Exclusive Excerpt: Null Set by S.L. Huang
We return to the near-future world of mercenary Cas Russell in Null Set, S.L. Huang's follow-up to Zero Sum Game.
Cas Russell is back! Following the world-changing events of Zero Sum Game, the mathematically-minded mercenary is working to keep her city from erupting into violence in Null Set following the fall of the secret international organization of murderous telepaths known as Pithica.
read more: An Interview with Author S.L. Huang
We’re excited to present the first two chapters from Null Set, which picks up roughly a year following the events of Zero Sum Game, and sees Cas continuing to reel from the personal revelations that came out of her encounter with Dawna Polk.
Null Set is out in July, but here is a sneak peek…
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.
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.
Arthur said something quietly to Pilar and Checker and stopped the call. I’d stuffed my earpiece in a pocket without telling them we were out and okay, which probably broke some kind of team etiquette. I hated working with people anyway.
“Well, that was fubared from start to finish,” I said, kicking back in the passenger seat of Arthur’s SUV. The thing was built like a tank—he’d splurged after his last few cars had gotten blown up or shot at.Arthur’s friendship with me hadn’t been good for his car insurance bill.
“We’re still alive. Kids are too,” Arthur said, nosing carefully down the predawn streets toward the freeway. “Not as bad as it could have been.”
“Pourdry’s making LA into his own little fiefdom. And what, the LA Mob is going to sort him out? The last thing this city needs is the crime syndicates warring for control.”
“You almost sound like you approve of law and order,” Arthur said.
“I’ll give you some law and order. I’m going to find Pourdry and put him in the ground.”
That shut him up for a minute.
“I’m surprised you’ve been so willing to go all vigilante lately,” I said, maybe just to needle him. Arthur was usually the one lecturing me—call the cops in, stop carrying so many illegal weapons, stop stealing, stop killing so many people. But the past few months, he’d been the one bringing in most of the intel on Pourdry and looping me in on the rescues.
“Sometimes you gotta make exceptions,” Arthur mumbled. “Seems like it’s more and more necessary these days.”
“You mean because it’s our fault?”
“Maybe some of that, too.”
Guilt spiked in me again. Just over a year ago we’d been jointly responsible for hamstringing the organization known as Pithica, an international conspiracy bent on making the world a better place—though run by literal telepaths who accomplished their good deeds through murder and brainwashing. And as we’d dreaded, without their influence, crime had been burgeoning slowly ever since.
I’d sat with Checker, staring at a computer screen that held the key to defeating them, and we’d wrestled with ourselves over whether we should push that button. Take down Dawna Polk and her gang of psychics and let the world spin on as it would, free of their puppetmastery, or let them be and let the results of their machinations make most people’s lives . . . better. Even if those people didn’t know why.
I’d self-righteously taken on that decision for the entire global population.
Now I was seeing what I had wrought. Over the past year and change, criminal activity had gone from a slow ramp-up to an exponential explosion. Los Angeles had never been a particularly friendly city, but now it was becoming a nerve center for gang violence, for organized crime, for kids OD’ing in squalor and drive-by shootings in neighborhoods that had so recently bragged of safety and revitalization. Los Angeles wasn’t the only place, either. But in LA, we saw it up close and personal.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t second-guessing the decision we’d made. And I was pretty sure it was even harder on Arthur than it was on me. He’d cared a lot more to begin with.
The night was late enough for even Los Angeles’s preternaturally frustrating traffic to have died down, and Arthur sped up the freeway toward the Valley. Instead of heading to drop me at my current hidey-hole in Santa Clarita, however, he swung off onto the streets to pull up in front of a dim dive bar that was still open despite having zero other customers.
“What are we doing here?” I said.
“Gonna buy you a drink.”
I suppressed a sigh. Arthur had an annoying tendency to go all worried-parent routine on me. But with the job over I wasn’t about to turn down hard alcohol.
Arthur ensconced me in a booth at the opposite side of the room from the bar and then came back a minute later with a beer for himself and a glass of something stronger that he set in front of me. I knocked it back all at once. The burn felt cleansing.
“Sounds like you and Checker are still fighting,” Arthur said after a minute. He hadn’t taken a sip of his beer yet.
That was a subject I definitely didn’t want to discuss. “If Checker wants to be friends again, he can stay the hell out of my past. I told him I don’t want to know, end of story. He has no right to get all hacker-y and try to dig it up anyway.”
“He’s stubborn. And he’s worried about you. He cares.” After a pause, Arthur added, “He’s not the only one, either.”
“I’m fine,” I snapped.
Arthur studied me, his expression unreadable.
“What happened today?”
“What do you mean, what happened?” I said it too loud. Rio murdering someone in front of me. The darkness shifting and changing to places and times I didn’t know.
Arthur spoke slowly, picking out his phrasing. “Never seen you get . . . distracted like that before. Scared me.”
I tried to tell him it had been nothing, but the lie stuck on my tongue. I pushed up out of the booth instead. “I’m getting another drink.”
I persuaded the grubby bartender to give me the whole bottle, mostly by waving a C-note at her for a fourteen-dollar bottle of whiskey. When I came back, I slid onto the booth’s bench and chugged from it.Arthur watched me with what was probably disapproval, but he didn’t try to stop me.
“You and me are supposed to be watching each other,” he said instead. “Remember? Making sure Dawna didn’t do anything permanent?”
Right. Watching each other’s brains. I wasn’t the only one Dawna Polk had psychically attacked in a last-ditch effort to save her global string-pullers. Arthur hadn’t had an easy time of it either, but he also didn’t seem to be suffering any residual effects. Whereas I . . .
Dawna had almost ended me that night. The whole onslaught was still a prickly jumble, parts of it intermittently remembered and forgotten, other parts only the shapes of a memory. But since then, my nightmares had begun slowly bleeding into my waking life.
At least I was pretty sure she wasn’t still influencing me, though. She’d just scarred me badly enough for my brain to start chewing on itself.
I’m doing very little, said the echo of power. Picking at threads, as it were. Your brain has the most inventive ways of trying to destroy you.
I gulped some more whiskey, grateful for the slight edge it took off my senses, and then leaned my elbows on the table so I could press my head against my hands, conveniently burying my face behind my forearms and avoiding Arthur’s gaze.
If I was screwing him over in the field . . .
I had to tell him. Shit. Shit.
“I saw things.” I tried to spit it out in one go, without hearing the meaning behind the words. I’d never planned to say it aloud, even as more and more of Dawna’s attack resurfaced, haunting me—
I forced myself on. “When she was in my head. I saw . . . things from my past, I think. And this.”
I reached into a pocket with a hand that felt like it was pushing through molasses and drew out a folded piece of paper. It had crumpled and gone ratty around the edges from being carried with me. I put it on the table and slid it to the middle, slowly, as if it were dangerous.
I thought it might be.
Arthur reached for the paper and unfolded it. Read it. Glanced up at me. “This is your handwriting.”
“You don’t remember writing it?”
“Nope,” I said. “Dawna played that note for me in a vision. And then I found my own grave.”
“Show me,” said Arthur.
We pulled up outside the cemetery just as the sun rose, washing out the city in pale dawn light as the day figured out whether it wanted to stay chilly or turn scorching. We were just moving out of Los Angeles’s version of winter, which meant it was still jacket weather but now mixed with increasingly frequent ninety-degree heat waves.
The note was back in my pocket. Do not try to remember under any circumstances, it read, the precise math of the handwriting analysis leaving no doubt I had penned it.
And my signature underneath. Cas Russell.
I saw my own hands folding the note, the paper crisp and white—
“Just in case,” a male voice said. “We won’t need it.”
I turned to pass it to him—
“Russell?” Arthur touched my shoulder.
I shook myself. “This way.”
The smooth asphalt of the paths shimmered in the morning sun. We headed down between the soldiering lines of headstones and well-manicured lawns.
I remembered exactly where the columbarium was. Dawna had shown me the location of the note in my own head, and somehow my hindbrain had grabbed on to it and yanked, pulling me to drive, drive, drive here one night and then push inside the door until I stood here, in this building, surrounded by the soaring slant of wall plaques, each a human life burned down to a few pounds of ash—
I was panting slightly. Arthur waited next to me, a steady presence.
“There.” I pointed.
Arthur moved over to the wall. I joined him. “Cassandra Russell” read the carved marble. The hand of death felt like it crawled up the back of my neck.
Arthur ran his fingers over the cover stone and found the fine cracks in it. “Your doing?”
“I broke it,” I said. “To get the note. I guess they repaired it.”
“You knew it was here,” said Arthur. It wasn’t a question.
I swallowed. I didn’t know why I wanted to cling so hard to not saying anything, to not admitting the mounting trouble I was having with my own goddamn brain. But a good part of me—most of me—wanted to run. Hide. Ignore. Bury myself elsewhere, somewhere I’d never have to face anyone who might guess how much I was teetering.
I pressed my hand flat against the marble wall as if it would anchor me here. “Today, at the port,” I made myself say. “You asked what happened. I saw—I think it was a memory.”
Arthur straightened toward me. “You saw something?”
“It was—I don’t know. Some guy. I was talking to him.” I didn’t mention the other memory, the one with Rio. Arthur already didn’t like Rio. He didn’t need to know I was hallucinating the man’s murders. “It was . . . I was there, for just a second, and then I was back.”
The door to the columbarium pushed open. I spun away from the wall like I was guilty of something.
Arthur, who was a lot better at undercover work than I was, merely turned toward the noise as if it were the most natural thing in the world. An elderly caretaker with a full beard and a haircut that rivaled Einstein’s had come in carrying some gardening and cleaning tools.
“Morning,” Arthur said.
“Good morning,” the man answered genially, and moved to cross past us, going about his duties.
“Excuse me,” Arthur called. “This wall niche, any way I can contact the next of kin?”
“Oh. Oh.” The man patted down his coverall with his free hand, as if he were looking for a phone number to pull out and give to Arthur but had forgotten where it was. “You’ll have to ask in at the office about that. They open at nine today.”
“Thank you, I’ll do that,” Arthur said.
“That’s the one that got vandalized, isn’t it?” The man squinted past us. “Yes, I know they called the family about it. Such a shame, what kids will do these days. . . .”
Called the family?
My senses dulled, the world closing in on me. Who the hell—
“Hey, Russell. Russell.”
Arthur had a hand on my shoulder. The caretaker had shuffled off.
“What the fuck did he mean by that?” I ground out.
“I take it you didn’t get a call,” Arthur said.
I moved my head in a stilted shake. I’d put that note in the wall. I had; I was sure of it. And the cemetery had called someone else.
“This is so fucked up,” I said through a hoarse laugh. “Dawna pulled some batshit scrap of something out of my head and then I go to find it and the fucking thing tells me not to remember. . . .”
My hands twitched, my fingers recalling the tactile memory of dragging a pen into the shape of words. Do not try to remember . . .
The ballpoint snagged against an irregularity beneath the paper, making the r turn topologically inequivalent.
“I’m telling myself not to,” I said with an effort. “That’s the core of it, right? I need to trust myself. I need to stop.”
“Sounds to me like you might not have a choice,” Arthur said quietly. “If this is happening . . . you can’t erase the memories of your life at will, right? Lord knows I’ve tried.”
“It’s not my life, though,” I said. “It’s someone else. Someone not me. I don’t care, I don’t want it, I fucking warned myself not to—”
“What is it?” said Arthur.
My breath hitched in my throat. “I just—something Dawna—”
You might have a chance at fighting me. If you weren’t already fighting yourself.
“Russell? What’d she do?”
“Dawna—she—” How had I forgotten? How? Dawna’s words reverberating through every corner of my mind as she’d taken me apart . . . “I thought she just left some sort of—some sort of injury, or mental scarring, but that’s not it. That’s not it.” My voice sounded hoarse, as if I’d been screaming. “She’s the one who told me. She told me to . . .”
“Told you to do what? Russell?”
“She said—she said remember.” I swallowed. Uncontrolled nightmares made real, invading my waking consciousness. Dawna had made it so. She hadn’t stabbed me in the psyche; she’d merely opened a door and ordered me to look.
That was all. That was everything.
“She told me to remember,” I whispered. “And now . . . I think I am.”
This excerpt is used with Permission from Tor Books, an imprint of Tom Doherty Associates. Copyright (c) 2019 S.L. Huang.
Null Set is available for pre-order now. Zero Sum Game can be purchased via Amazon or your local independent bookstore.
SL Huang is an Amazon-bestselling author whose debut novel, Zero Sum Game, is upcoming from Tor. Her short fiction has sold to Strange Horizons, Analog, and The Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy 2016. She is also an MIT graduate, stuntwoman, and firearms expert. Follow her at www.slhuang.com or @sl_huang.