Connecting to... GlobalNetwork
Authentication required for [[PitStop]] on GlobalNetwork
Authentication confirmed. Welcome to the Pit Stop.
PLEASE NOTE: Starting 13 Oct 2092, participating in the death of another patron will result in a one-month ban.
The Pit Stop was a dump, unlisted on any system directory she'd ever seen, and that was exactly why Devi liked it.
Her father and grandfather had told her stories about similar places before the Fall. Lamps dangled from the low ceiling, closely spaced, though only half of them worked so it did little to cut the darkness. Smoke hung in a heavy wreath above the bar, and she winced as she walked through the cloud and the acrid scent of tobacco stung her nose.
Cache walked close by her side, and Devi leaned in to murmur to her friend. "I'm allergic to cigarettes. Seems like it wouldn't matter here, doesn't it?"
"I think someone in Empire came up with a new allergy patch." A burly man at the table to their right shoved his chair back, and Cache sidestepped it without lifting her gaze from the tablet in her hand. "Granted, the last patch was buggy as hell, but you've got to be a damn neuro and a code-hacking genius to restrict specific chip functionality. All or nothing, and all that shit."
"I have no idea what you just said. But, since I'm the boss, we're going to pretend I did." Two men sat at a back table. One was blond and pleasant-faced, but a deep scowl broke the handsome lines of the other's face. "Is this them?"
Cache finally dragged her attention from her handheld and reached up to shove the heavy fall of her hair back from her forehead. Spiky pink highlights caught the dim light, and she tucked the strands behind her ears in an impatient gesture as she glanced at the men who'd caught Devi's attention. After a second's consideration, she blew out a breath that somehow managed to be pleased and frustrated at the same time. "The blond's Trip, and an official pain in the ass. The other one must be his boss."
"His name's Zel, according to Juliet. She's dealt with his settlement before." What she hadn't mentioned was that, in spite of his dark severity, he was so attractive.
"Zel looks cranky. I wonder..."
Devi had never been fond of surprises. In their line of work, they usually meant trouble. "Think it's a bad meet?"
"Huh? Oh, no. Not that." Cache dropped her voice as they drew closer to the two men. "Just keep 'em talking. I'm gonna try something."
"It's not going to hack him off, is it?"
"Who do you think you're talking to?" Cache's full lips tugged up in a wicked grin, and the spark of delighted challenge that filled her dark eyes was something Devi hadn't seen in a long time. "Trip's a chip monkey. He won't have a clue."
Devi was more concerned about the severe-looking--though undeniably handsome--man with him. They wouldn't go hungry if they didn't do this deal, but they could use the extra goods it would bring. "I trust you, Cache."
They reached the table. Devi slid into a rickety chair and nodded shortly. "You're Zel?"
Silver eyes, cold as steel, stared back at her. "I'm Zel." He jerked his head, indicating the man to his left. "Trip."
"I believe he and Cache are acquainted." She held out her hand. "I'm Devi. I run the trucks."
For one tense, uncomfortable second, he stared at her. She heard Cache murmur a greeting to Trip, incoherent tech jargon that held the overtone of a flirtatious insult.
Zel ignored their companions. His gaze lingered on her face, intense and deadly serious. He lifted his hand with the same deliberation, curling wide, strong fingers around hers. The warm touch tingled up her arm, and she pulled her hand back as he spoke. "I run the Rochester settlement."
"We have some arrangements to make." She took the tablet from Cache and laid it on the table in front of Zel. "As you can see, we'll pass through two more checkpoints, then veer from the set route to this spot for delivery." She tapped the screen. "We sent you the coordinates. I trust you've reviewed them and found the location satisfactory?"
The almost tangible pressure of his gaze remained on her face. "It's fine. Do you need an escort out of the safe zone?"
"No." She handed the tablet back to Cache, glancing over just to escape those piercing eyes for a moment. "Consider it part of our service."
Cache lifted her right hand, palm side down, and twitched it to the side twice, swiping her hand across the surface of the table like she was brushing away crumbs. When she put her hand down again, she'd closed it into a fist. Her dark eyes caught Devi's, then flicked to Zel. It was part of their silent communication, one of the many signals they'd worked out, and its meaning was unmistakable. Halfblood.
Devi considered the man in front of her anew. It would hurt for a halfblood demon to be here, but that could explain his tension. Pain instead of nervousness.
It didn't make her feel better.
Still, the job was taken and halfway done. They just needed to finish it. "Two hours," she told him coolly. "We'll call when we have a better estimate."
One eyebrow shot up, and he looked at the man beside him. Something passed between them in silence before Zel nodded. "Can your girl ping Trip with the passenger list? I need to set a few things in motion."
Cache didn't wait for Devi to answer. She grinned, eyes sparking with triumph. "Check your files, chip boy. And FYI, keeping your boss's avatar from glitching is wreaking hell on your security."
Trip didn't rise to the bait. Instead, he favored Cache with an indulgent smile. "Yes, good for you. Maybe one of these days you'll grow up and figure out how to beef up security on your own broadcasts."
The superior expression on Cache's face melted into outrage, and Zel's hands twitched, as if he wanted to rub his temples. He checked the gesture and indicated an empty table a few feet away instead. "Got time for a few more questions while she yells at him?"
"Sure. It could take a while." This was one area where Cache didn't need her help or protection, so Devi readily switched seats. Zel followed, every movement as careful and deliberate as everything else he'd done. "Wouldn't you rather cut the meeting short?"
His shrug bunched the solid muscles under his vest. "Pain's in my head. Literally. Doesn't tickle or anything, but I'll manage."
"All right." The oppressive heat in the room slicked her skin with sweat, so she gathered her hair and lifted it off her neck. "What else do you need from me?"
It was darker in their corner, but light from one of the gently swinging lamps glinted off his silver eyes, revealing that his attention was fixed on the curve of her neck instead of her face. He looked predatory--hungry, even--and he didn't have the grace to act embarrassed when he realized she'd caught him staring. The corner of his mouth kicked up in a wicked, suggestive smile. "That's a loaded question."
The attention was flattering, especially considering how long it had been since her last dalliance. All work and no play, Devi. "Too bad for you we're already business associates, then. It's my one ironclad rule."
"Too bad for me." Easy agreement, but the heat of his gaze didn't diminish. "Do you ever do jobs outside the Midwest?"
She tensed instinctively, the way she always did when anyone seemed a bit too interested in what she and her crew did. "Depends on the job. We do the occasional long haul."
"Interesting." He rubbed the side of his neck, under his ear, his fingers pressing into his skin right where she knew his network chip would be imbedded. His expression grew calculating, almost as wary as she felt. "Trip says three of you are women. Never run into a crew with more than one."
"Only a few around. Too many adrenaline junkies who think the best way to win a fight is to muscle through it."
He nodded, whether in agreement or acknowledgement she couldn't be sure. Smoke wafted across the table, stinging her eyes as the murmur of low voices around them emphasized Zel's long, heavy silence.
Finally, he sighed. "Job's a seventeen-year-old girl. She has to get to Manitoba, but we can't risk sending her out with some of the usual people we deal with. They're..." The tight set of his shoulders and his disapproving frown conveyed his sentiments more clearly than any words could have.
"Unsavory?" It was a commonly held view, and Devi couldn't even disagree. The straight arrows didn't often accept commissions from outcast settlements.
His eyes hardened, cold ice instead of liquid silver. "Last month, a crew out of Stearns took ten thousand chips from a nineteen-year-old halfblood and dumped her on our doorstep, half-dead. Unsavory's a fucking compliment."
"That's terrible. And it has nothing to do with me or my crew, unless you know who did it and want us to track them down." She almost hoped he'd say yes.
Then again, from the look in his eyes, maybe he'd already done it. He sat back and folded his arms over his chest, a posture both defensive and aggressive. "Might be a sexist assumption, but it crossed my mind that a crew with three women on it might be less likely to condone gang raping someone for having a little bit of demon blood."
"I don't condone gang raping anyone, but it has more to do with common decency than a potential victim's parentage." Or with her own gender.
"Don't know if you've looked out your truck's window lately, sweetheart, but that's uncommon decency these days."
The world was depressing enough without philosophical discussions over drinks. "Are we lamenting the presently sad state of the human condition, or are we talking business?"
One dark eyebrow rose. "Your business is the sad state of the human condition, isn't it? Either way, Manitoba. A small settlement just outside Winnipeg's network. Would you consider making that haul if the price was right?"
She tapped her fingernails on the table. It would only pay if they could combine runs, rustle up a few more jobs in the general vicinity. Still, given ample opportunity, Juliet and Cache would be able to get the word out. "How much lead time would we have?"
"Up to you. She should be gone already, but we could--"
"Dev!" Cache's voice cut through the noise of the bar, steady but tense. When Devi turned she found Cache on her feet, eyes unfocused as her hands moved in quick, efficient gestures. She'd seen the same thing happen before, though not often--not many people could handle the sensory overload of being in two places at once.
Cache didn't speak again, her concentration obviously on whatever was happening back in the truck where their bodies waited. But Devi didn't need words; Cache's hands spoke a language no one else inside the network could understand. First the sign for Juliet, then a quick sequence: checkpoint, trouble, weapons.
Shit. They had to get out. Devi's chair hit the floor, and she lunged for Cache, grabbing her arm. "Two hours out," she called back. "We'll contact you again."
"Wait--" She heard the table tip over in a clatter that brought shouts of protest from those in the general vicinity. Cache stumbled, still disoriented, and Devi tightened her grip around the girl's upper arm, holding her steady.
They just had to make it out the door. Once they made it there, they could easily drop out.
Devi dragged Cache through the exit--
--and came back to herself in a dizzying, nauseating rush. The truck rumbled and lurched under her--engine gunning, gears grinding--and she heard shouts and fading gunfire behind them.
Devi jerked free of her harness and dove for the front of the cab. "Is Cache out?"
"Kinda busy here, boss." Tanner's usually smooth voice came out harsh and clipped, as clear a sign as any that things were bad. "Shane's trying to figure out what tripped the checkpoint, 'cause the damn thing opened fire on us."
"Is anyone hurt?"
"One bullet got through and winged a passenger, but that's not the worst of it. Those guns are designed to hollow out a truck's undercarriage. I think Ruiz is leaking fuel. And now we're offroading."
It was the worst thing that could happen. The routes were carefully designed and calculated, and they didn't allow much room for error. "Don't tell me that. There aren't any biofuel stations between here and where we're going."
"Which is a damn crying--"
The old CB radio that served as a backup communications system crackled to life, and Shane's voice spilled out in a flurry of nervous static. "The gunfire screwed us over good. Cache's holding the network connection together with spit and dreams, and if I don't get under the cab in about twenty seconds we're gonna lose our ADS."
"Which makes us sitting ducks, even if we're moving."
Tanner flashed her a disbelieving look. "Oh, boss, you're not--"
She cut him off with a hiss and a nod as she snatched up the CB handset and keyed the mic. "Got it. Tell Juliet we're stopping. We've got three minutes to replace those cables and patch the gas tank on her rig."
"Ten-four. I'll try to calm the passengers down."
"I'll be back to help." Devi dropped the handset and rubbed her hands over her face. "Try to find some cover, Tanner. Make it a little harder for the bastards to find us if they manage to sniff us out." Even as she spoke, she recognized the futility of her request. This part of what used to be southern Minnesota bore mostly flat terrain. Not exactly conducive to hiding two tractor-trailers.
Tanner downshifted and jerked the wheel, steering them toward the dubious cover of a small copse of trees. "Only thing in the world I like less than driving without an anti-demon signal is stopping without one."
"We'll be sitting still a lot longer than three minutes if that truck runs dry."
"Point taken." The large man blew out a breath and cast her a serious look. "If there was ever a time to summon one of your miracles, chica..."
"Tanner, you've got to learn to trust me." The truck shuddered to a stop, and she shoved open the door and bounded out of the cab.