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Recruiting Exercise

David Weber


Official Internal Security and Mental Hygiene Police Use Only

Access Authorization Level Gamma Seven

RE: Homicide Investigation MT3-137-56-A732

Excerpt, Surveillance System MT3-42-1693-04; 7/14/73

Positive ID Hilaire Becquerel, NP-342-8879-1736

Positive ID Samuel Rochefort, NP-491-3275-4291

Excerpt begins:

ROCHEFORT: Cheez, Boss! I thought they’d never cut you loose! Are you all right?

BECQUEREL: Do I look all right? Pour me another one, damn it.

ROCHEFORT: How hard they gonna hammer us on this one?

BECQUEREL: How the hell am I supposed to know? Wasn’t my idea for the idiots to come here. And not my fault, either! You know that.

ROCHEFORT: But who was she? I mean, the big bastard was bad enough, but her—!

BECQUEREL: How do I know? Paschal checked her license at the door, right?

ROCHEFORT: ’Course he did! Never would’ve let her into the place if her docs hadn’t showed green. You know that.

BECQUEREL: Yeah, I do. I do. Hit me again.

ROCHEFORT: Boss, I think you’d better cut back on the booze. You need to go home, get some rest. Cops’ll be back tomorrow, and you’re gonna need a clear head.

BECQUEREL: I know. I know! Damn it, Sam—of all the stim joints in all the towers of all Nouveau Paris, why’d she have to walk into mine?

Excerpt ends.

* * *

None of it worked out the way I’d expected.

Not after the moment I got through the door, anyway. Up to that point, yeah. It was just as depressing as I’d known it would be, but what do you do when you don’t have family anymore; the databases list you as “recidivist,” which means you’re untouchable for any legal employer; the government’s keeping two thirds of your BLS; you’ve sold everything you own; and the only person in the entire world you still have to love needs a doc bad and the local clinic won’t jump him to the head of the queue without a bribe? I’ll tell you what you do. You sell the last thing you have—yourself.

Which is why I went through that door. Didn’t tell the doorman why I was there, of course, because I wasn’t licensed. You can’t get one of those in Morocco Tower without knowing the right people or black-market cash in hand. And, unfortunately, the “right people” knew all about me. No way in hell they would’ve licensed me even if I’d had the cash. That’s what happens when both your parents get picked up by the Mental Hygiene Police and never seen again. I was seventeen when that happened. Tomorrow would be my twenty-second birthday.

Hell of a birthday present.

The guy at the door let me in. From the look he gave me, I was pretty sure he knew the real reason I was there, all gussied up. I’d spent almost all my dwindling pile of credits on that outfit, and I’m not proud to admit it, but I’d stolen the cosmetics. Then again, old Bonneville was a suck-up to Marteau, the Hundred-Ten Floor manager, so I didn’t feel too bad about it. Marteau was the one who’d stood and watched Mom and Dad being disappeared for “deviant behavior” and then made sure his goons were first into the apartment to steal the best stuff—not that it was all that good—before anyone else got to it. Besides, if Bonneville didn’t want people stealing stuff, he should get better cyber security. That server of his leaks like a sieve if you know where to look. And the greedy old bastard had stiffed me on the off-the-books IT work I’d done for him. There’d been no way to make him pay me for work I was legally barred from doing in the first place, and he knew it. Just like I knew he wanted into my pants. He’d made that clear enough when he didn’t hand over the credits, so in a way, I’d just collected what he owed me through different channels.

Probably should have closed the back door when I left instead of posting it on the darknet, I guess. But he’d really, really pissed me off.

Anyway, they let me in, and as the sights and sounds surrounded me, I tried to look like I had at least a clue about what I was doing. It wasn’t what I’d expected. Or, rather, it was exactly what I’d expected, just not who I’d expected. Lunete had told me there’d be some big spenders at the Lisbon, but I’d thought she was talking about roof-tier Dolists. About the ones who run the protection rackets or jack the prices for basic maintenance on the contracts their Dolist manager buddies throw their way. But these weren’t “my” class of people after all. Not all of them, anyway.

An actual, honest-to-God piano sat at one end of the single huge room, the ripple of its notes coming clearly through the background mutter of conversation as the very dark-skinned pianist stroked the keyboard. I stood there listening, looking around, under the haze of smoke—most of it old-fashioned tobacco, but salted with euphor and dream weed—that was too heavy for the ducts to dissipate properly. Or maybe the Lisbon’s owner just liked the atmosphere and he’d dialed down the fans. The lighting was awful, but it was the kind of awful somebody takes pains to arrange. The kind that leaves lots of darkness for those who want to be discreet. Not that too many people in the Lisbon seemed all that concerned about discretion, judging by the live sex show on the stage and the well-dressed people calling encouragement and tossing credit slips.

“Welcome to the Lisbon, cutie,” someone said and I looked away from the stage and its…improbably energetic occupants. The waiter was older than me—seems like all the world’s older than me—and as Mom had said, back in the days when she still laughed sometimes, he looked like he’d been ridden hard and put up wet. But at least he was smiling.

“Thanks,” I said.

“First time here?”

“Yeah,” I acknowledged.

“Well, you’re gonna have to buy at least one drink or tab, and Paschal—he’s the guy on the door—expects ten percent off the top.” I blushed at the devastating accuracy with which he’d assessed my reason for being there, and he shook his head. “Way it works, cutie,” he said almost gently. “And at least it’s only ten percent. Down-corridor at Jamie’s, the house takes twenty percent.”

“Yeah, I’d heard that,” I lied. “Reason I thought I’d try my luck here tonight.”

“Well, good hunting,” he said. “Was I you, though, I’d stay away from table ten. People there’d really like someone your age. Too much.”

He gave me a long, steady look, and I managed not to swallow nervously before I nodded. Then he nodded back and disappeared into the crowd, and I headed for the long, polished, old-fashioned bar. It looked like it was made out of real wood. I wasn’t sure it actually was, but it did have a real live barkeep behind it.

I would’ve preferred an AI dispenser, for a lot of reasons.

“What’ll it be?” he asked over the piano, his eyes resting knowingly on my breasts, as I slipped onto one of the barstools. That was one of the reasons I’d have preferred an AI. Then again, I’ve always preferred computers to people. Probably because no matter how “brilliant” the system may be, I know it’s not really self-aware. Not really judging me.

Not really looking for what it can squeeze out of me before it throws me away.

“Something sweet,” I replied. “What do you suggest?”

And that was another of the reasons I’d have preferred an AI. It wouldn’t have cared about the fact that I didn’t have a clue what went into most mixed drinks.

“How much kick you want?”

“Not too much.” I gave him my best attempt at a knowing smile. “Want to keep my head clear for later.”

“Oh, I think that’s a really good idea, chickie.” His smile was a leer. “But, in that case, I’d recommend the piña colada.”

“Sounds good,” I said, and he got busy with his bottles and mixers and things. It didn’t take him long.

“That’ll be a cred and a half,” he told me, sliding it across the bar, and I bit my lip in dismay. That was a lot of money for a single not-that-big glass with some kind of paper or plastic umbrella sticking out of the top. It was for me, anyway.

“Sure,” I said and swiped my uni-link over his terminal. I didn’t tip him. I hoped that wouldn’t piss him off, because I couldn’t afford any trouble. But I couldn’t afford the tip, either. Not yet. Maybe I could toss him a little something when I left, assuming I had anything to toss anyone.

To my surprise, he didn’t even seem to notice, and I picked up the drink. I removed the stupid umbrella, took a sip, and got another surprise; it was actually good. Maybe a little too sweet, but it reminded me some of the coconut cake Dad used to bake. A mixed blessing. The memory might warm me, but I didn’t need to be thinking about him or Mom or what they’d think about my plans. Not tonight.

I turned on the stool, sipping the drink—very small sips; I wasn’t much of a drinker so I didn’t know how much “kick” it really had and I needed it to last as long as I could manage before I had to cough up for another one—and surveyed the big, crowded room again. There were a lot of singles, men and women, and not a few of them were looking in my direction. The lighting might be bad, but there was enough of it to show off my long purple hair. Wasn’t a dye job, that hair. Great-Grandmother—or maybe it was Great-Great-Grandmother—Faustine had been designed in a lab somewhere, and her genotype had kicked up hard in my case. The hair wasn’t the only thing they’d modified when they built her, either.

It was the most visible, though, because it was long and sleek and the same deep, vibrant shade of purple as my eyes. It fell in a thick, silky cascade from the white ribbon I’d used to confine it, and I’d programmed my skimpy little dress to flow back and forth between pristine white and canary yellow by way of antique ivory to contrast with it. Nothing flashy; just enough to draw the eye.

The rest of me’s not as striking as the hair and eyes, but it’s good enough to get by with. If it hadn’t been, I wouldn’t have been here tonight.

“Hi there, honey,” a man said, sliding onto the stool beside mine. “You look lonely.”

He was probably at least twice my age—hard to tell with prolong, of course—and one of the people I hadn’t expected to see here tonight, judging by the cut of his expensive tunic and the elegance of his grooming. He dressed like a Legislaturalist, not a Dolist—not even a really well-heeled Dolist—although I couldn’t imagine what Legislaturalists were doing at the Lisbon.

“Maybe that’s because I am lonely,” I replied, trying very hard to hide my nervousness and sound like I’d done this before.

“Well,” he leaned towards me slightly, laying one hand on my thigh just below the dress’s hemline, “maybe we could do a little something about that later tonight. Wouldn’t do for a sweet thing like you to go home lonely, now would it?”

“No, I think that would be a terrible idea,” I told him.

“I’m working right now,” he said, and my heart sank a bit as he twitched his head in the direction of one of the tables.

It sat like an occupied island in a small sea of empty tables and the number “10” floated in the air above it. The dozen-plus people sitting around it were as expensively dressed as he was—maybe even more so; I wasn’t all that good at estimating costs for the sorts of things the “better sort” enjoyed in Nouveau Paris—and most of them seemed intently focused on the activities on the stage. Two of them didn’t, though. A pair of men with their heads close together, obviously deep in some sort of discussion.

“Friends of yours?” I asked lightly.

“I wish!” He shook his head. “No, employers. Gotta make sure nothing…unpleasant happens.”

He twitched his tunic open for just an instant with the hand that wasn’t busy sliding steadily higher as it stroked the inside of my thigh. Just open enough for me to see the butt of the pulser holstered under his left arm. I wondered if he’d done that to impress me with how important and dangerous he was or because he thought it might turn me on.

“Probably be another couple of hours,” he said. “Then I’m off duty for the rest of the night.” He smiled knowingly, and his fingers slipped still higher. “You wait and come home with me, and you won’t be sorry.”

“Really?” I tilted my head and I gave him my best sultry smile.

I’d practiced it in front of the mirror before I gave Cesar his meds—what there were of them—and tucked him into bed and slipped out of our miserable little closet of an “apartment.” One whole room and an attached bathroom, and—as Manager Marteau had pointedly told me—lucky to have that after our BLS was garnished every month to pay off Mom and Dad’s fines.

At the rate we were going, we’d be done by the time I was fifty.

“Really.” He winked and leaned closer and I felt his lips on mine. At least he didn’t have bad breath, although that was about the only good thing I could say about it. Then he drew back and gave my thigh another squeeze.

“Break’s over. Gotta get back to work,” he told me. “Call me Hercule. And don’t you go away! I’ll be back.”

“And I’ll be here,” I promised him with another of those smiles.

He chuckled, then snapped his fingers arrogantly, and the barkeep looked up instantly.

“Anything else my friend here wants, put it on my tab,” he said.

“Whatever you say,” the barkeep promised, and my new “friend” climbed off the stool, gave me another of those kisses, and headed back across the floor. An equally well-dressed woman standing to one side of the door watched him come, then nodded brusquely to him as he took her place by the door and she headed for the arch that led to the lavatories.

Now that I’d followed “Call-Me-Hercule”’s progress across the room, I realized he and the woman weren’t alone. There were at least three more people—obviously bodyguards—scattered strategically around the bar, and there were four more standing none too discreetly two or three meters back from table ten itself, surrounding it in a hollow square. Despite the fact that I’d just made my first commitment as a prostitute—or perhaps because I wanted to think about anything besides the fact that I had—I felt my eyebrows rise as the level of security sank in.

It wasn’t a surprise that any Legislaturalist would have some security. Given how universally beloved the Legislaturalists in general were, bodyguards made an awful lot of sense. But nine of them was pushing the upper limits. Usually, you wouldn’t see more than three or four, at most, outside the ranks of the senatorial families. And what in the world would someone like that be doing at the Lisbon?

I sipped my piña colada, grateful that at least I wouldn’t have to pay for any more pricey drinks, and gazed at table ten, wondering if Call-Me-Hercule was one of the people my friendly waiter had tried to warn me about. With my luck he was. But maybe he wasn’t. The waiter hadn’t sounded like he was talking about the hired help. And there was something about—

My nostrils flared as the two men who’d been leaning into their discussion straightened and I saw them in profile at last. Carmouche. That was Senator Carmouche on the right. He’d been all over the HD and public boards for the last couple of months, ever since he’d stepped down as Secretary of Security to become Secretary of War instead. What was he—?

“Child, what are you doing here?” a voice asked beside me, and I twitched in surprise, then looked at the speaker.

It was a woman with a very pale complexion. Her hair was almost as long as mine, but it was blacker than a near-raven’s wing, and her eyes were dark in the lighting. There was a large mole on her right cheek, big enough I wondered why she’d never had it removed, but she had what was probably the most beautiful bone structure I’d ever seen. She was also petite, at least five or six centimeters shorter than me despite her high-heeled shoes, with the graceful, slender carriage to match that bone structure.

Just looking at her made me feel too tall, gawky, and plain.

Not to mention young, unsophisticated, and out of my depth.

“Excuse me?” I replied brilliantly to her question.

“I asked what you’re doing here.” She shook her head. “This isn’t the sort of place you ought to be.”

There was no condemnation in her tone, only compassion, but I felt a sudden surge of anger. Who was she to judge whether or not this was where I “ought” to be? And I didn’t need her compassion. I didn’t need anybody’s compassion. I’d made it on my own for five miserable years in the teeth of everything the fucking system could throw at me, and if she didn’t think I could go on doing that, then the hell with her!

“I’m working,” I said shortly, taking in her black, elegantly cut, revealing gown. It was vented hip-high on either side, with a high, round neck but a plunging keyhole bodice that showed a lot of cleavage. Its fabric was programmed with a moving pinprick pattern that gleamed against its black background, flowing like a constellation of stars, and it must have cost at least a hundred times what my dress had.

“Like you,” I added in a pointed tone.

“Oh, no,” she said, shaking her head with an odd little smile. “You’re not working at all like I am, child. And you shouldn’t be ‘working’ here at all. It’s not where someone like you should be.”

“And how do you know what ‘someone like me’ should or shouldn’t be doing?” I demanded.

“Sheath the claws,” she told me, and I suppressed a sudden, totally inappropriate giggle at just how apropos that was. “I’m not criticizing. But you remind me of someone. Someone I lost a long time ago.”

“And who might that be?”

“Just someone who was…important to me.” The woman’s expression changed, and for just an instant, the kind of sorrow that wrenches the heart right out of someone looked out of her eyes at me. Her hand rose to touch the only item of jewelry she wore—a silver unicorn on a beautiful chain around her neck—and she shook her head. “Just someone I cared about.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, and I meant it. That sudden spike of anger had died under the weight of her unspoken grief.

“It happens.” She shrugged. “It happens way too often, in fact. But that doesn’t change the fact that you shouldn’t be here. You’ve never done this before, have you?”

She ran the hand which had caressed the unicorn down the fabric of her gown as she spoke, and I knew exactly what she meant.

“Why do you say that?” I challenged.

“Oh, quite a few reasons.” She smiled again, crookedly this time. “Like the fact that you didn’t show the doorman your license, which means you’re not legal. And you’re young—God, what? You all the way up to twenty by now?” She shook her head. “And then there’s you and Hercule. I’ll admit he’s probably the best of a bad lot, but that’s not saying a lot in this case. You’re likely to get hurt, going home with someone like him.”

“He didn’t seem too bad,” I argued, wondering whether I was trying to convince her of that or myself. “A little…touchy-feely, but after all—”

I shrugged uncomfortably, and she nodded.

“You’re in public right now,” she pointed out, “and his boss is trying to keep a low profile. But, from what I’ve heard, his tastes are…esoteric, shall we say?” I realized she was watching me more closely than it seemed as she dropped “esoteric” on me, as if testing my own vocabulary. “And he likes his bedmates young and inexperienced. I think it’s their ‘innocence’ that attracts him, and not in a good way, if you know what I mean.”

“You seem to know an awful lot about him for someone so much older than me,” I said just a bit snippily.

“Oh, I do know quite a bit about him.” There was very little amusement in her smile. “Goes with the job.”

“I see.” I cocked my head at her. “Why are you telling me all this?”

“I don’t really know,” she admitted. “Oh, you do remind me of someone. That would probably have been enough. But you’re young, and you’re in trouble.” My eyes widened, and she snorted softly. “Child, you have no idea how many people I’ve seen in trouble! It’s in the way you move. That’s probably part of what attracted Hercule, too, now that I think about it.” Her gaze went unfocused as she contemplated something only she could see, then she nodded. “Yes, he’d like that. Like stalking the wounded fawn. Like knowing you’re only doing this because you’re desperate. That’d give him even more control, wouldn’t it?”

My blood turned to ice. If she really did know anything about Hercule, and if what she knew was as accurate as what she’d just effortlessly deduced about me, then…

That distant gaze refocused on me, and she gave herself a little shake.

“Let’s just say I don’t like seeing people in trouble, and that I like watching someone else take advantage of their trouble even less. So take my advice, child. Get off that stool and walk out of here.” She reached into the stylish little purse hanging from her right wrist and extracted a small data chip. “Take this. It’s the contact information for the CRP outreach office down on Seventy-Five. Whatever your trouble is, they can help.”

I took the chip with fingers that trembled slightly. The CRP—the Citizens’ Rights Party—was tolerated (barely) by Internal Security and the rest of Nouveau Paris’s police forces. Everyone knew it was really the political mouthpiece of the Citizens’ Rights Union, and the CRU was the next best thing to a terrorist organization. In fact, if the People’s Republic had been the sort of place which could possibly have produced terrorists, that’s what it would have been called by the newsies. As it was, its members were merely “thugs” or “hooligans,” which the Citizens’ Rights Party dutifully denounced at regular intervals. Despite which, anyone associated with the CRP automatically went into InSec’s files. As the daughter of a pair of known recidivists, they’d love to have my name on their list!

“I know what you’re thinking,” she said. “But InSec doesn’t worry much about the CRP’s outreach.” She snorted again. “They’d have to put a quarter of the people in Morocco Tower on their lists if they did that! Your manager’s worse than most, I’m afraid,” she added, twitching her head unobtrusively in the direction of table ten.

I followed the gesture, and my jaw tightened as I realized the man Carmouche had been talking to was none other than Charles-Henri DeRosier, the Dolist manager responsible for Morocco. And she was right about him. He set the tone—and the example—for the scale of graft which wouldn’t hand over the basic medical services my baby brother needed to stay alive without extra payment. They were there. They were available and they came free of charge…officially. Even the Legislaturalists insisted on that. But no one actually got them in Morocco Tower without paying off the right people. And they—and he—got away with it because he was one of the heavy hitters among the managers. Morocco wasn’t the only tower whose votes he controlled. He’d never be a Legislaturalist, but in his own way, he had more power than anyone outside the very highest reaches of the Legislaturalist dynasties. Enough that it actually made sense for someone to find him allied with someone like Carmouche. God alone knew what the two of them might be cooking up over there.

Whatever it was, there’d be credits in it. Lots of credits.

The familiar rage burned inside me as I recognized him, but I choked it down. You learned early to live with your anger in Morocco Tower, assuming you wanted to live at all.

“Go,” the woman said again, and this time there was an additional edge in her voice. An urgency that could almost have been anxiety…but wasn’t quite. “Get out of here. Go home, climb out of that dress, and go talk to outreach. I know somebody who can put in a good word for you before you get there.”

“But—” I began.

“No buts, girl! Just turn around and walk—”

She broke off suddenly, her lips tightening, and I looked a question at her.

“Too late,” she said very softly, reaching into that purse again. She wasn’t looking at me; she was looking at the electronic mirror behind the bar. The one that showed the enormously tall, broad-shouldered man who’d just walked through the corridor door. He was as well-dressed as she was but at least thirty centimeters taller than her, and he carried a fashionable shoulder bag.

“Get off the stool,” the woman told me in that same soft voice, never looking at me, never looking away from the mirror. “Go into the lavatory. Close the door. Don’t come back out.”


“Be as smart as you look, child! Now go!

I looked at her for an instant longer, then slid off the stool, turned, and walked away as nonchalantly as someone whose nerves had just been turned into tuning forks could manage. Unfortunately, she’d waited a moment too long to give me my marching orders.

I’d almost reached the arch between the bar and the lavatories when it happened.

The doorman said something to the big guy. I couldn’t hear what it was, but it was obviously the wrong thing, because an enormous left hand reached out, twisted itself into the front of his tunic, and hauled him up onto his tiptoes.

“What the hell did you just say to me?” the big man demanded, and everyone heard him. The doorman started to say something, and got shaken like a toy before he could.

“Of course I’m sure it’s the right place, idiot!” the big man snarled. “What? You want to see my invitation?”

His right hand delved into his shoulder bag while he continued to shake the hapless doorman with his left, and I realized I’d stopped moving. The confrontation had drawn my attention, and I paused, staring at it like every other set of eyes in the place.

And because we were all staring at him, no one noticed her when she toed off those high-heeled shoes, slid from her stool, and started casually towards table ten.

“All right, here’s my invitation!” the big man announced, and his right hand came out of the bag.

With a pulser.

A very big pulser, with a long barrel. Much too long—and probably too powerful—to carry concealed like Call-Me-Hercule’s.

I froze. I admit it. I flat out froze, staring at him in disbelief. If every eye had been attracted to him before, they were riveted to him now, and I saw Call-Me-Hercule twisting around towards him, his hand darting into his tunic.

It was an unfortunate decision on his part.

The pulser seemed like part of the big man’s hand. He didn’t even look at Hercule, not really. He only swung the weapon to the side, pointing it as naturally as he might have pointed his finger. And then it whined shrilly and the back of Hercule’s head exploded in a gory fountain of red, gray, and white bone splinters.

The screams began then. You could tell which patrons’ brains were faster than others. The really quick ones had started out of their chairs when the killer first raised his voice. Now they dived for the floor, and the next quickest launched themselves to join the early starters. The rest of the patrons simply stood or sat, as frozen as me, while the other bodyguards scattered around the room went for their weapons.

Pulsers shrilled, and the doorman’s scream died in a cloud of aspirated blood as at least a half-dozen darts sliced into and then out of him. Blood and bits of tissue sprayed across the big guy, and the solid darts were hitting him, too. But unlike the unfortunate doorman, they seemed to have no effect on him. He went to one knee, his face and the entire front of his head disappearing behind some sort of opaque-looking shield, and laid his pulser across his forearm like someone on a pistol range. It snarled, and I realized he was firing single shots, not the full automatic spray coming back at him.

And as I realized that, I also finally realized the woman from the bar was moving. In fact, she was racing towards table ten on her bare feet.

The bodyguards around the table had whirled to face the threat out of pure spinal reflex. The closer of the two came together, planting themselves between the big man and their charges as they brought their own pulsers into play. One of the men they were protecting saw her coming, though, and pointed at her with a shout of alarm.

“Get down, you idiots!” she shouted back at the people seated around the table. “Get down!

The man who’d seen her stiffened, then started out of his chair in obedience to the authority in her shout as she came within two or three meters.

And that was when they discovered what she had in her left hand.

I’d seen vibro blades before. The floor police don’t much like them, but they tend to wink at them, even in Morocco Tower. Not because they approve of armed Dolists, but because self-defense is a practical necessity, especially on the rougher floors, and they’d rather see us armed with weapons with a maximum range of thirty centimeters, the legal limit on any civilian vibro blade, rather than with pulsers like the one in the big man’s hands.

But this vibro blade was different. The woman was still a good two meters from the table, passing between the two nearer bodyguards, when the first security man’s head suddenly flew from his shoulders in a spray of blood.

The man who’d seen her coming stepped back in shocked disbelief as her hand came slashing around and the second bodyguard went down as instantaneously as the first, and then she was flying through the air. She landed in the center of the table, barefooted and incredibly graceful in her high-vented gown, and another severed head bounced across the tabletop and onto the floor.

She twirled like a dancer as Senator Carmouche exploded from his chair. He started to leap away from her, but he’d made the mistake of coming to his feet rather than simply dropping to the floor. That brought him into reach of that impossibly long, illegally silent vibro blade, and he went down without even a scream as the blade sliced diagonally downward, completely through his skull and out the other side.

The Lisbon was a madhouse. Screams and shouts were everywhere. The gun battle at the door continued, although the big man had already dropped three more of the dispersed bodyguards. He ignored the last one for a moment, and picked off one of the two remaining close-in bodyguards, the ones on the far side of table ten, with a perfectly placed headshot from at least twenty meters. The last bodyguard, unfortunately for her, was still distracted by the gunfight. Her attention was obviously split between that and the carnage closer at hand, and she hesitated—ever so briefly—trying to decide which threat was greater.

The woman from the bar settled the question for her. She continued across the table, almost as if it were a trampoline, and landed in a crouch—right leg bent sharply under her, left leg fully extended—and spun. The vibro blade hit the bodyguard at knee level, and she shrieked as her legs were sliced out from under her. She went down screaming, twisting in pain and trying vainly to reach the damage, and the woman finished her with a single, economical thrust, then bounced back to her feet and towards the table.

DeRosier had gotten his chair shoved back from the table, but he was tangled up with it. Or maybe it was just panic that made him so clumsy. Whatever his problem might be, though, it was like watching a guépard take down an Old Earth sheep. She moved with deadly, flowing grace, and he bleated in terror, just like a sheep.

Until the vibro blade slashed across his torso at an upward angle and spilled his vital organs across the floor.

He went down, and she continued her trajectory back across the table. Another of the men flew backward. His head was still attached, but only by the spine, and blood spurted everywhere as his heart continued to pump frantically.

She spun, cutting down a fourth man, then a fifth.

I couldn’t believe it. I literally could not believe my eyes. She and the big man by the door had taken out all nine of the bodyguards, and as I watched, she killed a sixth man from the crowd around the table.

But it wasn’t random, a corner of my brain realized. She passed up easy kills, bypassed the people between her victims. She wasn’t a homicidal maniac out to kill everyone in sight to make a statement. She was taking targeted kills, exactly the ones—and only the ones—she wanted.

And then I saw something else. Something she didn’t see.

The plainclothes floor cop came out of his chair to one side of the lavatory arch and his pulser was in his hand. I saw it rising, lining up on the woman in the black dress, and I knew it was none of my business. I knew exactly what I needed to do, and that was what she’d told me to do: head for the lavatory, lock the door, and not open it for anyone until the uniformed cops got there.

I knew that…and I didn’t do it.

I didn’t recognize the sound I made. It was deep, guttural, primal. It came from the pit of my belly, from a heart filled with hatred for the system that had taken my parents, was killing my brother by centimeters. It came from deep down in the soul of me, and the other modification I’d inherited from my great-great-grandmother popped out of the tips of my fingers.

I hit his back, keening like a fifty-five-kilo banshee, and my hands reached around his neck. But I didn’t grab it. No, the curved two-centimeter claws sank into the front of his throat, pulled in opposite directions with a horrible soft, dragging feel, and something hot and slick—and far thicker than I’d ever thought blood was—exploded across my hands.

The floor cop went down with a gurgling scream, and I found myself kneeling on his spine, looking up through a tangle of purple hair, as the woman from the bar spun towards us. Her eyes narrowed, but then she shook herself, scooped up the cop’s fallen pulser, and turned back to the bloodsoaked survivors cowering around the table.

“On the floor, all of you,” she said in a cold, flat voice, beckoning with the barrel of the pulser, and they fell over themselves obeying her, going to their knees and—without instructions—clasping their hands behind their heads.

“This is your lucky day,” she told them then in that same icy voice. “None of you have made it onto the list…yet. I’d recommend trying really hard to keep it that way. If you see me again, ‘lucky’ is the one thing you won’t be.”

She held them for two or three heartbeats, more paralyzed by her merciless eyes than by the pulser’s muzzle. Then she took two steps back and looked at me, still crouched on the body of the man I’d killed, trying to comprehend what had just happened.

“We’re going now, girl,” she said. “I think you’d better come with us.”

I stared at her, my brain mostly blank. But it worked well enough to tell me the one thing I couldn’t do was stay here. I scrambled to my feet, trying not to think about the stickiness dripping from my hands, of the blood spreading across the floor, and stumbled towards her.

“Good girl!” she said encouragingly, tossing the pulser away and tucking one amazingly strong arm around me. “This way!”

I don’t really remember crossing the room. I do remember that she had the presence of mind to scoop up her discarded shoes. And I remember she paused in the vestibule long enough to grab a fashionable evening cloak from its hanger, and I remember the big man reaching into his bag again, pressing a small device of some kind against the outside of the power door between the vestibule and the club itself.

“Got it,” he grunted, and punched a button.

“Security systems?” She’d already slipped back into her shoes. Now she swept the cloak around her, concealing the blood which had splashed across her gown, and another small unit came out of her evening bag. She tapped a control, and I gaped as a cloud of dust seemed to envelop her ever so briefly. It cleared, drifting away like smoke, and the black hair was platinum, the complexion darker even than mine in spectacular contrast, and the eyes…the eyes were the most brilliant topaz I’d ever seen.

“Don’t gawk,” she told me with a chuckle, and I noted that the mole had disappeared, as well. “Nanotech. And getting rid of it takes the bloodstains with it.”

She looked back at the tall man, whose handsome and regular features had vanished. Now he looked like someone had used his face for a punching bag—more than once. But it was a very, very tough-looking, competent face, and he was even bigger than I’d thought he was.

“Security systems, Kev?” she repeated, a bit louder.

“Down and done,” he reassured her. “The worm took out everything they’ve recorded for the last three days. Don’t know what they might’ve downloaded to InSec or the floor cops before Carmouche got there, but they haven’t got crap from the moment you walked in the door. Locked down their net connection, too. They are off the web and out of coms until we say different or they get a really good cyber tech in there.”

“Good. Door?”

“Not opening it without cutting gear for at least a couple of hours. And”—he tapped the unobtrusive earbud in his right ear—“the other teams locked down the other doors. We’ve got at least half an hour before anybody in there figures out how to get the word out.”

He’d been stripping off his expensive—and bloodsoaked, courtesy of the unlucky Paschal—tunic as he spoke. Now he reversed it, pressed something, and it reconfigured into a totally different cut and color. He unfastened something from around his neck and dropped it into his shoulder bag, then grimaced as he touched his side gingerly.

“Remind me to tell them they need better kinetic damping,” he said. “Wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve got a couple of busted ribs.”

“That’s what quick-heal’s for,” she told him. “And it seems to’ve kept the darts out of your hide just fine.”

“Only because they aren’t allowed to load explosive darts inside the tower.”

“Bitch, bitch, bitch.” She shook her head. “I swear, Kev, you’d complain if they hanged you with a golden rope!”

“Nah. Gold’s about right for me…assuming they couldn’t get platinum. Maybe a few diamonds set here and there.” He frowned thoughtfully. “Rubies, you think?”

“Oh, shut up!” She chuckled and shook her head again.

“Gotta say, this pop-up face shield’s really neat,” he continued, patting the shoulder bag. “Wish we could get our hands on more of ’em.”

“Be grateful for what we’ve got. I don’t know who our ‘mysterious benefactor’ is, but he’s got a Beowulf accent. There’s a limit to how openly Beowulf can risk antagonizing the People’s Republic.”

He nodded. Then both of them turned to me, and I realized they’d been chattering with each other at least in part to give me time to stop hyperventilating.

“Hold out your hands,” the man said. I extended them shrinkingly, and he sprayed them with an aerosol from his bag. It felt cold, like an alcohol spray, and then it tingled. When I looked down again, the sticky, drying blood had disappeared.

“Useful little solvent,” he said, putting the aerosol away again. “Won’t fool a good forensic sniffer—too many traces left—but the trick is to look so innocent nobody runs a sniffer over you.” He cocked his head, examining me critically. “Can you program that dress to a darker color?”

“S-sure,” I said.

“Then do it. The darker the better.”

I keyed up the app on my uni-link and tapped icons. The dress turned a darker purple even than my hair, and I looked back up at him.

“Good!” He nodded approval. “Solvent’s good for getting blood off skin, and you managed to keep most of it off your dress. But not all of it. That’s dark enough nobody’s likely to notice before we get you off-corridor again.”

“Off—off-corridor?” I repeated. “Where?”

“Well, I guess that sort of depends on you,” the woman said. “Kev says the worm killed the security systems, and I’m sure he’s right about that. But it can’t do anything about human memories, and a lot of people saw you in there, honey. And, pardon me for saying so, but your coloring’s even more…memorable than mine. Odds are InSec can get a pretty decent working description of you, and I’ll bet you’re from right around here, aren’t you?”

I nodded numbly as I realized how right she was about how easy I’d be to find. God. What was going to happen to me and Cesar now?

“So, you’ve got to disappear. Drop completely off the grid.” My eyes widened, and she shook her head quickly. “Don’t worry. We can do that. Have to move you to another tower, but we can do that, too.”

“And my brother?” I heard the anxiety in my own voice. “My brother—Cesar—he’s sick. Real sick. And the floor doc wants extra cash to move him up the queue. I don’t think he’s going to make it if I can’t get it, and that’s why—”

I broke off, realizing I’d been babbling, and she glanced up at her companion. He looked back down with a shrug, clearly making it her decision, and she turned back to me.

“Any other family?”

“No.” I shook my head. “We’re all that’s left since they took Mom and Dad.”

Her mouth tightened, and those magnificent topaz eyes turned bleak and hard.

“Then of course we’ll get Cesar out, too. And I’m pretty sure we can get him the medical help he needs. But where and how we do that’s going to depend on you.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean you’ve got potential, child. You…” She paused and shook her head. “I can’t just go on calling you ‘child’ or ‘girl.’ What’s your name?”

“Ninon,” I said. “My name’s Ninon.”

“Ninon, then. You’re quick, you don’t freeze, and from the sound of things, you don’t have any reason to love Legislaturalists.”

She watched my expression, then snorted.

“No, you don’t. Well, neither do I. Or Kev here. Or our friends. So, we can just hide you away somewhere, or we can recruit you instead.”

Recruit me?” I stared at her in disbelief.

“You’ve got the talent.” She shrugged. “The only real question is whether or not you’ve got the motivation. This was a little more…spectacular and hands-on than usual, but this is what we do, Ninon.”

“I still think you should’ve let me just use a bomb,” Kev grumbled. “Been a lot quicker and simpler, and we can’t afford to lose you doing shit like this, Ellie.”

“Bombs aren’t very precise weapons,” she pointed out. “And I might add that if I’d let you play with your toys this time, our friend Ninon would probably be among the statistics about now.”

“Point,” he conceded.

“You’re CRU?” I asked, looking back and forth between them. If even a quarter—hell, a tenth—of the news reports about it were accurate, the Citizens’ Rights Union was about as bloody as “thugs” and “hooligans” came. Like Kev’s bomb, the CRU wasn’t a precision weapon.

“Kinda, sorta, in a way,” Kev replied. “Me, I was part of the CRU from the beginning. Hardcore, too. But my friend here, she’s more idealistic than me. And I’ll be damned if she didn’t convince me to see it her way. Who would’ve thought it?” He shrugged. “Anyway, we’re technically CRU. But what we really are? We’re Aprilists.”

I inhaled sharply. Aprilists? They were Aprilists?

“’S right,” he said with a lopsided grin. “Reason she wouldn’t let me use a bomb. I tend to revert to CRU default settings sometimes.”

I nodded slowly, almost mechanically. From everything I’d ever heard, the Aprilists scared the Legislaturalists worse than the CRU ever had. Everyone knew there weren’t many of them, compared to the CRU, but they were smart, their operations were carried out with meticulous precision, and in their own way, they were even more merciless than the CRU. But their target selection was very different. Even PubIn, which wasn’t about to give any batch of “thugs and hooligans” good coverage, had to admit the Aprilists took out only those they held directly responsible for the regime’s actions, and they were scrupulous about avoiding collateral damage…like dead schoolkids in their parents’ air car.

“The decision’s yours,” the woman said. “Don’t hurry to make it, though. We’ve got to get moving anyway. So think about it on the way to the safe house.”

“Think about it?” I threw back my head and laughed. There was a little hysteria in the sound, but no hesitation. “What’s to think about? These bastards took my parents and they’re killing my baby brother centimeter by centimeter. Of course I want in!”

“Crap!” Kev said with a deeper, rolling laugh of his own. “Little girl reminds me of someone else!”

He looked down at the woman, and she shrugged.

“The bastards are still our best recruiters, damn them,” she said. Then she looked back at me. “All right. You want in, you’re in.”

“Just like that? You get to make the decision for everybody else?”

“Hell, yes, she does!” Kev snorted. “This here’s Brigade Commander Delta, honey.”

I gasped. The gray net knew that name, that title, but no one knew a thing beyond that. No one knew whether “Brigade Commander Delta” was old or young, male or female. But at last I had a face to put with it, and it was nothing like the towering giant I’d always imagined. I’d expected someone more like Kev, I supposed, but he was clearly following her lead.

“It’s just a title,” she said, shaking her head. “And I started from pretty much where you are right this minute.” She touched the silver unicorn, still visible at the neck of her gown. “We all start from pretty much where you are right this minute. And I can’t promise you we’re going to win in the end, or even survive. But I can promise you that if we don’t, it’ll be because we died trying. That good enough for you, Ninon?”

“That’s more than good enough for me,” I replied, holding out my hand. She looked at it for a moment, then gripped it firmly.

“Then welcome to the Revolution, Ninon,” she said. “Buckle up tight.”

* * *

“Why do I think Admiral Harrington and President Pritchart are well suited to negotiating an actual peace agreement between us and the Star Empire? I’ll tell you why. It’s because for all the differences between them, I cannot imagine two women who are more alike under the skin!”

—Senator Ninon Bourchier,

Senate Foreign Affairs Committee,

Republic of Haven,

Speaking to reporters, 01/05/1922 PD

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