Hellscape book 1: Hell’s End.
Rebellion, war and survival. Love’s a bitch.
Tuck’s a Gutter, one of a gang of violent orphans running level thirty-six of Hell’s End, the solar system’s outermost space station. There’s only one way out of this brotherhood of blood—grow up and be killed and eaten by other Gutters.
Tuck barely escapes his death sentence, only to fall prey to the powerful L’arisian family. Rescue from a L’arisian whorehouse never happens, but rescued he is, and by Gov soldiers no less. Alone among the enemy, Tuck trusts only one person—the man who risked everything to pluck him to safety.
Ivan’s a soldier. No more, no less. But the disquieting things he learns about the Government’s plans for the Gutter kid have him doing the one thing a soldier shouldn’t do. Think about doing what’s right instead of what he’s told. All for a guy he can’t get out of his head.
Getting involved in a rebellion that might get them killed is a problem. Falling in love? That’s a disaster in the making.
(Warning: This book contains rebels, spies, soldiers, bad guys, love, sex, betrayal, fights to the death, and robot spiders. Really.)
© Copyright 2013 Ally Blue
Tuck knew he had to leave the Gutters when he came back from a supply run to a nest of drawn knives.
He stopped just short of the doorway into the old building where the gang holed up for the dark-cycles. Like that made much difference down here. The glow from the heater he, Mags and Stitch had cobbled together out of old parts turned the clump of unfriendly faces blue. “What the fuck, guys?”
A tiny blonde girl rubbed her nose and held up her small dagger. “You is too ol’. Bad.”
“Shut up, Bug. He’s too old, you’re too fucking young.” Sandman stalked forward, the toddler they’d found not long ago cradled in one arm and the other holding the sonic pistol he’d had with him ever since he was brought here as a small boy. He stared at Tuck with his one intact eye. The yellow rubber ball with the smiley face drawn on it grinned at Tuck from the empty space where the other eye used to be, once upon a time before Tuck had ever known him. “Stitch said you almost got caught this time.”
Fucking asshole. “I’m here,” Tuck pointed out. “I brought the food.” He shrugged out of his backpack, heavy with dried synthmeat, rice, beans and other staples. Just add water, the only thing they had plenty of, thanks to the automatic functions built into Hell’s End that nobody knew how to turn off anymore. “And they didn’t follow me.” He picked Stitch’s wild braids out of the crowd and glared pure painful death at him.
“Maybe. But it was close. You’re getting slow. Getting old.” Sandman smiled. It was fucking creepy. Not only because of the smiley-face ball, but because of the unholy gleam in his remaining eye. “You know what that means.”
Yeah, Tuck knew. He turned his back on the crowd of dirty, hungry kids he’d just risked his life for and ran like hell.
They followed, ’cause that’s what they did. He outpaced them with no trouble. Sandman was the oldest of the bunch other than Dodger and himself, and half a head taller than Tuck, but he couldn’t match Tuck’s speed in spite of his long legs. Besides, Tuck had memorized the maze of streets on this level of the tremendous space station before most of these kids were born. If he could make it off level 36 alive, they’d let him go. If they caught him, he’d become a meal for the ones strong enough to fight for it. That’s how things worked.
Not that he blamed the Gutters. It was bound to happen. Didn’t matter how long you’d been in the gang, they always turned on their own once you got too old to steal from the Families without getting caught. Leading a goon for one of the Families—or worse, the fucking Government—back to the nest meant death for the whole gang.
You didn’t screw around with that shit. Violators died. No mercy. No exceptions. He’d gutted his share of slowpokes and fuckups over the years and eaten ’em without losing sleep.
Except Lani. He’d pretended, but hell, he couldn’t do it. Not his own sister. The Gutters who’d known him and Lani since light-cycle one ignored it, ’cause they understood. The younger ones looked the other way, on account of not wanting to lose their own insides.
Dodger dropped from a window into the alley right in front of Tuck. She grinned, her knife a long, black shadow in front of her and the faint light catching on the ends of her spiky hair. “Gotcha, old man.”
Tuck grinned back. “You wish, little girl.”
Even in the almost-dark, he saw her scowl and knew he had her. She hated being called a little girl, never mind that growing up meant gutting in this world. So stupid.
He lunged, swung and hit her in the jaw with the handle of his knife. She’d had a break there a couple of orbits ago, courtesy of an Ortega thug, and it hadn’t healed right. She went down with a satisfying crack.
He thought about killing her but figured he didn’t have time. Sandman and the rest would catch up soon enough, and he planned to be long gone before then. Sandman had fucked him enough to look in his eyes and guess where he was headed, and he did not want that.
One eye on the shadows all around, Tuck snatched up Dodger’s knife and ran on. The skitter of approaching feet chased him down the alley and around the corner.
It took a long time and a couple of close calls—fucking Bug almost found him once, little snot-nosed pest—but Tuck finally made it to the well access hidden behind the old storage facility. No one ever used it anymore, since the only outlets from this well were on levels deep in Sorensen and L’arisian territories. He found the crowbar he’d hidden under a pile of trash a while back—just in case, and a good thing too—pried open the door to the ladder and left the level he’d called home for thirteen years.
Tuck stopped at level 55, in the heart of L’arisian territory, long enough to break into a closed shop and steal a bag and all the food and water he could carry. Lucky for him, the station was in the middle of dark-cycle so there weren’t many people around, and the few he saw were easy enough to avoid. A L’arisian controlled level wasn’t a healthy place for a Gutter. Hell, none of the Family levels were. He couldn’t go to a Government level either, though. Cams all over the place. He’d be caught in no time flat. Which left him with exactly one choice.
Tuck climbed into the most remote access well he could find that would take him where he needed to go, swung himself off the platform and hung on the ladder for a moment. He looked up, then down. The row of faint yellow lights vanished into the distance on both ends. He couldn’t see the top or the bottom. He’d been in the space station’s wells a million times—thieves could hardly use the lift, after all—but it always felt like being stuck in another dimension.
He hoped like hell he lived to see it again.
“Fucking son of a bitch,” he grumbled, and resumed the climb.
His thighs shook by the time he eased open the access door on level 74, smack in the middle of the L’arisian-vs.-Government war zone. Gutters didn’t go to the war zones if they had any other choice. Not even Sandman. Tuck had only ever been to this level once in his life. He would probably have to curl up in a deserted closet for a few cycles, but at least he wouldn’t end up butchered and spit-roasted. Not that they were likely to hunt him down, but better safe than sorry. Stitch had almost talked some of the older kids into going after Ghost when she got away. Only Sandman’s absolute control over the group had kept it from happening.
The panel opened into a dark alleyway between two black buildings that stretched all the way to the level’s ceiling two hundred meters above. It smelled like piss and rot. The whine of sonic pistols, the crack of large-bolt sizzlers and the shouts of the people shooting at each other bounced around the narrow space where Tuck crouched, considering his next move.
Obviously, he couldn’t stay in this alley forever. Too exposed. The gut instinct he’d always relied on told him he needed to move, sooner rather than later. On the other hand, the battle noises were way too close for comfort at the moment. All things considered, he figured his best bet was to stay put for the time being. If he’d had a sizzler—even a small-bolt one—he’d have taken a shot at running, but all he had was a knife. Sticking his neck out right now might get him killed. He could go looking for a more secure hiding place after the shooting stopped. Or at least after it moved on. He’d come up with something more long-term later, when he’d had a chance to think it over. For now, he had enough food and water to last him a while. If he could avoid the Families and the Government long enough to get his head together, maybe he could come up with a plan.
A plan. Right.
His lips twisted into a bitter half-smile at the thought. No tribe, no friends, and no safe place to go in all one hundred and twenty levels of Hell’s End. Pretty much the basis for every successful plan.
For the first time since he’d run from the Gutters who knew how many hours ago, the truth of how fucked he really was hit him like a boot in the balls. He covered his face with both hands.
A sizzler bolt split the air close enough to singe the hairs on the back of his neck. He flattened himself to the grimy metal floor by sheer reflex. Lifting his face cautiously above the mound of twisted scrap metal half-hiding him from whoever might be looking, Tuck peered toward the end of the alley. Two silhouettes fought against the red-orange glow of a fire somewhere beyond his field of vision. Curses, grunts and the meaty smack of fists on flesh drifted on the stale air. As the shadows moved closer, the stink of burned skin almost overpowered the smell of old urine and decay.
When Tuck heard the distinct ring of a knife being drawn, he crouched and prepared to run. Didn’t matter who survived, Gov or L’arisian, neither one would think twice before shooting him dead and throwing his body in the matter converter. Maybe nobody else on this fucking scrapheap gave a shit if he lived or died, but he did, and he wasn’t about to let a Family goon or some Gov limpdick take him down.
The smaller of the two figures waited until the bigger one swung, then crouched and shoved the knife deep into the big one’s gut. The big one—a man, Tuck saw now in the faint light of the fire—crumpled to the ground without so much as a sigh. The smaller figure squatted to wipe its blade on the man’s shirt. In the growing glow from outside the alley, Tuck saw the L’arisian insignia tattooed on the person’s upper arm—the emblem that meant the asshole would not leave the area without thoroughly exploring it first, because Etienne L’arisian made sure his forces never missed a trick—and took the best opportunity he was likely to get.
He jumped up, ran and sprang over the figure while it was still crouched beside the body. For a heady, brilliant moment, he thought he was going to get away. The alley entrance got closer, closer, gold and red and bright as the hell the space station was named after, and nothing had ever looked more fucking beautiful. Then the sizzler bolt burned a chunk out of his right thigh just as he reached the corner.
He went down with his teeth clamped tight around a shout he refused to let out. Damn, that hurt like nothing else.
The sound of boots pounding down the alley behind him forced him to his feet, in spite of the eye-crossing pain. Running felt impossible, but he did it anyway, because not running meant death.
Outside, the battle had moved on. He saw the front lines a hundred meters or so ahead, lit by the flames still out of sight behind the buildings, the Gov and the L’arisians going at each other like nothing else mattered. Probably nothing else did, as far as they were concerned.
Tuck didn’t give a shit. They couldn’t be bothered with one wounded former Gutter looking for a good spot to go to ground, and that was all that mattered to him.
Too bad the goon behind him wasn’t with the program.
Another sizzler bolt grazed his side, cutting a slice out of his shirt. “Fucking shit.” He dared a glance behind him. The woman—no doubt about it now—had gained on him, her face set in scary-focused determination.
He limped along, his mind racing. No way could he outrun her with his injured leg. He’d have to try his luck with ambushing her, disarming her and taking her out with his bare hands.
The odds were against him. She had a sizzler and a knife, and was uninjured. He had his knife, his wits and his strength, and a slight size advantage, but considering her status as a trained L’arisian goon, his injury put him well below her level in a fight.
He laughed. What the hell, right? Better to die fighting than waste away of starvation somewhere in a dark corner of Hell’s End and have someone find his bones ages later and not even know who he was.
Another alley opened up to his right. He ducked into it. Instead of running to the obvious cover of the garbage piled at the end, though, he flattened himself against the wall just inside the entrance. A few seconds later, the sturdy boots pounded up to the alley and stopped.
Of course she couldn’t be your average stupid goon. Tuck wrinkled his nose. He was committed now, he was gonna do it anyway. He steeled himself to pounce.
Even from the smartest L’arisian goon, he didn’t expect her to step right in front of him, sizzler pointed straight at his heart, and tell him, “Don’t move one single muscle, honey.”
Tuck had never been good at taking orders. He ran.
Her sizzler got him in the same thigh as before, a little to the left of the other wound. His leg collapsed, and he went right down with it, doing his best not to scream. At least sizzler wounds didn’t bleed much.
Her smiling face came into view above him while he curled on the ground with both hands around his right leg. She looked younger than him at first glance, but the faint lines around her eyes told a different story. “You’re an idiot, you know that? But my brother has his uses for pretty young idiots.” Her smile widened, showing sharp little teeth. “Sweet dreams, honey.”
Tuck didn’t do panic. It wasn’t in his makeup. But the woman’s words plus the sting of a hypo shoved into his neck brought him as close as he’d ever been.
Death, he could handle. A L’arisian whorehouse? He wasn’t so sure.