chapter one fifteen years ago
“That man is the single most infuriating person on the face of this planet,” Maximilian Nero said angrily as he strode out of the restaurant and onto the busy pavement. Around him the crowded Hong Kong street bustled with activity, illuminated by the countless neon signs that hung from every shopfront and doorway. Diabolus Darkdoom followed him out onto the street, handing a wad of banknotes over to the owner, who had run out after them complaining noisily. He caught up with Nero and sighed, shaking his head.
“Can’t be built,” Nero said irritably. “I’ll show him can’t be built.”
“You did ask his opinion, Max,” Darkdoom said. “You can’t get angry with him just for disagreeing with you.”
“He’s only offended because I completed the design myself,” Nero said.
“Max, you know I have the greatest respect for your abilities,” Darkdoom said, “but even I have to admit that your finished design seems a touch ambitious and he is the most well-respected architect in the business. There aren’t many people who can design and build the sort of building that is required in our line of work and your—”
“So you’re taking his side now, are you?” Nero said.
“Never mind,” Darkdoom said, throwing up his hands. “I’m not getting involved. This is between you and him. If you want to build the new facility for H.I.V.E. in an active volcano then that’s exactly what you should do. It’s your baby.”
“If he’d done a slightly better job of hiding the last facility maybe we wouldn’t be in this position in the first place,” Nero said.
“Maybe, but it might have been more diplomatic not to actually have said that to him,” Darkdoom said with a slightly exasperated-sounding sigh. “Then we could have at least finished what was turning out to be an exceptionally good meal.”
Nero raised his hand and hailed one of the city’s distinctive red taxis.
“Although, at least now I do actually know what happens when an immovable object meets an irresistible force,” Darkdoom said under his breath as the cab pulled up and Nero climbed inside.
“Airport, please,” Nero said to the driver as Darkdoom sat down beside him and slammed the car door shut. “It’s not as if I don’t have enough to worry about at the moment, Diabolus. Number One’s demanding to know why Overlord’s behind schedule and Xiu Mei tells me that they’re still months away from activation. It doesn’t matter how many times I tell him that it’s risky to rush the project, he still insists that it’s the future of G.L.O.V.E. Meanwhile, I’ve got Professor Pike in the other ear telling me that he’s working on a similar AI project for the school, but that he’s years away from perfecting the behavioral restraints that will make it safe to use and that’s why Overlord is too dangerous.”
“Max, you’re my oldest friend,” Darkdoom said, “and I think you’re one of the most brilliant men on G.L.O.V.E.’s ruling council, but everybody needs a break sometimes, even you. For goodness’ sake, just take a couple of weeks off and go and lie on a beach somewhere.”
“I’m sorry, Diabolus,” Nero said with a sigh, “I don’t mean to moan. It’s just that the temporary facilities we’re using at the moment are completely inadequate. I need to at least get construction started on H.I.V.E.’s new facility; maybe then I can take a break for a couple of—”
Suddenly, the rear windshield of the taxi exploded in a shower of glass and the driver of the cab slumped forward onto his steering wheel.
“Sniper! Get down!” Nero yelled as the taxi swerved, out of control, into oncoming traffic. He took cover behind the seat as more high-velocity rounds buzzed through the air above them. There was a sickening crunch and the taxi spun around as it made glancing contact with another car. The cab bounced across the pavement as pedestrians scattered in all directions and slammed into the plate-glass window of a storefront. Nero and Darkdoom scrambled out of the wrecked car, knowing that they would be sitting ducks if they stayed inside it. They took shelter behind the wall next to the shattered window as the last of the shop’s customers ran past the angrily gesticulating shopkeeper and fled through the back door.
“Are you hit?” Nero asked Darkdoom.
“No,” Nero replied, picking up a piece of glass from the floor. “Did you see where the shooter was firing from?”
“No,” Darkdoom replied. “Shots were on a flat trajectory though. He’s got to be somewhere at ground level.”
Nero held the piece of glass in just the right position to allow him to see a reflection of the chaotic scenes in the street outside the shop. People were running in all directions and the traffic had ground to a halt. There was only one figure that was out of place, somebody dressed in a skintight black outfit and mask who was walking slowly toward the shop with an assault rifle raised to their shoulder. A split second later there was a sudden muzzle flash and the piece of glass in Nero’s hand exploded. Nero snarled in pain as shards of glass buried themselves in his hand.
“Are you armed?” Nero asked, through gritted teeth.
“No,” Darkdoom replied, pulling a communicator from his inside pocket. “I’ll call for backup.”
“They won’t get here in time,” Nero said, cursing himself for not bringing a weapon. He had known that the man they were meeting for lunch was no threat to them and so he had let his guard down. He realized now that that might have been a fatal error. “We need to move.”
Nero ran toward the back of the store with Darkdoom just behind him. He burst through the beaded curtain that separated the front of the shop from the storeroom at the rear, just in time to see the shopkeeper running through a door at the far end of the racked shelving that filled the area.
“This way,” Nero said, running toward the door. They ran out into a garbage-strewn alleyway lined with fire escapes and doorways. Nero looked up and down the alley, trying to spot anything that might give them even a slim tactical advantage over whoever it was that was hunting them.
“Here, help me,” Nero said, as he closed the shop door behind them and started to push a wheeled dumpster in front of it. He knew it wouldn’t stop their pursuer, but it might slow them down. The two men quickly rolled it into position and Nero engaged the brakes on the wheels.
“We need to split up,” Nero said after a moment’s thought. “Give that assassin two separate targets.” He pulled his own communicator from his jacket pocket and activated its homing beacon.
“The backup teams can track us both individually and at least this way one of us will survive if the worst comes to the worst.”
Darkdoom frowned, but he knew that there was no point arguing with Nero at a time like this. His friend had always been the superior tactician. Even if he didn’t much like the sound of this particular idea, he had to admit that it did make strategic sense.
“Okay,” Darkdoom said, nodding down the alleyway. “I’ll go this way. Don’t get yourself killed, Max.”
“I always try to avoid it,” Nero said with a crooked smile. “Be careful, we don’t know whether we’re dealing with a lone hitter or a team yet. There could be more of them out there.”
Darkdoom gave a quick nod and ran off down the alleyway. Nero looked up at the fire escape above him. Heading for the rooftops was risky—it would be all too easy to get trapped up there—but that risk was outweighed by the advantages that elevation would give him. He ran to the ladder leading to the steel staircase and climbed quickly up it. He was halfway to the roof when he heard a bang from below him and saw the door to the shop being slowly forced open. He made it up two more flights of stairs before the black-clad assassin shoved the door open wide and walked out into the alley. Nero froze, watching as the figure looked down the alleyway in both directions. With luck, Nero thought to himself, the assassin would choose the wrong direction and give Darkdoom more of a head start.
A moment later the assassin looked straight up at him, raising his assault rifle. Nero bolted up the remaining stairs, taking them two at a time, sprinting for the roof as bullets pinged off the metal around him. The assassin fired just two short bursts before climbing up onto the fire escape, coming after him. Nero reached the top of the steel staircase and ran onto the roof, looking desperately for the best escape route amongst the numerous air-conditioning vents and skylights that surrounded him. Below him, he could hear the assassin sprinting up the metal stairs; Nero knew he only had seconds.
He ran to the far side of the roof and looked down at the four-story drop to the street below. Too far to drop. He heard a noise behind him and turned to see the assassin climbing onto the roof, rifle raised. Whoever they were they had scaled the side of the building in a fraction of the time it had taken Nero. He took a deep breath; he had always known that it might end like this someday, but he wasn’t going to give his killer the satisfaction of hearing him beg for his life. The assassin lowered the rifle and then dropped it to the floor, before pulling off the black mask that hid their face. Nero’s eyes widened in surprise as the young woman dropped the mask and drew the twin katanas from her back, their silver blades glinting. She could not have been more than sixteen years old, with short black hair, her pale, pretty face betraying no hint of any emotion as she advanced across the rooftop toward him. He had no idea who she was, but there was something hauntingly familiar about her.
“Anastasia Furan sends her regards,” the girl said as she approached. “She wanted you to know that this is for Elena.”
“I should have killed Anastasia when I had the chance,” Nero said, taking a step backward, feeling a grief that he had long hidden washing over him again at the mention of Elena’s name. “And now she sends one of her brainwashed children to kill me. I might have known she wouldn’t have the guts to face me herself.” Nero heard a rumble from the street behind him and glanced over his shoulder as the girl approached, weapons raised.
“Enough talk,” the girl said, her voice calm.
“I couldn’t agree more,” Nero replied. He turned and jumped from the roof, disappearing from view. The girl sprinted to the edge and looked down into the street below. She cursed under her breath in Russian as she saw Nero kneeling on the roof of the red double-decker tram that was trundling away down the street, picking up speed. She turned, sheathed her weapons, and sprinted along the edge of the roof, gaining slowly on the tram. When she reached the end of the roof she vaulted over the low wall and leaped into the air, landing on top of a lamppost with seemingly impossible agility, before springing onto the roof of a passing truck that was only twenty yards or so behind the tram.
Nero looked back over his shoulder and saw the girl land on top of the truck like a cat. “Impressive,” he said under his breath as the girl waited patiently for the truck to close the distance to the tram. Whoever this young woman was, she had obvious talent.
He had heard the stories about the abilities of the Furans’ young killers, but this was the first time he had seen them firsthand. He turned and looked ahead of the tram and saw that they were approaching a set of traffic lights that were just turning red. The truck pulled alongside the tram as it slowed to a halt and the girl vaulted onto the other vehicle. Nero sprang to his feet and charged at the girl, slamming into her hard as she landed. They fell onto the roof, grappling with each other. Nero tried to use the advantage that his extra weight and strength gave him to pin the girl down, but she was just too quick. She delivered a swift blow with the heel of her palm to his chin, his head snapping back, and she squirmed out from underneath him. Nero grabbed desperately at the hilt of one of the swords in the crossed sheaths on her back and pulled it free, rolling away from the girl and struggling to his feet as the girl leaped up and drew the other katana, dropping into a double-handed attacking stance. Nero backed away, holding the blade of his weapon in front of him defensively, trying to ignore the pain from the splinters of glass still embedded in his palm. Now the odds were at least slightly more even, he thought to himself.
The girl took three quick strides toward him, her weapon flashing through the air as she advanced. Nero countered the first couple of blows, astonished by the speed and ferocity of the young girl’s attack. He knew how to fight with a blade, but all that meant was he knew almost instantly that he was hopelessly outmatched. The girl’s blade was like an extension of her body, moving too fast to follow, let alone counter. The tip of her sword scythed across his chest, leaving a deep bloody cut and Nero staggered backward. The girl drew back the sword and struck, the tip of the blade spearing deep into Nero’s thigh and he gave a pained gasp as he felt his leg give way beneath him. He fell to one knee as the girl raised the katana high above her head ready to deal a killing blow.
The traffic lights turned green.
The tram lurched forward and for an instant the girl was caught off balance. Nero desperately swept his own blade upward, catching her off guard and leaving a long, deep gash in her cheek. The girl stepped backward, her left hand instinctively flying up to her face as the savage wound began bleeding profusely. Nero flung his sword to one side and threw himself forward with a grunt, trying to ignore the searing pain in his thigh, and tackled the girl, wrapping his arms around her waist. The pair of them flew off the top of the tram, dropping several yards before slamming down on to the roof of a car below. The katana flew from the girl’s hand and clattered into the road, the impact stunning her and knocking the air from her lungs. Nero rolled off her and dropped to the ground with a pained gasp. He picked up the girl’s fallen sword and turned back to her just as she rolled off the car’s roof. He raised the sword quickly, pressing its tip to her throat, sending a drop of blood trickling down her neck. He saw her tense, ready to strike.
“Don’t,” Nero said. “You may be fast, my dear, but nobody’s that fast.”
The girl glared back at him, half her face covered in blood, her eyes narrowing.
“You have no idea how fast I am,” the girl said. Nero barely even saw her move as her stiffened knuckles struck his wrist, the sword dropping from his numb fingers and into her other hand. She spun the sword, bringing it to Nero’s throat as he took a step backward.
“Time to die.”
The single shot rang out and the girl slammed back into the ruined car, sliding to the ground with a startled expression on her face. Darkdoom stepped out from behind a nearby van and lowered the assault rifle that she had abandoned just a few minutes earlier on the rooftop, its muzzle still smoking.
“I had second thoughts about the whole splitting-up thing,” Darkdoom said, “fortunately for you. The backup chopper’s two minutes out. Are you okay?”
Nero gave a nod and kicked the sword away from the girl’s hand before kneeling down beside her and feeling for a pulse in her neck.
“Tell the backup team that we have an urgent med-evac,” Nero said, applying pressure to the wound in the girl’s chest.
“Are you joking?” Darkdoom said as he began to hear the first wails of police sirens in the distance. “She very nearly killed you. Why on earth would you want to save her life?”
“Because this girl was sent by Anastasia Furan, Diabolus,” Nero replied, “and she might just be the only person who can help us find her.”
Nero watched as the nurses transferred the unconscious girl from the wheeled gurney to the hospital bed on the other side of the thickened glass window. They spent a couple more minutes hooking her up to monitors and putting in an IV line before filing out of the room past the two armed guards stationed outside, a heavy steel door sliding shut behind them with a thud. The girl had just returned from emergency surgery and, lying there unconscious with her chest swathed in bandages and a dressing on the vicious wound on her face, she did not look anything like the threat that she quite clearly was.
“How is she, Doctor?” Nero asked as the head of the G.L.O.V.E. medical facility approached.
“Critical, but stable,” the doctor replied. “It’s a miracle she survived at all. A gunshot wound like that . . . well, let’s just say she is stronger than she looks. It will take time for her to recover fully, of course, but I believe her prognosis is good.”
“When she is strong enough, I want her transferred to the temporary H.I.V.E. facility,” Nero said. “Until then, be extremely careful, Doctor. Keep her restrained at all times and maintain twenty-four-hour surveillance. This particular patient is very, very dangerous.”
“Understood,” the doctor said with a nod. “Number One wishes to speak with you. You can use the teleconference system in my office if you would like.”
“Thank you,” Nero said as the doctor gestured to a door at the far end of an adjoining corridor. “That will be all.”
Nero looked back through the window as the doctor walked away and looked again at the girl lying in the bed. There was something about her that he could not put his finger on, something that was telling him that he had to try to help her, despite what she had done.
“You’re getting soft, Nero,” he muttered to himself, “and one day it’s going to get you killed.”
He turned away from the glass and headed to the doctor’s office. He sat down behind the desk and activated the teleconference system. The screen lit up with the familiar logo of G.L.O.V.E., the Global League of Villainous Enterprise, a closed fist smashing down on a splintering globe with the words “Do Unto Others” beneath it. He punched in the code that would connect him with Number One, the head of G.L.O.V.E.’s ruling council.
“Please confirm identity,” a synthesized voice said a few moments later.
“Nero, Maximilian, authorization code sigma nine delta seven,” Nero replied. A few seconds later a silhouetted figure appeared on the screen.
“Good morning, Maximilian,” Number One said. “I have just finished reading your report on this recent unpleasantness in Hong Kong. If what this girl said is true, it is most disturbing. I had hoped that we had heard the last of the Furans after their disappearance, but unfortunately that does not appear to be the case.”
“Indeed,” Nero replied. “I have requested a termination warrant be placed on them. With your permission I would like to carry out the warrant personally.”
“I will consider your request,” Number One replied. “I am always wary of letting these situations become too personal, Nero, you know that. I am aware of your history with the Furans and I do not want to see a personal vendetta endanger G.L.O.V.E.’s interests.”
“You can trust me to handle the matter professionally, sir,” Nero replied.
“As I said, I shall consider your request,” Number One said. “And what of the girl? Do you believe she will cooperate?”
“I don’t know,” Nero replied. “She is still recovering from surgery at the moment. It is impossible to say how deeply she was indoctrinated during her training. It may take time to persuade her to give the Furans up.”
“There are quicker methods of persuasion, Maximilian,” Number One said, “more painful methods.”
“I think she could be useful,” Nero said, shaking his head slightly. “Let me see if I can turn her; that way we may gain an asset at the same time as ridding ourselves of a threat.”
“I leave it to your discretion,” Number One said, “but I want results quickly. This was not just an attack on you and Darkdoom, this was an attack on our entire organization. Our retribution must be swift. The girl must tell us what she knows and soon. My patience has its limits, Nero.”
Nero knew all too well what happened to anyone who overstepped those limits.
“I will report my progress with her directly to you,” Nero replied.
“See that you do,” Number One said. “Do unto others.”
“Do unto others,” Nero replied with a nod and the connection was cut.
A few hours later, Nero walked into the room where the wounded girl lay strapped to the bed. She was conscious now and she glared at him as he approached.
“You should have killed me when you had the chance,” the girl said, her voice dripping with venom.
“I still have that option,” Nero replied. “I am simply choosing not to exercise it at this precise moment. Now, you know my name, but I do not know yours. What should I call you?”
“My name is Raven,” the girl replied, still glaring at him. “And that is all you will get from me.”
“Not your codename,” Nero said, shaking his head, “your real name. What is it?”
“My name is Raven,” the girl hissed back at him. “I have no other name.”
“Very well, Raven,” Nero replied, “I imagine that someone like you must find this kind of incarceration rather boring, so I’ve brought this.” He held up the battered leather-bound book that he was holding. “I’m afraid I can’t release your hands, since I suspect that they would end up around my throat. So, I’m going to have to read it to you. I hope you like it, it’s one of my favorite novels and my father read it to me when I was young.”
“Do what you like,” Raven replied with a dismissive sneer. “It makes no difference to me.”
“That’s exactly what I used to say to my father,” Nero replied with a smile, opening the book and turning to the first page. He cleared his throat and began to read.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . .”
Nero looked down into the combat training area and watched as Raven swiftly incapacitated the men around her. It had been three months since her arrival at H.I.V.E.’s temporary facility in the Alps and her recovery from her injuries had been astonishingly quick. The men she was fighting were no ordinary sparring partners. They were some of the very best of G.L.O.V.E.’s special forces operatives and yet they were being systematically humiliated by the teenage girl in the middle of the room. Initially they had attacked individually, obviously feeling that it would be unfair for her to have to take on more than one of them at once, but that restraint had quickly been abandoned. There were more guards stationed around the edge of the area with the prototype Sleeper stun guns that Professor Pike had just developed. The Professor assured him that these new weapons would incapacitate anyone without causing any lasting physical harm. He hoped for the sake of the men in the room that he was right.
“She’s remarkable,” Colonel Francisco said, as he walked along the balcony toward Nero. “To be honest with you, Max, I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it for myself. Those are my best men and she’s making them look like amateurs.”
“Yes, it would appear that my instinct about her potential was correct,” Nero replied. “Now all we have to do is work out how to ensure we can safely tap it. That girl has been subjected to some of the most brutal training imaginable, it is a wonder that her mind is still intact.” The truth was that it had taken weeks just to persuade her to engage him in conversation. At first she had maintained a defiant silence, but Nero had not been discouraged. Over the past few years, he had trained many children who had been subjected to the worst kinds of brutality and he knew that there was still time to save the girl. At first, he had talked to her about her life before the Furans, growing up on the streets of Moscow and then slowly he coaxed from her details of the torments that she had suffered at the Glasshouse. Slowly he had begun to catch glimpses of the fiercely independent and resourceful young woman that the Furans had tried so hard to suppress. They thought they had broken her, but in truth she had just hidden that part of herself away, deep inside, somewhere they could not reach it.
“She’ll be a huge asset if we can trust her,” Francisco said, watching as another of his men went flying.
“Agreed,” Nero replied, “so perhaps it is time we found out if we can.” He turned and walked to the stairs at the end of the balcony. He made his way down onto the training floor and the guards around the edge of the room visibly tensed.
“Gentlemen, you are dismissed,” Nero said as he approached the panting men surrounding Raven. There was no disguising the looks of relief on some of their faces as they walked or limped away.
“You did well,” Nero said as he approached Raven. “How are you feeling?”
“Out of practice,” Raven replied. “Your men are weak.”
“I don’t think that’s true,” Nero replied. “It’s just that you are unusually strong. Thank you for honoring my request and not seriously injuring any of them.”
“The dozen guns pointing at me made it difficult to disagree,” Raven replied.
“Indeed,” Nero said, glancing at the men around the perimeter of the room. “Perhaps we should remove them from the equation.” He turned to Francisco who was still watching from the balcony above. “You and your men may leave, Colonel.”
“Are you sure, sir?” Francisco replied with a frown.
“I’m quite certain, thank you, Colonel,” Nero replied.
“Understood,” Francisco replied, still frowning. “Clear the room.”
Raven and Nero watched in silence as the guards filed out, leaving them alone in the large hall.
“You’re a fool,” Raven said. “I don’t need a weapon, you know. I could kill you where you stand with my bare hands.”
“I’m sure you could,” Nero replied, looking her in the eye. “The question is why don’t you?”
Raven stared back at him for several seconds, as if weighing her options. Nero knew that if he had miscalculated he would almost certainly have made a fatal mistake. He was a capable fighter, but he knew he was no match for the young girl standing in front of him.
“The truth is I don’t know,” Raven replied. “Just a couple of months ago I would have terminated you in an instant, no matter the consequences. And yet, today . . . for reasons I don’t quite understand, I do not want to.”
“And why do you think that is?” Nero asked.
“Perhaps it is because I do not yet understand you, Nero. I tried to kill you and yet you have shown me nothing but charity. It goes against everything I have been taught.”
“From what you have told me in the past few weeks, you have been taught that choice is an illusion. Correct?”
“Yes,” Raven replied with a nod. “Madame Furan believes that we are all just slaves to one degree or another. I could carry out someone else’s orders, but then I would merely be swapping one master for another. We all must serve and denying that is pointless.”
“People who seek to control others have been repeating that mantra for centuries,” Nero said with a frown. “It is no more true today than it was then.”
“You serve within your organization,” Raven replied, studying him carefully. “You have your masters. How is that any different?”
“The difference is that I serve G.L.O.V.E. by choice,” Nero replied. “The reason I’m part of that organization is that I fundamentally believe in freedom. The freedom to act as we choose, to make our own decisions, our own laws. The life of a villain is a life where one must make one’s own rules, but still there must be a sense of responsibility. Without that there is nothing but anarchy, chaos, and death. That is what I have always tried to teach the students of this school.”
“And yet I remain a prisoner,” Raven said.
“You have been kept under guard in order to ensure that you do not endanger the lives of my students and teaching staff, but you are not a prisoner,” Nero replied, shaking his head. “If you wish, you may leave now. That is your choice and you will have to live with the consequences. I would very much like you to stay and help me find the Furans so that I can stop them once and for all. The truth is there are some people within G.L.O.V.E. who would have me extract their location from you by force, but that is not my preferred option. I would far rather that you chose to help me. If you do choose to leave I will probably be punished for letting you go, but that, in turn, is my decision to make. So what will it be, Raven?”
She stared at him for a moment and he thought he could almost see the battle being fought behind her eyes. She looked down at the floor and then back up at him with just the faintest hint of a smile.
“My name . . . is Natalya.”