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Excerpt: Null Set by S. L. Huang

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Math-genius mercenary Cas Russell has decided to Fight Crime(tm). After all, with her extraordinary mathematical ability, she can neuter bombs or out-shoot an army. And the recent outbreak of violence in the world’s cities is Cas’s own fault—she’s the one who crushed the organization of telepaths keeping the world’s worst offenders under control.

But Cas’s own power also has a history, one she can’t remember—or control. One that’s creeping into her mind and fracturing her sanity…just when she’s gotten herself on the hit list of every crime lord on the West Coast. And her best, only, sociopathic friend. Cas won’t be able to save the world. She might not even be able to save herself.

Null Set by S. L. Huang is available on August 6.

one

My name is Cas Russell.

Except a little over a year ago, I found out it isn’t.

That night a woman named Dawna Polk stood over me and melted my brain, filling it with scenes from a mislaid life, flashes of a past I’d forgotten to miss. She’d cracked the window into shredded fragments I’d only glimpsed in dreams, negative spaces where I’d never noticed the blank emptiness of what was gone.

In the scattered time since then, I’d been shocked to discover that everyone else had memories of a coherent existence. Memories of being a child, of growing up. Of a life before becoming a supernaturally mathematical retrieval specialist who drank her way from one job to the next.

Yeah. That would be me. Cas Russell.

Right now, however, I was unfortunately not drunk. Right now I was crouched on top of a metal shipping container in the Port of Los Angeles with a high-powered rifle in my hands. Five people stared up at me from a rough semicircle on the ground, all clad in black to match the moonless night, and all more than ready to kill me if I took my eyes off them for the least split second. They were the first break we’d had in finding their shitstain of a boss, and I was going to make them tell me.

Even if I had to do it without torturing them. Because torture would piss off the tall black man who’d decided to become my conscience, and who was currently forcing a sixth trafficker up alongside the rest with the business end of his Glock.

“Okay?” I called to him.

“Okay,” Arthur called back. He started roughly patting down his prisoner.

“Here’s how it’s going to go,” I addressed our standoff. “The first one of you who tells me how to find Pourdry gets to live. The rest get to see how well their organs can withstand the hydrostatic shock of a .308 round. Clear?”

“Fuck off,” snarled the guy whose hands Arthur was zip-tying, which was stupid, because I twitched the rifle over and pulled the trigger. The shot whizzed by and buried itself in the ground behind him, so close it grazed his neck. A dark line of blood welled up, and the guy froze.

From less than a foot away, on the other side of him, Arthur glared at me. He didn’t like when I was cavalier with guns, even though he knew I could predict exactly where I would hit, probability one. Whatever had Swiss-cheesed my memory had left enough skill at instantaneous mathematics to hit a penny falling behind a wall from a mile away through a windy hailstorm.

The dudes below me, however, did not know I breathed superhuman knowledge of velocities and forces. They only saw me fire a shot that would have killed a man if it had been an inch over—and all a foot from my own backup like a goddamned maniac.

“Hey, that was lucky,” I said. “Next time my aim might not be so great.”

Everyone stayed very still, except for Arthur, who finished securing the guy he’d brought over and moved on to the rest. His eyes kept flicking up to me with just a little irritation. Okay, more like a lot.

I ignored him and very obviously adjusted my rifle to the next person in line. Quickly rising to the ignominious title of largest human trafficker on the West Coast, their boss was the scum of the earth, but somehow he inspired devoted allegiance in his rank and file. Which meant I had to make these people more afraid of me than they were loyal to Jacob Pourdry. “I’ll ask one more time, and then this gets violent,” I said. “Tell me where—”

The back of the guy’s head shattered, and a rifle report rang out just as his body slumped to the ground.

“Russell!” yelled Arthur.

“Not me!”

The other goons scattered and started clawing for weapons. A second one went down, jerking as if on a marionette string before he hit the dirt almost right next to Arthur. I tracked the kinematics of the trajectories back, measuring against speed of sound, the math blasting clarion in my head, and dove off the shipping container.

I protected my rifle in a perfect shoulder roll to come up by Arthur’s side and grabbed the back of his leather jacket. “This way. We need cover!”

One of the traffickers tried to track us with his sidearm as we ran. My rifle took him out before the sniper could. We dashed around the corner, out of their line of sight.

But handgun rounds would punch right through the shipping containers like they were made of butter, let alone the rifle rounds the sniper was using. I sprinted through the maze, skidding into sharp turns and putting as many layers of 14-gauge steel as possible between us and anyone with a gun. Arthur followed without question. He knew to trust my math.

I slapped at my earpiece as we ran. “Pilar! Surveillance, now!”

“On it,” chirped a perpetually cheerful voice in my ear. “Checker says he doesn’t have eyes on who’s shooting at you yet. Four of the goons are down though.”

“We gotta get to the kids,” said Arthur.

Right. The whole reason we were here in the first place—to rescue the shipment of children these assholes had been trying to smuggle into the city for the worst of purposes. Arthur had wanted to get them out first, but I’d insisted we take the chance to try for intel on the man behind it all. We’d been after Pourdry for months, but he was a fucking ghost.

No matter how many kids we pulled from the trafficking ring’s clutches, it wouldn’t make a difference if we couldn’t behead the operation. And now our best chance had exploded in front of us. My hands tightened on my rifle.

“Hang tight where you are,” Pilar said in my ear. “Checker’s taken some of the drones up to see if he can get a— Oh. Whoever it was just shot one of them down.”

“Okay, now I’m mad,” came the voice of Arthur’s business partner and LA’s top computer-expert-slash-hacker. “Who would shoot a perfectly nice robot like that? No manners.”

“Pilar, tell Checker to shut up unless he has something useful to say,” I said, so harshly I practically heard Pilar wince.

“Pilar, please tell Cas this is not the time for her little grudge against me,” Checker said back with perfect cattiness.

“Shove it up /dev/null, you dick,” I shot back.

“Both of you, stop it. And remember, I used to work for a tech company, so I speak geek.” Pilar was a recent hire of Arthur and Checker’s, though her usual job was admin in their private investigations office. Since being hired she’d also taken it upon herself to pressure me into teaching her to shoot a gun, which may have endeared her to me slightly, and tonight she’d been recruited as dispatch. A good thing, too, because I didn’t know how much longer I could keep being professional.

“You said you’d pegged the kids down near the water?” Arthur said into his own earpiece, ignoring our byplay.

“We did get a thermal read—” Pilar paused, then spoke like she was reading off the numbers. “Cas, it’s bearing three hundred and forty-one degrees, a hundred and ninety-four meters from you. But we still don’t have eyes on whoever that sniper is, so stand by—”

“Forget it,” I interrupted her, and took off, not waiting to see if Arthur agreed. I did take us on a roundabout route that would at least keep us hidden from the sniper’s last known position—I wasn’t totally reckless.

We hurried under a line of cranes, their struts rising in looming silhouettes against the starless night sky. The water spread inky and black to our left. I kept us at a jog, Pilar’s bearing fixed in my head along with a constantly updating map of how far the sniper or the goons could have gotten on foot. Unfortunately, both those numbers had intersected with our position long before we got there.

We crouched among the struts of the last crane. The number Pilar had given led straight to a lone shipping container just at the water’s edge. No confirmation yet that it had people inside, but if it had lit up the thermals, it probably did.

Fucking Pourdry. I was going to get those kids out of there if it was the last thing I did tonight.

I turned to grab Arthur and make a dash for the shipping container, and for the barest instant I couldn’t find him. Instead, another man was next to me, a bronze-skinned man with wavy hair, and I was yelling to him, I’m going to get those kids out if it’s the last thing I do—

“Russell?” said Arthur.

I shook off the vision. “I’m fine. Let’s go.”

We edged out along the water, at an angle to each other so as to cover more of the surrounding darkness. I was acutely aware of how much height the Port of Los Angeles had. Cranes, scaffolding, shipping containers stacked four or five high—plenty of places for a mystery sniper to hide. Who might it be? One of Pourdry’s rivals? Then they’d definitely want us dead, too. Law enforcement? Not exactly their MO, but if so, that was even worse for us than an enemy. Of course, they could always be dirty vigilantes like us, but Arthur was right that most people didn’t shoot that close to someone if they cared about the person staying alive.

We crept closer. Only a few meters out, I glanced back toward our destination—and immediately held up a hand.

Arthur stopped behind me. “What is it?” “The lock’s busted. Someone beat us here.” Arthur cursed softly.

A dark blade of a shadow appeared around the edge of the shipping container, at the minuscule strip of dock before the drop-off into the water. A shadow holding a rifle.

“Well, hey there, Russell,” he drawled.

The silhouette of a long coat, and a tall Asian man who moved fluidly across the young brunette in front of me. The spray of blood smacked my cheeks as her eyes went glazed and vacant. The man stepped back.

“Hello, Cas,” he said.

“She wasn’t going to hurt me,” I said through stiff lips. I was holding a handgun, but it dangled at my side.

“What she knew could have,” said the shadow.

“Rio,” I whispered.

Pain blossomed in my bicep. Arthur had unobtrusively grabbed my arm, so deep bruises were forming, but I’d needed it. My hands had gone slick on the rifle.

“What did you say?” asked the man in front of us. The man who wasn’t Rio, wasn’t part of my swamp of a past, and who currently had his own rifle raised and pointed directly at the center of my face.

I’d just lost it in the middle of a job. I couldn’t lose it while in the middle of a job.

I didn’t lose it while in the middle of a job.

And why Rio? He was off somewhere on the other side of the world, reveling in blood while he brought the Lord’s justice down on those he deemed deserving. Lately, however, he wouldn’t stop bringing his massacres into my dreams . . . and now my waking life as well.

Rio was my oldest friend, but even I didn’t like dwelling on what he was capable of.

“You going to point that thing somewhere else?” Arthur called across to the sniper. I had the distinct impression he was covering for me.

“That depends,” the man answered. “Are you?”

“Malcolm,” I growled, my mind finally dredging up the correct name. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“I could ask you the same question,” Malcolm said lazily. “Would’ve expected you to be on the other side of this. Aren’t you the gal who’ll take any job for the right price?”

“They’re children,” I said with disgust.

“Glad to know you have a line somewhere.”

Malcolm was one of the best snipers I knew—like most people in LA’s criminal underground, we’d both worked together and tried to kill each other a few times before, which put us on reasonably friendly terms. The minus side was that he worked for the LA Mafia, who I didn’t currently have the greatest relationship with. On the plus side, his appearance here probably showed his bosses’ demented protectiveness over their city if they were this keen to stop human trafficking.

“What does the Madre want with all this?” I demanded. “Madame Lorenzo’s in the business of rescuing children now?”

“Somebody’s got to,” Malcolm said.

An all-too-familiar guilt stabbed. Arthur and I had been doing our best to wrench up Pourdry’s operations the last few months, but we kept running face-first into brick walls. The powerlessness had been suffocating. But if the Mafia was getting involved . . . I revised my initial reaction that their brand of protection could be a positive. If they took over here, it would either lead to all of LA getting burnt to the ground or the whole city under mob control.

I had flexible morals when it came to criminal enterprises. But the idea of them taking over completely . . . maybe it was Arthur’s influence that made the bile rise in my throat. Or maybe the fact that I felt responsible for it all.

I’d chosen this future, after all.

Malcolm seemed to make a sudden decision and slung up his rifle. “You two can head. This situation’s been handled.”

“You shot the guys who were going to lead us to Pourdry,” I said, even as I reluctantly lowered my weapon too. “Fuck you very much for that.”

“They weren’t going to give anything away,” Malcolm said. He pulled out a pack of cigarettes.

“What’s going to happen to the kids?” Arthur asked.

“We’ll call the police, of course, like good citizens, and get them taken care of.” Malcolm gave us the grin of a Cheshire cat as he lit up, the flame lighting the hard planes of his face. The Mob owned good portions of the Los Angeles Police Department, I remembered.

We own you, whispered a voice in my head.

“Come on, Russell,” someone said in my ear. Arthur. “We’re done here.”

We weren’t even close to done. We had to make sure the port was clear of any more of Pourdry’s people—and search whatever ship they’d used; I was a shit investigator but Arthur was a goddamned PI. Not to mention that I wanted to stay horned in on this long enough to ensure that the Mafia kept their fucking word, and they actually did get the kids we’d been trying to rescue to safety. . . .

Rio splashed someone’s blood across my brain again, and the world schismed in front of me for just long enough that I lost my bearings.

What the fuck.

“Give my regards to the Madre,” I managed in Malcolm’s direction, and followed Arthur away into the night.

Copyright © 2019 by S. L. Huang

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