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Jon Moore

I wanted to gather more information about the guards and their weapons, but I was out of time. I couldn’t risk that a winning bidder might take his prize and retire to one of the ships; I needed to stop this affair while all the children were in Privus.

I wouldn’t lose any of them.

I wouldn’t.

The bidding on the first boy ended.

A short man with a heart-shaped activefiber mask shook hands with the host and with the auctioneer. The rest of the men applauded him. He smiled and waved regally to the crowd, as if he had just won an election.

I wanted to kill him.

Instead, I backed toward the hallway to the kitchen.

The man walked slowly to the guard behind the pedestal. The two spoke briefly, the guard nodding several times.

The guard approached the pedestal.

The boy inside it continued to sit, looking straight ahead but showing no reaction to anything.

The auctioneer moved to the next pedestal on his right.

I was out of time.

I reached into my pants pocket and thumbed the remote. If they worked properly, the bladders would activate, the small fans and atomizers in each would force out their payload as a very fine mist, and the air handling system would do the rest. The gas would act quickly and knock out everyone inside for at least four hours. I’d taken a preventative drug ahead of time and would be fine. I’d brought the goggles because the gas irritated the eyes of everyone exposed to it. The nanomachines that laced all my cells would fix any damage to mine, but I’d lose precious time while they did and be nearly blind during that interval.

Lobo’s modeling suggested it would take at most two minutes for the gas to start affecting people, and another fifteen to thirty seconds for it to knock out everyone. Those in the upper boxes would go down first. If we’d been able to secure information about Privus’s climate control systems, I’d have bet my life on Lobo’s simulation, but we hadn’t; there had not been enough time.

I eased around the edge of the room toward the door through which the guests had entered. If any people tried to leave, I had to stop them until the gas took effect—or get out myself and regroup if it didn’t. No way could I take all of them without killing a lot of them, maybe all of them, or dying myself. The nanomachines could heal most injuries, but I had no idea if they could handle a shot to my brain, and I didn’t want to risk my life finding out. Lobo should be able to detect from the security cameras that people were falling, so he would be on his way, but it would take him at least two or three minutes to get here. Once he was here, I could rely on him to trank or at least keep busy any guards outside the building, but until then, I had to contain the situation on my own.

I also had to unmask all the guests, so the security cameras would capture their faces clearly. The guests in the upper boxes would fall first, so I could deal with them without the others noticing me—as long as everyone down here stayed inside.

I focused on slowing my breathing and watching everyone anywhere near the exit.

The pedestal from the first auction was making its way around the room, the guard guiding it with his hand. Fortunately, these things were built for show, not speed; it was rolling so slowly the guard had to take baby steps to stay beside it.

No one else moved toward the door.

Lobo should now be able to reach the ships outside before anyone could escape, so at worst the winning bidder and the guard would have to contend with him outside. I lifted my tray and walked toward the kitchen. When I reached the entrance to the service hallway upstairs, I pushed through that door, ditched the tray and glasses, and ran up to the first level of boxes.

My eyes itched the moment I opened the door on that level, so I retreated behind it, closed my eyes, and put on the goggles. I’d mistimed my approach. I waited for about ten seconds, frustrated at the error, until my eyes stopped hurting and I could see clearly.

I burst through the stairwell door and turned left. A guard was crumpled on the floor outside the first box, his left leg twisted under him awkwardly. I stepped over him. The guests inside were unconscious, two in their chairs, and one with his head leaning on the front railing. I pulled back the leaner so no one below would notice him. I tilted their chairs back so each one’s face would be clearly visible to the security cameras. I tore off their masks.

Seconds ticked away. I needed to finish up here and get down to the main level.

I moved to the next booth.


Two guards lay on the floor outside the booth after it. One was out, but one was still conscious, choking and rubbing his eyes. Either he was resistant to the gas, or he’d brought sinus filters. I pulled the pill strips from my pocket, peeled off a black one, and ran to the struggling guard.

“Let me help you,” I said.

He coughed. “Gas.”

“I know,” I said. “This works.” I put the pill in his hand.

He shoved it in his mouth and swallowed.

A few seconds later, he stopped moving.

He’d be out a little longer than the others.

The two guests in the box were already unconscious. They had fallen and were facedown on the floor. I rolled them over and took off their masks. Good enough.

The next two boxes on this level were empty.

As I raced to the last box, I glanced over the railing. A few people were coughing.

One guard lay on the ground outside that box. One guest was inside. The guest must have been standing when the gas hit him, because he had fallen backward, his legs crossed awkwardly under him. He was still breathing, so I ripped off his mask and left him there.

I hadn’t seen anyone in any higher boxes, and I needed to get downstairs, so I ran along the hall to the service door, through it, and down to the main floor.

Something clattered in the kitchen. I checked inside it. The air handling system must have been particularly strong there, perhaps to keep the cooking odors away from the rest of Privus, because only two people remained standing, and they were barely conscious. The staff and guards weren’t my targets, but I also couldn’t spare the time to help them, so I went back to the main open area.

The pedestal with the first child was three meters from the exit door, holding its position, waiting for guidance from the guard who had fallen next to it.

People were dropping all over the floor. I counted half a dozen of the guests, including the host, who were still standing but clearly unconscious. Their chins lolled onto their chests, but their exoskeletons refused to let them drop.

A pair of guards stood near the host. Each was rubbing his eyes with one hand and holding a small gun with the other.

I circled around the edge of the area until I was behind them. I walked quietly up to the first, the coughing of the two men all the cover I needed. I grabbed his wrist with one hand and the gun with another, and wrested the gun free. He punched at me with the hand he’d been using to rub his eyes, but he was already drugged enough that he might have been moving in slow motion. I avoided the punch, stepped behind him, wove my right arm around his neck, and clinched the choke. He went out fast.

As I lowered him to the ground, the other guard said, “What’s happening?”

I coughed.

I crammed a black pill deep into the mouth of the guard I’d choked. Even if he didn’t swallow it, the dose from it dissolving would be enough to keep him out as long as I needed.

The other guard waved his gun. “Joachim, where are you?”

I had no time for this. I circled to his other side and punched him in the kidneys. He dropped the gun and doubled over. I stepped in front of him and wrapped his neck in a choke. He clawed at my arm, but only for a few seconds, and then he was out. I stuck a black pill in his mouth and pushed him onto the floor.

I stood and looked around.

No one moved. Most of the people were on the floor, though the six with exoskeletons still stood.

Time to remove their masks.

I stepped in front of the host, whose head hung loosely on his chest. His hand still held his cane, as if the two were welded together. I hadn’t noticed his exoskeleton before; his tailoring perfectly covered it. I pulled off his mask. I stepped back a couple of meters to see if the image of his face was clear enough for the cameras to be able to get a good shot of it or if I’d need to stretch him on the ground.

He lifted his cane.

I heard the cracking sound at the same time the pain sizzled through my left thigh, and I fell.

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