care for it,” she said flippantly. “Felt lonely despite the crowds. Are you destroying the data or stealing it?”
“Yeah,” he said and nodded at an angle.
“I won’t let you,” she shot back.
The Hooligan rubbed the jumper tip between his fingers.
“‘Fraid you can’t stop me.”
“Look, I’ve done this too many times lately to play games, so I’ll be blunt,” Alex said. “Not even your men can help you out of here.”
“I know you have,” the Hooligan said sympathetically, “but they’re not my men.”
He darted to the last computer. Jamming the jumper into the port on the front, he furiously typed into his tablet.
The thugs got to their feet and lunged, but Alex jerked the closest back by the collar.
The Hooligan turned from the terminal in time to catch his attacker with the underside of his foot. The Hooligan looked at the determined face and realized he needed to step things up. “Gotta put this into overdrive,” he said and kicked the man away.
The thug landed on the floor a few feet from where Alex had the other in a head lock.
The Hooligan jabbed his thumb into the green turbo button positioned at the top of his backpack’s shoulder strap three times. The server revved up with each push, releasing a powerful vrooo vroo vroooo rhythm that made Alex imagine a muscle car’s V8 engine firing on all cylinders. Sparks shot from the side vents.
“No,” she said, dazzled by the light show. Shaking it off, she ran her opponent headfirst into the wall. Reaching the crypto, she batted the tablet out of his hands and along the floor. She snagged it to cancel the data wipe.
But the screen was blank.
The Hooligan threw her against the wall and looked at his tablet in her hands. His goggles revealed the screen’s hidden information, including the large ‘EXECUTE’ button. He tapped his knuckle on it.
His backpack whipped up and the terminal coughed smoke. He tugged on the cable and the jumper zipped from the computer back into his server.
“Looks like our fun’s over,” he said as he slid the tablet into the holster-like pouch on his left thigh.
“No,” Alex said, “it looks you get my full attention.”
She pulled her legs up to kick him away and crashed violently to the ground. The Hooligan staggered back, and Alex saw her opening to attack. Unfortunately, she lost her balance as she swung the .357 and put so little force behind the bat that the Hooligan’s thuggish opponent caught it midair.
The fight was descending into disarray, with fighters now defending their enemies.
The Hooligan poked his head up, looking from the thug that saved him and then to Alex.
“You can’t see it, but I’ve got a big grin on my face,” he said gaily.
Suddenly, Alex’s own opponent sprang up and punched the Hooligan in the mouth.
Alex smiled too. “Did yours look like this?”
In a tug of war over the .357, Alex dropped low and gave the thug who had caught it a quick left-right-left to the stomach.
“Why not show it to me?” she said, grabbing the bat and putting her foot to the thug’s shoulder. She pushed her leg out as she pulled her arms in, forcing the bat from his hands.
At the same time, the Hooligan punched his foe backwards. The two thugs collided in the center of the room.
Alex realized that she and the Hooligan had swapped places from where they’d started. Frustrated, she swung the .357 out beside her, smashing the terminal’s monitor.
“Take off your mask,” she said seriously with a smile.
“You got it,” the Hooligan said obediently, and yanked the office door closed with him on the other side.
Stunned at the turn of events, the three still in the room looked at each other dumbly.
Alex sighed. “Hey, uh…” she said with a hanging ellipsis, “that guy’s getting away.”
While one thug yanked the door open and dashed down the hall after the Hooligan, the other rushed Alex. She stepped her left leg forward and smoothly bunted him in the face with the .357, using his own speed to knock him into a cold heap. She dashed through the open door and rushed down the hall.
In the loading dock, the thug Alex had choked out stepped off the back of the cargo truck in a stupor. Trying to shake the dizziness away, he slapped his head once…then again…then a different fist punched him out again. Then the Hooligan stole his keys.
Glad to have the new ride for the trip back home, the Hooligan quickly ran to the dark side of the building and the V8 engine kicked again in the shadow. The burly revving rose until the Hooligan coasted back into the light on a black BMX bike with chrome rims that he’d stashed in the darkness. With his pack shooting sparks as it compiled the new Circuit Breaker data, he steered towards the open trailer.
He jumped off the bike and let it ghost ride up the ramp, where it crashed inside the container and rang the bell on the handlebars. The Hooligan slid the ramp under the truck, stepped to the fender, pulled the rollup door down, and locked it into place. Turning, he found the thug that had pursued him pointing a pistol at his chest.
But before the man could pull the trigger, Alex slammed her shoulder into him at a full sprint out the warehouse and ejected him from the ground. The Hooligan sidestepped the flying body and let it crash head-first into the back of the door. He crumbled into an unconscious pile.
Alex and the Hooligan were alone at last. But Alex was tired and breathed hard to prove it.
“Give me the data,” she ordered, wearily pointing the bat his way. The tip visibly wobbled under the strain.
“You look beat,” the Hooligan noted sympathetically. “You should rest, forget you saw me.”
Alex charged forward, swinging.
“Hand it over!” she commanded again.
The Hooligan ducked the corner as the bat buried into the truck. A gunshot rang out loud. She pulled it out and swung it the other way, but he casually pivoted so it buried into the driver’s side. Gunshot.
Before she could pull it out, the Hooligan punched her across the face one way, then the other, then straight on to knock her to her back.
The Hooligan stood over Alex, his backpack sparking excitedly into the night sky.
“You cryptos are cowards,” Alex said through her exhaustion. “No courage to put your face to your actions.”
“Your father had courage,” the Hooligan said. “Do you remember the last face he made? If your enemies know who you are they will find your weakness.”
“Whatever your plan is for the Diamond Kingdom, you’ll have to kill me first.”
The young princess’s words caught the Hooligan off guard, his sparking server settling into a low, uncertain grind.
Out of nowhere, a spray of bullets hit the truck’s passenger side and swept towards the Hooligan. Diving behind the driver’s side, the crypto threw the door open and climbed inside the cab.
Alex spun to the source. Her protector wore leather boots and a large, light brown wool poncho with a pistol-grip machine gun pointed out a slit on the side, steadied by a hand with a large circular scar where the thumb and index finger met. He flipped the safety on and let the gun go. An elastic strap swung it back under cover. He had a rugged face and stiff hair brushed back and to the left, above shaved sides.
“Carmichael!” she exclaimed at seeing her father’s Royal Guard.
The truck’s engine fired and coughed exhaust as it pulled from the dock. Carmichael sprinted past Alex, a small sawed-off shotgun in his hands. He skidded to a stop at the driver’s side and destroyed the mirror reflecting the Hooligan’s goggles looking back. He pumped the shotgun and sent another burst at the tires, but the truck had gained too much distance. It took a corner at the far end.
Alex got to her feet. “He stole the Circuit Breaker files!” she said to Carmichael. “Did you see him? Do you know where he’s from?” The realization took over Alex’s body and lifted the .357 over her head. “How are we supposed to find a shadow in a city without lights?” Her anger pulled the trigger.
Channeling the last of her strength, she slammed the .357 on the ground with the force of a rocket, producing a gnarly gunshot that cracked the night in two while failing to properly express the full depth of her fury.
As if an alarm clock had rung, the three bodies stirred nearby, one groaning in pain.
“If the Diamond Kingdom’s enemies are in Animos City,” Carmichael said unflinchingly, “then that’s where we go. I failed your father, Princess, I won’t fail you.”
Alex looked at the gun in his hands. “That standard issue for the Royal Guards?” she asked and looked into his eyes.
“I’m not a Royal Guard anymore,” he said, his Diamond Badge gone to prove it. “But I will give my life to protect our home.” His hazel eyes blazed as he made his pledge.
Alex stared at him, trying to decide if she trusted his sword. Then she walked to a thug regaining consciousness and kicked him unconscious again. Pulling keys from his pocket, she tossed them to Carmichael.
“Get in the truck,” she ordered.
Continued in the full novel.