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I can do this. The woman walking down the expensively-carpeted hallway that led from the express elevator to the penthouse boardroom gave no hint that there was anything amiss. From her Manolo Blahnik pumps to her fashionably disheveled ash-blond hair, Ria Llewellyn looked as if she belonged here.

Once she had. The world of mega-corporate high finance had been her element, and she had moved through it as naturally as a shark moved through water. Until the Accident.

Oh, Christ, Ria. Tell the truth, if only to yourself. Before Beth Kentraine hit you over the head with a Fender guitar and the backlash from your loving father’s magic scrubbed your brain like a copper pot.

Almost against her will, she remembered. It all began with the Nexus, the rent in the fabric of Reality that let the power from the World Beyond seep over into this one, to be tapped by the Sidhe and others with similar magics. Only a human Bard could create a Nexus, for Creative Magic was the human power. Elves could imitate, copy, refine on the original. But they could not create something as unique, as powerful as a Nexus.

Since before she was born, Perenor had plotted to steal the Nexus of Elfhame Sun-Descending near Los Angeles and bring it under his direct control. He’d created LlewellCo to do that. He’d created Ria to run it, to deal with the daily grind that elves had so little taste for. And after years of plotting, he’d managed to buy the Fairegrove where the Nexus was—in order to destroy it, bulldoze the great trees that anchored the Nexus in the World. The warriors and mages of the Sidhe Court were powerless against him, lost ages before to Dreaming and despair. It should have been easy.

But at the eleventh hour, the Sidhe had found an unlikely champion. A human Bard, living in ignorance of his true nature and his great power: Eric Banyon, street-busker and Rennie. Perenor had ordered Ria to destroy him, but she’d thought she’d found a better way. She’d englamoured him, taken him and hidden him away, with her.

And it had worked, for almost long enough. But then he’d awakened to the danger—come into his birthright of power, driven by dire necessity and danger to his dearest friends. He’d awakened the High Court, stolen back the Nexus from Ria’s control to move it to Griffith Park, high above the city, a place where bulldozers and urban development could never come. To protect it and him, Eric’s ally and lover, the human Witch, Beth Kentraine, had gathered those humans together who had not quite forgotten the Old Knowledge, and offered battle.

Ria remembered driving like a madwoman in her Porsche, up the twisting mountain roads that led to the park. The sun had been high—a glorious bright L.A. day, the last she was to see for quite some time. Even then she’d thought there would be some way to end the war without bloodshed. With the power of the Nexus at her command, Ria could have sent the surviving Sidhe of Elfhame Sun-ðDescending across the Veil, to the Faerie Lands beyond. She’d thought that Perenor had agreed to that. But conciliation had never been her father’s way. He’d intended to kill them all, in repayment for an eons-old insult.

She remembered the hot smell of summer grass, remembered how glorious Perenor had looked in his armor the color of blued steel, remembered the music that had filled the air, the Celtic rock of Kentraine’s group Spiral Dance. Since that day she’d never been able to listen to Celtic music, though she’d once loved it. The memories were too terrifying, too painful—as if she’d been given a glimpse of Paradise, only to have it ripped away before she could reach it. Most of all, she remembered her first sight of the Court in all its glory, gathered around the musicians and the Bard on that sunny hillside. In all her life, she’d never seen any Sidhe other than Perenor. How beautiful they had all been in their silks and armor! Something glorious, out of the oldest dream of strength and beauty there was. In that moment she had hated them, for being something she, by the curse of her half-human blood, could never be.

But she had never meant to kill them.

But Perenor had. By what right? they had asked him. She remembered the defiant words he had shouted in return:

“By the right of the strong over the weak, Eldenor. Of the master over the slave—the right of one who was unjustly banished, cast from his place among you, and has dreamed of the moment when all of you shall lie lifeless in pools of your own blood—”

In that moment, a moment far too late, she had truly understood her father for what he was—a monster, without love or charity, compassion or honor. He had reached out to her, stripping away all her carefully constructed shields and defenses with no more than a thought, making her nothing more than a tool of his madness, a wellspring of Power for him to draw upon in the fight. Imprisoned by his magic, she had been forced to watch as day became night, as the sunlit hillside became a shadowy glen filled with billowing black fog, as the Seleighe Sidhe had clashed with nightmare monsters of Perenor’s summoning.

They had died to music, to the clashing of blades and the wild howl of guitars, to the hammering of drums and of sword-blows. The black ground had gone red with blood, and the screams of the dying had melded with the frenzied song of the Bard’s flute. The day would have been lost in that moment, save that Terenil, Prince of Elfhame Sun-Descending, had shaken off his despair and challenged Perenor directly.

And all Ria could do was scream silently within her own mind, fighting uselessly against what Perenor had made of her.

She had not seen Terenil die, though die he had. Before that moment, the Witch Kentraine had realized the truth, and had struck her own blow against Perenor and his nightmare allies.

Ria remembered that last moment: Kentraine standing over her, her Fender guitar raised like a club. She had willed the girl not to flinch, to do what had to be done to stop the madness and slaughter. And Kentraine had—striking with all her strength, smashing her guitar down on Ria’s head, shattering the magical link Perenor had forged, saving them all. Saving the Nexus, and the Sidhe foothold in this world.

Ria had only learned the details of the end of the battle long afterward—how the dying Terenil had slain Perenor with his last breath, how Eric had reached beyond himself to pierce the Veil and anchor the new Nexus in a place beyond harm, how when Korendil would have slain her, Elizabet and Kayla, healers who had been drawn into the conflict on the very morning of the war, had claimed her life in payment for their help.

Together the two, Healer and Apprentice, had brought her back on the long slow journey from the edge of death, piecing back together Ria’s shattered body, mind, and soul. She owed them a debt she could never repay.

Even when she was well at last, it would have been so much easier just to slink away and hide herself forever. As Perenor’s heir at law, everything they had built together was hers. She never needed to work another day in her life if she didn’t want to.

But when she’d tried to offer Elizabet money, the Healer wouldn’t accept it. “You’ll repay me best by taking up your life again, Ria. I don’t Heal people so that they can hide from their lives. You have responsibilities in the world. Go see to them.”

So now she was here.

But that was old news, and Ria preferred not to dwell on the past. Perenor was dead, his bid to claim the power of Elfhame Sun-Descending a failure, thanks to a Witch, a Bard, and an elven knight. She’d never figured out by what twisted mercy the three of them had spared her to claw her way back to memory and sanity once more. She tried not to think about it.

Ria had other things to think about.

She reached the end of the corridor, and the uniformed LlewellCo security guard opened it for her.

There was an audible hush as she entered the boardroom. Nine men and three women were gathered around the gleaming oak table. A breathtaking view of Los Angeles and the Valley was visible through the enormous windows that filled one wall of the room, but most of those at the table were sitting with their backs to the view. An oil portrait of Ria—done in Early Hagiography, she’d never liked it—hung over the head of the table. She’d been wearing black when it was painted, but today she wore red. Phoenix red, the color of rebirth.

She shut the door behind her.

“Good afternoon, gentlemen. Ladies. I hope I’m not late?” she asked with a warrior’s smile.

Several of the people sitting around the table glanced from Ria to the portrait as if confirming her identity. Ria smiled inwardly. She didn’t look a day older than she had when it was painted. One last advantage of her elven-Blood ðheritage—she wouldn’t age as fast as mortalkind, though she didn’t share the elves’ immortality. In the mortal world, especially in these rarified corporate circles, her prolonged youthfulness would be taken for the work of an excellent plastic surgeon, nothing more.

Jonathan Sterling had gotten smoothly to his feet as she entered—of all those in the room, he was the only one who had been expecting her arrival here today—and stood aside as Ria took his place at the head of the table. The seat at her right was unoccupied—how had he managed that feat of choreography? a small part of her mind wondered idly—and he settled into it, trusted courtier to a grand prince. Only a shadow of a smile marred his perfect corporate mask, and you would have to know him very well to be able to see it. An answering flicker of amusement in her own green eyes, Ria took her seat.

She let her gaze sweep slowly up and down the table, taking careful note of who flinched, who looked angry, who looked relieved—and there were one or two—and who couldn’t meet her gaze at all.

“I understand that there was some doubt about the ðextent of my recovery,” she said dryly. “Thank you for your concern. Now, if you will all direct your attention to point one on the agenda. . . .”

For the next three hours Ria worked them unmercifully, probing for signs of timidity and unsoundness in LlewellCo’s interim rulers. It was primarily a display of power, proving that no matter how long she’d been a bed-ridden basket case, she was back now, and as much to be feared as ever. It was easy enough to know what buttons to push: their minds fairly shouted out their deepest fears and reservations, allowing her to leaf through their eddying surfaces like the pages of a high-fashion magazine. Only Jonathan, beside her, was a still pool of well-organized calm.

There had been lapses and attempted coups, of course. She’d hired the cleverest and most ambitious corporate sharks, and one had to expect a little feeding frenzy now and then. Baker and Hardesty, in particular, had taken advantage of her absence to do things they knew she wouldn’t approve of, and that Jonathan would be hard-pressed to discover. Several of the companies they’d bought had been bleeding money for years, with precious little to show for it.

“So we’re all agreed on breaking off the courtship of TriMark Pharmaceuticals?” Ria said, looking Sabrina Baker right in the eye.

“Of course, Ms. Llewellyn,” Baker said. She put up a good facade, but the TriMark deal had been all Baker’s idea, and everyone here knew it. Most of them didn’t know that TriMark was substantially funded by certain South American investors, but Baker did, and if she didn’t, she should have.

“And the leveraged remortgaging of our Far East assets?” she added, turning to Colin Hardesty.

“Well, with the Asian dollar going soft . . . yes,” Hardesty said, capitulating all at once. Ria hadn’t quite made up her mind whether he was stupid or just subtle, but what was plain was that he’d overreached himself mightily with this deal. And now he and everyone else here knew it.

“Good,” Ria purred. “I imagine this concludes all our current business. I’d like to move our next meeting forward a bit, so that I can get an update on your other projects. So shall we say two weeks from today? I’ll have my secretary prepare you a memo.”

She did not smile now. Smiling was a sign of conðciliation, and she had no need of that. There wasn’t any ðargument—she hadn’t thought there would be—and her staff quickly gathered up their papers and left the room. Ria stayed behind, watching the long blue shadows stretch over the L.A. Basin and savoring the moment.

Jonathan remained behind.

“I thought for sure you were going to can Baker and Hardesty,” he said.

She smiled then, a genuine smile without edge or malice. “So did they. They know that I know, and they know I let them off just this once.” Her expression turned grim. This was not the whole war, just a minor battle in it. Today’s victory settled very little. “And from this second on, they are going to be so careful how they operate that if I get run over by a bus the moment I walk out of here, the two of them would still wait a year before making any moves, just so they could be certain I was dead.” She heard an echo of her father in her own voice, and steeled herself against flinching. Perenor was a part of her—her blood, her bone—and once she would have exulted in that. Now it was only a fact, and one that sometimes made her tired.

Jonathan chuckled. He’d been the one stuck with riding herd on them over the last several years, after all. “And they aren’t clever enough to hide their activities from that suite of computer hackers you insisted I hire. And I know they know that.”

“Which puts you safely in the driver’s seat for about a year if anything happens to me.” Ria shrugged. “If you can’t get firm control of LlewellCo by then, you aren’t ever going to.” She owed Jonathan the truth, and Ria had always valued honesty over kindness. In her world, kindness had always been a feint, a prelude to war.

“And if I don’t, I’m not the person to handle it in the first place,” Jonathan answered. “Which, by the way, I’d rather not, unless you’re going to be around to pick up the reins again.”

Ria looked at him quizzically. It was almost an admission of weakness, and Jonathan Sterling was anything but a weakling. If he had been, he could not have survived to rise in the company she had built at her father’s orders, much less managed to keep control of it in the aftermath of her . . . injury. All her life, she’d never depended on anyone in quite the way she depended on Jonathan. Theirs was not a romantic relationship—he was quite comfortably married, and she’d never seen any reason to change that—but it was a partnership that was stronger than any bond formed of bodies. He had always been her trusted aide, but the relationship she had forged in the arrogant assumption of her own invincibility had changed when she had come to truly need him. He had given her unswerving loyalty and trust; even in her weakness, he had given as a gift what she could no longer demand, and that gift had changed both of them. In another age, Jonathan would have been squire to her knight, trusted vassal to her prince, a relationship to endure beyond all testing. She’d trusted him, and had been given his trust in return. In the last six months she’d learned more about his family from a few oblique remarks than she’d learned in all the years he’d been her assistant.

“I don’t like the feeling of the hounds nipping at my heels,” he explained simply.

“And you’d rather be married to your wife than your work. I can’t blame you there,” she added.

“You would have, once,” he replied.

Ria shrugged, getting to her feet. “Now I just envy you, sometimes,” Ria said.

She walked to the window to stare out over the Valley. The sunset light painted the scene before her in tones of fire and gold, the light bouncing off the inversion layer that hung over the metroplex. She’d told him the truth. She received truth in return.

“There’s something you’ll want to know,” he said, and something in his voice kept her from turning back, kept her gazing out over the city. Her unacknowledged kingdom, bought with blood.

“Eric Banyon’s surfaced. I waited until I had definite word from the PI I hired for you that it was the same Eric Banyon you wanted, but there’s no doubt. He’s in New York, enrolled at Juilliard. After all this time, the Feds aren’t looking for him any more; I checked that too. I suppose he figured that.”

Eric! She forced herself to relax, and when she spoke her voice was even, neutral. “And?”

“No sign of his friends. He’s there alone.”

Jonathan, her trusted champion, knowing what she wanted to know and making certain to tell her those things first. Money could not buy such care. Fear could not command it.

So Eric was back at Juilliard. She had as complete a file on him as money could buy. She knew he’d been a child prodigy, knew he’d dropped out of Juilliard on his 18th birthday to make his living on the street and at Renfaires, a rootless rebel, as shy as a wild hawk. The Eric she’d known would never have gone back to the scene of his failure . . . much less abandoned his friends.

But had he? Or had they abandoned him?

Perhaps the truth was somewhere in between.

She’d traced the three of them as far as San Francisco, but there they’d vanished. She’d assumed that meant they’d gone to Underhill—the elves would always welcome a Bard, and Korendil and Eric between them could have sponsored the Kentraine bitch—but why had he come back?

Did she dare go and ask him? His enrollment at Juilliard argued that he’d be easy to find. He must feel safe if he’d been willing to go there. But of course the years in Underhill would have been as good as a disguise.

“Does our set of New York interests need a shaking up as well?” she asked. No. Leave it. He’s the past. Let him stay there.

But Jonathan came to her side, silently holding out a slim leather pilot’s wallet. She took it, seeing the sheaf of paper inside from the travel agency LlewellCo used. Plane tickets. A hotel reservation.

“I think you’ll just have time to pack and catch the red-eye,” Jonathan said. “Your schedule’s there. There’s a board meeting scheduled for LlewellCo East the day after tomorrow, which should just give you time to get over jet lag.”

He handed her another folder, this one legal-pad-sized and thick. “This is the PI report and contact information. You’ll have time to read it on the plane. The reports on our East Coast holdings are there, too. Have a good trip.”

She might have kissed him then, but such gestures had never been a part of what was between them. Instead she turned away from the window and favored him with a cool Sphinx-like smile.

“Thank you, Jonathan. You always know just what I need.”

His answering smile was only in his eyes. “It’s good to have you back. And now . . . your car is waiting, and I’ve just got time to return a few calls before I hit the freeway.”

The old yellow-brick building occupied most of a city block, and dated back to the days when there’d been factories in Manhattan. It faced the East River, in an area that was sporadically gentrifying. But no matter how many new glass office buildings studded Hudson Street and Second Avenue, old dinosaurs like the riverside warehouse remained, legacies of the past of The City That Works.

And as always, they adapted to circumstances.

The logo in gold on the front door said Threshold Labs, as did the sign over the loading dock doors. It was a cryptic declaration, that might mean almost anything. Whatever Threshold did, it was clear that the company—and its employees—valued their privacy.

For good reason.

Despite its functional, down-at-heel exterior, serious money had been expended on the interior of the building. The three floors had been remodelled and subdivided into offices, Cray sequencers and the power lines to feed them brought in, microwaves and centrifuges, air scrubbers and clean rooms and serious water purification systems installed, as well as a number of modifications below-street that would never have passed any New York building inspection, no matter how well-bribed the inspector.

The small clandestine lab three floors below the street was bisected by a wall of triple-sealed glass, and could only be entered through an airlock by technicians in full clean suits. The lab was kept at negative pressure, so that in case its seals were broken, the air would flow in, not out. On the other side of the glass was a windowless office. It, too, was dark, but there was someone there, sitting behind the desk with a guitar in her lap, fingers soundlessly stroking the strings. She was working late as usual, mulling over the last run of tests. It wasn’t as if she had someplace else to go, after all.

She looked up as the timer cycled the lights in the lab down to sleep-time levels. The sudden darkness in the room beyond turned the thick glass into a mirror, mercilessly reflecting the office’s occupant. She met her own gaze unflinchingly, a woman who prided herself on having shed all her illusions.

She’d had plenty of help in doing so. If she hated what she saw at 31, she also knew that wishing wouldn’t change it.

Romantic loners of any sex should be tall and slender and dressed in black. Jeanette Campbell was short and sloppily plump, with thin fine mouse-brown hair dragged back in an unforgiving ponytail, persistent acne, and short stubby fingers that struggled to fit around the neck of a guitar. She was a loner through both arrogance and fate—verbal and opinionated, she had always been the sort of person who, when teased, lashed back viciously, taking no prisoners.

By the time she reached high school, Jeanette was a full-blown social pariah. Through pride, she rejected the few tentative overtures that were made to her—it was very clear to her that those willing to be kind to her branded themselves worthless by the gesture. She’d yearned for romantic isolationism while longing to be popular. She’d dressed in studs and leather, knowing she made herself look ridiculous, but still somehow unable to give up the gesture. She was desperately unhappy and worse: bright and insightful enough to know she had woven the tapestry of her sorrows strand by strand through the long years that separated third grade from high school freshman, but unable to find her way out of the web. She would not bow down to the pretty and popular whatever it cost her. She would never admit that their opinion mattered.

High school was hell, but by then Jeanette had calluses on her soul as well as her fingers. She concentrated on her classes and her part-time job, intent merely upon getting things over with: so fixed upon the destination that she discounted the journey.

Then something happened. Halfway through her senior year, Jeanette slowly became aware of something that had never been true before.

Nobody cared.

Nobody slimed her locker, tripped her in the halls, stole her homework, made crank calls to her house. Nobody mocked her in classes, pasted stupid bumper stickers on her guitar case, cut in front of her in lines, or stole her lunch. She could read any book she liked, in public, without being afraid it would be snatched from her hands and ruined.

Nobody cared about her at all.

It took her a long time to believe it could be true, and longer to trust her good fortune. She’d spent more than half her life in a war she’d known she could never win. Nobody had ever told her that it wouldn’t go on forever. And one day, when she wasn’t looking, it had just stopped. The enemy had declared peace and gotten out.

She didn’t know what to do about it. At first the relief had been so great that she didn’t care about anything else. And when the truth finally sank in, it made room for an anger as devastating as grief.

That’s it? You ruin my life, all of you, and then you just walk away? You don’t even pretend it never happened. You just FORGET IT?

Well, I can’t forget it.

She tried. But all that left her was the realization that she had nothing at all to say to her former tormentors. The only connection she’d had with her classmates was being their scapegoat, and now she didn’t even have that. They had shaped her more than she had ever understood and left her to cope with the result. Freed of constant peer pressures, Jeanette sought new pressure as instinctively as the flower seeks the sun. She drifted into things that appalled her, but she couldn’t summon up the interest in her own actions to stop. She couldn’t even take refuge in a romantic self-image. She’d always longed to—she dressed the part—but it required a level of self-delusion that Jeanette Campbell had never had. She was not and could never be the thing she loved most.

Unless she found the answer.

That there was an answer was something she’d never questioned. She’d read all the books, the ones that told her the human mind had powers which, if she could only unlock them, could transform her life. She’d started studying the mind then, reading the classics in the field. The brain was a biological machine. It could be reprogrammed with the right tools.

She’d grown up at the tail end of the period that considered drugs recreational, and for a while she’d thought that was the answer—the right chemical cocktail could do what she wanted and needed it to, unlock the hidden powers of her mind and make them available. A few semesters at the community college had given her the rest of the tools she needed to pursue what she thought of as her Research, and as soon as she had the basic tools for her quest, she’d dropped out. She already knew that legitimate research wouldn’t divulge what she sought. For one thing, it frowned on human experimentation.

And she had experimented—first on herself, then on others—a combination of loneliness and rage pushing her down the easy road from science geek to outlaw chemist. Bills had to be paid, and research took money. But she knew the answer was there, somewhere. If she only had the courage and the discipline to find it.

The answer was in the hallucinogens. She’d always known that, from the first time she’d dropped acid. But LSD alone wasn’t enough. It was too diffuse, too variable, too soft. She’d added mescaline, crystal meth, cocaine, trying to come up with the right cocktail that would let her push through all the barriers and claim the lightning for her own. She’d known she was on the right track, but every time she had a compound she was ready to try, it failed somewhere along the way. Sometimes people died, but she hadn’t cared. She worked frantically, desperately, knowing her time was running out, because life on the street just wasn’t safe, and when you were supplying illegal drugs, the working conditions and your co-workers left a lot to be desired. Sooner or later somebody would sell her out, and she’d go down.

But in her own strange way, Jeanette was heroic. Inevitable arrest and imprisonment didn’t faze her. Finding the key was all that mattered.

Then Robert Lintel came, and that changed everything.

She’d been in the back room of a garage somewhere in New Jersey, cooking up a batch of methamphetamine in a makeshift kitchen. She’d had to move three times in the past month because of the Feds, and the last time she’d lost her whole lab. If the Sinner Saints—the bikers who were her protection and distribution network—hadn’t tipped her off, she would have lost more than her lab, but her product was pure and consistent, and they knew that if she went down she’d sell out as many of them as she could.

Won’t live to see thirty if I do, but I don’t think that matters, do you, Jeannie?

Of course, they might kill her themselves to keep that from happening. Even without the psychic powers she coveted, Jeanette could tell that. She could almost hear Road Hog thinking that, when he set her up out here in the middle of nowhere. But the Saints were greedy, and already had a deal in place for this current batch. She was safe at least until it was done, and maybe longer if the heat died down.

When the door of the garage opened, she looked up, irritated, thinking it was Road Hog or Hooker coming back to chivvy her along. But it was someone she’d never seen before, a well-manicured man in an expensive dark grey suit, walking in like he owned the place.

Her hand had crept toward the gun in her knapsack—people in her profession always went armed—but she hesitated for a crucial second, because the room was full of acetone and ether and the muzzle flash from a shot would send the whole lab up like the Fourth of July.

And he’d smiled at her, like there was something that he wanted. Her hand closed over the gun, and she pulled it into her lap, behind the desk where he couldn’t see, but she didn’t fire.

“Jeanette Campbell? Hi. My name is Robert Lintel. I’ve got a business proposition for you.”

With those inane words he’d changed her life. So that now she could look in a mirror, and not flinch quite so hard.

The lights in her office flared to full merciless brightness, and Jeanette blinked and squinted up at the figure in the doorway, laying her guitar aside.

“Hey, Campbell. What are you doing sitting here in the dark?”

There was an edge to Robert’s voice, but there always was. He’d rescued her years ago, but it was for reasons even more selfish than her own, if that were possible.

While she wanted the powers that were hers by right—and god help anyone who stood in her way once she had them—Robert wanted Ultimate Power. She wanted the power for herself, Robert wanted to control the powerful people. He saw himself in charge of a group of perfect psychic spies, assassins, and saboteurs, whose work was undetectable . . . and whose skills were for sale to the highest bidder, though he never said that.

He didn’t have to. Jeanette, better than anyone else, knew how his mind worked. Hadn’t he sought her out back there in Jersey because he’d gotten to see the research notes she’d left behind in the lab the Feds had seized, and knew she could be a means to his ends?

Just so.

There was no love lost between predators.

“Thinking,” Jeanette answered sullenly. She gestured toward the primate cages waiting on the other side of the glass. The experimental animals were only one of the things here that shouldn’t be. When she’d been a street chemist, she had to make do with what she could get, with random customers as her experimental subjects. These days things were much more satisfactory: absolute immunity from the law, pure chemicals to work with, the best apparatus, and an unlimited budget.

But no human subjects.

“It’s too dangerous,” he’d said, and for years she’d accepted that. There’d been too much else to do—first, catching up on all the schooling she’d sluffed off, then re-documenting and refining her previous research, as what good was a breakthrough you couldn’t replicate at will?

She’d made do with primates—chimps siphoned to Threshold from other projects or bought on the black market. On paper—and more or less in fact—Threshold was a small pharmaceutical research company. Most of its employees were engaged in legitimate research into the neurochemistry of the brain. Few of them even suspected the existence of the Black Labs that occupied the cellars of the building, the place where Jeanette Campbell did research that went far beyond simple cures for ADD, narcolepsy, clinical depression, bipolar disorder, and the like. Some of the hundreds of primates shipped to Threshold every year even went to the careful legitimate experiments of the people in the labs upstairs, but more of them went to the Black Labs.

The brain structure of a chimpanzee was similar to that of human beings, and some of them even knew sign language. Jeanette wasn’t interested in talking to them, but language use modified the deep structure of the brain and gave her a benchmark by which to measure the effects of her drugs.

She had three consistent results from her drug protocols to date: dead chimps, crazy chimps, and superficially unafðfected chimps. She’d lost count of the number of brains she’d centrifuged, looking for results and reasons. But she was getting closer. That was all that mattered.

“Thinking,” Robert echoed scornfully. “You want to get up off your dead ass and do a little more than think? Beirkoff told me you were going to be ready for another trial today.”

Beirkoff was Jeanette’s personal assistant—somebody had to do the record-keeping gruntwork who was in on Threshold’s big secret—but she’d always known he geeked for Robert. It was how the world worked.

“Yeah, well, I am ready,” she said, getting up and putting her guitar down. The reflection in the glass mocked her like an evil angel, showing her the hated reality so far from her dreams. “Beirkoff should have the chimps prepped. I can shoot them up and leave the cameras running, then check them out in the morning. It’s better to do this sort of thing at night, anyway.”

No need to put into words the nebulous feeling, not even a hunch, that something about the drugs would just work better in the small hours of the night when most people were asleep. Once upon a time she’d fancied herself a magician, but in the years since then Jeanette had put both magic and superstition behind her. She worked entirely with what was, abandoning dreams.

“What’s your hurry, anyway?” she asked incuriously.

“I’m not paying you to sit around playing that damned guitar,” Robert said grudgingly, and Jeanette smiled inside, though she allowed no vestige of that expression to reach her face. In fact, Robert was paying her to sit around playing that dammed guitar, and whatever else she wanted to do with her time. Her work was as much inspiration as anything else—and the accidental discoveries along the way had proved her worth. She’d come up with a compound that induced abject terror in its subject and one that destroyed the sleep centers. Both killed the subject in anywhere from 24 hours to a week, but Robert had liked them, even though they’d never be mentioned in Threshold’s quarterly report to its parent company. He’d taken them off somewhere and never told her what he’d done with them, but Jeanette knew those discoveries were what had bought her a free pass for the foreseeable future.

“I’m going to go down and inject them now. Want to watch?” she said.

Robert gestured, indicating she should precede him. It was one of the few things she actually liked about Robert. He wasn’t squeamish.

She walked out of her office and down the grey-carpeted corridor to the room that held the airlock that would let her into the primate lab. She didn’t bother with a clean suit—the whole fantasy of biological contamination was just a useful fiction for any of Threshold’s legitimate employees who might stumble accidently onto her work area. No one but Robert and Beirkoff really knew what it was she did here, and neither one had the brains to follow her science. Secrecy was power. She remembered that from her magical days.

When she walked in, the full-spectrum lights brightened slowly to their daytime levels, washing every corner of the main floor in pitiless illumination, illuminating the row of cages so brightly that their contents seemed like unliving mannequins. The room was warm, and smelled strongly of ozone, ammonia, and fermenting fruit. She looked up, and saw the blinking red lights of the cameras. They’d record every move that anyone made in this room from half a dozen angles, no matter the light level, and store the images in digital computer memory for instant retrieval, so that later Robert and Jeanette could scrutinize and speculate about every squeal and twitch of the subjects. The oldest files were purged on a six-month rotation, leaving no trace of themselves behind. Robert ran a clean operation.

Her subjects were in the five cages along the wall, brought in from the larger primate lab at the other end of the building. Beirkoff had sedated each of them an hour ago, so that now they were torpid and manageable, but most of the sedative had already been processed, so that chemical residue wouldn’t screw up her study.

Satisfied that everything was in readiness, she went over to the big refrigerator at the end of the room—past the stainless-steel exam table with its drains and shackles—and punched a nine-digit code into its locking key pad.

The light at the top of the pad turned from red to green, and Jeanette opened the door. Inside, it looked like any other lab refrigerator, with anonymous bottles and bundles neatly stacked and labeled on the shelves. She pulled out the jar she wanted. It was half full of a sparkling white powder, as pure and anonymous as salt. “Threshold 6/157” was written on the label. Sixth year of trials, test 157.

From the cupboard beside the refrigerator she took a fresh bottle of distilled water, and mixed and measured until she had a seven percent solution of T-6/157. She filled five disposable syringes with the liquid, and then advanced on her subjects.

She’d had a lot of time to get good at wrestling primates in the last six years. Pop open the cage door, make sure the damned thing wasn’t lying doggo, find a vein, drop her load, snap the cage door shut again. The chimps’ bodies were warm and flaccid in sleep, their muscles relaxed. It was over in less than five minutes, the subjects twitching and restless, rousing to wakefulness under the tonic effect of the injection. The temporary restlessness would pass—T-6/157 was a minute variation on a previous recipe, and she knew the spectrum of effects almost by heart—and the subjects would fall into a brief coma. In about fifteen minutes the compound would begin to take effect, though most of the subjects continued to sleep for several hours. The effects would pass completely within twelve hours. Then they could review the tapes and start again.

“What are you waiting for? Brass bands?” she snapped. This was the part that always got her down, when she injected the drug and nothing happened. She knew she couldn’t expect anything to happen right away, but it still depressed her.

Robert had already turned away. As he reached the door, he tapped the switch, and the lights went back to nighttime levels. Jeanette followed him back into the hallway, in the dark.

The sound of the bedside telephone woke her. Jeanette groped for it in the dark, but at her first flailings the night-lights went on, motion sensors activating a strip of illumination all the way around the floor. With that to guide her, she grabbed the telephone. The clock on the bedside said 4:07.

“Get down here. Now,” Robert said.

The cab ride down from Central Park West—the posh uptown apartment had been Robert’s idea, not hers—took about twenty minutes at this time of night, but it was plenty of time for Jeanette to think. Obviously, something had happened —fire? —break-in? At any rate, something big enough that Beirkoff had freaked and phoned Robert—which was as it should be. Threshold was Robert’s baby. He was the CEO, and she (on the books at least) a lowly researcher. She even had a tiny office upstairs, with a window looking out over the river, and attended the monthly staff meetings that were a part of Threshold’s legitimate side. But her real work was here, down in the Black Labs, alone and unconnected to the rest of the company.

But in that case, why had Robert phoned her?

She came in through the night entrance, using her passcard, and Beirkoff met her at the doorway. His eyes glittered with excitement and she realized that whatever was going on here, it was really huge. Big enough to get Beirðkoff excited, anyway, and most of the time the technician ðapproached his job with all the verve of someone working the counter at McDonald’s.

Sometimes Jeanette wondered where Robert found all these people. Beirkoff didn’t seem to have any life outside Threshold. The security staff were hardcase mercs like she’d never seen working the sunny side of the law. Dr. Ramchandra, who handled the medical side of the Black Ops project, smiled a lot, but from living outside the law Jeanette knew a stone cold spook when she saw one. And she wouldn’t have the first idea about how to pull a crew like this together.

Either Robert had a lot of backing, or a complex secret life, or maybe both.

“Mr. Lintel says you should meet him downstairs—” Beirkoff began.

An unfamiliar emotion filled her—hope—and she pushed past him and headed for the executive elevator. She had to present her passkey again, but once she had, the elevator descended into the secret world beneath the street, the one that most of Threshold didn’t even suspect was there. Robert was waiting for her in her office, looking as immaculately corporate as ever.

“Tell me,” she said, when she saw his face.

“Look for yourself.” His eyes were shining with the same light that was in her own: the glow of pure triumph. He turned off the lights, and in the darkness it was easy to see through the wall of glass into the small lab.

“Nobody’s gone in there yet. I gave orders,” Robert said. His voice was hoarse with sheer stupefied emotion. “Nobody’s gone in there since you left, four hours ago.”

For a moment she didn’t understand what she was seeing. At last her eyes and brain worked together to tell her what she saw.

This was what success looked like.

The room was a mess. Drawers and cabinets had been torn open, their contents strewn around like a fall of strange snow. The wheeled cages were scattered around the room, as if someone had been shaking them, and blood, urine, and chimp feces were spattered everywhere. But most of all, there were only four cages, and four hours ago there had been five.

Four. Yes. She was sure of it.

There was movement in the corner of the room—since no one had gone into the room, the lights were still nighttime dim—and she saw it was the fifth chimp. He was moving slowly, as if he were ill.

“How did he get out of his cage?” she asked aloud. And where’s the cage?

“Keep looking,” Robert said, his voice filled with unholy glee.

She turned her attention to the other cages. One was empty, its bright yellow plastic security seal still intact. In two of the others, the animals were obviously dead, having ripped themselves to pieces with their own teeth and nails. She’d seen that side effect often enough.

But in the fifth . . .

Its occupant was an older female chimp, obviously once somebody’s pampered pet until she had grown too inconvenient. Her body was smeared with red, and for a moment Jeanette mistook it for blood, until her disbelieving mind finally admitted what she saw.

Strawberries. Raspberries. And Godiva chocolate-covered cherries. She knew they were Godiva cherries because the distinctive gold-foil box was still in the cage.

How? cried half her mind, and: It worked! said the other half.

She looked at Robert, her eyes alight.

“It was T-6/157,” she said.

“Yes,” Robert said simply. “It does seem to have been.”

“We’ll have to arrange for more trials—find out what happened—maybe direct injection into the neurocortex. I’ll review the surveillance images—we’ll have to prep some more chimps—” she said, almost babbling.

“No need. I told Beirkoff to put the rest of the chimps down, anyway.”

All she could do was stare at him, stunned by the enormity of her success. Robert smiled, as pleased by that as by the nearness of his ultimate goal.

“Campbell. We aren’t going to learn anything from a bunch of monkeys that can’t answer our questions, now, are we?” Robert asked, almost playfully.

“Human trials.” She felt a thrill of excitement course through her. There was an exhilaration at watching a drug take possession of a person that all the lab animals and private funding in the world couldn’t match. Finding volunteers for this sort of experiment was difficult, but there were ways. Expensive. Unethical. But ways. “I’ll tell Beirkoff to get the Large Primate Containment set up. I’ll need at least half a dozen subjects to start with.”

“But not volunteers,” Robert said, as if reading her mind. “Not yet. But that’s nothing for you to worry about. I’ll have your lab rats for you by tomorrow night. This is New York. You can find them on every street corner.”

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