The Central Series The Academy The Anathema The Far Shores The Outer Dark The Church of Sleep Other Books by the Same Author Unknown Kadath Estates: Paranoid Magical Thinking

Copyright © 2011 by Zachary Rawlins Cover photograph copyright © 2009 Claudio Arnese All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. Published by ROUS Industries. Oakland, California spook_nine@yahoo.com 978-0-9837501-0-9 Cover design by Dahlia & Poppy Design First Edition

. for everything.For Chloe.

Table of Contents One Two Three Four Five Six Seven Eight Nine Ten Eleven Twelve Thirteen Fourteen Fifteen Sixteen Seventeen Eighteen Nineteen Twenty Twenty One Twenty Two Twenty Three Twenty Four Twenty Five Twenty Six Twenty Seven Twenty Eight Twenty Nine Thirty Thirty One .

allowing it to touch her mind. near the entrance where the boy stood. or fight amongst each other. but the wolves took no notice. What they did not do. There was nothing for it. but they had made no move to pursue or attack. or even move to relieve themselves. field reports were delivered after that fact – it took more effort for an Operator to upload directly from the field. she saw the boy. cool and authoritative. Mitsuru was certain that the Weir were being run by an outside party. Mitsuru shifted her cramped leg. they would deliberately seek out the weakest possible prey. the old. Weir were capable of many things. for advice. on a windy rooftop. except to the Weir. But. fat and sick. a momentary sense of the alien. Panning her binoculars. but everything about the night seemed off. queried various databases. As a concession to the weather. Mitsuru had no time for explanations. and then reached for the tendril of light that had extended down out of the halo of Central. Anyone important enough to merit corralling a pack of Weir was too important for her to let die. back toward the pulsating core in the depths of the fog. Through the lenses. within the halo of Central’s influence. and worried. endlessly hunting. Weir were always dangerous. dark brown hair that needed trimming. sitting patiently. without support from Central. his pace slow and aimless. and she would have to retreat some distance to do it and escape detection. she knew. No different from half the pedestrians that had passed the park that evening. Mitsuru was not an analyst. following the red thread she’d left spooled behind her as a guide. Mitsuru estimated that she could handle two Weir under moonlight in close combat. Someone with the kind of power to coerce or intimidate a pack of Weir into working for them. Mitsuru shifted slightly. but there was no time to worry about it as she forced her way through the blue-grey currents of the Ether. The union was invasive. Even from a distance. no easy thing. or backup. but still perfectly clear through the roaring in her ears. Alistair was a powerful telepath and a remarkable handler. her mentor. within reach. Weir hunted. a calculated agony. she could see the pack at the edge of the deserted park. her body convulsed in sympathy. And these were hardly the best circumstances. the brilliant and distant lights of Central. The pain was sharp and sudden. Central… Echoes. trying to take the pressure off her sore left knee. Like all wolves. as if it came from high above her. then intervening would almost certainly be fruitless. yawning. She pushed along with the current. The Ether was frigid. Unaware of how many eyes were on him at that moment. It was Alistair. speaking formally for the record. and then let her eyes roll back in her head. His response came down. not for the first time. The jacket and Capri pants she’d worn had seemed heavy enough when she left Central. and the cool wind was beginning to worm its way inside her clothes. and became even more so during a full moon. Mitsuru saw the pack stretching. They were as much slaves to the lunar cycles as the tides. Central. The voice was small. and the Weir would be extraordinarily sensitive to such things. roaming the land at night. They sat patiently under the trees or nestled in the brush. and then hit the analytical pool up for the local probability lines. Mitsuru could tell that his mind was elsewhere – his eyes on his feet. reviewing the events of the last few moments until she had what she hoped was a clear narrative. oblivious. and grimacing. Particularly during the monthly spells. No different. even under the sway of the dictatorial moon. While she was trying to adjust the too-short hood to accommodate her long. leaning her aching back against the barrier. a half-dozen grey shapes. and the very young. She would sorely need it. but standing motionless on the rooftop for so long had chilled her. if she decided to intervene. in memory of pain that she had already forgotten. then. Mitsuru wondered. She decided to wait and watch – she was too close to the Weir to open an Etheric connection without them noticing. they would avoid anyone who looked like they could put up a fight. toward the light. tongues lolling out. black hair. very good at that. and there was no guarantee that there weren’t more. unless starvation or necessity dictated otherwise. Normally. It was probably an American thing. Mitzi? The response was delayed only slightly. there was virtually no lag while he processed the data through Central. almost berserk with bloodlust. the muted currents passing through her being effortlessly. loping stride. Contact. When the moon was full. at the edge of her consciousness. her hand absently seeking the bag at her feet as if to reassure her that it was still there. eyes reflecting the yellow of the moon back into the night. Squinting through binoculars from the rooftop across the empty street she frowned. but it held the hint of a question. They hunted in packs. He was dressed in a scruffy hooded sweatshirt and blue jeans. none of them posing even a vague threat to the pack. they were also terribly predictable. as the night was mild. Part of her mind registered the howling of the Weir. leaning her waist against the concrete barrier that skirted the edge of the rooftop. along the red string. But. Four days of the month. headphones over his ears. Ready when you are. mooring. The restricted field of view and the necessity of refocusing were unfamiliar and frustrating. For a moment her world was nothing but the rushing grey currents. His reply was prompt. whether there was a Witch in the vicinity. But she knew that all of her options had just been exhausted – there was no way for her to remain concealed. and over so quickly that she had no time to scream. . Under the best circumstances. unless she wanted to watch the boy be torn to pieces. Weir were trapped in their bestial form. Mitsuru considered consulting Central. muzzles laying on forepaws. the Weir would roam about in their long. but planning an ambush was not among them. the subtle and oppressive weight of the Ether pulling against her. barely visible even to Mitsuru. It was the day before the full moon. Even without the benefit of the Analytical pool. Even at the height of their powers. prepare for upload… Mitsuru sent the tendrils of her thoughts toward Central. There was nothing remarkable about him – teenaged. This wasn’t normally a consideration with Weir. And then. There was no way for her to deal with the six Weir she had seen so far. she tugged the jacket hood up over her ponytail to sit awkwardly across the top of her head. fanning out across the brush on the eastern side of the park. attaching her to the glow. upwards. there wasn’t much Mitsuru could do to prevent it. These particular Weir had watched five pedestrians walk past the entrance of the park in the last two hours. following the red string upwards to the light. tearing apart anyone foolish or unlucky enough to cross their path. certainly no more than three. Somewhere far beneath her. They did not stalk. the infirm. The roaring of the Ether subsided a bit. or both. And it could only be a hit – Weir weren’t good for anything much more complicated than killing. and Mitsuru felt her body reflexively shudder. that her being encompassed. so she simply composed her mind. a light touch. across a grey vastness that encompassed her being. Mitzi. in constant. lethal motion. but she was reluctant t o try and use a surveillance protocol. Mitsuru was disturbed by this behavior. Mitsuru sat down. which had been bothering her ever since she scaled the building. But. and the originator of her ridiculous nickname. to the best of Mitsuru’s knowledge.One The yellow moon hung above the city . hidden in reserve. slim and rangy. and a passing shudder of revulsion. But they were. the pain of the cold knifing its way through her brain. and how hungry some of them were. was lay in wait. If there was no help from Central. They sat as patient as guard dogs. at least not that Mitsuru could see. only moments after she had completed the upload.

Mitzi. she needed an important success if she was going to continue to work in the field. there was more going on here than she’d realized. Negative. Operators who could perform apport protocols were in short supply. For her own sake. it was important. There was no way that Central would attempt to open a route through the Ether. Central. close enough to intervene. Do you require any protocol downloads? Mitsuru was surprised again. Mitsuru decided. if you hold the Weir back from their target for a minimum of three minutes. Clarify. Good luck. Engaging. taking stock of her remaining strength. Central. in the eyes of Central. following the red string back to her body. then we suggest limiting your involvement to observation. before it was obliterated by the rush of sensations as she was jolted back into her body. Important enough to the Weir that they acted in this highly abnormal manner. should you choose to intervene. the chances of a successful intervention are well within operational tolerances. because it was Alistair.Operator Aoki. Whatever was going on here. Important enough. She was already falling back down. but there was a sense of urgency in Alistair’s thoughts that made her think this was something big. according to our projections. Clearly. But it’s unlikely that I can hold out for three minutes. And whatever else was true. Mitzi… Mitsuru heard the concern in Alistair’s voice. If you do not feel you can meet or exceed this standard. through the grey currents. the sheer nausea and tactile euphoria of a physical body. She was uncertain whether she could hold off the Weir even that long. if Central had authorized unlimited protocol downloads for a field operation. That meant that there was an Operator somewhere nearby. while Alistair consulted the Analytical pool. estimated time of arrival is between three and five minutes. to the boy and the wolves. you are cleared to engage at your discretion. and they always seemed to be needed elsewhere. . she thought. to merit the risk. she decided. Operator Aoki. away from the halo. Control. Another brief silence on the line. Mitsuru paused for a moment. I will engage. Mitsuru was surprised. I’ll do what I can to expedite. back to the rooftop. I need a situational analysis. We have backup en route to your position. The chances of it happening by coincidence were miniscule. not to suppress a single pack of Weir. and for the sake of her mentor. His promise was immediate and reassuring.

and then stopped close enough that Alex could make out her features – long. He could even accept she appeared to be shooting without looking. waiting for an impact. For as long as he could remember. and it gave the world a surreal and almost cinematic feel. careful to keep his grey sneakers dry. a semiautomatic in either hand. Alex Warner. he’d been careful to always be an average student. not thinking too hard about where he was going. . on some form of auto-pilot. then. The more he tried to quiet his mind. even at a distance. unless you counted the places where he’d been locked up. He reached the play structure and sat down. banging into the metal bars of the climbing structure. He had low expectations in general. Probably a few years older than him. due almost entirely to lack of effort on his part. something was moving out of the brush. He waited for what felt long a time before cautiously opening his eyes. his chances of joining the rest of his class as a senior next year were kind of up in the air. Alex could swear. The reality of it terrified him. Oh. Which he had to admit was basically par for the course. with what appeared to be some accuracy – one of the wolves was crumpled and yowling in a pool of its own blood. but left his ear buds in. At the edge of the park. He turned off the music. On some level. The important thing was that the park was empty. he thought madly. could he explain his strange acceptance of the Japanese woman running toward him. It had been comforting. because they made no noise. when he couldn’t sleep anymore. trying to stay in the puddles of dark in between the sulfur light. even at the time that he wouldn’t go through with it. His headphones were deafeningly loud. no one knew the whole ugly story. The important thing. while another crawled toward the brush on its belly. and spent several evenings trying to figure out how to fit his meager possessions into a single duffel bag. that meant summer school. And he’d spent the better part of the last eight years alone. once school was over with. He kept walking. only a vague sense of ridiculousness. across a row of sharp white teeth. harder look. He stepped backward involuntarily. but Alex couldn’t say for sure. of course. his second attempt was no better. But something snapped Alex out of his reverie. reflecting the yellow moon. world. Not because of his grades. He’d even bought bus tickets to Los Angeles. But his attendance had slipped from ‘barely acceptable’ last year to ‘frequently absent without reason’ this year. Tried to not think. and life had been obliging in meeting those expectations. So this is it. actually. those weird pants that cut off at the mid-calf. no matter the subject. and Alex threaded a path between them. a raw tide of fear and resentment against the injustice of the entire situation. he knew. a comforting fantasy. sharp features. Mauled by… are they wolves? Wolves in a city park. as long as it was away from school. “Hey. and then made him take a second. “Hey…” Alex cursed his lameness. It couldn’t have been. It wasn’t a sound that startled him. She moved fast. This town – a wretched little suburb in the orbit of Bakersfield – was the only place he’d ever been. too big for dogs. for reasons he could not understand. Alex thought. dragging its wounded back legs behind it. and felt sorry for himself. he wanted to avoid the people. He was surprised to feel no fear whatsoever. For a second.Two Alex walked with his head down. Unfortunately. and he’d gotten good at it. his eyes on his feet. It didn’t bother him that much. waited to feel hot breath on his neck and then what he imagined would be horrible suffering – and he felt a consuming panic wash over him. after the first revealed nothing. closed his eyes and tried not to think about anything. red lips curled into what was unmistakably a smile. in the early evening. Normally it was easy for him to empty his head. not one thing in my entire life ever made sense. She crossed the final distance between them in a few bounding steps. Alex figured. but he wasn’t tired enough to sleep right now. pain radiating out from his shoulder and elbow where they hit. as it moved toward him with what seemed like deliberate slowness. his life right now was pretty comfortable. Alex tried not to wonder. what the fuck?” She rolled her eyes at him. oddly fixated on the way they caught and reflected the jaundiced light. was something that Alex played with on the bad days. that fucked-up kid. but moving on all fours. The idea of going somewhere new. as the park was deserted and he wanted to sit down somewhere. It wasn’t so much the classes that he wanted to avoid. and Alex immediately regretted saying anything. leaned his back up against it. one that he had honed through years of confinement and observation. It was a skill. wearing grey sneakers that he’d bought online and still wasn’t totally sure that he liked. he thought. Because then he would panic. in two directions. in an anonymous neighborhood at the end of a cul-de-sac. but it didn’t matter that much. It crossed the distance between them with a graceful. waiting for sharp teeth and blinding pain. Alex decided. He spent much of his time here sleeping and feeling sorry for himself. The lake smelled awful. was not to think about what he was going to do next. too. It wasn’t the worst destination he could have picked. Until Alex remembered the wolves trying to eat him. Maybe years of science fiction films had prepared him for it. with its terrible burning yellow eyes. Fucking wolves. At the very least. a little bit like freedom. He took a certain satisfaction in that. the more it tried to wander. Silent grey shapes moving out of the scrub and across the mud and dead grass. straight black hair. somehow. he thought. faster than he would have thought possible across the muddy ground. no one knew about his parents. he must have been expecting an intervention – how else. Mostly. Large and long-limbed. made him open his eyes. rotten-egg stink that was probably the reason Alex had the park to himself. once he graduated. but that didn’t faze him much either. But. Outside of being alone all the time. you know. as he headed through the park gates. yellow like the moon. It was alright. glancing at the windows of a used clothing shop he passed. actually. And Alex did not want any more school than he had already. He could not tear his gaze away from the lead grey form. Eaten by wolves. Alex realized that it was a number of something’s. but tonight it didn’t seem to be working. The streetlights bled yellow light. if it even had a name. kicking the crushed remains of an aluminum can into the gutter. he’d almost done it. simply because he had nothing else to do. Alex wasn’t sure why he wasn’t more surprised. the few stars peaking reluctantly through the smog. And that. He didn’t even know what the park’s name was. through the center of the wolf pack. compact stride. He trudged along the muddy sidewalk bordering the lake. Alex figured that his body had brought him here. their eyes shining in the long shadows of dusk. After his grandmother had died last year. He’d found it while wandering around the area. Alex had wanted to go someplace where no one knew him. Not one thing had made sense. and he’d been placed on academic probation for it. anyway. Alex looked out at the foul water. which was nearly long enough for him to convince himself that he didn’t mind it. he didn’t have a clue. Or did they just bite you to death? Did they actually eat you? Alex wasn’t sure. He closed his eyes and waited to feel teeth. that the woman was smiling a little bit. He was surprised to find himself at the entrance to the park. puzzling through what he would need and what he could do without. the park where he often slept when ditching school. pink tongue lolling out of the side of its mouth. a marshy. He could imagine the gossip the next day. cutting class one day. the cluster of bare branches and tangled briar that edged the park. where no one knew him. to admit it – he was afraid to leave. not entirely sure why he bothered. was what was freaking him out. His whole body went numb and shook. After all. did you hear? Eaten by fucking wolves. Not one thing. One more absence from afternoon class wouldn’t make a whole lot of difference – as a matter of fact. not the smell of the bird shit saturated water. But he’d known.

in the same flat voice. not looking back. I’ve never shot a gun or anything.” She pointed both of her guns straight ahead. to put himself between this stranger and the wolves. anyway. his voice squeaking when she glanced coolly over her shoulder at him. Alex found himself wondering how old she was. and he thought for sure he was going to get yelled at – but then she turned her back to him.” Her voice was flat. He could only marvel at his ability to think about such things in the face of impending doom. Her eyes stayed on his face for a moment.” Alex said softly. “Um. As angry. when she didn’t lash out at him. When that didn’t work. lacking all inflection. Sweat poured down his back. She was lithe and compact. and what Alex could only assume was werewolf blood. right? So. trying to clear it of the suicidal triviality. he was surprised to see her glance at him over her shoulder. not now. She had run through the park shooting at wolves with both hands. “Stay behind me. . She pulled two new clips from the side pocket of her jacket and slotted them both in place. her voice flat. not even sure what he was going to ask. “I will buy us time. and then trailed off. we cannot hope to run. and faced out into the park again. “That’s more than I expected from you. about fifty feet away. He had no good reason to be hopeful. Alex looked down in shame. what she said hit him right in the chest. “Stay close to me if you want to live. The part of his mind that seemed totally unconcerned with his impending death wondered how long her hair was when she didn’t have it tied back. he was dead weight in this scenario.” the woman said. that he had something to offer. “The Weir aren’t dead. He almost wanted to laugh himself. they’ll follow me – maybe you could get out of here and. They were startling – impossibly brilliant red irises set in grotesquely bloodshot eyes. They won’t die or run away because they’ve been shot a few times. And I don’t have enough bullets or time to kill all of them. that he was saved the moment the woman had showed up. he was sure that she would laugh. realizing that he had assumed. if I run off that way.She came up to his shoulder. boy. they’re here for me. and then. she didn’t seem angry. and he felt a mad urge to rush out. Behind them. you know. “Oh fuck. go for help…” For a moment. over her shoulder. but the sound when she fired was much less dramatic than what Alex had expected.” she said in a softer voice. underneath a denim jacket heavily splattered with mud. “But. The four wolves she hadn’t shot were fanned out in front of them. making her the shortest person he had ever found intimidating. and advancing cautiously. Despite the advancing wolves. and then continued on in a panic when she didn’t. at the closest of the grey shapes. He gritted his teeth. When he looked up. She shook her head at him and sighed. “Those aren’t wolves. “I dunno. can I. and attempted to stop shivering. ejecting the clips from both of her pistols directly on to the mud.” Alex followed her gaze and saw she was right. another group appeared to be descending from the scrub into the park proper. He wished he had simply shut up. the pistols in her hands autonomously tracking the circling wolves. can’t you just. solely to prove her right.” “Then what…” Alex started to speak. “Um. he was abruptly very cold. shoot them?” Alex heard the hysteria in his voice. guns blazing. turning back to the advancing pack. and the answer came without a moment’s hesitation.” Alex took a tentative step toward her back.” she said. um. and when the wind hit. “I mean. and he hated it. For the first time when she looked at him. that is… can I help you?” Alex said nervously. all he could do was try and convince himself that he was shaking from the cold. but didn’t feel that he accomplished much. all without seeming to pay much attention to the process. boy. his face burning. and what it would feel like if he touched it. and let himself be rescued. another. Despite the situation. and he felt inexplicably disappointed. and struggled to find a suitable way to complete the sentence. “I did.” she said. without needing to aim. What had he been thinking? Obviously. well. moving in their direction. “That was really amazing…” He tried for any sort of facial expression. Then he noticed her eyes. with no basis whatsoever. Who could possibly help her? And had he really offered himself as bait? “No. He shook his head. Stupid. He waited a moment for her to respond. distract them or something? I mean. but maybe I could…” Alex trailed off.

making no noise other than the heavy slap of his back paws against the muddy banks. and she knew it already. It was powerful enough to conceal its Etheric signature until it was almost on top of them. She had been reckless to engage the Weir alone. but their combat value was negligible. been able to thread the Ether like that. With it activated. and probabilities. and she briefly lost both awareness and control of her body. sifting through the probability fields for the most desirable outcome. The Weir’s innards smelled awful. landing on the far side with bent knees. They were vastly stronger than humans and inhumanly resistant to injury. It was toying with him. and in most of the scenarios she ran. and the Weir followed him down. vile thing. He came up out of the stinking water of the lake at a run. she could see the muscles in his neck and legs tense as he prepared to throw himself off the boy and onto her. She didn’t have the firepower to kill all of them. even for a werewolf. teeth protruding from a long.Three Twenty bullets. Certainly. She didn’t have time to wonder about it. but rather a field strategist. possibly. tissue embedded with Etheric machinery executed instructions. The firearm protocol she’d downloaded was still active. Two minutes. barely enough to keep the first lunge from tearing him to pieces. even on her very best day. normally so suffocating and oppressive. or certain to die. standing right behind her. she bent down next to the now silent boy. a web of equations and calculated assumptions. The Weir struck with his claws. The boy would not die if he received medical attention in the next hour. She felt neither hope nor despair. If they ran. after all. it might slow them down a bit while they jockeyed for the best attack position. She was a node on an wide-ranging and invisible Etheric network. a bipedal wolf-thing. he was an asset. a precision device. At least six Weir currently visible. The overlay of the ballistics protocol burned like rose-tinted magnesium in her vision the closer she got. Mitzi. an Etheric probe extending invisibly from her palm. the other reaching down for his chest. the bleeding boy half-embedded in the mud. running along the red string toward the dim lights of Central so fast it took her breath away. and then leveled her guns at the closest Weir. the probability thread was very vivid. as a warning. five seconds. and she had badly underestimated their numbers. She gave them no more than a minute. The part of Mitsuru’s mind that was still human reeled. optimistically. her mind breaking the barrier of Central’s halo like glass. with an intensity Mitsuru had never experienced. as she fired both pistols twice and felt a thick wetness coat her arms and the front of her chest. One stood out. She moved as fast as she could. then Central needed this boy even more. blunt snout. She could handle one more in close combat. and a matted and patchy coat. And if someone else wanted him dead this badly. and fighting Weir hand-to-hand was just short of suicide. Mitsuru leapt over the hulking hindquarter of the Weir. She had enough bullets to stop the first two Weir as they came at her. She was fully aware of herself at the park. burning with data and power. probably. knowing that she would be too slow. It immediately grew white-hot. ballistics data and distances. Whatever was happening. He was close enough that Mitsuru could smell him. even under ideal circumstances. trying not to cry. the gout of blood from his back splashing Mitsuru’s face and clothes in a thin stream as he fell. One trembling teenager. Getting shot hurts. she knew. ears shredded to nubs. almost immediately. in many ways. Mitsuru called home. And. adapting to her surroundings with rapidly evolving mathematics and an overriding drive for survival. He was old and fast. It could have simply torn the arm to shreds. scenarios. shattering its front forepaw and sending it tumbling into the mud. The boy heard him and he flinched. The only favorable outcome she could foresee to this situation was her backup arriving early. diving for the boy and firing with her free hand. Mitsuru’s mind had been reengineered as a logic processing engine. Part of her was terrified. The silver beast was a huge. The probe wasn’t meant to relay energy. designed to immediately relay his vitals. and more movement in the brush at the park’s edge. fingers tipped with cruel talons. a glowing thread between her hand and his sternum. She had another two or three protocols she could activate in her current state. She spun to face him. then there was a chance that she could withdraw and live. Alistair! She cried his name out. She ran options. obviously. But all he had time to do was whine and twitch. Mitsuru let all of it go with one long. She had never. capable of rapid analysis and projection based on probability measurement. moving in the halfway form that some Weir could assume. twisting her upper body so that the muzzles of her guns were planted securely behind the Weir’s left ear. She was too late. Mitsuru moved. angles of attack. the one who flanked them fit the description. one gun tracking the cautiously advancing pack. capable of thinking or killing her way out of almost any situation. raking the boy down his back. but it did take a few moments of concentration. Her vision was layered with rose-tinted boxes and text. The Etheric probe activated as soon as it brushed the boys chest. the musk and embedded odors of blood and decay. She was. How long until backup arrives? Less than a minute. she knew with a steely confidence that she could fire all twenty remaining rounds. and smart enough to use the lake as cover. and then grimly readjusted her projections negatively. utterly wrong. and while they wouldn’t be afraid even if she were wearing a half-dozen bandoliers. the boy was not a target of opportunity. The wolf meant to turn. If the boy was dead. but it liked the way he cried and screamed. We are moving as fast as we can. The Weir didn’t know she was running out of ammunition. never mind getting out of the park. it should have been a purely analytic operation. Her calculations were definitive and implacable. the Weir would overtake them in the mud before they even made it to the path. dropping into a crouch. knuckles dragging like an ape. . the howls of the wolves as they gingerly closed the distance between them. that there was no chance she could get there before the boy was mauled. Normally. Mitzi?How did you There’s no time for that. Two minutes had become an impossible number. These numbers defined the current parameters of Mitsuru’s world. The boy fell forward with a sort of whimpering sound. clutching and tearing. And moreover. slow exhale. Somewhere deep in the surgically altered spaces of her brain. determined parameters and threaded probabilities. an Etheric computer – not an Analyst. the Weir’s jaw clamped onto the weakly struggling boy’s forearm. Older Operators said that silver Weir were particularly cunning and long-lived. bursting out of the waters and charging up the short at them. running an auto-targeting subroutine that saved her the trouble of aiming. She fired off a couple of rounds to slow it down. and he represented enough potential to merit the attentions of an entire pack of Weir. Mitsuru didn’t need a protocol to know that the situation was hopeless. potential threats. But another part of her mind raced through the currents of the Ether. Kicking the limp Weir aside. permeated with Etheric tools and machinery. Contacting Central through the Ether wasn’t difficult. Power? This couldn’t be. along the spine. copper and rotten meat. and expect to hit every time. where was the power coming from in the first place? And so much of it! But the part of Mitsuru’s mind that never stopped analyzing didn’t worry about niceties like that. less than thirty seconds. then offered up a suggestion. covering the few feet between them in a split second. for the first time that she could remember. but another part exulted.

like the line of a fly-fisherman. and then planted both of her hands palms down into the already bloody mud on either side of his head. She didn’t recognize him. “Little one. the silver Weir rose to his feet and paused. Her nosebleed had become a stream now. through the blood-born nanochains. terrified Weir. soft light and hospital sounds. a thin red transparency that surrounded her and the boy. Do you have the strength to contact Central for retrieval? They’ve prepped an extraction for you. her body wracked with effort and pain.” The thing’s tongue extended out several inches. Now. unavoidable momentum. and then brought it whipping back in a wide sweep. its breath foul and hot on the back of Mitsuru’s neck. her face pale and her eyes screwed shut. “Enough. sending up gouts of steam from the hissing mud. sprawled across the boy. and then dropped it. illuminating. Then she hit the white of Central. lolling its long black tongue over its tangled teeth. a bluewhite stream of flame running out of the elongated end. deeper than she’d meant to. he held something that looked very much like a metal umbrella handle. burned. Her head was filled only with the migraine now. Your call. but Mitsuru’s headache remained blinding and her nose continued to gush. the blood flowing steadily onto the boy. raw logic structures descending on her mind. and then rolled herself off the boy and onto her back. Download commencing. bones cracking against the translucent field. rather than saw. “we will hurt you. Mitsuru had already begun to return to her body.” Mitsuru stared at her wounded hand. displacing. making her vision warp and blur. There was another brief hesitation. wondering. ripping away her vision and replacing it with a field of ruby-tinted darkness. and filled with howling. into concerned voices. She realized that somehow she did. dripping to the ground and pooling there. as the incomplete protocol sputtered and whined. with a serious. like a long whip. Mitsuru reached through the Ether as the line struck the first of the Weir. plain face and dark hair. Whatever the source. Start the download. She could feel Alistair hesitate. his expression unreadable. behind your dissolving barrier. Then you…” It leaned down closer then. too tired even to summon a probe. aligning and maintaining the energies by force of will. damp and heavy for the season. Mitsuru slumped to her knees beside boy. and an expensive-looking brown suit beneath.” If it expected a response. and even through the pain of the broken protocol. Mitzi. and whatever it touched. attempting to discharge to relieve the unbelievable pressure. and she felt like screaming. and then the other. both she and the boy were gone. through the wounds in her palms. The shield around them flickered and then dissolved as Mitsuru allowed the protocol to dissipate. black and viscous.” Mitsuru felt. He wore an overcoat. The shield flickered. She managed to force herself up to her knees. the mysterious power seemed inexhaustible. or more accurately. It was a migraine headache. Mitsuru dropped her guns and dug a short knife from her belt sheath. She held the structure of the protocol in her mind.Barrier Protocol. perhaps Alistair consulting the analytical pool. Her nose poured blood unheeded. into a dome she visualized. The barrier protocol diminished to fragments and half-remembered images. but rather because the incomplete protocol had begun to disintegrate. “Relax. A wave of unutterable brilliance passed through her. “I will finish this. you cannot hold that barrier for long. and she made herself into a conduit for it. beside his immaculately polished shoes. so fast it felt like freefall. though it took both hands and a concerted effort. “We’ll take our time with you. and the translucent red shield over them. moving along the red string. She put two fingers against the wrist of the fallen boy. It was the single most flagrant display of the Salamander Protocol that Mitsuru had ever witnessed. One half-human paw on the back of its damaged head. The first Weir to hit the barrier crumpled. . a preferential pathway for the available energy. Mitzi. Her palms ached. It takes more than thirty seconds… Alistair. And when it does. and her hands burned where they touched the mud. She heard the Weir howl and knew that they had started to move. There isn’t anything you can do about it. She crashed into her body with a sickening sensation. the arc of blue-white flame that struck the silver Weir. Mitsuru’s fingers dug into the mud. The whole of her consciousness was focused on channeling power into the damaged structure of the protocol. You’ll wish you were dead long before we let you die. caressing the barrier obscenely. and a moment later. enlightening. not due to lack of power. snapping forward with a terrifying. screamed as power flared through the incomplete protocol. Mitsuru screamed as it hit. but she was unaware of it. bones cracking. she forced her eyes open and saw the Operator standing over her through the veil of the migraine. “Little one. She slashed one palm with the knife. even without confirmation from the acoustic analysis of the half-forgotten firearms protocol.” it said. parallel with the ground. There was no pain. igniting his fur and hurling him. a tingling sensation throughout her body. staring at Mitsuru in the mud a few yards away. it didn’t get one. the park was devastated. girl. extending out yards behind him in elaborate coils. Think about that. the liquid fire trailing behind him in a continuous wave. Lying on the mud. as they sank into the viscous mud. In his right hand. There was fantastic pressure in her sinuses. The pain of the rapidly downloading protocol was intense. propelled by her frantically beating heart. a cluster of migraines localized in her forebrain. the line scorched. and she could barely feel her fingers. it will fail without me even touching it. He was middle-aged. a sinuous and lazy exaggeration of his movements. “Then go. and then her eyes rolled back in her head. Operator Aoki. Already. onto the ground around him. through the mud and then up. only blood spilling out of the wound. Caucasian. walking toward them. her hands burned. there is no time to complete the download. It is tearing you apart. Wherever it touched. He drew the line back over his head in a high. but it flared even brighter when she forced it to activate. First we’re going to tear that boy apart. and managed a nod. and then the protocol hit her. leaving a trail of mucus and spittle behind.” it said. she felt a profound envy. going down in a tangle of teeth and paws. almost touching the barrier. perfectly round and perhaps a meter across. She didn’t wait for the download to start. Alright. I don’t have time for this right now.” the man said curtly. The power she forced into the protocol struggled to find an outlet. raising the bar over his head. reducing the wolves to ash and smoking meat. The energy bled out of her. Trust me.” the man said crisply. back toward the scrub and brush. “It will fail. She didn’t have time for that. slow arc. It studied the shivers that racked Mitsuru’s body. his voice a repulsive parody of human speech. Submerged in the cold mud. then confirmation. Every nerve sang as Mitsuru forced power through her hands. I can see it.

Four

“What, then? Are you suggesting that we should kill him?” Gaul tried to be patient. Vladimir was badly arthritic, and during the colder months he was inclined to be cantankerous. He wasn’t trying to be difficult, Gaul reminded himself, he didn’t have the patience for complicated answers right now. Gaul pushed his wire-frame glasses up with one finger, sighed, and tried again to explain the scenario to the two other conscious men in the room. “I’m not saying we should kill him, Vlad, I’m saying that is one of the solutions that some of the cartels will come to. Others, the majority probably, will want to recruit him, but I’m certain that all would rather see him dead than see him join another.” “I thought you said he wasn’t fully activated yet?” Michael was incredulous, but Gaul’s nod was matter-of-fact and somber. “It’s true, but that makes this all the more terrifying. This child,” he said, glancing meaningfully at the mess of tubes and IVs that occupied the room with them, “isn’t more than partially activated and he’s already the most powerful catalyst we’ve ever seen.” “I don’t see what’s so remarkable,” Vladimir complained, stroking his trimmed white beard. “The Witches can accomplish the same things, with their circles, sharing power.” “Operator Aoki has never previously used this particular barrier protocol in the field, and she didn’t have time to complete the download before she activated it. She maintained it,” Gaul explained, “for the better part of a minute, despite the Weir’s attacks, and as far as we can deduce, it was because she checked that boy to see if he was alive. Witches can transfer power, yes, but it takes a number of trained participants, and even then, the cumulative effect is modest. Brief contact with this boy appears to have temporarily increased Mitsuru Aoki’s abilities by a degree of magnitude.” Gaul paused while the two men digested this, and then glanced at the boy, laboriously breathing in an induced coma. “Even so…” Vladimir’s voice was unsteadily. Gaul shook his head and cut him off. “The boy hasn’t even had time to fully assimilate to the changes that have been made in him, Vlad,” Gaul said earnestly, “we are only seeing his potential. There is an excellent chance that this catalytic effect isn’t his primary ability – I honestly can’t see what this boy might become when he matures.” Michael closed his eyes, and leaned over the boy’s bed, palms down. His arms crawled with black tattoo work, in a vaguely tribal style, but his skin was so dark you couldn’t even tell he had them at a distance. “You’re right, Gaul,” he said softly a few moments later, his eyes closed. “This kid is only beginning to activate. Even so, he’s radiating raw power, and a substantial amount of it.” Michael frowned. “I can’t access it, though. It seems to be free-floating, but it isn’t responding to me…” Vladimir closed his eyes, and muttered to himself briefly, then shook his head. “It’s based on affinity.” Michael lowered his hands and opened his eyes to look at Gaul. “You think?” “Yeah,” Gaul said reasonably. “Witches can’t even form a circle unless they have a very strong rapport – we aren’t talking about vampirism, here, it has to be a consensual process. The boy manufactures and multiplies power, gentlemen, but consciously or unconsciously, he’s exercising discretion about who can use it.” Michael sat back down next to Gaul, his brow creased with worry. “Gaul, what is Mitsuru’s current classification?” Gaul did not need to reach for the slaved Etheric tendril that trailed invisibly behind him to access the information – he’d wondered the same thing earlier that morning. “She was Class E, at her last evaluation, with upward potential.” “Operating a partial protocol,” Michael said quietly, looking at his old friend with sad eyes, “would be an M-Class operation, assuming it’s even possible, correct?” Gaul nodded his agreement. “Are you saying,” Vladimir asked incredulously, looking over at the comatose boy, “that this child is already an M-Class Operator? Impossible!” “No, you’re right Vlad, he isn’t an Operator at all – he’s just a boy who seems to be capable, without activation, of M-Class operations,” Gaul said gravely. Vladimir leaned back in his chair and whistled. “I would not think such a thing possible. That is bad…” “I’m afraid it gets worse,” Gaul said, again pushing up his glasses, a tick that Michael knew grew more pronounced when he was stressed. “I’m afraid that this boy is anything but your average, ordinary child.” “How so?” “Alexander Warner,” Gaul said, nodding to indicate the boy. “His father was an abusive drunk – a number of domestic disturbance and family complaints on record, multiple DUIs, all resolved without jail time. Some bruises were noticed at school, when Alex was twelve, and there was a visit or two from Children’s Protective Services over the years. All to no avail. Alexander’s father met his end in a fire six years ago, a fire that also took the life of Alexander’s mother and sister.” “So? That is bad, yes, but…” “Alexander set the fire,” Gaul said softly, “or at least he believes he did – I lifted the impressions from him earlier, when I did a fairly deep scan. He spent a number of years in institutions, before being released into his grandmother’s care two years ago. She died, of natural causes, last August.” Michael looked at the boy sympathetically, while Vladimir shook his head and muttered darkly. “He has been on his own, when he wasn’t institutionalized. The community he returned to blamed and ostracized him, and he was small enough to be the target of violence and abuse in the juvenile facility. Alexander withdrew, almost completely – no real incidents, no run-ins with the law, nothing like that. But, when I probed him earlier, I didn’t find a single connection, not one person he has any serious emotional commitment to. He’s never had a friend, never so much as touched a girl’s hand. I’m not sure he’s even capable of forming bonds. or caring about other people, at this point. He’s damaged goods, gentlemen, and we’ve been down this road before.” “Did he actually kill his family?” Michael seemed curious, but not particularly troubled. “You made it sound a bit doubtful.” Gaul shrugged.

“I can’t be certain – the impressions are too vague. He thinks he did, and he thinks he’s glad he did. He remembers closing the front door behind him and walking away from a burning house. I’d say it’s fairly likely.” Gaul frowned and waved one hand dismissively. “Whatever the case, the reality of the trauma remains.” “You believe that he is dangerous?” Vladimir demanded, pointing one blunt finger at Gaul accusatorily. “Many of us have come from unhappy places, Gaul, and we do not all become monsters.” Gaul shrugged again, tiredly. “I don’t know anything for certain,” Gaul admitted. “But, I do know that Alexander Warner has no idea how to care for, or to be cared for, by other people. At best he’s been ignored, at worst, he’s been brutalized. And, incidentally, he has enough power locked inside of him to decimate a third of our student body, even only partially activated. If we choose full activation, there’s no telling what will happen. It’s impossible to predict.” Vladimir and Michael exchanged worried glances. “I don’t think he’s dangerous, Vladimir.” Gaul leaned forward, his eyes cold and bloodshot pink. “I know it, even without a roomful of analysts. He’s a bomb waiting to go off, and that’s without considering the political ramifications.” Michael spoke from behind his steepled hands; his voice was reflective, pensive. “Any cartel that finds out about him, they’ll want – no, they’ll need to either recruit him or eliminate him, simply to keep anyone else from getting him. They won’t have a choice. His potential value is too great to overlook.” Michael shook his head sadly. “Gaul, how many students do we have right now with the potential to reach M-Class?” There was a pause, and both Michael and Vladimir knew that Gaul, always exact, was consulting the Etheric network. He did not need to close his eyes; there was no obvious change in his body or demeanor. His gaze simply grew distant for a moment while he communed with the Etheric graft in his forebrain. “Four,” Gaul said, his voice mechanical, his eyes unfocused. “Though there are perhaps another two or three who could reach that level, under optimum conditions.” “So he’s the biggest unclaimed piece on the board,” Michael continued. “He could shift the balance…” Gaul shook his head, looking grim. “It’s worse than that,” he said flatly, looking at the boy. “The conflict won’t be limited to the Hegemony and the Black Sun – every individual cartel will want him for their own – and they’ll all make their own play for him. Think of the advantage, the prestige they could gain…” “Chaos, then,” Michael agreed. “With everyone making a play for our Alexander, here.” “And the easiest play,” Vladimir said frankly, “is to simply eliminate the boy.” Both other men looked at him, surprised. “What? It’s true,” Vladimir said dismissively, “you said it yourself, Gaul. The danger of him joining another faction is greater than the advantage to be gained by having him join their own, if you are playing safe.” “It’s true,” Gaul said, in the definitive way that both men knew meant he had just checked the probability threads. “The chances of him being killed are quite high.” “Some of the less conservative types will try and make a play for him,” Michael mused, “using whatever they can. Bribes, intimidation…” Vladimir snorted. “They will use girls, fool,” he scoffed. “He is a teenage boy, after all. Young love will work far more effectively than indoctrination.” Michael felt obscurely grateful that Gaul was not moved to confirm the probability here, at least out loud. He was extremely fond of the Director, but at times his detachment and his frankness made him uncomfortable to be around. Sometimes it was sort of like trying to be friends with a computer. “Then the Hegemony will probably use Emily Muir, she’s perfect for this,” Michael said thoughtfully, then grinned. “Maybe it’s not so bad to be Alexander, after all…” Vladimir laughed. Gaul smiled mirthlessly and then shook his head. “Why do we not then make him one of your Auditors, Gaul? Surely, whatever his other attributes, he has the potential. You are allowed six, yes? And last I heard, you have only four…” “I thought the same thing,” Gaul replied sourly. “I’ve been running numbers all morning looking for a way to just that. He certainly has the potential for it, assuming we can salvage him. And it would exempt him from the machinations of the cartels. But, it wouldn’t work.” “Why not?” Vladimir demanded. “The Hegemony and the Black Sun – they’d both regard it as poaching,” Gaul said hopelessly. “They’d claim we were recruiting at an unfair advantage, taking the best of the potential Operators before they’d been admitted to the Academy, before they’d had a chance to be introduced to any of their ideologies. They’d see it as a violation of the Agreement, and they’d be right. There’s no precedent for it.” “They’d use it to attack the Academy? Or us?” “Us, probably.” Gaul said, shrugging. “Both sides would probably prefer to see a more sympathetic administration at the Academy. It’s particularly bad timing, too. This would be far less complicated if Anastasia Martynova wasn’t currently at the Academy. That the future head of the Black Sun would be in the same class as Alexander, should we choose to admit him, is a particularly bad break for us.” The room was quiet then, for a moment, with only the labored breathing from the hospital bed to break the silence. “Then, if I understand correctly,” Vladimir began, looking cunning, “the problem is that we cannot make this boy an Auditor, unless he first attends the Academy?” Gaul nodded slowly, looking at the grey-haired man’s smile and trying to understand. “Once he is a student, he is free to choose for himself, yes?” “After he completes two full years, same as any other student,” Gaul allowed. “The solution is simple, then. We make sure that he decides to become an Auditor, and there is no problem,” Vladimir shouted, delighted. “I’m not sure that it would be that easy…” Michael began, with a touch of exasperation in his voice. “It’s a possibility,” Gaul said distantly. “We protect him, from the cartels, from everybody,” Vladimir insisted, leaning toward Michael to look at him directly, his pale blue eyes sparkling from within wrinkled folds of tired skin. “We make sure that they can’t get close to him, that they can’t brainwash him to see things their way.” “How do we know that he will choose what we want him to?” “You are his teachers, yes? Teach him. It should help,” Vladimir pointed out, “that we are in the right.” Michael smiled. “There is another possibility,” Gaul said reluctantly, his eyes on the floor. “Who rescued Mitsuru and this boy?” “Henry North. Of the North Cartel, affiliated with the Hegemony,” Gaul added, his voice again distant and mechanical. Michael shook his head. His friend’s habit of constantly accessing his network uplink to answer routine questions bothered him. He wondered if Gaul had any faith at all in his own mind, unassisted. “There is no other possibility,” Vladimir said, folding his arms, “if one faction is already aware of him, then the others are too, or will be shortly.” “They are not aware of his potential,” Gaul said quietly, still looking down. “You are certain?” Gaul paused, and then shook his head slowly. “Then there is no other possibility,” Vladimir said defiantly.

“There is, though,” Gaul insisted, “and it has to be decided by vote, by the Board. And right now. We have no idea how long we can keep this kind of information under wraps.” “Assuming it even is under wraps,” Vladimir muttered. “You know how far little Anastasia has worked her claws into the Hegemony. If they know about Alex, then she does, too.” Michael gave the two empty chairs in the room a significant look. “What about Rebecca and Alistair? What do they think about all this?” “Rebecca is handling some negotiations in the Philippines. Alistair is manning the comms right now, and he’ll get in contact with her as soon as we are ready to vote. I’ll relay their decisions,” Gaul said, finally looking up, cold and impassive. “Very well,” Vladimir said. “Let me remind you both that you are teachers, not butchers. If all we see in these children is risk, then we, and the Academy, have wholly failed.” “How do you vote, Vladimir?” Gaul’s voice was hollow when he asked the question, obviously relaying the decision to the Etheric archive. “Admit him.” “Michael?” Michael hesitated for a moment and then shook his head. “It could undermine everything we’ve done here. But it’s not in my nature to write the kid off, no matter what his story is. Vladimir’s right, we admit him.” There was a brief pause, and then Gaul spoke again, robotically. “Rebecca also votes to admit. Alistair abstains. Majority vote for admission. For the record,” Gaul continued, “I vote for termination.” Michael didn’t bother to disguise the shock he felt when he looked at Gaul. Vladimir clucked and had a sour expression. Gaul looked down for a moment then, and when he spoke again, it was in his normal voice. “I’m sorry,” he said apologetically. “It’s very important to make sure the record is complete.” Michael sighed and shook his head.

At least he wasn’t this crazy.” Michael allowed.” Michael grinned again. “Is that so?” Michael appeared to be stifling laughter. that the world was not as described to him. You keep on doing whatever it is you think you’re doing in that pathetic little town. “Because you have potential. But there’s another possibility I’d like you to consider with me. and the more immediate pain in his forearm.” “You’re right. “Who are you. it often didn’t. has taken an interest in you. but seemed prepared to wait however long was necessary to get it.” Michael answered sincerely. He wasn’t crazy.” Michael said with his wide. looking pointedly at the pitcher and water glass on his bedside table. we patch you up and send you home.” “Alright. do you?” Alex shook his head. After being institutionalized for a while. “Yes. “Because there is something – a number of things. it had become an instinctual thing. I’m not sure what a werewolf looks like when he’s not. He felt completely bewildered. “that is a definite possibility. “I’m not an expert in this. “One way it could go. After a while. or at least he tried to be. he was sure that he wasn’t to be taken lightly. The man’s face beamed with positivity. and the only place capable of fully realizing that potential is here. “No?” Alex shook his head.” Michael leaned forward and spoke confidentially. finally. Lacroix. but he didn’t seem angry or anything. as it I see it. You don’t look much like a werewolf. The cops will hold you for a while. No point in making unnecessary enemies. “Who are you?” “You don’t want to know where you are? That’s what people in your situation usually start with. Whoever this man was. though. Not that he’d said anything that wasn’t true. But he tried to be reasonable about things. but if he’d expected anyone. He smiled broadly. “It could be. ‘Fraid we’ll have to stick you with the bill. I think so. “I see. but the pain in his left forearm was severe. from the soft beeping sounds. we’ll do it your way.” Michael said blithely. not at all sure that he did. that idea had vaguely positive connotations. as a matter of fact.” Alex said doubtfully. pouring water into the plastic cup and handing it to Alex. Alex rested a bit longer. but it seemed rude to come right out and say it. either. sipping water from the cup slowly. and he wiggled his fingers nervously. that might have been a troubling notion.” Michael affirmed. can I ask why?” It all felt like a hustle to Alex. opening his eyes and yawning. “Tell me all about it. Alex. it’s the medical wing of a university. “Well. instantaneous recognition. Given the dull. For anyone else. when it became clear that the odd man not only expected a response. did not always conform to that standard – in fact. There’s nothing to worry about.” “Oh?” Alex said.” “Sounds expensive. and the pervasive antiseptic smell. to stay realistic. an impossibly elaborate scam.” Alex said tersely. “From my perspective. nothing of the sort. “The other way we can do things is a lot more interesting. exactly?” Michael laughed abruptly. “This is probably a good thing for you. “Nope. Alex. after all? He had nothing to lose. comforted by the various chimes and chirps of the hospital electronics. not like he spent a lot of time in the gym. The whole thing could be a con. holding it with his good arm. the spidery designs only marginally darker than his skin. with his ridiculous grin and his beautiful suit. His other arm was wrapped in bandages and had a cast up to the elbow. He couldn’t see much of his injuries. not one cent. A private institution. shall we say. or a wolf-man-thing. He wondered briefly how he would pay for all this.” Alex said. with the promise of eventual lucrative employment. I work here. black line work creeping up his neck and peeking out from his sleeves on his wrists. This was actually understatement – Alex was absolutely sure he wasn’t a cop. and for the entire world seemed utterly benevolent. he looked as if he might to start laughing. insistent pain in his back and abdomen. disarming smile. so he was more curious than he was frightened. the starched white sheets against his skin. one in which this whole experience costs you nothing at all. particularly when he didn’t know what was going on. “This isn’t a hospital Alex. The black dude looked tough. wearing an immaculately tailored grey suit and brilliant red tie. But wasn’t there a half-destroyed park filled with dead wolves somewhere? Alex was a rational person. and then nodded. it would have been the cops. For Alex. anyway. We would like to offer you a place among our students. okay. there’s a few different ways this could go. And this guy. at least in his case. then they’ll probably let you go. the very Academy that we currently occupy. what with the sorry state of the world. that seemed like the right place for him to be. How much worse could it get. “You don’t look like a cop. though Alex couldn’t figure out what was so funny. we’ll shake when you’re feeling better. In fact. namely. You are getting the best medical care possible. You don’t mind if I call you Alex. looking at him with an expression that managed to convey concern and amusement simultaneously. but in a practical sort of way – like he might do physical labor. so sorry. And this is how they see it.” “Well.” “I’ll decide what I’d like to know.” “You’re supposed to be a doctor?” “No. This would obviously include full coverage of your medical expenses and a. He was not expecting the huge dreadlocked black man next to his bed.” Alex said. just to be certain he still could. really – that can only be done by people with that kind of potential. Alex thought. sunny disposition aside. Alex. “Um. Michael looked both surprised and delighted. but Alex was sure that Michael was not to be messed with. He didn’t delude himself. you know. and then put it out of his mind with an effort. he was definitely not the cops. being a wolf. Alex. He appeared to be heavily tattooed.” he added. anyway. “Alright. He was thirty-something and built. yeah?” Alex let it pass without comment. or nothing he’d miss much anyway. Mr. he decided to try opening his eyes. Life. That left only one option he knew of. right? Your big bright future. check out whatever story you tell them.Five Alex knew he was in a hospital before he opened his eyes. thanks.” Alex inched his way up in bed and took a long look at the man sitting confidently in a hospital chair by his bedside. they way he saw it. Not financially. but I’ve got colleagues who are. young Alex. whatever parody of life it is you think you are living. mind you. but he felt a bit pissed at the tone he was taking. but he felt too wary of Michael to make a fuss about it. intervention in your legal affairs to preclude any further problems with the police. “But you don’t seem like the type to me. I’m definitely not a werewolf. Alex hadn’t figured on anybody being there. a stellar and far-ranging education in a number of esoteric and often-overlooked subjects.” . potential that we can help you develop.” Michael finished cheerfully. He regretted it immediately and softened his tone.” Alex admitted. “My name is Michael Lacroix. he knew.” Alex said.

And if I don’t like what happens from here on out. then that’s mine. . rolling onto his side. and began to push the chair to the side of the room. and my arm hurts. the pain in his arm beginning to bother him. and I don’t want to deal with the cops. carefully lowering himself back down on the bed. “But so we understand each other. But I’m tired. and anyway. “Do you have nurses around this place? Could you please tell them that I am in a whole lot of pain? Is that possible?” Michael nodded seriously. and reservations. before anyone else got the same idea. “I have questions about pretty much everything. or the bills.” “Like I give a shit. He liked the kid already. I’ve got questions.” “Alright.” Alex said. facing away from Michael.Alexander looked at Michael’s open. nodding. Lacroix. And I don’t have anything else going on. “Alright. I can’t really think of anything I want to do right now.” Michael said.” Alex said. I’ll walk away. “I’m okay with that. no one has ever said I’ve got potential for anything but trouble. Mr. excellent…” Michael stood up. rather urgently. Whatever it is you’ve got in mind. yawning. I have lots of questions. Alexander. honest face for a long moment. “But. If you want an answer. he had something he really needed to look at in the boy’s charts. and then nodded.” Alex laid his head back on his pillow and closed his eyes. “So.” Alex said moodily. “Just like that? No more questions?” “Oh.” “I understand you. then.” Alex replied. “I don’t really want to go to your school. it’s probably better than my other options.” he said firmly. whatever it is.

He was the Director. “Excellent. knowing he had no other options at the moment. He was surprised to see tears forming in the corners of her eyes. and could feel it in his sore back.” “You can’t force it – you’ll start seeing patterns everywhere. in his low thirties. towards the grounds and the yellow moon.. There were several ashtrays on the main table. the remains of tempura shrimp. into his . His Chief Auditor was smart. Moreover. and there was something lazy and drawling in his speech that recalled it. and he moved with a compact grace that reminded Gaul more of a dancer than a soldier. Mitsuru was almost mute. He didn’t care much for Alistair. “I am trying to make sense of what happened tonight. “Or that the consequences of that failure could have been catastrophic for you. insistent. her hands making vague.” Gaul continued. Send me your report as soon as you’ve completed it. Gaul knew he’d never give him one. Mitsuru’s sob was immediate. Gaul watched her reflection in the window. personally?” “Central requested intervention. -The walk was not long. the Chief Auditor is coordinating the mop-up for today’s operations. Alistair opened the door. “let’s return to the matter at hand.” he said. Then you can explain to me. While Alistair had been on duty since the night before. he didn’t feel that Mitsuru was tame. even if it was mostly minor cuts and bruising. and in his own limited way he liked her. but she had dried blood caked on her wounded hands. And he resented Alistair and Rebecca for stopping him. Well. “but that isn’t how it works. But impoliteness was not Gaul’s style. and he looked away. I felt assurance – as if I had done it before. the events of the day were weighing on him. Which made him totally unprepared for her to start crying. “I’m certain that when his tasks are completed. “why don’t I debrief Mitzi.” Gaul said. He’d been trapped at the desk for hours now. “If it’s all the same with you. as Mitsuru struggled to find the words. “you must remember something. not without having a reason to pull Alistair out of the chain of command. only a few determined technicians plugging away at their workstations. He understood the need for tame monsters. Director. She’d changed into a loose t-shirt and black yoga pants. he could operate more or less how he liked. Mitsuru’s relationship with injury disturbed Gaul. “Fine. Gaul wouldn’t have picked him for the job otherwise. I felt strong. And as little as he liked Alistair. capable. I would prefer to discuss this with the Chief Auditor first. just monstrous. careful. But he could not demand that she deliver her report directly to him. “I’m not certain. However. shall we? Were you injured during the operation?” “Not in any meaningful way. in Virginia. Gaul shrugged and gestured at the file folders on the desk in front of him. when it became clear that her liabilities outweighed her assets. He was a bit short. and we are debriefing. as if I’d threaded all the probabilities and arrived at an operational certainty. Director. or for his pet Operator. all full.Six “How are you feeling. sounding as tired as she looked. he had spearheaded Alice Gallow’s ascension to Audits decades ago himself. and I don’t know why I did what I did after that. sir. I just felt…” She hesitated. The central office of the Audits Department was mostly deserted under flickering fluorescent lights. unfit. I decide who does what and when. “Hey Gaul. he seemed to treat everyone that way. in her usual flat voice.” he said.” Alistair said innocently. But if it had been up to him. shot Mitsuru a sympathetic look. eyes on the floor. obviously having come directly from Central once the cleanup had been completed.” Mitsuru said definitively. Alistair had always treated Gaul as if he were a close friend – but. What’s going on?” Alistair had grown up some place outside of D. your mentor will come to collect you. he would have had her put down years ago.” It came out more defensive than he would have liked. and it irked him to have spoken so harshly to a crying woman. Mitsuru met Gaul’s stare. I do not question my orders.” she began. she was normally so detached – this was the first significant emotion he’d seen her show in years. and then took the chair next to her. What made you think to try it in the first place?” “I’ve never been able to raise Central like that. a gift that Alistair had in abundance. he thought. Mitsuru?” Gaul kept his voice mild. Gaul felt the frustration he’d been suppressing since the morning well up inside him. You understand?” “Yes. “Operator Aoki. he respected her abilities and her potential.” “It didn’t occur to you that you might fail?” “No. “I don’t know how I did it. for that matter. sir. and wondered what had happened. and Gaul felt annoyed again. Firm.” Mitsuru said. with a broad chest and a narrow waist. standing up and looking away from her tears. laptops and piles of paper on every surface. raising her blood-red eyes to look at the Director’s back. with blond hair and a uniform tan. Alistair works for me. Gaul had never been clear whether his personal dislike of Alistair was reciprocated. and give you and the analytical pool something to chew on.” Mitsuru said quietly. Alistair sighed and led Mitsuru past the disarray. waving dismissively at them and then returning to the paperwork on his desk. and shook her head. shaking his head curtly.” Gaul winced at the knock on the door. which annoyed Gaul all over again. he was very tired. “I’m sorry. He was still dressed in his worn fatigues.” Mitsuru responded. Right now. Clearly. out the window. sir. abortive gestures. Even Gaul had to admit that Mitsuru was a brilliant field operative – but defective. She had refused to be treated for any of the injuries she’d sustained during the operation – something that worried Gaul. And she was moping? Ridiculous. Something about this also got underneath Gaul’s skin. The space was a mess. Gaul had taught Mitsuru years ago.” Gaul said.” Mitsuru sniffled. “Come now. as Operations and Audits were only separated by one barren hallway. many times. after all. the analysts felt the risk was merited. her crimson-tinted irises almost identical to his own. and flecks of fried rice. looking over the battered Operator on the other side of the desk. “Come in. Alistair was young-looking. He saw tears well up in her red eyes again. “Clearly.” Gaul scolded. then. and so do you. file boxes. in violation of standard procedures. guilty and confused.” he said formally. folding his hands behind his back. “Trying to make the pieces fit a pattern. eh?” Gaul nodded diplomatically. Could only be Alistair. and the faint remnants of her nosebleed stained her nostrils. “how it is that you managed to activate a protocol that was only partially downloaded. crammed from ceiling to floor with office partitions. yes?” She shook her head morosely. and within reason. though it wasn’t exactly a southern accent. and paper plates stained with soy sauce. sir. he showed no particular sign of being tired. with more venom then he’d intended. and above all. sitting down behind the desk and taking off his glasses so he could rub the bridge of his nose. And unlike some other people.C.

anyway?” Mitsuru shrugged and brought her feet up onto the chair.” Mitsuru said. holding his drink up to the light. Mitzi. “Either they anticipated my involvement. What was your briefing when you were sent out tonight. The chances that he would be operating in the same California city on the same night as Mitsuru by coincidence were minimal.” she said. “The Weir were waiting for that boy. by the way. at the mostly closed wound in her palm. probably in the most traumatic way possible. And if you hadn’t intervened…” “Then they would have.” Alistair said with a tired smile. then sat down across from her. trying to remember what he was and wasn’t allowed to say. what’s eating you?” Mitsuru looked up at him. “North. whoever they are.” “I know. “The kid’s a catalyst. too. more deniable ways to take out one kid. her expression blank. “Alistair. He sat her down in one of the wide leather chairs that faced his old walnut desk. “Don’t worry. Alistair nodded. “a powerful one. “I’m sure you’ll be a great instructor. “That’s pretty rare. He’d never cared much for keeping Gaul’s secrets. what now?” Alistair’s grin was more genuine this time.” “Could be. I think.” he said cheerfully. But using a pack of Weir for a removal. “Mitzi.” Alistair finished his whiskey. I’m going to need someone to keep an eye on the kid.” “Was anyone conducting an operation in the area that I didn’t know about?” Mitsuru’s tone was chilly.” Mitsuru shook her head. “You’re an exceptional Operator. like they had an appointment. at least not for the better. what happened to me back there?” Alistair hesitated for a moment. “Well. if they were that confident that he’d show. North being there doesn’t necessarily mean he had any direct involvement in the attack. too. You can’t start jumping to conclusions – we aren’t going to change the situation in one night. setting the empty glass down on the corner of the desk. unhappy. I guess. He’d already wondered the same thing. We don’t have enough data to say anything for certain about that yet. and hung back when they saw me. Mitzi. “I thought… well. “that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t one. then shrugged. meeting Mitsuru’s red-eyed stare with his own sincere expression. more successful than anyone had a right to ask or expect. and put another down on the desk for himself. and more than half of them were in Central at any given time. “A silver Weir.” “Damn it to hell. “They aren’t clever enough to fake something like that. and I sure don’t believe it. wanted to determine the extent of the problem.” “Someone was running them. that they’d been hanging around the area recently. looking worried. Analytics knew about the pack. It isn’t helping anything. A moment later he handed her a short whiskey with ice in a square-cut glass. and North was keeping an eye on it. biting her thumbnail absently.” Alistair said. Anyway. But it had been a while. for the time being. She seemed to remember her drink then. I’m not certain what I thought. You were successful tonight. just that the cartel didn’t register the operation with Central. Somehow. “Recon and field analysis. red eyes wide and confused. taking stock.” Alistair nodded thoughtfully. if that’s what the cartel wanted.” Alistair said with a shrug. But you know how it is. the moment the information had been relayed to Central.” Mitsuru said. or they had someone else waiting in the wings. other than yours.” “Then it wasn’t me?” Alistair smiled sympathetically. I think that they arranged the whole scenario to try and jar the boy’s talents into activation. Mitzi. dully completing his sentence. frowning with the effort of remembering. and they were wrong about why they were there. “For him specifically. But it seemed…” She trailed off. frowning.” Alistair got a headache. don’t get me wrong. “But. and drained it in one go. Mitzi. he boosted your abilities. They sat and waited for him. “What?” “The Weir were probably hired to hit the kid. her drink sitting untouched in her right hand.” he agreed. Alistair. But. Maybe Gaul will get more out of him when he conducts the Inquiry. I haven’t seen one since that whole thing in Crimea.” she replied emotionlessly. “I doubt it. There were only a few hundred Operators of North’s caliber altogether. then? Another Hegemony cartel? Do they even have those kinds of capabilities?” “At this point. “that’s something that I’d expect the Witches to do. just thinking about it.” “Then. “Central didn’t sanction any operation on the West Coast in the last twenty-four hours. huh?” Alistair mused. the whole thing was a Black Sun operation. The Weir were supposed to be hunting.” “North’s cartel.” . back in the eighties…” “Alistair? Who was it who finished the operation?” “Some Hegemony guy.” “Is it actually possible this is a coincidence?” Alistair shook his head.” Mitsuru’s face was a mixture of slow realization and dawning horror. we’ll convince them to make you an Auditor. He sipped his drink for a moment while looking at Mitsuru frankly. And they knew he’d come to that spot. putting his arms behind his head and leaning back.” Alistair said reassuringly. He’d seen her look rougher. and then walked to the cabinet behind it. “Eventually. he thought. I’m not ruling out any possibility. Mitzi. “The analysts say it’s highly unlikely. hugging her knees to her chest. which was immaculate by comparison.” Alistair said. you know. and then collected the glasses and made them disappear behind his desk. “But they were wrong about the size of the pack. For all we know.” “Then what?” “It wasn’t a hit.small back office. His name’s Alexander.” he said apologetically. there are quieter. “Not all of it. I don’t think that is what their client intended to happen at all.” he said comfortingly. staring at her hand. He knew what was bothering Mitsuru. reaching forward to pat her shoulder. I promise. But you need to stop worrying about it so much. “They were probably running the kid somehow. when you tried to probe him. and took the opportunity to bail Central out when it arose.

Alex shrugged and walked out the door and into the hallway. I’ve had them dropped off in your new room. or at least other people in uniforms similar to his own. it could ruin whatever opportunities he might have here. a number of angular buildings made out of a strange. who made no attempt to converse. Only Michael. He’d treat it the same way he’d handled guards. He strode across the lobby briskly. though everyone acknowledged Michael with at least a nod. school wasn’t so different from any other institution – with uniforms. Alex wondered where they were. He didn’t understand them at all. The windows on either side of the giant wooden door were stained glass. but as they got closer. tucking his shirt into his pants with his off-hand. reminded Alex of a church. And the whole time.” Michael laughed and clapped Alex on the back. anyway?” The elevator started its descent with an unholy squealing of metal on metal.” Alex said. Michael held . and then wondered if it was actually supposed to be that tight. But. Alex thought. and Alex found himself struggling to keep pace with the big man’s stride. “What happened to my clothes. If he was going to be a part of this school. he would tell the truth. Alex trailing a few feet behind Michael.” Alex nodded a bit skeptically. it might be better if they thought of him as a bit lost. and he wasn’t overly eager to make him angry. Somewhere that the weather was pretty similar to home. comforting familiarity.” Michael said cheerfully. dreadlocks hanging down to his shoulders. It was a burden. towering over the bustling crowd of nurses and patients. at worst. at best. and the door chime when the elevator opened filled Alex with a strange.” Michael led him to a bank of elevators. The only option that Alex had been offered was whether or not he would prefer to have his teeth kicked down his throat in the process. There was no point in arguing with Michael. gesturing at the blue blazer and slacks. looked out of place. and that was interesting on its own. and he’d helped it along a bit. “Sorry. surrounded by old oak and birch trees. okay. Alex didn’t really know that many black guys personally. Keeping careful track of everything they said and did. and worn gears grinding. The building Michael led them to. dormitories and grounds. but he liked him. You would.Seven If there was one thing life had repeatedly taught Alex . in Alex’s experience. It would make them more likely to help him.” Alex admitted. they were passed by other students. and most of the things in it had been hers. with ornate columns and a weird round overhang out in front. He was so absorbed in trying to find his way to the downstairs lobby that he didn’t even notice when Michael started walking next to him. It was imposing. anyway. in this case. He had a vision of his grandmother’s absurdly large Christmas gnome cookie-jar sitting on a desk in a dorm room. They said this was a school. he’d be watching. pulling on the button-up shirt awkwardly over the sheath of plastic that wrapped his injured forearm. wear your uniform as directed. kid. or whatever it was. skinny. Alex looked himself over in the mirror grimly. in a lot of ways. He wasn’t entirely sure what his ‘things’ could have possibly constituted – he’d lived in his grandmother’s tiny trailer. but Michael didn’t even seem to notice. He’d have to do his best. set back discretely from each other. Alex didn’t want to go to school. Alex didn’t trust Michael. Lights would go out at nine. And he knew already that they’d misjudged him. he wanted it very badly indeed. yeah. there would be principals imparted and edges smoothed out. All of these things were going to happen. But. if that meant anything. Alex was sure that he would lose. a bit naive. Observation was important. because lies were more complicated – telling lies meant being meticulous. The weather was warm fall weather not unlike California – and not for the first time. rules. done in an abstract and colorful style. Alex wondered how they were going to enter the building. There was almost no wait. at least a little bit. then Michael seemed to be in a position to make it all go easier for Alex. at least. they’d make him go either way. at least for a few more years. But they were a recognizable part of his world. Like some prep school thing. not because he came from a town that openly despised him. weird. though. I don’t know. standard-size entry set in it. Whenever possible. consistent. teachers. it was the value of avoiding unnecessary confrontation. The grounds outside the hospital did look to Alex like a university – concrete paths winding through grassy areas. whether you felt like doing them or not. a few minutes’ walk from the hospital. so close to flush that it was invisible from a distance. Michael seemed pretty friendly. administrators. The rest of the time. I think the doctors cut them off you in order to operate. It wasn’t. all that noise – he’d smile when they expected smiles and he’d stay quiet when he could. and he knew that he’d gain nothing by getting caught up in the gears. Add to that. formal and a bit grotesque. he thought. his MP3 player. Well. but the way he figured it. when he chose to speak. “You look uncomfortable. He would practice patience. Alex hadn’t met many people who didn’t despise him. but he didn’t think that made much of a difference. “it seems kind of. “Don’t worry about it too much – you only have to wear it for lectures. – made from the same grey stone he’d seen earlier. that caused Alex to flinch. That said. because he didn’t see any other good options. or one of the older government buildings in D. Maybe guys usually left the top one undone? He couldn’t remember. Only some clothes. They followed a winding path through the grounds. because it was so clear that they didn’t get it – he didn’t lack social skills. Alex was not particularly surprised to discover that Michael appeared to know the first name of everyone that they came across. There were certain things in life that were going to happen – institutional life had taught him that. psychologists. and maybe some movies could be considered his. anyway. but they were pretty much bloody rags by the time you got here – and anyway. dressed and bed made by eight the next morning. And it couldn’t possibly be any worse than repeating his junior year. Elevators. the fact that Michael was one scary dude. He looked battered. He’d never met anyone who looked like him. for example. wincing as he pulled on the tight slacks. dark wood with dull metal inlays. smile or no. But he started putting it on. You would be up. as he tucked his feet into the leather shoes. given that the door appeared to be twelve feet tall and cut from a single piece of wood. He’d been the target of such manufacture before.” Michael said apologetically. remembering who’d been told what. and then pressed the down button. he thought. and he didn’t pick fights that he knew he would lose. and that was fine. privileges. Occasionally. he understood.C. wearing that smile that Alex liked but didn’t trust one bit. exactly. you can dress however you want. Not when it took extraordinary skills just to make it through the day. Alex fumbled the top button on his collar into place. so he was curious what was waiting for him. “who wouldn’t be? But I didn’t think that the school would have uniforms. “We got someone to go around to your place. “Nervous about this whole thing?” “Well. No. You would be in your cell by six. dull stone. He almost laughed then. and Alex wanted their help. he realized that the door had a secondary. then. and received a cheerful greeting in return. to avoid making those kinds of impressions. he thought. And you’d have to be stupid to make a choice like that. the presentation he’d like to make for his big introduction. with the tattoos and the dreadlocks and then the suit. and the blazer and slacks felt unfamiliar and tight. but apparently he worked as some kind of teacher. Alex didn’t seem to attract much more than passing glances. and collect your things. he’d try and make as sure as possible it was what they wanted to hear. and had to choke back a giggle. even in the mild afternoon sunlight. The elevator opened on to a lobby that looked to Alex’s eyes to be identical to the lobby of every hospital he’d ever been to. He didn’t like uniforms.

Alex. Sometimes the talent runs in families. piles of paper. they can do it again. We don’t know why.” Mrs. Nesbit.” “Will everyone know what’s going on but me?” “No. sighing. it will be general stuff. looking sadly at Alexander. anyway. clearing an area in front of him by moving what appeared to be a partially disassembled firearm. programmed for replication and recovery protocols.” he said. shutting the door behind her. Alex. Alexander.it open. his back sore and his forearm aching. “Look at it like this. climbing up to the ornate girding of the second floor. so sympathetically that Alex couldn’t help but wonder if he was being genuine. Application. Alexander Warner. You would have died again on the operating table. Michael greeted her with a wave. “Are there machines inside you?” “Sure I do. Alex. almost pleaded. my friend. then we’ll see about giving you a look around the campus. For people like us. “They did save you. “I doubt very much that you’ll find it boring.” Michael ordered sternly. “Don’t worry about it too much. to one extent or another. He’d never cared much for coffee. brown eyes got sad. folding his hands behind his head. unable to hide his unhappiness at the thought. “most of the students will probably have a better idea of what’s going on than you do. “Mrs. and get you set up in the dorms.” Michael seemed terribly amused by Alex’s recalcitrance. and the entire faculty. people have a bit more choice in the matter. Nesbit entered with a quick knock and deposited a stack of folders on a recently cleared patch of desk. “Power isn’t everything. right? Electricity alone won’t do it. “Are they still inside me?” The question seemed somehow terribly important. halfway out of his chair and onto his feet.” “What kind of classes?” Alex spoke in monotone. through a heavy walnut door. You got the short end of the stick.” Michael said. it isn’t much good. reassuringly. It’s a bit unusual to be starting at your age. Michael deposited the new stack of paperwork on one of the already daunting piles and then sat back in his swivel chair. piece by piece. almost casually. We would have asked your permission. you see. “Most of the students are back at home. Alex braced himself without knowing what was coming. but most of the time. “Okay. “What exactly have you done to me?” he asked. and move to the other half – we would have done it to you. as he saw only a handful of people moving purposefully from office to office.” “Why would you do that?” He was almost shouting. We are between sessions right now. It was cold inside the building. because of your injuries. right?” “Huh?” “You don’t just build a power plant and then sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labor. Alex?” Michael’s smile folded up and disappeared. leaning forward in his chair excitedly. given the circumstances… “Milk and sugar. “And so do all the students here.” Alex glared at Michael. but you were born that way. were discovered in the world. “It’s not as bad as all that. but you will be at a disadvantage. a new student. right?” “Light bulbs?” His response was nothing more than a weak echo. and you started breathing again within a minute.” Michael said. I’m not sure how realistic your expectations are. Energy alone is meaningless. like everyone else at the Academy. regrettable perhaps. The building appeared sparsely populated. “It’s not a reversible procedure. then up the third staircase on the right. before deciding to try and save his life. He had to fight the urge to scratch at his skin. while Michael led Alex through another door to a smaller back office. I was there. at the blue veins running just underneath the skin. unless you can . “Lots. “Welcome to the Administration building. “You were dead by the time they got you to the infirmary.” Alex looked at his hands. “Do you have them too?” he asked. Alex.” “You’re going to have to explain it. as children or early teens. You need light bulbs. Your heart stopped on the elevator ride up. hands knotted around the arms of his chair. “Two coffees. but I think you’ll find that it’s not that bad once you get the hang of how it all works.” Michael added sympathetically. Right through here…” Michael led him down the hall. “Who told you could do that?” “Sit down. working behind a white-painted desk. but mostly it doesn’t. resting his head in his hands. son. well.” Michael said. but he let the big man keep talking. “I’m afraid so. even after his stay in the hospital. “electricity. if it becomes necessary. you had spinal trauma and massive blood loss. Alex sat down gratefully. then. Mrs. hey. and Alex shivered as he walked inside the enormous central chamber.” Alex said firmly.” Michael replied. I already told you. Michael. “Your heart started beating about twenty seconds after the injection. “No use pretending otherwise. who smiled cheerfully when they walked in. but most of the others. He sat down behind a desk littered with books.” “I don’t get it. you have to appreciate that. And those little machines. okay? We won’t try and teach you anything that you don’t want to know. and wondered. Alex. Michael laughed. not to mention clotting and impacted bone in your forearm. all by itself. son.” Alex was not entirely convinced that he did. please. but something to be expected. How do you take yours. the nanites.” “I’ll do my best to explain. “We had no choice in the matter. then. But yes. because it sounded right to him. We’ve got a few things to take care of here. “I’m going to need to know about it all. but it’s not unheard of. and an aged desktop computer. We’ll have you do some tests.” he decided. But then again. gesturing for Alex to enter. Nesbit. that’s what we’re talking about now. At first. his throat dry and his voice hoarse. nodding wearily toward a comfortable-looking chair in the corner of the room. You’ll find dying pretty difficult from here on out. And even if the doctors had gotten it going again. too. Some of the students here have been raised as part of a cartel. We’ll be able to get you installed at the dorms and enrolled in class right from the first day. There was a heavy-set woman in a purple dress there. and then managed a nervous nod. It’ll probably be a bit hard.” Michael said. into a desk drawer. to start with.” “Why?” “You’ve got power inside you. bewildered. “You’ve got good timing.” Michael continued. watching you bleed out. “You were injected with almost two-ounces of water saturated with billions of particles of nanomachinery. a long expense of alternating black and white marble tile with curled stairways at intervals along the hall.” Michael said thoughtfully. and his big. Alex. for a long moment. but. dressed in typical business attire rather than the school uniform. so we can figure out the proper placement for you. Alex.” Michael said. but I can’t tell you much until we figure out what you can learn.” Something in Michael’s tone resonated with Alex. it’s an absolute necessity. But power isn’t everything…” Alex shook his head. my secretary extraordinaire. Alex. “Do you mind if I start with the hard part first. and into an airy office with an excessive number of potted plants. The hallway went far enough along in a straight line that Alex could not see the end of it. regardless of the injuries. “I won’t bother to repeat the ‘you were dead already’ part. If you’d prefer that I explain myself fully to an unconscious kid. Nobody ever likes hearing this part. son. Could you prepare the paperwork?” She nodded and began tapping away at her keyboard. as Mrs. his smile back. Alex?” Alexander hesitated for a moment. Nesbit nodded and bustled back out to the main room. son. Then he sat back. like you.” Michael said. It made him nervous. since we covered that. as if it were a normal thing. after all. regarding your enrollment.

Just like in the real world. On another. but he suppressed it. We disagree. We’ve got operational needs. Apparently. a lot longer than you probably think. to some extent. “Well. “How best to apply the power we have. eh?” “That’s pretty depressing. you can apply energy. The whole thing sounded absurd. Alex.” Michael protested. Like any school. They are called Weir.” Alex raised his head from his hands to stare at Michael incredulously. “Why?” “We’re no better than they are. he would have been more diplomatic. even in the face of recent experience.” Michael frowned and looked back out the window for a moment. Our network needs programmers. son. we need teachers. and we need the right personnel to fill them. “We are like any other organization. He wasn’t sure at all what Michael was talking about. cartels – and then we scheme. Alex didn’t plan on embarrassing himself any more today.” Michael said. And a lot of it. I mean.make it work for you. but this whole situation had shaken his reserve. you know that right? Physics.” Michael said dryly. because of these machines inside me.” “I can?” Alex almost jumped out of his seat. Operators can. trying to lighten the mood. not exactly.” Alex observed. Our hospital needs doctors. In particular. I’m afraid not. You want me to fight monsters?” Alex could barely keep from laughing aloud. We just have differing opinions on the most effective way to do that. or try to stop others from doing the very same thing. but we won’t know what till we do some tests. And not just them – Operators fight the Witches.” Michael turned away from the window to look at him benignly. Operators do work. whatever they are. “you do. “That’s not what I mean. “Yes?” “Yes. Like I told you earlier. “If a disagreement goes for long enough.” “What kind of needs?” Michael stood up and looked out the window at the trees. right? Can I fly or something?” Michael laughed and picked up his coffee. We create families. “All this power you keep talking about. Fighting monsters. now. just like any other. Perverts ask if they can turn invisible. conflict is inevitable. No different here than anywhere else. you’ll be able to do some things. so he kept his mouth shut instead. Alex shook his head. and the best thing you can think of to do with it is fighting each other? Couldn’t we use it to help people instead?” “Seemed like Mitsuru helped you a lot the other night. and do work. cooling coffee. They spend a great deal of it fighting each other. the named and the nameless.” Alex wasn’t sure what to say to that. shrugging. you know. not if he could help it. we plot out agendas and attempt to advance them. like I mentioned earlier. And I can tell an Operator when I see one.” Alex eyes widened. it’s the same old stupid story – we aren’t enlightened. with an amiable grin. Some of it will be about what you want. war or no. but what you do with it – that’s going to be a bit of a compromise. Our laboratories need scientists and engineers. and hate each other. Alex. With them.” “What’s an Operator?” “Mitsuru is an Operator. that’s one thing.” “So what is the disagreement about?” “How best to protect people.” Michael said by way of an explanation. on one level. and the things that came before man. and is important enough. and sometimes. well.” “I get a choice?” Alex set his mug down on the edge of the desk. people start to take sides. Alex. “I’m just playing with you son.” Michael said. chuckling to himself. I was too. He’d already met werewolves. Alex. Normally. Alex. Operators are trained to affect parameters relating to combat and intelligence work. son…” The ‘son’ was starting to irk him a little. “Yes. that’s predetermined. hoping he had sipped enough to be considered polite. “Weir.” Michael sighed.” “I have no idea what you just said. . it’s not a good-guy bad-guy thing – we all agree that we have a responsibility to protect humanity.” “You mean they fight those werewolf things?” Alex tried to push the conversation in a more prosaic direction.” Michael affirmed. But Operators don’t spend all their time fighting monsters. this place is a lot of things. “Normal people. the top of the clock tower visible above the maples. But I can already tell that stuff isn’t for you. Humanity. We have differences of opinion. “I’ve been doing this a long time. But why fight each other?” “It’s complicated.” “Oh?” Alex didn’t bother to hide the suspicion from his voice. but those nanomachines.” Michael said ruefully. Soldiers fight wars. gaping and incredulous. “The world functions within set parameters. and you need tools for that. a long time ago. fall in love. Neither of them responded to the quick knock and rapid entry and exit of Mrs. “No.” Michael started to sound a lot like a teacher to Alex.” “A soldier?” “No. All the enemies of Central. the green slowly eroding from the leaves. being injected with some sort of mysterious nanomachinery had not changed his opinion of coffee for the better. sure. they’re the tools. the enemies of mankind. Once people start taking sides. I’m glad you asked about flying. Alex. not just a soldier. “That’s good. we can’t resolve those differences peacefully. “To some extent. or worrying about having to. What you are capable of. Something inside you provides the power. Alex. “And. son. the whole spectrum of human experience. modify those parameters. will be up to you. Nesbit. I can see it in your eyes already. now. and reached for the vile. that’s basically a set of rules that we think everything follows.” Michael said.” Alex almost choked on his first sip of too-sweet coffee. An Operator is a field agent. Some of it will be about what we need from you. allegiances. the Outer Dark. “Don’t make it sound so sinister. “I have powers. “but it’s good that you asked. Normal people ask about flying. “Don’t tell me you can’t think of anything worth killing over. so it wasn’t that he didn’t believe Michael. It’ll take some time. in a very mundane way.” “Different enough that you’re willing to kill another?” “Sure. “I think that you want to. what can I do?” Alex asked dubiously. “So. and neither reached for the steaming coffee mugs she left behind.

justly respected by most Operators. “I’m totally serious. Obviously. Her nosebleed was a steady trickle. so she would not have to hear the sound of the chain as it hit the ground. Her accent and style was stereotypically Southern Californian. wearing loose jeans and a blue UCLA sweatshirt. a shapely brunette. Mitsuru. and her body shook with effort.” Mitsuru nodded. okay? We put our asses on the line for you – and I’m not doing you any favors. and at the potential expense of her own sanity and wellbeing. and the Black Door flexed and groaned. I know that you’ll make a great Auditor. She wondered where she had been. Maybe the only one. . and stood in front of Mitsuru. Against the constraints that had been placed on her.” Mitsuru stirred. when she was a child. and knew her to be resourceful. and then fell gently to the floor. folding her arms. a flirt. immaculate simulations. But even in this antiquated format. a fanatic collector of eighties hardcore punk LPs. she wouldn’t have been surprised were it the truth. Her hair was pulled back in a simple ponytail. She ground her teeth against each other and the sound was terrible. of course. “I’m gonna have to take your key away. before she had been diminished and restrained. the coils of the chain stirred. her blood followed her commands. the Black Door was firmly shut. straining against the gossamer bindings that shut it tight. no reserves to tap. turning back to Rebecca.” Rebecca smirked. and the Auditors liaison to the Committee-at-Large. animating it. In that instant. somewhere nebulously between her late twenties and early thirties. but she hadn’t stopped herself. and stood unsteadily. Mitsuru labored to open the Black Door in her mind. instead of hobbling you. and perhaps less-justly feared by almost as many.” Rebecca pushed the sliding door open and dropped her bag just inside the room. Rebecca was already there.” Mitsuru had enough time for a quick shower and change before heading upstairs. a union of blood and steel. she could recognize the overly precise cuts and joins of manufactured probability. tactically brilliant. Now go get yourself cleaned up. Her jaw was clenched. animated by force of will. Mitsuru. after a bombing. “I’ll see you upstairs. moving in concert with her will and volition. “It’s so cute it makes me kinda sick.Eight Blood crawled across the chain. but today he looked positively exhausted. “this whole thing was a set up. “There’s no way it could be anything else. she raged against the Black Door. and who had been stupid enough to try something like that. sweetie? You’re inviting them to decide that what you couldn’t control then. radiating out in coils from where Mitsuru crouched. The chain moved like a living thing. many years ago. “Try not to take things so seriously. as well. okay?” Mitsuru nodded. Mitsuru felt the blood crawl along the chain. Deep inside of Mitsuru. not unkindly. and the chain slid slickly through her hands. Rebecca walked across the room. musical sound. through a headache so severe that it made her feel as if she was looking at the world from a distance. so that Alistair wouldn’t notice that she had reopened the wounds. But like this. “If you can’t do it for yourself. and Mitsuru folded at the knees.” “Why do you say that?” Mitsuru craned her neck. complete with sun-bleached bangs and designer sunglasses. from the door. as well as a Board member. motionless in the center. And then suddenly there was no more. holding her by her shoulders and looking into her red eyes. dark pitted wood damp and sticky with blood. She tried to force it. and Mitsuru noticed the bruises on her neck and jaw for the first time. Alistair looked up briefly as Mitsuru entered. Someone had tried to strangle Rebecca. She’d gotten used to the Etheric network.” Rebecca said. to a Jewish family that fled Buenos Aires for the United States. the wounds reopened.” Rebecca said firmly. Mitsuru could read them. a cold appendage. Twining itself along the chain. but she could not stop. you troublesome bitch. or a particularly convoluted electrical line diagram. It was one of the logic boards that they did in Analytics. and waved her to an empty chair. She’d replaced the bandages on her hands. okay? The world can’t end every day. the dull iron of the heavy fastenings spotted with rust. but some of the older Operators liked to work things out on paper. don’t look at me that way. but Mitsuru knew that she’d been born in Argentina. then do it for Alistair and me. and while Mitsuru didn’t know the whole story. The floor where she had fallen was sticky. you still can’t control. and in that instant. and they stayed that way for a little while. from the mouth of a dark tunnel. In her head. and her blouse was red and wet all down the front. moving of its own accord. her hair damp from the shower. and then she wrapped her own arms around Rebecca’s waist. She was rumored to have once Audited a rebellious cartel completely out of existence. through the smoky chaos of the half-full Operations room to the equally smoky back office that Alistair had taken over. a few of the luminous threads gave way with a high. picking her way disdainfully through the maze of chain and bloodstains. Do you know what would happen if the Committee-at-Large or the Board found out you were trying to use your Black Protocol again? They’d put you down for real this time. “Alistair?” “I knew that would get a reaction from you. And it reflects poorly on us. Mitsuru had been her classmate. Mitsuru found herself unable to look her friend in the eye. Clean this shit up later. She knew it all already. waving over her shoulder. Even when it wasn’t her who would pay the cost for her actions. Rebecca grabbed her abruptly and pulled her close in a rough embrace. Rebecca released her hold and turned to collect her sandals and duffle bag. Mitsuru felt Rebecca’s hand briefly run through her hair. across the desk. to see the chart between them. She cried out. with the most likely branches indicated by size and interval. and a peerless empath. She also knew Rebecca to be a cheerful drunk. it lacked the malleability of the more complete digital models. It looked something like a bizarre architectural schematic. and by far the best friend she’d ever had. red on black pitted metal. like a violin string snapping. leveraging her will against gravity. A sob escaped Mitsuru’s throat. reverberating in her head. and for a moment. no further to reach. She bled freely from her palms. She was a few inches taller than Mitsuru. flowing and intertwining. Alistair almost never looked tired. Mitsuru recalled herself. Mitsuru. She heard the links of the chain jingle as they rose. tapping a cigarette in the ashtray he had reluctantly provided.” she said. “You’ve turned this place into the goddamn bloody chamber again. in muddy fatigues and a black t-shirt soaked in sweat. She was dressed for the field. the whole of it wrapped and sealed in luminous threads that resisted her efforts to throw it open. and recently. but she wasn’t great at it. and there were two smeared red handprints on the white pine flooring. she felt the chain as an extension of herself. kicking her sandals off next to it. and its gleaming. swirling around her like a cyclone of blood-slick iron. and meet us up in his office. too. and then gently pat the back of her head.” Alistair said grimly. Rebecca was Alistair’s lieutenant. She wanted so badly to use the abilities that had been forbidden to her again. against the advice of those who cared about her. biting back tears. “You’ve got to get it together. leaning over a chart laid out in front of Alistair. a two-dimensional representation of a specific probability threading. the structure of her mind buckling with the effort. okay? We have to meet Alistair in twenty minutes. who sat on one end of his desk.

frowning and studying the chart. I heard about the catalyst thing. “It was weird. Someone sorted through the probabilities.” “Neither have I.” Alistair allowed.” Mitsuru looked at the bandages on her hand speculatively. I’m assuming that the same person was responsible for the whole thing. Even if it is clumsy work. look at the whole setup. “I think Gaul’s got it wrong. It isn’t the same thing. we know why the kid is important.” Rebecca said.” Alistair explained patiently. Rebecca opened his office door. the kid deciding to take a walk in the park. the kid. either. I’m not seeing this whole thing as an operation gone wrong.” Rebecca said slowly. Unless I’m missing something important. with designs on the Audits department?” Alistair grimaced at the sound. “Until I hear otherwise.” Mitsuru pointed out. or at least we’ve got an idea why he’d be important to someone. Maybe even call for an Audit. Mitsuru. It took an effort to make certain her response didn’t sound defensive.” Alistair speculated.” he said grumpily. plowing onward while glaring at Alistair. so don’t act like you understand.” she replied. as if she’d done something to be ashamed of. and I died a little when they put her away.” “He’s right. apparently oblivious to Alistair’s disapproval. You fuck this up for Mitsuru and this time whatever happens to her. wholeheartedly. “is it that you think is this clumsy? Which cartel has this kind of power. “You promised me that you would fix this. she never could – you cannot put much faith in her good nature. “I don’t see any sign of struggle or opposition. assuming we’ve read this whole thing right.” Alistair gave her only the barest of nods. who has the resources for this kind of probability manipulation?” “The Black Sun. Mitsuru.” Rebecca leaned close to him.” “It’s possible. too. it sure didn’t pay. North’s arrival. but it’s the only conclusion that makes any sense to me…” Rebecca pulled another cigarette from the pack on the desk. “Anyway. “What? What do you mean?” Alistair looked legitimately confused. I’m hurting her feelings. crushing out her cigarette in the ash tray. Gaul’s taken an interest. Mitsuru?” “Maybe his power as catalyst is limited. and it just wasn’t that great. they were right to do it.” Mitsuru could only look at the floor.” “Really? Why?” “Gaul thinks that this whole thing was a trap.” Rebecca said dryly. You haven’t forgotten that. “but the manipulation is pretty obvious. Alistair. Mitzi. “to draw out Mitsuru.” Rebecca remarked.” “Which one of them. and he takes precedence. the manipulation looks blunt to me. her cheeks burning.” Alistair said. She drew on it with obvious satisfaction. one by one. it all happened because the responsible party wanted it that way. I caught her a few minutes ago. Mitsuru being ordered there. “Look. leaning over the chart.” said Alistair. “Something about this incident bother you?” Mitsuru shook her head. but there might be one or two others. whether she deserves the chances she’s getting or not. as if he were half-asleep. “Maybe we’re coming at this from the wrong direction. his face ashen. and then eliminated undesirable outcomes. I’d be tempted to lay the JFK assassination at their doorstep.” Alistair admitted. “And you’re too easy on her – at worst. But. The structure is haphazard. It must have taken a lot of effort. and none of this ever should’ve happened. it didn’t help.” Rebecca mused.” Rebecca said. Mitzi. codling Mitsuru like that?” Rebecca slapped her hand against the table angrily. But. but didn’t say anything. Mitsuru is my friend. “At this point. you know? But. I think we have to assume that whatever happened.” Alistair smiled thinly. “Don’t get so down. and whoever put this together. then they chose poorly. and lit up. and then blew smoke at the ceiling. For something that must have taken tremendous effort to orchestrate. I’ve got to admit.“What does this mean?” “It’s weird to see you so emotional. It was pretty gruesome.” “Of the major cartels. I love the girl. because you should’ve put an end to it before it ever had a chance to become an issue. I always have. “Maybe it had to be someone like Mitsuru…” “What?” Rebecca crowed. “this whole thing could have been the result of competing factions. Alistair.” Alistair leaned back in his chair. You’ve to admit it doesn’t look very professional. Becca. “If they chose you as a weak link to expose us. “I’ve never felt anything like it. trying to operate her Black Protocol. “So Audits looks good.” Rebecca said bluntly.” he said. Thule. pursuing different agendas…” “I don’t think that’s the case. Whatever they did to her while she was gone.” Rebecca’s voice was soft.” “Remind me to try it sometime. I have to know that you are going to make her do this. alarmed at the obviousness of her lack of composure. we come out of this looking pretty good. eyeing Mitsuru. “Why do you think it was that they wanted Mitsuru? What’s so special about her?” Mitsuru’s throat tightened. the probability tampering. “Well. “They must’ve hacked it. dangerous to everyone around her. hopping down from the desk. “Meier-Stoldt. to get her to violate the Agreement somehow. silhouetted against the light streaming in from the window in the next room. but it’s congruous – I think this is the work of a single party. you know. and make sure you’re the one who does the rescuing. once you take a hard look at it. much less how I knew I could do them. But why was it so important that you be the one to save him. “maybe they did the best job they could. She can’t control it. have you?” Alistair nodded slowly. Alistair. “So we can assume that every aspect of the scenario – Mitsuru. I don’t even know where I got the idea do to all those things. “You’re too hard on her. comes off pretty badly. “You mean their plot hinged on the presence of a dangerously unbalanced lunatic. What do you think you’re risking.” Rebecca said.” Rebecca asked. but you were too bright to lose. “Nothing specific. too. You guys were just fucking. I think he’ll make a formal Inquiry. turning to face them again. You were her mentor.” “You don’t know that. suddenly animated. Alistair.” Rebecca looked at him doubtfully. This couldn’t have been arranged too far in advance. the Weir.” she said softly. “What would you have me do?” “I support you in this rehabilitation project. “I see two clear points of intention – make sure the kid needs a rescue. and put his sneakers up on one corner of the desk. his expression grim. the whole deal – all intentional. it is the other option. Alistair.” “Or they didn’t know how to do it very well. but deadly serious.” Alistair said. “I should have killed you then. “I don’t think I’ll get to any time soon. deadly serious. The mood was so rare on her that he had to look away. but uses it with all the grace of an untrained child?” “None. “She was my best friend.” Alistair said definitively.” Rebecca objected. channeling reality down to one specific set of extremely probable circumstances. shrugging. the Weir. leaning over the chart to point with her cigarette. You let her fail once before. and thereby embarrass the Auditors. “You have a hunch or something Mitsuru?” “Nothing that solid. . his eyes on the desk in front of him. I can’t think of anyone else. and then hesitated there. Alistair. as the door slammed shut behind the fleeing Mitsuru. or it wouldn’t be quite so crude. “I don’t get it either.” Alistair said encouragingly. “I haven’t forgotten that. and I’m holding you to that.” Alistair looked at the probability chart again and scratched his head. I’m skeptical that’s the case. North. “She’s dangerous. Lao Xhin. Have you had a chance to talk with Mister North yet?” “No. “I still think that the North Cartel is an excellent candidate for ‘they’.” “Yeah. “Whatever the case. I’m gonna make damn sure happens to you. shaking his head.

.” She closed the door quietly behind her without looking back.You should remember that.

right? We already know each other. It was cold in the room. “Okay. “I have your permission. who had Mitsuru’s strange red eyes and an even icier demeanor.” “Alex. I’m sure you have a whole bunch of questions. “Would you like to lie down. why is that? Why do I feel like I know you?” “Empathy. Not that it seemed as if it mattered. and arrayed in a rough semi-circle facing him were Michael. “But. speaking so softly that Gaul had to lean forward to hear it. you understand. from where Alex sat. then opened her eyes and smiled at Alex. She patted her crossed legs cheerfully.” Michael said. To the best of his knowledge. “I’m a bit scared. gently closing his eyes. and an older guy named Gaul. “Gaul.” Rebecca smiled and squeezed his hand.” Rebecca said warningly. But. So you feel like you know me. oh my. something a bit exotic about her appearance that he couldn’t place.” Rebecca told Alex. “And today.” Alex said reluctantly. anyone can see that. hon. you already do. Alex?” Rebecca asked. on top of everything else. And I’d like to help make it possible for you to use it. but neither Alex nor Rebecca acknowledged it. he thought. her other hand pressed against his forehead.Nine Alex tried to discreetly wipe the palms of his hands on the sides of his jeans. you know that these things can’t be rushed. “Yeah.” Rebecca folded her legs underneath her. As an empath. this is very strange…” “Rebecca? Is something wrong? Are you alright?” Rebecca nodded shortly. then set it neatly down on his thigh. as if it were in doubt. “I do. But he didn’t plan to find out by hurrying her. “I’m ready anyway. her bare toes pressing against the leg of his jeans. you know. that part might be the whole empath thing. then. nodding. his legs bent over the arm of the couch and dangling a few inches off the ground. He was sitting on an overstuffed leather couch on one side of the crowded office. Alex. I inadvertently make my own emotional state public knowledge. folding his arms across his chest and ignoring Alex’s defiant glare.” “Yeah.” Alex flinched and shifted away from her a bit.” Rebecca lifted his hand up. I’d like to move on to our main business. facing up toward the ceiling. “Michael has told you that you are special. “Are you making me trust you right now. her head cocked to one side. here at the Academy. What do you think about that?” Gaul glanced irritably at his watch. reasonable voice. amused. and I promise I’ll do my best to answer them later. Indian-style. right?” She asked the boy.” “Alistair. but there was something about the way she spoke. right?” Alistair said his name oddly. with a touch of uncertainty. Alex. I want to know whatever there is to know. That was probably a side effect of her empathic abilities. Alex thought. an involuntary Buddha. and two men he hadn’t met before. You know that. and his face had an almost disturbing calm to it. confused. All of them seemed to have nothing better to do than stare at him while Rebecca ‘prepared’. if you are okay with it. and not something to actually be worried about. Rebecca was talking to Alex in a calm. right?” Alex nodded slowly. His eyes were closed. My name is Rebecca. half-smiling. “I guess so. breathing heavily.” she said. Alex couldn’t quite figure her out – her accent was definitely Southern Californian. his eyes half-closed. even when she sat close to him on the couch.” she said.” Rebecca said. the greater the likelihood that someone will notice. “I don’t think you would have flinched away from me if I was making you trust me. You like me because I am extremely likable. The crushed leather cushions seemed equally uncomfortable no matter what part of the couch he sat on. an attractive woman wearing an Angel’s t-shirt named Rebecca.” Alex said. Alex.” . “I don’t want this to become public knowledge. walking across the office to sit down next to him on the couch. “okay. But that didn’t keep Gaul. “I’m an empath. it looked quite a bit as if she’d gone to sleep.” Gaul said. along with the rest of the campus. her voice sounding very animated. “Okay. Whatever Rebecca’s preparations were. staring at them as if they expected to be entertained. right?” Alistair made another coughing. he’s down and I’m in. like she was right now. “I’ve already told you what you need to know about me. her face open and reassuring. And.” she said. as if she were about to say something.” Rebecca scolded. right?” “More like potential. her face flushed and red. He was more than nervous – he felt like an animal on display at the zoo. his eyes already drooping. Alex. smiling beatifically at him. okay?” Alex managed a nod. Rebecca had never lost her temper with anyone at the Academy. choking noise. crowded into the small office.” Alistair said sullenly. and she looked a bit Latino. kicking her sandals off. actually.” “Okay. since Alistair and Gaul had insisted that Rebecca open a window if she was going to smoke. as if he had been washed unnaturally clean of all concerns. “Alex. but didn’t dare interrupt. I’d like to activate those abilities. the effect he has. a pleasant-looking blond man named Alistair. We’re going to need to be very careful about who he comes in contact with. Alex. nodding at him. Who in the hell was this Alistair guy anyway? And why did he look so disappointed in him? He hadn’t even had the chance to do anything yet! “We should start soon. “He doesn’t look like much.” Alistair snorted. She reached forward and ran one hand across his face.” Rebecca said. down where it matters.” she said. “You can use my lap. anyway.” “Hey!” Alex objected. surprised and a bit embarrassed by his honesty. eyes still closed. that’s good. I can barely manage it.” Rebecca said. so that she faced him on the couch. but she didn’t make him nervous at all. “I’ve got some kind of power. “Okay. “I promise to take good care of you. one arm draped across his chest. Your reptile brain already knows everything it needs to know about me. “It’s incandescent. his speech a bit slurred. “Well. or something?” Rebecca chuckled good-naturedly. “Just ignore him. but touching this kid.” he said. her brow wet with sweat. “It’s actually the other way around. You trust me because I am trustworthy. I’m okay. “because on an unconscious level. from treading very lightly when it came to potentially upsetting Rebecca. She was right. though – he found her immediately likable. Rebecca bent over him. “Don’t be a brat. right now. and the longer all of us spend in the same room. Actually.” Alex said. shrugging. He was now feeling pretty resentful. “I’m right here. “Keep ignoring him. This is a tremendous power. I’d like to wake up that power of yours. even in front of the strangely intense audience that sat directly across the room. and find out what you can do. she was pretty. Rebecca smiled at him approvingly.” “It’s cool. and her hand resting casually over his own.” Alex obediently lay his head down in her lap. patting him on the knee. her eyes shut. Alex. I bet you don’t mind if we skip the introductions. but. stick with us for a minute longer. pulling her hair back into a quick ponytail and wrapping it in a rubber band. and clutched it between her own. he doesn’t. Also. Neither of them seemed to be aware of the staring onlookers. and utterly without guile in her frankness.

but not uncomfortable. “Because unless I’m reading this wrong.” Alistair agreed. but without as much immediate pain. wrapped in a red Anaheim Angels-branded blanket. or what?” Gaul considered for a moment.” “Personally. Rebecca.” Alistair said gloomily.” “He isn’t a kid. The manipulation is so widespread. holding one hand to his forehead and wincing. his face calm and composed. “Gaul. her brow furrowed with concern.” Rebecca said. immobile and safe. and then a hint of the soft. resentment of the most general kind. well. rage. “he’s a child and a bomb. the ghost of a smile playing about his thin lips. or whether it actually woke him up again.” “Give me a break.Gaul and Michael both shifted in their seats and leaned forward. and realized he was in a bed. his bloodshot eyes glinting red under the lights.” “No. it’s your fault. “This kid’s been manipulated. Do you smoke this stuff?” Alex shook his head. Whatever.” Rebecca admitted.” Rebecca croaked. guys. putting the lighter to the bowl and taking a long hit. “but not with the depth of feeling that I’d have anticipated. How likely it is that we are going to have a reoccurrence of that sort of behavior?” “Well. On the other side of the bed. too. but he felt too tired to manage it. it isn’t only about where the bomb is. “Never mind. I suspected as much. ignoring Michael and Alistair’s stares.” “Did he actually kill his family?” “She’s an empath.” Gaul pushed his glasses back up on his brow. The room was dim. Do you want me to activate this kid. I think I’m going to need Alistair’s help after all. Alex opened his eyes.” Rebecca said. Maybe Alistair’s right. his dreadlocks shaking with the movement. unless someone had replaced his institutional bedding with high-thread count sheets and added a bunch of unnecessary pillows. “I thought so. bad?” “That’s your fault. Every prominent memory has been altered – maybe even manufactured. this kid has been tampered with. So.” Gaul leaned forward in his chair to peer at Alex. his face creased with effort. Anyway. His head is a terrible mess .” Gaul said mildly. This kid himself. and who’s standing next to it. Nor do I see any kind of introspection – he doesn’t return to these memories. Michael tried to hold you down.” -Alex woke up slowly. but Gaul had worked with children long enough to know that you couldn’t tell the dangerous ones by looking at them. glancing over at Alistair disapprovingly. sitting up against the headboard and attempting to extract his lower body from the tangle of sheets and blankets he was wrapped in.” Alistair shook his head and opened his eyes.” Gaul said mildly. looking at Alex a bit sadly as he did so. a little like waking up after a night of serious drinking. “This makes his presence in the Academy all the more problematic. “We’ve come this far. his awareness returning to him piece by piece. “From the first time I talked to him. hello? I’m getting a bit tired. ask me. as the shades had been drawn across the room’s single window. You’d think these memories were fifty years old. Gaul looked worried. getting a small nod in response. he only had one family. “he’s a bomb. It was warm. here. biting her lower lip.” “Why do I feel so.” Alistair stopped pouting and gave Gaul an inquiring look. Tremendous guilt. he was part of the set up. He appeared to be asleep. A strange girl’s bed.” He shrugged dismissively. Activate him. She held her breath for a moment. “What’s his story? What makes Alexander tick?” “Guilt. He couldn’t be certain whether the sound of a lighter and then a protracted coughing fit merely jarred him from his reverie. as his entire body went slack. searching for words. How could someone have such minimal feeling about such a traumatic event?” “There is guilt. Alex thought briefly about opening his eyes. or damaged. “Did he kill them?” Michael continued his questions with an almost placid patience. Even if young Alex is as you say. pathos. right?” “This is weird. “Barely contained anger. “Are you smoking pot?” Alex asked skeptically. A pair of old-looking bureaus made of dark wood and a dresser topped with a muted television displaying commercials rounded out the furnishings. Michael. I’m not so much concerned as to what he did or didn’t do. He felt strangely calm. but settled back in his chair. “All she knows is how he feels about it. And not his own. “but rather how he feels about it now. motioning for Alex to look away. and then exhaled a stream of dense. There was a long silence.” Gaul shook his head. his body’s litany of aches and pains. he realized.I already have a headache. and whoever was responsible for it. First. “You are a seriously terrible role model. Whatever trap has been laid for us.” Michael said quietly. nodding.” “Um. his head propped up and his arms folded neatly over his stomach.” Gaul nodded. Alex Warner is a part of that trap. and only a sliver of the late afternoon sun made its way across the giant four-post bed that occupied much of the room’s available space.” Alex paused.” “What? How is that possibly my fault?” Rebecca shrugged and reached over to the sideboard. and his presence in the strange bed. “Let’s find out what has been left to us. in the softness and the cozy warmth of the bed. Tampering doesn’t even begin to describe the extent of it. when we activated you. I don’t even know how to make a determination between what’s genuine and what’s been messed with. “um. almost blissful. lying there.” he said. You want to find out something about that kid. retrieving a heavy blown-glass pipe and a cheap plastic lighter. his own sweat. “They are too faded for a kid his age. definite. his hands hanging loosely between his legs. Then he became aware of smells: some kind of incense. Extensively. anyway. Perhaps he fell back asleep then. red-faced.” Alistair said. he felt the soft cotton sheets bunched in his hands. “There is no doubt of it.” Alistair said scornfully. “Fine. unmistakable scent of a girl’s hair coming from the pillow beneath his head. Maybe you need a better telepath. It’s about when it goes off. “You started freaking out. all of what you’d expect. . not even in dreams.” Rebecca’s reply was prompt. Alistair. He didn’t appear to be dangerous. “Be a drag. his eyes still hidden by his hand. “She’s right. “that night Mitsuru found him – it wasn’t only the circumstances that were manipulated. making a face at Alex. skunky smoke at the ceiling. only languidly aware of his aching body. too. Alistair gave Gaul a challenging glare. Alistair closed his eyes. “That’s enough. his smile sad and reluctant.” Alistair affirmed muddily. he was in a girl’s bed. his brown hair smoothed back from his forehead where Rebecca rested her hand. “Hard to say. “Do it. And they are so hazy…” “They must’ve been damaged by the manipulation. “He certainly thinks so. A tremendous sense of unfairness. It seemed pleasant.” Rebecca said. but I can’t find any specific memory of it. He seemed to have picked up a headache to accompany his body’s various pains at some point.” Rebecca allowed. First. regardless – Alex was jolted from his placid contemplation into awareness of his situation. while Alistair rolled his eyes. The effect was the same. “I have a headache. Rebecca hacked and coughed sheepishly. but Michael had a look of grim satisfaction on his face. With a certain amount of trepidation.” he said softly. He was lying on his back. while Michael and Gaul looked from Rebecca to Alistair and then back.

it’s a pretty simple procedure. he figured he was no worse off than when he had woken.” Rebecca said. After all. right? And the further down I pushed. “that thing inside me. Rebecca? The Black Door. Sometime when I’m . and he thought for a moment about asking for another hit. then. I had to bliss you out.and when that didn’t work. burning like sunlight refracted in the heart of a gemstone. and then noticed that the show was back on TV. from inside of her lithe body. still half underneath the blankets. In balance. He could see the boy propped up against the pillows on the bed. Why not?” Rebecca chuckled and handed him the pipe and lighter. shuddering slightly at the memory. He sat up gingerly.” Rebecca turned to face him. hitting the mute button and silencing a detergent ad. why I am in your room. if not exactly wasted. Technically.” Rebecca said breezily. eat bugs and shit. “Rebecca?” “Shh. shit. and he wondered how long he’d been staring at the ceiling. But when he looked inside of himself. and then looked over at Rebecca in surprise. maybe even concerned. you little bastard. a telepath would work almost as well as an empath. You disintegrated that thing on a molecular level. You should like it – half these girls spend the show making a concerted effort to show America their tits. too. Nicest way I know to put somebody down. wondering if the dialogue on this show had always been so vapid. that was a very good idea. glazed eyes glued to the television.” Rebecca smirked at him. and then gave her his best sheepish. You were providing me with power to do so. the bowl burning cherry red. panicked. it was like his perspective changed somehow. “That catalyst effect of yours is a pretty unpredictable thing.” Alex rolled his eyes. he could see a great Black Door. all he could see was darkness.” Rebecca looked a bit uncomfortable to Alex as she spoke. He figured he’d already embarrassed himself enough as it was. encompassed by it. Every step I took accelerated this process. Sure. I was using my power to improve your access to your own. “So. anyway. only to be cut off by Rebecca waving at him to shut up. Give it a chance. and then it occurred to him that the random drug tests he’d been subjected to for so many years that they had become routine were unlikely to ever happen again. almost dull-witted expression. or if he was just stoned and tired.” Alex squinted at the television. glassy-eyed smile. can you feel the Black Door?” Alex intended to tell her no. “but you kinda lost your shit there for a minute. but it’s… intoxicating. He didn’t want to interrupt Rebecca’s explanation. what’s that. “So. “I’d had that thing for years. “Sorry ‘bout that. you know?” “I can’t believe that you watch this crap. even if they did appear to be mostly on the fake side. he decided to wait for commercial. “Well. you know? It’s all this power. except for being tired and a little sore. “Hush. And leather couches last forever… oh. pulsating out from underneath her t-shirt and flannel pajama bottoms. Alex? They make them do some pretty messed up stuff. and then gave up on the idea almost immediately. you’ll just have to deal. who he thought was some kind of school councilor. The Academy probably didn’t have any such policy. her eyes bloodshot and glazed. As it turns out. And within it. he figured. “You owe me a new couch. So many memories. “It was clean. it started to affect me. or whatever you called it?” “Not whatever. then you’re going to have trouble scoring invites in the future. “Where is that fucking remote?” “What?” “Aha!” Rebecca pulled the remote from underneath the pillow next to her. It’s my job. putting one hand on his shoulder. he had to admit that she was right about the boobs on display. He could see his vague. Alex. That’s what it is. and he wondered what about the situation bothered her. so he decided to deal with it for now. Rebecca’s hand rested on his forehead. the more intense the effect became. helpfully pointing at the TV with the remote.” she said.” she said. then grinned and pounded him on the back approvingly. “Guess I’ve been kind of a headache today.” “What? What does that mean?” “Just that. settling back against the pillows behind him. but then decided to let it go. from a discrete distance but with greater clarity than he had ever imagined possible. as if he was observing himself as a third-party. rolling her eyes. When Alex became aware of himself again. She hit a button and the TV’s speakers squawked to life. Normally. the pipe still at her lips. Alex managed to stop coughing. patting down the bedding around her. the closer I came to activating you. her expression serious. “’Survivor’ is on. “Though I guess I should warn you that if you make a habit of destroying girl’s beds. asshole. blowing smoke at him. but Gaul likes to have an empath on hand. even for one of you rare types. but his headache had receded a bit. he was lying on his back. I don’t need you destroying my bed and my couch in the same day. obscurely embarrassed. I’m an empath. “Okay. “You sure you don’t want any of this?” Alex looked warily at the bubbled blue glass pipe. “Alex.” Rebecca shrugged and gave him a goofy grin.” Rebecca cleared her throat. “You are such a baby. making Alex acutely aware of how thirsty he was. Knock yourself out. “Famous last words.” “Yeah. “You ever watch this show. bliss?” “State of semi-conscious ecstasy. Alex.” Rebecca said cheerfully. “Are you serious – ” he began. huh?” “Don’t worry about it. heavy lacquered wood and tarnished silver hinges and door handle. “So. and we are in my room. but it was still hard for him to formulate the questions he wanted to ask. he could see concern mixed with resignation. a darkness he knew was absolutely frigid. and then reached for the glass of water on the bedside table beside her and drank deeply. you little shit. He started to refuse again. wanting to ask what happened. Alex. It’s a big fucking Black Door in your head. his long hair hanging down in his eyes. His eyes were open. why take on a fight he was guaranteed to lose? Anyway. the whole thing coated with a generous layer of white frost. Rebecca prized the pipe from his limp hands while he coughed. So. was trying to get him stoned. so.” Alex grumbled. “By the time I’d completed all the preparations. remember. The moment I put you under. She laughed and tousled his hair.” “And you made me lie down on it? That’s gross.” “Sorry.” Alex considered pressing her for answers. cool and soft. I do. Gaul said I was glowing. if Rebecca. He didn’t feel stoned at all. and knew that she was afraid that something bad might happen. uh. He waited patiently for the commercial break. Rebecca?” Rebecca turned to glare at him. caught his breath.” “Besides destroying my couch? Well. “you have until the commercials end. “I thought I had it under control. punching mute and turning to face him again. he figured.” Alex felt a bit groggy.” she commanded. in case things go wrong. But then. Inside of her. Wisely. what happened when you activated me? I mean. I suggest that you try not to think about it too much. uh. Or perhaps it was simply that he had too many.” she said. right?” Alex barely managed to get the bowl lit before he started coughing.” Alex paused. that he didn’t know what she was talking about. We’d formed a closed loop.” Alex muttered.” Rebecca said. his throat raw and his mouth filled with spit. but I guess we did a little bit too good of a job.” Rebecca smacked at his head playfully. He had even opened his mouth to do so. And his head really was starting to hurt. though. On the face of the woman sitting beside him in the bed. It was like a friend of mine. he saw a multifaceted light. I don’t feel any different. “Fuck it. we didn’t have much trouble activating you.

Hush. “it’s probably going to be hard on you. “Alex. what does that –?” Rebecca put one finger up to his lips without even looking. scheme and preen for the cameras. it bothered him. still staring at the TV. “I’m cool. and wondered how long it had been since he’d last watched television. Survivor. her other hand hunting for the mute button on the remote. or maybe he was a little stoned. so. Rebecca was too easy to be around. but he was too comfortable.” Rebecca said quietly. her eyes already glued to the television. How does that make you feel?” “As long as I can get a date out of it. but you’ll always have to wonder about their intentions. Now everyone will know who you are before they meet you. and for some reason. after all. “Boys. He found himself raptly watching a bunch of strangers plot.” . you know? Up until now people have treated you like you didn’t exist. “Shh. or like they wished you didn’t. I can do a better job of explaining your situation.” she said.” Alex said with a sheepish smile.feeling better.” Rebecca gave him an amused looked. and then rolled her eyes.” She looked at Alex with something that looked suspiciously like pity. “Okay. and they’ll probably be extra nice to you. “TV show.” Alex tried to watch in resentful silence.

The first. “Pity. howled and then ran off to who-knows-where. I got the distinct impression that he had seen one. no. then. I must object. It would have made quite the trophy. and. Mr.” Gaul admitted reluctantly. North nodded again and turned for the door. They are meant to be impartial. the man was simply boring. that you won’t need anything further from me?” Gaul glanced up. North. sir. He felt like he was being fed something. and you will be called before the Committee to explain your rationale. even if he decided to push him again. then?” Gaul said darkly. my only crime was rescuing a boy who is now a student here. shuffling the papers on his desk into completed and incomplete piles. Eventually. Gaul knew what he was going to say before he started. along with one of your Operators. Director. sir! Certainly. “That I simply happened to be in the area on personal business may be a wildly unlikely coincidence. Mr.” “And the silver Weir.” he said. at the time. Aoki wasn’t it? After she shot the thing in the head. after your Operator. I mean?” Mr. “Never would have suspected such a thing. Director. North crossed his legs and looked thoughtfully at Gaul. “absolutely terrifying. and that in some regions. leaning forward as he spoke.” Gaul tried to digest the information. pen poised above the document laid out in front of him. I take it. before I could stop it.” he said. After an hour talking in circles with the somberly dressed man.” Gaul held on to the glare a moment longer. “But if I may ask. and moved on. but it is a coincidence that saved one of your people’s lives. investigating these incidents would proceed more smoothly and. helpless in the face of total apathy. by all means. “you have managed to get two of your Auditors onto the Board itself. “And yet here we are. on the face of it. squinting with the effort of remembering. and a rather unique protocol.” “If you feel that you must do so. and private.” Mr.” Gaul said carefully. from the way he talked about it. after a brief hesitation. He changed subjects. ignoring Gaul’s stormy expression. and then decided that he couldn’t stomach it. was Mr. but Rebecca told him that if you actually got him to talk that he was a bore. “You are referring to the proposal in which we add two more Auditors. North. “That defeats the purpose of the Auditors in the first place.” “An Auditor a piece for the Hegemony and the Black Sun. and had found it quite effective on the Academy staff. I might add. “Odd that you should mention it. North. ambiguous nod. “I believe it was as an aside to anecdotes being shared regarding the Weir hill tribes.” Gaul fixed the man with his best unsettling stare. He felt strongly. Gaul sighed. were the Committee-atLarge to approve the candidates the Board submitted for the vacant Auditor positions over the last two years. having already done so to a panel of my peers.” North offered mildly. irked him to no end. so he elected against trying. and he’d never liked handouts. nothing that I must disclose to you.” he said. when he asked me if I had seen one. he was inclined to agree. I assumed that it had been killed. since you are certain to ask. some might be moved to call the Board less than impartial when it comes to approving your own recommendations. he’d thought him to be reserved and observant. What more can I offer you?” “And the nature of the business?” Gaul asked doggedly. “Certainly. then. You must understand that though your motivations may be pure.” Mr.” North paused and looked contemplative. but only when it cooperated with him. impede on your time and liberty less.” “Had no idea they would be there.” North said. “A silver Weir.” Gaul said. if not the letter. hoping that he didn’t sound as tired as he felt. sir.” Mr. if he turned out to be . Mr. and in such a pitiful backwater.” Mr. “Mr. then stood up part way. Mr.” “I resent the implication that the Committee-at-Large is not capable of making an impartial selection. as judged by the Committee-at-Large.” North said sincerely. It failed. or violated a tenant of the Agreement?” Gaul tried a cold. and recently.” North offered reasonably. Director. no less. the explanation you’ve provided for your proximity to the incident strains credulity. He asked me at the last Hegemony Executive Committee meeting. I have heard that he shows some promise. He’d actually practiced it. “A compliment. selected by the Committee-at-Large rather than the Board?” “The very same. long silence. as if he were reading the weather report. Director. then I will be forced to lodge a complaint. surely. Rebecca was right. head of the Terrie Cartel’s operations in Asia. that the silver breed were not as rare as was generally thought. Even the mention of the Committee-at-Large. something the Committee had never been willing to do. I had thought it dead. looking back down at the paperwork. if my sources are correct. North gave him a short. North continued blithely. of course. “Tell me about the Weir. returning to his paperwork. I would have at least concocted a believable story. Gaul had only met him a few times before. North said.” Gaul said carefully. North. “the beast had a magnificent pelt. that they could still be found if you looked hard enough. you should know by my reputation that if I wanted to deceive you. and then gave up on it. “You may inform the rest of the Committee-at-Large that I will consider their proposal. After all. That I refuse to disclose private matters does not mean that I have something to hide. “but you are the second person to ask me that question recently. that you are either an exceptionally dangerous bureaucrat or a surprisingly genteel Operator.” Mr. I had dealt with most of the rest of the pack when the thing pulled itself up out of the mud. Central’s own representative body and the theoretical counterweight to his own authority as Director.Ten “Director. “Have you ever encountered one previously?” Gaul asked. Gaul approved of democracy. “which part of my actions in this affair do you feel jeopardized the safety of Central. looking vaguely interested for the first time since Gaul had met him. that is a violation of the spirit of the Agreement. North. pausing with his hand on the door knob. at various Hegemony events where his attendance was expected. to invoke a reaction of any kind in Mr. at least in theory. He is named Alexander Warner. pausing in his paperwork to fix North with another practiced glare that was wasted on him. but Mr.” “You are putting me in a position. Mr. however. “where my only option to compel your cooperation would be to expand the scope of a potential Audit of the matter to include your private business. “On the contrary. after reading a book on human psychology that discussed conversational gambits. brushing his dark brown hair back from his forehead and looking huffy. North scratched his head and then offered Gaul the faintest ghost of a smile. particularly Cambodia and Vietnam. appear evasive. Director – I was wondering about the boy.” Mr. An Inquiry? Is all of this truly necessary? As I recall. exasperated. North?” “Terrifying creature. Still. shuffled his papers. Mr. North said.” “The Inquiry was deemed necessary because your answers. yes? You said yourself you need more Auditors. I thought it odd. Please keep yourself available for potential future inquiries in this matter. If you instigate an Audit into this matter. Cruces. “Not at the moment. “Personal. Mr. North’s regular. “I must say. as I recall. he didn’t think that he would get any more out of North. he thought. not looking like he resented much of anything. then by all means Director. North seemed unperturbed.” North said pointedly. North. Surely it would be a mutually beneficial arrangement. “I believe that I speak for the Committee-at-Large when I say that we would be happy to expedite approval of the candidates for the vacancies in Audits if you would be willing to review our proposal to expand the selection process for Audits personnel. “I would hope that this experience would color your thinking on the subject. placid face. Tell me. North smiled his faint replica of a smile and folded his hands before he spoke. You never told me.

this morning. Mitsuru saw where he was coming from. eyes just slid off her. I did not. He preferred negotiation to violence. a bored salesgirl talked loudly into her cell phone. What could have made the Terrie Cartel think it would go any differently for them? By the time they reached the corner. casually dressed. strolling in the sun. Mr. Observation on previous days made his most probable destination the little park a few blocks up – he often had his lunches there. but she was in San Francisco. The black static that had been eating at her thoughts since the whole thing in the park had lifted some. noticing a brash smile from a handsome Mexican teenager on a skateboard. and learning from their response. . as loudly as possible. a grey-haired man in his late fifties. seemed not to notice her. Debts had to be paid. been a very good girl. and was in the process of jaywalking to the other side of the street. and they plowed eagerly through groups of tourists and teenagers on summer break on their way to the train station. these days. Mitsuru hung back. her luck was finally changing. and couldn’t come up with anything. so he shouldn’t be able to pay much attention to her. She slowed her breathing. The target was only an E-Class Operator. Alistair had no choice. there had been talk about banning cars on Market. She couldn’t understand how she’d ended up on the kill team – Alistair wasn’t one to indulge in revenge. on occasion. so she figured she could do better than the Starbucks franchises that she had seen on virtually every block. and it felt good to her to be out in the sunlight – something she had taken for granted. and Mitsuru informed Alistair. her appearance shifted. which Alistair claimed had been built by a donation from Enron. but in this case. Good job. clearly to keep an eye on her. The important thing to him was that someone had attacked a member of the Audit staff. They stayed as close to the target as was possible on the lightly crowded street. It was warm. At the edge of the municipal railroad tracks she reversed herself. and then went down the same stairwell herself. while moving casually across the walkway. He was a slow walker. though – working her way through the crowd. I’m behind him now. though she would have never admitted it. “No. heading back toward Justin Herman Plaza. clearly hot and sweating underneath his heavy black coat. The crowd was thinner. even though she didn’t subscribe to that philosophy personally. Maybe. ambling in the same general direction as the target. Mitsuru doubted it. and after a moment’s consideration. then. not since the thing in Bangkok had gone so very wrong. and that the rest of the world would be watching. with affiliated commercial firms in Paris. Breaking heads was her favorite part of being an Operator. Jakarta and San Francisco. Mitsuru had not. even when it was consensual. he needed to make it very apparent to anyone thinking about trying the same thing that it would be a very. She hadn’t been assigned any wetwork since they’d reinstated her. She’d started a subroutine when she’d seen the target. Mitsuru moved with the crowd. but Alistair often knew strange things like that.worth all the trouble. and therefore rigged for monitoring. the last cartel to be proscribed by Central. Mitsuru wasn’t one to lie to herself. and she felt calm and in control. They were small-time. but she’d only had a few opportunities to do so. it was late enough in the afternoon that the luckiest of the office workers had managed to sneak out early. along Market and then across the wide pavilion that adjoined the Embarcadero. Alistair was her friend and mentor. they had made significant inroads into Southeast Asia. In fact. No. Macau. and Alistair caught up behind her after a dozen steps. then. She didn’t know what had gotten into Gaul. At Spear Street the target descended to street level. on the second level of Embarcadero One. and she found herself struggling to hang far enough behind him to not stand out. He’d wrapped her in obfuscation and deception protocols. into the semi-enclosed mall of One Embarcadero. elbowed aside by a tiny Chinese woman clutching a bag of what looked to be lemon grass. working primarily in transportation. Okay. the clock tower of the gleaming white Port Building also considerably changed since the last time Mitsuru had seen it. She wanted a cup of coffee. Not a good idea to let her mind drift. She’d been authorized to use force. but she could have kissed him. a modern glass combination of condos and retail space. there were too many people who owed him favors. localized primarily in Geneva for the last thirty years. The target. But it was still best to be careful. There was something about telepathy that was so intrusive. once. with a reputation for unsavory human experimentation.” Gaul didn’t even look up from the document he was annotating. and I’ll meet up with you there. pausing to look at the chalk drawings of the Golden Gate and Marin Headlands displayed by one of the vendor’s stalls at the plaza. boss. Her disguise was purely Etheric. Mitsuru slid her arm through Alistair’s. even if she was only a provisional Operator. as far as Alistair was concerned. Mitsuru wondered what Terrie could have possibly been offered that would have made conflict with Central seem worthwhile. given how hard a look Central had been giving her operational logs. nonetheless. She had new priorities. and now. with the strange. she thought brightly. and how Rebecca and Alice Gallow had Audited them into extinction. Alistair had avoided requesting many sanctions since he had become Head Auditor. In recent years. dry fountain at the far end. but he had been up late last night. I’m a couple blocks over. the target had made it most of the way down the block. Outside of a few groups clustered around some round metal tables. the consequences of such an attack had to be so dire that they would outweigh any potential gains. by her own admission. picking her way through crowds of shoppers from the nearby farmer’s market and clusters of shirtless skateboarders. It had to be Gaul. according to the workup she’d gotten from Analytics. on the second level. wrapped in a dark coat. not with Gaul’s protocols around her. in light of her application to Audits. But there she was. And the idea of Alistair knowing what she thought about him made her feel very vulnerable. when he’d eliminated the Weir. The sun was bright above the Embarcadero. a sanction order for an entire cartel falling right into her lap. the last time Mitsuru had been in San Francisco. She appreciated his concern. he considered it a vice. She waited until he had turned a corner. and then nudged Alistair. and until she was passed by a battered white Dodge van turning onto Spear Street. She hit the street. the area was moderately clear. and as far as she could tell. Today felt good. heading toward Spear Street. discreetly and at intervals. hearing Alistair’s voice in her head creeped Mitsuru out. She rode the escalator up one level. Behind the window. counted to five. smiling back. very bad idea. I’ve got him. Alistair had made it clear during the briefing that the Terrie Cartel were probably only the front for the whole scheme – North hadn’t left much behind. and that was it. installed by Gaul before the start of the job. reputations maintained. their disguises morphing to become complementary – suddenly. blinking at the sun. She forced herself not to look at the mark. she mused.” -Traffic was light on Market Street for a weekday. Mitsuru got a bit nervous. Let me know where you hit street level. She thought for a moment. though all of their previous misbehaviors had been deemed minor. To be effective. She acted like it was an operational necessity. didn’t bother Mitsuru in the slightest. but then she remembered that she was on mission. The Terrie Cartel was a relative newcomer to the Hegemony. She thought of Alistair. and until she’d gotten this job. She saw the target almost immediately. mostly of the extralegal variety. For a moment. she suspected they might have done it. two very good reasons he would not have brought Mitsuru along for this job. Everyone had heard stories about the Al-Hajra. but it hadn’t taken Alistair long to run down who had put out the contract in the first place. the way Mitsuru saw it. pretending to examine the display of truffles in the shop window in front of her. all of a sudden. North. and found his presence reassuring. The sidewalks were moderately crowded. Mitzi? Even after all these years. drawing up the paperwork for the sanctioning of the Terrie Cartel. and a foolish one. they looked like a college-age couple. That Alistair had decided to manage the operation himself. she considered reaching through the uplink for the answer. she hadn’t half-realized how much she’d missed it.

specializing in an energy manipulation protocol. had gone very wrong. of course. Alistair looked at her for a moment. or nervous. outlined in the luminescent rose lettering of a ballistics protocol. For Mitsuru. and took a good look at the analytical projections and the tangle of probabilities surrounding the event. a puddle of chili sauce and rice noodles in the gutter next to him. The barrier protocol Gaul had sheathed her in was tough. and then minimized the impact of the risks they deemed unavoidable. He’d affiliated with the Hegemony before graduation. They were a little off. Mitsuru knew that he was in telepathic contact with Central. suffocating in its intensity. a living node on the Etheric network. She looked over at Alistair. fire and vapor. feeding her numbers. A quick check with the network confirmed that this restaurant was one that he normally frequented. his mental communication was shouted. Something. They eliminated the risks that they could.S. Mitzi! Forget about questions – I’ll interrogate the corpse. but it was not up to the task of blocking a bullet that large and fast at such close range. Alistair was usually unshakable during field ops. or he might well finish her. around another corner. but the adrenal rush of a combat operation about to execute had hit her. of course. Mitsuru activated her uplink to the network. There was no difficulty. Yes. rejecting a number of other knives before settling on this one. Still. she could make an acceptable curry. he’d been activated at puberty and trained at the Academy in operations and intelligence. She was a skilled field tactician. Mitzi? According to the projections. It was clear that the target hadn’t been expecting the Isolation Protocol. capable of making strategic decisions on the fly. skilled in counterintelligence and espionage. The slug seemed huge as it wound its way . He’d acted first as an enforcer. I still say we engage at the park. that plan had gone out the window. the product of a small smithy in rural Arkansas that had produced only a handful of knives before shutting down sometime in the Seventies. No. headed for the park. Mitsuru knew. gradually working his way up the ranks to become the Chief Security Officer for the cartel. Mitsuru and Alistair now appeared to be an elderly Asian couple. or worse. While she was waiting. It was a powerful. querying the network’s servers. which Mitsuru’s observation protocol advised her indicated a firearm. the last part catching up with her. An orphan. Not many outcomes? There hadn’t been any. She felt the Isolation Protocol cut them off from the city around them. discreetly altering their appearance again to avoid suspicion. While they waited for the target to finish buying his lunch. Analytics guessed that she could close to within three meters before the target became aware of her. high-caliber chrome plated affair. then processing the downloaded probability matrix. but his face told her that he had not invoked the field. his lunch thrown to the sidewalk. as if she didn’t know from experience that it was unlikely that he kept a bastard sword in his coat pocket. That meant doing it close. and accessed the latest probability projections from Analytics. She wasn’t just giving up on the operation. She was running by the third step. She didn’t bother with two Sig 9mm pistols that were strapped to the small of her back. and her own capabilities. pulling a gun from inside his coat pocket. while her Etheric implants worked. Her uplink was active. She was a trained intelligence operative. her heart. And. She’d been picky. Wait. Mitsuru dispensed with caution. The gun discharged. and she could see the bloom of hot gases as they escaped the pistol. The hasp was wrapped in worn leather. as well as becoming their top field agent. before she took her first step toward the target. Mitsuru took a wrong step. but a quick refresh before things got heavy couldn’t hurt. She and Alistair paused to admire the dresses on display at a nearby boutique. For a moment. and it startled her a bit. now. with a combat team. She did not need to know. low-mass impact of a bullet. nestled in the small of her back. had always been here – in the field. Why isn’t he worried. At four meters. demanding answers. one more than capable of stopping her handgun rounds long enough for the target to escape. and found what they were looking for. a chill running down her spine. in time to watch the target walk into a Thai takeout place across the street from the park.This is wrong. as well as the target’s dossier. either – he was scanning the streets around him cautiously. originally from France. Her hands drifted back of their own accord. At five meters. citizen. His pistol was a large. her balance badly skewed and her leg giving way beneath her. she didn’t see many probable outcomes that left him alive. a plastic bag in one hand. designed to inflict massive tissue damage. having lost its sheen decades ago. when the mood struck her. The barrier had been designed to absorb the high-energy. and then his eyes went distant. grey-haired and dressed like tourists. or he wouldn’t have gone running off in the direction they came. who appeared to not yet be able see her. or to skip their business inside it. The world became smaller – there was only the environment around her. not when her chances at becoming an Auditor could well ride on a positive outcome. And then. Mitsuru had a number of talents. and she hadn’t even had a chance to kill anyone yet. She wasn’t about to take the chance that this job would be reassigned to someone else. When he spun to face her and pointed it. trying to close the distance between them. His name was Luke Estelle. The knife she clutched was as long as her forearm and broad. Nor did she bother to respond – Alistair knew she’d understood. Mitsuru thought. Mitsuru noticed the target leaving the restaurant. warning her that subtle atmospheric distortions around the target indicated the presence of a barrier protocol. She’d read it before the operation. she put it all out of her mind. but the weight and balance were perfect. obviously irritated by her pestering. and a competent field medic. Alistair looked over at her and raised his eyebrow inquisitively. and through it Analytics relayed information. Are you suggesting we abort? Mitsuru shook her head. and it fit her hand like it belonged there. Her calculations were grim and infallible. Those trapped inside the field simply fell into a sort of trance. It wasn’t much to look at. She moved for the target. almost froze. just hours ago. With his experience. in this particular scenario. away from the target. so it would be useless against a physical assault. what was happening behind them that had Alistair so worried. time slowed. she wondered what had happened to the rest of team. during operation prep. Alistair chuckled and hurried her along. probably loaded with hollow-point rounds. the barrel of the silver pistol seemed enormous. back toward Market Street. She hadn’t felt this good in years. Also. She’d intended to shoot him originally. close and ugly. if I have to. But her strength. and washed away most of her nervousness. She would be too slow. It took no effort. given that the kill team had three Operators and one Auditor. and Mitsuru had fallen in love with it the first time she’d picked it up. One hand hovered near his coat pocket. Alistair? Why aren’t they preparing for some kind of retribution – the cartel has to know its coming. and had been recruited by the Terrie cartel as an Operator almost immediately after. For a moment it seemed certain that she would. But. She accessed her uplink again. odds. there is a now almost a six-percent chance that the target survives this encounter and escapes capture. charging across the crowded street. But we should be careful. Mitsuru quelled her impulse to ask why. next to his discarded Thai food. heavy and definitive. Mitzi! Alistair was already moving. age unknown. her target. even if she didn’t fall. the man started and turned in her direction. escape. Alistair shrugged half-heartedly. relying on the concealment protocol to hide her from the target. Auditors did not take unnecessary chances. now that he knew that something was wrong. In the shop window. eyes open but unseeing. Her hands closed around the handle of the knife that was sheathed beside them instead. Take him. Anyone outside the field suddenly found compelling reasons to walk around it. Mitsuru needed to be certain that she could finish the target before he struck. Alistair? Alistair looked at her reflection in the window. He was excited. the pain in her ankle sharp and dismaying. likelihoods. naturalized U. and her ankle turned. Mitsuru still felt a bit edgy. with a tapered point and a razor edge. Mitsuru knew it would be a mistake to underestimate him. Mitsuru almost tumbled into the gutter in front of him.

The Isolation Protocol was still active. coating her arm with a slick layer of fluid. she felt a strange calm. reflected in the glass of the shop windows. a profound regret. the ground beneath her feet collapsing from the force of the broken protocol. captivated by the twined agony and euphoria that flooded her body. She wondered. Mitsuru could see it in his eyes – surprise. Mitsuru almost laughed then. and the trail that it left behind was wet and thick. hardening. in the second before she dragged the knife across his throat. and then finally bowing to the superior force. She couldn’t dodge a bullet. As she passed by the target in a barely controlled dive. she seemed to have company. There were at least half a dozen of them. to avoid it hitting her in the chest. there was the look. For a moment. That he would die. but it did not go flying with the chunks of skin and bone – Mitsuru reached for it. Mitsuru promised herself that they would not. still in midair. caught between inertia and Mitsuru’s will. a few more of the luminous threads that bound the blood-soaked wood gave way. his jugular exploding in a warm spray. and with a sound like violin strings snapping. her back foot planted sideways. Her heart sang as the blade passed his guard. pulling his chin up and away from his throat. dislocating at a troubling angle. but she had no time to wonder where Alistair found the strength. cutting smoothly through the target’s gun arm. even her. as they hit the Ether like a wall. without her noticing. drenching Mitsuru’s face and chest in cloying stickiness. Then she realized that Alistair had somehow stepped behind her. her arm was held in flux. a burning line drawn through the muscle. and buried somewhere beneath. fear.” he said. her blood flowed backwards. moaning sound. . strategies. The bullet passed cleanly through the bicep of her right arm. And then. She wondered what had happened. hanging useless. Blood was pouring from her arm. But as she prepared her final protocol. She reached toward the Black Door in her mind. partially disintegrated. which the regret was for – a lover. but tended to pass right through tissue. and she adjusted her stance slightly. Mitsuru could feel it crawl across her skin. and that she could do little to defend herself from them. The knife was truly a marvelous blade. Laughing. but she could try and control where it hit her. mangled at the bicep and separated at the shoulder. Her body twisted under the pressure of the outside forces. to change the outcome. a tidal force. his other hand palm down on the head of the target’s corpse. and then turned to look behind her. a child? It didn’t matter. fighting momentum. as she forced herself to land on her feet. either. Mitsuru hung in the air. Her implant crunched numbers. leaning against the Black Door in her mind. In the last few seconds. That there was nothing he could do. She felt the familiar pinpricks of pain and pleasure as her mind tried to disintegrate under the pressure. After the carnal exultation of the wound and the killing. brilliant moment. becoming an exoskeleton. no one that she knew of could.” It was only then that noticed that not all of the blood was hers. “Mitzi. then gave way to momentum. the shockwave destroying the tissue all around the wound. ruined arm trailing behind her. He’d telepathically erased himself from the minds of everyone in the area. drawing up power from within. He swept her up in his arms and ran on. cradling Mitsuru with one arm. and her consciousness disintegrated against it. breathing hard. His eyes went wide for a moment. to defend himself. “We are out. then. a rush of pain and pleasure running up her spine. severing it just below the elbow. They were perfect for tearing through barrier protocols. dragging him down to the ground with her. but their Etheric signatures were massive. It wrapped around her arm like a cocoon. He held her effortlessly in his arms. and how drained Alistair actually was. His throat offered no resistance. Her uplink churned out numbers. she had lost her link to Alistair. a single thread of blood trailing behind the tip. her vision blurred and her head filled with cotton. her damaged arm guided by the stiffened strands of blood like puppet strings. For a moment. Moving against prevailing motion. up from her blood. She’d had reserves of power. she twisted and lashed out with her knife hand. The fool had saved her by using metal-jacketed rounds. Mitsuru forced more power through her body. as her arm blossomed into a crimson flower. doubtless. but she rejected them all. when he realized that he had failed to kill Mitsuru. She tumbled into the man. Her right shoulder complained for a moment. Abort! The command was delivered so powerfully that she could only obey in shock. She caught her breath. she thought the world had gone off kilter. The thing she lived for. Her right arm hung useless at her side as she found her balance again. They were nothing but grey blurs to her visually. scenarios. wincing at pain comingled with a base ecstasy. by force or by pleading. She threw herself at the threads that held the door closed. Mitsuru assumed the most fundamental of the one-handed fighting stances that Michael had taught her. She shook the blood from the blade with a flick of her wrist. still warped and complaining from her earlier endeavors. Then Mitsuru felt the terrible dislocation of an apport. Worse. with shock. Alistair dropped to his knees. but her Black Protocol had cost her more than she had anticipated. warm and gelatinous.through the air toward her. the tip of the knife pointed toward the rapidly advancing figures. outrage. prepared not to give an inch before dying. her left arm and her legs wrapping around him. she realized belatedly. his eyes sad and angry and relieved all at the same time as he looked down at her. For a brief. and informed her helpfully that they were very probably hostiles. wrapped in concealment protocols so powerful that she had not noticed them until they were within a block of her. There was no way for her to survive. up from inside her. The blood from Mitsuru’s arm swelled and warped in a mass. The door slid open with a strange.

it was still on the same song from the other night. Vivik looked at him. He tossed aside the covers of his newly acquired double bed. Nothing of the kind. because he didn’t have anything important to keep. I mean. The building was one of the older ones. while he was still learning his way around the grounds. this is the beginning of my second session. and in the interval of silence. in the end. He was too tired to ask questions by that point.” Alex looked at Vivik for a moment. “My parents are kind of fixated on the whole college thing. hello. all expenses paid. a silver Sony with an LED lit keyboard. hadn’t a clue. “Um. when he’d been attacked. shaking his head.” he said hesitantly. and then. to be able to connect. He’d seen a handful of students – most were home. The dorms were nicer than any he’d ever seen – wood paneled walls. which made Alex wondered if he was a Muslim.” “Same here. nodding. facing Alex. To his surprise. Most of the students here had normal parents. He wasn’t sure what had happened to his old one. Anyway this one was obviously quite a bit better than his ancient machine. but he hadn’t seen anything like the whole campus. plastic-framed glasses. but still. bidding Alex a good night.” Vivik looked around the empty dorm room cheerfully. Michael had taken him by the commissary.” Alex said grimly. realized that someone was knocking at his door. too?” Vivik laughed jovially. and collected his clothes and few belongings. I heard that they have the telepaths smooth things over with some parents. Alex would have guessed that the kid standing there was roughly the same age he was. running a hand through his disheveled hair. doing his best to mask his confusion. plowing through news and video-sharing sites without paying much attention to their contents. I was enrolled here. when they do all those hearing and vision tests. I had no idea any of this even existed. Alex was surprised that he had merited a single room – it was small. earlier this year. his school. so I was just as clueless as you are. when I received an offer to attend a prestigious private boarding school. as he had led him directly to his dorm. back at the trailer. and then joined in. “You are Alex. There was even a firing range in the basement of the science building. “So. I showed up a week after the first session started. apparently. Michael had led him to the fourth floor. unnerved somehow. “Well. and several pairs of fatigues. and that had made Alex tremendously nervous. he had only been dimly aware that there was more to the world than rural California.” Vivik shrugged. “Actually. which Michael had proudly described as state of the art. and yet he’d never heard of it – but then again. Alex sat down on his bed. Don’t let it worry you.” Vivik said. that sort of thing. he asked. no. obviously embarrassed. it was a bit uncomfortable. “Sure. He’d been surprised by the range of ages – apparently the Academy taught everything from kindergarten through college. He’d left the building with a couple new uniforms in his actual size. The room was nice enough. he got up and answered it. and looked a little embarrassed. That wasn’t really sinking in. It was comforting in of itself. and walked over to the laptop that had been thoughtfully provided. pulled me aside. too?” Vivik waved his hand. down a silent. The clothes. meeting someone while dressed that way. they ended up here.” Alex admitted. Not that the t-shirt and sweats he had on were particularly ratty or anything. raised knowing about this stuff.” Alex shook his hand and then stepped aside to allow him to enter. He’d expected to fall asleep immediately. but he decided it would be impolite to ask. “Thank God. and wishing in a vague way that he was not in his pajamas. and explained it all to me. offering his hand. came from normal families. his room. gave him the password for the wireless network. “my parents probably wouldn’t even care if they knew what this place actually was. removing his glasses to wipe his eyes. For a few minutes he surfed at random. American-accented English. turning the player on at random. or some approximation of it. When he saw his MP3 player sitting on the old writing desk in the corner.Eleven Alex lay on his bed. and that didn’t have positive associations for Alex. right? My name is Vivik. with alternating floors of girls and boys. She was both hurried and excessively polite. with dark brown skin and bulky. Michael asked me to check in on you. something that Michael must have noticed. He hit skip. it wasn’t even necessary. It made him feel a bit like he was in the real world. He closed the laptop and reached for his headphones. but in my case. They flagged me right at the start of the school year. though he felt a little bit better knowing he wouldn’t be quite as out of place as he’d imagined. and that bothered Alex. as if to reassure him. institutional living. and Alex was surprised to find that the wardrobe had already been filled – someone had apparently returned to the trailer. and tried to wrap his mind around the idea – his bed. you see. I’ve got a big family. Yeah it is. After a moment of awkward silence. like you. that had been weird. brightly lit hallway.” “That’s not good. they wouldn’t like the guns and the fighting and all that stuff. “Really? You’re new here.” Vivik said. a little puzzled.” “Weird. and therefore close to the center of campus. and then left. But. “But to them.” “I figured that all these people were. and lots of windows – but it was.” he admitted. a flustered young woman had come out to take his measurements. He wore some kind of black turban on his head. but it is a very demanding school. at public schools and institutions. they were so delighted that I didn’t even have to come up with an explanation. and accessed the Internet. were you attacked by monsters. why would he? Up until a few days ago. “It’s pretty strange. too. some workout clothes. He plugged in the password Michael had given him. and then smiled. but the moment he lay down he felt restless. He was a few inches taller than Alex.” Vivik nodded. most of the people here found themselves in your shoes at one point or another. They do screenings. Only part of what he’d seen looked like a school. And now they tell me that I start class tomorrow. clean beige carpeting. “I’m in the next room over. finishing out a break that would end tomorrow. Michael showed him where the bathrooms were.” he said in perfect. handed him a plastic swipe key for the door. while Vivik pulled out his desk chair and sat down backwards on it. It was a mixed dorm. Up until whatever point they were activated. actually. he was so overwhelmed he almost cried. Parts of it looked more like a boot camp. seemingly nonplussed. but he’d lived in smaller spaces. Alex. “Up until a few days ago. He didn’t understand how the Academy could be so big. “Nope. which would allow him to get to class more easily. huh?” “Yeah. exhausted.” “So you have a family back at home? Aren’t they worried? About all this?” Alex gestured toward the window and the school outside. but he wasn’t actually worried – he hadn’t kept anything important on it. “About a week later. Michael had led him around the campus for hours. given all that had happened that day. and then to his door. Vivik looked at him knowingly. and then burst out laughing. Pulling out his headphones. and after a few private words with the staff. Michael had explained. Michael explained. you know. “It’s fairly unusual for a family to pass the affinity down like that.” Alex wasn’t sure what else to say.” If he had to guess. Alex still didn’t have a clear idea what was going on. .

to the best of my knowledge. It’s against the rules to declare for a cartel until you complete your second year. too. It had been his home.” Vivik explained curtly. “Do you belong to one of them.” “G’night. “Thought so. “I guess that’s why they skipped all those letters. to make sure you were awake. I keep forgetting you are so new. you’ll find out for yourself eventually anyway. I scanned it before you even opened the door.” Alex said. after I graduate. He wasn’t stupid.” Vivik muttered. They don’t have to guess. “Me too. that’s at the other under end of the spectrum. clearly frustrated. It’s like. It’s just too petty. and stays on with the faculty here instead. “And then there’s another thing…” “What’s that?” “Forgive me. staring at Vivik. wondering if there was some kind of implied threat in his statement. Already. They’re very powerful. who have dreams that come true occasionally. He had a long list of things he didn’t care for. yet. Not potentially. specifically remote viewing. “Because you aren’t drawing it from yourself.” said Vivik. Central isn’t concerned with what you don’t know at the moment – there are people here who can read probability threads. After a few minutes. if you’re already very tired. Not too many fanatics. or eventually having to fight the people I go to school with. hard. you’re in a different world now. F-Class. Alex. “Mr. but no one’s taught you to mask your Etheric signature.” Alex was unnerved by the frank sympathy he could see on his face. mulling it over. “Not a chance. nodding. . nodding. and school was on it. Alex rolled over and closed his eyes. “Because it doesn’t relate directly. Vivik?” “Me?” Vivik asked. so I may as well tell you – do you know anything about the cartels?” Alex shook his head. They already know exactly how powerful you’ll become. But an Operator? No way they’d let that slide. “Why?” Alex looked at Vivik suspiciously. Alex felt some reluctance. Alex. as if he were afraid to mispronounce the name. “I’m afraid it’s going to be a matter of life and death.” Vivik said. Vivik cleared his throat and pushed in his chair. “Well. And almost everyone at the Academy will. and then lay back down on the bed. but a lot of the students voluntarily associate themselves with one long before that. not because he was bored. Alex. It’s a pretty nice class.” Vivik hung his head. And that’s the thing. He knew he was at a school.” “I have no idea what you just said. from the Ether. Alex. Alex.” Alex nodded. I’m a B-Class. looking uncomfortable. but decided to hand it over anyway.” Alex muttered. “Michael mentioned it…” “Classes A through F.” he said sadly. no matter how much you use. “Being M-Class doesn’t necessarily make you more powerful – usually. “It does seem that way. It would take some getting used to. The thing is. Somehow. AClass or F-Class. you could lose a race to a much slower runner. amused. stifling another yawn.” Alex objected. Is it really such a big deal?” “Can I see your schedule?” Vivik held out his hand. so it’s not a big deal to the cartels when some scientist decides not to join up. huh?” Alex nodded. Alex. well. Operators are limited by the amount of power their bodies can generate. there will always be more. for one thing. For all intents and purposes they’re still regular people. but lately ‘being eaten by werewolves’ had taken the top spot. that the classes wouldn’t be. “Right. “You can’t use up your power. Nice meeting you.” he said. I’m doing the science track. “They’re the factions. not necessarily – but whatever degree of power you have. His school. Alex. or a talent for dealing with other people. and make determinations about the future. Not academically. Alex had figured that with all the talk about monsters and fighting. “Alex. Vivik read it carefully.” “And you found out what?” Alex had to suppress a yawn. Alex.” Vivik explained. you are probably tired. for a while. “Who do you have for homeroom?” Alex grabbed his schedule from where he had tossed it on the desk. His room. “I’ll let you rest. “Well. Alex. unless you were born into it. Don’t worry. and looked thoughtful as he folded it and handed it back.” “And I am?” Alex motioned impatiently. I didn’t mean to pry. “Well. but not at the top. right? Even the most powerful F-Class Operators will wear out if they use too much power in a short period of time. Goodnight.” Alex and Vivik sat in silence.” Alex complained.“School isn’t your favorite thing. I’m not interested in picking sides. and then the Youth Institution. Alex.” “Alex.” Alex said shortly. smiling. Was it really such a bad thing? “That doesn’t fit in the alphabetical order.” Vivik said reluctantly. You’re going to be an Operator. “I don’t even know how to do anything. no matter how powerful the ability.” “What?” Vivik looked embarrassed. “I can’t help it. “M-Class. at first.” Vivik said matter-of-factly. No limitations.” Vivik sighed. you can use it almost endlessly. it doesn’t matter how fast you are. with C-Class potential. if I work hard and I’m lucky. “A lot of what goes on here revolves around the politics between them.” “Hmm…” Alex said. That’s what M-Class means. for you. “Class-A’s are so weak that they don’t even activate them. the classes that they’ve picked for you – you’re doing basic. staring at his hands. The Academy shares most of its research pretty freely. They know. did they explain the classification system to you? “No. Alex. here in Central. at some point. but genuinely exhausted. I’m going into Analytics.” “But that’s stupid. anyway. Windsor?” He read aloud uncertainly.” “And that’s rare?” “Extremely. you’ll like him. commit to joining one of them.” Vivik tapped his feet nervously against the chair leg as he spoke. His bed. you can pull power from outside. “None of the other students at the Academy right now are M-Class. and I’m going to join the staff here at the Academy as a researcher. He walked Vivik out of the dorm room. and then unfolded it.

” Gaul asked. “But Young. and more power. anyone. “It’s not like we failed. Every pitfall.” Gaul said. I could still see the traces of it. “finish off the encounter for me. robotically. “In any case. however. knew they’d hit our backup first. if Mitzi hadn’t done what she did.” “You turned their minds off.” he said.” Alistair sighed. Mitsuru’s actions saved the operation. adjusting his glasses. “I have. near the start of the encounter. in his normal voice. “I saw him get hit.” Gaul said. even if it was Mitsuru. “which is it? Have the Witches learned to operate protocols. with a trace of sympathy. “Have you reviewed the recordings. He simply smiled and waited. threading his way through alternatives. I had questions I wanted to ask them. and that always takes it out of me.” Gaul said coldly. and far from forthcoming regarding the reasons for his presence in the area. Gaul could read probability lines better than almost any Operator that he knew of. his tone indicating that an answer from Alistair was expected. Gaul wondered how long it had been since his Chief last slept. That was only natural. who was currently sitting in front of him and smiling politely. Not the usual silly stuff – Gaul wasn’t afraid of plane crashes. “What exactly did she expect to happen in that time?” “Perhaps she intuited exactly what did happen. Shining Cloud. and a single mistake on his part could still ruin everything. and now he slept for an hour or two every night. “I don’t even know how to guess. were he lucky enough to live that long. If there is someone on the inside. “We have a leak. Beyond that. dilemmas. After all. flowing through him. To some extent. Her obsession with suffering has cost us all in the past. then. something about this operation seemed to have taken something out of Alistair. shaking his head. right?” There were many qualities that made Gaul such an exemplary Director – and he was almost universally held to be the finest in memory. When he dreamed. and she killed that target. Witches could also manipulate people.” Alistair hesitated before continuing. “Moving on. “The other two Operators. with the sulfur and the charring. spinning their webs over centuries. he was furious with his Chief Auditor.” Alistair said guiltily. Still. “And I had to get back to Mitzi. Witches were smart. for one thing. later. on the average. the solution was shelved for the day when it was needed. After a few moments silence. that Mitsuru allows herself to receive a very serious gunshot wound?” “I’ve double-checked the probabilities lines. and they seemed to take a certain . the less he liked it. It had to have been the Shining Cloud Protocol. or have a group of Operators allied themselves with the Witches?” Alistair shrugged. Gaul sighed. Gaul had a virtually perfect operational and administrative record. right when I turned the corner. She had no time to take other action.” “I do know that. This did seem like a long way to go just to ruin his day. He was cut into a million pieces. Most of all.” Gaul said. He was still fuming from his interview with North. at most. they had a kind of precognitive ability. You know. “You’re right. they got past all our screenings. How is that possible?” he wondered aloud. I still had to activate an apport protocol. shuffling paperwork on his desk. He’d invoked the Committee-at-Large. Twenty-two hours a day. lingering in the Ether. appearing to steel himself. and they could manipulate energy and mass in a crude but effective manner totally distinct from an Operator’s protocols. and I agree with you. or serial killers. “She is clearly still using Black Protocols. what about them?” “They never had a chance.Twelve The more Gaul looked at it. But anything that only incapacitated them would have taken more finesse. It was a tribute to his pessimistic nature that he fully expected to use all of his schemes and fallback plans eventually. then.” Alistair let it pass.” Gaul paused for a moment. and Gaul didn’t know exactly how much. maybe even more than you. Tired. A leak inside Audits. “Believe me. I see no records of Walsh having any close family. Witches were at the top of a number of his ‘Things to Worry About’ lists. carrying on multiple lines of thought simultaneously.” The two men were silent for a moment while Gaul consulted his uplink.” said Alistair. not like the ravening packs of Weir or the mindless Horrors.” Gaul complained. Gaul. that was the weird part. They made long-range plans. Mitsuru saved that kid. would have the temerity to attack one of his Operators. “They were too close to the center of the temporal warp when those Witches hit us.” Alistair said. every personal failing. he was still angry that someone. Gaul’s own sleep cycle had been modified when the uplink was installed.” He shuffled more papers on his desk. Walsh and Young. in either case. though. It was not restful. though. Alistair looked strange. but given the circumstances. and they had inhuman patience when carrying them out. this operation would have failed. once solved. his voice profoundly tired. And Gaul spent much of that time worrying. what’s-his-name…” “Estelle. “No other choice.” Gaul said. whom he had found to be insufferably arrogant.” Alistair continued to stare at the ground. he had to admit. and that meant Gaul couldn’t demand anything more until he either got the approval of the Committee. He had walked a razor’s edge since he’d wrested control of the Academy away almost forty years ago. Gaul wondered what could have thrown his usually unflappable Chief Auditor. Alistair. everything. following them from branching to branching. It seemed like everything that day had conspired to infuriate him. I didn’t have any time for subtlety. before they got to her. because anything that went wrong. than I had to spare at that point. I will have to inform Young’s wife.” Gaul came as close to shouting as he ever did – he raised his voice. but couldn’t summon much pity. there is no other way to account for two such debacles in such a short period of time. “You know that. Thanks to the Etheric computer attached to his forebrain. shaking his head regretfully. Both are impossible. that was an actual possibility that had to be taken into account. or opened an Audit. Gaul thought soberly. It’s her reasons that bother me. And then. and he read them as often as possible. “Leaving aside the more important issue. reluctantly. “It is as she said. knew they had to be flanking us. and battered.” “That’s a bit unfair. Alistair rolled his eyes. or being naked in public. Gaul. “I’ve handpicked every single member of the Audits department. Gaul could truly multitask.” “I knew at that point that my chances of getting out of there were slim. yet?” Alistair lowered his head.” he said. And. it wasn’t as if this was the first time Alistair had lost men under his command. Walsh was dead before I could get there – I assume they used balefire. “Then I’m certain that you noticed. Alistair stared at his shoes while Gaul consulted the Ether. from everywhere and through everywhere. yes. “Preliminary analysis confirms it. You know how powerful an Operator they would have to be to lie to my face?” “Nonetheless. every operational difficulty and unforeseen event was accounted for with mathematical precision and a fetishistic desire for organization. it was to be expected. his head cocked to the side. I turned around as soon as I felt them porting in. he had already worried over that possibility and planned a contingency. even by those who opposed him – but his tendency to worry was perhaps the paramount quality.” Alistair objected. solutions.” To Gaul’s eyes. actually.” “We are talking about a few seconds difference. “unless you are suggesting that I am leaking operational information to outside agencies. he could feel the vast currents of the Ether. the background checks.

After centuries of war. If Rebecca has to hold this kid’s hand and wipe his nose in order for this to work. It has to be. If it takes time.” Gaul’s voice was light. I hate. Doesn’t it seem like someone is changing the rules?” “That’s been bothering me. It has to be perfect.” Gaul admitted. not the pieces.” “I will explain myself once more. Do whatever you see fit.” “Who? And why?” Alistair demanded. and then gave them a second. too. There is no other way forward. “being a pawn for anyone. in the decades he had known him.” Gaul took his glasses off and began polishing the lenses with a rag.” Gaul folded up the smile and his face reverted to its normal dour expression. more thorough reading. He spoke softly.” Gaul straightened the remaining papers on his desk compulsively. Which meant that. call in favors. “This might interest you. “What are your orders. looked up briefly in surprise. We will make an example of them. Too much of this conflicts to have a single motivation behind it.” Alistair snapped. but not today. much to Alistair’s relief. Gaul. Mitzi said that the silver Weir she bumped into hid its Etheric signature until it was close.” Alistair said. “it appears that there are still people out there who need to be reminded there is no profit in taking us on. and then continued in a quieter voice. “This means…” Gaul nodded. within certain constraints. or if only extermination would end the conflict.” “Those being?” Alistair asked. flipping through the file. “I was almost certain that they would. and will use whatever personnel or resources you deem fit in order to bring a close to this matter. “That’s a signed sanction on the entirety of the Terrie Cartel and any allies that they might have. You know full well what would happen if the cartels found out that all the Auditors were occupied. “You will continue to use Mitsuru.” “You ask the impossible. Chief Auditor. “I don’t know. requisition labs and materials. and any cartel or faction that objects.” Gaul looked moodily out the window for a moment. “I am not repeating the mistakes we made with Mitsuru. in addition to the initial infusion of nanomachinery. Alistair. We’ll let them think they have a greater advantage than they actually do. “We will find out exactly who is responsible. Everything needs to be airtight on this Audit. only the second scenario could be true. For the life of me.” Alistair mused. and we are the players. I didn’t put too much stock in it when she first told me. And someone needs to be reminded of that. ever seen. whoever they are. They are transferred to your jurisdiction. not if they’re going to do the kind of job I need them to. here. They were impossible to negotiate with.” Alistair complained.” Gaul snarled. who opened it and scanned the contents. Just make it perfect. Gaul slid a red folder across his desk. If we play our cards right. Gaul felt a small pleasure in having surprised his normally unflappable Chief Auditor so many times in one conversation. that they’ve rattled us. “We will draw them out. Alistair. There is one game. Gaul was almost certain that it was an Operator who had used the Shining Cloud Protocol. “And despite all expectations. Alistair took it without looking at it. Gaul had done a great deal of worrying about the Witches. Operators in league with Witches. Gaul. They need to see it.perverse satisfaction in doing so. given that it was thought to be completely impossible. touched. they will also become part of the example.” “If you mistake reasonable oversight for lack of faith. So. I can’t see how you don’t understand. You will act in this matter under my authority.” Gaul said patiently. And I’m going to make it more impossible.” Gaul said.” he continued. and whoever else you need from Operations. Alistair. “You will settle all outstanding accounts.” Gaul grinned evilly. Go camp out at Analytics. his lip quivering. “There’s no way we’re dealing with only one party. “What’s that?” he snarled. performed by a skilled telepath or preferably an empath. But you cannot be wrong. Because I need this done properly. “I need Rebecca here. So use Mitsuru. Alistair. in full. and exactly how they have done these things – and yes. and the other two will be off making enough trouble to keep everyone from noticing that you’re not out there. given that you pretend to be Mitsuru’s best friend. “You are right. but I can’t even guess as to who would benefit from all this.” he said venomously. dismissive. and the meddling in the earlier incident was apparently to our benefit. What he had not worried about was the possibility of Witches learning to use protocols. surprising Alistair. she will be evaluated as a candidate for Audits.” Gaul handed a folder over to Alistair. Gaul. but made no immediate reply. Alistair. I am asking the impossible.” Alistair’s eyes widened. Since he controlled the only source for said nanites.” “Enough. every Operator is put at risk. And in the meantime.” Gaul stood abruptly and walked to the window. “I didn’t know you had this kind of faith in me.” Gaul said crisply. “I take full responsibility. shake down informants. to justify the outcome.” Gaul objected. “And you can’t use the rest of the Auditors. All that big talk and then you’re going to send me out with Mitzi to take care of it? Be reasonable. He pushed another file folder forward on his desk with a pencil. was required. then that’s what she’ll do. why reveal it to us in such a minor skirmish? Why not wait until they could use it to do some real damage?” Gaul looked moodily at Alistair. “You’ve got to be kidding me. however unlikely.” Gaul said. The circumstances even seem similar – I’ve been thinking about it.” “What are you going to do?” Alistair asked quietly. She understands that. At the end of this matter. then that’s your problem. “I can’t have my Operators looking over their shoulders all the time. then it takes time. it may take some time. Get your head on right. “but that someone is using Central itself as a pawn in their game. Gaul. So it’s not that someone has decided to start attacking my Operators. Alistair. turning his furious red eyes on Alistair. watching the reflection of the trees waving in the wind. But if they have learned something this critical. They need to know that they are protected. Invoke it at your discretion.” Alistair nodded slowly. Central wasn’t even sure if forcing the Witches to surrender was possible. “You will conduct an Audit into this matter. Alistair. “And it bothers me very much to say that. More than anything. Alistair. but that will only give them more time to think that they’ve made an impact. effective immediately.” “So our reality hackers didn’t intervene in today’s incident. where we are strong. a ghastly expression that Alistair had not. absolving you of all responsibility for any action you may take in the course of pursuing this matter. run the forensic boys into the ground. “Listen to me. until we can mitigate the real one. He handed him one final red folder. well. “There was no tampering in today’s incident.” . “Multiple parties pursuing different agendas.” “I am being reasonable. calmly. So someone tried to help us that night. If the Witches have learned to hide their Etheric signatures. putting his glasses down on the desk and rubbing the bridge of his nose. but the same thing happened here today.” “You’re putting a lot on the line. a bit taken aback by Gaul’s sudden display of emotion. Activation. We will draw them out and then we will destroy them utterly. But I will tell you this much. “they may even decide to make a move here in Central. “This is signed documentation from me.” Alistair snapped his head up. yes. I will have the remaining Auditors try and cause enough trouble to keep anyone from realizing that you aren’t minding the shop. because they had never bothered to tell anyone what it was they wanted in the first place. “And then you say you need Rebecca to babysit the new kid? This is bullshit. “And the consequences?” Alistair asked softly. Director?” Gaul raised an eyebrow at the formality. or she will be officially declined and reassigned.

“She’s making Alexander Warner into a weapon.” .” Gaul said tiredly. Do a good job on this Audit and I might let you pull the trigger when the time comes.“And that Rebecca is busy babysitting. standing up to leave. motioning toward the door.” Alistair reminded him. “She’s not babysitting. you fool.

and none of the techniques Alex learned seemed to have names or formal designations. with a mouthpiece and head guard. Michael was the instructor for all three of them. how to strike with the elbow and forearm. . But Alex found Michael to be a genuinely remarkable teacher. His whole body shook as he attempted to straighten his legs and abdomen. the better. for three weeks. a variety of techniques for controlling wrists and arms up close. strengthening. He wore a tight nylon top that made it very obvious that Michael was ridiculously built. Nonetheless. He got so used to vomiting in the plastic bucket that he kept nearby that he didn’t even feel selfconscious about it. he would realize that the man was simply a sadist. then loose gravel. he was bitter. Alex straightened out the length of his body. never less than five miles. he learned. and never appeared to be out of breath or tired. Michael appeared to be unshakable. and as his arms trembled and his stomach cramped. and a number of other ways to keep fights where Michael judged Alex to be most capable – standing and striking. they ended with weight training. It was sunny but Alex suspected that if he hadn’t been running he would have found it cold. he came to hate the sight of his school-issued swimsuit much more than the sight of his school-issued running shoes. but he always found the water to be too cold. done in rapid and exhausting cycles that left Alex broken down and shaking. and it got easier to use his long arms to jab and keep Michael at a somewhat more comfortable distance. His wrists. and he allowed himself to crumple to the ground. but petered out gradually into an asphalt track. Some of the time he spent working a pair of pads that Michael held. This was a skill he was still attempting to acquire. in a late-fall way. namely that they tended to leave him offbalance and exposed. while Michael watched and made adjustments. his hands taped and in lightweight half-gloves. without any of the disadvantages. Michael set the pace and Alex struggled to keep up. Alex found that he could support the weight of his body on his hands and bend over far enough to put his head flat on the ground while touching his toes. and he never had a day where he didn’t do either morning or afternoon training. He was too busy trying to breathe. He’d enjoyed his occasional opportunities to swim when he’d been younger. The second week was more freeform. and it wasn’t like he was in horrible shape. and breathe control. wasn’t helping him match Michael’s handstand. and he spent a considerable amount of time every day in the fitness center’s gigantic spa. but Alex had no eyes for it. and after scolding Alex for making a less-than-tight fist and teaching him to square his shoulder and tuck his jaw. except for the yoga. and seemed capable of all the various positions with a casual flair that made them look easy. but he also explained that weight and inexperience would work against him there. But it went deeper than techniques. He decided to stay there. and cheerfully battered his door until he was forced to acknowledge it. When it came to combat training. Alex had always thought of it as something hippies did. more than he could ever manage with his hands. trying to force himself into one firm vertical line. Alex contemplated murdering Michael in between bouts of vomiting into a ditch on the side of the road. shouting instructions. Alex was effectively cured of the Hollywood-implanted urge to throw kicks to the head. his abdomen shaking with the strain. were also inaccurate. At least twice a week. Four miles later. shoulders and back all hurt constantly. some kind of pseudo spiritual meditative practice or something. then Michael ignored them. After Michael dumped him on his head a dozen times. more than once. they did not wear a gi or a belt. six days a week. a bit proud of himself. and spent much more time teaching him to sprawl. Then it all fell apart. That was his morning. because Alex was standing on his hands. and swam for an hour or two. How bad could it possibly be? When Michael arrived at six a. past some buildings Alex had never seen before (but he was too out of breath to ask about). much of it spent sparring with Michael in a boxing ring. Later. It started to feel more natural to use his forearms and elbows when he was close. occasionally batting him about the head and body to remind him to guard. grassy hills that eventually gave way to steeper elevations and evergreens. the next morning. They never did the same thing two days in a row. dressed in running clothes and carrying a bag of the same in Alex’s size. when Alex got his first leg cramp. and Alex noticed the bag reacting more dramatically to his strikes. were capable of delivering truly powerful blows. to give him time to get oriented and also to allow for his private tutoring. as the education Alex received from Michael was more a process of refinement than revelation. at the moment. Michael taught Alex enough of the fundamentals of ju-jitsu that he could defend himself on the ground. After another three miles. because they were too risky to be effective. his balance shifted forward. He learned a handful of trips and throws for dealing with running tackles and rushes. his legs wobbling but fundamentally straight. however. and when he glanced over at Michael and saw the grin on his face. After the first week.m. knees had drawbacks. He never taught Alex any katas or forms. Five days a week. Alex came back to the fitness center in the afternoons. After a few days. they visited the indoor pool at the fitness complex not far from Alex’s dorm. Alex had begun to reassess the situation. though Alex rarely found them to be so. and they blended into a seamless flow of exhaustion. he figured. This was a newly acquired skill. his legs bent. they didn’t start with cardio anymore. and himself to be a more receptive student than he had ever imagined possible.Thirteen Michael appeared to be upside down. but what he learned was profoundly different. he convinced Alex to stop punching off his back foot. Their route that morning took them around the back of the Academy grounds. slow and left him wide open to anyone with a little bit of boxing ability. Alex couldn’t tell the difference between ‘Unarmed Combat’ and ‘Physical Conditioning’ and ‘Fundamentals of Self-Defense’. Alex had been happy. He learned a variety of things in those few weeks. figured that he was too. Alex wondered how Yoga could possibly be so difficult. he smiled throughout the run. instead focusing on body awareness. His own knees. and then through a series of low. If there were philosophical components to it. Michael had begun to teach him yoga. Michael had to stop to teach Alex the stroke that he wanted him to use. It was beautiful. he turned his attention almost totally to stance and footwork. Along with a straightened punch. The path they ran along started out as sidewalk. when Michael had explained that he would be allowed to skip the first few weeks of homeroom. He learned not to throw kicks higher than the knee. putting the strain on his fingers. and finally nothing more than a dirt rut running through the surrounding countryside. with thick limbs wrapped in corded muscle and a barrel chest. Michael never bothered to explain what discipline a technique came from. struggle and pain. Though his schedule listed four courses aside from homeroom. hoping that in the hot water eventually some of his cramped muscles might unknot. he learned that a few simple changes in his footwork could provide him with the same power that the looping punches had. They ran two or three times a week. after two weeks of daily practice. but with Michael calling the shots. to drop his chest and splay his legs back to avoid being taken down in the first place. The less school. With a tremendous effort. Alex had been surprised to find himself still standing at the end of that first eight-mile run. instead. flexibility. He had spent the last three weeks almost solely in Michael’s care. which turned out to be much more comfortable than he had anticipated. He seemed more concerned at first with Alex’s feet than anything he was doing with his hands. The first day. He’d even felt pretty good. Three afternoons a week. a dozen different ways to put his opponent on the ground without winding up there himself. like kicks. Alex liked the way the sound of the water echoed in the tiled expanse of the gym. Michael was a patient teacher who never raised his voice. The first few afternoons were largely spent with Alex punching a heavy bag filled with water to mimic a human body. Alex learned that the looping punches he favored he threw because they were powerful – but as Michael demonstrated by cheerfully jabbing Alex in the face until his nose bled. All of which.

no. Are you serious?” “Yeah.” Vivik said. that Alex gave serious consideration to the idea of ignoring the soft. “It’s not so bad. “That okay with you. Mr.” Vivik sat back in the chair and crossed his legs. “Were you this nervous when you started.” “I doubt it. Because Michael had told him to keep an eye on Alex. they’re latched on to your nervous system. and that you were capable of some kind of unique protocol. Up and at them. for that matter. looking stricken. hands behind his head.” Alex groaned. “And then when I came here. Alex asked Michael about it.” Vivik offered helpfully. So they know what you’re doing.“I don’t get it. and yes. to be genuinely happy.” “Wow. But things had been quiet around here for a while. I can push myself so much harder now. or anything. nodding as best he could.” Michael said with his trademark toothy grin. Alex.” Alex nodded wearily. Our ligaments don’t tear. sitting down beside him. when he realized that inclining his head was the most he was currently capable of. looking dreamily at the hand he held up between his eyes and the weak afternoon sun. Michael offered constant instruction. Alex. about tomorrow? I was pretty scared. “Wait. and that you’d show up in class . attempting to sit up. knocking gently in patient intervals. “You look terrible. They can even process lactic acid and reduce muscle cramping. tweaking and refining.” Michael grinned at Alex. He barely had the energy to keep his eyes open. until the door fell down. repairing all the damage that gets done to that sad little body of yours. The pace of the workouts was exhausting. “That would be cool. panting beside Alex on the grass next to the track. It couldn’t hurt to know a bit more about what he was getting into. and when things get quiet. toying nervously with a pen from Alex’s desk. standing up. lying on his back while Michael unfolded himself neatly. stronger and more capable than he had any right to be. “I think everyone feels that way. Alex. to walk across the room on his aching legs.” Alex perked up a bit. “Anyway. though he drank constantly.A. I figured that this was more of the same. smiling nervously.” “I start class tomorrow. “So they got that part wrong. “if you’re important enough for them to pull a Board member and department head away from his classes for three weeks so he can personally tutor you. my friend. or remove dead cells. “since I’m in a lot of pain here.” “Wait a minute. why. “Was it like this. smirking. The idea is this – we will teach you to use anything at hand to fight. We aren’t done here. The field has this tendency to surprise you. I think. augmenting your reflexes. “Some guys were saying that they’d found you in L. you’d be better in a couple of weeks. and they’re facilitating the process. for you?” Alex asked. Plus. and if they did.” Vivik said. I’m going to go beat these things up?” Michael looked at him oddly for a moment. “because that means only three days a week with Michael. “For me. then we move on to the more likely suspects. Alex’s own frustration was muted by sheer exhaustion. nothing big. grinning. something that no one had been able to do before – and that all the cartels were interested in you. “What the point of all this is. to keep himself hydrated. but he wasn’t sure how successful he was. Everything starts from there. I played football. we’re going to spend a lot of time teaching you to use guns and bombs and protocols because that’s what we expect you’ll be using. Alex was a little annoyed at this. instead of six. our tendons don’t snap. Not to be a dick or anything. And nobody knew who I was.” Alex nodded painfully at his sprawled body. insistent knock. Whatever it is. we start with what we know you’ll have with you. people start to tell stories. Alex gained a few pounds of muscle and a much more prodigious strength. Michael looked surprised. helping your body manufacture new tissue. after a particularly grueling set of wind sprints. but somehow never quite past what Alex was capable of. Michael? Did it all feel this weird?” “Yes. “Are you worried at all. He only didn’t because he was fairly sure that Vivik would stand there.” Michael paused for a moment. One day. despite himself. “Why would that be any different for me?” “Well. “I’m almost happy that class is starting. As long as you remember to give your body raw materials. I doubt very much that they would kill you and waste the investment.” Michael said. and was thinking pretty hard about bed. that’s a comfort. If you don’t know how to use your body. somewhere. Warner?” “You ask me like you care. He was somehow. Vivik?” “What? Oh. then nodded. as if they were part of you.” Vivik said.” “Well.” Alex said. they also said you were big and tough and cool-looking. and I wrestled and ran track. and by a growing suspicion that something was not quite right. grinning and producing two bottles of Gatorade from the kit bag he brought everywhere. But just because that’s what we expect. Alex. I always liked this stuff.” Alex said. Most of them heard about it a couple weeks ago. Or allow you to die at all. patient and infuriatingly calm. faster. In the course of a few weeks. “I heard about you the first time while you were still in the infirmary.” Michael said seriously. you understand. it’s the best part of the deal. finishing his bottle and putting it aside. “You don’t get what?” Michael asked. kneading out a cramp in his calf.” -It took so much effort to get up off the bed. and looked almost sad. Alex opened the door and then limped back to the bed. did you have anything you needed. A bunch of the girls want to meet you. “They must be pushing you real hard. sounding almost bashful. no doubt. “Of course.” Alex said. “Yeah?” Alex tried to make sure his voice sounded nonchalant. They can tailor nutrients and deliver them. Alex. looking up at the sky and seeming. but. looking very much like he was planning on staying. leaving the door behind him open and Vivik to make his own way in.” Michael said. or form seals around injuries and subcutaneous bleeding.” Alex said. “Your body is your most fundamental tool. but he smiled anyway. am I going to go punch a werewolf? Is that the idea. then you’re never going to understand how to use any other kind of weapon. and it all came together for me. and then laughed. based on Vivik’s sly smile. Alex got the distinct feeling that Vivik didn’t get the chance to talk to people much. after you were evaluated and graded. and those little machines clean it all up for me. and then abandoning the effort partway.” Vivik said.” Michael lay down near where Alex had collapsed. his fingers knotting with anxiety. that Mitsuru brought you back after a big fight with the Weir. “But they can’t do the work for you.” Alex said. shrugging.” Vivik said. training one-on-one with Michael just added to the mystique. And that you were going to be in our class. taking the chair at Alex’s writing desk. “All those little machines inside you.” he said. clearly relishing the opportunity to tell the story. an M-class.” Michael said.” Michael agreed. “It’s the machines. They also said that you were some sort of anomaly. son. Alex found.” Vivik did a double-take. as a matter of fact. “Why would that be?” “Please. “Yes. Once I’m confident you can use that. “it seems that pretty much everyone knows that you are starting class tomorrow. “doesn’t mean that’s what it is going to be like.” Vivik hedged. you won’t ever overheat or have glucose problems. but he’d realized a few days before that knowing Vivik meant putting up with his somewhat deficient respect for personal space. the only one you always have at your disposal. Alex had a sneaking suspicion that the laugh might have come at his expense. That you spent the last three weeks in seclusion. critiquing his form and movement at all times. but I doubt you’d survive it. my first day. to Alex. I mean.” Alex said. “I don’t get it. they taught me how to fight. I think any more of this might actually kill me. so he let it go. It was impossible. You can’t be serious. and they take instruction from your brain. those machines enhance performance – they can carry oxygen.

Vivik gave Alex a pitying look. to get instructions – instructions about you. Alex. As long as you stay undecided. “They don’t want to hurt you. So you had better be prepared for that. After a moment. inevitably. stretching out a yawn in the hopes it would serve as a polite suggestion. well. “You should get used to it. At first everyone will be your ally. And then one day. “Only of being wined and dined. Because as desperate as the cartels are to get their hands on you.eventually and turn out to be just like everyone else here. But when I walked into the cafeteria that morning. I’m a remote viewer. and the most likely to be your friends.” Vivik said with a hint of scorn.” “Wait. but you won’t be able to trust any of them. half the empaths and Anastasia had rushed back home!” Vivik paused for reaction.” “Am I in some kind of danger?” Alex asked. Vivik stood up. They’d been brought back home in a hurry. “Everyone will love you as long as you are a free agent. Alex. pushed the chair in quietly.” “Great. everyone in Central will fall all over themselves to help you out. the tables will turn on you. rolling his eyes. “They were the important people. Alex. “But you need to be ready for what happens after you commit. because it’s going to be weird. I see things. the whole future leadership of the various cartels.” “That’s kind of creepy. they will turn on you. but Alex said nothing. You need to be ready for it.” Alex observed. what?” Vivik sighed and stood up.” Vivik admonished. . closing the door silently behind him. “God. and left the room. his eyes hidden behind his folded hands.” Vivik said sternly. your friend and potential lover. Alex. Does that make any sense?” Vivik waited for a response. and therefore the people who would have the most contact with you. That should come in handy when you run out of things to say. and then shook his head when Alex continued to stare blankly. “Because it’s going to be that way until you give in and join one of them. Alex. anyway?” “How to hit stuff. They brought back all those kids because they knew they would be your classmates. puzzled. they will be even more desperate to make sure that no one else does. they want to recruit you. your confidant. shook his head at the sleeping boy. you still don’t know anything? What is Michael teaching you. Then everything is reversed. and then suddenly all of these people who have cared for you and been close to you.” Vivik said.

with muted grey carpeting and a bank of fluorescent lights overhead. a while ago. he felt profound gratitude for the intervention. there was a chalkboard and white board. her eyes never leaving Alex. As Alex tried desperately to think of something to say. his stuck his hand out. shakily resuming his walk to class. detailing a gentle curve around one side of the building.” If Mitsuru had any opinions on the matter. okay. Alex couldn’t help but watch her walk away. pointing to a four story building made from the same monotonous slate grey stone is everything else. and he didn’t notice when it stopped. “Oh man.” “Here we are. The campus was beautiful. “I heard she’s a psycho. um. “I think that. trying to collect himself. That had seemed to be true. He didn’t even see Mitsuru until he’d practically walked into her. “Man. but with a black blazer. “You already know her. “Thank you for helping me. Three times the number that he’d had before… or. did that make sense? If he’d had no friends before.” Alex just shook his head.” “You can’t rely on looks to make that kind of determination here.” she said. Alex. “What the hell was that?” Vivik wondered. “You watch too much anime. “My name is Alex. “This is much nicer than Bakersfield. but Alex only saw students crowded at the doors of two of them. grinning. “You haven’t even been to class yet and you already have faculty asking you out?” Alex felt a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. let’s get moving. even if everyone around him was wearing a variation on it. She continued to stare placidly at him. hanging almost to her waist.” Alex mumbled. either. Much worse. at least so far. but she was the school councilor or something. it was a typical lecture hall – three rows of seats with attached writing desks in a half-circle around a raised dais and podium. for.” Vivik used his swipe card to open the door. and looked at it grimly. “There is no way she’s a hundred years old.” he said softly. you know. The last time he’d seen her. He managed to stop in time.” he said cheerfully. and he entertained the thought briefly. wait. “You’re probably right about that. . Vivik having stopped in his tracks several feet back. She stood in the sidewalk. “And what’s with seventeenth?” Vivik asked with a huge. pointing out interesting sites along their walk. “It’s probably a bit much to try and absorb all at once. flanked by a table with a laptop. glancing around suspiciously to make sure no one was walking near enough to them to hear. Lots of Operators can control their appearance. that if someone had the time.” Vivik nodded. “Fuck me. something that Alex was still trying to adjust to.” Mitsuru gave Vivik a small nod. and then disappeared into an underground channel. then… Alex was so caught up thinking about this that he didn’t notice Vivik’s friendly chatter. Alex had to admit that Rebecca was almost impossible not to trust by her very nature. He dragged the repeatedly folded class schedule from his jacket pocket. The uniform she wore was superficially similar to his.” Vivik admitted. his cheeks reddened under Mitsuru’s impassive eyes. I think I owe you a thank you. rather than blue. and with a completely different patch on her breast pocket. well. “I’d hope so. but couldn’t see learning to respond to something else. his voice suddenly ridiculously small and squeaky. heading back the way they’d come.” Alex said to Vivik.” Alex admitted. The wind carried the muffled sounds of their conversation and fragments of their laughter. She’s supposed to be like a hundred years old…” Alex looked at Vivik skeptically. On the other side of the building there was a large grassy field. projector and a tangled mass of cables. The interior of the building was cool and airy. “good morning. It seems to be a reoccurring problem. There seemed to be four classrooms on the floor. or slow down their aging process. empathy be damned.” Vivik grinned at him. She looked at him emotionlessly with her unnerving red eyes. Michael had told him that his record had been wiped completely when he was admitted to the Academy – a fresh start. trying not to notice that people were staring and whispering.Fourteen “You seem disappointed. already.” Despite the sun. I’ve been to Bakersfield once. leading him along a cement path through spindly birch trees. he was surprised at how long it was. her face gave Alex no clue of it. and so they kept her locked up or something for a long time. “I think all uniform skirts are around the knee. So that was three. with a laugh. staring at a group of teenage girls sitting by the creek side. and looked seriously at Alex. The uniform still felt weird to him. arms folded in front of her. with polarized glass in the windows and buff-colored tile flooring. “I’ll see you on the seventeenth. as he had put it. with the rest of the people who were paying attention to what was going on around them. and then led Alex up a flight of stairs to the second story.” Vivik observed.” he said. Anyway. “Miss Aoki has quite the reputation…” “For what?” Vivik lowered his voice. “I heard that she killed another Operator. I did the British boarding school thing for a while. mischievous grin. set back in a stand of middle-aged oak trees. Alex walked with his hands balled up in his pockets. and no one had thought to grab his sunglasses from the trailer. he let his hand drop to his side. Alex even felt like maybe Michael was someone he could trust a bit.” she said softly. Alex?” “Sort of. She looked better in a skirt. Alex smiled to himself. When he heard Vivik hurry up next to him.” he managed. and there weren’t too many attractive ladies with crimson eyes on it. she’s not a hundred years old…” “Yeah.” Vivik said. vivid green under the bright sun. Eventually. It was bright out. boy. that he was probably even learning to like. and the Indian kid was friendly. “Oh. Michael had warned him that the wipe wasn’t absolute. Alex blinked uncomfortably as the sun broke the through the leaves. you know. “you should learn to watch where you are going. a small creek gurgling beside the walkway.” Alex recognized her immediately. Alex was enjoying the walk. of course – the list of people who’d saved his life recently was pretty short. Inside the nearer one. “’Fraid so.” Vivik confided. “I was hoping the skirts would be shorter. The seventeenth is the first day of the ‘Applied Combat Fundamentals’ workshop. Three potential friends. All guys. and now that it was down. “Boy. we’re gonna be late. shoulders hunched in the unfamiliar blazer. “Come on. Have you met Alex already? Today is his first day. silken black and utterly straight. “Miss Aoki. so that was only natural.M. seven in the A. The creek burbled nearby.” Vivik said. abruptly striding past them. He’d even offered Alex the opportunity to change his name. “She’s supposed to be what?” he scoffed. Behind the podium. a step away from colliding with her. Vivik hadn’t asked him any questions at all about his past. no matter where you go. and slapped Alex companionably on the shoulder.” Panicked at her blank expression. her hair had been tied back. inclination and resources that they could dig it up – but he’d also assured him that no one would care. Or that he was abruptly walking alone.” Vivik explained patiently. I am so dead.” Vivik said apologetically. Rebecca had asked a few questions here and there.

I didn’t do anything except fall down and bleed. “You’ve got to be kidding me! That definitely did not happen. and then turned her attention to the notebook in front of her. The dining hall itself was huge. but no one had spoken to either of them. “If you could introduce him to his classmates. and will need assistance to get caught up. A general muttering spread through the class. The hand he shook was smooth-skinned. Mr. “Please. one version I’ve heard is that you helped Mitsuru fight a whole pack of Weir. “You don’t mind if I sit here?” She asked innocently. Alex had been eating with Michael at the staff canteen for the last few weeks. but the quality was considerably better than anything he’d encountered before.” . “you just need a little grounding and you’ll be fine. in fact. Alex was so gloomy over his social prospects. “Well. I would imagine he would need to share your textbook…” “Of course. Mr. But. with several days’ worth of stubble on his chin and a somewhat outdated wool jacket. though there were only thirty or forty students eating at the moment. too. and Alex seemed to feel every eye in the room migrate to him as he and Vivik entered.” he continued on. made any friends himself.. One whole wall was nothing but windows.” “Not at all. “we have much to cover this session. “Come to order.” Vivik sputtered.” “You have one now. easily capable of seating a couple hundred. He hadn’t ever. that would be very helpful. which he’d eaten in quantities that astounded him. Windsor. motioning for the class to be quiet. what was scarier – the Weir. She was slender and tall. and she sat down next to Alex. using tongs to pull hot rolls from a basket. the same insignia on his breast pocket that Alex had seen on Mitsuru’s blazer. talking in low voices – clearly cliques had already been formed and social rankings established. ah. Emily’s grin widened. that he almost didn’t notice the blond girl until she was standing directly in front of them. which they’d generally had more-or-less to themselves. “I am Mr.” Vivik agreed cheerfully. and help him through the material. “Just be glad you didn’t join mid-session. ignoring Vivik’s amused snort. It’s not actually harder than any other class you’ve ever taken. “So unfair. yet. “Are you going to introduce me to your friend.” “Pleased to meet you. and looking a bit too young to be in the same class as him. “Let’s find seats. Muir?” “Yes.” “This cafeteria is alright. The students were lounging around the room in small groups. These sixteen fine young men and women will be your classmates for the duration of this lecture course. She wore the same uniform as everyone else. Vivik.” “Vivik!” Emily protested.” “Oh. still looking down at the notebook in front of her. during break. soft. with long blond hair teased into curls and brilliant green eyes. of course. only to be cut off by the arrival at the podium of what could only be the professor. “I have to admit that I’d heard you were joining our class today. As Vivik led him to a seat near the center of the room.” Emily said. It dawned on Alex that it was very likely that the person Michael had picked to help Alex assimilate had not.” Alex allowed. “Would you mind helping our new student for today?” Mr. He wasn’t kidding. wincing.” she said sweetly.” the teacher nodded at him. pasta and salad that had been consistent at every cafeteria he’d been to. today – Alex Warner. He was older. Alex’s anxiety worsened. Windsor. It was a one-woman show.” she offered cheerfully. I believe. I felt that way at first too. one row down and several seats over. she shook her head solemnly.” Emily said cheerfully. though. and the afternoon sun filtered pleasantly through the trees.” he said in a crisp British accent. When she noticed Alex looking at her. you poor thing!” Emily laughed. He did his best to act like it didn’t hurt. sitting beside the now silent Vivik in the padded plastic seats. “W-What?” Alex gasped. puzzling over a variety of pasta. as soon as he got enough nerve to. by all means…” he said. in order to keep this class on pace.” Alex said glumly. her smile revealing perfect teeth. almost as tall as Alex. It was still institutional fare. grey haired and slightly disheveled. Miss Muir. Alex thought. by your own individual performance. this is Emily Muir. I think most people here have already heard some version of the story. “Alex. Vivik had greeted a couple of students with nods on the way in. she did save me. Alex resolved to have a serious discussion with Michael on this issue. “Emily. “Whose side are you on.” “I think that’s probably closer to the truth. here?” Alex complained. glowering at Emily. in his memory. Alex knew with an iron-clad certainty that he was going to be a very-odd man out. I am totally fucking screwed. Alex. piling lettuce from the salad bar into a bowl. “Alright. Mr. Alex wondered if she was wealthy or just very concerned with appearances.. but she it looked nicer on her.” she corrected. Windsor?” Emily asked demurely. “You don’t look the type. Alex shook his head more emphatically than he had intended. people. though.” she said. alright.” “What story is that?” Alex asked. “Seriously. “I simply haven’t had an opportunity to introduce you. -“Well. he left a wake of pipe tobacco. As he passed by Alex.Most of the class had already arrived. holding out one hand to him. you just aren’t familiar with the subject matter. bashing his shin against the seatback in front of him in the process. piling the books on a table to one side of the podium. We have a new student.” Windsor motioned for Alex to sit down.” Vivik offered. and we must find some way to accommodate our newest member as well. Alex noticed a black-haired girl looking back at them. with the same over-reliance on casseroles. “Don’t worry about it. this is Alex Warner. The lasagna that he’d heaped on his plate looked positively edible. referred to a girl his own age as ‘Miss’. Windsor. taking a carton of milk from a refrigerator. Emily. still looking at Alex. “Very well. sliding her textbook over so that Alex could see it. “Pleased to meet you. winking at him from beneath immaculately styled bangs. while the corners of even more jutted out from the leather messenger’s bag he had slung over one shoulder. I hear Windsor made some kid take a midterm last year a week after he enrolled.” Alex said. and he’d developed a fair amount of respect for the food. and couldn’t imagine why he’d picked now to start. “Thank you. he had to admit that the student facilities were no worse. Warner is some weeks behind. Ms. “What the hell was Windsor talking about. or Mitsuru?” “Well…” Alex began doubtfully.” “I didn’t think it was very likely. “So. and the lettuce for the salad was neither wilted nor ancient. Another version I heard was that Mitsuru saved you from being eaten by the Weir. Windsor powered up the projector next to him.” Emily said. and recently manicured. could you stand up please?” Alex stood up hurriedly. twirling a lock of her hair around her finger. and Vivik clearly intended for them to sit by themselves. We have much to do today…” Emily put down her shoulder bag and started digging through it. “That’s enough people. Duration defined. or are you planning on keeping him all to yourself?” She leaned down as she talked. The cafeteria was actually nicer than most of the restaurants Alex had been to. He had a gigantic stack of books that he carried piled precariously on his outstretched arms. anyway?” “Yeah.” said the teacher. “That did not happen. but it was quieted by a glance from Mr. yes. Quite a bit better. looking at Alex with a playful smile.

“He just got here. yes.” he confirmed tiredly. The younger ones usually come to the Academy for a while. “Yes. “Weren’t you going to do some introductions. no. huh?” “Why don’t you stay the fuck out of my business.” Emily picked up her tray and started to walk away. “How so? I still haven’t made any decisions. pulling the foil cap off a container of yogurt. still looking at him with obvious concern. either. “No? You scared or something.” “The weird one with blue hair.” Steve stood for a moment. determined not to make a noise. “Yes. Alex was starting to understand why orphans were so much more vulnerable at the Academy. then it isn’t any of your concern. “Watch your back. and why she was in the same class with him. Alex couldn’t think of a better way to describe her than severe.” Emily set her milk back down on the table and then glared at Vivik.” Emily replied. huh?” “What is your problem. “He one of yours. and that’s William. Emily?” Alex noticed a hint of caution in the idiot’s voice. Choi.” Alex turned to face him. talking quietly and seriously. “The one they aren’t bothering. “Well. Emily shook her head. “It’s… complicated. and he didn’t like it at all. and people might start making assumptions. anyway.” “But they eat at the cafeteria? I mean. brightening up at the change of topic. But he wasn’t there to start shit. his name is Steve. “Seems like you’re already pretty popular around here. “I think we probably will. Alex was surprised at how young and small she was – she looked like a very serious middleschooler. Up close. turning back to his lasagna. totally unsure of what to make of her advice. right?” Emily sighed theatrically. The only Fey I know about is Eerie. and wondered if he ever brushed his teeth.” she warned.” He set his teeth when Steve flicked his ear with the tip of his index finger. Alex nodded diplomatically. we call her Eerie.” “Except that they’re treated a bit different then everyone else. then gave up trying to figure things out. Alex stared after them for a moment. There’s nothing sinister about it. “I was going to tell you. glaring at Vivik. and his hanger-on is Charles. She didn’t look more than thirteen or fourteen. For a long moment. but she’s been at the Academy forever. blond kid – grinned at Alex in a troubling way. each with several students eating lunch at them. opening her milk. trying to cut a roll in half with the questionable plastic knife. the scion of the Black Sun cartel. but he reminded himself that it would be better to pick his time. right?” . “So that table over there are the other Hegemony cartel kids from our class – the girl is Louise and the guys are Manual and Gary. “You’re lucky. motioning for the two boys to follow her. isn’t it. turning around to look. “Don’t you have anything better to do?” Steve’s eyes narrowed. who was standing behind them.” Vivik looked down at his food and shrugged.” Emily complained. He was a big guy. anyway.” Vivik said. obscene. “Not since blood banks were invented. either. But one of these days. but he’d been around enough to read between the lines.” Emily said grimly. more appropriate to the age of the speakers. they eat food. where the only thing more dangerous than being in one of the gangs was not belonging at all. here? “Choose your company carefully. this is Anastasia Martynova.” “Wait.” “How so?” Alex asked. Alex shoveled food in his mouth without paying it any attention. on the opposite side of the fence as Anastasia. so I don’t know what her deal is. and followed Emily and Vivik over to an empty table to eat his lunch. his jaw to unclench. food?” “Well. “Who?” Emily asked.” Emily turned around in her chair. “Just because they can’t produce hemoglobin on the own doesn’t preclude them from varied nutritional requirements. He couldn’t see any benefit in responding. and pointed to a set of two tables in the center of the room. Anastasia shrugged and then turned away. and Chris at the near table. impaling lettuce with a plastic fork. shaking her head. with deep set. so he didn’t. was what Anastasia said about you true?” He kept his voice casual. fag. “But since you’re getting all pushy about it. and Vivik sighed. Steve. She was flanked on either side by one young man who Alex remembered from class. Why don’t you try not to make us all look like assholes this time.” “This is boring.” Vivik sputtered. forcing his shoulders to relax. her hair parted neatly down the middle and worn straight and spilling over the shoulders of her ornate black dress. Margot. He wondered how much younger than him she was. Emily? If he isn’t one of yours. “So. I promise. Sujan.” “Whatever. I’d hoped to finish lunch first. in an overly gothic sort of way. anyway?” “Well. heard him snickering. I was going to introduce you anyway – Alex. The conversations here seemed to Alex to be a bit more natural. Maybe she was a gifted student? Did they even have such things. He heard the goon walk up behind him. “Sure. But since I’m still a student here at the Academy. yet. holding a lunch tray of her own. And Alex knew there couldn’t be any good reason for anyone to be standing right behind him. It was painful. over there. Steve?” Emily asked sharply. leering. Alex tried to look away without seeming bothered. pointing at the far corner of the room. but controlling his temper was more difficult. trying to sound more confident than he felt. and then you and me are gonna have a little talk. but she wasn’t scowling this time. and Edward Krylov. the redhead. “I’m not trying to recruit you. She was not smiling. and Marko at the far table. Alex. “and they are bad news for the girl sitting at that table.” Alex glared.” Alex said. what?” Alex stared at Vivik. sighing. Alex was tempted to settle things right then. They’re both students here. he could hear the big guy’s tone of voice.” Vivik muttered. as Emily and Vivik stared at Alex.” “We don’t kill them?” Alex asked incredulously. “You were planning on telling him.” Emily looked pleadingly at Alex.” Vivik said around a mouthful of salad. much older one that he didn’t think he’d ever seen before. I was born into the Raleigh Cartel. “The bastard from earlier. “Ha. struggling to cut the crust of the lasagna with a frustratingly dull plastic knife. Alexander. He couldn’t hear what he was saying. “The vampires have a sort of embassy. mean eyes and the cauliflower ears of a wrestler. along with her comrades-in-arms. she’s half-Fey. and another. Renton – the older. It was a lot like how things had worked back at the Youth Facility. Even from here. like. “You don’t have shit to say to me. can we eat our lunch in peace?” Anastasia looked at Alex thoughtfully. You already met Anastasia and the Black Sun contingent…” “And what about them?” Alex asked. “Those are mostly orphans. “you aren’t being entirely honest with Alex. his fork frozen halfway to his mouth.“It is much easier when you are raised into it. “Oh. “Now. I’m unaffiliated. Her lace-fringed black dress looked too hot for the weather to him. asshole. the table was silent. He got in maybe five bites. bad scene. “Hey new kid. here in Central. and then he sauntered off to bother someone else. feeling his gut tighten. Renton Vidor. Emily?” The owner of the grave voice was the black-haired girl from class. fag?” He leaned close. You spend enough time associating with Emily. I’m not like Anastasia – my family isn’t particularly important. and then pointed to a nearby table where two boys and a girl sat.” Emily interjected. while the younger Edward gave him a friendly nod before departing. “You got something to say to me. uh.” “Not yet anyway.” Alex said. Emily.” Steve’s grin was dumb. is a vampire.” Alex stared evenly back at the sneering boy. and Alex winced at his breath.” “Emily. if not the setting.” “There is an understanding. Rise.” Emily looked around the room briefly. your girlfriend won’t be around.

Steve and Charles leaned over a girl sprawled out in spilled food and dishes. “That’s it!” Steve howled. “I couldn’t understand you there. Alex settled on a solid-looking metal tray. “He’s the biggest and the strongest kid here. or he wouldn’t have pulled this.” Steve said. His body felt very warm. was simply another institution. he’s a tough guy.” “Alex. dumbass. He shot a warning glance at Charles. Nobody bothers a vampire. different. struggling to simultaneously stare and avert his eyes. stony grey protrusions jutting out of his torn uniform. except the purported vampire at the other end of the table. glaring unsteadily and swaying. in Alex’s eyes. What a strange way to die. was staring down at the plate in front of her. and then kicked Steve in the side of the head for good measure. he thought the blue-haired girl would just stare at him. much too late for a warning to help. Or maybe she was used to it. Alex thought. After the first few years. “Are you okay? Can you walk? Do you need help?” The words tumbled out. “I’m going to borrow this for a second. He held the tray in both hands and swung it as hard as he could. just looking for an excuse to try it out on somebody. and her eyes wide and blank. someone who intimidated everyone else. who was staring at him in frank astonishment. and tried to turn around. Charles. He’d even played cards with one of the Dominicans. now half-disassembled by a host of white-clad staffers. and then the next. One moment. “Some people give Eerie a pretty hard time. the linoleum cracked under his weight. flipping the girl’s skirt up. who had tried to bash his head in with a plastic chair. and he pulled her gently to her feet. “Here. Halfway house. spitting blood and a tooth on to the cafeteria floor. he couldn’t help but notice that vampires ate a lot of salad. The next time it had been a peckerwood cellmate. freak. Even in the heat of the moment. but he’d apparently decided to let Steve fight his own battles.” “Alex?” Emily called after him. He was so angry his hands were white where he gripped the tray. and got apprehensive and embarrassed. Alex could have written a book about it. and he’d seen the same thing in every one of them. he’d been attacked by a couple Dominican kids in the kitchen where he mopped the floors. or at least the losing ones. heading rapidly off toward the corner table before his nerve gave out. reaching toward the pasta. a few times. surprising and unfamiliar. Alex didn’t even bother to look up. Mental hospital. “At the moment. particularly not Margot. “Hey. and was standing nervously several feet away. poor thing. Then Alex noticed that the girl’s striped panties were still visible. was watching the scene develop. Work camp. thought for a moment.” she said. Alex stepped over him. The other boy cackled. and then rolled onto his side. what are you thinking of?” Vivik asked. who laughed even harder. right?” Alex stood up. ignored and seemingly oblivious to what was going on around her. and all the lights had halos around them. and his head was buzzing. Steve opened his eyes just in time for the tray to catch him in the mouth. Steve cried out in pain and surprise. and he turned around to face Steve. he’d be targeted for being new. He’d propped himself up on the table with one arm.” Steve said. “It looks like you had another accident. warm hand in his own. then. No one had bothered him again. one giant hand clutching the side of his head. eyes closed. Juvenile Hall. while they were both the infirmary. “Who are you?” “The fuck are you thinking? You’re the one who gets hurt. I think Anastasia left already. casually. It was the same everywhere. and no point in even trying to block the punch. lacking the obvious security that came with the cartels. Alex was very sure the toady wouldn’t be a problem. faster than he could think. Margot. Where there had once been skin. It was inevitable. He’d ended up half-killing one of them with a metal cooking pot. “You are fucking dead!” Alex didn’t see a transition. Alex walked over to the girl. turning away abruptly and walking from the table. Alex wondered why she wasn’t required to observe the dress code – the black skirt was part of the uniform. The redhead. and the tray warping with the force of the impact. of course. looking puzzled and releasing his hand.” Steve snarled. School. but…” As if on cue.” Steve winked at Charles. yeah. after that. Near the end of the table. He watched the other stone fist pull back with resignation. His anger flared again. The second blow hit even harder than the first. No way to dodge with the grip Steve had on him. looking up with obvious concern. his head spinning. and he would have shared his opinion of Steve. You have terrible balance. This was yet another price that Alex would pay for staying unaffiliated. Then he felt a small.” Vivik admitted sheepishly. It only lasted until he’d been transferred to a different institution.” “Right. Her sweatshirt was splattered with red sauce. but his voice squeaked as he walked forward. clutching his head. he’d been all jacked up for days. sure that he was about to get his ass kicked. and raised the tray above his head. ‘kay?” Alex didn’t wait for an answer from the puzzled worker. that she was tougher than she’d looked. Alex being the new kid. his face snarling and bloody. “You aren’t hurt. and then spent two weeks in the infirmary with a hole in his gut from where the other kid had stabbed him. When Steve took a step forward. and the majority of a bowl of pasta sat on her skirt.” Emily said. and tried to look him in the eyes. the surface cold and abrasive. worried. Alex wasn’t thinking very clearly. Steve cried out again and fell to the floor. but words wouldn’t convey the message the way a metal tray upside Steve’s head would. right?” “I guess so. The pressure was immediately intolerable. “Let me help you with that. “And Steve. and it was all Alex could do to avoid falling to his knees. his eyes watering with pain at the intense pressure on his arm. You develop a speech impediment all of a sudden?” Alex tried for a cocksure smile. but Alex had already pulled back for another swing. and then. if there was one. Steve…” Charles said nervously. Alex had been to them all. too – in all honesty. He held out a hand to her. “Mostly. There was always someone who threw their weight around.” For a moment. the remaining pasta splashing to the floor.Vivik looked up at Alex’s strange tone of voice. crouching down beside the girl with an oafish grin. but she also wore a loose grey sweater that hung off her shoulders that was clearly not. “Aw. He was surprised and pleased to see that her face was dry. and the enormous hand wrapped around his forearm felt like granite. Two weeks after he’d arrived. and everyone. there was a living statue. and the girl gasped. shaking her head. or at least this one did. And the Academy. It didn’t even matter that Steve hadn’t started on him yet – he would eventually. She was still sitting where she’d fallen. and friendless. looking confused. and he turned bright red. catching Steve solidly behind his left ear with a meaty thud. connecting with the boy’s temple. He ran his eyes along the cafeteria counter. They just spilled straight out of his mouth and into the air. Steve. “That’s good. who’d probably grown up ten minutes down the road from Alex in some other white-trash hole. he’d pretty much gotten used to it. exposing her panties. trying his best to look uninvolved. Beaten to death by a . are you?” “No. Some of it might have had to do with the training. “Any other funny shit you’d like to say?” Steve’s voice had become a roar. there was a jerk that looked like a linebacker standing in front of him. smiled. still looking at the ground in front of him. Alex had spent some of the time after his trial in a State Hospital. Alex dropped the tray to the floor with a crash. Charles howled with laughter. but Alex refused to meet his gaze. but Alex was already halfway to the lunch line. and maybe the black knee socks as well. there was now something that looked like rock. there was a crash and then a brief cry from the corner table. and his tittering classmates who were watching. “The staff here won’t let anything too bad happen. one after the other. for some reason.” Alex said. Alex realized that the room had gone silent. Steve shrieked again. Even if Alex hadn’t had a giant bull’s-eye hanging on his chest. Alex would have liked to have said something cool.

but he said nothing.” Alex admitted.” he complained loudly. Alex?” “Well. Margot. and Alex wondered if he’d broken anything. Alex was reminded again that. his smile sad and knowing. would you go with her?” The pigtailed vampire-girl nodded without looking at any of them. though. Steve. and wondered exactly how much trouble he was about to be in. There was no point in lying about it. to no one in particular. Lacroix. sir. and half-dragged her from the cafeteria. but he didn’t look. Steve? Anything you’d like to tell me about?” Steve looked at the ground and clenched his fists. sir! He hit me from behind!” “Terrible. Alex wondered if that was any better than being eaten by wolves. Michael sighed loudly and stretched. the remains of her lunch still dripping off her sweatshirt. how did all this happen. “He knocked my tooth out. Steve released Alex’s arm. well. His arm even more after Steve let go. You can wait in my office after class. minus the torn clothing.” Michael towered over Steve disapprovingly. and Alex immediately hugged it to his chest.” Michael said grimly. “Mr. When Alex looked over at Steve. raising his tattooed arms above his head. red-faced. you can go back to your room and change. yes. you won’t be late. “And. stood up. let’s take a walk over to the Administrative building. “Steve? Please tell me that you weren’t about to use a combat protocol on another student. If you hurry. Alex.” Michael said. he’d returned to normal. “Steve? Alex? Any possibility of a word with you two gentlemen?” Michael came striding across the cafeteria purposefully. Alex suppressed an urge to wave at her receding back. “He left out the part where I kicked him in the head. all of the whispering and gossiping students who had crowded around during the altercation rapidly found other things to do. unable to meet Michael’s gentle eyes. “Is that true. and then at the blue-haired girl. with a tired laugh. rocky.” Michael looked down at the broken dishes and spilled food. still blank-eyed and silent. pointing at Alex. “As if I didn’t have enough tying me to that desk. “Alright. that Michael was a pretty scary dude. Eerie. and was obviously enraged. “I thought that might be the case. I was going to have a chat with you after homeroom already – I suppose we’ll have more to talk about. despite the smile. He was breathing hard. In his wake. both of them trying to act like nothing had happening. grabbed Eerie rather roughly by the wrist.statue. and wondered what had gotten into him. “Students are definitely the worst part of this teaching gig.” . he hit me first!” Steve shouted.

and the hiss of water running through the pipes. where they worked their way into predetermined social circles. First. right now. And she’d done her best. shifting with the gentle afternoon light that snuck through the blinds. Evelyn stared blankly at the shadow on the wall. was not always possible. had been ordered to Los Angeles.” the woman said with a cheerful smile. one that she’d kept almost complete for years. was to starve. The safe house’s popcorn ceiling crawled. only to kick over again and resume its work. All of their lives had a relationship in some way to a specific import-export firm owned by one of the Operator’s cartels. She knew the ocean was close. The air conditioner hummed. taller than Evelyn. and then harvesting the resulting sorrow and pain. and Evelyn hadn’t gotten any in almost two days. waving in the wind. “A transporter. watching TV and showering. and it had been disgusting. made reports on the mundane activities of their day-to-day lives. and then. under the authority of Central. the bedding. Evelyn didn’t feel bad for them. She didn’t feel bad about it – her nature was parasitic. Evelyn genuinely did think of humans as a herd – and why not? She meant nothing unkind by it. But she did feel bad for herself. or rather. and while they’d been wary and hostile at first. she was angry with her sister Yolanda. An outside observer would have been forgiven for thinking that she found a duplicate of herself watching TV in bed in the adjacent room – both she and her sister shared identical features. and beyond that an expanse of green hills. She’d called herself that for almost five years now. an automatic shotgun with a conical silencer and nylon grips held meaningfully in the crook of her other arm. almost like a Witch herself. their whispered confidences. major working. into her sister’s room. you miserable cunt. become invisible. through a crack in the blinds. and she had shown no mercy. romances. but it left only the faintest shadows. It might have been different had they been younger. and she could not sleep with her eyes open. close to the building. she threw fire in the direction of the Auditor – it was a minor working. the carpet all shown with an internal radiance. Still. Witches need to sleep. Witches maintain their existence with power drawn from human suffering. Evelyn dove backwards. and even as she poisoned her family’s dinner. clearly shocked at her sister’s sudden arrival. in a fashion. Please do resist. She hadn’t even used her powers – Evelyn was pretty. and hurt Evelyn’s eyes. through the wall. and she had no more choice in the matter than any of the other parasites that preyed on humanity. Her sisters. and lovers whom she’d been genuinely fond of. and waited for orders. fun. but not quite good enough to overcome her instinctual drive to live. She could hear a television faintly. cast by her bed and her prone form on top of it. The girls had been able to beg her to call for help almost up until the end. She’d spoiled them. and she was surprised to find how much she enjoyed it. squeezing until a fine stream of dust emerged. from the adjacent room.” Evelyn didn’t respond. so maybe that was why she didn’t notice the shadow until it was almost too late. disappearing at mid-calf. coalescing in a halo that rotated .” Evelyn said hurriedly. and wore something black and heavy that was probably armor. She planned on living for a long. Evelyn was too old for children of her own. She was already too busy with a working. It was brilliant. She was still feeling ill. occasionally breaking into fits of coughing and struggling. however. Orders were orders. because she took precautions and slept fully clothed. and that always left her feeling a bit ill.” Evelyn screamed at her sister. They’d taken on the local color. Evelyn preyed on strangers almost exclusively. and they’d wormed their way well inside it. She felt bad for herself because she’d been happy. It had taken hours. Evelyn. like humans. “As much light as you can. “Good evening. Evelyn was not suffering from pangs of conscience – far from it. and then opening them again. but it was the first thing that hopped to mind the next day when someone asked for her name. taking them for manicures. for a little while. She and her sisters had collected information. holding them closed as long as she could manage the nausea. and ice-blue eyes. The poison she’d provided was meant to be quick and painless. that her senses were sharp from the misery she’d consumed earlier. which had allowed her to enjoy her relationships with the humans around her over the years – she’d had friends. and closed her eyes. She was tall. and she had no illusions about its chancing of doing anything other than distracting the Auditor – but the illumination and the smoke gave her the opening to activate a second. Evelyn was philosophic. which was the longest she’d ever kept a name. then. patient and useful. every surface burning from within. and her sisters. This. long time. vomiting. She wondered if that meant she was becoming sentimental in her old age. spa treatments and shopping expeditions in Beverly Hills. part of the herd. and she took no special pleasure in causing pain. she lay on her back and watched the ceiling crawl. Even the loose blue dresses they wore were similar. It beat admitting that she didn’t have a name of her own. to do well by them. blunt-toed black boots. Her only alternative. Tired of the ceiling. But both girls were already teenagers. She uses the shadows to port. There would be many more such opportunities. their laughter. All she could see were tall pines. She acted more like a friend and less like a mother. a series of workings. and within a few months. Her species was not capable of either. the one who sometimes called herself Nadia. It hadn’t been particularly good. an executive in the company that she was surveying. The woman stepped neatly out of the shadow on the wall. Still. it could have been the other way – it could have been that since Evelyn was an old and cunning Witch. and their shy adoration. And some Witches grew very old indeed. blond hair. because she’d enjoyed her time with them. and I am here in regards to an open Audit. it hadn’t taken Evelyn long to win them over. diarrhea. and jobs. the walls.Fifteen She had people call her Evelyn. Evelyn finished tearing the scarf. she could sense the adoration and hero-worship from the two girls. and began tearing it at intervals. Evelyn rolled onto her side and stared out the window. and heavy. an Operator. As a result. stretched out over as many years as she could manage. the other still somewhere in the dark behind her. She felt no guilt. as far as it was possible. as I am in one hell of a terrible mood. She blinked her eyes to dispel the illusion. death. bypassing both the building’s defenses and her own considerable additions effortlessly. swallowing questions. Cows were benign by nature. Her black hair hung in braids and was knotted with trinkets and coils of wire. one foot on the safe house floor. respectively. Evelyn wasn’t much for holding babies and PTA meetings. “What do you mean? What’s happening?” She reached into a pocket and pulled a small. after all. Cruelty wasn’t part of her nature. but she couldn’t see it from here. as it seemed to thicken and writhe. She removed a length of braided red silk from her pocket. stretching from her ankles to her neck. for exactly such a situation. Or. Evelyn had taken a husband. and red smoke began rising from it. But. she wasn’t capable of empathy. rose quartz sphere from it. “Light. No special reason – she’d seen a movie. she’d had to kill a number of people in that time. finally. The room lit up bizarrely. Her last assignment had been no different from any other – she. Evelyn could not close her eyes without becoming nauseous. and fond of spending money and stylish clothes. and had rapidly charmed and won over his two daughters from a previous marriage. a small pile of ground crystal on the shag carpet. She waved cheerfully at Evelyn. No shadows. Nadia looked up from the television. “My name is Alice Gallow. Her hand whitened as it clenched tightly around the crystal. She did not consider the comparison to be unflattering.” Nadia shook her head. so long ago that she’d forgotten the title. Or maybe the Auditors were simply terrifyingly capable. and that had been the name of the main character. after all. but had instead induced cramps. Also. Evelyn had spent decades sowing misfortune and grief in the people she encountered. Witches aren’t human – although they look very much the same. so in order to survive.

and her hand tightened around the amulet. no fighting them. her sister and companion for decades. not even if they outnumbered her three to one. if you do what I say. “I’ve killed more Witches than you’ve met in your whole life. I could eat you up and spit you out. and the red halo above her head became a burning serpent. it’ll be less painful that what I have in mind. where to run. stinking body of the Witch away with her foot. didn’t you.” Alice giggled and sat down on the edge of the bed.” Evelyn drew her legs up underneath her. Is it a combat working? Go ahead. outside the room. right?” Evelyn shuddered at the implication. She’d been prepared for potential interference from Operators. “One chance. still glib and cheerful. Alice looked at their reaction. “Enough of this. Without her clothes. Evelyn clutched her pounding head. Alice waved one outstretched hand dismissively. his face almost entirely obscured by blue-tinted goggles and a blue surgical mask. “They must’ve cried. And you ate it up. and her hands and face were charred black. of a lifetime. you have to be wondering what happened to your sister. all your little tricks. Witches did not draw power from the Ether. that matter. Evelyn’s breath came in ragged gasps. all the workings. And it was unlikely that the Auditor would have come alone. It was horrible – the presence that had been in her mind since she was born. and humiliation – perhaps more than a human could. but she knew the functional differences between them and the Witches own workings. Evelyn released her working. You could use up every ounce of power you’ve got. and felt her release the working she’d been holding in the direction of the window. staring wide-eyed at the Auditor and hyperventilating. This harvested power was stored. So we have to assume they already taken her. “Is she an Auditor?” Nadia asked. and she wondered what to do. and then crumpled on to the floor. as Nadia started another working. just like I tell you to. Who knows when he last saw any tits besides mine. and the room fell back into the natural half-shadow cast by the lamps. that was some of it. her face shining and unhealthily pale. Evelyn knew then with a grim certainty that they had lost. Since that time. her sister had finally grasped the seriousness of the situation. She could only manage a nod. Evelyn had even heard rumors of one who could walk from shadow to shadow. “Come on.” Evelyn looked over at Nadia. Then we do the hair. but rather. Your clothes. and her smile got even bigger.” She knotted her fingers in Evelyn’s hair and pulled mercilessly. right here in front of Xia. “You’ve got to be wondering ‘How did we attract all this attention? What did we do to merit an Audit?’ Am I right?” Evelyn had. Apparently. and she’d anticipated trouble ever since the orders had come down to break up the job before it was completed. Evelyn had spent years weaving workings into the fabric of the dress she wore. No helping it. a crescent of fire that coursed through the air. The woman had to be an Auditor. try it out. frozen by the smiling Auditor’s stare. one hand holding her face tightly while the other caressed her throat. however. It was the work. forcing her head back so that she could run her black fingernails delicately across her jugular vein. and had been doing the same to her hair her whole life. I’m going to do you bitches a favor. Evelyn screamed for her to stop. “Well. looking glum. Evelyn thought that he might have been Chinese. she’d mainly wondered if the working she’d held in reserve would be enough to stop her. but didn’t stand up. grinning. limp and motionless. He was taller than her by a few inches with neatly trimmed black hair. out of breath from the effort of the rapid series of workings. “If she could have. the one whom. Everybody has stuff that gets to them. there was no point in making a pretense.” Alice’s laughter was cruel and abrupt. first. a blue-white electric current searing the hallway in a brilliant flash. and then collapsed from inattention. Evelyn let out another low moan. “Otherwise. personally. even in this business. Alice Gallow stepped from the shadows in front of Evelyn. mostly. spraying glass as something heavy came crashing through it. pulling a man into the room through the shadow behind her. their pain. They can also understand pain. “Those were some nice little girls you had there. and then suddenly she was behind Evelyn. rolling the charred. “What guarantees do you offer us in return for our surrender?” Alice leaned her elbows on her knees and looked delighted. There was. I promise that you will arrive. her smile frozen and grotesque.” Alice laughed. “I can see that amulet you’ve got in your hand. at Central. Witches can feel fear. Alice Gallow was holding someone’s hand. we would know. I know all your moves. give Xia a little show. “Auditor. in fact.lazily around her head. but it was too late.” Alice shook her head and then smiled again. The working she’d thrown was the most powerful she knew.” Evelyn felt the ebb and flow of power.” Evelyn began. So.” Evelyn heard Nadia making a choking sound. I hate suspense. you pathetic shit. because it took them a long time to die. “Plus. still reeling from the blowback of the destroyed working. Her skin was brilliant red over much of her body. you and your sister. given that they are the currency of the world that a Witch lives in. and the serpent should have reduced even a capable Operator to ashes. “Don’t think that I don’t appreciate your position. Yolanda collided with the bed like a rag doll. Evelyn shook her head. Evelyn did not understand the Operators ‘Protocols’. But the Auditors? What she had been working on shouldn’t have been big enough to merit their involvement. honey. as if they were hiding from the Auditor. right? And I don’t think you want that. inclining her head in the direction of Evelyn’s room. leaving her sprawled out next to the twitching body of her burned sister. Evelyn had been wondering that. “you are going to have to cry a bit for me. creature. He wore a heavy black coat that ran almost to his ankles.” Evelyn recognized the mocking voice of Alice Gallow. simmering and howling as it charged the Auditor. “You don’t stand a chance. She fingered the glass idol in her left hand – the Auditor must know she was holding it.” . and how to make it there? “What about our sister?” Nadia asked the question softly. and Evelyn guessed that this was armor as well. coming from somewhere in the hall. bitches. Evelyn would be all but helpless. But. alive and uncooked. “I saw your little family. and the working disappeared. probably some kind of attack. sputtering and disintegrating. “Alright. right Xia? But everybody has limits. she would have made it here by now. somehow. Whatever they decide to do to you. do you mind?” The window shattered inward. with her clothes reduced to patches and her hair to a smoldering ruin. we do it the way we did your sister. “It looked like they hurt. They both knew she was referring to their other sister. snuffed out like a candle.” Alice said.” Evelyn’s glance kept darting to the door and the window. if she were dead. “Witch. Evelyn was tossed to her feet by the impact when the working reemerged from the shadows behind her. clutching her. been wondering exactly that. It’s too bad that they had to shit themselves before they died. wasn’t it? Did they beg you for help? Did they call you mommy?” Evelyn didn’t see any point in denying or confirming it. in charms and in amulets. “But. Although. and you wouldn’t even touch me. in a pile. choking on her own burned lungs. and rested her chin in her hands. She was so frightened that she almost didn’t notice when Yolanda’s consciousness disintegrated. Alice sat down heavily on the edge of the bed. holding up a large pair of silver scissors with a grin. She was naked. until she heard the Auditor’s voice. literally. It’s too bad it had to be like that. swallowed up by the shadow her arm cast. Alice sighed and tossed her to the floor. Well. bitch? That thing you threw at me. and answer that question right now. in a Witches clothes and her hair. had started calling herself Yolanda. without her hair. and wondered why they were here.” Alice cooed. describing a circle a meter-wide in gently swirling crimson embers. to be totally accurate. and why this horrible thing was happening to her. Evelyn heard Nadia scream. Now I’m not that nice of a person myself. Nadia’s light working flickered. who was still crouched in the far corner of the room. Instead it failed to even touch her. the color of lobster. or any working that she was capable of for. just lately. and Evelyn felt a great deal at the moment. trying to keep her voice steady.” Alice said softly. her eyes shining wickedly. Xia. and she moaned involuntarily. she knew. from the humans around them.” Alice said amiably. if I wanted to.

“Now crawl on over here.” Alice chuckled. She’d liked having sisters.” Alice said. Any Witch will do. her face reduced to charcoal and cinders. It took a long time before Nadia stopped screaming. for the first time in her life. right? You need to know something?” “Nah. and be finished with us?” Evelyn demanded. where her sisters had always been.” Behind his mask. And then. bitch. “Why.” Evelyn did as she was told.” Evelyn’s let the idol tumble from her hands on to the carpet next to her. That’s a score I want to even. Burn the little one. then? Why bother keeping us alive?” “Because it’s good practice for the kids in the science labs at Central to have a real live Witch to tear apart. turning to the masked man and exchanging a knowing glance. and then his eyes narrowed.” Alice said. seeing a glimmer of hope. you can’t.“Why not do it now. her voice firming. I’m getting bored. crossing her legs. like balloon popping inside her. it’s a start.” Alice’s smile was crooked.” Alice said smugly. Xia gave Alice a short nod. “You need us for something. The room reeked of burnt plastic and cooked skin. She felt bad for herself. Well. “We’re just sending a message. “Fucking hell. We’ve got time. and we don’t need two. “Xia. Xia. and he stared at Nadia. wouldn’t you already have done it?” Alice shrugged happily. leaning forward and crooking a finger at Evelyn. “Enough with the bullshit. bright-eyed and cheerful. and her eyes fixed on Nadia. anyway. Witch. when she realized that she was alone inside her head. smiling up through her tears at the Auditors. “If you could have. and then the tears came. and she felt sick. Don’t get delusions of grandeur because we’re here.” Evelyn numbly began to unbutton her dress. when Nadia finally went. right?” Alice asked.” Evelyn gaped at the Auditor in dismay. “Okay. “Clothes in a pile. you are watching this shit. so they know how to do it when we catch one that knows something worthwhile. You aren’t anything special. tears dropping from her cheeks to the scorched carpet. “Don’t say I never did you any favors…” . hard. “Make it hurt. now strip. as long as your corpses are ugly enough to make the rest of you think twice after they see them. but that stinks. “And because of those little girls. All fours. “Obviously.” Evelyn said triumphantly. Evelyn felt that too. nodding at Nadia. along with anything else you might have on you. Her head ached horribly.

” “Good. sounding surprised. “Alright.” she said. Don’t get me wrong. Alex? That we want something from you?” “Actually. “preemptive.” Alex responded earnestly.” Rebecca said. as if that explained anything. Rebecca. “Okay. but Alex never heard it. “Sure.” “Does that bother you. “I think so. running one hand through his uncombed hair. “I can’t fault you completely. I mean. Honestly. Rebecca. but I don’t understand what is going on here. I trust you. eventually. This is the Absolute Protocol. after a moment. “That’s basically what protocols are. Rebecca put the palm of her hand on his chest and pressed lightly. nodding. gradually encompassing his whole body.Sixteen “Do you want to talk about what happened this afternoon?” Rebecca was perched on the front of Michael’s desk. then both of their bodies.” Rebecca said. She was clearly not making her afternoon appointments today. Michael plans on showing you how to use the Absolute Protocol.” “Changeling? Is she like those werewolves? What does she change into?” Alex looked confused. Everyone here wants something from me. But I’m interested in what you think about what happened. I’d prefer not to fight with anybody. and was rewarded by an even bigger smile in return. Alex…” Rebecca looked at the clock and sighed. you know.” Rebecca smiled at him benevolently. waving her hand dismissively. She was wearing a pale yellow sweater and a loose cotton skirt. and then nodded. but I don’t have a lot of time today. either. if they here a certain word or something. I try to make it so they don’t get right back up again. and you might get dizzy for a minute. “You’re probably right. That’s really all there is to it. Alex. Let’s do it. consciously. through Rebecca’s hand. Except we teach our students to trigger the behaviors themselves. you know?” She ground out her cigarette in the ash tray. and then laughed.” “You get used to it after a while. Is that okay?” Alex nodded slightly. he was surprised how many people couldn’t tell.” Rebecca looked at him for a long time.” Rebecca shrugged. Steve did provoke you.” Alex said miserably. This was.” Rebecca frowned. he asked me to set up the routine to help you operate it.” Rebecca put a hand on his shoulder. Alex?” Alex nodded. and I’ll be right here with you. We call the process implanting. you know?” “You learn that in Juvenile Hall?” He wasn’t surprised she knew.” Alex responded.” Alex smiled at her. his eyes fully closed. sitting down next to him on the couch. It shown so brightly that he could see it through his eyelids. Do you mind if we move on?” “Sure. “I wouldn’t be very good at my job if I didn’t. And I know that it’s the truth. searching for the words. “I think you’ll find the consequences for today to be bit more severe than a lecture. “I’m really trying. his eyes fluttering and his breathing growing deep. her hair tied casually back. right?” Alex shifted uncomfortably on the crushed-down cushions of the aging couch in Michael’s office. “It’s a little weird. “Eerie’s had a tough time. and he was tormenting that poor Changeling girl. I’m going to implant the protocol now.” “I do want to help you. It’ll sting a little bit. I thought I was going to get lectured. I can still feel them. It’s nice to be wanted – that’s all there is to it. In three. smiling shyly. You follow?” Alex nodded. I’m not totally sure what got into me. you already know what happened. Rebecca. “That’s good. “No. Alex.” “And Eerie?” Rebecca’s eyebrows arched. The radiance grew slowly. May I use your power. “Not really. “Do you remember last time? When I built those shields in your head?” “Yeah. “Sure. it makes them do stuff. “But I’ll leave that for Michael. There’s nothing an empath values more than genuine trust and affection. and where Michael was. I think so. here or with the Fey. too.” “I don’t get it.” Alex said. It was so eerily similar to the one he had destroyed in Rebecca’s office that he half-wondered if it had been moved here instead. He was only aware of where Rebecca’s palm met his chest. just like on TV where they make people think they’re a chicken or dance around or whatever. resting her head on his shoulder. once a person has been hypnotized.” she softly. Well. I don’t want you to think I’m some sort of psycho who goes around beating people up for no reason. “I was wondering why you were here. this was all about taking care of myself. “I’m fine with it. drawing on her cigarette. “You’re the kind of kid who keeps psychologists in business.” “What’s that?” “It’s nothing bad. two…” Perhaps there was a ‘one’. “It feels good. her shoulder pressing against his own. and then hopped off the desk. and sighed again. But when I hit people. “Have you ever heard of a hypnotic trigger?” “Sure.” Alex said uncertainly. Alex shook and writhed .” Rebecca explained patiently. regular. and she didn’t seem mad at Alex at all. Alex. either. clearly very tired. “Okay. I can tell. There isn’t much of a place for her. We have something we need to do.” Alex paused. Alex thought about it for a while. but that will pass quickly. a cigarette dangling from her left hand. I would’ve had trouble with Steve. illuminating the room with a dazzling array of sparks and metallic light.” Alex said agreeably. “Has anyone explained protocols to you. Rebecca leaned next to him on the couch. Implanted behaviors and routines. and the copper-toned light that emanated from there. We already know from your activation that you have the affinity for it.” Alex gestured vaguely around his head. “But I’m not stupid.” She leaned back against the cracked leather couch. right?” “Sort of. “I’m sorry. “But. Not the first time he’s done that. “You say that.” Alex admitted. and I think it’s probably true. Steve’s a piece of work – if the kid didn’t have such combat potential. Alex. Close enough. Alex felt almost as if he were melting. Alex?” He shook his head. “It’s like. we probably would have bounced him out a while ago – but your reaction seems a little…” “Disproportionate?” Alex smiled ruefully. “Look. So. her hair in his face. You’re helping me because you want something from me. that’s just an old name for the children that the Fey leave behind. “Oh my…” she said. “What about her?” “It’s true that I don’t like watching that kind of thing.

“Okay. yet. Their abilities would be complementary…” . “How long till I can build them myself?” he asked. Keep in mind. “So this is it. Did that work out the way you wanted?” “What do you think? I mean. but not bad. empaths tend to rise to the top. I mean. I do. and then learn the applications. The kind of empath who can’t help but rise to the top. Did Rebecca tell you much about empaths?” “She said that they tend to be in charge of things. actually. She had seemed. But good qualities aside.” Michael’s voice turned grim. They are one of the Hegemony’s oldest and most important cartels. then?” Alex demanded. You need to start with the fundamentals. Like. right? Otherwise I really would have been setting you up. his arms crossed. Plus. and she’s no good with the sciences – though she is an accomplished humanities student. You’re going to be amazing. down the road. is to be a housekeeper and plaything for some middling-important cartel functionary. with only a hint of crimson in the blinding. and like you said. quite friendly. and then laughed. Alex was grateful to find that the path widened out in front of him. “It’s good that you’re thinking that way. I like to think my plots are a bit more elegant.” “Fair enough. and then tossed it out into the quarry.” Michael spread his hands innocently. and then walked back to the desk.” Alex said softly.” Alex kicked at the ground nervously. You’re going to be more than fine. huh? I’m actually going to do this. He didn’t think he’d actually fall off of it. that her father is an important man in the Raleigh cartel. Alex. I’ve been her teacher since she came to the Academy. kiddo…” she said after a moment.” he said hopefully. You have anything else you’d like to say about it?” “Well. Alex’s head hurt a bit. Actually. “I didn’t expect him to turn to stone. so there are more openings than empaths to fill them.” Alex waved his hands agitatedly. Alex?” Alex felt ill in the pit of his stomach. and she’s been raised as part of the upper crust – a position. with one narrow. I didn’t want it to happen before I had a chance to talk with most of my classmates. Rebecca smiled at him. Rebecca increased the pressure on his chest. He has some ideas you might find interesting. It took him a quarter hour to find Michael. The gap cut crudely into the side of a hill had obviously been a quarry at some point in the past. tapping his forehead. I’m sorry. And that’s obviously going to be a problem. then back up at Rebecca. “Not long. Be an Operator. mundane lifetime to look forward to.” Alex stood up. Even a moderately powerful empath is pretty much guaranteed to end up in leadership role in their cartel – empaths are rare. into the water.” “That is.” Michael added speculatively. “Let’s talk a bit about that altercation at the cafeteria. as he reinterpreted them all.” Michael agreed. “Thanks.” Michael nodded and waited for him to continue. He’d needed a haircut before he’d come to the Academy. her brown eyes warm. He took several deep breaths. Could he really have misread her so badly? “Keep in mind that doesn’t make her bad person.” Alex looked down at himself oddly. Alex. about half the height of the depression. and she was born into the Raleigh Cartel. and sat down with obvious relief on a large rock next to Michael.” Rebecca beamed at him. Where do I go?” -Alex was again awed by how huge the Academy was – he followed the map Rebecca had drawn through a number of green practice fields. that is. Moreover. “Not exactly what I had planned today. “I’m sorry. and it was quite cool. Alex?” Michael’s voice was hushed. say. “I thought you’d like Vivik. Born leaders. Alex. and he felt a little dizzy. Alex walked along the ridge on one side and then down a hand-carved path into a deep depression that narrowed by long. Despite himself.” “Emily seems nice enough…” Alex said resentfully. so it’s too early to say. and then opened his eyes.” Alex’s voice was filled with wonder and doubt. all-encompassing luminescence. on the outside. But that’s a bit petty. “He’s a smart kid. Except for when they’re class-B empaths. “But that isn’t the point. Rebecca. “How was your first day?” “It isn’t over yet. falling eventually into the dark water below. Michael stood on the edge of that ridge. since he’s probably thinking about ways to kill me. and I’ll fix them back up for you. the protocol is implanted. “And yes.” “So? Doesn’t that make her even less of a threat?” Alex brushed his bangs nervously back from his eyes.” Michael added slyly. “Why did you pick Vivik to introduce me to everyone?” “You don’t like Vivik?” Michael looked surprised. And then it was over. “How’s it going. no. “or that she doesn’t have your interests in mind. We’ll teach you that soon. you know? That’s what Michael is waiting out on the practice ground to show you. with newly suspicious eyes. But. Come back and see me on Sunday. with all the stories everyone has apparently heard about me. A couple of weeks. it had to be an orphan. and she’s a wonderful student and delightful person. then I don’t see what the problem is. “Emily is nice enough. So why pick someone that everybody already hates to introduce me to everyone? Are you trying to set me up for this shit? Or is this some kind of test?” Michael looked at Alex for a long moment. smiling companionably. forested hills. A little paranoia will take you a long way at the Academy.” Michael reached absently for a pebble. Most empaths don’t have much in the way of combat potential. for me. patted him on the leg. Alex. “and she has excellent taste in literature.” “So why Vivik. too. “unless she figures out a way to become a much more powerful empath. as a class-B empath in the Hegemony. I guess I’m ready. too. I also reinforced those shields we built the other day – you should be good ‘til next week.” Michael wiped his eyes and composed himself. as I’m sure you are aware. he found that he was smiling.” “Emily’s future. I knew something like that would happen eventually. The pebbles that rolled away from Alex’s feet rang musically against the limestone ridge. that she cannot maintain without consenting to an arranged marriage. “Don’t worry about it right now. “Because people can’t help but like them. “your new friend. and it was a long way down to the still water at the bottom of the quarry. The rough-hewn walls of rock all around blocked out the sun. as an adult. “I’m a little bit scared.” Alex allowed. in a vaguely haughty way.and moaned like a child in the throes of a nightmare. pretty much impossible not to like. “Yes. bouncing it off the rock face and down. circular steps. looking up at Michael. blinking his eyes and trying to regain his equilibrium. You are going to be better at this than you’ve ever been at anything. Unless. a handful of low stone buildings. “I warned you about this. “I’ve had worse. but the sound still echoed within the old quarry. most of them. Emily.” Alex rubbed the back of his head and sat up. His interactions with Emily flashed before him in rapid sequence. Michael stood at the edge of the ridge. What do you figure the best way to do that might be. “Trust me. “If she’s so weak. Alex.” Michael added positively. could feel nothing else but the searing radiance.” Michael rolled his eyes. Alex noticed her hands shook slightly.” Michael said gently. uncut ridge rising in the center of the quarry. When she tapped a cigarette from the pack. The path so narrow that Alex didn’t feel comfortable walking up it.” Rebecca said dismissively. and one long stretch of what appeared to be rolling. right now. He’s clearly the least popular kid in the class.” “Don’t be. but he felt as if he might.” “That’s right. Emily has a long. though it looked to have been abandoned years before. blowing smoke at the ceiling. She’s also an empath.” “Uh huh. and then had another laughing fit. “an empath might make a very good partner for you. they’re inspirational and charming by nature. and he hadn’t had time to ask about getting one. Alex could see nothing else. alright. “you were planning on teach me how to fight a living statue today?” Michael looked at Alex oddly for a moment. and for a moment the light flared and became entirely white. “He’s a nice enough guy.” Alex shrugged. not counting the two who apparently aren’t even human. “Damn.

He opened his mouth as if to speak.” He closed the door so quietly on his way out that she didn’t even look up. Etheric energy comes rushing over into our world to fill it. “Okay. shaking out his dreadlocks and then tying them back again. son. then…” Michael let him trail off helplessly before he took pity on the obviously overwhelmed boy. absolute zero is a completely non-energetic state – no motion. even if it meant going slower than he would’ve normally liked to. Alex? You’ve got to exercise restraint if you want to make it here. anyway. Edward. trying to couch it all in a way that Alex would be able to follow. There’s this guy. Xia and I barely even saw each other. with surprising firmness. Michael’s mind was elsewhere. please tell the cook that I am ready for lunch. “but it isn’t actually the Ether that you manipulate. out of the surrounding area. “I already arranged for the consequences. turning back to face Michael with the biggest grin he’d ever seen on the kids face.” “What. we’d be in all the same classes. “Right. nodding. they thought that a telekine and pyrokine were two completely different things. his fingers blackened from volatized carbon. and Michael didn’t want to deal with him moping around for the next week because he’d taken an offhand comment personally. That was the only way. in whatever separates our universe from the Ether itself. should have been the only source for such information. Why. the catalytic effect. well. blue smoke trailing from the palm.” “Maybe we should do something about that. “Why am I not in the field?” His expression was gentle. “This should be interesting. But you don’t have to understand it all to make it work for you. and then you’re always a fraction short. Alex. I guarantee you won’t be so cavalier about knocking people’s teeth out in the future.” she said. trying to sound contemptuous. I can only do that once every so often.” Michael said. Depending on how you do it. Alex?” “It’s impossible. matter and energy from our universe is pulled into the Ether. Same root concept applies to the protocol I just showed you. I don’t actually understand some of it all that well myself. But he was thinking about it. “you mean like once a day or something?” “I wish. He looked like he was thinking about things as he did so. catching it midway down and then tossing it up again. his name’s Xia. You punch holes in reality.” Alex said breathlessly.” “I still don’t understand how that’s related to. his face lighting up. “Whether I knock over a matchstick or level a mountain. He’s just exciting the molecules within a flammable object until he gets them so energetic that they burst into flames. however. do you know what would happen?” While Alex considered it. but every time we talk about my protocol. You have tremendous potential.” he said.” Michael said. “I mean. searching for words. “Just in time.” Alex asked suspiciously. if it was possible. “I don’t think so. “Why are we in a quarry. “I’m not going to ask you to understand it all. but looking a little worried at the possibility. not yet. so that was a start. how could Anastasia have gotten access to those kind of documents? From a staff member. isn’t so different from what Xia is doing when he starts fires. if you must pick fights. Particularly not when the Academy’s kindergarten class could probably take you in a fight. an Auditor here. He’s a pyrokine – basically. then glanced over at Michael’s outstretched hand. a laptop sitting open in front of her. “I prefer psychokinesis. “So now do you understand what makes being M-Class so significant? You might not necessarily be able to wield as much raw power as me in a single instance. and Michael could see he wasn’t buying it. with obvious satisfaction. potentially. He didn’t accept Michael’s interpretation – not wholeheartedly. then. so when we were going through the Academy. If the hole you punch is small.” “Right. “Um. I think. “Anastasia told me so. But he didn’t like it. basically. troubled. “More importantly. frowning and wrinkling his brow. and that creates extreme cold. or the implications. he wondered. “Good question. actually.” Michael covered his alarm with an indulgent smile. you could freeze things in more ways than one. but let’s not tempt fate. rubbing his forehead. but he tried to make sure that it didn’t sound unkind.” Michael said.” Michael said hastily. “that you’re going to like this part.” Michael said. Turns out what I do in my head. “You’ll know them when you see them. You can reduce the fraction. just… wait.“I don’t want to talk about this stuff. for a long time. Could Anastasia somehow already be aware of Alex’s affinity for the Absolute Protocol? Was that even possible? Rebecca’s notes. “Well. not willing to fully commit to his answer.” “That’s it? That’s the whole lecture?” Michael grinned at him evilly. yes. When you create the vacuum on the Etheric side. straightening up and yawning. nodding. but you can’t make it go away. even on a molecular level.” Alex said. or a hole in the side of spaceship. “Holy fucking shit. Can I remind you to be careful. Moving things by force of will alone. smiling and attempting to shrug off the ghost of past embarrassment at the fact. So. “The in the quarry is online.” -Edward knocked politely before entering her office. He didn’t want Alex thinking that he was laughing at him – the kid had already proved to be sensitive. and eventually kinetic stasis. These days. circulated only through the upper levels of the Academy’s staff. anyway?” “To limit damage to the surroundings.” Alex suggested. “That was telekinesis. “Try and only pick the fights you can win. But. “Fair enough. When the vacuum is on our side. wait. okay?” Michael said mildly. you start talking about the Ether.” Alex tossed the sparkling piece of gravel in the air a couple of times. pushing against things.” Alex said.. Same thing. like water down a drain.” Alex said. Everything would freeze…?” Alex guessed more than he stated. “but sure.” Michael said.” Alex said. thus. reaching down to finger one of the quartz fragments that had been scattered all around them by the force of explosion. -Alex stared at the crater in the quarry wall blankly.” Alex tossed the rock away and frowned. after all.” Michael had to think about it for a minute before he started. “I mean. I think that a small hole. was Anastasia talking to Alex about absolute zero? “True. A bigger hole and matter will be pulled through it. A big enough hole…” “And the whole universe goes down the drain?” Alex asked. he can start fires by thinking about it. so Michael let it be.” . fuck! Man. and then looked back at the smoldering indent in the rock. rather than was sad. Until you got to the ‘werewolf thing’ part. You can only get so close. Alex. I think even a tiny breach will be enough to pull most of the radiant energy. at least. a little pinprick.” he said quietly.” Alex frowned. rubbing his hands against his pants to remove the soot. like. “so if you can do that. huh?” Alex asked. right? Well. it takes me a long while to build it back up. on our side. everything would stop. but you can do it over and over again. all of the heat and motion. Do you know what happens when absolute zero is reached. Alex. He had to give Alex time to wrap his head around it. he reminded himself. might actually be more useful than a big one. Wait. But.” Michael said. putting aside his suspicions. “whatever it is that I can do.. Alex. This wasn’t like teaching the kid to square his shoulders when he threw a punch. can’t you just go blow those fucking werewolf things up or something?” Michael laughed. “Besides. only energy can escape. that creates a vacuum on one side or the other. Anastasia looked very small behind her mammoth desk. but right now you can’t even defend yourself. It’ll be two or three days before I’ll be doing anything like that again.

the equation unbalanced. but some protocols. though. All around the expanding cavity. trying to confirm what he thought he’d seen. Do you remember how to activate it? The routine?” Alex nodded slowly. and closed his eyes for a moment. and squinted at the rock face on the far side of the quarry as if it were very far away. Michael was afraid that nothing had happened. close enough to see. and the forces were balanced perfectly enough that the dirt dislodged from the rock face was held in suspension between them. Michael turned Alex around forcefully. The rivulets of sand and pebbles. a light. He was prepared to wait. “Alex. and he collapsed gratefully by Alex’s side.Alex nodded slowly. He just continued trying to bore a hole in the rock with his eyes. shaking him violently. though he didn’t understand how that had happened.” Michael hoped that his voice sounded firm. the streams of earth that had threatened only moments before to become a small avalanche had halted in mid-air. Michael reached for the boy’s shoulder. pointing at the opposite side of the depression. It didn’t explode. locked into his bizarre staring contest with the wall of the quarry. meaning to shake him. “Okay. Shut it down. and Michael’s hands were red and numb. Something inside the rock face. Michael thought desperately. while his body slowly warmed. The complaints of the rock face itself grew louder and more urgent. far enough to be safe. it was subtle. all of a sudden. depending on the protocol and the Operator involved. shook out his hands. folding impossibly in on itself and then disappearing. students often struggled for weeks before they got the hang of doing it on command. but he didn’t seem to notice. Alex seemed to be gaining ground. back toward where it had fallen from. clearly planning on following suit. Protocols were tricky to use. after all. then turned back to the slope. in favor of the force Alex was generating. waiting for the situation to resolve itself. and then parts of it started to give way. took a couple deep breaths.” Michael wasn’t sure what the activation routine Rebecca implanted was – they varied. Whatever it was that Alex did. clearly going over something in his head. rolled so far back in his head that only the whites were visible. Michael said a small. silent prayer. It took Michael a moment to realize that he was hearing the water in the air spontaneously freezing and then falling to the ground in crystals that shattered on impact. in time to see it draw in on itself. and then disappearing. stop. and shouting at him. and the dust began to drift upward. The protocol had gone Black when Alex operated it. but his hand stopped of its own accord halfway. Even though he knew immediately what was happening. Amazingly. He looked closely at the wall. He was seriously considering knocking the boy unconscious. the whole slope imploded with a whooshing sound. Michael wasn’t even sure what it was he was shouting. It was drawn to an invisible core somewhere within the rock. expanding out to cover half of the quarry with a furry white blanket. Alex. each fragment slowly rotating in midair as it was caught in the impasse between two opposing forces. “Excellent. draining down into itself. Rebecca would never have deliberately implanted a Black Protocol. but the kid seemed to be unaware of him. Michael lowered Alex carefully to the ground. below his ear. when he noticed the frost sparkling in the sun. . but he was afraid that might not stop the reaction. but rather make it even more out of control than it already was. he was so excited. could turn black in the right (or wrong) Operator’s hands. not worried. the rock fracturing like glass and then disintegrating into sand. But whatever it sounded like. small rivulets of gravel and sand running down channels in the stone as the wall itself shifted to accommodate ice crystals forming where water had been trapped inside the stone. and all around where he stared. Then he opened them again. glistening across the dull face of the rock. That was alright with Michael. maybe suggesting a second try. and that he would die feeling weirdly guilty for having struck a student who was already lying on the ground. and the eyes that he turned on Michael were blank and unseeing. Then. All that happened outwardly was that Alex sighed. frost had taken hold. He lay there in the afternoon sun.” Michael instructed patiently. Alex’s head rolled back and forth like a rag doll. the frozen rock bent and crackled. the rock creaked and moaned while the air filled with a sound like tiny bells ringing. stop this right now!” Hoping to break the visual contact and disrupt his protocol. “Alex. though he felt the ground shake beneath him and there was tremendous noise.” Michael waited for a moment. All around the collapsing quarry wall. including Michael’s own. Michael realized with a certain inevitable horror that he could see his breath. as the scree slope made ominous settling noises. grabbing him by the shoulder. Let’s see how far you can reduce the ambient temperature. Michael grabbed the boy by his shoulders. had created a force powerful enough to counteract gravity. what do I do?” Michael smiled encouragingly. and hit Alex above his jaw on the right side. his head buzzing with frightening thoughts. and even with the hypnotic routine implanted to make them easier. “You don’t need to do anything fancy. so. it took a moment for Michael to process it. And then. weighing his limited options. “Okay. through the partially-frozen clothing on his back. Michael was certain. but looked doubtful at best. equally pushed and pulled. But the boy almost fell over when he put pressure on him. Go ahead and focus on that end of the quarry. “Rebecca already implanted the Absolute Protocol in your mind. “Okay. The dilemma was interrupted by the rock face. despite the warmth of the day. almost as soon as he put a name to what he was seeing. hovering uncertainly. Rather. The air was so cold that it was painful to breathe. then let’s try it. His own routine was loosely based on some Tai Chi movements that he found helpful when he was trying to focus. that’s good. but Alex didn’t even appear to notice. he felt the heat of the sun. halfway to the ground. something Alex was doing. Alex!” Michael almost shouted. trails of dust falling towards nothing. uniform coating. Everyone had to start somewhere. he was fairly certain that Alex didn’t hear it. Stop now. doing his best to put aside his concerns about Anastasia. distantly. Alex apparently did not have that problem. Michael was considering saying something encouraging. For a moment.

Tung?” .” “Good for you. like the whole affair was turning into a farce. right?” “Nguyen Exports does business with many different clients each year. Tung liked to blame his nameless American G. the quality of the services you provide is universally recognized. sweetened with condensed milk. if she hadn’t had that ludicrous smirk plastered on her face. he heard perfect Vietnamese with a slight northern accent. but stared at him constantly. on one of your vessels. “You cannot simply invade my mind at your discretion! I have rights under the Agreement!” “Wrong. whatever protocol she’d been running had been allowed to dissipate.Seventeen Tung Do shifted nervously in his Aeron chair. and he felt slightly queasy. whenever Alice spoke. well. Moreover. some kind of lie-detector. one that has done contracting work for your little operation before. goggles and gloves.” “Please. and he’d already inspected the paperwork. Do!” Alice said enthusiastically. we would have gotten involved some time ago. blond-wood desk. here and in Central. “These Weir were used in the commission of an attempted assassination of an Operator.” Tung wanted desperately to shift in his chair.” Alice said. wearing what appeared to be a ‘clean-room’ style mask. at some point.” “This is outrageous!” Tung protested. “Auditors or no.” Mitsuru said. Do. Tung felt the red eyes studying him. Do explained patiently. and then looking closely at each of the photos in turn. and additionally of your own personal involvement in said transaction. “You have no need to be concerned about that. who wasn’t the biggest fan of Caucasians. which meant the other two must be Auditors. It was the most expensive office chair available five years ago. Only a fraction of them ever deal with me personally. At several points. Do. “Mitsuru isn’t here to determine whether or not you are telling the truth. The Chinese guy hadn’t spoken and refused to take a seat. causing him to flinch backwards.” Alice dug through the duffel bag she brought in with her. “I do not appreciate the implication that we would deal in anything untoward. “I’d have figured people would be more interested in smack during a recession.” Alice stood up and slammed her hand down on Tung’s desk. had to give her that.” The woman nodded and crossed her legs. but he couldn’t think of any way to do so. Mr.” Mr. her smile bright and cruel. Or she would have been pretty. who has been quietly ransacking your brain during our little chat. As far as the purposes of this Audit go. with an unnerving intensity. The Auditors must have activated a translation protocol. “Do you know any of these men. which you have kindly confirmed was also contracted by the Terrie Cartel.” Alice said cheerily.I. it would have been a different answer.” Tung sputtered defensively. Do. and for the first time. Her entire contribution to the conversation up until this point had been limited to occasional confirmations of what he’d said – she was obviously running an Audit protocol. to fidget and fiddle with his hands. father and the godforsaken. turning red in the face. eyes hard and brilliant. many of our clients employ another agency as a buffer. what with the bad financial climate. to ensure confidentiality. “But he isn’t actually sorry. exactly like his own. she was the worst. They didn’t tend to open up direct retail outlets for things like high-end office furniture in obscure Philippine port towns. Do?” Tung made a show of putting his glasses on. I wonder if I might show you something.” Mitsuru said coldly. And what he had heard about Gallow. indirectly. rather. “I have never seen any of these men before. And even then. But the woman in black. and I do not wish to waste your time. He hadn’t had the right to demand a search of the bag – he could not interfere with an Audit – and he tensed up. and fought to suppress the urge while keeping a calm. Mr. gesturing at the plush office around her.” “Huh. while I kept you nervous enough not to notice. and it has had a negative impact on overall revenue. shut the fuck up. Tung had heard of Alice Gallow. that was making him very nervous indeed. before you piss me off. even if it was second-hand. Today. “If we had a problem with it. even when it somehow doesn’t make it on the manifest. Then there was the Japanese woman with livid red eyes. aware that he was being ridiculous and unable to stop himself. She’d been the only one to accept his offer of coffee – and despite the fact that it was Vietnamese-style iced coffee. Do. You are a busy man. “There is no way for me to be totally certain that my firm has not contracted with these men.” “The first part is true. unworried expression on his face. your rights have been suspended until such a time as we decide to return them to you. Do you have any proof to support these outrageous claims?” Tung said indignantly. “I am sorry I cannot be of more assistance. He was impatient to get the Auditors out of his office.” “I hope the services were rendered to your satisfaction?” Tung inquired politely.” Alice waved her hand dismissively. That was a big mistake. and Tung panicked briefly. instead standing behind the two women. The right of an Auditor to compel cooperation was absolute. Generally.” Alice gloated. “But if I’d asked if any of these men had been clients of yours. a source of great embarrassment for him. Our firm has operated for decades and enjoys an excellent reputation. we have contracted work to your organization. Mr.” Alice said coldly. as it was supposed to reduce back sweat. “Enough of these trivial matters. with her long legs and lithe figure. It was not a good feeling. and wished he could go change his shirt. After a moment’s search. But Tung had bought it solely for the mesh back. and something of a status symbol at the time he bought it. Do you think I’m the kind of woman who would return them.” “It was a trick question. Alice’s smile broadened a notch. Alice produced a stack of printouts. “These men are all members of a Hmong Weir tribe. waving his finger as he spoke. slamming a document down on the desk in front of Tung. “How is business. Tung attempted a modest smile. as a matter of fact. Do? It seems like you are doing alright for yourself.” Alice’s expression was smug. Surely you remember that little deal-gone-bad in Myanmar that they helped you resolve? We know that your cartel recently arranged transportation for them to the United States. Do. Mr. Clearly. “Exports to North America are down.” “Tung. She’s been acting as a conduit for one of the best telepaths in Central. “Guess what we found.” “Nguyen Exports handles a broad range of products for an array of reputable clients. She was attractive. his eyes bugging out of his head. each page a photo headshot of a Vietnamese or Cambodian man. sounding genuinely surprised. “Don’t call me that. who didn’t talk much either.” Alice observed dryly. of the Terrie Cartel’s involvement in the smuggling of Weir to California. “Yes. he blamed the spreading dampness that had glued his chino shirt to his back on the three people opposite his modern.” Alice observed.” Tung said honestly. she’d insisted on adding several more spoonfuls of sugar to it. however. her eyes focused and aware. her voice devoid of emotion. Tung shifted in his expensive chair. “This writ is signed by the Director. if a bit too pale. Mr. I don’t need her help to figure that out. “This has not been our best year. Mr. even Tung. asshole? Any ideas? Mitzi?” Alice glared down at Tung. “We have indisputable proof. Mr. Just watching her drink the stuff made him slightly ill. speculation of this kind is meaningless. The Audits Department is well-aware of everything that your company transports. when conducting an Audit. I’m afraid. roasting hot Philippine climate for his tendency to sweat like a pig. Mr. who did all the talking through an obscenely smug grin.

” Alice leaned over the desk. and to download it from the Etheric network was barely noticeable. too. disconnected from the uplink. her eyes twitching rapidly. her grin a mile wide. as if someone had run their hand across the whole of the surface. “I wanted you to run. “That doesn’t give me much incentive to cooperate. Tung? We are none too happy about that. asshole. very probably Weir. “The strip is empty right now. he passed through the rigid surface of the mirror. “It isn’t. “I didn’t want you to cooperate. at the very least.” she said. heavily-armed Philippine men. “So. the glass had already begun steaming and running. Its run by the Witches. even one as unlikely as this. Mitsuru stood in the middle of the room. big enough for private planes.” Alice suggested. anyway. and then kept falling. The camp was a miserable collection of shacks and Quonset huts. I will assist your investigation. “Barbwire around the perimeter. by someone who knows what they’re doing. his chest laboring with the effort. the stifling fog of the Ether. unless they think they have all the cards. and looked alarmingly like a brief seizure. like breaking the surface of cold water. He slipped underneath his desk. Still. but one of the pieces is still big enough… I think it’s the camp.” Alice though for a moment. “Okay. With the worn toe of her heavy boots. . just wide enough to accommodate Tung’s plump frame. She had to bust up your trap. “During attempts to scan the site. “Get ready. Satellite shows fifteen structures.” The remains of the mirror continued to boil and steam. “We will have company shortly. “Amateur. on the bank of the river. “I can see him. either. standing up on the other side on shaky legs and brushing the dust from his pants. Let’s give them some time to start thinking that they got away. “What kind of nonconventional assets can we expect.” the red-eyed woman said. with a mandate for the dissolution of his cartel from the Director no less. It was good that he’d prepared for all eventualities. “There should still be traces. Do you appreciate how precarious this makes your position?” Tung nodded. “Let me make our position clear. suspended five feet above the dusty ground. He saw understanding flash in Mitsuru’s eyes. Are you really so stupid as to think you could close the way behind you? This won’t even slow us down. They’ll be more lax in a few hours.” “Can we clear the camp on our own?” Mitsuru asked. and Mitsuru went back to surveying the mirror shards. Alistair tried to scan it a couple times already – he says it’s shielded. “Anyway.” “Right.” Mitsuru said. after a few moments. populated by a large number of shabbily-dressed. which were beginning to melt into the carpet. there’s no way the whole Terrie Cartel decided to commit mass suicide like this. right? Because as stupid as you are. well.” Alice inspected her chipped nail polish critically. Alice pushed the mirror out from under the desk. The destination had been prepared in advance. The terrain around it is primarily jungle. He hadn’t expected them to be so damn unnerving. and then he wouldn’t have a way out of this terrible situation. They broke the mirror on the other end. most of whom were shocked to see Tung emerge from the mirror that he had hung. Xia stood impassively in the corner of the room. either.” Mitsuru said woodenly. through the mirror he had hidden there. he started to slowly shift his foot. we’ll assume they have Operators and Weir. over in California. my very good friend here. the humidity even more than temperature. to be staring at him like he was a gift they were dying to unwrap. but the whole affair seemed destined for trouble from the start.Tung looked at the woman. I can’t see anyone at all. and then he was out. his mind gone blank with panic. nothing you do can change. “The Philippine Army and the CIA both believe it to be an Abu Sayyaf camp. “Please – there must be some way we can resolve this. after he came through. and then dove underneath his desk. We could just eat you and your whole operation up right now. right before he dropped. With one foot. Tung.” Alice gave Xia a look.” “That is entirely speculative. “What happens after that. is that we are very hungry. does it?” He inched the mirror into place. Plus probably a handful of normal humans.” Alice laughed to herself. and a good thing that this Alice Gallow person liked to talk so much. “Please. Beneath his desk. They’re probably running around in a panic right now. of course.” she said firmly. You see. My name is Mitsuru. what was the briefing on this place?” Mitsuru looked up from the fragments of mirror. Tung. The glass was uniformly smeared with grease. Tung hated the jungle. “We’ll wait until twilight. The room filled with the stench of melting plastic and burned carpet. her voice icy. “I told you already. folding her arms. as an insurance policy. nudging out several of the larger fragments of the mirror in front of Mitsuru. or there could even be one there now. if only you would…” “You will do exactly what I want you to. He hadn’t wanted in on the deal the cartel had brokered in the first place – he had no love lost for Central. The actual download itself took bit longer. They’ve got a crude airfield. And the bitch of the situation. her face inches away from his. waiting for us to come busting in. maintaining it. and it was warped in the middle.” Tung hissed in mediocre Tagalong at the nearest of the men. “Your whole damn cartel is dirty. Mitsuru bent down to her knees. Mitsuru. If the mirror wasn’t in exactly the right spot. red-faced. and peered into the broken mirror. “Cooperate?” Alice spat.” Mitsuru said distantly. and she’s real fucking pissed about it. sounding genuinely angry. “Tell me again. The apport was as efficient as he could manage. He gave her a very small nod in return.” Alice nodded thoughtfully. he hadn’t expected Auditors. and looked at Alice in confusion. sweat pouring down his face. “They make artifacts that do stuff like that. The time it took her to determine what protocol was needed. and her terrible smile. he hung in the cold grey for only a moment.” Alice walked over to the desk. as if he had said something.” “Could be a Witch. nudging the mirror into place. the one Alistair was talking about. even as she stepped forward. gradually eating away at the floor beneath. to keep a telepathic barrier like that up twenty-four hours a day.” Mitsuru was as good as Alistair had described. “Tell me where he went. “for you. but still needs a mirror to do a port.” Alice nodded again. and immediately set about making his life miserable.” Alice said to the vaporizing mass at her feet. glancing over at Xia. They definitely have some fairly capable Operators.” “You stupid bitch. it wouldn’t work. “I am willing to cooperate with your Audit. so that he could operate the protocol without thought.” Alice continued gleefully. rapidly becoming a hissing pool of silvery liquid on the office carpet. aloof and unconcerned. Mitzi over here…” “Mitsuru. and knew that she would be too late. At the very center. she got caught up in your little scheme. he gradually eased the thing he needed into place. then nodding in agreement. wasn’t it.” Alice said dismissively. still connected to Etheric network. The angle is terrible. then giggled and walked casually around the desk. Not to mention the bugs that found him upon arrival. so I can’t see much else. the only road access is a dirt track. and then beyond that.” he implored. arrayed in a rough semi-circle. Witches are a possibility too – though they tend to bail before things get heavy. And I’m sure you heard about those two Operators in San Francisco – that was a real fucking shame.” Alice advised.” -After Tung disappeared Alice paused briefly.” Tung spat. Alistair reported a number of Etheric signatures in the nearby wilderness. It could have been set up in advance. her eyes furiously red. her voice normal. We’ve already got enough on you to make it stick – which means that somebody set you up for a fall. Mitsuru. voice dead as she consulted her Etheric uplink. Mitzi?” The glare Mitsuru gave her went way past insubordination. his coat and skin still steaming with the vapors of his transit through the Ether. on the outside of one of the storerooms several months ago. halfway to where Tung had disappeared from. Whoever hired you for the job. now they’re trying to feed you to us. the terrorist angle is just to keep the curious away. It was a cheap bathroom mirror. “Calls himself a transporter.

his arms wrapped protectively around his ravaged and leaking torso.” Alice said softly. She pulled Mitsuru from the shadow first. At that distance. The camp was protected by guards with sufficient professionalism to shift their patrol routes. There was no alternative source – only Witches were capable of creating such artifacts – though to lavish such power on bullets was unprecedented. all three detonating in rapid succession. leveling his rifle at Mitsuru and pulling the trigger. Though there was little wind. wet sounds. He cried out as he fell backward. slightly above his hip. Four of them had abandoned their gear and were moving in inhumanly low crouches. Mitsuru walked calmly into the open. “Oh. the camp fell into shadow. hundreds of pounds of rage and sinew and yellow teeth. their skulls elongated and feral. burning from beneath its undercarriage. aiming for a breach between the Kevlar pads on his vest.” Alice giggled at her shocked expression. helping out. Mitsuru pulled the knife from his throat and wiped the blade against the dead man’s shirt before sheathing it. be a good girl for a little while longer. The jungle around the camp smoldered angrily. and in the distance a gunman had climbed to the flat roof of one of the temporary structures and was taking potshots with his AK-47. It makes me feel all funny. just to be safe. cautiously. The two in the rear moved to supporting positions. right in the middle of the burning camp. near the fence. The four in the front came roaring around the corner of the main building. The gunman’s scream cut off. Xia closed his eyes. The closer patrol had stopped to have a panicked conversation – one was talking rapidly in Tagalong into a walkie-talkie. and Alice felt the sweat bead on her neck the moment she stepped out of the shadow of a storehouse on the eastern edge of the compound. She needn’t have bothered. but that was the last noise that he made.” Mitsuru nodded. but the acceleration of Mitsuru’s protocol was such that she heard each individual shot. open-mouthed. watching the flames with a rapt expression. particularly as they were only partially exposed to his aim. in his heavy black coat and surgical mask. Alice could see the mounted spotlight on the back from where she crouched. “You’re up. Mitsuru shook her head several times. and the grass around him wilted and charred. apparently steadied. covering his entire body in a translucent shell. Xia spoke then. disoriented.” Alice snorted. and then slowly expanded. shifting her grip on the wrapped handle of her sheathed knife. French and English. Put on a show for me. Blood trickled from his throat. She let the momentum of the roll carry her close to the gunman. One of the Jeeps caught flame. and then nodded at Alice. Xia walked casually out into the open. With a flick of her wrist she turned the knife in the shape of a ‘C’. I said it again. sparks carrying the flames gradually across the whole of the camp.” Alice leered at Mitsuru. The rifle was firing at full auto. Mitzi. She fell forward. right? So. radiating from the working that a Witch had laid on each of them. her finger tight on the trigger of her shotgun. There were two groups of guards approaching. The air was so humid it felt dense. That was unusual. She slid the point of the knife into side of one of the guards. I meant to say Mitsuru…” -As the sun hid itself behind the low hills beyond the river. He glanced at the still dazed Mitsuru. but it hardly seemed worth the effort. Mitsuru had no idea how long it would take to place one on each bullet in a clip. and then burst into a conflagration. but what he said could not be described as a word. Even the best trained guard will fall into routines when patrolling the same ground every night – inevitably. In an instant. but Alice tugged the befuddled Mitsuru back behind the protection of the outbuilding. their spines contorted and bent. as they preferred to fight in their swifter lupine form. and before he could lower his rifle and aim. reaching back into the shadows with her other hand. The gas tanks on the other vehicles followed shortly. The 7. or the monstrous hybrid shape the other four guards had already assumed. Let ‘em know we’re here. We’re not just going to take care of it – we’re going to make sure that you’re there. “’cause I like watching you cut people up. rounding the storehouse corner and exposing himself to fire from both of the patrols. palms to the sky. Mitzi. her perception so agonizingly acute she could see the wake of distorted air the bullets left behind. as well as the rooftop sniper. and then disappeared into the shadows. almost invisible in the flickering firelight. and the limited number of routes available. Mitsuru could see the yellow glow of the bullets. “I swear. didn’t I?” Alice gave her arm an affectionate pinch. Alice reached down and rested her hand on Mitsuru’s cheek. Looking through the filter of a combat protocol. “I probably won’t even have to take my hands out of my pockets. and then slowly raised both of his arms until they were above his head.” Alice helped Mitsuru to her feet. before crouching beside Alice. and then looked questioningly at Alice. “Don’t be dense. their bodies left to turn to charcoal in the flames. the night was rent by the sound of gunfire. they were surrounded on three sides by a towering wall of flame. followed by panicked yelling in a cacophony of Tagalong. his hands clasping Mitsuru’s blade.“Xia could clean that place out by himself. “Alright. The jeep that they were using to patrol was on the other side of camp. and his face went slack. She crouched and then surveyed her surroundings. under the arc of the bullets that plodded toward her. Then the light went out in his eyes. bathing the camp in a flickering orange light. Weir hated humans. Xia. She reached one hand into her own shadow. and saw the flare of hot gas that punctuated each shell’s ignition. Alice smiled to herself as she watched Mitsuru’s Etheric signature flit from building to building. the lush vegetation withering and charring in the sudden blaze. torn apart by shrapnel. mouth half-open. She nodded curtly. while others milled about in confusion. I brought you along. Her vision was permeated with information from a combat protocol. cutting his ankles out from beneath him. every step of the way. No point in subtlety now. given the boredom inherent in the job. as some of the guards attempted to douse the flames with an extinguisher. splashing weakly into the dirt beside him. A white luminescence appeared at the ends of his hands. each sending a ball of black smoke and flame skyward. the tip sliding smoothly past the ribs. there wasn’t much chance of him finding a mark.” Alice winked at Mitsuru. all at once. but she emerged stumbling. “this is a big job. too stunned to scream. baby. She shook her head again. their paws kicking up mud and pebbles. The workings Witches created took time. The first explosion was dramatic. but they’d been stationed there long enough to fall into a routine anyway.62mm rounds made a strange hissing sound as they hit the field of intense heat that surrounded Xia. clutching Alice’s hand with his own latex gloved one. who stared at her. just once. but even through the smoke and the flimsy Quonset hut walls. and then rolled. her movements accelerated to a blur by a downloaded alacrity protocol. a terrific bang that sent chunks of metal flying in all directions as the jeep tore itself apart. as Mitsuru wrenched his arm aside and drove the point of her blade into his throat. gently pressing the dizzy Operator’s head against her leg. the barbwire fence protesting and warping in the heat. And once we wrap up a successful Audit. the knife reflecting the ghastly orange glow of the flame. They . visible only by the distortion in the air around him. dear me. the area was deserted. Aside from the sounds of the insects and the ever-shifting wall of vegetation. The guard fell to his knees and made awful. the only sound her cheap Thai sandals slapping against the soles of her feet. so Mitsuru felt safe in assuming that the two rear guards were Weir maintaining a human appearance. She was behind them before either of the guards had time to react. then crossed the open space between them in a half-dozen bounding steps. moving in the direction of the nearest patrol. Xia stepped out a moment later. There were angry voices yelling in Tagalong. Mitsuru watched the guard’s Etheric signatures snuff out. no one’s going to be able to argue with Gaul making you an Auditor. exposing herself to the six guards that remained. his heavy coat rippled and swayed. They had Egyptian-manufactured AK-47s. while the other stared at the inferno. the blade emerging red and glistening from his side.” Alice said sympathetically. Mitsuru rounded an outhouse. “They have to come this way to get away from the fire. his eyes bugging out of his head. translucent text and data boxes informed her of the positions of the six remaining guards. taking cover behind the nearby buildings and scrambling to maintain a clear field of fire. The other guard yelled and spun around. At that moment. her knife darted out and in. the same as the other guards and common to insurgencies the world over. then flattened and melted like solder into hissing pools on the muddy ground.

The bullets were shredded by the rapidly advancing silver cloud.” “Did you actually think. trying in vain to expel the millions of tiny sharp particles they had inhaled. and her whole body was encompassed by the strange silvery light radiating from her chest. “I can’t normally do this. closing her eyes. “It was kind of you to cooperate with our Audit. “I’ve developed quite a thing for you.” Alice said gratefully.” “I am a kind-hearted woman.charged immediately.” Tung snarled. “And truly fucking weird. “Compliments of Alistair. in the face of the charging beasts. and we can both walk away from this. please stop calling me that. Mitzi. there was a 50-gallon black metal drum standing next to Alice. Call off your dogs. It caused almost no pain. and then a rapidly dissipating red mist. tearing away small pieces from his hands. “I’d hoped that the silver one would be here. featureless. and a moment later the gunman himself was reduced to a pile of horribly uniform small pieces of meat.” she whispered. rifles at the ready. “And I’d like to show you something special. her eyes rolling back in her head with effort. little more than a few brief howls. There was no bleeding. do felt a strange aching sensation. your doggy-friends and your Witch’s toys. and opened fire at Mitsuru with his rifle. and listened to the screams of the Weir as Xia’s inferno finished it. struggling to free himself from his bulky bulletproof vest so he could transform. Other hands were forming. She folded her hands in front of her like an obedient school girl. smelling of the jungle and death. “A souvenir. and left behind nothing at all – the skin at the edge of the void was smooth. so I’m happy to say we’ve got no reason to hold on to you. “The Shining Cloud belonged to Alistair. not wholly wolf. He’d had to hold it ever since they’d stopped next to him. I can’t manage something like that yet. his feet and his chest. One even tried to transform as he was cut to pieces. but only somewhat. “In regards to your own personal circumstances. “I got all excited just watching. “It was nice of you to leave me one. The many dark hands clutched him tightly. Tung stood there. horrified man. You didn’t know much of anything. Everywhere the little hands had attached. but there wasn’t enough of him left to manage it. Tung looked down at the weapon and saw something. and the wind picked up from behind her. no barrier is gonna save you. after all.” she whispered. alright? I know that you’re an Auditor and all. from San Francisco. a 12-guage double-barrel shotgun leveled at her head. talons scrambling for purchase in the mud. the main part of it making a rapid.” Mitsuru said. their fur matted with clumps of dried blood. batting her eyelashes.” Mitsuru dropped her hands like a conductor. Do. patting him on the forehead.” Mitsuru agreed. wheezing and gasping. One moment. her kohl-lined eyes shining. dropping his rifle and running. The camouflage protocol was powerful enough that they probably won’t have been able to hear him – but he couldn’t risk it.” Tung tried to desperately to crush the egg-shell thin ceramic idol in his other hand. torn between the fire in front of him and the glimmering silver cloud that pursued him. Would you like to see?” Tung wanted to scream. but her words were carried away by the sudden gale that whipped past her. So how ‘bout you get that freak in the mask to turn the fire off. he really did. most of his hand was gone. because so much of his mouth was gone. and reaching for him.” Alice said coldly. The little hands had been working him over. now. To be entirely honest. The other was either braver or more foolish. they left deep voids in the flesh. and a fine spray of water from the river behind drenched her. before the fog encompassed them as well. Mr. Alice leaned over what remained of the man’s face.” Tung fished something out of his right pocket and held it.” Alice patted Mitsuru affectionately on the shoulder. One of the remaining guards abandoned his position. “He implanted it directly before we left.” Alice said casually. Tung? Do you know how I got it?” Tung tried to pull the trigger. It was as if what had been taken from him had never been there at all. twisting path toward the charging Weir. you aren’t in any position to be asking questions.” Alice giggled. we’re going to take a little walk in the woods. but it was already too late. “My name is Alice Gallow. caught somewhere between his human and lupine forms. I might add.” There was a slight glow at her fingertips.” Mitsuru blushed. “One last chance here. but his efforts came to nothing more than straining and grunting. or at least in the last place he’d seen her before she’d been obscured by the mist of nanometer blades.” she admitted. “You bitches are all out of time. clenched in his fist. “We have time. When he looked down. faced with the wall of flames. the borrowed protocol flooded through her mind in a wave of information and pain. I’m happy to report that our investigation is at an end. but still. Mitsuru smiled at all of them. not quite human. “Thank you so much for showing us your little camp. the silvery protocol writ large against the field of black that consumed her vision. Who set that up for you?” “Miss Gallow. They had more than enough time to howl and cough wetly. “You’re a nightmare. calm and unhurried. The Weir screamed and leapt into the fire. Mitsuru dispelled the protocol with a sigh of relief. We’ll make an Auditor out of you yet.” Alice enthused. and then next.” she added. Miss Gallow. The runner made it the furthest. . A dense silver fog swirled around. something a bit like a crude hand that had reached up from the weapon’s shadow and wrapped around the firing mechanism. One howled as it ran. her black-rimmed eyes staring directly into his. and held out her hands. still struggling to catch his breath. “that you could get the drop on me. “Shining Cloud. The wind tore at her clothing. “You aren’t capable of concealing yourself from me. “Now.” Alice’s grin was wolfish. a silvery aura. and then burst forth in all directions. gouging through bone and muscle. “I like to feel useful. Do. “Oh. and then swayed coquettishly up to the frozen. her body language totally non-plussed. my dear Mr. high whining that set her teeth on edge. I’m grateful to you. The two in human form were more cautious. and smiled at her approvingly. spitting his insides onto the mud as he died. Mr. The two Weir behind them had time to try and stop. all the way to the edge of the camp before he came up short. You’ve answered all sorts of questions for us. you understand.” Alice smirked. Mitzi.” Mitsuru winced. and at this range. fluid as shadows. Alice turned around to face the gun with her ghastly smile.” “Don’t act like such a big shot. from somewhere deep inside his own shadow. After a brief hesitation. but it was hard to tell. Mitsuru gave her a small smile back. with power that you borrowed? Do you know my reputation.” she said. and then withdrawing into the shadow. Do. and they disappeared into the metallic fog. and where they touched him. The first tendrils of the fog licked his back. “Don’t worry about it. neatly disassembled. her expression rapt and hungry. He stood frozen there. opened her mouth to correct her. and then nothing at all. the one he’d been warned to only use in desperation.” she said sweetly. Mitzi. and he could not move away. It didn’t make any difference. staying low to avoid fire. and then me and your little Japanese friend. dripping river water and smeared with someone else’s blood.” “What the fuck is it with you people?” Tung pushed the muzzle of the shotgun up against the side of Alice’s head. but his hand would not close. a loathsome. They rounded the far corner of the building they were using as cover. Tung dropped the camouflage protocol that he had activated the moment the Auditors had arrived. Alice walked up next to Mitsuru. It passed through the two in front before they had time to react. He struggled against them. Tung screamed. but there’s no way you’re going to be able to do anything before I pull the trigger on this thing. to activate the dormant working inside that the Witches had left with him.

it would have to be energetic in nature. It’s the barrier that keeps the colder subverse below and the more energetic superverse above separate from our own. don’t you? The universes are the drops of water. but nobody understands it. Lots of rules. any kind of matter.” Emily said disapprovingly. our aptitude. we know it exists. or if you just like arguing with each other.” Anastasia said quietly. At best. It was why she’d come to the gym. “Hey. “But. You understand the distinction?” “Imagine a big universe. “These universes are discrete. even the ones that were marked for Gaul’s eyes only. “You saw the report?” The question was rhetorical. grinning. That is to say. the ideal boundary mechanism would be some kind of superfluid. “Go ahead and tell Alex the truth.” “The Ether. I simply don’t want to.” Anastasia said. Mitsuru. no matter how bad you do. the oil? Does that make sense?” Eerie looked over at him hopefully. our sanity and durability.” Vivik allowed reluctantly. newer and faster. “You know what I mean. because every particle. “It’s not like you can fail homeroom. then?” “Evaluation. and any kind of contact would be mutually destructive.” Vivik countered happily. “To gauge our interests. “Well. gripping Alex’s desk.” Vivik protested. “Does everybody go to see Rebecca?” “Everyone except for her. sweetie. working her nails over with an emery board. but finite.” Alex put his head down on his desk in despair. they are even more frightened of us. “Just answer the question.” “Some days I really hate you. so there has to be a mechanism to hold them apart. you’re a threat to everybody around you.” “I am answering it. Right?” “Exactly. subverse is a made-up word. “Vivik is very persuasive.” Alex nodded slowly. because matter. nobody goes as often as you do. Like hell she was doing the stupid cardio-kickboxing class. But whatever serves as a barrier. Nobody knows what the Ether is. but not an endless one. which I still know nothing about. surprising Alex. the older they get. looking down at her desk and clearly regretting saying anything. you are a wild card.” Anastasia said. I got it. one seat over from Emily. It went well.” Emily said. “you actually made me hate the idea of knowing the answer.” Anastasia offered primly from where she sat. but because knowing it might help us not turn into lunatics. At worse. Mitsuru had left bloody knuckle marks all over the leather of the bag. Anything else he did only encouraged her. coming from her. with definite boundaries. “Because they are even more afraid of me than they are of you. and most importantly. anyway? They do it for the same reason that everyone has to go see Rebecca once a month – because as badly as Central needs us. slick with sweat. We live right next to it. Besides. but Alex refused to acknowledge it. “The best part is listening to Alex summarize Vivik’s lessons.” Alex muttered. the majority of the theoreticians at the Academy subscribe to this notion. “Unpredictable students with combat-grade protocols that exceed their own ability to control or understand them. “Then it’s like everything else with science. She wilted when everyone turned toward her. That was her job. and when he spoke again. inspecting them critically. say. “So. without a trace of modesty or sarcasm.” he said. his face flushed with excitement at the subject.” “Why?” “Because of people like you. while Anastasia appeared to laugh quietly behind the hand that discretely covered her mouth. “Is this going to be on a test of some kind?” Alex asked despairingly. okay? Something really big. okay? With me so far?” “Big pile of universes.” Alex said. “Sure. geometry. “I don’t think either of you is helping Alex catch up very much.” “True. and that is about it. It’s what holds the universes apart. they were always talking about entropic energy and waste heat accumulation and alternating frequency vibration. Where do you think Eerie learned about knitting. and therefore colder and less energetic. couldn’t possibly survive the conditions involved. is fundamentally different in each of these universes. right?” Vivik continued on without waiting for any input from Alex. Alex could barely hear her. There was no way for anyone to mistake what was going on for a workout.” Eerie said quietly. nodding tiredly. and the Ether is like.” she said reassuringly. What do you have to be so upset over?” . “Sometimes.” “What’s the point.” “And before that. her shoulders heaving as she caught her breath.Eighteen “Imagine the universe as something extreme large .” “Why don’t you have to go?” Alex seemed more impressed by this than by anything else he had learned about Anastasia. clutching his head in his hands.” Vivik said. our universe is actually in a stack of universes. She held up her nails to the light. and went to go pay her the attention she obviously needed. The farther down you go. Alex. “I’m not even sure if you’re trying. Something dynamic. Thanks to you. layer upon layer. pointing at Anastasia.” Anastasia said.” “Or so he says. but he can’t prove any of this. Rebecca suppressed a sigh at her friend’s self-centered display of melodrama. Further up. “Furthermore. he sounded almost hopeful. I feel like I’m actually losing my ability to comprehend things I already know. his voice muffled by the book his face was planted in. and that means something. Vivik. putting his head back down on the desk. putting her hand on Mitsuru’s shoulder. it’s the opposite. When she spoke again.” Alex said. Alex. Emily laughed and patted him on the back comfortingly. “Not only did you lose me. shrugging. well. not because we need to know it. Everyone knew that. after all. right? There can’t be any overlap. “that’s what the Ether is. Alice even gave you a few compliments. but we understand it about as well as you understand. “What’s got you so worked up? Did something happen in the field?” Mitsuru stopped her assault. flustered. They throw everything at us.” -Mitsuru was battering a heavy bag when Rebecca came into the staff gym. something that could expand and contract to deal with vast volumes and massive thermodynamic variations. “Not at all. the very nature of matter. nudging and startling Emily.” Vivik glared at Anastasia.” Anastasia said. Even a tame dog can be dangerous. rolling her eyes. “Don’t worry. “But. what’s wrong?” Rebecca was careful.” Anastasia said.” “Our universe is like a drop of water suspended in oil. I now despise this subject. who had not noticed that the girl was still there in the classroom. Rebecca saw every report.

you know. “you go wash up. “It doesn’t anymore. It would be irresponsible of me not to look after him a bit. standing up and gathering her things. and he’d ended up falling asleep before he finished the first page. As for being a prodigy – well.Mitsuru finally turned around.” Anastasia scowled. “to deserve you making him lunch? I’ve been helping you with your biology homework since I got here. I do appreciate the lunches.” “Well. who realized he was staring openly. in a dreamy. from someplace in India.” Rebecca encouraged. “Hey ‘Becca. Alice Gallow has been here longer than we have. Emily? I thought you were an empath. she had to make sure that everyone who came saw Alice’s Black Protocol firsthand received her personal attention. looking angrily at her own lunch. though he thought it was a religion. peeling a hard-boiled egg. After all. “What did she do to Tung? What was that?” Mitsuru’s voice shook. and then sat down next to Vivik in the shade.” “But.” “Emphasis on the little.” Alex shrugged. She’s an apport technician. patting Mitsuru on the arm. Emily.” Anastasia announced. and realized that Vivik was right. despite the fact that he’d never like turkey much. “It’s not a big thing. And Alice’s little displays looked nothing at all like one. who were not eating. anyway. Even to me.” “That isn’t helpful. unwrapping the plastic around her sandwich.” Emily produced a number of sealed plastic containers from her purse. okay?” She stood there in silence. I’ll walk with you. Rebecca was taken back despite herself. so I’m sorry to see you go. Vivik’s explanation had been unclear. collecting the trash from his lunch in a paper sack for disposal. as far as Alex’s experience with him went.” Mitsuru’s eyes fluttered closed. M-Class.” Vivik complained.” “You are only one year older than me. and go back to feeling good about the operation. Rather. Alex is new here. half-removed voice.” “It made you nervous. later on?” “Maybe. Anastasia. how’d you make Steve forget about Vivik. and anyway. Alex had been extraordinarily tired. when you should be worried about next Friday. Creating little spaces for doubt to erode away.” Alex decided to focus on the turkey sandwich Emily had given him. it did explain the turban he wore all of the time.” “What was good about it? I must have missed that part. We can’t all be child prodigies. She’d known from the moment she’d read Mitsuru’s field report. The three-hour long class had felt endless. When did you start eating up here with us. “Are you here for cardio-kickboxing?” -“I never understand the point of his lectures. He’d told Alex the night before that he was a Sikh. “I’m not exactly overflowing with confidence right now. her eyes fluttering. “Well. “I have to get going to the Science building. Anastasia. haven’t had time yet.” Alex said quickly. and found something else to do. What’s the problem?” Of course. “I am hardly a child. the very best. “What?” “It’s our secret. which as far as Alex could see was made up entirely of raw vegetable slices. hon. divvying them up between her and Alex. trying to prevent the daily fight between the two. and smiled at Rebecca as if she hadn’t seen her in some time. “We are square. it would be foolish to deny it.” Emily shrugged. He doesn’t need you to make him lunch. Whatever Alice Gallow does is a secret.” “I don’t understand. It was warm today.” she said fondly. “That’s what everyone thinks.” Alex grimaced at the reminder of ‘Applied Combat Fundamentals’. She barely moved her lips when she spoke. or even that the subject matter was boring.” “That’s mean. it’s not. for once. for lack of a better option. “I’m not sure. Otherwise. by Edward and Renton. even to her.” Rebecca corrected cheerfully. Alex wasn’t sure exactly what a Sikh was. You are worried about homeroom. “What did he ever do.” Alex said guiltily. Anastasia?” Emily smiled sweetly. her red eyes wet with intermingled sweat and tears. soothing.” “So? She ports. around her the straw from her juice box.” Rebecca said with a tired smile. Emily. after all. He’d tried looking over the guide the night before last. But. This is the dumbest class I’ve ever taken. so I had a kitchen available. “I’m doing the best I can with what I have. Anastasia made a face in return.” “And I fixed it so that Steve and Charles can’t seem to remember that you are in our class.” “Most empaths have some telepathic ability as well. I know something about Alice Gallow that no one else does. where his parents owned land. staring off into the woods that bordered the building. “Mitsuru is going to make hamburger out of you. reinforcing. And you brought your own cook to the Academy with you. they would notice it didn’t make any sense.” Alex complained. She was actually glad to have the opportunity to tell the truth. since Mitsuru wouldn’t remember a thing. before she was animated by a sudden internal signal. as always. silly. um. the poor thing is an orphan. waving her carrot in outrage. Vivik?” Vivik nodded and stood up.” Anastasia said acidly.” Vivik laughed. “I saw Alice’s protocol. “You want me to help you go over the homeroom lecture. Mitsuru stretched like she was waking up.” Anastasia smirked at him. “I have lab to finish. “I was at my sister’s last night. since arriving at the Academy. sort of. “I think it might help you get up to speed…” “Ha. She’s my best friend. You see. “Sorry – and no. at least. it could be dangerous…” Mitsuru barely managed that. I. “It’s only been a few days. Alex. Are you coming. before she’d had a chance to edit it. Not while I’m here. after all. “Nobody knows. “Yeah. Everyone knew what a protocol looked like. Rebecca already knew what the problem was. I can’t even tell you. Now. “But. “I have a little bit myself. And Edward didn’t react at all.” Vivik popped a section of orange into his mouth. “And do you have to keep pacing like that?” Alex stopped. Did you take a look at the study guide I made you?” Vivik squinted up at Alex.” “I don’t like it. you seem like a nice enough guy. “It’s a good thing that you can cook. and Alex was glad to be outside. but Rebecca was already inside her head.” Emily said cheerfully. They had nothing to talk about. you had a good run.” Renton gave him a toothy grin. Renton laughed quietly to himself. It makes me nervous. She was flanked. up on the grey slate of the roof.” “No one does. “But. “I was thinking about talking a walk or . peeling his orange in the shade of one of the massive HVAC units that had been crudely grafted onto the stone building. Alex. falling asleep not long after sunset most evenings.” Vivik looked over at Alex. which turned out to be unreasonably delicious. He sighed. It wasn’t that Vivik’s study guide was bad.” “There is a cafeteria. “I tried to take notes today. half-blinded by the afternoon sun. nothing that Rebecca hadn’t heard a dozen times before.” Anastasia protested.” Emily complained. looking enviously at Emily’s cloth lunch sack. Rebecca pushed a little harder. She pointed at Emily with her nibbled baby carrot. but how the hell can I take notes when I’m hearing all of this stuff for first time? I don’t even know what the important parts are. But. which was par for the course. He had been pacing since they’d come up to the roof for lunch.

well… seduce him?” Her laughter echoed back up the stairwell. and beautiful. But.” Alex nodded amiably. as if she wasn’t beautiful.” “And what would that be?” Anastasia demanded. the casual practicalities of an abnormal way of life that he barely even noticed he was living. The idea was just too funny. It only took a few minutes for Alex to get there with the meticulous directions that Emily had given him. and though he wasn’t sure he could tell decades old from hundreds of years old. most of the time. “I wish her the best of luck. as well. “And I do think that she will need it. the same dull grey stone as the Academy walls.” Emily said.” Vivik whispered as he walked by. She couldn’t help it. next to seeing Emily in her street clothes for the first time. The dark grey hoodie he’d worn seemed a bit incongruous with Emily’s dress. But. her expression anxious. “Who built all this?” “No one knows. and had somehow been found. We’ve got a few diesel buses. to be B-class. “Well. it was all like this when the Founder discovered Central. “Did you make it okay?” She was anxious. Particularly since he wasn’t entirely sure what it was he was doing. that’s what they tell us in class. an ornate piece of stonework that looked to Alex to be ancient. Alex felt a profound sense of dislocation as they walked toward it. “But. however.” Anastasia shrugged. realizing he was still clutching the scrap of paper. and he got very nervous indeed. it was jarring to hear it said out loud. and put one hand lightly on his shoulder. Alex was stunned by the realization that she expected him to reject her. on a piece of off-white stationary. Alex had gotten that much from Windsor’s lectures. accurate. all the major structures. It was so elegant that Alex found himself reluctant to fold it or throw it out. before they left for Central. even with a sweater pulled over it. with a colorful route sign. She counted them. rather than built. Like all of the major structures on the campus. her blond hair curled and radiant in the late-afternoon sun. but without an apport protocol. telling him to meet her in about half an hour. he thought solemnly. shrugging and leading him toward what appeared to be a totally conventional bus stop. if you’re not too busy. Emily was pretty in the uniform. showing three separate lines. and bring them over piece-by-piece. but it wasn’t like he had any clothes that would have been appropriate. he realized that it was made of the same tightly interlocking blocks as the walls of the Academy. bordering on idyllic. Alex could not decide if the inscription on the gate arch was a language he didn’t recognize or simply a collection of abstract scribbles. followed by a smiling Renton and an expressionless Edward. Alex had to stifle a laugh – Anastasia never looked younger or shorter to him than when she was near Emily. looking at Alex hopefully. The road itself appeared to be one uniform piece of worked stone. though Alex had never made the walk previously. and shoved it in his pocket. he knew there was no getting in or out. I’ve been feeling really cooped up today. Alex. no doubt confusing Vivik. perhaps twice as tall as Alex and thick. and headed back to her room. “Is that what the kids are calling it these days?” She laughed again. All of this paled in importance for Alex. Renton.” Anastasia commanded. and poor Edward. Analysis and Operations.” Emily turned to Alex. so figure it out for yourself. it was made of tightly fit angular blocks with no obvious mortar. It must be a very bad thing. had either aged more gracefully or seen more consistent maintenance. trying not to sound resigned.” Alex said lamely. For everyone involved. It’s none of your business what I do. then. “It’s nothing you need to concern yourself with. “Sure. “When I want you to do something. The gate behind it was impressive. I hear they had to disassemble them. the Academy Main Hall. and the road’s surface was not nearly as even as it appeared to be from a distance. anyway. -“Do you want me to – ” “Hush. and in numerous other places the wall was bowed and bent.something. it wasn’t often she managed to make Renton feel uncomfortable. don’t you think that Emily is going to try and. where Emily wanted to meet him. and then stomped off down the stairs. yes. The Academy’s grounds were enormous. and it’s not like we have a factory here or anything. maybe a little bit shyly. It was easy to forget that Renton was much older than he looked. and he was still trying to figure out what to do with it when he rounded the last of the staff buildings and saw the Commons. In many places the wall had partially collapsed. this time. quietly.” she said honestly. and a motley collection of students and faculty enjoying the weak afternoon sun. “Don’t you ever have to go to class?” Emily glared right back. had gotten so used to rejection that she anticipated it even from a brand new student. It was a good reminder of place and role. but most of the classrooms. she felt. At least. so that Renton had to rush. who was obviously nice. “Is it okay. most of the time. Anastasia liked to make them run after her. You’re always going on about how clever you are. somewhere above her. Alex? I’d really like you to come. exasperated. “I didn’t really have any specific plans. “Be careful.” he said. leading him out of the gate and to the road outside. but in poor repair. In many places the stones had begun to buckle slightly. She’d wanted to change out of her uniform. “Think about what you’re doing. each step written out in lovely flowing cursive. Alex wasn’t about to deny that. This girl. a handful of stately old oaks and willows.” “There is a bus?” Alex ran his fingers across the plastic covering a small system map. Some of the carvings appeared to have fallen off or been worn away. Then she smiled at him. It was a nice scene. I will tell you as much. “Were the directions alright?” “They were very. It’s pretty hard to get anything big through the Ether.” she said sincerely. a few strategically placed benches and tables. um. “Do you feel like taking a trip into town with me? I have something I want to show you. suddenly face-to-face with Emily. The Commons were like a bigger version of the quad between the student dorms. But it would occasionally shine through in his speech. “Supposedly. . so she’d given him directions to the front gate.” “That’s perfect. An old habit. worn smooth with age and traffic. occasionally. it was true. a large open space with carefully maintained green grass.” Ten steps. He was quiet for ten steps. He couldn’t tell if it’s location was a secret or a genuine mystery.” He knew that Central was located somewhere in the Ether. which stretched off in either direction for miles. empty and waiting. and a glass and metal enclosure complete with system map. The gate.” She hurried ahead. -It wasn’t far to the front gate.” Emily said. but when Alex got closer. hustling down the stairs. glaring up at her. they were all here already. As if she had anything to worry about. each with half a dozen stops. The road and the wall. but he found the whole thing a touch foreboding. even if he knew that. But he didn’t really feel like it was any of Vivik or Anastasia’s business. something that caused him a certain amount of late-night anxiety akin to claustrophobia. faculty offices and student dorms were clustered near the front gate. but as a whole the great stone arch was intact. tossing her head indignantly. and beyond that the front gate. But in a simple white dress that looked a bit light for the weather she looked amazing. smart. and a few of the capstones were gone.

unlike the Academy. a green-painted diesel that reminded Alex vaguely of pictures he’d seen of Europe. at the base of the hill. there was only a great grey space. with more ornate detail work and filigree appearing on the buildings as they drew closer to the city center. “Wait and see. fast-moving creek. some five or six stories tall. as well as a scattering of more brilliant blues and greens. it remained the choicest and most exclusive area. the structures gradually got larger. Alex eventually gave up. leaning over his shoulder. and there seem to be less every year. which seemed unreasonably steep and high to Alex. Not anymore. set on a rare open plaza. as they passed through the center of town and on to the western tip of the crescent that Central described. ushering Alex through and then closing it behind him. I suppose it’s all relative. it practically gleamed. looking at her freckled cheeks and small. with tarnished brass fixtures and knobs that looked ancient to him. Alex wasn’t sure he would have known that there were any. no more than two stories tall. Emily shook her head sadly. After a while. If you live in the outlying areas. “I know. they crossed an invisible line and the sun disappeared behind the pea soup-thick fog that covered the town. if we wanted to. though the proportions are a little strange.” The buildings they passed continued to grow larger and denser.” The road curved to follow along the bank of a moderately large. At first they grew closer to each other. but rather that it had been painted – a white lacquer had been applied to the surface of the stone in a thick. sometimes in the form of brief mossy tunnels. we are – I mean to say. It’s most striking feature was not its size. and then started to fuse together. But yes. Central rising out of it like an island. full of regret and confusion. each painted a different Easter egg pastel.” Emily commented. After a few minutes of descending down the windy road. as did the windows and the stairs. They grew taller as well. while Alex tried to remember the last time he had been in a motor vehicle of any kind. where did the electricity come from? He hadn’t seen anything that looked like a power plant. which was set high enough on the hill that the fog broke. rather haphazardly in some cases. For an instant. it takes some effort to bore through them so you can install chimneys. around part of the Ring and then a few blocks further west. “Some people still like to live in them for the privacy. and in contrast to the grey buildings that they had passed. he realized. It was bleak. and by the time they descended into the city proper.” Emily explained. and gradually expanded until there were crowds of people. under a flickering light.Alex studied the map. and Central sat in a partial ring around it. Following her up the stairs into the apartment. there just aren’t that many of us. it’s just that. maybe more. fixing the lighting and ending the moment. “There aren’t that many of us. “it isn’t exactly the most tasteful street.” “Seems like you’re doing okay. so to speak. intersected and then separated again in what Alex could only describe as a downtown. encompassing whole blocks in its bulk. at other times using crude breaches in the structures that clearly had been created with explosives. almost a third higher than any other structure in the area. and the like. and Alex had little trouble understanding why anyone who could afford to lived here. The area depicted was not really large enough to be called a city. though Alex was starting to notice the proportions issue that Emily had mentioned – the stories appear to be a bit too tall. But. he remembered what Rebecca had told him about how he would be received here. responding with a smile and a ‘wait and see’ every time he asked. passing by buildings which were now almost level with each other at around ten stories. more like a town. the lack of sun in between the walls of buildings. the buildings began to meld into gigantic structures. however. and there would still be space to spare. Emily refused to say anything about where they were going. “This way. But the advantage of the big buildings is that they have central heating and a sewer system to plug into. I would swear there were more people here when I was a kid…” Emily seemed sad. but they rapidly started to include points of interconnection. moderately uniform coat. he was certain that their faces did not actually need to be so close together. about halfway down the slope. you’re on your own. and as Emily explained.” Emily said.” Alex guessed. that the Raleigh cartel – well. The ironwork that bordered the stairs was a later addition and clearly handmade. but it felt l The Academy was set two-thirds of the way up the peak of a massive hill. for the circular edifice that towered over the rest of the neighborhood.” “Well.” Emily said.” Emily gestured haphazardly. each set slightly apart and surrounded by small.” Emily said. every structure appeared so monolithically uniform. that the space was not as small as that. then build in kitchens and bathrooms. as it simply appeared to be a gradually curving exterior wall. and Emily led him out on to the street besides the giant round building. The scene was practically cheerful in contrast to the depressing monotone vastness of the rest of Central. locally referred to as the Ring. each great building surrounded by an interconnected warren of smaller sub-buildings. damp and cold under the weak light that filtered through the fog. but it didn’t turn out to matter much – he had his eyes glued to the window the entire trip. “No. neat yards and clusters of elm and oak trees. Central itself started as a series of low grey buildings. Only a few people live in Central full-time. smiling playfully. under the perpetual fog. then used a bulky set of keys to open the door. Even though the walls are old. The buildings that surrounded the Ring on the three sides that Alex could see were similarly coated in varying shades of cream and brown. The apartment door was made from a red wood that Alex did not recognize. “They knock out walls and put in dividers and create some sort of congruent living space. he wondered. It started with a few lone pedestrians. . “we aren’t exactly wealthy. in a rough half-moon. while Emily amused herself by playing tour guide. Then she stood up on her tiptoes to tap the light bulb. a number of different roadways. he discovered that people did in fact live there. She hung up her sweater and he found a hook for his hoodie. but they get wretchedly cold in the winter. Electric lines and various utility cables had been added to the structures. Why don’t you come up?” Alex followed her up the stairs. They passed the main business offices for Central. Up close. Below the city. it was almost impossible to tell how large it was. Their own route was circuitous. all paved in the same ubiquitous grey stone. “We think they were probably houses to begin with. and blushed furiously. The area had been selected for inhabitation by the first cartels to arrive in Central. coy smile. seeing his look. taking his hand gently in her own and leading him along. and he wondered again at the difficulty and logistics of transporting materials here. the vastness of the Ether stretching out like an endless lake in all directions. both sides of the road surrounded by the individual stone homes. for some reason. forming solid urban walls that the road wound around and through. and that a good portion of the remaining space appeared to be open. Emily told him that the skies here never cleared. The bus arrived a few minutes later. “People live here in apartments they carved out for themselves. For that matter. Alex couldn’t help but watch her perfectly shaped calves flex underneath the fringe of her white dress – and then. This left them almost face-to-face in the cramped quarters of the entry. The built-up neighborhoods were clustered in an area just to the east of the Academy. The road was no longer singular. But then. If he hadn’t had Emily with him to point out the sights. Alex was surprised to see that the Academy and its grounds constituted a full third of Central. down a side street where the buildings had been subdivided into smaller living quarters. and even rudimentary traffic made up of bicycles and motorcycles. Alex found the whole scene oppressive – the monotony of the stone. so Alex hunted for something else to talk about. paused on the lower steps of a baby-blue staircase. Emily fished in her purse briefly. Only a matter of weeks. He somehow managed to be simultaneously hopeful and embarrassed. Never mind. Only those connected to the larger and more powerful cartels could afford to keep offices and accommodations in this neighborhood. and Alex found himself unsure of this strange city and of his own place in it. “What’s here?” Alex tapped at the grayed out area that surrounded the town on the map. It took a few minutes of winding through the hills around the Academy before they entered Central proper. amongst the great grey stone buildings that seemed so foreign to anything human. but he barely saw anyone at all. We could all move to Central. surrounded by a jumble of coats and umbrellas. The bus ground to a halt just outside the Ring. plumbing. It appeared to have been built to hold hundreds of thousands.

but this is where you grew up. I was wondering… not to be rude or anything. My mother is a diplomat and a powerful empath. my father is taking an interest in me.” “Don’t worry about it. because of my… circumstances. blushing.” Emily spoke without a trace of bitterness. before I got bartered off to someone. As you can see. “Do you know why I wanted to come to the Academy. I’m certain.” She was so accustomed to counterfeiting it that her smile hardly even looked false.” Alex didn’t know what to say.” Alex looked around at the living room around him. or both. but an exceptionally weak one. I was raised with the full suite of domestic skills – something my parents seem to have neglected when it came to my sister. then looked around for some place to sit.” Emily said.” she joked mirthlessly. Someone would have. her arms elbow deep in soapy water. her smile rueful. “Do you know how weird it is. Not to my parents. opposite the sink. what do you have to be sorry about? It’s not like you had any choice in the matter. and yes. and my family has been among the elite in the Raleigh Cartel since it was founded. “I actually got to the point where I thought I’d accepted it. feeling slightly guilty.” The bottom fell out of Alex’s stomach. “they would have warned you about me. I mean. Which is why she’s always here. “But. a few minutes later. and now handles the cartel’s representation in Central. Still.” Emily sighed and marched toward the kitchen.” Emily said brightly. there’s only one possible use for a daughter who is such a weak empath – my talents aren’t good for much. I thought I had at least a few years. Because it was so obvious I that I would have to approach you. thinking that it might take quite a bit longer than a minute. I cook.” “What do you mean?” Alex folded his arms on the counter and then leaned his chin on them. “Well. and a number of bookshelves. his mind reeling. specifically.” Emily said. He’d assumed. He couldn’t think of anything to say. “And. I talked my mother into letting me come to the Academy. Emily. My older sister graduated from the Academy with honors. ashamed. but why did you invite me here?” Emily glanced up at him momentarily. as they emerged into what was clearly the living room. I know you live at the Academy right now. You’re like me. because of the lunches. before we ever met. and confiding with me about whether to seduce you. not sure what to say. Which explains the mess. Alex. but the smile was painful. that Emily would be one of the popular girls at the Academy. like he hadn’t really expected for Cartel families to have books lying all over the kitchen table. “That’s sweet. Emily made a face at the accumulated dishes. her smile fixed and brittle. and maybe you’re something more useful. Alex wasn’t certain. to be myself. A few years before that happened. but…” Emily laughed. She continued to dry the plates with a hand towel.” Emily said plainly. but she talked my father into it anyway. Fortunately. here at the Academy. eventually settling on an uncomfortably high chair. like medieval Europe.” Emily continued sadly. or a sink filled with unwashed dishes. to have it be public knowledge. “Well. she went back to finishing up the kitchen. and the clattering made Alex jump. she leaned across the counter and handed Alex a half-full watering can. I did. Because I’m an empath.” Emily grimaced. “I lived in a damn trailer. sponging off the water on the countertop.” Emily said. wouldn’t I? Don’t you think I’m pretty.” Alex reassured. and clearly no one was going to make time to take you. for the first time in my life. and he still hadn’t figured out who to talk to about getting his hair cut. “Different children have different functions. “But. set on the other side of the long kitchen counter. Maybe I’m only a pawn. not cleaning. He hadn’t realized until now. Alex.” Alex felt numb. her eyes vague and faraway. and then set them carefully in the drying rack. you live here?” he asked. As a matter of fact. Well. to have him suddenly pulling you into his office for little chats with the cartel advisors? When they act like you’ve always been there with them. It’s very feudal. she didn’t even seem like she was talking to him specifically. I thought I might make you dinner. and brushed her hair back from her eyes. only my sister lives here fulltime.” She put the dish down in the rack with more force than she intended. “Why would they treat you differently from her?” “They would have told you about me. continuing on before Alex could have even attempted an answer. “My sister can be quite… inconsiderate. do you realize that? We’re both pieces in a game that someone else is playing. “I’m sorry. but it was obvious – Emily had come to the Academy to put off her inevitable arranged marriage. “Now I have my mother doing my hair. “I wanted some time. But. “None of that really bothers me. I’m not saying it was all bad. you hadn’t seen anything of Central outside of the Academy for one. She’s lived here a long time now while the rest of us haven’t been around quite as much as she’s made herself very much. When she spoke again.” Alex nodded. earlier in the day. so. because you showed up Alex. I mean. you know. It’s a bit embarrassing.” Emily said over the clatter of washing dishes. “Right now. I suppose.” she said lightly. or half-dead houseplants. and because my family is part of the Hegemony. or how I’d feel about doing something like that. now everything is different for me. Alex.” Alex could only stare at her in shock. after she’d managed to clear enough room to get to work. her voice was more composed. “All of a sudden. you know. It looked homey and oddly approachable to Alex. But. but after he failed to meet her eyes or respond. right?” “Mostly. and… “I’m really sorry.” Emily shook her head sadly. Um. as if you’ve always been important?” Emily paused. honestly. when you’ve only seen your father at family events. or how you’d feel about it. “Go ahead and grab a seat. “at home.” Alex glanced around skeptically. “It didn’t bother me that much anymore. He’d had to hit Vivik up for help finding the laundry room. had he any. . “To a man like my father. she hadn’t even gotten a full year of school before he’d arrived. I do. as if she was admitting to something. It took Alex a moment to realize that she was furious. It won’t take a minute. Alex?” Alex nodded slowly. “My father is a powerful man. Alex had to admit that what she said was true – they had been so busy trying to get him into fighting shape that they had pretty much neglected to cover any of the fundamentals.” “Of course. On the other side. “I told her I wanted the chance to develop my abilities. because that’s what I was raised to be. and I have to go rushing back home to learn all about you. since you’ve eaten at the cafeteria pretty much every meal since you got here. but he thought she might have been annoyed with him. I think that she felt sorry for me more than anything. my standards aren’t that high. Alex?” she asked. her eyes narrowing as she looked at the disarray. a few days before the start of second session. “I mean. when he met her. totally puzzled. to learn useful skills that could aid me in my marriage later on. “It doesn’t really matter how I feel about you. then turned on the hot water and reached for the dish soap.” “I didn’t know that. a large entertainment center. before I had to become a bargaining chip for my father. a fairly large space with white stucco walls and an unusually high ceiling. I just want to straighten up a bit. After a moment.” Emily smiled at Alex. though the cartel itself has seen better days. But we won’t ever get to make our own moves.” Alex said quietly. I get a message from my father.” “Yeah.” she said. Actually. Emily looked up at him expectantly a few times. Alex. Emily didn’t seem to require a response from him. staring over at the girl washing dishes.” Emily laughed as if it were funny. a couple of couches. She was obviously upper crust. I suppose. That’s the world I was raised in. but I’d make some important man a very satisfying wife. pretty – but this… “That’s good. “The Academy staff. “They warned me about everyone. And then.“So. or to try and make you feel sorry for me. “The old families – and the Muir family is very old – still use marriages to establish alliances. The room was crowded with a table and a number of wooden chairs.

She had shed her jacket. I do. “Do you like her?” “What?” Alex was puzzled by her timing. all left in small piles that marked the route she had taken through the hall. ignoring Emily’s work. “Hey. surprised at how small it all was. this is my sister. come keep me company. I heard about you as an anecdote to the Mitsuru Aoki situation. So. and looked very much as if she might have just come from working in an office somewhere. and started digging through the refrigerator. I work in Operations. “Well. standing beside Alex and drying her hands with a kitchen towel. I might add. I got it. She had the same blonde hair as Emily. and he gave them a more generous drink to reward their tenacity. “but when Emily is here. her expression unreadable. But Emily just watched. “Okay. her unlit cigarette dangling from one hand. patting him on the shoulder as she ushered him out next to her.” “There’s a Mitsuru situation?” “Mind your own business.“Can you water the plants for me. the papers she had collected held bunched to her chest. Alex couldn’t help but find her appearance incongruous with their surroundings. right? How do you like it?” Therese wandered into the kitchen.” Emily called out to her.” Therese ordered.” Therese’s tone was curt. totally nonplussed. not you. “I’m just going to have a quick smoke and a little chat with your friend here. offering his hand and getting a polite handshake and a terse smile in return. “Yeah.” Therese said. “Let me get a good look at you. and beyond it. We’ve all heard about it.” “Don’t let her attitude fool you. though the ceilings were abnormally tall. tugging off some of the dead leaves. “and we have a guest.. “but do you know who I am already?” “Sure. She looked to Alex like she expected to be disappointed.” “That’s mean. Alex followed the hall between the rooms. Alex looked after Emily. I’ve heard stories. you smoke?” Alex shook his head. Despite the size of the buildings in Central. heading across the living room to the first bunch of very dry houseplants.” Therese said.” “Nice to meet you. gratefully to be doing something. and saw Emily go stiff as a board. Therese. Can you please tell me why we are having this conversation?” Therese glanced over at him. There wasn’t much view to speak of – the Easter egg colored street stretched out before them. wondering about the fear he’d seen in her eyes. staring out at Central moodily. but not exactly unkind.” “Yeah?” Alex did his best to sound nonchalant. “What’s for dinner?” “You can starve for all I care. Alex. “didn’t Emily tell you? I’m the cartel liaison. “Therese…” Emily trailed off questioningly. The look Therese shot Emily was disapproving. “Who. She’s really an excellent cook. leaning on the balcony railing.” Emily said cheerfully. Mr. “You should try and get her to make us dinner. her face composed and serious.” Therese emerged from the refrigerator with a can of coffee. hard. purse. “They gave her a sixty-six percent chance.” . while she finally remembered her cigarette and lit it. by the pile of clothes that covered the floor and spilled out into the hall.” Therese’s tone was dull. thank you very much.” “It took you a very long time to come up with ‘she seems cool’. “I’m definitely not making you dinner. smirking.” “Who’s that?” The woman who emerged from the entryway stairwell was a bit older than he expected. Therese. Alex.” The way she lowered her glasses to look at him made him wonder if she needed them in the first place.” Alex said reluctantly. and everything. Oddly strong for someone who dressed like they worked a desk. dismissive. and then hurried back into the kitchen.” “I am making him dinner. Therese headed up the stairs. and then I’ll get out of your hair.” Therese said to Alex conversationally.” Finding no sympathy. I most definitely do not work for the Chief Auditor. and then shrugged and followed Therese. “But you’re exaggerating your own importance. “I don’t work for Central. you work for the cartel. I work for the Raleigh Cartel. There were four rooms upstairs. her hands full of trash. “And you too. He hadn’t known her very long. “You’re on your own. and then went back to staring off at the city.” Alex was sure Emily would protest. that incident with Aoki. but she didn’t seem like the kind of person it was a good idea to argue with. but only Therese’s had the door open – or Alex guessed that it was hers. “This is Alex Warner. “Do you work for that Alistair guy? Is that how you know about me?” Therese’s jaw dropped.” she said. but she cut it short and had it tied back in a rather severe pony tail. of course. looking more frightened than anything. Unless. “Did you come home today?” “I’m in the kitchen. when he heard the front door open. You haven’t been at the Academy long. a bit reluctantly. and you’re mixed up on who my boss is. just the tip of the Ring and then the monotonous bulk of Central beyond. looking around for the purse she had dropped on her way in. People say she’s nuts. has abandoned all pretenses of housekeeping.” Alex said. “You’ve always been a mean sister. livable space was still at something of a premium. Alexander Warner. Must have been a rough introduction. Alex stepped around them carefully. She wore glasses and a well-tailored pant suit. So. from my class. Alex? He nodded and took the can gratefully.” Therese said.” Therese found her purse and started up the stairs. and then she laughed. gathering the papers that covered much of the open space in the living room into one giant pile. watch and belt. but there was an edge to it that Emily’s voice never had. but he watered them anyway. they didn’t always work at one. not the subject. she turned to Alex. Alex.” Alex shrugged and then nodded. Alex decided that heading out to the balcony was the diplomatic thing to do. I have to go out on the balcony. I told you about him. “Everything I told you was true. but Therese didn’t seem concerned. He was pretty sure he knew who she was talking about. because the precognitives said that you would probably like her. He was certain that the fight that he’d felt coming since Therese had arrived was about to start. depending on circumstances.” Emily said.” Therese said.” he managed. after several moments of thinking. “They brought my sister back home for coaching. “I’m sorry. Another thing that he’d noticed during the handshake – Therese was strong. hovering just over the garbage can. “Come on out here. “We met pretty recently. seemingly enthralled by the view below her. He was still leaning over the last plant. with Alex following. he was fairly certain that the two nearer unidentifiable brown plants had given up the ghost. “Don’t you worry about your big sister.” Therese complained. The rubber plant and the ferns behind them appeared to be in somewhat better shape. he was coming to realize. “She seems cool. do you?” Alex tried to formulate a response. so it’s not like I know her that well. He found Therese at the end of the hall.” Emily said huffily. through a set of ornate glass doors and out on a wrought iron balcony that overhung the street below. probably somewhere in her late twenties. In the cluster. “That’s actually not too bad of a guess. and she spoke so quietly Alex had to lean forward to hear her over the wind that whistled through the channel between the great stone buildings. “Emily?” The voice that drifted up from the entry way was unmistakably similar to Emily’s. Therese..

he had gotten used to having access the cafeteria. Of course. that she was actually quite possibly angry. wiping her eyes and then replacing her glasses. Watching her cry made him feel weirdly helpless. He sat quietly at the table for a while. She was crouching down with a broom and tray. He stared into his empty wine glass as heated voices turned to shouting. “It probably seems like I give her a pretty hard time. and she didn’t seem all that different from Emily after all. ready to turn around if she was still a mess. “Never mind that it’s my baby sister.” Alex admitted. But until that point. her grip on her sister’s forearm tightening. She got a bad hand. maybe try and broker some kind of peace. “if I’m left alone with you. “Don’t worry about it.“Sure.” Sure enough. then.” she said. She was way harder on you than she was on me. “Therese.” “What weird conversations? Who are you having weird conversations with?” Therese looked at him sincerely. yeah. He couldn’t make heads or tails of it.” Therese said. because the world is always going to be hard on my poor little sister. I’m just a slob. Therese winced and quickly shut the door behind her. Do you believe me?” Alex stuck with nodding. who was extremely excited at his tremendous luck regarding his most disappointing daughter.” Alex was starting to realize that though Therese seemed calm. but the atmosphere left something to be desired.” Therese looked gloomy. and headed to the sink instead. fishy. I’ve tried to make her as tough as possible. Alex realized. as she reached for the door. and I hope that you join the Raleigh Cartel. And I promise that if you decide to do that. who appeared to be more in control. “Why do you have to ruin everything?” Emily’s shriek came from somewhere inside the kitchen. and Alex wondered why in the world she kept her golden hair tied back that way. shutting the door behind her. because I work for the cartel and it’s all about what the cartel wants. Lord knows that nothing I’ve done or will ever do has made things much easier on her. She’ll feel better as soon as I’m gone.” Therese said curtly. then leaned against it. “Did you have something you wanted to talk to me about?” Alex wasn’t sure whether he was demanding or begging. “I hope that you can help my sister. are you okay?” He eyed Emily carefully as he entered the kitchen. and then eventually escalated to what sounded like dishes breaking on the tiled floor. sparing Alex the embarrassment of admitting that he hadn’t dated anyone.” Therese paused for a while. I really do. “But you’re a funny guy. being back in a kitchen. are we all done here? Because I don’t really need to have one of these weird conversations right now.” Emily said.” Emily smiled half-heartedly. you will find yourself enthusiastically welcomed by everyone. and then smiled. Actually. then returned to sweeping. That is a bit unexpected. picking up a drying cloth and starting work on the dishes that Alex had finished cleaning. Therese was prim and serious.” Alex heard Emily’s muffled laughter from behind him and felt a little bit better about the situation. “Did you leave stuff all over the place to upset her?” Therese laughed unexpectedly. “So father says that I have to be nice to you. and there was a certain familiarity with the institutional feeding scheme. her face streaked with tears and her makeup smudged. Alex?” Alex shook his head. running his hands through his hair.” “Because it’s in the cartel’s best interest?” “For all I know it might be in Emily’s best interest. he’d never cooked for himself as much as he had warmed food in a microwave. I would be doing the big brother thing right now to the boy she brought home from school.” Therese said.” Emily said. his hands filled with glasses and silverware. and the fish was.” Alex said. “Aw. very… great.” she said. Alex?” Therese asked. and then when nothing happened. she looked even more like Emily. and there’s never been anything I could do about that. not only because he couldn’t think of anything worth saying. and stay out of Emily’s way. I can and will make your life miserable. “Dinner was good. Alex entered the kitchen cautiously. not something he normally ate. sweeping up the remains of what looked to be a broken plate. He rinsed off the dishes methodically. “Did she tell you things about me? Was she at least nice to you?” “Who’s that? Your sister?” Alex glanced over his shoulder at Emily.” “I kinda wondered if you did that on purpose. collecting the plates and then shuffling half-heartedly after Emily into the kitchen. and tell you to keep your hands off her. “Okay. We didn’t talk about anything in particular – I think she’s just being protective of you. not waiting for a response. well. her elbows resting on the iron railing. okay. “She was pretty nice. wedging her feet into the shoes she’d discarded by the front door and collecting her purse. “Right. which was moist and delicious and not at all. a tad bitterly. and Alex let the silence be. It felt a bit strange to him. Let me say this.” “Oh?” . “I do give her a hard time. Even though it had only been a few weeks. ignoring the icy stares that Emily aimed in her direction. It was nice meeting you.” Alex said. “Alright. when he finds out that I came home anyway tonight. help me with the dishes before you go. Alex jumped in his seat when the kitchen door swung opened and Therese stalked out.” “Right. Alex wasn’t certain what was said in the moments that followed. “Uh. because I can’t make her life any easier. “Emily. It seemed like the fastest way to put an end to the conversation. She smiled thinly at Alex and nodded. her voice full of tears. brushing past him on her way back into the house. he guessed that there was some disagreement. trying to give her time to compose herself. ever. um. do you think I should…?” Therese waved him off. He suppressed an urge to give her a hug. Do you know why I’m not doing that. something he didn’t particularly want to experience firsthand. And. half-standing up from the table. well. All she has is me. “Those little potato things…” “Fingerling?” Emily offered. Because if you string her along. “Because I got a call a few weeks ago from my father. her smile a little sad. “Let’s find out what we’re eating. Therese tilted her head to look at him over the top of her glasses again. “She seems to think I’m in imminent danger of having my virtue compromised. but to his surprise. but also much less timid than her younger sister. Alex thought about getting up and going to check on the girls. I’m sure that I will be seeing you around Central. but not nearly as reserved. the fingerling potatoes were great. keeping his attention on the dishes in the sink. he’s going to be furious. I’m off for the evening. then you better make that very clear. The meal was excellent. too confused to try and guess. Emily grabbed her arm and pulled her toward the kitchen. in a weird sort of way. you had better be nice to my sister. but from the tone of the voice. “Did you ever date a girl with a big brother. When Therese put her napkin on the table and made to leave. “So. and he decided to remain where he was. Also. chatting away casually and not seeming to particularly care that neither Alex nor Emily had much to say in return.” Alex said. if he wasn’t careful. flicking the remainder of her cigarette onto the slate grey road below. When she laughed. and Alex was particularly surprised at the pan-fried fish. Alex practically wanted to embrace her in gratitude.” She shot him a warning glare as she closed the door behind her. but then his sense of self-preservation kicked in. myself included. “You think about what I said. And normally.” Therese moaned. So I can’t be the big brother. he decided to clear the rest of the table. “Emily doesn’t have a big brother. Therese stayed and ate. Alex noted. if you decide you don’t like her. for a moment. Alex decided not to notice that she was crying. though he had a feeling that the wrong answer could well prompt another crying binge. right from the start. taking a deep breath and then giving Alex a shaky smile. Alex. “No. right? And I do. because someone had turned the kitchen sink on full blast before the conversation started. Alex. sniffling.

Uh.” Emily laughed and slapped his arm playfully.” Alex shrugged in relief. he decided that probably wasn’t a veiled invitation. I’ve been inside other people’s houses.” Alex said morosely.” Alex said softly. I do want something from you.” . shelving dishes. Maybe we could help each other. hanging his head. speaking slowly. so I didn’t think I would have to do that much. I’ve known it was coming for years. “this is exactly what I didn’t want to talk about out. But. And I worried about it. She was lost in thought. this is all new to me. that is to say.” Emily was openly skeptical. I’ve never really been over to anyone’s house before. “You must think I’m a mess. I guess I can’t say that I’m sure I didn’t. That had to be obvious in his voice. “I was hungry. “She’s always known. But. I’m sure that no one except my grandmother ever cooked me dinner. I don’t normally do this sort of thing.” Emily reached over and patted his hand. rubbing his palms against his jeans. instantly regretting having continued on.” The wariness must have been obvious. “No. “Should I go?” He didn’t want to. “And you’re right. I can’t even tell if you like me or not. rather than out of thirst. “I don’t really know you. “Therese seems… capable.” “Really? Because this has been pretty cool. either. “We can talk about something…” “My family died in a fire.” she urged. because of that. since I was little.” Emily said. “what would be expected of me.” Emily said. Alex. well.” he said hesitantly. he snuck a look over at Emily.” Alex said with a shrug. because she flinched. “My upbringing was not exactly conventional.” Alex said. after a short delay. cheeks burning.” Emily said. frowning as he tried to remember.” “Can I ask what your plan was?” Alex asked. blushing and looking down. though I can’t say that I remember doing anything like that. but now that it’s happening. rather than leaving a buffer between them. Alex was fairly certain that she reached for her wine glass to buy herself time. “I’ve never. I spent a long time in various institutions.Alex tried not to get his hopes up. if you were to compromise my virtue. “About me and my situation. obviously. and it seems really important that I figure things out. “The general consensus was that I set it. and then when nothing happened.” Emily admitted. He took a sip from his wine glass and hoped that it looked like he’d done that before. her expression pained. “and I was not quite as popular at my last school as I appear to be at this one. sighing and leaning back into the overstuffed leather cushions. “Yes.” Alex said. “My plan was so much cooler than this. with what appeared to be sincerity. I wouldn’t be that concerned with Therese’s reaction. “It isn’t that I don’t like you.” Emily looked stunned. absently brushing her hair back behind her ears. I just don’t really get what’s going on.” Emily said. Alex was careful to sit down first. he figured it could be worse – he didn’t really want to talk about himself. “Well. “But. On the balance. “Don’t worry about it. trying to look him in the eyes. “Though maybe things haven’t gone too well tonight because I’m sort of in uncharted territory myself.” Alex didn’t know what to say to that. wondering how much worse it could get.” After a moment’s consideration. I’d be more worried about my father. yet. They finished up the kitchen in silence.” Emily giggled. her eyes unfocused.” Alex waited for a moment. “That’s one way to put it. My father has been very clear on what role I would eventually play in helping rebuild the Raleigh Cartel’s fortunes. what you did or didn’t do before you got here. or a perfect facsimile thereof. Therese is one of the top Operators in the Hegemony. and wished he’d been able to turn invisible after all. right?” Emily asked. how should I say… capable in our cartel.” “Really?” Alex braced himself. so he didn’t say anything. “And I’m not planning on asking any more questions that you don’t want to answer. “It doesn’t really matter to me. still unable to look at Emily directly. well. her cheeks tomato-red. Anyway. he didn’t want them to sit in silence. same here.” Alex said quietly. “You knew.” “Do you like me at all?” Alex evaded the question. but even more than that. and certainly the most. so that when Emily decided to sit down next to him. Alex blushed. I don’t think I’ve ever really been invited over to hang out like this.” “Sure.” Emily said. staring at the floor. All of it. looking at him with what he desperately hoped wasn’t pity. “Oh. “All of it?” Emily’s expression was somewhere between incredulous and pitying. I wondered if you’d consider coming to an arrangement with me. really. and ransacked his mind for something to say. “Never?” Alex shook his head. well. That. and. “I guess I didn’t realize how weird this would feel. looking away. I thought you’d be all over me as soon as we were alone. I don’t know why she’s acting like she would bite your head off if you touched me. I mean? And you came anyway.” “That sounds sort of lonely. and then moved to the living room.” “Can I ask why?” “Shit. “Oh?” “Don’t look at me like that. The overall opinion of me back at home was. it wasn’t awkward.” Emily said nervously. I mean. all sorts of things. understandably low. “He might collapse in sheer joy and disbelief.” she said more cheerfully. on one end of the couch. It’s nothing bad. “Well. “Are you being serious?” She leaned forward when she asked. to say nothing of empathy.” Alex explained. “I’m not sure. her smile unhappy.

staring grumpily at the quarry wall. There was no way for him to know how long they had been knocking on the door. but he seemed like he was in a trance or something. finding himself mid-song. It was Renton. concise. Alex hadn’t really felt like getting lost going running on the grounds. he didn’t even feel that sleepy. but he didn’t bother to reach for the volume.” he said. The music was too loud now. He had he slept. so energy went rushing out of the world to fill it. But.” “Different how?” “Well. still wearing his shoes and uniform. He pulled the headphones out of his ears as he sat up. Emily’s notes were handwritten. then radiant and electromagnetic as well. and sometimes he wanted to tutor Alex a bit more than Alex wanted to be tutored. “And then what happened?” “He activated the Absolute Protocol that you implanted. He had a firm hand shake and a smile that seemed friendly enough.” “You could use that. but he’d wanted the exercise. “We . because he had not slept. The illusion was so complete that he was aware of the smell of her hair. Alex was a light sleeper. with an expression that was filled with grief and frustration. that he felt the warmth of another body besides his own in the tiny dorm bed. “Did you freeze the quarry? Why did you freeze the quarry. to his shock. He looked idly over at the stack of books on his desk. and he lost himself in it. “No. “I tried to get him to stop there. He was alone. that was a side effect of what Alex did. Vivik’s notes were typed.” “Alex blew up that whole rock face?” Rebecca pointed incredulously at the ruined slope.” “What does that mean? What ‘local energy’?” “Everything. “Hey.” Michael picked up a pebble and threw it toward the quarry wall.” Michael protested.” Renton asked. there’s a lot… more of it. First thermal. It’s just like my poor couch. I’ve never seen anything like it. almost sadly. and wondered why someone enrolled in the combat program had to study any math at all. turning to face her. covered with a fine layer of gravel and chipped stone.” Rebecca frowned doubtfully. Alex turned the volume up earlier when he’d gone for a jog on the Academy’s surprisingly modern synthetic-surface track. he created a much larger void in the Ether. But. and their little ‘arrangement’. for one thing. once it starts.” Michael said. The ceiling proved more interesting that the books. Michael?” “I didn’t do it. then? Had he dreamed? “I’m not really sure. Alex. expecting Vivik.” Michael admitted. But Vivik liked studying. going to be doing any studying tonight. a small hand resting on the pillow above his head. “I guess I was asleep.” Rebecca said. It wasn’t Vivik.” he admitted. And then he started dumping all the local energy directly out into the Ether. puzzled and angry for reasons he couldn’t articulate. Less dangerous for Alex. the weight of her head from where it rested on the hollow of his shoulder.” Rebecca said slowly. They only made him worry about her. looping beats. I think that’s where all that catalytic power comes from. Nothing had changed. Alex got up with a sigh and opened the door. “We can’t let Alex operate that protocol. smiling mischievously. and he can’t stop it. He wasn’t.” Rebecca pinched her lower lip and looked at Michael disapprovingly. roughly three-ish?” “And then there’s the frost. He did not wake then. He could not have woken. maybe. as if it had just arrived.Nineteen “The quarry seems a bit different than the last time I saw it. given the right control…” “You were showing off. at a deep crater that exposed the bedrock.” -Alex lay on his back. and easy to understand – but equally as useless to Alex. lost in thought. his skull reverberating with the slow. and Etheric energy leaks through to fill it. and wondered the same thing. He hadn’t slept. that whole area over there.” Michael said. “I think all the cold is only a side-effect. “The cold might be easier to control than an actual energy or mass transfer. Alex could have sworn that for a moment somewhere in the album’s final tracks. but it came up short. “Alex did. what then?” Michael looked moodily at the frost covered hole in the quarry wall and sighed. Next thing I know. “I think all the time. He couldn’t possibly have fallen asleep with his headphones on. much less the exact same math that had been kicking his ass back in the real world. but he couldn’t remember the name of. shoulders slumped. right?” “I think so. Or rather. What time is it. He felt a tremendous sense of comfort and gentleness. the rock where he was staring starts to disappear into the Ether. I’m Li. he hadn’t heard them until now. that was me. “why are you still in your uniform?” Alex looked down at himself. I mean. He liked the Sikh kid quite a bit. but he felt too agitated to listen anymore. rubbing his head.” “No. as in he seemed to do it for fun. anyway?” “A bit after eleven. his head heavy and swimming with worry. the study guides that Vivik and Emily had made for him sitting on top. He’ll kill everyone around him. He had trouble falling asleep almost every night. bullet-pointed.” the Chinese kid said. probably more effective. to give him an idea of what was possible. without even realizing it. letting the lushness of the sound obliterate his thoughts. When he activated the protocol. The MP3 player had moved along to Massive Attack. diving down early toward the black water at the bottom of the quarry and colliding with the ice on the surface with a crunching sound. He fished his headphones out of his pocket and hit play on his MP3 player. and the place beside him on the bed was cold. “It’s like Mitsuru all over again. He opened his eyes. He couldn’t have fallen asleep. and a Chinese kid who Alex recognized from class. he was really good-natured and upbeat. “Why not?” “He can’t control the protocol. and exhaustive to the point of being incomprehensible. on top of the comforter. Alex creates a localized void in our world. actually. “Okay. a very desirable trait for those who planned on surviving incarceration. even if it was an off-day. Alex often found the text book’s explanations to be shorter. and even small noises tended to wake him up. extending his hand to Alex. “I showed him the Vacuum Bomb Protocol. shaking his head. since when is that nothing but gravel and sand?” “Since this afternoon. halfway through a Portishead album. in the quiet of the dorms. you know?” “You mean he was creating a vacuum? You are kidding. he realized drowsily. Not like that.” Michael gestured at the frost around him.

” “Serafina is a second-year student. “Plus. some of the people here are really rich! So. confused. I guess. She could feel it from a mile away. Behind her was Emily in a tailored coat. she intended bring them here. dreadlocked blond girl he didn’t recognize. heard all about you. you want to come with us to the roof.” Alex looked over at the speaker.have homeroom together. “Is this some kind of joke. She’d had it all planned out.” Alex said. “Keystone. “You do realize that you’re staring. The wood was carved cedar.” Alex recited numbly. “It’s like fucking Bakersfield in a can. perched on top of one of the old chimneys the dotted the roof.” Alex laughed nervously while he considered the implications. Renton? Should I take offense?” “Do you have any idea how hard it is to get beer when you’re stuck in the Ether. “I have. that’s all. Alex reached into the cooler that he held open. into the steaming water up to her eyeballs. A beer. you know. wrapped in a surprisingly cutesy winter coat and fringed scarf.” Rebecca said. and he turned to confront Renton.” Anastasia made a sour face at him.” Rebecca thanked whatever God that there might be that the founder of the Academy had been Japanese. meeting a new girl.” “Call me Sarah. a secret school in another world. “Seems like everyone has. of course. Seemed like a nice enough guy. but maybe that was an East Coast thing. darkened with age and moisture. he wasn’t totally sure how Anastasia put up with Renton. “Sorry. right. might help relax him a little. up to her chin in rose-scented bathwater. -There were around thirty people up on the roof. He hadn’t really realized what an opportunity he’d blown at Emily’s place. though. Alex. When she found someone special. the falling in lust or in love. The room was so thick with steam that she couldn’t see the shower curtain.” Alex said to no one in particular.” “Right. “Alex. I might add.” She said it as if he would find that reassuring. everyone does.” “Where are we going?” Alex was wary. “We’ll wait out here while you change. “You try some shit. I guess. -“I will not notice. Alex was starting to realize that Renton had mastered that art of being friendly and despicable at the same time. his voice dripping with sincerity.” Li said with a grin. He wondered if the Academy had hazing rituals that he was unaware of. Alex stared into the cooler in dismay. nothing would happen.” Alex turned to look at the new voice. “And her cartel. She’d always planned to bring a lover here.” he mumbled into his beer. Ana?” The dreadlocked girl interposed herself between Alex and Anastasia.” The worst was the flirting. Most of them were strangers to Alex. Back when she’d had them. She was so embarrassed when the teacher came to get her in the morning. “You’re a friend of Renton’s?” “Don’t think badly of me for it. heavy woolen skirt and felt boots. “We can’t even bring it in the dorms. you realize.” Rebecca let herself sink down. laughing cheerfully and walking with a plump. How do you do?” Sarah greeted Alex with a smile. Believe me. and took a sip of his wretched beer to cover his discomfort. The only sound was the branches scraping across with the outside wall with the wind.” Anastasia explained. They have a protocol on all the student buildings. Put something warm on. you ungrateful little shit?” Renton extracted a can from the cooler for himself. whether he supposed to shake her hand or what. I don’t care what they do.” Alex agreed. In that truly unlikely scenario.” .” Renton said. “The roof. “It happened to a girl in my hall.” Renton suggested. “Seriously?” Renton looked over at him from where he was hitting on some curly-haired first year student. how could this be?” Renton looked him with a puzzled expression. Frankly. sounding as bored as she looked. last year. it puts you to sleep if you try and bring this sort of thing in. “It sort of worked out that way. and probably designed to be exactly that. wondering how anyone could tolerate Renton on a consistent enough basis to be friends with him. grinning. somehow. “That’s a good one. you both wake up to find the staff member on duty standing over you. Alex nodded back. “Saves time on introductions. Then a nasty idea occurred to him. make talking to people a bit easier. He was never sure. I’m not going to feel any of it. stopping a discrete distance away.” “Same thing if you try and get it on with a girl in the dorms. Her hair was securely wrapped in a red towel. “All this power and technology. “Still warm. “Get yourself changed.” Alex laughed.” Anastasia said. Anastasia. It helped a little bit. meet Serafina Ricci.” Renton laughed like he’d heard the funniest joke ever. as an employee or whatever he was. she is my second cousin. don’t you?” Anastasia hissed at him as she walked near. “I was surprised to see you here.” “Really? Even if she was only there to study or something?” “Study. someone worth rewarding. She’d made certain that everyone in Central had forgotten the bathhouse except herself and the staff that cleaned it. and had a fondness for his native country’s baths. and the bath itself was big enough that she could stretch her legs out. Pink-tinged bubbles floated across the water’s surface. “I’m not going to notice anything. has the bad taste to associate itself with the Hegemony. Despite that. How many years ago had that been? Three? Four? “I will not notice. and her awful. although he had a bit too much of the white-boy hip-hop act going for Alex. It was obscene. “I will not notice. unpleasant. meet Alex Warner. Not until one of you tried to take your clothes off. Rebecca remembered bitterly. and then stifled a yawn. It seemed so inappropriately masculine. Alex.” Li said. I will not. “Aren’t you going to introduce us. looking indignant. and therefore my responsibility. Alex shyly migrated back to where a cooler sat. “Serafina.” Alex said sadly. he figured. leaning against the wall. was glancing at the contents of the cooler with obvious contempt. letting the hot water massage her brain. a chubby upperclassman named Todd that he had just been introduced to. a mask stuffed with lavender pressed across her eyes. smacking his lips with satisfaction. Since Renton and Li were caught up in conversation as soon as they walked out on to the roof.

“Shush. subtly or not. Emily walked up and tried to say something. You have to admit that Renton has a remarkable way with people. in his own weird way.” Margot bowed her head for a moment. “I only came because you made me promise to introduce you to Alex. “I can’t drink alcohol.” Vivik admitted. exactly?” “That was a pretty big favor that I did you. “Very well. She was still floating. It seemed like the Academy really needed an orientation or a tour. language. clearly taken aback. looking vaguely annoyed.” Sarah observed. Alex realized the boy was probably a touch drunk already. though. I would hope. He’d already known him long enough not to like him. right?” Renton said softly. “That’s pretty rare. since Alex had arrived.” Alex spun around. “I have Eerie waiting down there…” Renton chuckled to himself. After all I’ve done for you…” “Please. Alex wondered if she was going to attack him. pigtailed vampire. Do enjoy yourselves…” Anastasia breezed off.” Renton pointed out from behind his beer.” Alex looked at Renton and wondered. sing-song quality.” “Vivik!” Alex exclaimed. or something.” Renton said reasonably. without tripping any of the Academy’s security measures.” Margot said dismissively. only half-joking. he did throw you a party.” Renton winked at Alex. and he’d missed it. “And your friend. You don’t want to disappoint Eerie. the vampire from the day before. and then looked at Alex evilly. this time. so why the party?” “We are sort of the welcoming committee. Alex sipped from his can as sparingly as possible and felt tremendously out-of-place. not sure what to make of the conversation. then. but he didn’t think he was stupid or fond of wasting time. How could beer be warm when it was this cold outside? It defied logic. “It never even occurred to me that it would actually be bag of candy.” Anastasia said. “One of the staff has to be doing rounds. but not unfriendly. but neither of them looked particularly bothered by the cold. his smile wide and mean. She will probably just go home by herself. Alex stood there for a moment. but he’s not really as bad as he’d like you to believe.” Vivik said. and the edges of her hair brushed against them.” Ways which included blackmail and bribery.” Renton was looking at the contents of the heavy paper bag with obvious satisfaction. looking over Alex’s shoulder. Her exposed shoulders were perfectly round and bone-white. “Why don’t you bring her up. Given the clinking noise it made when he moved it. because she’s a nutcase. and for a moment. That done. but found himself standing by nervously. so we’re cool. rather. “I didn’t realize you were here. Renton. “I can’t speak for Eerie.” Margot turned and began to float away. Eerie wore a red and white sweater with a pleated black skirt and black knee socks. pulling a different paper sack from one of his coat’s inner pockets. and then continued on evenly.” She held out a brown paper bag. “I’m not that big of nerd. laughing. “He’s been like that since I met him. as if she weighed nothing. She set Eerie down carefully next to her. a vampire. and she held her beer gingerly in sparkly blue gloves. only to be cut off by Renton shouting a greeting and then pushing his way through the group. and shivered in his jacket.” Margot’s voice was prim and cold. “Besides. then. And I’ve told you a million times to call me Sarah. I appreciate this. had started watching him. with Margot. coming smoothly down in front of the cheering Renton. Maybe it was held at the start of the year. after all. Margot paused and appeared to try and compose herself. brushing by a puzzled looking Emily on her way to the door.” Emily observed.” Margot looked at him. “Are you sure?” Alex said. and Alex wondered if her bare feet were cold against the stone. “I don’t bite. haphazard and uneven. with a musical. Renton had gone out of his way to be friendly. and wondered what Renton’s angle was. so it’s been a little tricky. and still confuses picking on girls with flirting.” “Do you want me to introduce you?” Emily offered. The way she spoke gave him the impression that English was not her first. maybe you should consider if things between us are really squared. maybe even most of them. or best. She had a basket filled with yarn and carefully wrapped knitting needles tucked under one arm. “Where is the candy?” Eerie’s voice was strange. you can tell Eerie that I have a bunch of candy up here for her. “I know both of them pretty well.” Her intonation made it obvious that she wasn’t making excuses. her bare feet dangling lazily. “Sometimes I wonder if Renton’s really such an okay guy. He made a trip to the cooler and got three new cans. There were more people on the roof now.” Alex finished the last of his beer.” Sarah said.” Renton said. but you keep falling asleep at eight o’clock. didn’t seem to really take temperature into account. with Eerie. startled. obviously hurt. either. She was. “What kind of party are you having. “It’s Rebecca tonight. Alex watched in astonishment as Margot. and found himself face-to-face with her. “We would have done it sooner. Something worth knowing. right? He had been planning on introducing himself. Her outfit. “Margot has come to these things once or twice. “It was a mistake to fall into your debt. before realized that much of the party. Margot was just stating the facts as she saw them.” She actually came all the way down to the ground. As Alex approached them. Eerie ran over to Renton. like Margot’s. The mood didn’t seem right for him to interrupt. You can have a beer with us or something. But are you seriously blackmailing that vampire just to get beer on to the roof? That seems like a bad idea. because of my metabolism. but unlike Emily and Vivik. her long brown skirt around her calves. her voice deathly bored. Margot?” Margot’s eyes narrowed. Her cheeks were rosy from the cold.” “You’re an empath. Alex sipped his awful beer.” Alex shook his head and Emily laughed. Eerie held casually in her arms. Alex made a mental note to ask someone where he could get a haircut before the party ended. Renton met Alex’s look with slightly glassy eyes.” “Don’t worry about it. his motives were far more obscure. “I figured that was slang for some kind of drug. “He can be kind of a dick. Alex looked at the serious. Alex was pretty sure he’d just seen how the beer had made it to the roof in the first place.” Again. emerging from the group of people behind the tangle of pipes on the center of the roof.” “Don’t look so surprised. floated up from the side of the building and over the retaining wall. centimeters above the concrete and rebar.” “Well. and hang out for a while. depositing the empty ones in an already half-full paper sack. “And while I do appreciate you bringing up all this stuff up to the roof for me. floating neatly over the retaining wall. and a lot of them. teased by the cold wind. but I’ve never seen Eerie come to anything. which Renton promptly snatched. and held out her hand expectantly. I’m the nice kind of vampire. “And you’d better be serious about the candy.” “I really don’t think you should let that happen. and Eerie’s pathologically shy. and wondered why Renton was being so hard on her. were girls.Sarah looked scandalized. “I guess. “Am I done?” Margot said. What do you think. Margot. Margot. Alex thought. I am afraid that I have better things to do with my time. and hurried back over to where Emily . And you’re great. Alex grabbed Renton by the arm as he walked by. and handing it to Eerie. Renton. “Okay. “Here. I’ll introduce you guys to Alex. running over to the far wall. he realized that he’d been wrong – Margot hadn’t actually landed. “You know everybody pretty well. you know. and then collected Sarah and Emily’s empties as well. Alex was astounded to see Eerie pull a package of Skittles from it and tear it open. too. with himself.

“But.” Alex replied. maybe. I prefer to think of myself as impulsive. sometimes. up against the edge of the roof. huh?” Eerie didn’t look up. raising one hand stiffly in greeting and wondering what in the hell it was that he was doing. before nodding gravely. Dislocation.” Eerie’s voice was oddly musical. “I think we should go somewhere else. and icy cold where Alex’s fingers brushed against her shoulder. trying to push her away and stand her upright at the same time. Alex. He was obviously on his own. but it wasn’t an altogether bad reception. Alex shook his head slowly. Keep trying. he realized. Sarah and Emily.” “H-How. and her last statement had even referenced what he had wanted to talk about. Her skin was flushed. That meant he’d have to finish the beer. “You seem to really… like candy. on her tip toes so that her eyes would be level with his. Something he had dreamed. She says that you fought with Steve the other day because you are stupid…” She trailed off shyly. “and no. “Margot says that you are an idiot. Eerie was standing very. as rapidly as politeness allowed. I don’t usually go there. “You’ve only just been activated. like static from the base of his skull. but vaguely inhuman. like a reproduction of a human voice made by a beautiful. almost colliding with Alex in the process. dazed. He had no idea what the girl was talking about. it seems like you and Margot are pretty good friends. What else could . “Emily. “Surely you’ve noticed. “but we live in the same place. This still left him needing something. lamely casting about for a topic. He wondered if she hated him already. slowly. “Try not to look so nervous. Alex? Hasn’t this happened already?” Eerie voice was distant.” Eerie clutched herself even tighter. a strange sense of déjà vu… he wasn’t certain. her face blank but not unfriendly. “that’s why I was in the cafeteria the other day. the entire party was conspicuously distant from them. and was surprised that he cared. looking far more nervous and less cool than he would have liked. but at the same time. now that you’ve come here. “Hi! I’m Alex.” Sarah offered encouragingly.” “Don’t worry. since going to get another was the only reason to walk away that he could come up with. “No one ever knows what to say to either of them. “When we sleep. Eerie held absolutely still for a moment. chasing after that redhead from Herzog’s class. “I thought Rebecca had made you two promise to try and be more social this year. He still felt kind of like an ass. hasn’t it?” Alex backed away a step. “The slippage. dropping the paper bag into her knitting basket and then clutching the basket handle in both hands. lifted the remaining candy to her mouth. and he half-stumbled a few steps away. and he had to strain to hear it. utterly dumbfounded. This. certain that Eerie was standing too close to him. replaced with something that sounded more like a bald statement of fact.” she added. Sarah followed them. nibbling on a Red Vine.” Margot acknowledged with a nod. and Alex tagged along behind her.” Eerie crumpled and discarded the Skittles wrapper. looking thoughtful. “Um. one who wasn’t even human? In front of Emily? Alex was having serious doubts about the soundness of the whole situation. But it’s already started. She pressed her forehead against his chest. He was. Alex. He caught her awkwardly. He was going to feel bad about what had happened with Steve until he got Eerie to talk to him. After a brief struggle. and he was afraid that she really would fall over. “The Church of Sleep. her expression went slack again. Her pupils were black and glittering and huge.” Alex stammered. “Are you dreaming now. her eyes wet and unfocused. “I don’t know what you mean.” Eerie’s eyes widened. any topic. Had he really been left alone with a girl who hadn’t managed to say anything coherent to him.” Margot said nothing. seemingly oblivious to Alex’s presence. “He’s being nice to you guys. “I don’t understand.” Eerie took another step forward.” Alex was a bit taken aback. Haven’t I already told you my secret?” Eerie’s eyes were half-closed now. Alex.” she said quietly. “Friends? I don’t really get stuff like that. But you’ll never remember another dream. but he wandered off. You’re already doing better than most guys. Eerie seemed to give the question serious consideration. his throat hoarse. leading him over. Margot glanced over at her. “So. I have been practicing eating other food.” Alex admitted.” Eerie’s voice had lost all of its interrogative qualities. it made him terribly nervous. “I don’t get it.” Alex took a sip from his beer. her hand frozen halfway to her mouth. He was starting to get the hang of her bizarre intonation. we are programmed. All of a sudden. then. was communication.” Her melodic voice was barely a whisper. Eerie was staring at him. Alex. laughing at the whole scene. “Nice to finally get to talk to both of you. when you wake up. a number of multicolored candies in her palm. for having tried so hard to look cool in front of her. forced and artificial.” Emily went silent.” Eerie looked at him as if she had answered his question in full. as had Margot. very close to him.” Alex observed. and you feel like someone is there with you. “And sometimes. the folds of sweater pulled tight across her chest in a way that he found quite distracting. Renton was supposed to introduce us.” Emily admonished. shaking her finger and glaring at them. “But. and then started digging through the bag again.” Sarah laughed and patted him on the shoulder. and then shook his head. and looked as if she was going to speak. arms folded across her chest. “This way… Hey Margot? Eerie?” Emily walked to where the two girls stood.” Emily admonished. and then. “Don’t you remember. and her arms were wrapped around herself tightly. almost feverish. so very lonely. Alex felt himself break out in sweat. but wholly alien. He finally got her to meet his eyes – and was stunned to discover that they were dilated to such an extent that her irises were nothing more than millimeter-thin colored rings around a reflective black space.” he said. she seemed so out of it. He wasn’t certain that he’d ever seen anyone’s eyes look that way. anything to say to the girl standing next to him. without much success in either endeavor. and then she simply looked back down to the ground. and wondered what kind of drugs did that to you. and rapidly considered his options.” Alex felt hot. “She has been talking about this boy since the other day in the cafeteria. “Alex. and shifted from one foot to the other. one hand toying with the edge of her skirt. however. he reasoned. “And when you wake up. Introduce me to your friends. Alex thought proudly. device. pulling a handful of red liquorices twists from the paper bag. skirting the periphery of the party. she just continued rummaging. since you came here? Can you remember going to bed when you wake up?” “Yes. There was a strange buzzing sound that seemed to emanate from the back of his neck. “Why are you asking me all these questions?” “Can you feel it already?” Eerie asked softly. and then gave Alex a panicked look as she was pulled off towards the party by the vampire. Emily feebly protesting as she was dragged along. from where she leaned against the wall. you know things that you didn’t know before. Despite the cold. She stumbled forward.” Alex felt mildly encouraged. Oh. no matter how much of weirdo she might turn out to be. and then shook her head. and he could see a ghost image of himself reflected in them. “how is it that you know these things?” “The Church of Sleep. and then she shook her head.and Sarah were chatting. His voice sounded odd to him. “That is a very real possibility. Actually. yeah… you don’t get what?” Alex scratched the back of his head nervously. Renton and Vivik had disappeared. “Alright. What the hell. As a matter of fact. Alex? Isn’t it hard to tell?” Alex shook his head. and he’d need a pretty good excuse to walk away.” Margot said as she walked past. Don’t you fall asleep earlier and earlier.

Alex turned back toward the rest of the party. still air.” Alex felt a bit nervous with her standing this close. he faltered. “I’ve got you. along with Vivik. Had this all happened before? Why was it that he kept thinking about a cloud of golden butterflies.” Alex discovered that.” Eerie looked one way. “It’s okay with me. “I hope you had a nice party. . and for a moment. kicking at the ground absently. and realized that even the beer in the bottle Renton was drinking from was inert. He felt his legs crumple beneath him. and his legs twisted and collapsed underneath him. he was sure he wanted to hear it. Alex was unaware of all this. “I’ve collected Alex. a glimmering. I won’t be able to say it. tinkling sound as the water molecules in the air coalesced and froze. he soothed and slowed the air molecules. or no further. “You can’t try and tell him everything all at once. He made it to his feet. silent. All of them were rigid. like a cancer afflicting the world. Alex found himself shaking his head. and Alex could feel his bones disintegrating under the strain with a sickening surety. and then worked its way up out from the core of him. and the scream silenced. Li was right behind them. Hovering in front of him. like a gigantic amoeba. Alex. siphoning it directly into the Ether.sleep be? But who does the programming. and was immediately sick. Alex. The cold light burned as he breathed it in like smoke. He managed to get one knee underneath him. and clearly not directed at him.” Her next words were louder. disintegrating rather than come into contact with the horror. and screamed. wheeling and diving in rough unison under the brilliant afternoon sunlight near Half Moon Bay? Had he ever actually seen that? Whose memory was it? “Something bad is coming. and then smiled at him. and had he not activated the protocol. and an impression of the thing seemed to be burned into his retina. you will wonder if it is okay. her lips so close to his ear that he could feel her breathe. He reached back without his hands. Around him. and he was struck by how familiar she looked. flesh-colored statues arrayed across the jumbled surface of the roof. Around the periphery of the monster the air burnt and smoldered. The party had become a still-life portrait. pressure flowing outwards from within. Whatever it was Eerie had to say. pinned down by the sheer horror of the thing. It was enough. flower-like blooms. to make up for it. radiating out from where Alex stood. sheathing him in frigid incandescence. Don’t worry. disorienting Alex. though. peeling his soul away layer-by-layer. cellulose ridged with teeth hooked like thorns. Todd. held in perfect suspension in the neck of the bottle. anyway. a copper dome of beautiful but unreadable words that arced over the both of them. endless and punishing.” Eerie said sadly. and it was impossible to see through the layer of superheated mist roiling at the edge of the bubble. “Try not to overwhelm Alex. The monster was so fundamentally abominable that Alex could not help but understand: the world around him was dying rather than accepting the existence of this thing. Eerie. but even the moonlight that eked through the glutinous mass was corrupted and ruined. Even as the unrelenting horror beat down on him. until his mind was filled with a cold radiance. then. wanting to ask someone what had happened. The sound the creature made was like a terrible reverberating siren.” Alex insisted. Alex immediately felt guilty. The world would not tolerate an existence like the one above him and in its desperate attempt to shed the abomination. The moment she touched him. “I know you will. It hovered in midair. whenever you less sociable types want to earn your pay. the tension as his whole body tried to tear itself apart. “Walking in the snow.” “Everything is fine. he felt the full force of the thing’s scream again. agitated by the heat above and the utter absence below. perhaps twenty feet above the roof of the building. It took hold immediately. and then leaned in close so that Alex could hear her whisper. and stopped. surrounded by a bubble of cool. The scream drilled into him. that he couldn’t even blink. battering his mind and thoughts into fragments. Alex could see the illuminated script of the barrier protocol that Rebecca activated clearly. “I didn’t mean to do anything wrong. corroding reality. in a way he couldn’t put his finger on. Some of them were elongated and ended in things that looked like mouths. Alex took a step closer. Alex felt it in the stone crumbling beneath his hands. blue-white light radiating from his chest. bleeding the heat off into the Ether. and reached outwards. the world itself was unraveling around him. but he found it was surprisingly easy.” Eerie looked at him. stripping the surrounding atmosphere of its kinetic energy. and if he stayed there too much longer. “Shh… Alex. and for some reason. like an onion. “I’m sorry. in Rebecca’s arms. how nostalgic. He heard a strange. a luminescent sheen that extended a few millimeters beyond his skin. and at the center of each. The scream was not like anything Alex had heard before. and he wanted to kiss her.” Where Eerie had stood. unable to move. smelling delicately of sandalwood. There was a strange. Eerie retreating back from him hurriedly. flashing through the front part of his skull like a migraine. who was still trying to get his legs to hold him up again.” Eerie’s shoulders slumped and she looked distraught. Sarah was frozen in midsentence. But he forced the door inside open wider. Alex could only stare at her and wonder what any of what she said had meant. then. All along his skin.” Li said to Eerie. trying to clear it. like an insect. the stone frozen solid beneath him. coughing up bile as his stomach contracted and heaved. and the flood of cold light supported him. “I’ll help you out with something. it’s okay…” Alex realized he was screaming. His chest and abdomen were racked with spasms. There was a sudden wetness on his face. out of his control. The entire world recoiled. Alex realized. Alex felt confusion as well as a profound sense of relief. writhing and amorphous. then. dissipating in the wind. as if she’d only now realized how close they were. extending tentacles and formless limbs in all directions. shattering musically on the stained concrete. Frost crawled across the roof. What was it with this girl? He didn’t understand anything. everything rejecting the monster’s existence on a molecular level. he felt the Black Door creak open. “but you’ll have to make it through without my help. who gathered him up like a child. and whatever strange effect the girl’s words had on him was already fading. Alex raised his arms to either side of him. he could not do anything about the crushing gravity the thing exuded. The light refracted around it bizarrely. metallic sound from behind him and spun around. and Alex collapsed backwards into Rebecca’s arms. patting her on the head affectionately. His breath was a dense fog now. unaccountably sad. His vision blurred. as the horrible pressure from the thing above him beat down on his unprotected mind. and then he realized that his nose was bleeding. The bubble collapsed around him and for a moment. Then there was no more. and two other guys that Alex vaguely remembered from class. as the air passed through his lips. a thing that he could not stand to look at directly loomed over him with its many terrible eyes. it ate away at everything around him. He felt revulsion from the very depths of his being. hidden in a place in his head that he had never thought to look before Rebecca had shown him how. but this time he didn’t pull away. caught up in conversation with Renton and a black girl he didn’t recognize. the horrible piercing shriek. Her oval face lit up when she smiled. Alex pushed even harder. Alex couldn’t remember anyone teaching him how to do this. Rebecca hugged him tightly to her chest.” she said reassuringly. then the other. the terrible pressure was gone. where it dissipated like steam. She then grinned down at Alex. so that every time he blinked he saw an afterimage of its horrible shape. It filled him. It was barely even a sound. and the strange atmosphere immediately deflated. there was only a cloud of golden smoke. But his head was starting to clear. he could look at the thing. frost crunching and tinkling as it slid wide. He spilled onto his contorted back. without as much as an echo. there were a cluster of black eyes. her arms hooked underneath his own.” Eerie straightened back up. Right now. He pushed further. the strange vertigo as his mind executed the implanted instructions. now. It did not matter that he couldn’t move his body. in the crawling of his skin. Even though he was bleeding the heat and motion out of the surrounding area. still aware of the tremendous pressure from above.” Eerie whispered.” Rebecca shouted. It was translucent. he would as well. beneath the horror of the thing in the sky. the noise. filling him with a formless and intolerable anxiety. and then fell to the ground. if flowers had mouths – brilliant red and wet and on the inside. under a grey sky. It’ll hurt a bit. “Nothing bad happened. rigid and strong. Alex reached for the Black Door. Alex. The air hissed and smoked where it met the distended grey appendages and the building beneath began to shudder and fracture. heedless of the blood the trickled down from his nose and the corners of his eyes. and to what end? To where do they drive us?” Li put his hand on Alex’s shoulder. because I’m shy. somewhere in the recesses of his mind. his body would have done the same. Other limbs ended in strange. supporting him. the air hissed and steamed.

A cluster of arms drooped down from the thing’s misshapen bulk, stretching in a way that made Alex nauseous. He felt panic as the flower heads bloomed at the end of the tentacles, exposing terrible black eyes and toothy, gaping maws. Where it touched the building it left behind a viscous trail of yellow-tinted slime, and the stone crumbled and sizzled where it dripped. Alex wanted to scream, but then he felt Rebecca in his mind, her hand on his chest, and the fear began to dissipate. He watched the arms descend down toward the barrier with an odd feeling of curiosity, nothing like the fear of impending death. The limb was disintegrated before it made contact, dissipating into a mist of disconnected tissue, less like it hit a wall and more like it was hit with a wall. “What is this thing?” Michael asked the old man casually, as if he didn’t notice the tendril of smoke drifting lazily from the palm of his outstretched hand. Alex blinked his eyes, trying to clear his vision, which insisted that Michael’s strange tattoos were now radiating a deep blue light from underneath the skin, his whole upper body wrapped in mass of fluctuating indigo light. “It’s a Horror,” the old man standing next to him said conversationally, without looking up from the heavy leather bound book he carried open in front of him. To Alex’s eyes, he was orbited by several rings of words in a strange script that he could not identify, but seemed somehow familiar. The words spun around the old man, each ring moving at a different speed, their color one Alex could not recognize, though later he would remember it as similar to violet. “Or it was one, at any rate. This one is imminently near death. We are fortunate, in that sense, as the effective radius of the creature’s scream has been considerably reduced. While the other students appear to be caught in a stasis field, they have not been subjected to the brunt of its assault. I’m not sure about the nature of the stasis field, because it isn’t mentioned in the literature” Vladimir said, frowning, “but, it’s probably some sort of defense mechanism. Horrors are so rarely encountered…” “A defense mechanism besides the screaming, you mean? Thanks for the natural history lesson, Vladimir,” Michael said, shoving his fingers in his ears and shouting. “But, since we aren’t in class, can we skip to the part where you tell me how to kill it?” The thing’s mouths all opened simultaneously, gaping red, and Alex felt his headache began to return. Rebecca closed her eyes, and the barrier flared briefly. From Michael and Vladimir’s expressions, Alex figured the screaming had gotten louder again. Alex saw that the roof was starting to buckle, and realized that he was lying in a shallow pool of sand, as the building beneath him fractured and disintegrated into its base components. Vladimir waved one hand lazily at the thing, and for a moment, the rings of letters around him flashed and increased the speed of their rotation. Above them, the monster shrieked and wailed, and the sky burned. Vladimir looked disappointed, and then waved his hand at the creature once more. As far as Alex could tell, nothing happened. “Fuck,” Rebecca said quietly, slumping down against the retaining wall behind them, Alex sprawled in her arms, almost sitting in her lap. He felt languid and weak; he could barely even move his fingers, and worse, he was hearing the scream more and more clearly, despite the barrier. “That didn’t work at all. Vlad is getting feeble.” “Okay, asking nicely doesn’t do the trick,” Vladimir observed. “And Rebecca’s got her hands full. Guess it’s down to you, Michael.” “I hate doing this stuff, you see,” Michael said to no one in particular. “But, since I’m already up, I might as well put this to rest.” Michael raised his hand again, the light around him gathering and pulsating up from inside, the air around him charged with static and rippling, his skin dark in contrast to the vivid lines that ran across it. At first nothing happened, and the Horror managed the first few dissonant notes of a new shriek. Then it’s body rippled, first expanding outward as the pressure swelled within warped the flesh, followed by a massive contraction that pulled everything back toward the center. For a moment, the amorphous body flexed and struggled, racked and twisted by the contrary momentum that pushed and pulled at it. Then it detonated, with a wet sound and a muffled but powerful explosion, one that rattled the roof of the building and resonated with Alex’s chest, the wind whipping around the barrier that surrounded him, held close to Rebecca’s chest. He could hear damp thuds as chunks of the monster battered the wall of golden light around them. “This is really fucking gross,” Rebecca observed, watching the amorphous pieces of undifferentiated tissue splash against the barrier. “You alright, Alex?” She smiled down at him, but the boy was fast asleep, his head curled up in her lap, his breathing slow and shallow. Rebecca looked worried for a moment, and then shook her head. She reached down to brush the hair away from his eyes, looking at Alex with a mixture of affection and pity. “Sleepyhead,” she said softly, as if it were a warning.

Twenty

“We’ve only had a couple sessions together,” Renton said, “because Michael keeps teaching him solo, or having one of the student instructors work with him one-on-one. I think he’s only been with the general class a couple of times. I don’t get it. Why are you asking me? You and Ed are in homeroom with him. Don’t you see him in class?” Anastasia and Edward shared a look, then Edward gave the smallest possible shake of his head and Anastasia shrugged helplessly. “It’s no good,” she said despairingly, “he hates the class, and he’s so far behind that no one can really do anything about it. He stares off into space during lectures, on the days where he doesn’t accidentally nod off. In breakout groups, he doesn’t say anything or he asks inane questions, over and over, and then complains that he doesn’t understand the answers. Trying to talk to him in homeroom is pointless.” Edward nodded, and then returned to attempting to feed scraps from his lunch to one of the tamed Weir that lay around Anastasia’s feet underneath the dining room table. Great black monsters wearing tooled metal collars designed to prevent transformation, she’d tamed them in Norway when she was twelve, back when she’d been more concerned with appearances. Capturing and taming a wild Weir had been something of a tradition a century or so earlier in the Black Sun’s history, and Anastasia had very concerned with tradition and symbolism when she was younger. She didn’t bother with such things anymore, but she’d since become devoted to the two wolves, respectively named Donner and Blitzen by her younger sister, and had insisted on bringing them to the Academy with her. As the future head of the Black Sun, Anastasia had her own small cottage reserved for her on campus, large enough to house the servants and the security staff that such a position entailed. The Weir were confined by Director’s orders to the cottage, or else Anastasia would have brought them everywhere with her. Edward seemed to love them, whereas Renton appeared to hold them in slightly greater distaste than he did everything else around him. “I’m not sure what to say,” Renton said, his forehead creased with effort, trying to recall anything of use, “he’s not too terrible, for someone who hasn’t done any of this stuff before. He has long arms, so he’s got decent reach, but he doesn’t hit very hard. Wrestles for crap. Gets tired quickly, takes lots of breaks.” Anastasia shook her head, motioning for the hovering maid to clear the table of the remains of lunch. Renton and Edward had eaten roast chicken and potatoes with salad, while Anastasia had picked at an appealing looking but ultimately disappointing vegan ratatouille that she vowed to later discuss with the chef. She was certain that it didn’t have to be so boring. “This isn’t what I’m after, Renton,” she said crossly. “I’m trying to get to know him, not trying to figure out how to beat him up.” “One day in class he had some trouble with sparring with a girl,” Renton said, after some thought. “There was kind of a scene, till Collette, that Algerian chick, she planted his ass a couple of times. He seemed to warm up to the idea after that.” “So he’s a boy who doesn’t like to hit girls,” Anastasia said softly, “what a revelation, Renton. That helps a great deal.” “I’m sorry, Ana, I said that I don’t know,” Renton objected, his face reddening, “what do you want me to say? It’s a combat class, for Christ’s sake! It’s not like we sit around chatting about our childhoods or something. Look, Ana, you want somebody to figure the kind out” For a moment, Anastasia and Renton glared at each other, like two children holding a staring contest. They were still that way when Edward unexpectedly broke in. “You should try Vivik or Emily,” he offered in his quiet, high-pitched voice that Anastasia still hadn’t gotten used to, since he’d spoken so rarely in the two years he’d worked for her, “they talk with him the most.” As Anastasia paused to consider. The Weir who wasn’t refusing to eat from Edward’s hand shoved its snout into her lap, whining, and she petted it absently while she thought out the various ramifications of the situation. “Okay,” she said slowly, as the wheels in her head turned, “I think I’ve got an idea. Edward, could you find Margot and bring her back here? She and Vivik have a class together this session, I’m fairly certain. Vivik might not be inclined to share with me, but I doubt he’ll be so reticent with Margot.” Edward nodded, dropped the scraps on the floor, gave Anastasia a quick bow and then was on his way. “What about Emily?” Renton asked, looking at her expectantly. “If you want, I could see…” Anastasia shook her head, staring into the eyes of the black wolf whose head lay in her lap. “No need. I have other errands for you to take care of. I’ll handle Emily myself.”
-“Is it really so complicated?” Margot shook her head. “Okay, one more time – the Academy controls the source of the nanomachines, so if the cartels want to activate new Operators, then they have to abide by the Academy’s rules, hence, the Agreement. For any activation that doesn’t result in death, one student at the Academy.” “What is the source, anyway?” “Shit, Alex,” Margot said through gritted teeth, “do you really think they go around telling everyone their most closely held secret?” “Okay, I guess,” Alex allowed, “but then why all the infighting? Couldn’t the Academy just, you know, tell everybody to stop?” “It’s a two-way agreement. In return for almost total control of the students while they attend the Academy, the cartels have free reign over their own internal affairs. There’s only so much to go around, in terms of space, money and people. It’s usually easier to fight another cartel than the Witches, and often more rewarding. Plus,” Margot said, shrugging, “people sometimes disagree. Violently.” “Alright, but why don’t the cartels attack the Academy and take whatever it is they need? I mean, aren’t there a lot more Operators in the cartels than employed by the Academy?” “Sure, but look around you. How many cartels do you think would cooperate long enough to complete such an undertaking? And what do you think would happen after? They can’t trust each other, and as long as they are divided, the Academy holds the majority of the power.” “For now,” Anastasia added brightly. “Besides, the Black Sun would never condone an attack on the Academy.” “I don’t get it,” Alex said lazily, staring up into the sky. Sitting cross-legged in a pool of afternoon sunlight, Margot looked over at Emily despairingly. “I will never understand. What do you see in him, Emily?” “Hey!” Alex objected, lying on his back in the grass. “I can hear you, you know.” “She sees the same thing everybody else does,” Anastasia said absently from where she sat in the shade of the nearby tree, reading. “A great deal of power attached to not so much brain.” “Hey!” Alex said again, weakly. He had been lying in the sun for a while now, and it had lulled him into a state of complacence. He wasn’t about to rise to the bait and mess up his potential afternoon nap, no matter what the girls said. “Power,” Emily agreed, smiling, but not looking up from the notes she was bent over. “That’s part of it. But Alex does have some good qualities, once you get to know him. Besides,” Emily said cheerfully, “he’s just so pathetic, who wouldn't feel moved to help him?”

Anastasia laughed but didn’t say anything. Alex reddened, and wondered how the conversation had gone in this unfortunate direction. As if homeroom hadn’t been enough of a nightmare today, with the lecture going right over his head, then Emily’s suggestion that they go sit out on the grass in the quad and relax had turned into this. Alex wasn’t even sure how Anastasia and her cohorts had gotten invited to join them. Anastasia and Emily, despite their frequent tiffs, seemed to get along awfully well for two people destined for opposite sides in a conflict, to Alex’s eyes. “She has a point,” Anastasia acknowledged, removing a Tupperware container from her bag, and carefully selecting a carrot stick from it. “He does have this lost puppy feel to him.” Alex opened his eyes and turned his head, so he could glare at Anastasia. This meant she’d won their little game, as usual. But this really was unprecedented, Alex had to admit – when had Anastasia taken Emily’s side in anything? “Why always carrots?” he demanded, a bit more testily than he intended to. “Are you a vegetarian or something?” Anastasia looked back at him with cold eyes, taking a bite from her carrot and then chewing it slowly, deliberately, before answering him. “My lunch did not work out. Neither did my last cook, for that matter. Or, maybe I just like carrots,” she said finally, her expression blank and ominous. “What is it to you, exactly?” Vivik looked up at the two of them, and smiled tiredly, and then looked back down at his book. “She’s a vegan, Alex,” Vivik said. “A vegan who is going to have serious trouble on the test this week if she keeps skipping study session to focus on her evil plots and schemes.” “My plots aren’t evil,” Anastasia corrected, “Mostly. They are mostly not evil plots. And I’ve got that test under control, thank you very much, Vivik. It’s not like you’re working on it either,” she added accusatorially. “That’s Alex’s textbook you’re annotating, right?” Vivik sighed and put down the highlighter. “It’s not really the time I’d pick to do this,” Vivik allowed. “But whenever I come by his dorm room he’s asleep, or so he says. He won’t answer his door, anyway.” “Very suspicious,” Emily said gleefully. “What is that you get up to in the evenings, anyway?” Alex wasn’t entirely sure how to answer her question. He had been falling asleep early most nights, ever since he’d come to the Academy, often waking in the morning without have changed out of his clothes, without any memory of going to bed in the first place. Alex had always been a light sleeper, and he found this change worrisome, more so since the strange conversation with Eerie that he couldn’t fully remember. “I wish it was something cool,” Alex said, sitting up reluctantly. “But there’s nothing to it. I keep crashing out early, that’s all. It’s not like a deliberate thing, it just kind of happens.” Emily look at him pityingly, her golden hair curled into tight, perfect ringlets. She wore a plain grey sweater with a maroon skirt, her legs folded beneath her, effortlessly beautiful. Alex remembered their ‘arrangement’, and then tried to find something else to pay attention to. “That’s sad, Alex,” Emily teased. “You should find better things to do with your evenings.” Anastasia’s expression was poisonous. “I think I’m going to pass on commenting on that,” she said, gathering her books and shoving them into her backpack. “I have class soon, and I have some things I need to take care of before that.” Renton and Edward began gathering their things, Renton grumbling all the while, Edward silent and efficient. Alex wondered how Edward could look so neat in his uniform after sitting in the grass for an hour, and how it was that the exact same uniform could look so bad on Renton. Vivik sighed and handed Alex the text he’d been highlighting. “That means I’ve got to get going too,” Vivik said, standing and stretching, “which is too bad. Since I stayed up and studied last night,” and here he shot Alex a significant glance, “I could really use a nap out here in the sun.” “That’s what you get for being smart,” Alex said sleepily. Margot stood up with Vivik, startling him with her proximity. “Actually, I came here to talk with you, Vivik,” she said, collecting her bag. “Do you mind if I walk with you to the Science building?” Alex gave Vivik a questioning glance, but if Vivik had any idea what was going on, he didn’t show it. He agreed readily enough, but the confusion was obvious enough on his face. Anastasia nodded at Alex, opened her black parasol, and walked purposefully off in the direction of the Science building, flanked by Renton and Edward, Vivik and Margot lagging behind. “Empath-girl. Make yourself useful. Explain what just happened for me,” Alex commanded, looking at Emily expectantly. “You are so bossy,” Emily complained, still engrossed in her notes. “Remember, they’re all pretty decent at hiding stuff like that because they’ve already been through the training. You’re getting better at it yourself, by the way.” “Rebecca’s been teaching me.” Alex was secretly pleased with the praise. He had been practicing shielding his thoughts and emotions, but so far no one had commented on it, except for Rebecca gently making fun of his efforts, during the lessons. “Anyway, if you want my guess, I think Vivik has no idea what Margot wants to talk to him about.” “Okay,” Alex said, drawing his knees to his chest and looking at Emily curiously. “So, what about Margot? What was that all about?” Emily put her pen down and frowned. “That was pretty weird, wasn’t it?” She twisted a lock of hair absently between her fingers, her nails painted mother-of-pearl. Her hair caught the afternoon light, golden and red. “Margot’s emotions are muted, so I never get much from her. I do know she wanted to talk about you, though.” Alex started. “What? Why? I barely even know Margot…” “I’m not sure why,” Emily said, shrugging. “Common sense, really. Vivik seems to know you best of anyone, so if she had something about you she wanted to know and she didn’t want to ask you directly, then Vivik’s probably the one to ask, right?” Emily returned to her paperwork. “Besides, Vivik’s easy for girls to push around. Even Margot has to have noticed that. And this is creepy, by the way.” Alex shook his head. “Wait, what? What’s creepy?” Emily smiled but didn’t look up. “Getting me to spy on people like this. It isn’t exactly what I had in mind when I suggested our arrangement.” Emily tapped the eraser on her pencil absently against the textbook while she read. “It’s not like I’m helping you out, or something. It’s more like I’m spying on your friends.” “I’m not sure that I’d call them my friends,” Alex said crossly. She was probably right, he supposed, but at the same time, he’d felt constantly at a loss since he’d arrived here. Emily had laid it all out very simply, that night in her living room – if he would spend time with her, she would help him out, dealing with people at the Academy. Just hanging around Emily was enough to show her superiors that she was doing her job somewhat successfully, or that’s what she thought. Alex wasn’t sure himself how long the cartel would be content with that, but he acceded to Emily’s request. He couldn’t figure out a way not to. And, of course, he was hoping for things between them to go further. At least a little further. At the time, he’d been fairly sure that she was going to ask him to spend the night, but instead she’d taken the bus back to the Academy with him, saying she wasn’t in the mood to be there when Therese came home. There’d been a moment after the ride home, at the Academy gates, before they headed back to their respective dorms, when Alex was certain that he could have kissed her. Should have kissed her. But he’d chickened out, and he’d been feeling dumb since then. “Does your arm hurt?”

That hadn’t happened. “You’re no good at keeping secrets. realizing that he had been cradling his left elbow and jerking his hand away.” she said sympathetically.” Alex said darkly.” Alex muttered. they said it would get better on its own. shaken from his ruminations by Emily’s voice. “How long are you going to keep lying to me. Michael had decades of discipline. after all. He was certain that Margot hadn’t intended to hyperextend his elbow – in fact. Alex? I’m an empath. It’s never really been totally right. and for the first time since he’d met her. he still spent half of every Wednesday in the less-capable hands of various student instructors. he was a patient and genuinely gifted teacher. looking up at the blue sky and the clouds passing overhead. and though Alex suspected he got more than his fair share of personal instruction. bending the sore elbow experimentally. until one of the instructors came over with ice. “it might have gotten tweaked in class yesterday. “I thought Michael was your instructor? He did this to you?” Alex shook his head. actually. well. “I got it checked out. tending delicately to his injured arm.Alex looked up in surprise.” Alex said. He had class with Michael three times a week. not counting the morning workouts.” Alex sighed. continuing to poke at him.” “Really?” Emily looked at him skeptically. and Emily smiled good-naturedly. “It looks a bit swollen.” Alex lied. “Just last night. he’d thought he might still be able to tear his arm back out of her grip. Beyond that.” she observed. “Have you been icing it?” “Sure. it was some student instructor. The concern in her eyes was obvious. anyway. causing Alex to yelp and try and pull away. But he had twelve students in his Wednesday afternoon class. training. . But he hadn’t figured on her being so strong. he probably should have tapped the moment he felt her lock in an arm bar. and for a moment. “No. and wishing that any of it made him feel even slightly more at ease.” Emily frowned at him. Margot had looked pleased. Alex couldn’t imagine him injuring someone. “That makes me pretty unique around here. and then grabbed his elbow and inspected it. Not accidentally.” Emily scooted over until she was sitting next to Alex. “Ah. and combat experience. since that thing with the Weir. and then poked at his elbow experimentally.

or when the Agreement was expanded to include vampires. “Look. laughed and gave Alex a knowing nod. the two-hours they spent with a cheery empath named Mrs. Windsor said sincerely. Moreover. Alex. Mr.” This was actually untrue. “It isn’t like you have any real answers. As far as Alex could tell. Huang demonstrating in rapid order how to open a dozen different models of locks with improvised tools. as soon as the rest of the class had filed out. Alex had an afternoon training session with Michael looming. rational. and some of what we discuss here is designed to give you tools to understand and deal with that stress. A Punjabi researcher from Analytics came and taught the class to read a very simple probability matrix. there was no particular pressure on the students to learn any of things guest lecturers taught. and I do understand. lecturing semi-coherently on relaying coded field information via Internet message boards and social networking sites. as if he were thrilled by Alex’s answer. “Our most recent test was not your finest effort to date. For one thing. I am allowed a few hours every week to try and teach you to think critically. “No one is going to shoot me in the head for not knowing how the Black Sun rose to prominence. Alex had never driven in his life. Alex and the rest of the combat-track students were pulled to spend the period on the grass outside.” he said impatiently. Brosnik’s interminable lecture on chess and a Japanese game called Go. say. It wasn’t so bad. but he found himself captivated by the evolving beauty of the model. okay? But I can use both of them just fine. “I’m not here to teach you how things work. is now quite overdue. He didn’t understand it in the slightest.” Alex admitted reluctantly. Alex. I might add. until he remembered that this man was trying to teach him. the nature of the Ether itself. “It’s true. whose name Alex never did catch. the look on his face sad enough that Alex almost relented. Warner. or an ATM. and Mr. most days. was another matter entirely. Don’t you want to know why things are the way they are?” Alex had to stop to consider it for a moment.” “Ah. Mr. Mr. or the recreation of the American Civil War. The rest of the Academy teaches you to obey and to execute. I am here to help you understand why they work. and talked about the topic at hand for less than half an hour. Windsor. The rest of the time she spent making them sit in contented silence while she slept on the grass. ceramics.” Mr. Alex was careful never to show either. a topic which you selected. Windsor’s role was more advisory than anything. the Operations track is an intensive and difficult one. your essay on the founding of Central. particularly on the subject of classification of protocols. implying other dimensions. “You’re talking in circles. particularly for the history teacher who showed up in full Union regalia. while Rebecca (who had refused to teach if she was forced to remain in the nonsmoking class room) lectured them on the basics of psychic self-defense. Windsor said reasonably. functional being. “I guess. but for anyone who showed interest or aptitude. I admit. Can I ask why?” Alex was a bit thrown off by the diplomatic approach. If Mr. He simply carried on stowing his laptop away in the brown leather messenger bag he carried with him everywhere. or whatever random topic we’re working on right now. and no amount of physical training or combat experience can create a whole. In thirty years of teaching. Windsor was surprised by Alex’s tone. Windsor asked him to stay late after class one Friday. the same defocused smile plastered on his face that seemed to be an almost permanent feature. Do you see why this is so important?” Alex sighed and shook his head. having anticipated a lecture. Alex found himself reminded of a cable show he’d seen on the mandalas that he’d seen saffron-robed monks making with colored sand. potential futures radiating out from a baseline of functional certainty. it is important for you to understand that you are not attending the Academy solely for the benefit of Central. I have yet to meet a student who wasn’t interested in something. Another afternoon consisted of tiny Mr. One entire morning was devoted to a short Mongolian professor. until he realized that Windsor didn’t have any real answers – he seemed to think that any sort of discussion was a desirable thing in and of itself. for example. and homeroom designed more as a yardstick to measure the student’s progress and interest level than to teach any one thing. against all expectations. Mr. They passed the time. while the class watched in astonishment and envy. And Alex resented being asked questions that there were no answers for. On a different day. “But. Emily glancing over her shoulder sympathetically at him before she left. Alex played along for a while. further instruction was made available. and they do an admirable job of it. At first. or what effects repeated transit through it might have on the human body. Apparently. “It’s a simple question. “Can I ask what the problem is?” Alex demanded.Twenty One Alex really tried to stick with homeroom. “I guess I have too much other stuff going on that seems more important than this class. exasperated by his persistence. and the alternatives available to you. Windsor was always encouraging them to ‘consider’ – to consider. That was the idea. Lovett who encouraged them to hurl paint at a roomful of blank canvases.” Alex said curtly. and precious little time before it began. Windsor along with it.” Mr. an overview of the principals by which the world you live in functions. the kind of topics that Alex associated with the questions that novels sometimes included in the back for book club discussions. I don’t understand how a car works. Windsor cried out. branching and growing more unlikely the further they spread out on the page. Mr.” Mr. An alarming number of people stayed after. “Any chance I can go? I might still have time for a shower and a meal before I have to go back to the gym. Windsor said expansively. but that’s just it!” Mr. The topics of the class may seem haphazard. The Academy exists to help you become a more complete person. “I wanted to discuss your progress and your comfort level with the material. “Are the only questions you are interested in those that have already been answered?” Alex snorted and turned to gather his things. or the oddity of Central being located inside of it.” . because they spent much of the three-hour class in breakout groups or with student instructors and guest lecturers. That was still buzzing around in his head when Mr. Windsor looked at him and smiled. Windsor. but what actually happened was Rebecca showed up hung over and grumpy. but he refused to be mollified. Operators are asked to function under tremendous stresses. according to the syllabus anyway. Then Anastasia informed him that he didn’t even have to pass the class in order to clear the Academy. “And any answer at all will do. he didn’t show it. which were usually fairly interesting. Windsor. Alex?” “What?” Alex snapped. but I am trying to provide you with a gloss. though – no disrespect.” Mr. And that was only the practical stuff – unlike.” Mr. if nothing else. Accordingly. “What are you interested in. Alex. The core course. the lectures were frustratingly broad and vague. or the various other sessions on gardening. or Mr.

And when you wake up.” Mr.” she snarled. I’ve played cards and stuff. an ice-cold spike driven through his cerebrum. he was forced to confess. But. of all times? He had to go to the gym in a little while. in the institution. and I don’t need to know.” Alex shrugged. You aren’t the first student we’ve had that had a difficult background.” Rebecca snapped. “Okay. “When did you learn how to do that? I am a bit impressed. standing up. “You were told not to engage him unnecessarily. video games. He thought about it for a while. Windsor shook his head sadly. You’ve been warned about bringing up Alex’s past. “That was much worse than I was led to believe. I can’t say that I’ve ever really been into them much…” “Alex. and the very thought of putting his head on a pillow sounded so good then he actually felt better. Why should he bother trying to please a teacher who couldn’t fail him? One who taught a class about nothing? Especially. he knew it. We’re just teaching him how to kill people. You must have had a great deal of time to kill. Windsor the entire time.. don’t be angry. And we aren’t giving him the kind of opportunities he needs in order to become whole. Alex thought. “do me a favor and feel better. Windsor.” Rebecca grumbled. For fuck’s sake. I might add. “Alex trusts you more than anyone else he’s ever met. Alex included. or something? Nah. What did you want me to see here?” “We are failing him. that is beside the point. It might have simply been that she responded as if he had nodded. waving one hand in a vague sort of acknowledgment. you know. “Say. Windsor’s voice was soft and kindly. now. her knees pressed against Alex’s. “At least give me the opportunity. and you know perfectly well that I would be freaking out right now if I had managed to implant even one working protocol in that poor boy’s head. that’s it.” Mr. do you take the responsibility that comes with that trust seriously? I’ve never been sure with you. in the absence of any sign of his mental faculties returning. Michael fought back an urge to help her – he knew from long experience that was the last thing Rebecca wanted. She didn’t open her eyes until after the classroom door slammed shut behind him. “You rest now. “There wasn’t any one thing that I did especially…” Alex had to go lie down. “did it get cold in here a minute ago?” -“Do you want to sleep for a little while. I mean it wasn’t like there was nothing to do. You don’t have to go to sleep if you don’t want to. Windsor said. of course you are already aware. unsteadily. no difficult questions. just thinking about it. Make Alex’s homeroom experience as easy as possible. and he managed little more than a grunt.” she said crossly. you know?” “How about games. Mr. his chair tucked away in a corner of Rebecca’s cluttered and homey office. There must be something… I notice that you wear headphones every day when you come into class. Eventually. “Surely it is obvious to you? Alexander Warner isn’t even a fraction of a person. “I mostly like not having to talk.” she said curtly. Windsor said plainly.” Rebecca added. Rebecca. “You know it didn’t work. Michael. Windsor shook his head. it sounded treacherous.” Rebecca nodded from where she sat. “I can’t… um. He almost tripped over her outstretched foot without acknowledging her existence. His mouth seemed to be working by itself. After a little while. Don’t forget who you are talking to.” Michael rubbed his smooth chin thoughtfully. The area behind his eyes ached like a tooth gone bad. and stood up. But. “I have to go lie down. Something he is almost certain to do.” “Then help me teach him. Michael wasn’t sure.” “Everyone trusts me because I am trustworthy. without even a shred of recognition on his face. “So. “What do you mean? Like. you realize that? Rhetorical question. “Now. and if you do decide to sleep. but to Alex. “Well. “Don’t waste your time.. taking off his glasses and rubbing the lenses against his shirt.” Rebecca said tiredly. Alex?” Alex thought about it for a while.” Mr. “We’ve been at this for three fucking weeks. but…” Alex’s mouth was dry. with patience and compassion. Alex? What kind of games do you play?” Again.” “I don’t answer your questions. opening her eyes and smiling at the boy affectionately. his disconnect goes too deep for that. he had to stop to consider. He couldn’t help but look longing at the exit. who sat with her eyes screwed closed in the front row of the lecture hall. I don’t really play games. resenting Mr. or pushing him too hard. “Did you send him away?” “That was fucking dangerous. as if she wished she were somewhere else. Michael. “You answer mine. “Well? Anything?” Rebecca blew smoke at the ceiling and shook her head curtly. “I have no idea what happened to you. I mean. “how much further are you planning on taking this?” Michael smiled thinly and crossed his legs. I’m familiar enough with the signs to recognize them when I see them.Alex thought about it. “Why did you bring me here today?” “Why did you choose to hide your presence from him?” Windsor countered. Alex needs to be led out into the world gently.” Windsor pleaded. It didn’t take long. then. is what it was. she shrugged uncomfortably. I thought it outside your capabilities.” Mr.” Mr.” Rebecca tapped her foot impatiently. Windsor said soothingly. unless we give him the opportunity to do anything else with his prodigious talents.” he mumbled. Windsor watched him go stumbling out the door with a pained smile. He’s hardly even a beginning. or listen to people. Mr. especially when he had such a terrible headache.” She shook her head irritably.” Rebecca said fondly. we run the risk that he doesn’t know anything but the protocol afterwards. haven’t you?” Mr. He isn’t capable of developing on his own. Windsor said plaintively. You must like music?” “I guess. Rebecca shook her head. “Come now. you understand? Nothing challenging. But. . and I could probably remember dominoes or checkers if you gave me a board and a few minutes. There isn’t much to see in a blank sheet of paper. though. Michael waited in polite silence until she was sitting with a lit cigarette in her hand. this was my favorite class when I was at the Academy. actually. Alex shambled right past Rebecca. now.” Rebecca pursed her lips and looked away. I can’t really think of anything. She took a few deep breaths. What did you do with it. okay?” Alex may have nodded. Why did he have to get one now. You know. his hands were numb and his fingertips tingled. I. one hand running along the wall for support.” he asked curiously. huh? Remorse for Alex’s lost childhood? Or do you have some sort of rational reason for staging this little scene?” “I thought you should know. the way he knew that the sky outside was blue. eyes closed. and then he got a bit worried. “and you were my favorite teacher. you can wake up whenever you feel ready. Alex?” Alex’s face slowly contorted with the effort of thought. He had to go lie down. Gerald. “Maybe if we tried a stronger imprinting…” “We can’t. but you’ve been institutionalized. Alex. moving again to wipe his fogged-up glasses. not yet. holding both of his limp hands tightly. sitting back down in the front row chair. He was suddenly certain of it. he couldn’t really see from where he sat. and now he felt like crap. “I’m already using Alex’s as a catalyst to try and implant through his innate resistance – I push any harder. or dismissal.” Mr. Rebecca. “Worry about the ones that can be helped. then walked the short distance between the new couch Alex was sprawled on and the desk where her cigarettes were. And we aren’t doing anything like that. hanging his head with the admission. Speech was an even more involved process. I don’t mean to pry.

” Michael said curtly.” Alice stood up slowly. The staring match continued for a while. He stirred in his chair uncomfortably. here. tired but not malicious. “In his own right. his hands tightening around the knobs on the arms of his chair. She looked at the day’s worth of paperwork.” “What?” To Rebecca. frozen in the act of bringing the cigarette to her mouth. Mikey?” Alice said playfully. “I’ve read about it in theory. sitting down on the edge of Rebecca’s desk. his face determined and his eyes serious. you must have noticed. “Are you guys planning on having another fight?” Rebecca asked.” Michael observed. hugging one arm around her waist. his face composed and his voice calm.” Michael said flatly. and then returned her attention to world outside her window. who took no apparent notice. “Before they augmented Mitsuru. totally untouched. neatly piled in its manila folders in two parallel stacks. Rebecca. laughing. come on. but neither of them appeared to pay her any attention.” Rebecca said. “This conversation is over. “I don’t think that Alex can use conventional protocols. Michael glowered at her. “Have all the other options been exhausted?” They both turned and stared at the petite brunette. here. “Oh. the more difficult it is to break the connection. implementing standard protocols that you know perfectly well aren’t going to work. and you would do well to appreciate that fact when I ask you again. one leg dangling out in the evening air. “I am teaching him. “That’s fine.” she added thoughtfully. pushing the chair in behind her. using up Rebecca and the kid’s time. Alice?” Michael’s voice was tight and cold. her arm hanging in the air in front of her. Rebecca looked over at them briefly. and walked up close to where Michael sat. “I told you not to drag me into your bullshit. they were so focused on each other.” Rebecca said grudgingly. “The boy is a powerful catalyst already. looking absently in Alex’s direction. stubbing out her cigarette and then reaching for the pack. and then sent it here dying. Just like I was.” “Rebecca?” Alice asked over her shoulder. Rebecca looked over at Alice as she slouched in her chair. almost sadly.” Michael stood up angrily. he is already a considerable asset. sighed again. Michael. remember? You know the documentation as well as I do. and when Alex operates it. “then I won’t be asking at all. his face angry and miserable at the same time. Michael.” “I’m being serious. and then turned away. sitting on the window sill smoking and looking unhappy. then I will have to address the matter as an Auditor. before her normal confidence reasserted itself. “Guys. one colleague to another. This kind of resistance has never been overcome. Until we have exhausted all other options. bending down to look in his eyes. feigning innocence. probably more. you’re such a bitch. “The imprint with the Absolute Protocol was successful. because you’re afraid of what might happen if you actually let him develop those powers. I know. but Alice’s smirk was unflappable. “and he needs to know how to use protocols in order to defend himself. briefly. “Because I am so very not interested in that. he could be a formidable…” “Battery. so close to dead that it didn’t even register as living.” Alice cut in grimly. “The frightening part is that every time I do it I’m a little bit less inclined to try and break it at all.” Michael said. He needs to be able to operate protocols. as if he were angry at the chair. standing up and pointing at Alice. “You want him to use Black Protocols?” “Are the conventional ones working. eh.” she said softly. not in fifty years. “You know what kind of potential the boy has! And you should know better than anyone what the consequences of that . putting her combat boots up in the two shallow grooves that Rebecca had worn in the desk’s surface. lighting another cigarette and pointedly looking out at the evening. “If you still don’t give me an answer.” Rebecca flicked ash into the crowded tray on her desk. Rebecca sighed theatrically from across the room. how much longer do you plan on pursuing this?” “The boy must be trained.” Alice smiled and leaned forward in her chair.” Alice said insistently. Auditor?” Michael asked acidly. even discussion of Black Protocols is premature. rubbing his forehead. I’m within my rights. doing the same thing. Michael?” Michael’s expression was stormy.” Michael began. “When are you going to start teaching him something. and they did this just to get at that boy. “As I said earlier.” “But I’m asking for your professional opinion. or even group of partners. “Why would Alex’s training be part of your concerns.” Michael said flatly. Conventional protocols. With the right partner. the feedback loop and all. it was the same deal with her. The boy’s an obvious candidate for Audits. but watching you…” Rebecca was quiet for a moment.” “If only there was more than one way to skin a cat. not even once.” Alice objected. eyes averted. and then shrugged. He needs to be able to protect himself.” Rebecca brooded. Rebecca swore to herself quietly. He glared up at Alice. The only protocol I’ve been able to implant is Absolute. while Alice settled back in her chair and smiled. Mikey. then?” Alice asked innocently. “How long are you going to hold on to him. “Wanted to figure out how long you plan on dicking around. settling behind the desk in Rebecca’s chair. Don’t hate me.” A troubled look crossed Alice’s face. “power like that. her face grave. Michael’s disbelief seemed forced. “You don’t have to be a dick about it. “Just like Mitsuru. “They did… whatever they did to that Horror. “Do you even remember that. gesturing defiantly. sticking her head in through a gap in the door. “I know. Rebecca. “There’s no precedent for this. and sighed. “Alice. right?” She looked over at them hopefully. “Or did you have to look it up in your diary?” Alice frowned briefly. Mikey. looking for a little information. “It’s as intense as it looks.” “That must be frightening.” “Someone broached the Academy Barrier last night.” Rebecca’s voice was surprisingly gentle when she said this. “The longer I hold on. That Barrier has never been broken. “And in affairs involving the students. breaking the tense silence. his face contorted with anger. He’s a text book case. his face contorted. it’s black.” Rebecca said. his body shaking and his hands clenched. right?” “That’s not it!” Michael sputtered. I don’t have to answer to you. “My sanity is on the line.” Michael looked up at her. switched over to Spanish.” Michael said. and then when she ran out of curses. “This is the last time I will ask you. Alice hooted. “the boy’s abilities as a catalyst are already unprecedented. Michael. looking thoughtfully at Michael. And. “He has powerful enemies.” Michael insisted.” “Unconventional?” Michael almost spat. “Sure. but neither of them acknowledged her presence.” Michael gritted his teeth.” Michael leaned forward and met Rebecca’s eyes. you want to make it formal?” Alice asked. changing subjects. throwing her hands up innocently. and with unconventional protocols? He’s a natural. if tinged with a certain regret. why don’t you tell me what your grand plan is for training a student who can’t use conventional protocols? Will he be beating Weir to death with his bare hands?” Michael sat down heavily. and then moved to the window sill.“What does that catalyst effect feel like?” Michael asked. but it isn’t conventional when he operates it. first in English. anyway?” Rebecca sighed and waved Alice into the office. “That boy has enemies. “You want to use Warner as a battery. Rebecca glared at him. pristine. “I’ve had enough of your shit. Michael.” Alice turned back to Michael and smirked. “you are aware that both of you have your own offices. and that’s not likely to change. “Since you clearly think that you’ve got the moral high ground. This is professional curiosity here. Rebecca winced and put her head between her knees as if she were dizzy.” Alice said. Alice. her eyes lingering sadly over the both of them in turn.” Alice said.” she admitted.

Alex. after a moment. Alex.” he added crossly. “You are afraid. rummaging briefly through her coat pocket before coming up with a folded piece of paper. It was off. “Alex. “Until he does.” Alex nodded solemnly. “What do you think about all this. his voice trembling. her expression wounded. eventually. “Alex. and he shot quick looks at both Alice and Michael before answering. “how do you know about Alice?” Alex laughed and ran his fingers through his hair. this discussion is pointless. Rebecca had to fight the impulse to go and check to see if her name was still on the office door. clearly annoyed. And he’s awake. turning towards the door. Rebecca. Michael has been training me since I got here. Miss Gallow. Michael. I’ll make it simple.” he snapped. What’s next? Enforced nap time?” Michael stood up. Alex Warner.” Rebecca said thoughtfully. We had this conversation about Mitsuru.” “Not a chance. “This is something you have to decide for yourself.” Alex said. where she’d left them. that any number of people had seen. “First people start coming here to have arguments. and gave him a friendly pat on the knee. I’m hopeless. “Alex.” Alice said lightly. “Been awake for a while now. “It makes things a whole lot easier. looking sadly back at her cigarettes. “I don’t really…” “Damn it.” Michael said firmly. “that’s exactly how things will stay. “I didn’t want any of that stuff to happen. “Alice is right.” Alice said ominously. “Alex and I are like two peas in a pod. You have to take ownership of your life. Out of your jurisdiction. that worries me some too. You’ll never be able to protect anyone.” Alice suggested. gave Michael a bitter smile. “And she’s arguing with Michael like that’s no big deal. “Michael isn’t going to fight for you. you want to deny him the opportunity to choose for himself. comforting. “What’s settled. “I am difficult not to like.” “I told you. sitting up slowly. if even half the stories were true. afraid to actually interrupt. Or your own. Alex?” Alice pushed one finger against his chest playfully.” Rebecca said. “Did you like that?” Alice asked Alex. and he’ll do the best possible job of it. but didn’t look back at Alice. pointing at Michael.” Michael’s fist slammed into the door frame. bright. “Well. We all know that this is too personal for you to make an impartial decision. “Um…” he muttered. You’ll never have any options. “I’m going to have Mitzi put him through the Program.” Michael said calmly. “I might be able to like you. “That what you think. Or have you. so I don’t really think it’s for me to say. “Or did you like being saved.” Alice said.” Alex said disinterestedly. But it isn’t like I had any options. so. arms folded. brushing his bangs out of his eyes. “He’ll back me on this. I think this is settled for now…” he began. Maybe you aren’t in the right place. and quietly closed her mouth. “no matter how good their intentions.” Alice guffawed. “I mean. inspecting his face like she actually expected him to look happy. and then.” “Uh. straight to the Director if I have to. I do know that if you smoke another cigarette in here. shrugging. “You must be Miss Gallow. and look how that turned out. but neither one would meet his eyes. not even yourself. “Why is it that no one respects my office?” Rebecca slumped into her chair in resignation. her smile wider.” Alice shook her head. “Did you like lying there while Mitsuru did all the work?” Alex stared at her. Everything is black and white. sitting back on the window sill. “This kid isn’t half dumb. “Michael is going to teach you what he can. “Well.” Alice said bluntly. Alex. Michael will be back here at the Academy with the next generation of promising youngsters. eyes blazing. There’s no teaching me anything. what Program?” Alex asked softly. but Alex was starting to notice something about the tall woman’s smile. no one seemed to notice. “Actually. You keep training him however you like. Alex?” Alex’s expression went suddenly blank. somehow. whatever – Alice’s expression was the polar opposite of that. eyes wide. Rebecca froze. you’ll get to watch your friends die protecting you.” Alice stood up and smiled at Michael triumphantly. or even with you. Alex? Then maybe I was wrong about you after all. if you’re that eager to play good soldier. choosing his words carefully.” he agreed. After a moment. right?” Rebecca’s eyes narrowed. inviting. in other words. Rebecca pitched her cigarette butt out the window and then hurriedly occupied the chair behind her desk that Alice had vacated. “Did you call Mitsuru…?” Again. “I’ll go over your head. Pathetic.” Alice looked down at him coldly.” Michael looked helplessly from one woman to the other. Alice.” He looked up at Alice. But once you are in the field. Nobody can make that kind of decision for you. The last thing you wanted to see. “Of course not.” Alex said. and nobody ever expects anything else from you. then I don’t know enough about it to make the decision. “Because everyone talks about an Auditor named Alice Gallow who they are all afraid of. “Well. “No need to get pissy.” Michael added pointedly. “I already talked to Alistair and got permission. Whatever a smile was supposed to be – warm.” “What?” Alex’s jaw hung open in frank astonishment. “Alex said he doesn’t understand what we’re talking about. though again. exactly?” Alice’s tone was jovial.” Rebecca started. Alex shook his head and looked glum.” “And that’s exactly what worries me. who wears black all the time. and grinned at her sleepily. “Here. now students are telling me I’m not allowed to smoke.” Michael glared at Alice. in a tone that could not be ignored. no one paid her any attention. and then shot him a look of utter disappointment. Michael paused on his way to the door. you remember the Weir who attacked you and Mitzi in the park?” Rebecca’s jaw almost hit the floor. “It’s not even a fair question.” Alice said. that I am leaving.” she said.” he said cautiously..” Alex pushed her hand away. shaking his head. But. well aware that all the eyes in the room had immediately shifted over to him the moment he stirred. and because you’re afraid. when you are the victim. Alex made a show of yawning and stretching. giving Alice an appraising look. “And he’s not ‘the boy’. “Is that bad? Am I in trouble?” . but she paid him no mind. “forgotten about that too?” Alice winced. she decided the expression was wasted without an audience.” Alice warned him. His name is Alexander. Instead.” Alice observed.” “Then go talk to Gaul. a bit sheepishly. his face clearly showing strain..” she asked softly. Alex reminded himself.” Rebecca nodded.boy using Black Protocols will be. eyes sparkling. “And if he gets his way. once. and I’ve learned a lot from him. looking over at Michael with a mischievous grin. The last thing.” Alice sat down next to Alex on the couch.” Michael said flatly. causing everyone but Alice to jump. stifling a laugh. “Actually.

” “Thanks for stopping by. at the very least. “Have to go practice being a cunt?” Michael spoke through gritted teeth. and motioned for Michael. “You think I still need practice?” Alice asked. “It’s quite simple.” Alice turned back towards the door. but his hand reddened where it pressed against the old wood of the door frame. shrugged. But.” Alice said over her shoulder. still frozen. until you’ve learned to take care of yourself. “Rebecca. “Actually. Alex. you guys. one fist pressed up against the door jam.” Rebecca hinted. smiling as she squeezed past him and out into the hall. You don’t have to make a choice. “Move it. his arm falling reluctantly to his side. to stand aside. I’ve been talking pretty much the entire time…” Rebecca trailed off when she realized that no one was listening to her. jerking her thumb to the side. . Michael’s arm didn’t move. “I’ve got things to take care of.” Rebecca smiled ruefully. “You can do things Michael’s way. say something. Alice dropped the paper on the floor in front of Michael.“Alice. you’re insane. Mikey.” Michael growled. Because it doesn’t end until I say.” Alice said. and started for the door. if you want out of the Program – and you will – then I suggest you find a way to impress me with your personal development. And I won’t say.

But. grabbing Emily’s shoulder and squealing. but that was normal for her. even though she wasn’t supposed to be there. curiosity she was certain was directed at her. She walked over to the long faux-marble counter and set her stuff down on the sink and mirror combo next to Emily’s. as Emily understood it. but given how he got here. who was filling the sink while watching her in the mirror.” Emily answered. She couldn’t see them all the time. “I was worried for you. It’s even cute. enjoying saying it out loud.” Emily corrected. Margot’s halo was thin and reedy. and I didn’t want to be there when she came back. Therese showed up. she’d had to learn how to look them. though. putting one hand in the water briefly to check the temperature. She’d guessed at the source of her curiosity. He seems a little. Emily smiled at her and then went back to tweezing her eyebrow. trying very hard to put Alex’s confession of inexperience and the bizarre story about his family out of her mind. most the time. she could see it. was that she had made progress. But.” Emily acknowledged. The important thing.” she admitted reluctantly. I don’t know. That was a detail. I thought that your plan was…” “It was. Therese and I got into a fight. for empaths to realize their talent. I wanted it to be. I think that I might. how was it?” Emily put away her tweezers.” Sarah glanced over sympathetically. She thought that she and Margot got along fine. you know. “But. though it was a little bit weird after she left. and anyway. It’s okay. huh? Doesn’t she ever get tired of scaring your boyfriends off?” “Did she?” Emily turned to Margot. “So. she reminded herself. “Maybe. freeing her hair from the last of the curlers. “No. “Do you like him?” The vampire’s voice was flat and devoid of interest. “when were you going to tell me about your little date with Alex?” Emily did her best to look composed. I mean. a yellow plastic basket with her toiletries hanging from one hand. others heard music associated with a specific emotional state. and therefore make them leave both of them alone. Her halo was a uniform grey-blue. “It was pretty good. her eyes locked on the hair she was brushing as if it required her full attention.” Emily said slowly. to see her again. but she didn’t think she’d ever actually shown any interest in her personal life before. for two people who barely ever spoke to each other. yet. Alex isn’t my boyfriend. “Well. uh. Emily wanted badly to take a quick look at her halo. Margot was looking at her expectantly. Sarah picked it up for her. . so she’d been dutifully curling her hair since the session had started. too. “I mean. and to spend more time with her.” Sarah looked puzzled. so Emily couldn’t risk peaking at her halo to try and figure out her motivation.” Emily agreed cheerfully. right?” “How did you know that?” Sarah waved her hairbrush dismissively.” Margot looked up from the towel she was using to dry her face. “But.” “At your house. that’s all. Emily. when she noticed Sarah glancing over while she got her hairbrush out. Emily didn’t even have to check Sarah’s halo. And no. I don’t want him to think that I’m… oh. There were all sorts of ways. afraid that she might notice. Desperate or something. one at a time. and she made a scene. because sleeping with the curlers in had been a pain. because it hadn’t gone exactly how she’d hoped. “Or is he your boyfriend now?” The curler in Emily’s fingers at that moment slipped from her hand and clattered off the counter and onto the ground. which for Emily indicated optimism. surprised that she asked anything at all.” Sarah enthused. wrapped in a bathrobe and looking like she had just woken. in that it was shot through with the silvery metallic tone that Emily associated with curiosity. and was about halfway done with her eyebrows. “But. being as upbeat as possible while still telling the truth. “We didn’t go on a date. The Raleigh Cartel’s precognitives had told her that Alex would like her hair better this way. “At my parent’s house. For Margot.” Emily stalled. indicated either apathy or a tremendous ability to control her emotions. and what it must be like. It didn’t matter that she’d told him that it would help her convince the Hegemony that she was doing her job. and wasn’t too pleased about it. the mood was all wrong. this too was normal. of course. as usual. and decided not to. saw what she called halos – a roughly circular hollow ring of colored smoke that floated above people’s heads. She hoped her hair came out looking alright. “not exactly. She waited until Margot had started taking the top off a bottle of facial cleanser before she snuck a look at her halo. But. trying to reason out some kind of answer. and if it was an unpleasant detail. Emily’s pride and pleasure at being the center of attention wavered. which was Sarah’s default emotional state. even if it wasn’t exactly the whole truth. Some of them saw emotions as colored auras surrounding people. I don’t think it’s too surprising that he’s a little nervous. as thinking about it made her feel weirdly sweaty and nervous. not completely. the tiled space echoing with the sound of her sandals. “Really? That’s awesome. She didn’t seem to scare Alex off. good will and excitement.” And it wasn’t a lie.” “He is. if Emily tried hard. shy. greeting both of them cheerfully and then walking over to the sink on Emily’s opposite side.Twenty Two Emily had her hair up in curlers. it could have been a lot worse. but she was a little intimidated by Margot. at least a little bit. giving her a nod. “Did he spend the night?” Sarah nudged Emily. “Therese still does that. Spacey. “well.” Sarah said. smiling eagerly. sort of. Then she saw herself in the mirror and realized she was blushing. “I didn’t think you’d invite Alex over to meet your mom on a first date. “Did she what?” “Did she scare off Alex?” Margot asked. with everyone knowing who is and all.” Sarah offered. and the halos were even more difficult to see here at the Academy. which in Emily’s own personal interpretation. and then started to carefully remove the curlers from her hair. when Margot came into the otherwise empty dorm bathroom. her eyes sparkling. But there was something a bit unusual about it. so we came back up to campus. Only kind of. “I was kind of upset. as always. it was a ring of pulsating rose-pink light. tell me. I made him dinner. Then Sarah came breezing in. they weren’t there. where almost everyone had been taught to resist such things. being only moderately unlucky. Alex had agreed. almost broken in places. and she kind of did want to brag about it. She thought it looked good. We don’t even know each other that well. after all. and that made it all worse. but she was getting a little tired of all the work entailed. Come on. while some particularly unlucky empaths even experienced a mirror-image of the emotions that they sensed around them. I don’t know that much about him. to look for the reassuring silver flash of curiosity. it was also a minor one. we are kind of seeing each other. and then set it down next to the rest of Emily’s toiletries on the counter. and then frowning at her reflection in the mirror like it had done something to her.

. and I don’t know if he’d even come over again. uh. he’s a strategic asset for the cartels to fight over. trying not to sound discouraged or pathetic. Eerie stayed completely motionless until they left.” Sarah’s hair brushing became more agitated. I would have let him. and I know you liked him. Margot? I don’t try and out-think cousin Ana. “But. Say you were worried about him. gathering her things and heading for the door.” Margot admitted. It’s perfect. but it was a while longer before she stopped trembling. I was standing right there. Nathan something.” “Come on. pointed canines. carefully squeezing toothpaste onto her toothbrush. Margot.” “Perfect!” Sarah enthused.” “Why do you think Anastasia hasn’t done that?” Margot asked. It was always weird to watch Margot brush her teeth. looking. Emily. thinking it through. His proctor is Li. “And just because you want to wait for the right time and make sure that you have feelings for each other and everything is special. again speaking more loudly than was necessary. Don’t you think he might want some company after. especially at first. Well..” Margot said. almost fearfully. nodding excitedly as she spoke. “and we…” “Right!” Sarah crowed. “Of course!” She grabbed hold of Emily’s shoulders as if she was going to shake her. I don’t know when I can get the house to myself again. and wondering if Sarah might be right. I thought he would. “I know that this is a weird situation. and Eerie had started trembling long before Sarah and Emily finished chatting and gossiping and finally left. her flat voice echoing throughout the tiled bathroom. not wholly. I’m just glad my branch of the family stayed with the Hegemony.” “I know. Then. “Ah.” “He is shy. when does Alex start that class with Mitsuru? You know. Alex had thus far seen no evidence that Nathan had even a shred of a sense of humor. the bad one?” Sarah asked.” “But if it’s in the dorms. no. Eerie waited until she was certain that they were gone. Emily. but you need this to work. so you don’t have to. “So what you do is. yes.” “You aren’t.” Sarah said urgently. It is difficult for many people at first. You have a lot of good points. “Err. and then she turned on the water as hot as she could stand. I hear that class is pretty fucked up.” The kid composed himself and looked as if he was about to continue on.” Emily said. not very afraid. you have factor the rest of the world into your thinking.” “Uh-huh. Sarah was her friend. putting one hand on Emily’s shoulder. but if he thinks you're never going to put out. “He’s a guy. Alex toyed with idea of throwing a punch at the kid.” she said curtly. She didn’t even dare reach for her bathrobe. “Look.” Sarah looked at her with what Emily pretended wasn’t a trace of pity. Emily reminded herself firmly. right. This isn’t just some boy you’re crushing on. and you’re going to get lost in the shuffle.” Nathan said seriously. “You’d know better than I would – you still work for her sometimes. except for her chattering teeth. emotionally. that Michael would never let him get away with it. “Are you sure about that? Don’t get me wrong. fighting off a looming wave of self-pity.good. that doesn’t mean that some other girl won’t hop right into bed with him. “Actually. what was his name? Kurt something? He followed you around for like two months before he finally gave up on you because he thought you weren’t interested. “There are a bunch of other Hegemony girls who are waiting for you to fail so they can take your place. and they had to wait until she had a chance to rinse out her mouth before they could hear the answer. right? And even Margot said he shouldn’t be left alone…” “No. Margot?” “Yes. Emily. gesturing with one gloved hand at the water-filled punching bag that Nathan was holding cautiously.” Sarah said. feeling her cheeks burn.” Sarah said carefully. so it won’t be any big deal getting him to let you in.” Emily acknowledged quietly. even though it seemed like she’d planned on it. -“I’m not trying to force you into making up your mind. right? So you are waiting for him when he gets out. “No idea. you know? It’s probably not going to be roses and candlelight dinners. somebody else will. Not that she was scared of Margot or vampires in general. “Remember that boy at the start of last session. if Anastasia decides that’s the way she wants to handle it. “But… well. speaking a little too loudly.” “I know.” Emily acknowledged. She was grateful for the warmth pouring down her back. Alex will like that. I know perfectly well what you’re like. so he won’t expect you to do anything. shivering in silence since Emily arrived. the quiet one nudged him. but he couldn’t. I know you’re right. I already screwed up my chance. you know?” “I know. “I mean. sounding a bit exasperated. But. She probably has some other plan for Alex. “I am here as a . some bitch is going to steal him from you. I’m not trying to be hard on you. it’s not like I’d get in trouble just for kissing him or something. he shouldn’t. can I move on to the substance of our visit?” Alex wanted to laugh. only somewhat intelligible through the toothpaste. right.” Emily said. on his first day. and she was trying to help. then the other kid. “Combatwhatever-it’s-called?” Margot’s response was made unintelligible by toothpaste. She’d been standing in one of the shower enclosures.” Emily said. “You mean you didn’t come down here to hold the bag for me?” Alex asked. don’t take this the wrong way. Even if Anastasia doesn’t interfere.” “I don’t want you to feel like we are talking you into anything. I understand that this is a difficult decision. doing her best not to sound miserable and failing. Did you even let Alex kiss you?” “He didn’t. Emily was too occupied with Sarah’s scheme to wonder much why she didn’t shower. naked except for the bath towel she was partially wrapped in.” “Good. right?” “I guess so. but you don’t come off like a prude either. he knew that even if he didn’t hurt him. well. Anyway. For a moment. and patted her on the shoulder sympathetically. he didn’t try. “You mean the Program. to Emily’s eyes. if it is alright with you. “It would be a good idea for someone to be there for him.” Sarah looked stricken. Emily. “That's how it is.” Emily said. You know how guys are. and then she suddenly cried out excitedly. “Someone should definitely be there. hon. “I’m not saying you have to throw yourself at him.” It was cold in the bathroom.” Emily said slowly. I’m not… not like that. And there is nothing that Anastasia will not do to get what she wants. because it was the only time Emily could actually see her oversized. Anastasia and the rest of them are serious about recruiting this kid. But her teeth were the starkest reminder of how very different Margot was. And I know that you like to take these things slow. you get the proctor to let you into his room while he’s in class. she said nothing. somehow unable to face the girl that Alex had gone home with. “I’ve got it. But. in a steadily meeker voice. “So you can’t.” Emily said.” Sarah admitted. but being assertive isn’t exactly one of them. But that doesn’t change what I’m saying. “She will have no trouble whatsoever finding someone who will do whatever it takes to get Alex to join the Black Sun. You do know that. what’s-his-name. He’ll know about the dorm rules. “And he starts this week. afraid that they would hear her open the shower door to reach for it.” Sarah said firmly. A perfect opportunity!” “What?” “Hey. unhappy about something. You know how many power-hungry bitches there are here at the Academy? You do your usual good-girl routine. right?” “Yes. right?” “Well. unable to look up from her lap.” Margot observed.

sitting down on the mat in a heap. and?” Alex said. Her shoes were always shiny leather with precarious heels. “or his?” He nodded amiably in the direction of Frederick. executing a perfect shoulder throw. with an impact that drove the air from his lungs. You truly do not stand a chance. “You aren’t the first to approach me on your own. But you are the first to bring a wingman along. it’s not like I can just join the Hegemony. sitting up and rubbing his shoulder. his arms folded. now? A few weeks?” “More than a month. but no one came into the heavily-used gym during the entire time Anastasia was there. “We wish to discuss your plans for your future. “Oh my. out of his control.” Anastasia put her hand to her mouth in parody of shock. he even thought he was succeeding. I guess a bunch of the half-bright but all-the-way ambitious types thought that might be a good idea. but he didn’t think the moderately rotund German saw the inside of a gym too often. Edward had appeared from somewhere. shoulder first.” “I guess so. anyway?” . I think you made your point. Some idiot approaches me and tries to get me to have a private talk. too. “That doesn’t seem fair. that the consequences would be grim. “I throw you three times. my friend. He struggled to right himself. But she was Anastasia.” Alex shuffled his feet. But. That makes sense. flipping him over her back and then planting him solidly on the mat. She looked like any girl that you might see in the facility. and he adopted a similar grip on her. not if I have any say in it. “But.” Alex said defensively. “And after I warmed up. Later. “I’m sorry. he would come to realize that things always worked like that. for as long as it takes me to say it.. Then she smiled at him. he attempted to exert force on her shoulder. and Nathan paused. making as much noise as possible when his gloves smacked the leather bag.” Alex said cheerfully. It wasn’t that Anastasia was stronger than him. pointing at Nathan with his gloved hand. Why is that. It didn’t work. dripping in sweat and not in the mood. Always. And that didn’t even factor in the damage that Margot had done to him. and leaned close to whisper conspiratorially. doesn’t it?” -Alex tried not to stare across the mat at Anastasia. “Two more?” Alex ignored the hand. Our cartels are members of an alliance known as the. looking pained. Nathan? I get that.” Alex looked at Anastasia doubtfully. Edward had taken up a position at the gym door. you know? Did they even tell you anything about me at all?” “What’s that?” Nathan looked panicked. he was very aware of how much bigger he was than her and he felt reluctance. It’s always easier to face rejection if you’ve got more people to spread it around. Are they always from the Hegemony?” “I told you already. trying to change stances the way he’d seen Michael do it yesterday. we wish to discuss. I have to know –what exactly is it you want me to do? I mean.” Alex said.” Alex threw a left-right-left combination at the bag. “The Hegemony. But we are only doing tachi-waza.” “And your suitors. did they?” Alex laughed. Rather. and you listen to whatever I have to say.” Anastasia scolded. but he knew it was already hopeless.” Anastasia grabbed Alex’s shoulder and behind his neck. which always ends up being a half-assed recruitment speech. When she’d gone to change into her gym outfit in the locker room. that is to say that I –” “You brought him for moral support. “Well. “Well. right. Alex was guessing. he’d even seen her carrying a parasol on sunny days. It didn’t help that this particular girl was apparently the future head of what was reputed to be the most terrifying cartel of all. usually corseted dresses in black. and then abandoned the effort. you know. “You have been doing this for how long. But Michael and the machines in his blood had conspired to make some serious changes in him over the last several weeks.” Anastasia said. trying to gauge exactly how bad the situation he found himself in was. and built like a girl who might be in junior high.representative of the Drava Cartel. standing up and twisting from side to side. to redistribute his weight and counter the momentum. trying to shift her balance on to her back foot. and then cleared out Nathan and Frederick. but the difference in their skills was so great that any further attempt would only yield him more humiliation. and the little Alex knew about Anastasia made this whole situation run contrary to Alex’s expectations. in a t-shirt and yoga pants that cut off at the knee. and his good mood evaporated instantly. and then frowned. “Were all those ambitious types who approached you so far from the Hegemony?” “Yes. more for the way the noise made them jump than anything.” Alex said. Collette. seemingly staring off into space. “It’s mostly been stuff like this afternoon. since you arrived at the Academy. Alex didn’t see him sending people away. Cautiously. “It seems to me that you have been a popular boy. it was that Anastasia was at least a foot shorter than him. shrugging and taking his position. and then shook his head. “I’ve only been doing ju-jitsu since I was five. trying a couple more straight right hands. which cartel do you want me to join? Yours.” he said. whenever Anastasia was involved. by the way. and Frederick is here as a representative of the Gehrig-Moore Cartel.” “Nothing is ever fair.” Alex said. It wasn’t that she was a girl. moving along with his momentum. but Frederick looked positively green. focusing instead on stretching his calves. That’s a stupid name. He’d never seen her in anything that didn’t fit her Gothic Lolita aesthetics. “I thought the cartels were forbidden to conduct business at the Academy?” “We are here in an unofficial capacity. She shifted direction effortlessly. But the girl stretching on the worn gym mat across from him was dressed casually. startling Nathan and rocking him backward a bit as he struggled to hold it in place. one of the student instructors in his ju-jitsu class had disabused him of any such thoughts by throwing him around like a ragdoll. with elaborate bows and ribbons and lace. “Right. When they were this close.” “Can I ask a question?” Alex looked over at the girl who’d walked into the gym.” Anastasia said. if I understand all of this correctly. smirking. “Your cartel didn’t send you.” “Whatever. who continued to watch in open-mouthed dismay.” Nathan said. On a couple of different occasions. “When you’re ready. giving up on massaging out the kink is his shoulder. “then your boss won’t be too happy with you unless I sign on with your outfit. “Actually. “Let me make sure you are clear. I know. given Alex a polite nod. of course!” Frederick shrieked. before he felt a tug and his center of gravity shifted.” Alex panted. Well.” Alex laughed. I get it. I don’t feel like rolling around on the ground with you. “Ippon!” Anastasia said. smiling down at him and offering her hand. who were too petrified by Anastasia’s arrival to even protest. his brow shining with perspiration. himself. he thought. and he had a feeling that if he managed to hurt her. “Right. And I only have to throw you once to get you to go away?” Alex asked doubtfully.” Alex said reluctantly. even if he’d had notions about that sort of thing. and the casual contempt in the face she made erased that reluctance. He was fairly certain he looked as embarrassed as he felt.. and her black hair was always elaborately coiffed. her hair in two tight braids that poked out on either side of her neck. “Are you sure about this?” He eyed her warily. looking indignant. then I guess that makes it my turn. Yes?” “Standing only. “Yes.” She sat down cross-legged a few feet away from him on the mat. Not that Alex had ever made a habit of it before he’d come to the Academy. “Why don’t we skip to the talking part?” “You big baby. He attempted to look nonplussed. where he would have all the leverage. For a moment. I mean.

and spoke with sincerity. “I am the only one who doesn’t need you. With our affiliate cartels.” Alex said. though. “I have to at least give you points for honesty and forwardness.” Anastasia said reasonably. don’t think too badly of them. “Are you threatening Emily?” “Honestly!” Anastasia scoffed. I was going to try reason. Surprise me. My cartel’s dominance and my own position within it are assured.” Alex replied sullenly. At worst. to have the prettiest girl in class fascinated by you from day one. I’m happy for you. though.” she said. Alex. there are other cartels that we have philosophical disagreements with.” Alex said warily. then no.” She smiled almost wistfully. I am certain they will make a formal attempt. And despite all appearances. I think. his head swimming. But. as it is primarily an issue of timing.” “How can you be so sure?” Alex wondered aloud. let me tell you. the less. “I mean money. he wondered irritably. Are you really so confident in the Black Sun?” “Of course. sounding satisfied. Similarly.” “Oh?” Alex said.” “Wow. “That’s going a bit too far. “Wait. actually. And. I don’t want you on my side as much as you want to be on my side. as you have the potential to become quite useful. We would hardly turn you away. Ask Emily what she thinks the next time she tries to take you home – oh. But. her face a bit cruel. If you are referring to precognition. her manner composed and serious. really. yes? Does that sort of thing happen to you often. but at least it made her seem a touch more human. With Eckhart and Tuesday out on Field Study until winter session. “And then. “I barely even know her. should you desire a further association with the Black Sun – to the contrary. “Oh. He’d underestimated Anastasia. It wasn’t a pretty thing. severe and a little malicious.” Alex looked at her with obvious shock and distaste.” Alex muttered.” Anastasia glanced briefly up at the clock on the wall. Alex. and we won’t move until it is. If you have no interest in doing the right thing. “I don’t make threats.” “You sure about that? Because they seemed to be very afraid of you. eventually.” Anastasia paused and cocked her head to the side. and in the interval. Shall we talk for a moment about your little friend Emily? She’s certainly found a receptive audience in you. and I am certainly not threatening poor Emily. money?” Alex asked.” Anastasia said.” Anastasia said emphatically. I have never seen the point. In virtually any amount that you care to name. if you don’t need me. “And the Black Sun has no enemies. grimacing. independently.” Anastasia smiled at him. Whereas the Hegemony is at best a loose affiliation. I don’t think you would want to join the losing side in a fight if you had other options. there is a leadership void for the Hegemony at the Academy. “It borders on utter gibberish. were it was any other way. “And how would you stop me. not overlooking your considerable potential.” “You mean.” Anastasia said. you certainly do have value.” “Go ahead.” Anastasia allowed. and I will be happy to make it happen. more predatory smile.” “In my experience. After the New Year. arriving at a new school. “The Black Sun has a centralized leadership structure. I am not here to try and make you do anything. maybe?” “No. there are an average of nearly two students affiliated with Black Sun for every one affiliated with Hegemony. I can assure you that they any advances you make will be well-received. unlike the Hegemony. Alex. any other kind of material possession. lovely though she is. the only things in this world that don’t have a price are those without value. Do you see the distinction?” “Yes. then why are we having this conversation?” Anastasia gave him another. “Are you one of those people who can see the future or something?” “No one that I’m aware of can ‘see the future’. If she had someplace else to be. wanting and needing is not the same thing. she may couch the language a bit more.” Anastasia sniffed. in more ways than one. How can that possibly be such a bad thing? Or. well. what is it to me? You won’t necessarily fall in love. to be frank. I am certain that I could make any introductions that you might need. and any cartel that gets the idea will try and approach you. you come speak to me directly. right?” Anastasia appeared to consider a moment before responding. is it that you prefer Emily’s recruitment tactics?” “You seriously need to stop bringing that up. we do it as an organization. after graduation. houses. that still wouldn’t change a . Alex. Particularly not something that I have the utmost confidence that you will do of your own free will. you could make it very hard for me. whatever you like. no one is recruiting me into anything. Cars.” “Certainly. Let us assume. We have been waiting for generations for the time to be right. “I am trying to make a point. we would welcome you. “Yes.” Alex said faintly. and then his gaze hardened. looking displeased. he realized.” Anastasia leaned forward. power and girls that you could desire. “No offense. “If you factor in the Academy.” Anastasia laughed. “But I don’t care much for that sort of thing. like. and we are patient. The next step would be bribery. But. I can make things very easy for you. And we have no internal divisions or disputes. blinking and looking a touch surprised at the question. amused. Or. much to Alex’s surprise.” “That all sounds great.” “And that doesn’t bother you? I thought that they were your enemies.” Anastasia scolded. why didn’t she just go? “I suppose I could.” “I don’t give the Hegemony enough credit to let them worry me.” he said slowly. that you will find yourself sympathetic toward them. don’t be sullen. Alex noticed her eyes dart back up to the clock. “pick a number. And everyone can see the tide changing.” “What?” “Surely you have noticed that.” Anastasia said.” Anastasia said encouragingly.” “Would you prefer that I invite you home? Make moon eyes at you during class?” Anastasia said mockingly. “It would be much more convenient if I were. “I mentioned that the majority of the students are destined for the Black Sun. “that I am simply offering to pay you with the wrong currency. then. and he liked this one even less. “As they should be. When we make a recruitment approach. those blinking black boxes that boys love so much. “How often do I have to say it? I don’t make threats. assuming I even wanted to do that?” “I won’t try and persuade you the way Emily would. nor the Black Sun. yes?” Anastasia’s eyes were full of laughter. if that’s what you are thinking.” “And I’m guessing. if nothing else. I am not a precognitive. Alex?” Alex looked concerned for a moment. And even if you were to get married. “I offered all the money. there is the fact that I cannot simply allow you to join the Hegemony. Alex. need you in order to fulfill our ambitions and goals. who are collectively trying to out-think other groups of competing precognitives?” Anastasia clucked disapprovingly.” Alex said petulantly. looking scandalized. which means they are going to find themselves under my jurisdiction. wide-eyed. if a number were to pop into that busy head of yours. “We are. but I promise you that she sees what I see. “Neither I. I assume that it is normal for you. Emily is hardly the only girl on campus. then perhaps you would be interested in doing right by yourself. eventually.” “Fascinating. The more you learn about the Hegemony. we are somewhat larger.” “Which is?” “The Black Sun Cartel is roughly the same size as the entirety of the Hegemony. Don’t think that because Emily is a nice person that the Hegemony itself is benign. “maybe never. So. “Would you like to know what makes me different from everyone else who has approached you thus far?” Alex nodded wearily. Even if you want to see her. of course.” “And if reason doesn’t work? What’s after that? Vaguely worded threats. Time and circumstances are on our side. and then back to Alex. “Very flattering. then caught Anastasia’s superior look and hurriedly added. “that on the flip side. we do not waste our energy fighting each other.” “Not right now.“I would be upset. He found Anastasia’s tremendous confidence unnerving – her demeanor was so self-assured and authoritative that he had to stop himself from nodding along in agreement as she spoke. “You needn’t take it from me. Have you ever read a report written by a group of precognitives.

” “Certainly. then looked up at Mr. because he was not stupid. as I was into the Black Sun. the government and stuff. to push her away from him. and Alex had passed his time peacefully in that particular institution. looking vaguely disappointed. “But. though I realize that for some of you this will be a lecture that you have had before…” “Several times. has four main functions. Now. those of you who’ve been with us through grade school. He couldn’t help it.” Mr. “Yes. he’d been cordial. and allowing his Activation. Windsor said. shrugging. Anyway. “But. It isn’t as if you automatically join the Hegemony. standing up and walking to the door to open it for a very puzzled looking Emily. Not because of anything he did or said.” “What is to stop me from recruiting the entire cartel?” Anastasia glanced at her fingernails. Alex took a closer look at the stapled document he’d been given. a water bottle in one hand. Picking a fight with her would be worse than pointless.” Alex was only a little surprised that Mr. Eerie. as previously. sounding no more or less disinterested than she always did. do what you will.” Anastasia said dismissively. Alex understood now why people were afraid of the Black Sun – and it wasn’t the cartel.” Margot responded.” Anastasia said with conviction. and virtually nothing of the actual event. I get it. Windsor took pity on her and repeated the question. He just couldn’t see the relevance – other than agreeing to join the Academy. “I figured that the cartel thing was for life. and established the Auditors to enforce the Agreement.” Mr. and she would most likely be receptive to the right offer. even when Alex admitted that he remembered little about his life up until the point of the fire. but the whole ‘killing your entire family’ thing seemed to resonate with him on a level that Alex found profoundly disturbing. it might even be impossible. inmates and guards alike. I don’t think she would turn on her family.” Mr. fighting down the urge to ask why she kept looking at the clock. “She said she was born into it.” “What?” Alex said.” Alex said. “can you tell me another function of the Agreement?” Eerie nodded hopefully. I have heard good things. Michael said that she was part of the Hegemony.thing. Eventually. smiling at the stunned girl. with nearly twenty numbered articles. And he could see it again in Anastasia’s eyes. Windsor affirmed. a third. so quietly that Alex could barely hear her.” “Wait. He tossed it on the desk in front of him distastefully. if you please?” “The Agreement set out the terms and conditions under which Central could intervene and regulate the affairs of the cartels.” she said. you know. sounding bored. powerful though it might have been. Windsor enthused. There is little that I can add. Windsor said patiently. I want you to go ahead and share what you’ve learned with newcomers in our class. But he was afraid of that man. Now. yes? It was not designed. There was something in his disconcertingly perfect smile that implied an absolute assurance. in the Black Sun. and…” “Michael is a great teacher. Nothing in the faculty. Margot. Emily looked terribly disinterested. It was seven pages long. All of that. didn’t like the man’s warm smile and dead eyes. nothing obligates us to die where we were born. “This was perhaps the most contentious part of the Agreement. as if she was humming to herself. something that rarely happened to anonymous white convicts. “I don’t have to worry about problems of scale. Don’t you think it reflects poorly on the Hegemony that all they see in Emily is a future homemaker? I’m certain that I could find her something more meaningful to do. cartel politics had held precedence over everything else in Central. And for those of you who subscribe to the notion that this was a bad idea. putting his head in his hands. “then today is the day. . Alex immediately gave up on reading it. and he was not afraid of another.” Alex said. Therese Muir is much more practical than Emily. had seemed to happen without the deeply tanned Mexican’s hands getting involved. Alex would have simply left. I’m not going to ask you to read it . to stand up and yell until he was hoarse. Alex. Alex had the bad fortune to meet the man in person. The Mexican had been polite on the two occasions following that they had encountered each other. as well as a mechanism to impart that universal code of conduct Miss Martynova mentioned earlier. but he lacks political savvy. going forward. Now. “…but this does not in any way reduce the value of a return to the topic! Please pass this around. He had not threatened Alex or even spoken to him harshly. thank you. Now. “Very good. and he didn’t expect that to change much. then. glancing at the clock impatiently. Windsor and was surprised to see him smiling at the unhappy class. But. do you plan on spending the rest of your life with the first girl who is willing to sleep with you? And. “The Agreement established a universal code of conduct and applied it to all Operators and cartels equitably. He’d seen it in the faces and actions of the people that surrounded and fawned all over the Mexican. were it not in place. then go right ahead. Alex hadn’t been offered too much in the way of options. He’d been afraid of the man because of the way he looked at Alex. providing centralized rule over the cartels. “It is a formidable document. frustrated. because the girl you are dating happens to be a member. I am certain she would want to bring her beloved baby sister along. Miss Martynova is better than a textbook. no one had bothered to ask him if he wanted nanomachinery injected into his blood in the first place. “Hello Emily. you see. Ignorance will not be considered an excuse if you take action outside of the Agreement. nodding in agreement. the same choice any orphan makes. for a casual readership. Miss Martynova. and in any other situation. and in the eyes of people who looked at her. followed by another long pause while she considered. “I thought – I mean. and the punishment for violating it is dire. Alex found the way her forehead wrinkled and her eyebrows scrunched while she thought to be unaccountably endearing.” “You’d go that far. He’d taken a number of beatings for doing exactly that. like he saw what was going on his head. “to get me to join your cartel?” “It’s not all about you. It was the girl sitting in front of him. We make a choice when we leave the Academy. “Um. Alex did none of these things. wonderingly. could you tell the class one of them?” Anastasia rolled her eyes and answered in monotone. The Committee and the Board. and then her face gradually fell when it became clear that more of a response was required. Before the Agreement…” Alex tuned out. class.” Anastasia said quietly. After all.” Anastasia said casually. The Agreement.” Alex asked. which was a sort of cross between a mental institution and a prison. in fact. He couldn’t even remember the guy’s name. She looked blankly from Anastasia to Alex and then back to Anastasia. and even Vivik seemed less than thrilled.” “Very good!” Mr. for that matter?” Alex wanted to smack his hands down on the mat. turning to and clearly startling the changeling. “The Agreement does indeed set up the foundation for a formal government in Central. followed by a block of text. and felt a little bit sorry for him. I do want you to at least have a concept of the intent of the Agreement.” Alex took one from the stack of documents that Emily handed him and then passed it on to Vivik. Please don’t call on me again. Sometimes there are surprises. if there wasn’t some place she would rather be. and this was not the first time this had happened to him. her iPod in the other. should be enough for everyone? Good.though I would add that anyone too lazy to read the document that lays out their fundamental rights cannot claim to be too surprised when said rights are taken from them – but. “If you feel like taking Emily up on her rather obvious offer. “well.” Anastasia acknowledged coolly. He did not want to talk to him about that. I am going to sleep until this session is over. But don’t worry. allow me to remind you that cartel feuds would have killed off the majority of you before you were eighteen. I’m afraid. who is to say that she will remain in the Raleigh Cartel. composed of a single run-on sentence that used the word ‘whereas’ at least four times. shaking his head. except that this code of conduct will be utterly critical to your life. He was getting used to the way people treated Anastasia. This is the single most important piece of work that we will do this session. “Care to join me for the three o’clock Yoga session?” -“If you are ever going to pay attention. such a complete and total advantage that it didn’t even merit contesting. Alex. Windsor let it go with a smile. defections even.

doing his best to ignore Vivik’s fuming and Anastasia’s smirk.” she fluttered her hands helplessly. If you hurry back. Windsor would come out after them. Alex?” “Sure. He likes you a lot. Windsor’s projector. was not his problem. so it had been a bit difficult to formulate an opinion. then nudged him when no response was forthcoming. one hand coming up to cover her mouth. until he realized that the note on the top corner of the page was intended for him. Alex Warner. “What are you doing?” Alex gave him a lame smile and then went back to staring blankly at Mr. “everyone would have ditched today. later. “I know.” she managed. he couldn’t remember that Emily was empath. trying like hell not to sound like he was whining. on her face. He was very aware that the side of her chest was pressed against his arm as they walked.” “Don’t worry about it. She was waiting for him by the drinking fountain. and he found it difficult to think about anything else.” Emily said.” he said. not really. “I wasn’t expecting to see you here.” Emily shook her head. so Windsor is bound to notice. and his heart sank. obliging when she linked their arms.” Emily said. looking unhappy. honesty was definitely the best policy. putting her hand on his arm.” Mr. Somehow. “I couldn’t help myself. “Can we still ditch?” Alex wrote hopefully. still out of breath. but. “If Windsor had told the class in advance. “I don’t know why I made you do that. I was going to say. “Anyway. at least.” Alice laughed again quietly. obviously repeating herself. and he didn’t bother to say anything at all. he joined her.” Emily said. “He’s been like that since he showed up. rather. “we could go back to my place and hang out. not to worry. “Dude. “The final intent of the Agreement is to define Central’s relationship with the outside world. “He won’t say anything. unaware or unconcerned with the class’s complete disinterest. I know it was weird last time. “I’m sorry. she seemed so normal. it made Alex feel profoundly uncomfortable. when he was jarred from his ruminations by Emily. and why wouldn’t she? Emily actually wanted to go to the Academy. he didn’t think that he was stupid. the Fey. Then she slapped Alex’s shoulder and laughed uproariously. chewing on his pen cap without realizing he had started. clutching his arm and snuggling closer. that if you don’t have anything in particular that you wanted to do.” He hadn’t even noticed her write the note. but she had already stood up and quietly excused herself. establishing the parameters of a unified foreign policy. Please pay special attention to the various amendments here that concern the Society. He excused himself as quietly as possible. Emily’s eyes widened. Alice stood there. He had actually given it a great deal of thought. ignoring the way the Indian kid looked at him. “I hope you actually have something you needed to talk to me about. and kept sneaking furtive glances back toward the classroom. then slowly backing away. “everyone was being so mean to him. He was sure that she would refuse.” Alice looked at him with something that was either amusement or contempt. she was the most like a real person – not that he was entirely sure what he meant by a ‘real person’ in the first place. He’d already opened his mouth to agree when he noticed a tall figure in black walking the opposite way on the sidewalk. “I hadn’t actually thought about it.” Alice observed. I could make us lunch or something…” Alex might have been slow. “Yeah.” Alex admitted. Miss Gallow. Have you thought about what we talked about the other day?” Alex was about to say ‘no’ when he realized that wasn’t strictly true. okay?” Alex let himself be led along by her. and he sort of wished he hadn’t asked. but Therese will be working all day. “I get that a lot. giving Alex a sad look before she turned away. who decided to hurriedly return to the notes on Mr. and sat down on the sun-warmed stone. you should have plenty of time to make it back to class before lecture is over. reassuringly. right?” “Oh dear. He didn’t understand Black Protocols. licking his lips nervously. he was prepared to admit that. huh? And Emily Muir.” Emily said.” Alice chuckled. and then thought about it for a moment. the first time she asked. in time to see Alice standing in the path in front of them. or anything of the kind. but Alex felt like an idiot. well. what’s done is done. Most of us have the Agreement memorized by now. close enough to them that he could see the toothy grin. “…that’s right. but the combination of an amused look from Anastasia and an elbow digging into his side from an indignant Vivik disabused him of any such notion. I’m sorry. She looked nervous. “We should make the best of it. Emily. “I think he’s probably mad.” she added shyly. and he regretted it. All our stuff is still in the classroom. he figured that when it came to Alice Gallow. Maybe I shouldn’t have been as friendly with him. He ignored it for a moment. “But. his own writing a pitiful scrawl next to Emily’s very feminine penmanship. very tired of homeroom. her eyes hidden behind sunglasses. stepping over Vivik’s legs. Thanks for bringing him this far. okay. and other associated…” Emily shrugged.” Emily’s immaculate cursive read. and Alex racked his brain futilely for a change of subject.” “Right. After a moment of ineffectual and half-hearted glaring. He stopped in mute embarrassment when he realized what he was doing. “and Vivik will collect our stuff at the end of class. a minute later. isn’t it? I just wanted out of there. “Maybe I could bring your books by. a broad smile affixed to her face. Miss Gallow. Alex felt uncomfortable. but that was as much as he could give it. He tried to catch her eyes. he thought. I did. Emily waited for a moment. as if she was headed to the bathroom. . silly. and it made him cautious. That was probably why he missed it. She looked cheerful enough this morning. walking up to her with his hands buried in his pockets. tightening her grip on his arm and guiding him gently away from the classroom. considering. and the words she was saying. “Pretty self-righteous for someone ditching class to get all cozy with Emily. Choi. and then smiled weakly at him. nodding helplessly. “I don’t mind. well. but it was unmistakably hers.Alex was busy stewing over it. what else could I do?” Emily sighed again. as if he had suggested something inappropriate. and then meet me outside by the drinking fountain. Either way. and Alex was fascinated by the motion of her blond ringlets as they bobbed along with the gesture. I am not here to waste your valuable time. somehow afraid to take his eyes off of Alice Gallow even to say goodbye. “Uh. Who was he to interfere. he had to admit that he was so very. He was blushing furiously. shaking his head and trying to focus on the girl next to him. but Alex couldn’t totally put all the stories he’d heard about Alice Gallow out of his head when he spoke to her. the Anathema. even while part of him was still hoping she would agree. Of all the people he had met in the Academy. but he wasn’t stupid. until Emily was out of sight. Vivik’s crush on Emily. he reminded himself on his way out of the classroom.” Alex said glumly. “I’m sorry.” “That sucked. patting a space nearby to indicate Alex should also sit. yes. “Well. her smile fragile and uncertain. Windsor’s class to find you. he knew. last session. as if she was worried that Mr. he just hadn’t come to any firm decisions.” She said it gently. “I asked if there was anything you wanted to do.” Alice agreed tolerantly. Windsor continued on cheerfully. and then she frowned at Alex. you know?” Emily sighed and frowned. Emily. “And here I thought I would have to go all the way to Mr. then walked over to a nearby low wall. who pushed her notebook up and sideways on her desk until it was in the field of his vision. too. “But. was his problem. “What?” Alex said. Windsor. arms crossed across the scrawled ‘Emperor’ logo emblazed across her t-shirt. a little. because he was bored? But. then finally looked over at him in annoyance. Alex told himself firmly. But.” Alex said. “Wait a couple minutes.” “Yeah. Alex sincerely hoped that no one but him noticed her blushing as she did so. what the hell?” Vivik hissed at him. Let’s go somewhere. I’m not really sure that I have an answer for you. Of course I know. after all. You must have gotten out of class early.” Alex said. It was a long four minutes. and she won’t get back till late.” Alex pushed his own notebook into place.” he admitted slowly. you must have been helping him find the Administrative building.” Emily said. Or.” “I’m not so sure about that. this is lame. purple pen and a little circle instead of a dot over the lower-case ‘I’.” she said.

“What?” The confusion is his voice had already started to change into worry. “Good enough for me. “Could I?” “It doesn’t matter. “Either you would try or you wouldn’t. Alex found that he was still confused on at least one significant point. He was. “Wait. then sure. Still plenty of time. but I’m glad to hear you’re willing. It seemed like the safest bet.” “That isn’t what I meant when I said…” Alice put a finger up to her lips.” Alice continued on blithely. You’ll find out tomorrow in your Applied Combat Fundamentals class. Alex? A strongly worded letter? Make a call to your member of Congress?” “Wait. “you said something about putting me in a program. scratching his head.” Alice said. what would you do if I decided that I hated her so much that I was going to do something about it. too. “Pretty.” Alex watched her walk away. and if you were actually going to do that. truthfully. “Who is Mitzi?” . doomed. isn’t she?” Alice asked the question quietly. “I mean. Nobody’s asking you to succeed. dumbfounded. “Shh. You should probably go back to class. walking off. I’d want to stop you.” “Sure. Just like that.” Alice reminded him helpfully. Miss Gallow.” Alice said firmly.” Alex said. you know. “Pretty helpless. now. Alex?” “Is this hypothetical. The Program. “I truly hate that. “The girl you were just snuggling with.“Emily’s a pretty girl.” Alice patted him on the leg approvingly and stood back up. sending shivers up his back. right? What are you talking about?” “Not a program. “Say hi to Mitzi for me. So. of course. from behind her inappropriate smile. But.” Alex said. It was a minute or so before it all clicked into place for him. if I could. “What if I wanted to hurt Emily? Would you try and stop me?” Alex shook his head and inched away from Alice on the wall. He wasn’t sure what was going on. but he was sure he didn’t like it. the threatening atmosphere dissipated. “or do you actually hate Emily?” “Does it matter?” Alice’s voice was like ice-water. since he didn’t know what he would have said. How else you gonna stop me.” Alex asked carefully. We were going to put you through the Program no matter what.” he called out after her. right?” Alex nodded. The blond. waving without looking back. kicking the heels of her boots against the stone wall as if they were chatting about the weather. shrugging and doing his best to look unconcerned.

As far as learning incentives go. “No way. and if I get shot today. Alex attempted a variety of sullen apologies. not really. It had been almost like he’d fallen over by himself. snapping the slide into place.” Mitsuru said. “A telepath. He’d been waiting for a good opportunity to get one for himself. Whatever it is that he has taught you. fuck that – I’m not shooting anybody who isn’t one of those monsters.” Mitsuru reached down.” Steve started forward. but it’s a rewarding kind of work. you will kindly ignore the fact that he is a horrible bastard. “You want me to shoot Steve?” He was incredulous. many people find it to be very difficult. there’s nothing like having your life on the line. Alex. “Do I need to remind you how much I disapprove of tardiness?” “Sorry. But.” Alex allowed. wiping sweat from his brow and wishing that he had ditched class. In front of her. He was about to speak when he realized that Gustav had somehow disappeared from the room. Alex could see his mocking face. nodding. Mitsuru crouching over him with a handful of his hair knotted around her fist. In the distance. “I been thinking about this. and then halted when Mitsuru cleared her throat. scary and painful and bad. She’d hit him. He wished that someone had told him about the folding chairs in the corner when he came in. he doesn’t seem to want to shoot you. but for some reason. he realized belatedly. I know its hard work. “Usually we start with a stranger. Do you know what the problem with beating you to death is.” Mitsuru said. a much more sincere one that seemed to satisfy Mitsuru. grinning from ear to ear with a face so wrinkled that it was difficult to tell if his eyes were open or not. her red eyes cold and disinterested. Michael coddles you and cares for you. and when you do so. don’t get me wrong. there were inactive shooting lanes. Particularly not if she was serious about the beating thing. fag. “I can’t imagine why. “I guess I do. who will assist in your instruction. All I need you to do is to take the gun.” .” Mitsuru agreed grimly. He took it without meaning to.” Alex said. right in front of Alex’s hands. pointing at the wizened old man who was currently setting up a folding chair beside them. Alex elected to shut up and not get hit again. figuring that resenting all classes on principal was still more or less a responsibility of his as a student. She inspected the action. and then blushed and set it carefully back down on the patch of green cloth. its only training. a very special kind of telepath. from the way his jaw ached. She released her hold and stepped off of him. “It doesn’t count unless you shoot him on purpose. resuming her former position. who offered him the finger in return. “He’s a telepath. “Now.” “Very well.” Even Alex wasn’t totally sure what it was that he muttered. and Alex bent over it. “because she is a total psychopath. Instead. it isn’t combat. working the action. okay? This is bullshit. “He may be an asshole. very cross. Alex. smiling tightly and shifting uncomfortably against the floor.” Mitsuru didn’t even look at him. and then turned to face Alex. “It is a bit abnormal.” Mitsuru said. And training is important. onto the business at hand. Alex. making a face at Alex as he walked by him.” Alex said.” “It had better not. He didn’t bother to look up when the door opened behind him. This is not Michael’s class. but it hadn’t happened yet – he really didn’t want to interrupt Mitsuru while she was talking. then they wouldn’t have made me your teacher. “I am not Michael. and then picked up the Glock from where it lay on the oil cloth. Miss Gallow showed up with a volunteer. their battered targets hanging forlornly.” Steve grumbled.” “I see.” Mitsuru said flatly. Even at a distance. Alex. boys. complete with his chair. “Gustav.” she said icily. Combat is scary. It’s easier on the students. cross-legged on the floor. for an instant. I will not. rubbing his head resentfully. someone neutral and anonymous.” Alex said. her bloodshot eyes serious and disconcerting. she shrugged indifferently. sitting on the floor.” “And you’re calling me a fag? Because that’s pretty much the gayest shit anyone has ever said to me. Alex wasn’t sure.45 caliber Glock 36 semiautomatic pistol. and looked up at Mitsuru for a reaction. Miss Aoki. time was punctuated by the distant pops of rifle training occurring on the range outside.” “Ask a question or shut up and listen. or. then glared more sullenly at Mitsuru. don’t you agree?” “I guess. and he sauntered roughly ten meters away. it was rather awkward.” Alex said uncertain. Alex nodded at him.” Mitsuru said ruefully. “You will ask questions whenever you need too. but the white-haired man didn’t give any indication that he’d noticed. “Could you stop waving that thing around?” Mitsuru said. except for Alice Gallow. Because trying to explain is so much more difficult. could find the damn firing pin that he had set aside only a moment ago. actually. looking warily at the Glock in his hand that Alex had almost forgotten. Behind her. it isn’t enough. “It won’t happen again. gesturing wildly in panic and outrage. “You wouldn’t learn anything from it. And she doesn’t count. and then shoot Steve in the head.” Mitsuru said. and sat back down on the floor. and then sighted down the barrel. whether it’s the yoga or the swimming or the judo.” he said defiantly. After a moment.” she admitted. I do not wish to hear you speak unless you are spoken to. I will be very. was a matte-black . Alex glared furiously at Steve. part of it appeals to most Operators. “Just saying. So. Otherwise. “Enough. “That’s because Michael’s class isn’t about fighting. but he thought that he might have seen her smile. He only hoped that it would be something that would interrupt firearms drills. “You’re early. but we can go ahead and start.” Alex said.Twenty Three Mitsuru sat in the middle of a long. Wait.” Mitsuru added thoughtfully.” Alex looked down at the gun in his hand. staring at the smiling man in his pressed suit. after her grip tightened on his hair and brought tears to his eyes. But. Alex. “Why the hell is he here?” Mitsuru stood up.” Alex blinked and stared blankly for a moment. “unfortunately. thank you for coming. wood paneled room. But nobody likes combat. and set the pistol down delicately on the floor. screwed up and contemptuous. folding his arms. eyeing him.” Mitsuru looked at Alex. Alex?” “Well. He didn’t get one – she was looking at someone behind him disapprovingly. “That is the most I’ve heard you say so far. but I’m not shooting anybody because you told me to.” Steve sneered. and then slotting the clip and checking the safety. “Steve. Then let me introduce Gustav Esteban. release the safety. or so the theory goes. and before I even had a chance to look. So.” Mitsuru motioned at Steve. Do you understand all this?” “Yeah. “I needed someone you wouldn’t mind shooting. like the one Gustavo had. she grunted her approval. not comprehending. and then. isn’t it? Michael’s class? Yes. if they’d wanted you to have an easy time. demanding to know what he’d said.” “Right. “This isn’t too complicated. looking nervously at the pistol in his hand. sounding confused and disappointed. on a green cloth. “You’re late. Most people like some aspect of training. and the Academy values him far more than we value you. “Ever since the first day I met you. This one’s fairly hopeless when it comes to guns. but he’d never even seen it. when he found himself suddenly sprawled on his back. huh?” “It’s fun. here. chamber a round.” Alex finished reassembling the pistol. I can think of several. “What the hell is going on?” Alex demanded. He set it down in the center of the green cloth. looking around him. failing that. you will do so respectfully.

The only difference is that I have more discretion about when I let you die. a kind of whimper. he couldn’t even bear to look at it. smiling. he heard something snap. Don’t you want to have a purpose. . walking lazily toward Alex. Alex?” “Fucking bad!” Alex shouted. Miss Aoki. Alex. “No way. though it was an angry red hue.” she said.” Mitsuru started. No way. from somewhere above them. but he refused to look up at her. His legs kicked and jerked as he struggled blindly. the sheer reality of the gun in his hand. and his breath came in ragged gasps. Miss Aoki. Steven bent his wrist backwards far enough for it to hurt. and at the hand that held it. Most Operators would rather not do what they do. He fell to the ground and moaned. “This isn’t some kind of show or trick. until your life and the lives of other Operators are on the line.” Mitsuru shook her head. like Alex had failed her on a personal level. His nose still ached a great deal. nodding at the goon. Now pick up the gun. Alex probably wouldn’t have even seen him lunge. tearing it out with an awful ripping noise. “But. The pain and the consequences here are all real. He couldn’t see well enough to tell what the next few punches were. but the one that knocked him down had to have been a right hook. and he was ashamed of it. We’re concerned with what you can do. right here.” Steve said. “They’ve both completed the Program themselves. “This isn’t real.” Mitsuru said. That’s not me. from immediately behind Alex. Disabuse him of the notion. still on its bed of green cloth. Alex.“I was counting on it. That turned out to be a mistake. question time is over. Alex touched it with one finger. black.” “Christ. or easy.” he said uncertainly. like a Velcro strap detaching from his head.” After a moment. “Why are you doing this?” “Are you ready to shoot him?” Mitsuru asked evenly. right? Some kind of telepathic illusion or something?” Mitsuru sighed.” “Right. That’s what precognitives are for.” Mitsuru said. facing Steve with the gun in his hand. And fuck you. “Enough. setting the gun down and the sitting down beside it. he moved so fast. “Again. not what you want do. worrying about that. and Alex immediately clutched it to his chest. leered at Alex. “Open your eyes. then dropped down and grabbed a hold of one of Alex’s flailing arms.” Alex said miserably. for several moments. “You need to be more careful with loaded guns. to see you pussy out. and only managed to wriggle fruitlessly. both of us. compact and menacing. “Fuck that. I’m done. Mitsuru crouched over him. “Sure. advancing on Alex. wincing. Alex. to ward off any further blows. I told you. alright? I don’t want to do this anymore. “Let’s try it again. staring at the pistol in his hand as if it would speak to him. You and me. “Why should I? Why should I do anything?” “Because you have to. “If you get killed. It felt very real.” Steve snarled. contrasted with the mess a moment ago. “How do you feel. “Persuade him otherwise. cracking his knuckles and grinning.” Alex said. hard.” “So.” Steve said with his monkey grin. But they can.” Mitsuru said. Are you ready to do what you have to do?” She looked at Alex.” Alex said a moment later. looking mildly disinterested. none of this will be fun. you will be very dead. You’ll get yourself killed. Alex?” “This is fucked up. Suck it up. Alex barely had time to duck under Steve’s outstretched hand. kid. If I let you. clearly frustrated. bleeding from the face and clutching his broken wrist.” Steve said. but in his panic he forgot everything that Michael had taught him about escaping holds. “The lesson is simple – there’s no point in teaching you to shoot. shaking his head. “I would think so. and then we both can go home. “I guess I’m not cut out for this. and Steve burst into laughter. sounding reluctant. Miss Aoki. Don’t seek comfort in deluding yourself. make no mistake about it. “Reset. Alex. after all. holding up a hand to stop Steve. and his hand came away bloody.” “Alex. The purpose of a weapon is to kill.” Mitsuru said.” Alex said slowly.” Alex turned to stare at Mitsuru pleadingly. I’m teaching you an important lesson about being a soldier. He looked down at the Glock.” Alex looked down at the ground. “This is very real. and then the next. would you?” Steve’s grin widened as he walked toward Alex. Alex gasped and reeled backwards. It will take everything you’ve got just to do what needs to be done. looking happy with himself.” Mitsuru explained. Steve maintained pressure on the hold. We are weapons. Alex howled. frankly. with an impact that rattled the teeth in his jaw and made his knees fold underneath him. who suddenly looked nervous. if I shoot Steve. only to eat a straight jab that hit him square in the nose. marveling at the bruised but intact flesh. pull the trigger. It isn’t a good thing.” Mitsuru replied gravely. then I don’t want any part of it. and somewhere during the howl.” Mitsuru corrected sternly. As it was. He was aware of the noise he was making. Alex. “I say this one’s fag the whole way through. Alex did so. His wrist seemed miraculously whole. having just enough presence of mind to cover his face with his arms. Mitsuru sighed and rubbed her head. “Do Rebecca and Michael know that you are doing this shit to me?” Mitsuru tittered. Which I probably won’t. This means is that I can have Steve hurt you forever. grabbing at his head. he was standing where he’d started. The pressure on his wrist ceased. and it was bleeding consistently enough to make him sniffle. letting the gun clatter to the floor. “Steve. so they do what they have to. “Do you feel like shooting someone?” “No. softly. It sapped any strength he might have had to fight him off. “No. He still managed to catch onto a clump of Alex’ hair. transfixed by the weight. bringing tears to his eyes and blurring his vision. her eyes bloodshot and serene. Rebecca helped design the Program. it came from the side and caught him below the ear. shaking her head. Alex realized that he was putting him in a wrist lock a moment before it happened and he struggled against him. “Okay. Alex. Alex thinks this is an illusion. He put his hand to his face.” Mitsuru sounded disgusted. it seemed as if he was lying in a heap on the floor one moment.” Alex said shakily. He couldn’t breathe out of his nose very well. her face blank. but he could not seem to stop. Steve stood a few meters away. Understand?” “No. What you want is irrelevant. that won’t be real. and quite sore. I’ll do my best.” Mitsuru shrugged and walked away. If Steve hadn’t been such a big guy.” Mitsuru chided. and Alex was certain that nothing had ever hurt quite so bad. we are both the same in this – we don’t ask why when we’re told to pull the trigger.” he said. Let the bosses be concerned with who and why. We do what we have to. Steve laughed and kicked playfully at his chest and stomach a few times. too shocked to even formulate an objection. “That’s generally what happens when you shoot someone. That’s all. and then bent it further. but not as bloody. if you aren’t going to pull the trigger when you are told to. “Will he die?” Alex was unable to look away from the gun in his hand. “No. I quit. voice quivering. and the need is there. the gun stretched out to him. “There would never be enough soldiers if we asked for volunteers. “You won’t die until I let you.” The transition was so abrupt that it made him nauseous.” she said. pacing and shadowboxing. “We already know that you are cut out for this. either?” Alex asked.” “This is Gustav doing this. “No point in sharpening a blade you aren’t going to use. staring at the pistol in his hand. to no one in particular. “If that’s what this all means. “Wait!” Alex cried. We aren’t going to wait until you’re in the field. “What the fuck is going on here?” Mitsuru’s calm was impenetrable. and survive the process. To Alex.

and forced it in as far as he possibly could. Alex closed his eyes. But near the end of the day. “Wow.Alex jabbed an elbow back. When he finally did.” Alex starting walking slowly down the path. or when he stopped moving. Every word had a ringing. Mitsuru’s ‘class’ had turned out to be an eight-hour nightmare. and Steve’s obvious wrestling background made this kind of close-quarters ground fighting particularly hopeless for Alex. He drove a few more elbows into his body. he ignored her. Alex stared out at the diminishing blaze of the autumn leaves. absorbing the occasional shot to the side or the arms. which gave Alex the feeling that this was not an entirely new experience for Steve. and then he fell to the ground. Alex was patient. protecting his head. meaning that he was forced to go hand-to-hand with someone who was bigger. She put aside her knitting and looked at him expectantly. there was no apparent transition. or it is fighting and dying. most of his brain dripping off the far wall. but Alex didn’t feel like he’d done too badly. This is fighting and surviving. Steve wasn’t about to let himself get shot. There are no good choices. Steve howled and reeled away from him. Mitsuru put her hand on his shoulder like a friend. putting everything he had into a hard right that sank into Steve’s kidney. and then everything reset again. and the anticipation stretched on for minutes. he could see a quarter-inch of blond where she parted her hair.” She gently prized the Glock from his fingers.” Alex’s hand froze in the process of putting his headphones in his ears. and congratulated himself on not running. with all the force he could muster. one forearm reaching across his neck. Alex didn’t even see it before he made contact. “You went to Emily’s house. and soon all he could hear was himself making ghastly strangling noises. unable to swallow and struggling to breathe. Alex hadn’t seen Gustav again until right before Mitsuru dismissed him. and Alex had time to pull himself to his feet. and it is frightening. and Alex was fairly sure that the mess at the end of the session had been solely for his benefit. She was very. Alex refused three more times. I figured if anybody is going to be waiting for me outside of class like some kind of…” “Stalker?” Eerie offered. but he was fairly certain that much of it had been due to the old man’s purported telepathy. her bloodshot eyes full of sincerity. striped tights and shiny black shoes dangling. “What are you doing here?” “I am waiting for you. He’d only stopped when he heard Mitsuru laughing. She talked about it. Alex was ready when he came forward this time. to put his chin between Steve’s arm and his throat. and Alex had managed to get a thumb up into Steve’s eye socket. but he seemed angry more than traumatized. and then they hung there. Mitsuru had bemoaned his performance. useless and in-the-way. “Welcome to the Program. and buried them in his pockets. I’m surprised. After all. The pistol was somehow louder with that shot than it had been when he shot at the range. “Hi. things had ended with Steve bashing in his head. then winced. And when Alex stood and stared at the intact remainder of Steve’s head. hopping down to stand beside him. Given the circumstances. folding and tearing like paper where it collided with the stone. His hand crumpled against Steve’s rocky skin. digging it into Steve’s midsection. and into the chill of the evening and the setting sun. She has been planning this for days. that seems like Emily’s thing. Alex. of course. because he might have seen what he had done to his hand. looking like he hadn’t even broken a sweat. When we are done with you. and Steve couldn’t do anything more than clip him.” Eerie said finally. moving target. Steve had gotten sloppy while setting up a choke. “Hi. “No offense. “Well. Alex blocked the punch with his left arm. her nails painted to match her hair. and he felt a strange lingering pain everywhere he’d been injured. “Right. Her face was impassive. too. Nothing more. while Steve kicked him with his heavy stone foot and laughed his booming laugh. Alex. okay?” Eerie walked along beside him quietly.” Alex shrugged. he saw Mitsuru crouched over him.” she said. but he couldn’t put much power behind them. and tried to calm down. but instead he’d walked up behind the blinded kid and struck him in the base of the skull with the butt of it. the trigger much more difficult to pull.” Alex said uncertainly. Alex was faced with an enraged. Alex stepped out of the hallway. standing a few meters away. with surprising gentleness. though. but Alex kept his hands up and his head moving. He’d been grimmer. clutching his face. This time he didn’t bother with conversation. and then he was the other. only a series of compromises and things that you will regret later. musical quality to it. “Hey. There was something about Eerie’s silence that seemed to imply to him that she was about to speak at any moment. He focused solely on Steve. and waited it out. He was ready for Steve’s jab. as best he could. Mostly.” Alex realized that his hands were trembling. holding out the gun. gradually being washed away by increasingly frequent rain. “She talks a lot. with his face in a shallow pool of vomit. and then stepped inside. I am company. “loud about it. He didn’t stop hitting him when Steve fell down. I decided to meet you here. his arms wrapping around Alex. and he wondered absently whether she was changing colors. He’d intended to. Okay. and it ended horribly. grinding his heel against the boy’s instep. or was lazy about dyeing it.” “Surprised that we knew? Surprised that Margot said that?” Eerie was staring up at the changing leaves of the ancient trees that bordered the path.” “I see. and Alex started to worry that he handled the whole conversation very clumsily. of course. and Eerie fell in beside him. Alex tried to lower his head. trying to give an honest answer. but he just grunted. stronger and more experienced. that he was punching while he backpedaled. it had consequences – Alex had bruises forming along his chest and above one eye and across the bridge of his nose. Alex woke on the floor. protected his face as best as he could. Then he gave in. Eerie. you know?” He hesitated for a moment. And it is the only thing that matters. Steve’s forearm crushed steadily into his larynx. apparently determined to linger. Mitsuru crouched above him. Whatever they had done. When Mitsuru asked him if he was ready to use the gun. Alex. her eyes wet and shining. Steve threw a combination that ended in a right hook that was a little off. three more times. “I will tell you a secret. wipe the blood from his eyes. Again. “Or surprised that it was me. “Emily is waiting for you. Steve was simply one thing. This isn’t training. walking just out of reach. holding out the gun. waiting for his chance to close. several times. He didn’t want to open them. never quite so grateful to be out of a classroom. and it isn’t theory or philosophy. He brushed her away with one arm. but all three. So. it could have gone worse. and Alex saw his footwork was bad.” she said. She was short enough that when he looked down at her. Reset. it was his first time killing anybody. and find the Glock that Steve had knocked to the ground when he tackled him. after the reset. but he was too late for that. He stomped on Steve’s foot. her frown deepening. “Vivik said you weren’t in homeroom today because you had Mitsuru’s class. either with his elbows or against the floor.” Eerie frowned. He had gorilla-like arms that gave him a reach advantage. don’t tell her I said that. and Margot said you’d be messed up afterwards and that someone should keep you company.” Eerie said. Alex still wasn’t sure exactly what had happened. that girl. “It hurts. too surprised to formulate a clever response. That he could actually remember. “Combat isn’t fun. an after-effect of the class.” Eerie explained.” -Alex heard the door close behind him. back at your room. . and not Emily?” Alex thought for a moment. and he only managed to tag Steve once in the entire rest of the day. Steve had left looking totally untouched. “you won’t even recognize yourself. and then activated the safety. He put the echoes of the pain and the fear out of his mind. After that.” She sat on the low fence that bordered the walkway outside the building. He hadn’t shot him. grinning like it was his birthday.

“She doesn’t seem like the type.” “Not to you,” Eerie said, shaking her head sadly. “Because Alex is stupid.” “What?” Eerie glanced at him, her pupils massively dilated even in full daylight, her expression innocent and detached. He couldn’t help but wonder why she he was here, what she saw with her strange eyes when she looked at him. “She wants you to feel sorry for her, I can tell. She doesn’t say it, but it’s obvious, even to me. And you have to be stupid,” Eerie said angrily, “to pity a pretty girl.” “Huh?” Alex said, puzzled. “Are you mad at me, Eerie?” She appeared to think about it for a while. “Not really,” she said, shaking her head. “You are just a boy, after all. But…I do want to know. Why did you go home with her, Alex?” “I don’t know,” he said, as truthfully as possible. “Because she asked me to, I guess.” “You don’t like her?” Eerie asked, clutching her knitting basket in front of her with both hands, her fingers tight around the handle. “You aren’t seeing each other? Or kind of seeing each other?” “What? What are you talking about? No. It’s not like that,” Alex said guiltily, his eyes on the concrete path in front of them. “I don’t even know her that well.” “You went just because she asked you?” “I guess,” Alex admitted, shrugging. “What can I say?” “So, you’d go somewhere with me, if I asked you to?” Eerie spoke casually, refusing to meet Alex’s eyes when he looked over at her, one hand picking absently at the hem of her skirt. Alex kept looking at her with a shocked expression for a little while, hoping for a reaction, then gave up. “Sure.” “For real?” Eerie glanced up at him shyly, like he’d promised her something she was hesitant to believe. “Sure,” Alex repeated, feeling surprised and a little embarrassed. “Will you go somewhere with me?” “Um, sure,” Alex said, laughing. “When did you have in mind?” Eerie smiled at him, and grabbed his arm, fortunately not picking the one that still ached from class. “Now,” she said, pulling him along behind her, away from the dorms, back toward the center of campus. “Right now.” -“I’d really like to go and change my clothes first,” Alex complained to Eerie, who dragged him along determinedly by his sleeve. “I didn’t think that I’d be going anywhere, you know?” Eerie glanced back at him icily. “Emily is in your room, remember?” “Oh,” Alex said, blushing. “Right. That would be. Um. Yes.” Alex felt, quite frankly, like an asshole. He didn’t know what either Emily or Eerie had planned, and he hadn’t had enough time to think about either to know what he would have picked, given the choice. His first day in Mitsuru’s ‘Program’ had been enough to leave his brain violated and muddled, and his body tired and battered. When he closed his eyes, he kept seeing Steve’s broken head, the vile mess against the wall behind him, the gun in his shaking hands. He didn’t feel like going somewhere with Eerie, he felt like going somewhere and being sick. But he didn’t want to go back to his room, and not only because Emily might be there. Alex wanted out of the Academy, for the first time since he had arrived. He had thought that any world would be better than the one he had left behind, but after Mitsuru’s class, he wasn’t so sure. Despite what had happened to his family, and the role he had played in it, Alex had never thought of himself as a killer. After all, he had no memories of doing what the cops claimed that he had done, no hatred toward his family, no memory of the abuse that the cops claimed his father had visited upon him. If he was pressed, Alex would have had to admit that he often couldn’t even remember his parent’s faces without looking at the photograph his grandmother had kept on her bureau back in the trailer. How could he feel like a killer? He didn’t remember killing anyone. Most of the time, he didn’t even remember the people that he was supposed to have killed. He’d seen Steve walk away, after the class was over, sneering at Alex as he left the classroom. He knew he hadn’t killed him, the same way he knew that he had killed his family – because other people told him so. But Steve didn’t feel any more alive than his parents felt dead, and in the back of his mind, all he could see was the contents of Steve’s skull spreading slowly across the blond wood of the floor. Alex followed Eerie numbly through the campus, into one of the cavernous Administrative Buildings, then through a series of corridors and hallways, doing his best to think about nothing, haunted by the afternoon. He was glad that she didn’t want to talk, because he wasn’t sure if he wanted to say any of the things he was thinking out loud. He didn’t notice when they had walked out the back of the building, until they were halfway across a dark, secluded courtyard, overhung with the grey branches of ancient willow trees. Alex remained heartsick and oblivious to his surroundings, to the extent that he almost tripped over a tombstone. “Holy shit!” Alex exclaimed, attempting not to fall over the mossy, fractured limestone that his foot was caught on. “Quiet,” Eerie shushed. “We aren’t supposed to be here.” “I sort of guessed that.” Alex brushed the moss from the tombstone without thinking about what he was doing. The carving on the stone was in kanji, and unreadable to him, but it looked like someone important. “Shh.” Eerie led them on a winding path through the headstones. It was chilly and dim beneath the leaves and the high walls that surrounded the courtyard, the path overgrown and dotted with white marble benches that looked cold and uninviting. Alex shivered and hurried along behind Eerie, who continued to ignore his questions. The courtyard wound on and on, passing by glass-enclosed terrariums and rooms that, through leaded glass windows, appeared to hold endless shelves of books in varying states of decay. Above them the uniform slate-grey stone stretched up to shut out most of the sky, with only the silhouette of the occasional stovepipe to break the uniformity. Eventually, they came to a rounded platform lined with broken columns, limestone bas reliefs, and the faint remains of white marble inlays. The columns were thin, fluted, and utterly unlike anything else Alex had seen in the Academy, fragile and almost alien in their design, in their strange lack of symmetry. Renton leaned against one of them, a dour girl in a blue dress standing discreetly behind him. “Welcome, welcome,” Renton said, grinning expansively and motioning Alex and Eerie over. “Sorry for making you come all this way, but this is, well, profoundly against the rules. Now then,” he said conspiratorially, putting his hand on Eerie’s shoulder in a familiar way that Alex did not like, “who wants to go to San Francisco?”

Twenty Four

“You did not have to do that crap with Alex and Steve. I had intended for them to spar with each other to work out their differences, not this fiasco. You know better,” Michael said firmly, “and I want an explanation.” Mitsuru looked up from her soup, annoyed. “How did you hear about that already?” She sighed and dropped her spoon back in the bowl. “Never mind, I already know. Rebecca and her bleeding heart, right?” Michael pulled out a chair and sat down across from Mitsuru at the staff cafeteria table, arms folded across his broad chest. The faculty occupying the adjoining tables universally decided that now was a good time to visit the cafeteria line, and disappeared in a rustle of whispers and the clatter of hastily gathered dishes. “I’m serious, Mitsuru. It wasn’t so long ago that I was your teacher. And I don’t recall doing anything like this to you.” “What did you think happened,” Mitsuru asked, eyes downcast, “when I went down to see Alice Gallow for ‘Applied Combat Fundamentals’? It’s the Program, Michael, and they run it on all the prospective Auditors. You know that. They’re just getting an early start with Alex.” “I know what happened when you were with Alice,” Michael said sadly. “I remember the Program myself. It isn’t right. And I don’t like watching you do it to someone else, Mitsuru. Alex isn’t a candidate for Audits or anything else, not yet. I haven’t even had a chance to get him into shape. I’m doing you the courtesy of asking before I go to Gaul and lodge a complaint. Why are you doing this?” Mitsuru flipped through the binder next to her lunch tray, and pulled out three plastic sheathed documents. She passed them across the table to Michael, who inspected them. “No point in going to Gaul,” Mitsuru said, shrugging and picking her spoon back up. “My orders came direct from Alistair, and his got carte blanche from the Director. It’s all above board. The plan is to make Alex an Auditor, remember? Gaul doesn’t want to wait; it creates too many opportunities for the Hegemony and the Black Sun. We don’t have the luxury of letting him make the wrong decision.” “This will force him make the wrong decision; no, worse, it will make him useless. The Program ruins people, Mitsuru, you should know that.” “I do,” Mitsuru acknowledged, unblinking. “No one knows it better, except mad old Alice. But that changes nothing. Alex Warner will be an Auditor, and a Black Protocol user. He will complete the Program as the rest of us of did, Michael. Gaul wants another tame monster, and I intend to hand him one, giftwrapped and ready to go to work. I’ve heard about your reputation for squeamishness. Don’t expect the same from me. I need to know that you’ll do your part,” she said, recollecting her documents and looking at him seriously. “I need to know that he’s being properly trained, so that I don’t have to worry about that aspect of the situation.” “So you can make him into a monster?” “You said it. The useful kind. Like me.” Mitsuru nodded and then spooned some of the noodles from her soup into her mouth. “Can I count on you to make him ready? Duly noting your objections, of course.” “I wouldn’t want to disappoint you all,” Michael said sourly. “Of course. I’ll try and make him ready. And you, my dear, you should know – you sound more like Alice every day.” “Good,” Mitsuru said tersely, returning her attention to her soup.
-“Where are we?” Alex glanced around at the neighborhood they’d emerged in. He’d spent a shaky few minutes in an alley behind some dumpsters after the apport, jarred by the abrupt transition and mildly nauseous, but it had passed quickly, and he felt alright now. He wondered if it had been that bad the other time, when Mitsuru had brought him back to Central, but he couldn’t remember anything about it. Maybe Svetlana simply wasn’t very good. “The Mission,” Eerie answered, grabbing Alex by the arm and pulling him along. “There are some places I like around here. We’ll be able to find clothes and stuff.” The Mission was an older neighborhood, grimy and dignified, poor and yet overflowing with optimistic entrepreneurs and vividly colored street art. The majority of the people on the street seemed to be Latino men, but there was fair representation of hipsters and young families on the busy street as well. They passed a flower stand staffed by a Vietnamese family, and Alex returned a smile from a cherub-faced little boy, who stood on top of the counter his grandmother worked. Outside, on the sidewalk, a half-dozen enterprising homeless had laid out blankets, and were selling second-hand books and knickknacks. The neighborhood was bustling and vibrant, the air thick with exhaust and the smells of a dozen different cuisines. After his time in Central, it seemed fantastically crowded and loud to Alex. Eerie dragged him a couple of blocks up Sixteenth, turning at Valencia Street. She released Alex’s hand in front of a skate shop, explaining that she wanted to visit the boutique next door, which only did women’s clothing. Alex dug through the stock at the skate shop for a while, coming up with a couple black t-shirts, a pair of baggy drab green pants, and a heavy, dark grey sweatshirt for the evening. The sullen, heavily tattooed man at the counter took the money Eerie had given him with an air of bored resentment, slowly counting out change and then haphazardly shoving his purchases into plastic grocery bags. Alex stepped out of the skate shop, glanced at the boutique and didn’t see Eerie, and figured she was trying stuff on. He wandered down the block and then across the street to a discount clothing store, where he bought a package of generic tube socks and a couple pairs of boxer shorts. By the time he returned the boutique, Eerie was waiting for him, a bag shoved underneath one of her arms. “What now?” Alex asked, scratching his neck. He wanted to go somewhere and change, as he was tired of wearing dirty clothes, and it was too windy for pants with a hole in the knee. The breeze coming off the San Francisco Bay appeared to be every bit as cold as he’d been led to believe. “I still need to go to some more places,” Eerie said with a frown. “Are you finished already?” Alex shrugged. “Sorry, I guess I didn’t think too much about it,” Alex said, feeling a touch embarrassed. “I bought the first things that fit, and looked alright, you know?” Eerie bounced from one foot to the other, hopping around oblivious pedestrians in the pursuit of some private game, while a disturbing thought occurred to him. “Hey, do you think I need to buy anything special for tonight? I mean, like, clothes? Do they have a dress code or anything, wherever it is you want to go?” Eerie smiled at him, clearly amused. “Alex will be fine in whatever, because he is a boy, and no one cares what boys are wearing. But, I still have to do some shopping.” Eerie pondered for a moment. “I don’t come to San Francisco often…” Alex sighed inwardly, but fixed a smile on his face. “Well, lead on, then,” he said with forced cheerfulness. “I’ll carry your bag for you.” To his surprise, Eerie turned away and tucked her bag further under her arm.

“Well, no,” Eerie mumbled, her back to Alex. “That wouldn’t be good. If you are done, then, would you like to wait somewhere for me?” Alex found himself abruptly abandoned at a small, green Formica table, in front of a cafe, waiting for a cappuccino to cool. Eerie had deposited him there rather firmly, leaving him money and instructions to stay until she got back. Alex leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes, stretching out his legs and trying to convince himself that the weak sunlight was somehow warm. He dug his headphones out of his pocket and put them in, letting it play at random. The song that came on was ambient, electronics simulating the distant rumble of thunder and the chattering of insects over a textured, looping washes of static. By the time the vocals kicked in, Alex was half-asleep. Alex drifted, letting the world pass him by, his head resting against the cool brickwork of the building, his legs stretched out underneath the table. The battery in his mp3 player must have died at some point, and he must have nodded off, because when Alex woke, Eerie was talking to him. “You have a bad habit of falling asleep whenever you’re left alone,” she scolded. She wore a new t-shirt, a white jersey with three-quarters-sleeves in red. Her black skirt hung in folds a bit above her knees, and her black socks cut off a little below. Alex rubbed his eyes and tried to compose himself, hoping he hadn’t drooled while he slept, or anything. Eerie twirled in front of him, her skirt flaring. “What do you think, Alex?” “It’s… you look very cute.” Alex stammered. “Um, yes. You look good.” Eerie nodded seriously, and Alex was relieved that he had apparently said the right thing. “Okay,” she said cheerfully. “And I have flyers, also.” “Alright,” Alex said, nodding uncertainly. “You have flyers?” “For tonight,” Eerie clarified. “Also, this is for you,” she said, tossing him a disposable Korean cell phone. “My number is already programmed in. Just in case.” “Good idea,” Alex said approvingly. “Glad you thought of that.” Eerie mumbled something and appropriated his coffee, sipping at it and then making a face. “Bitter. Cold. How long were you asleep, anyway?” Alex shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said, yawning. “How long were you gone?” Eerie looked embarrassed, and then laughed self-consciously. “I don’t know either. Hours, I guess.” Alex nodded uncertainly, wondering again about the girl. She was so dreamy, most of the time, tempered with strange periods when she could be alarmingly perceptive. He didn’t know what to make of it; she was nothing like anyone he’d ever known before, in one sense, but, when she’d shown off her new clothes, she could have been any girl he’d ever met. With one important difference, he reminded himself – this girl seemed eager to have him pay attention to her. “Did you get everything you needed?” He tried not to sound hopeful, putting the phone in his pants pocket and gathering his bags from underneath the chair, pleased to find they had been left alone during his nap. “Pretty close,” Eerie affirmed, glancing through the bags she was holding. “Let’s go get a room at a hotel, Alex. We’ll need some place to shower and change, anyway, before we go out. Don’t worry,” she said reassuringly, misreading his expression. “I can afford it. Money’s not a problem for me.” Alex spent so long contemplating the amazing ramifications of her suggestion that, by the time he got moving again, he had to hurry after Eerie, who was already halfway down the block. -Alex woke to the ringing of an alarm, and he came up fighting, struggling with a mess of sheets and blankets that he’d wrapped around himself in his sleep in a protective cocoon. It took him a minute or two to remember where he was, to find a clock to inform him that it was a little after seven in the evening, and then another to be grateful that Eerie had apparently woken up before the alarm, and headed off to the shower, thereby missing the spectacle of his awakening. Stumbling and cursing, he made his way to the room’s secondary bathroom, itself an impossibly immaculate expanse of faux marble countertop and chrome fixtures, and inspected himself in the acres of mirror there, deciding that he didn’t look a whole lot different than he had on arrival. His chest was still mottled with bruises, but it didn’t hurt as much when he took a deep breath, and his arm had settled into a periodic dull throb. He felt a sense of profound disappointment, and a great deal of embarrassment, every time he thought about the girl in the other bathroom. He took a hot shower, more to help stretch out his sore muscles than anything else, washing his hair and cursing his failure to find a barber while Eerie had shopped, resolving to get it taken care of tomorrow. Alex stayed under the hot water for an extra few minutes, letting it beat down on the back of his head, thinking about Eerie. He wondered where she fit in the whole power struggle in Central, if she had a side, or allegiances of her own. It didn’t seem possible to Alex that she managed to stay completely uninvolved, as the conflict seemed to consume the whole of Central, where Eerie had lived since she was a child. Even so, it was hard to imagine her as one of Anastasia’s lot, and though he hadn’t met too many people from the Hegemony yet, he had even more trouble with the idea of Eerie fitting in with them. They had taken a BART train to the Hilton that afternoon, after she’d finished shopping, a glass tower embedded in an otherwise commercial neighborhood. Alex had requested a room with two queen beds, to be on the safe side, paying with the stack of bills that Eerie had given him earlier. The guy at the counter had found that amusing, and Eerie had laughed when she opened the room door, causing immediate and total regret in Alex. He had no intention of spending his time at the Academy rebuffing the advances of cute girls, whether or not they were weird. Or insane. Or not human. He had, after all, been forced to spend a good portion of his life in strictly all-male institutions. Clearly, he thought, his understanding was lacking. Napping on their respective beds, Alex was acutely aware of Eerie sleeping a few meager feet away. If he held his breath, he discovered that he could hear her breathing. He tossed and turned, wondering what would have happened had he requested one bed, wondering what would happen if he got up and went over to her. Helpless, he cursed the stupidity and fear that kept him from finding out. He hadn’t slept all that well, Alex thought, feeling profoundly sorry for himself. -“Have a seat, Miss Martynova,” Gaul said mildly, gesturing at the plush office chair in front of his desk. His hands were steepled in front of his face, his expression unreadable. Behind him, Rebecca scowled from her perch on the windowsill, circles underneath her eyes, dangling a cigarette out the open window. Anastasia took the offered seat without comment, smoothing her silk dress carefully across her lap as she sat. Then she waited in polite silence, her hands folded neatly, resting on her knees. “I’m certain you know why we’ve called you here today, Anastasia,” Gaul said from behind his hands, the glare from his glasses hiding his eyes. “I’m not so certain,” Anastasia said dismissively, inspecting her immaculate black nails. “Are you going to tell me?” “Where’s Alex?” Rebecca demanded, her voice tight and her frustration obvious. “Where’s Eerie?” “I don’t know,” Anastasia said, sounding bored. “Are we finished, then, or do you have more?” Gaul turned briefly in his seat to glance at Rebecca, who gave him a curt, angry nod. “The students in question appear to have departed the Academy sometime this afternoon,” Gaul said mildly. “We have reason to believe that members of the Black Sun Cartel assisted them in this endeavor.”

after all.” Gaul suggested. most of them covered in glitter and shining with sweat. Maybe I like to help people. “I had instructed my staff to provide him with anything that he might ask for. “And Eerie too. from his vague understanding of what a rave constituted. This was a couple hundred kids packed into what might have been an indoor basketball court. “Not likely. they sell drugs. He wanted to ask her again what it was. but she was already pulling him toward the dance floor. If you want me to find Alex and Eerie. and then hesitantly took the proffered candy from the smiling. they don’t sell alcohol here. and got a sheet of photocopied directions from a Mexican guy in a wife beater. The party wasn’t anywhere close to the ticket location. but it wasn’t what Alex would have called a rave. staring out into the intermittent darkness on Market Street. but it tasted like any other cherry-flavored candy he’d ever had.” Eerie said flatly. “What will it cost us to get Alex back?” Gaul asked. only to be cut off again by Gaul’s arm. sparkling girl. You’re the empath. Perhaps. closer to the giant stacks of speakers and the devastating pulse of the bass. . no questions asked. surprised. however. which looked like an old. wondering if the bus driver planned to let them live long enough to get there in the first place. casting about desperately for something to say. Alex recoiled.” she chided him. either. “W-why exactly would I…” Alex looked at Eerie desperately. her hands wrapped around his own. “How is that you keep me out of your head?” “I have my ways. -It wasn’t a club. when a voicemail message appeared and gave directions to what turned out to be an alley in the Tenderloin. I am not certain about Eerie. you know.” Anastasia said. and I hope. “Pretty much everyone here takes them. but it was at least a dozen stops before Eerie abruptly stood up. she promised herself that she would laugh later. “You can question my staff. “Is that all?” She asked cheerfully. up a set of stairs and into a small enclosed parking lot. “Alex. somehow. While waiting. Rebecca. “What did Alex promise you in return for that?” “Nothing.” “Believe me or don’t. To him. “I didn’t ask him for anything. I am afraid that I don’t know about it.” Eerie gestured around them. nodding.” Anastasia said lightly.” “You expect me to believe that your cartel members acted on their own?” Rebecca made a face. because I had already given it in advance. to be specific. Anastasia stood up. but pleasant enough.” “I haven’t forgotten. He sucked on it cautiously. You run too tight a ship. or what?” Alex looked at Eerie. “If you didn’t approve it.” Anastasia waited while Gaul calmed Rebecca down. walking between two dark brick buildings and past overflowing dumpsters. how could this happen?” “Well. holding it in front of Alex’s face. But it will be the Black Sun that collects them. given the number of hoops they’d had to jump through to get here – a phone number on the back of a flier that Eerie had selected from the stack of them she had collected while shopping which rang endlessly until after nine. “Do you want it. if you like.” “You little witch!” Rebecca exploded. if you want me to do you a favor. pulling him along through the haze of golden dust that trailed behind her. Alex shook his head. Is there something else I can do for you?” “Can you find Alex for us?” Gaul asked patiently. as crass as it is to mention. somehow never touching anyone in the press of bodies. shaking her head. so. I’m telling the truth. Thanks to years of court-ordered supervision and unscheduled drug testing. The crowd was a strange blend of club kids and hippies. a gentle luminescence that pervaded her. judging from the painted wooden floor that Alex could see peeking out from underneath the black foam mat that had been put down over it. but none of them seemed to find anything unusual in the glowing girl trailing luminescent dust in their midst. dancing with abandon on the makeshift dance floor. Last. I am not sure what else I could offer you…” “Help us to understand. Alex decided. Rebecca. Anastasia. near his mouth.” Anastasia deadpanned. They looked a bit loopy. flicking her cigarette out the window. not Central. you tell me.” “Why would you do that?” Rebecca asked. while offering the lollipop. and started bouncing up and down almost as soon as they were admitted into the flyer-strewn lobby. and a blond girl with at least a dozen piercings in her face. He gave a worried glance at the people around them. but I told Alex that the resources of the Black Sun were at his disposal. her smile compact and mocking.” “No. Alex stood next to her. Alex noticed that SF police impound lot was directly next-door. A few long cloth curtains and a handful of black lights seemed to constitute the whole of the décor for the otherwise naked building.” Alex looked around apprehensively. But. you could try something else. Eerie seemed pleased. There was a short line in front of the building. “Those big guys by the door. not right then. I mean. “Well. and they’d ended up taking a bus back to Soma. despite the oppressive heat. then. “You’re still a student here. confused.” Rebecca snarled. Anastasia. pulling the lollipop out of her mouth so she could talk. as you suggest. if you wanted. hands shoved deep in his pockets. her eyes sparkling and her pale skin flushed. She managed not to laugh out loud. he hadn’t gotten high much. “My terms are simple.” Alex said. and they did seem be to having a good time. radiating out from a core that smoldered somewhere within her. If this was done by members of my cartel. a couple of uniformed officers lounging by the closed gates. clutching an overhead pole. All of them will corroborate my statement. “Ask me directly next time.” Anastasia explained matter-of-factly. Alex found the whole thing sketchy. You know how eager I am to do favors for the Administration. “Do you want a drink or something?” Eerie laughed.“Is that so?” Anastasia shrugged and gave them a wan smile. Outside of smoking pot a few times while he was in the Youth Facility.” she said mischievously. There they bought tickets. he requested transportation? My people would not have sought my approval. “Okay. Eerie looked at him thoughtfully. not too objectionable. The DJ was in the far corner of the room. of course. laughing at the party-goers attire. he hadn’t taken any drugs at all. it appeared that Eerie was sheathed in a soft golden light.” “Of course. who was fuming and swearing behind him.” Anastasia said. what it was she had given him. anonymous commercial property. and he didn’t promise me anything. grabbed his arm. then…” “You little brat. She stepped backwards through the crowd thoughtlessly. pushing his glasses back up on his nose. or if the money Eerie had given him would be enough. He swore to himself and wondered what the purpose of all that had been. the sound system massively oversized for the space. unable to keep the nervousness out of his voice. “What is it?” “It’s a Blow Pop.” Alex protested. I will. “You could do that.” Eerie held out her lollipop expectantly. and once with Rebecca. wondering how long it would take them to get to the party. and tried haplessly to pull away. That’s why we came. Maybe I’m that confident. He was a little bit sick to his stomach. Eerie leaning her forehead against the window. amused. but as a reward for her self control. Maybe I felt sorry for him. and looked aversely at the wet. “Uh. rounded piece of red candy. “Or. He wasn’t even sure what kind of drugs they would sell here. Alex stopped counting. “What is it?” “It’s cherry. do you want me to go buy some of… those?” Alex asked. trying not to make a face as he stuck it in his mouth. The promoters had seemed leery of police attention. but she continued to stare blankly. spinning tribal-infused trance at a deafening volume. and dragged him wordlessly from the bus and down a side street. then it was done without my knowledge. the whole narrow alley reeking of urine and rotting food.

his head pleasantly spinning. brushing off the back of her black skirt where she’d sat down. brushing his hair away from his eyes and feeling bitter. It didn’t feel anything like what Rebecca did – he had no special awareness of Eerie. tolerant and amused. gliding to the center of the humid floor. having never danced in his life. he would say haltingly. “Sweat. chemically. a sweet kind of sadness that he wasn’t exactly adverse to. somewhere he couldn’t remember visiting. Then she shrugged. and quickly looked back up at Eerie’s face. where a small crowd of puzzled transvestites had watched her dance to electro.” Eerie looked at her hands shyly. concerned.” “No shit?” At the time. not flashy. an amazing dancer. did you?” “What? No. kicking her legs against the speaker they hung off of. she climbed back up to her feet. she has a thing for fucked up people. but he found himself wondering how it was that he hadn’t always seen it. he found himself thinking about the cloud of monarch butterflies from his dream. clearly embarrassed. and wondered why he couldn’t think of anything at all to talk about. though he wasn’t sure that he was actually older than they were. I already do. tapping her foot and glaring at him. warm and amber-toned. “It’s just me. a general sense of well-being. sitting down on top of the vibrating pile of speakers. gleaming with an inner radiance. benign fuzziness. then her expression turned suspicious. his heart filled with a benign euphoria. like a favored child. offering him help up. you know. They all seemed very young. and Alex wished he could think of something cool to say to change the mood. and smiled coyly at Alex. People should have stared. his train of thought disintegrated. in the midst of the press of bodies but never actually touching anyone. Eerie. and turned away from him. What made me all fucked up?” “Oh. That sort of thing. Also. He managed to extricate himself when they reached the dance floor. making slow revolutions through the dance floor like she was alone on it. The world around him softened. minutes before closing at a basement club in London. Her smile was benign. at retro-styled swing clubs in Los Angeles or hip-hop clubs in Baltimore. or the sound of a summer wind brushing over long brown grass. “What was in the candy you gave me?” Eerie laughed and patted him on the head. confused. Alex thought bitterly. and not dramatic.” she said. She moved with a self-assurance and grace he had never seen in her. smiling weakly. “Is this like empathy?” Alex asked doubtfully. Alex. Alex. “No. Alex. He sat and watched Eerie dance. I already do. ambient and soothing. smiling and breathing hard. after he had watched her dance. sitting down next to him on the speaker.” She walked off to the dance floor without looking back at him. Alex sat with his legs dangling off a column of stacked woofers. Eerie pouted briefly. the crowd increasingly disheveled. “You didn’t swallow it. somehow. Saliva. batting her away gently and making excuses. it sounded reasonable enough. beside him. you know.” She paused. rather. and for a moment. But he found out those things later. became universally warm and gentle. The light around Eerie seemed to pass right through him. “For normal people. frowning. and Alex couldn’t help but grin at her until she smiled back. Pheromones and particular compounds in… you know. knowing that eventually she would come back to sit next to him. a mild intoxication. He couldn’t remember that well. her sweatshirt slipped down to expose the gentle slope of shoulders. to the strip of thigh that showed between the hem of her skirt and the top of her black knee socks. When I’m happy. the rise of her collarbone above her tight black top. “What…” Alex croaked. That’s how the Fey communicate with each other. because I don’t really have a lot of experience with this sort of thing. Will you come this time?” She held out one hand. she would tell him. Alex snuck a look at her out of the corner of his eye. you see? Because my whole body is like a drug. in that intense and irrevocably irrational way that even he knew was a hallmark of total naivety.” he said earnestly. I like being around parties. somewhere he could hear the ocean. he didn’t think it was entirely whatever she had given him. they are too. but he thought he might have actually been more embarrassed sitting there then he would have been staying on the dance floor. Still. No. nodding. and he could not.” Eerie said. not at all. her thoughts. there was something special about Eerie dancing. after he had fallen for her a little bit. “I’m going to go dance now. It’s all chemistry.” Alex shook his head. she came back to him. Alex shook his head. he would try and explain. “You will wish you had. though he felt an exhilarating combination of calm and elation that he could only attribute to drugs. and then spinning around in a slow circle. She was vibrant. Eventually. in the parking lot of a Phish show outside Phoenix. soaked with sweat. “I didn’t mean that.” Eerie admonished him. Her hair hung down in front of her eyes. Her small round face was earnest. the people who. “You’ll regret it. too. and it was easy to see how nervous she was. before letting go with a smile. She was staring off at the still-packed dance floor. “Is it bad?” She peered into his eyes. He stared. anyway. or her feelings.” Eerie blushed. you know. watching it happen without a trace of panic or anxiety. For some reason. She beamed at him indulgently. or he did not want to. All he had in his mouth was a soggy paper stick.” Alex sat next to her.” Eerie said with concern. “I was wondering. Alex reached for her without thinking. Then he caught himself. and he watched Eerie dance. pausing to drink greedily from the bottle of water that she offered him. and a strange. eventually making his way alone to one arm of the speaker array. the surface beneath him pulsating with the music. Maybe before that. that was the first truly good thing that had happened to him since his home had burned to the ground. her face flushed. Alex. Alex thought. She spun and twirled and the light around her had the quality of honey. anyway. Not that he would know. Later. that knowledge didn’t change anything for Alex. Eerie shook her head emphatically. They make me happy. She was not athletic. come into contact with me. He tried to hold up his hands to the light. energetic and sweaty. . not in any previous circumstance. not at all. Margot would tell him much later about other nights the same thing had happened. simply liked to dance.Alex wondered again about the candy. He wasn’t certain. There was no way to be certain. a honey light. But. orange wings against a blue sky. watching the people dance with obvious desire to rejoin them. but she did not appear to have noticed anything. and she took his hand and squeezed it with her own for a moment. They must have seen her. not exactly. “Uh-huh.” She smiled at him hesitantly. her eyes closed. There was sadness in the memory. His eyes drifted down to her lap. obviously disappointed. anyway. his skull reverberating with the bass beat. Watching Eerie dance. And eventually. a fading physical high. “Bubble gum. He found himself wondering what he had done with the gum. Margot would add. Eerie sat restlessly beside him. Alex couldn’t see anyone or anything else. He wished he could have thought of a good reason to make her stay there. like a current of warm water. They must have seen the sparkling girl. next to an intertwined couple and a passed-out teenager in drag. although he would remember it clearly. he would not be able to describe it. “No. She was not. “Because I… because it was in my mouth.

on the porch outside a tiny cottage near Hamburg they had rented one balmy weekend in June. How have you been?” Alice’s smile reminded Chris of the Cheshire Cat. Gaul says that the store is open on this one. but she didn’t seem to have aged at all. during the strange and exciting years after the First World War. Chris. The Terrie Cartel is probably the biggest we’ve ever had to sanction.” Chris looked at Alice thoughtfully for a moment. Paris… all operations targeting the Terrie Cartel. Not everyone was so quick to spot Alice for what she was. Alice – won’t you have questions you need answered. He’d seen that face during that bad business in Moscow in the ‘53. rather than hurt and saddened. “I’m certain that eventually you’ll succumb to my charms. such a thing has never happened before. Witches. Alice took. too.” Alice smiled at him. in a hotel in Copenhagen so expensive that they never even saw the employees – fresh towels and meals simply appeared. “A busy girl is a happy girl.” Alice shrugged. Manila. He didn’t like to make Alice aware of the times when her memory failed her. Chris liked to flatter himself by thinking that he looked much the same himself.” Alice shot Chris an inquisitive look. smiling back at her tiredly. now. “I’m something of a coward when it comes to pain. putting one hand on her chest. long time. in a slinky black dress and high-laced shoes with pointed toes. except that his hair had faded to white a few decades ago. then set the cup back down. I would not have believed it to be possible.” Chris said. give some thought to this. it had given him heartburn for days. While you do have a certain amount of leverage. and a faint white scar was etched along one cheekbone. but it’s hardly a unique situation.” Alice said. once you’ve used me up? Who else would talk to an Auditor?” Alice sipped her coffee again. alright? So. It was a habit that helped him feel more confident in his presentation.” “I do. Gaul was notorious for his cheapness. “I’m afraid that we’ll need to come to some sort of accommodation before we can discuss that any further. Still. sitting down across from him at the café table. But. at the Russian embassy in Prague. in the future? Who will you turn to.” Chris admitted. but it has become quite a burden. but that had always been the score with Alice. my dear.” Chris said abruptly. I have a certain misplaced affection for you. and he had a pretty good idea about what.” Chris considered his coffee. and then decided against it. but Chris knew better than to think that Alice would ask for anything. brushing an imaginary crumb from the front of his immaculate white blazer. It wasn’t that he couldn’t drink the stuff.” “Oh. Alice was extremely concerned about something. “I’d never try and blackmail you into it. who knew him well enough to spot an act. Los Angeles.” “I heard about some of that.” he said. “I’m here in a professional capacity…” Chris did his best to look appalled.” “I want Central to assume total responsibility for Margot’s education and upbringing. Chris had to admire their waiter’s keen sense of self preservation. “Your loss.” Chris nodded uncertainly. though tailors had been better back then. Word is that you’ve been working quite a bit these last few weeks. Chris. No. everything. exactly?” “Everything. “Of course.” Chris hedged. Christopher?” Alice pursed her lips briefly. “But it’s more than the Terrie Cartel that I am dealing with. Chris couldn’t imagine forgetting all of it. idly stirring the coffee he’d ordered out of politeness. Even the fantastically expensive cream-colored suit that he wore was fundamentally similar to the things he’d worn in the heady days of the Weimar Republic. and who knows what else. then set the cup carefully back down in the chipped white saucer.” Alice said glumly. if I’m not mistaken. if she finds out you are shifting the responsibility. “We’ve had rogue cartels before. decades later in Serbia. moodily pushing his coffee away. at a friend’s party in a flat in Fredericksburg. what the Witches have to do with it. tell me what it is that you want. and tried his best to look beneficent and thoughtful. and then again. not long before she’d started working as an Auditor. under normal circumstances. even if it wounded him that she had forgotten the nights they’d been together. “You aren’t mistaken. Not that he could hope to fool Alice. the Weir. as if he regretted the necessity. Even her clothes weren’t much different from the first time he’d met her. exactly. One of the tragedies of the modern world. of course. “I need to know everything that the Terrie Cartel has been doing for the past several years.” Alice cooed. She didn’t appear to have changed much since – her hair was dyed black. and I want a favor from you.” Alice answered flatly. “What. What is it going to cost me?” “Well. “I’m afraid that there is still very little that goes on in our sordid underworld that I am not eventually made aware of.” Alice shook her head in mock resignation. And what do you want from me?” Chris folded his hands in front of his face as if in prayer. so it had to be armor. He dyed it for several years. and I do intend on living a long. “I did make promises to provide her with mentorship and financial support.” Alice blew on her coffee and sipped at it cautiously.” The waiter was clearly unnerved by Alice. “Believe me. The coat she hung over the seatback was too heavy and long for the weather. “You’re gonna break that little vampire’s heart. I thought your people were conditioned to make that kind of thing impossible?” “We thought so. “He has a hard on for this like you wouldn’t believe. before he’d lost interest in the pretense.” he said with a pained grin. even without using the Inquisition Protocol she had access to as an Auditor.” “Two things. though she’d ditched the dress and shoes in favor of tight black jeans and motorcycle boots. Alice seemed vaguely amused by this. you can force the information out of me. too stunned to hide his surprise. you understand. you know. makes the current circumstances abnormal?” The question sounded innocent enough. Chris knew from experience that meant she’d agree – reluctantly. as if by some kind of domestic magic. I’d tell you gratis. but the last time he had. “I appreciate your position. He’d first met Alice in Berlin. “Not the first time Analytics has been wrong. But I’m certain that you’ve heard. and then grinned at him over the cup. Alice. and delivered the coffees Chris had already ordered in a hurried manner that made it abundantly clear that they would not be seeing the boy again. . “Times are hard all around then. Saigon. the body he inhabited appeared to be somewhere in its early thirties. “Don’t worry about it. I think you’ll find that what I want you to do is more along your usual line. I wonder if you appreciate the significance of mine. and fluttering her eyelashes. “Even for me. Chris. and Weir. It was what she did. Except much more frightening. actually. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him so worked up. setting her coffee aside. and then gave her a tired smile. that’s a bit hard to swallow – Operators working with Witches. But I can’t offer anything.” “He wants it that bad?” Chris asked. For reasons I don’t understand. “what do you need to know. “Quite. I need to know anything I might need to know. after all. but that would be bad for business. Otherwise. after all.Twenty Five “I haven’t seen you in some time. I know that if you want to. if it were up to me. apparently deciding it was too hot.” Chris said. until I know the particulars.” Chris spread his hands innocently and put on the face that had sold more stories than he could count. “Unless you’ve lost your touch for these things?” “Hardly. “I want a favor from Central. like Alice.” Alice blew on her coffee.

“There was nothing proscribed. you know I wouldn’t bother you for anything that wasn’t. I tried peeking at it a number of different ways. the movements of the Weir tribes and population estimates. “There are photos of her on the camera. I’ve made a mistake. his voice tired. right? I’m an Auditor. Alice was finally capable of dealing with small disappointments without resorting to homicide.” “I already am. Brussels. They have her. the bastards. It was a friendly gesture.” Chris wondered if Alice had activated the Inquisition Protocol. “Remember. Alice. He knew better than to flinch from her touch. at first. “Have you done something ill-advised. Chris. “The suspension only came down a few weeks ago. “What did you do for the Terrie Cartel. I assume it was the same for the others. Chris?” He heard the edge in her voice. Nothing was trivial when Alice Gallow was sitting across the table. Alice. at our central office. They’d killed the human servants… unkindly. checking the faces at the surrounding tables. We followed the standard evacuation procedures. We continued to provide intelligence for them up until we heard about the attacks. I certainly don’t help you deal with your ‘personal business’. Apparently she had caught the emphasis on the last part of the statement. other than reminding him to be terrified. much to Chris’s relief.” Chris acknowledged. rather than the information itself. either. surrounded by things in police uniforms that weren’t human. “What happened once you heard about the proscription?” Alice finished the better part of her coffee in one swallow. gradually shredding a discarded sugar packet into dull pink ribbons. or something. Chris wondered how he’d forgotten how much scarier she was without it. and the porcelain clattered against the glass tabletop. slipping the phone into one of the side pockets of her long black coat. but she released his hand.” Chris said plainly. the things they had done to the others. “I wasn’t planning on trying to hide it. they were interested in how much we knew. who had fled long ago. “I didn’t open it. now. and there were only four of us.” Chris held up his hands pleadingly. but Chris faced it down with the nerves of a life-long gambler. “I told them the arrangement was dead. I don’t do favors. “We don’t have nice jobs. malformed wolves.” Alice looked sadly at her empty coffee cup. He wasn’t at all sure why. and knew that it could go either way. and by extension.“It will probably get heavy. more out of habit than anything. wooden. Otherwise. devoured by the maws of horrible.” Alice said. her smile suddenly gone. clearly aware that he was still skirting the main point.” Alice’s grin returned.” Alice leaned back in her chair and looked at him with the most open confusion he’d ever seen her express. and a package sitting in front of it with my name on it. I wouldn’t have bothered to make the request. Chris?” Chris shook his head and sighed. and Weir. “It was. hoping she would overlook his wet eyes. “Credit me with a bit more intelligence than that. to wait for the all clear. Eventually I cut the thing open in my hotel room. I know perfectly well who I’m talking to. trying to find a safe place to retreat to. It did a lot of structural damage.” he admitted. “But.” Alice leaned forward even further. but it was certainly possible. He still had no options other than a leap of faith. but no matter how I looked at it. near the docks. “There were videos. it’s been the same thing. Perhaps. that it could have consequences for the Society. They were waiting at the safe house when we arrived. Alice. how much Central was likely to know. “They told me that ending the arrangement would be a very serious error on my part. right before he jumped. I saw members of a dozen different lodges – Alice.” Chris said sadly. this time. Everywhere I’ve gone. “Of course. ignoring the saucer. “Get to the point.” Chris’s hand shook as he remembered Evelyn screaming while Paul and Miguel died. Chris? Why are you starving?” Alice put down her empty cup on the table. He hoped that she had. I walked away. The arrangement was terminated before Central proscribed the Terrie cartel. but no serious losses. “Nobody watching.” Chris couldn’t look at Alice. immediately regretting his choice of words. I think that they’ve destroyed most of the lodges in Europe!” “And?” Alice stared at him patiently. Chris sincerely hoped their waiter never came back. and wished that he could take his hand out from under Alice’s. fruitlessly searching for their waiter.” “I need you to watch my back on a job. then. and they aren’t easy. Madrid. It was like looking down off of a height. he recalled fifty years of professional composure. never even looked back. He desperately needed her to know he wasn’t lying. “I got myself patched up by my own means.” Chris shook his head. the proactive termination of the relationship. “It’s obvious to me. feeling a bit foolish. hanging his head. “It’s something personal. please. it isn’t Society business. “Nothing more than a burning building. Alice. after all this time. They want me to give myself up. “You provided this information?” Alice tapped her fingers on the table expectantly.” “I’d probably get bored with anything else. I can’t use my normal channels to handle this thing. and they don’t even bother to make any assurances that she’ll be alright. With an effort. with a half-dozen bullets still lodged in me. taking his ice-cold hand in her own.” “You aren’t worried about paying for Margot’s education. that sort of thing. “The Terrie Cartel approached us. Pretty clear that they wanted me to have it. already starting to morph into anger. Perhaps. they were still a cartel in good standing!” Chris protested. when I took the job. wanting to buy all kinds of intelligence – anything at all on the Witch cults. nothing outside the boundaries of the Agreement.” he said guiltily.” Chris felt an absurd urge to laugh. There was a cell phone. “And now I am supposed to say ‘Just like old times’.” “Barcelona is the largest lodge in Europe. My wife. There was a bombing.” He dug a cheap Korean cell phone out of his pocket and slid it across the table to her. Paris. It wasn’t even a fight. There was no point in worrying about what couldn’t be changed. of course. “They moved on us two days after they were proscribed. “They looked like they had been there for a while. Chris wondered if maybe she was mellowing slightly with age. the Society. It didn’t change anything. but with an underlying firmness. and then continued.” When he realized that no reaction from Alice was forthcoming. “You’re . not a hired dog. and then put it aside. “They have Evelyn. and Chris wasn’t about to assume any more guilt than he had to. it came up clean. and then I went underground. This all started almost three years ago.” Chris looked around them nervously.” Alice nodded grimly.” Chris said. and I think you’ll be very interested in it. with randomized destinations to elude telepathic tracking. but the fact is…” Chris hesitated for a moment. There were Witches with them. All I found there was more rubble. I’ve kept moving since then.” Alice said grimly. “The fact is that this job pertains to your Audit. Chris.” Chris said. right?” Alice looked skeptical. Chris found himself wondering idly what his chances were of surviving the encounter.” Alice said. He couldn’t stand the thought of what his face might show. “Evelyn and I both activated emergency apport protocols.” Chris continued. She was a skilled enough Operator that he couldn’t read anything from her Etheric signature. “The entire London branch of the society is gone for certain. split up into small groups and headed for the safe houses. “Why are you so cold. There was nothing else we could do.” “What about the Amsterdam lodge?” Alice asked. those Anathema freaks in the Outer Dark. “I woke up in Amsterdam. Weeks could mean everything. Chris sighed again. Barcelona.

My obligation is to the Society. and Chris’s hearing was nothing short of remarkable. and several pints of O negative. and then gave him a toothy smile. I’ll get a headache and be bitchy all day. please. Also. and then folded up her cell. right?” Alice looked at him for a long time then. Chris thought. making no attempt to sway her. go ahead and request it from Central. I know where they are. there was no response.” Chris said darkly. Chris sat and waited.” Alice hung up. following Alice out the door and into the chilly London afternoon. Xia. Alice could not be reasoned or bargained with. Alice. “Xia. In the time that he had known Xia. And I understand that even if I survive. If I don’t get another cup of coffee. And I’m prepared for that. a moment later. she dug her own cell phone out of her pocket. won’t you? Okay. so I’m responsible. Taking care of your obligations. Her eyes wandered down to her still empty cup. okay? Everything going well in Saigon? Pat Mitzi on the head for me. If he hadn’t already.” she said into the phone. he had never heard him speak.” And I certainly don’t want that. considering. “I’m not so naïve as to hold out hope for finding Evelyn alive. But. I can’t let her disappear down some Weir’s den. her voice cross and efficient.. then. but after a long hesitation. Let them know we’ll be there in a couple hours. King’s Cross? Alright.” Alice met Chris’s eyes for a moment. at the very least. standing up from the table and motioning for Chris to do the same. we’ll need some IV equipment. “Since they finally have fucking Starbucks in this town. clothes. then there was no point in trying further. She deserves a clean death. to make sure Chris hasn’t picked up any new friends. You can find his info on the network. Can you make it happen this afternoon?” As far as Chris could hear.making arrangements for her to be cared for in your absence. “You’re a life-saver.” “I’m her sponsor. Christopher Feld. “I guess we can stop somewhere on the way. not to Margot. The people holding her have to be the same people who are attacking Central. . you couldn’t help but learn something about your enemy. that I will have to face an Audit of my actions. It’s nothing personal.” she said. “I’m going to be plus one for the time being. Xia. He’ll need a full kit. And.. Have them send my usual things. But Alice certainly acted as if she had received a response. She didn’t say anything to him. even in his half-starved state. the works. “I’m going to need to use the closest London safe house to where I am now. I remember where it is. and she looked disappointed. We’ll have to take the tube for a while.

Alex and Eerie are somewhere in San Francisco right now. “Could this possibly wait until we’re in my office.” Rebecca said. “While I’m being frank.” he said. and reaching for the next document in the stack. And all this is assuming that she actually does know where they are. I assume. Alex Warner has been alone his entire life. sooner rather than later. then started laughing. obviously interested. and that she decides to bring them back. doesn’t she? I can’t believe the Black Sun saddled us with her. if he had found someone he felt socially comfortable with. shaking his head sadly. and Gaul installed behind his desk before she starting badgering again. “I’m sorry. letting her protect the Black Sun from any potential consequences while putting us in her debt.” “One precognitive recognizes another. Where are our best interests in all this?” Gaul sighed and set his pen down. and she propped her chin up on her elbows. I will admit. I’ve arranged circumstances that have removed all of Anastasia’s transporters from Central. and there was no time to track every apport. should that become necessary. He felt better about it here.” “We don’t know anything about her!” Rebecca objected. “We need to get Alex into the field. you know? And she looks at you with those.” Gaul said dryly. pinching out her cigarette and tossing it into the trash can. in order to make him an Operator. He wrote two words. Gaul sighed more deeply. frowning.” “You are still referring to Martynova. Gaul.” Rebecca said accusatorily.” “Okay. mildly offended. but I promise you she is not running a game on me. Edward is still too new. We knew that she wouldn’t do anything herself. till she doubled over at the waist. With her?” Rebecca blew a stream of smoke at the ceiling while he resignedly pushed the ashtray her way.” “Are you saying in the most obtuse possible manner. but she and Xia are needed elsewhere right now. “With her. “So. “How is it that we know nothing about what protocols the most dangerous student at the Academy operates. She is so fucking lucky that she is exempted from counseling sessions. why didn’t you stop all this from happening?” Gaul stopped again and for a moment. She could be a precognitive. I should mention that Mitsuru has been in San Francisco since this morning. She managed to wait until they were in his office. She will put the whole détente at risk. “I had the analytical pool on this possibility two days after Alex got here. so it was easy enough to alert Alistair and have him monitor for when that happened. Therefore. sitting back down on the corner of the desk. And I know you’ve heard – everybody says she operates a Deviant Protocol. eyebrows raised. somehow. arranging a new exit.” Rebecca threw her hands up and gestured vaguely. Tell me you’ve got something better than that. blaming the Academy.” “You honestly think that girl has one up on me?” Gaul asked. so that meant she would have her lieutenant. for all we know. Over the last two weeks. “that you thought it might be a good idea if Alex got laid?” Rebecca continued to stare at Gaul for a moment.” Rebecca said. or I would have prevented it. keeping the Witches off-balance and settling matters with the remnants of the Terrie cartel. Rebecca?” Rebecca muttered something unintelligible. it’s a fucking certainty.” Gaul said. Anastasia plays for keeps. Renton Hall set it up. “I don’t know. but he’s hardly the calculated menace that Anastasia Martynova represents. along with a dozen other likely ways things could go wrong. I would make her feel like Ophelia. it didn’t seem advisable for me to interfere. with long legs.” “Then what is it?” Rebecca demanded. reaching for his pen and opening the folder nearest to him. I don’t need another dysfunctional Operator on my staff.” “Apparently. Mitsuru was the best I could do without anyone noticing. “Tell me. flicking his red eyes up at Rebecca. She’s incredibly devious. except for Svetlana Rostoff. he’ll end up blaming Anastasia or Eerie for this. and we don’t know where. in the grating voice that she always used when she wanted to complain. her face turning red. If we’re lucky. however. I feel stupid. “I would have preferred it to be Alice. like she knows things. Never happened before. “Did you know about this in advance. throwing her hands in the air in frustration. If we are responsible for everything that must be done to him. that they are still alive. there is an excellent chance that he will end up blaming us. “Anyway. it gets dangerous for everybody. scratching away at the next document. “That fucking little monster! She gets right under your skin. She worries me. anyway?” Rebecca demanded. Gaul. “Even the precogs can’t seem to get a handle on her. “Is that your professional opinion?” Rebecca’s eyes lit up. finishing the document with his compact. It was always like this when she caught him in the hall – he was a half-foot taller than her. Gaul?” “I am a precognitive. so Gaul decided that would have to be good enough.Twenty Six “Do not tell me that your entire plan consists of waiting for that little bitch to produce Alex and Eerie . no doubt. not directly. nudging his trashcan into place with her boot and then knocking the ash from her cigarette into it. facing Gaul. . Such a fucking princess.” Rebecca jumped off the desk and started pacing excitedly. Gaul. even if I’m not allowed to peak around in her head. when he was behind the desk. though – it was always easier. trying unsuccessfully to walk fast enough to avoid Rebecca’s pestering. The Black Sun was already dangerous without her. Svetlana and Renton only cross paths rarely.” Rebecca said irritably.” Rebecca acknowledged. you know.” Gaul said. lighting a cigarette despite Gaul’s frown. and then his pen was jarred across the page by Rebecca hopping up onto the corner of his desk. “But. but she shut up. and that’s assuming you even know where to look. that I wish it wasn’t Eerie. rather than just dressing the part.” Gaul said. and not Alex?” “For fuck’s sake. Given half a chance. “I keep underestimating you…” “Please get out of my office. “You gonna tell me I’m wrong?” “Anastasia is no precognitive.” Gaul sighed and shook his head. door bolted behind them. her body shaking uncontrollably as she laughed. “She could operate all sorts of protocols and we wouldn’t know a thing.” “I have something better than that.” “Wow. dammit! I’m freaking out over here. it’s just that. “eyes of hers. and he still couldn’t manage to outdistance her when she’d decided that they were going to talk. and nobody knows what kind. Whatever it is she thinks that she’s doing. That’s bad news right there. “You know I’m talking about the ice queen that ran us around in circles. Alex might be a wild card. not only the Hegemony. I can tell that much. “Whatever Miss Martynova is. “The only way we can get them back is by letting Anastasia do it for us. and then back down to the paperwork in front of him. how? It takes weeks of analysis to read probability threads that broad and vague. you need to understand that it is all in our best interests. and that degree of isolation worries me. economical signature.” “Eerie and Alex are gone. in order to have deniability.” she said. Rebecca could have sworn she saw the slightest indications of embarrassment.” she said. she isn’t a precognitive. “Putting aside the disturbing implications from his past.” Gaul said dismissively. if you ask me.” Rebecca said.

straining at a noise that he wasn’t entirely sure he had heard. even when he opened his eyes. to pull the bag from his head. right? You know what I’m capable of.” said Mr. perhaps the door was already ajar when they got there. on a fundamental level he was absolutely terrified about what he knew was going to happen to him. and he had a pretty good idea as to why. badly tailored suits. halitosis. to collapse in on themselves. Eerie was not in the room with them. Alex could see nothing at all. but this also turned out to be futile. and then shook Alex head violently back and forth. the dull pain in his chest grew sharper. “I have no idea. The burlap wrapped around his head stunk of fear and old vomit. one of them must have turned the lights on. the unyielding force of the hand on the back of his head. Eventually. don’t say I didn’t warn you. picking Alex up by his hair and throat. half-crazy with claustrophobia and panic. more even then he wanted to breathe.” Two of the Weir grabbed Alex and carried him forcibly into the bathroom. It was only through an act of tremendous self control that he avoided throwing up inside the bag his head was trapped in. He was too busy building up his courage for when they got back to the room. all wearing identical. and the shock of hitting it almost made Alex gasp involuntarily as he his head went under. as if he weighed nothing at all. even as he twitched against the bathroom floor like a fish out of water.-Maybe there were signs. all of these were things that he noticed after he realized that. He paused briefly. The other Weir must have come up behind him while he was still blind with pain. He tried to struggle free. an increasingly urgent need to breathe. and in that moment. He held his mouth closed. unable to stop the world from spinning or cope with the rushing sound in his head. he heard the sound of someone running a bath. so he would die here. But at least he didn’t have to worry that he would betray Eerie under whatever torture they had planned for him. Alex took two steps into the darkened room. Maybe his key didn’t swipe quite right the first time. under the water. Alex wanted the bag off of his head. ever. and then handcuffed his wrists together. “We aren’t too good at counting. still buzzing. he felt no fear whatsoever. his thighs pressed up against the cold of the tub wall. unsure if he could stop himself from breathing in if it were open. earlier? No need to answer right away. “But. her head nestled in the hollow of his shoulder. Blue-Tie said. he stiffened his neck against the pressure. Drowning didn’t seem as bad. more intense. His chest was on fire. and the question repeated itself in his mind. the one who had planted Alex’s head in the wall. He curled into a ball and lay there. and nose hair. his chest so tight that he couldn’t seem to breathe any better now . because they managed to get a canvas bag over Alex’s head before he even realized what was going on.” When Alex felt the hand on the back of his head. She didn’t get off the elevator with you. and the dull sound of his own legs pounding desperately against the side of the bathtub. I’ll give you a minute to think about it. with their feet on the backs of his knees. and his throat had started to make convulsive motions. Inside the bag. “The one you came in the building with. Because he couldn’t be sure about himself in this situation.” Alex said honestly. The pain in his chest was soon matched by one radiating out from somewhere behind his eyes. and when Alex tore at it to try and free himself. frantic to pull the wet.” Mr. which made the whole experience that much worse. one of his hands was cut open by a talon fixed to the index finger. all weathered skin. That made things a bit easier. became obsessive. pressing his knees as tight to his chin as he could manage. Alex pounded futilely on his wrists and forearms.” Mr. It made him physically ill he was so frightened. her hand resting lightly next to his thigh. Where is the girl?” Alex was glad. He looked vaguely familiar to Alex. grabbing him by the throat and propelling him backwards. they got him wrapped around one side of the bathtub. Blue-Tie. Then they pulled his head back out of the water. something rushed at him from inside the room. Then the Weir released his hold on Alex’s throat and hair. The hand was huge and powerful. banging his head into what seemed like every available surface on the way. Even thinking the word ‘torture’ had started him shivering uncontrollably. maybe she’d stopped by reception or the ice machine or something. but it was hopeless. shithead. hard enough to leave a noticeable indent. Blue-Tie leaned in close. Weir. Eerie leaned against Alex on the taxi ride home and then feel asleep. until he was thoroughly disoriented and crumpled. and grabbed Alex by the shirt. “The question of the moment is: where is that little bitch we saw you with. There were five in all. because he didn’t know. and kicked Alex savagely in the midsection. At that point. while the Weir muttered incoherently somewhere above him. and through the bag. but one of them had a silk blue tie. but it stung his hands like he was striking wood. they wrench his arms behind his back. but very much into a tired afterglow. In the suffocating confines of the bag. Blue-Tie. with his silver hair. so that is his toes dangled on the ground. until blood gushed from his nose. Alex couldn’t anticipate the impacts.” said the snarling voice of Mr. Alex’s existence was defined by a consuming panic. leaving Alex wheezing and cursing. without the stifling confines of the sack. he had all the leverage he needed. after the party. the lights of the bathroom were dim and strange. As Alex tried to count the seconds ticking by in his head. Improbably. The water was ice-cold. More than he could remember wanting anything. and grabbed him instead by the ears. The seconds crept along imperceptibly. He couldn’t say for certain. when he heard breathing. Where is she?” Alex belatedly realized that Eerie had indeed been very quiet on the way to the room. and now they had her. You feel like telling us anything. Changing to human form had done nothing for the smell – they all emitted the scents of mud and decay like a perfume. his yellow teeth gritted and his hands balled into fists. “We almost lost you there. It could have been that there were scratches on the lock. his head whipping back and forth painfully. He could barely hear him over the sound of his own labored gasping. suffocating fabric from his face. gasping on the floor. one Weir standing on either side of him. When Alex could breathe again enough to open his eyes. Whichever of the Weir crowded into the hotel bathroom it was that pushed him under. Without much trouble. and Alex didn’t notice them. He wondered how long they would hold him under. he wretched involuntarily and tried to curl up tighter. But. and Alex started to wonder if they were going to kill him. I’m going to ask once more. his voice made resonant by the small bathroom’s acoustics. “Where is the girl?” He shook Alex like a rag-doll. he decided. It was impossible. “Now. He was fairly certain that he’d met Mr. and he hadn’t been able to focus on much of anything else from then on. Eerie’. The fabric of the bag soaked through immediately. drowned in a stinking bag in some hotel bathroom. or do you want to try testing our math again?” Alex wondered. Blue-Tie before.” Mr. and they didn’t need Alex anymore. and the rough burlap clung to his face. Four of the Weir had identical red ties. “The girl. and another shut the door behind them. Alex had little time to wonder what was going to happen to him. Beyond that. Mr. still chattering nervously at the silent girl behind him. “What?” Alex gasped for air. hauling him partway to his feet. Blue-Tie came back from wherever he had gone. Instead. yet. Blue-Tie grinned. trying to force air through the water-logged fabric that had worked its way inside of his mouth and clung to his eyes and nostrils. and his eroding selfcontrol. and made him acutely aware of the agonizing passage of time. a long gentle come down. Alex. very glad that he didn’t know. his lungs seeming to contract. listening. nicely. Then Mr. increasing the feeling of suffocation. He was very afraid. “Then things are going to get ugly real fast. Blue-Tie said with obvious relish. his breath tickling Alex’s ear like that of a lover. “Okay then. delivering another devastating kick to Alex’s stomach. and his chest convulsed. trying futilely to free himself from the elongated. somehow. He almost had time to say it before his head and neck collided with the room’s far wall. “I’m sure you remember me. to refresh your memory. He spat and coughed and squirmed helplessly on the hotel tile. Mr. and he could feel nothing except the water around his head. Blue-Tie hissed. He was tired. Maybe Eerie had shown up at the door. after all. bestial hands. and to think ‘Good for you.

Alex tried to cooperate with the effort. grinding his crotch against Alex obscenely. as if he were observing the struggle. A moment later. He gave up. He knew with a clarity that surprised him that he was dying. free of the awful weight of the Weir. I’m not afraid or angry. even if the air burned his mouth and throat. I’m grateful. and his face twisted as he struggled for breath. it’s not me.” Mr. Eerie. as far as I’m concerned. with the bathroom tile cool against the side of his face was like heaven. But he had nothing to say. Eerie produced a key ring from his pants pocket. that’s great. that he wouldn’t have been able to help himself. Blue-Tie knew his name. that the hand on his neck was attempting to pull him up and out of the water. somehow. “It is a very nice room. “well. face streaked with tears. not without running into us.” . Without thinking. He was totally unresponsive. coughing. watching them hurt you. regret and profound disappointment. “Eerie. You see.” Alex shook his head. The air was wrong. a level of panic and dread that had somehow opened beneath him. if you want. just disgust. okay?” He lay on the bathroom floor for a few minutes.than when he had been underwater. He finally drew in a long. and he found that he could not hold the air in. almost reluctantly. and then finding his legs suddenly free. and there are also significantly fewer dead people in the bathroom. but I couldn’t figure out any other way to help. still unable to speak. clutching at his throat and writhing. hanging her head.” Alex felt the stiffness pressing against him and felt a horrible sickness. for one. that he didn’t want to. Alex decided to breathe in. He tried to buck. barely visible. struggling like an animal in a trap. And. In his book. but she just stared over his shoulder. “now Alex will be afraid of me. the bag came off his head.” Alex tried to get Eerie to smile. she was a candidate for sainthood. In fact. but the feet on his knees and the hand on the back of his head remained intractable. it was pretty much gone. It took a long time for me to poison the entire room with something that would kill the Weir. grateful as all hell.” he added thoughtfully. too sweet. Slowly. while the candy disintegrated in his mouth. about the simple luxury that he had never appreciated fully before. anything. and your girlfriend isn’t going anywhere. his body would not obey him. “Like at the party? Except…” “Except that I was how I felt then. And then. Blue-Tie and dug through his pockets. he realized that the person behind him was altogether too small to be Mr. and Alex was surprised at how much better he felt. “You can spit out the candy now. and then looked away. then. but please keep this inside of your mouth until I tell you. Then he was out into the light and the air again. to shake the Weir from his back. and that was ridiculously good. impossibly worse than the prospect of being drowned in an anonymous hotel bathtub. It took Alex a while to manage turning around. slowly. not anymore. too. “I did not want you to see that. twisting the cap off a bottle of mineral water that she gave to Alex. and no breathe to say it with. That was. “we don’t actually need you to tell us anything. And when we do. despite the pain in his chest that defied description. He struggled against the hand on his neck. and the burning in his sinuses died down. Blue-Tie confided. Despite the horror and shame. “and this is how I felt today.” he managed. and that was even better. he opened his eyes. he kicked out frantically at the Weir behind him. Eerie ducked back to the room and rummaged for a moment.” “So. how amazing it felt to be able to breathe freely. his head was underwater again. something made more difficult by his struggling and kicking. Then Alex noticed that the other Weir who’d been holding him down on other side seemed to have disappeared. and Alex thought at first that he might be ill. after deliberation. “I’m so sorry that I couldn’t stop them. Abruptly. huh? Well. as his back and neck seemed to have seized up. and the terrible confines of the bag. and smiled adoringly at her. Eerie. “Eerie. You saved me. not pushing him into it. because of what I am. Maybe it was shock. “Nothing. Alex figured he was probably dead. the candy floating syrupy and huge in the dry confines of his mouth.” Eerie apologized.” Eerie said. shuddering breath. With a quickly dawning horror. “Sorry. The heavy fabric and the cold water beyond it pressed in on him again. immaculate in a black dress.” she added shyly. and leaning him against the side of the bath tub. then reached over his head to empty the water from it. he felt no fear at all. And now. Alex. as far as I’m concerned. relaxing his chest and throat and opening his mouth. how it was that Mr. Alex decided to die fighting. maybe we’ll start with you.” Eerie leaned him against the side of the bathtub. Alex knew in his heart that. a nickel-plated H&K semiautomatic pistol in his left hand. It was almost gone before he realized that it was a toffee. and it burned his eyes and mouth. Anastasia stood. burning his sinuses. “Well. but Alex felt surprisingly okay with the situation. with an almost surreal horror. and then used it to free Alex’s aching wrists from the handcuffs. Lying on the floor. and the inside of his nose. and judging from the trouble she had moving his arm. right? Do you hate me?” “Hate you?” Alex said. He couldn’t imagine Eerie feeling bad for anything.” Eerie said sadly. She seemed terribly amused by the situation. It was even worse in his lungs. It took a little while for Eerie to pin his head down. tearing his pants down and away from his waist. patting his back and fretting over him. water flooding his mouth and nose. and it hurt him to know that. Blue-Tie. you’re Mother Teresa. unless it was a trick of his vision – it was dense and faintly discolored. “I know it’s gross. Perhaps you would consider staying the night at my suite. pulling Alex up by his shoulders. you poor thing. “This is not the kind of thing that I do. if he had someone to sell out. finally.” Eerie shook her head despondently. Alex looked up at Eerie.” Eerie said. her face streaked with tears and her mouth moving. so you don’t have wonder what we are going to do to her. For a moment. Then. what did you do?” She flinched. “Fuck. We’ve got this area locked down. he felt fingers hooking inside his belt. sickeningly so. Alex didn’t really want to. Margot peaked around the corner. this was like the other night?” Alex asked groggily.” she said seriously. It’s not. Renton was peering in through the doorway. like she was an angel. Behind him. instead? The hotel is better. transfixed by something behind him. Alex? I’m sorry I had to poison you. A moment later. Alex shuddered when he heard the splash. Then his expression froze. blushing for reasons he could not understand.” he hissed. “Are you starting to feel better?” Alex nodded. “Do you feel better. arms folded across her chest. after a few sips of water. despite his physical distress. his mouth terribly dry.” Eerie stopped and then turned back to face him. “Alex. really. In front of both of them. It was sweet. “quite possibly the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. He wanted to say something. he felt his chest and throat relax. inclining his head in the direction of the dead Weir. I have never. Then. The whole thing seemed rather impersonal. her knees on his shoulders. he could not fill his lungs with water. or any of the other men he’d seen in the hotel room. if this was one of those things that someone could live through. I’ve never even thought about doing something like this. I have never done anything like this before. and found that he could do little to influence affairs. and longer to force his mouth open and wedge something inside it. I can see why you’d want to stay here. but not you. gagging as the bag worked its way still more deeply into his mouth. caring only about breathing. he panicked and blew out the little air in his lungs. he very well might have. Eerie walked over and bent down next to Mr. then returned. and it happened so fast that he was still gasping when he hit. “Oh. Alex could not make himself drown. even if his chest rattled and wheezed as he gasped. He decided that. Every breath he took was expelled instantly with a series of choking coughs. Alex realized that he could not make himself breathe in.

her posture rigid. but this time. she didn’t look away.” he said. Ériu. appearing genuinely surprised. and Anastasia hates to walk. shifting radiance. and it has to be far enough away from where we are staying that they won’t find us if they trace it. sitting up at the edge of the bed. who set a rapid pace.” Margot said. Later. then?” Anastasia asked patiently. propping her head up on her elbow. “There have to be more. keeping her face impassive.” Anastasia said. “We are good. “and look how that worked out. these days. anyway. Besides. “At least not at the moment. almost as if she were talking to herself.” Margot said.” Anastasia sat up.” -“Where did Renton go? And the cute one who never talks?” “Edward?” “Right.” Eerie hummed quietly. and when she didn’t get one.” “Shut up. Lucky me. immediately regretting having brought it up.” Alex said with conviction. Anastasia realized. sounding bored with the whole thing. Margot. “There were phones back at the hotel. “N-nothing. She wondered what kind of underwear she had bought. however. Eerie.” Alex complained. I didn’t do anything bad. as if he had saddened her. if you do. “Really? Because if this is about the cartel thing.” Eerie stared at her blankly. I don’t think so. Anastasia had to stifle a laugh.” Eerie said reluctantly. Edward went with him. smoothing the wrinkles from her black silk dress. nothing like that.” “Huh. the evening news turned on. “I knew I had seen that bastard somewhere before. “That is out of the ordinary. Quite the lady-killer. her hands folded in her lap in front of her. right?” “Are you kidding me?” Margot stared at him in disbelief. “Renton had an errand to run. assuming you plan on letting me make this phone call. so I got you. queen-sized bed opposite her own. talking without looking back at Alex. though? Why are you interested in helping him?” Eerie got flustered again.” Anastasia paused. silver bullets. like.” “I need a pay phone. “or a cruise missile.” Anastasia waited. “I mean. if we absolutely had to leave the room. “You’re scary. “I figured you could use the walk. “I will be direct. But. “he seems nice. and then flipping the TV off. “I am not trying to recruit you. And also. too. “Well. She inspected the phones from a distance with obvious distaste. “Why Alex. “I knew that was him. and procedure demands that none of us be alone. okay. Or. or something?” Margot shook her head dismissively. The information was so dated already. we only met recently. looked over at Eerie. right?” “I don’t understand why this is such a big deal. her eyes boring into Eerie.” “I’m not sure that it was a date.” Margot shook her head. her eyes fixed on Eerie. you know. then. hurrying after the vampire. and Alex felt very small indeed. She almost couldn’t help herself. And anyway. until we are out of the field. She noticed that Eerie had found time to buy cute patterned pajamas. don’t you think?” Anastasia felt pity for Eerie. Very smooth. “No. and shook her head. “Okay. “Well. Exactly. Why do we have to walk halfway across town to make a phone call. but…” Anastasia waved her off.” she added. and I sat there and watched. “There was something I wanted to talk to you about. They were two easy. then shouldn’t you consider what getting close to you could do to that ‘nice’ boy? It doesn’t end well for humans who get involved with changelings. The impasse was not long. with an internal smirk. with the volume turned off. Alex. Cars. Eerie. Or have you forgotten your family history?” Anastasia waited for a response. she would applaud her own composure. “No. “And he is… interesting. Eerie hung her head in resignation. I’ve never actually seen a silver one before. but…” Margot stopped at closed-down strip mall.” Anastasia said. and then strolled over to a bank of phones so deep in the shadow cast by the flickering streetlight that Alex hadn’t even seen them. to clear your head.” “Really? Pardon me for doubting your concern for my well-being. then it’s very nice of you to offer. still looking conspicuously away from Anastasia with all the guile of a guilty child.” Eerie sputtered. “But. then smiled at her.” she said grimly. Eerie looked over at Anastasia.” “Do we need.” Eerie continued. I doubt that the silver one was dead. Anastasia. Eerie was staring at her. glancing over at the changeling lying on the plush. masking the surprise she’d felt. “What is there between you and Alex?” Eerie turned an immediate bright red. Now was not the time to be sentimental. “I sent them on an errand. Don’t you think so. quietly.” Anastasia said unhappily. Where did they go?” Anastasia continued to stare at the television. but they are supposedly very hard to kill. she was too stunned for self-congratulation. she could hardly believe anyone watched the news channels. momentarily.” “And also. Him.Twenty Seven “I heard that you and Eerie went on a date. looking at the phones reluctantly. just friends. and…” “Why did you ask Svetlana to send the two of you to San Francisco. glanced around for cameras. he helped me. too. her posture rigid and her expression stormy. and then squashed it. it’s pretty hard to find one in the first place. Alex and Eerie both. even for you. he sure looked dead…” “Bet he did after Mitsuru was done with him. she reminded herself. and then pulled a set of latex gloves from her pocket and began sliding them on.” “Did Eerie tell you all this stuff? It was more like she went dancing. her eyes as clear and cold as the stream near Anastasia’s childhood home. reaching for the handset. In the moment. as she watched.” Anastasia sat up and turned to face Eerie. Eerie already killed those Weir. and hurriedly looked away.” “But you did go dancing with her. anyway?” Alex complained. “More like a train to hit him with.” Margot threaded through the crowded street. and reached over to pat Eerie on the knee.” Anastasia said casually. looking a bit distracted. Eerie was emitting a subtle. Anastasia sighed. I mean. Anastasia?” “Very. “I am helping Alex. She decided to risk pushing a little harder. “Mitsuru. Eerie’s irises ran the gamut .

“why didn’t you do something about Steve. Anastasia felt a little bit bad for Alex. didn’t they tell you? Those nanites kill a third of the people they introduce them into.” The changeling’s face contorted into an inhumanly rigid sneer. Like children. But they can’t just bag the body and call the morgue. She isn’t what you think she is. The bar behind her made heavy use of blue and pink neon. “Round about. if your body rejects the nanomachines. Eerie. what my life has become. of course. be careful what you call me. and then continued on.” Alex looked at Margot blankly. do you know what vampires are?” Margot’s eyes were cold as she looked at him. shining in the darkness. tiny motes of light spun and danced. “Alex. and I do not care how long your shadow has grown. You have been compensated in full for your part in this. And. but it was too hard to be sure. when everything else felt so different to him. If Steve was a real threat. and then trailing away to nothing.” Alex sighed. and he’d even said that it was high – but Alex had never suspected anything along those lines. go ahead and tell me. “I’ve known Eerie since she was little. a woman or a child screamed. whelp. since we arrived at the Academy. Alex looked away from the eyes he saw there. the light around Eerie dissipated and her eyes slowly refocused. almost otherworldly. Alex had gotten used to her pigtails. the sound carried away by a rush of passing traffic. Margot? Is this the way back to the hotel?” Margot seemed to find something in the buildings across the street that required her urgent attention. with more malice than he’d intended. her voice cool and subtly menacing. Not my concern. like that first night. I’m not one of Anastasia’s creatures. I’m somebody who helps out. “Take my warning to heart. a shifting. that kind of thing goes with the territory. cardiac and respiratory arrest starts almost immediately. “I will not answer your questions.” Margot shook her head.” Eerie’s eyes narrowed. passing through a block crowded with small restaurants and bars. But. He is a petty bully. Don’t think they won’t find a way to buy you. where the only vampire on staff works.” Margot added. in return for an appropriate fee. that day in the cafeteria? You were right next to her. “Are we still talking about this? Did Anastasia put you up to it?” Margot looked perturbed. “So. anyway. He’d been in Central so long.” Alex shrugged and gave her a half-hearted smile to cover his confusion. she’s just someone I’ve known for a long time. to Anastasia’s crowd. “Are you sure? Because it doesn’t really look that way. you know. We will not speak again. Somewhere in the city around them.” Margot said curtly. each particle part of a golden cloud. “They trundle the bodies on down to the basement of the medical building. The silence that followed was more disturbing than the scream. and Margot seemed amused by it. I would have stopped him. her skin translucent and permeated with an amber luminescence. and then slowly modulating down. They walked along in silence for a short time. each spilling patrons and cooking smells out onto the sidewalk. momentarily.” Alex said. looking self-conscious. “Hey. The musical quality her voice normally had was entirely absent. Alex? We are all mercenaries. you come out to play. And I’m not about to start compensating for Eerie’s social inadequacies. shrugging.” Margot said with a shrug. one shade blending into the next. Anastasia thought that maybe her ploy had worked a little too well. It seemed wrong that the moon should still look the same. you do like him. Anastasia. and she was weirdly illuminated by it as she walked underneath the signs. “Mistress of the Black Sun or no. not right away. “My profession doesn’t allow for much in the way of personal relationships. Ériu. That does not make us allies. She sat back on the bed. they ended mine. when you first got to the Academy? The ones that saved your life?” Margot’s eyes narrowed as she spoke. confused. feeling a bit ill.” Alex laughed and looked up at the moon. “Wanted to check and see if we picked up any company. “Finally.” Alex failed to keep the horror off his face. making periodic lazy halfrevolutions about her. “Are you any different. Anastasia also resumed watching the silent television. Around her. so different from Eerie’s normal expression that Anastasia could barely see the resemblance. I mean. still avoiding eye-contact. “Well. jaundiced and huge.” Anastasia said airily. Literally otherworldly.” he said. if you think about it.” Eerie warned.” After a moment. or anything else. the sound starting high and piercing.” Margot said.” Pausing for effect. and then over at Margot. feeling an obscure and fleeting shame. and because no one else would talk to us. regardless of our previous collaboration. “I am working for the Black Sun right now. replaced with a composed iciness. The lucky ones get to negotiate their own terms of sale. after all. “You don’t have to be a bitch about it. “I cooperated with you because our interests in this matter aligned. not too far. “We aren’t friends Alex. Alex corrected himself. “That’s why the Hegemony objects so much to the Black Sun’s philosophy of mass-introduction to the populace at large. fluid expanse of light that radiated out from where Eerie sat. which extended out from the alcove of a gated electronics store to encompass the inner half of the sidewalk.between bright blue and murky hazel. like a siren.” Anastasia smiled.” Alex shook his head. reluctantly.” “I’ve always wanted to ask. multi-colored trails. her suspicions confirmed. followed by total brain death. of course. her irises changing color like an oil slick in the sun. and she looked a bit strange to him with her hair down. the night that the world opened up to reveal another world inside of it. with the boy. Alex laughed. All too easy. leaving behind brilliant.” Margot eyed him coldly. it is a temporary arrangement.” “Fine. to me. it felt strange and crowded here. like one of those little Russian dolls. “Remember the nanomachines that they injected you with. at least.” Margot frowned. an old guy named Jorge. with the Weir. He fought a bizarre desire to scratch at the now invisible spot on his upper arm where the IV had plugged in. but her tone remained cold and flat. stepping neatly around the blankets and cardboard boxes of a homeless encampment. We’ve been neighbors. “I had an inkling. Michael had mentioned that there was a mortality rate. “Oh. “Anyway. who’s had . She managed to keep the smile off her face until she heard Eerie stomp off to the bathroom. “Please. she thought. -Alex looked at the streets around him.” Anastasia remarked cheerfully a few moments later. then. You’re lucky they are even interested. I am under no obligation to share my designs with you. and then turned her attention back to the mute TV screen and the crawl of numbers that represented an abstraction of the world economy. Alex. “there was something I wanted to talk to you about. I am not one of your servants. Fast and irreversible. I advise you not to interfere in my affairs. slamming the door behind her. and looked over at Margot. That’s all there is to it. “They are imagining a few billion corpses. “Obviously. and Alex started to wonder if he’d gone too far with his last comment.” Margot said finally. “Oh.” Anastasia looked impressed. smirking. despite himself. After a little while. before we took it back with us. what do you have planned for little Eerie? And what about Alex? I never would have imagined you were the romantic type.” Margot was silent for a while after that. we ended up spending a lot of time together. Margot seemed to soak up the curiosity and repulsion she could see on Alex’s face. Tell me.

solemnly nodded her agreement. The space they occupied was probably intended to be offices for the store below it. Then she shook her head. my arm was already rebuilt – entirely from synthetic materials. it seems pretty damn easy. “is that I am a reanimated corpse. No bone marrow. and the nanomachines can’t repair damage. in my arm. anymore. too. “He gets a lot of reading done. that’s his whole job – staring at corpses. For the first time. Alex. morbidly curious. without the nanites. carving a path through the drunks and the underdressed girls who lined the sidewalk.” Alex had a whole series of alarming thoughts. “I remember that it burned. “The last thing I remember is agreeing to the introduction. I mean. the way people look at childhood photos. that is nothing compared to how strange Eerie is. then…” “Synthetic replacements. and then after that. The lab says it’s mostly silicon. “In the time I’ve been at the Academy. and the fat yellow moon behind it. of course. as long as you aren’t squeamish. they help fight the disease. the nanites woke me up. looking at it wistfully. more callously than he meant to. and then went back to observing the park spread out below them. but he couldn’t see anything besides a dull humidity that reflected the city’s ambient light back. so all of that sucks. to try and discourage smoking. a moist grey blanket hovering over the bay.” “I still don’t really understand…” Margot sighed. brushed her hands absently against her coat like she had touched something dirty. I remember Michael yelling something. at one point. the points of which peaked out from underneath her pale lips when she smiled.” Margot moved fast. a Ghoul managed to take a big chunk out of my arm. bitterly. the nanites purged all the marrow from my bones and replaced them with a mass of nanoassemblers. Something is… wrong. right? If you get hurt. giving Alex an almost feral grin. frowning. are you coming. my chest didn’t hurt anymore. her face contorted with barely suppressed anger. as she stepped deftly around an assortment of broken glass and sleeping transients.” Margot took obvious satisfaction from the horror she saw in his face. Nothing biological.” Margot said. That’s all kinds of fucked up. slowing her pace as the sidewalk cleared. “Not that often. I was working a field op in Tbilisi. “You might want to do a little reading on the subject. “Jorge keeps an eye on the bodies. Then there was a terrible pain in my chest. At least I was human being.” Alex said.the job for decades now. looking at her with a certain amount of trepidation. for everyone who rejects the nanites. so that Alex could walk more easily alongside her. since then. and made a few other small changes while they were at it. I can’t feel anything with it. My heart beats. her voice casual.” Margot said. even bone. where they put the IV in. her pace steady and unhurried.” Margot admitted. it’s only happened twice. nothing at all…” Margot trailed off for a moment. “The nanites inside you. But that isn’t everything. his mouth hanging open. no hemoglobin. “Hardly. Alex.” Margot stood that way for a moment more. “Those same nanites malfunction inside me.” she said. I died. “I don’t feel dead. Weird guy.” “You woke up needing to drink blood after a three day coma? That seems a little unlikely. “Find out what happens to people who get involved with a changeling. smirking. There was no coma. “Okay. I think. and started to walk again. they help you heal.” Margot suggested evilly. “but why are you telling me all this?” Margot spun around so fast Alex didn’t even have time to get his hands up between them.” Margot smiled slightly at this. the point of her fingernail digging into his sternum.” Margot shook her head and looked up at the night sky. They’d repaired the damage to my body. if you get sick.” The vampire held up one arm in the sickly yellow light of a flickering street light.” Margot said. pointing at Alex. “You should go to Brooklyn sometime. Except.” “How often does that happen?” Alex asked. for reasons Alex preferred not to think about. Anastasia looked up from the office window for a moment.” Alex asked hesitantly. and don’t mind the hours.” Margot said. then continued. “So what happens when you get hurt? If your body can’t heal.” Anastasia snorted contemptuously. true. though it was being gutted at the moment. or what?” -“I have never seen so many hipsters in one place. shrugging. I get hungry – I even have hay fever in the spring. one filled with tiny machines that are gradually displacing everything organic in my body.” Margot laughed dismissively. .” “What the hell is a Ghoul?” Margot paused to glare at him for the interruption. And not only when they killed me. then hooked a thumb at herself.” Alex looked at her to see if she was kidding. Mine can’t produce any kind of living tissue. glaring at him. And most of the time. but that’s really a whole lot worse…” “Thanks. “Among other little changes they made. I died. “So. leaving Alex standing by the side of the road. doped with nanites. “Two years ago. “When I woke up.” Margot said. For three days. poking one finger firmly into the center of his chest. while we were purging the old cemetery.” “Wow. with a quiet intensity. before it happens to you. Did you know that you’re more-or-less immune to cancer? I think the administration started playing that part down. before you try and get too cozy to something that isn’t even human. One night.” Margot said grimly. I need to breathe. clearing out a Witch coven. “I thought you might want to think about that.” She deftly maneuvered her way through a crowd of smokers outside of a packed.” Margot said.” They walked in silence for a moment. “dead? You don’t seem like it. I could tell from the look on the doctor’s face that was something was wrong. Alex. Maybe her eyes were different from Alex’s. “It’s like this. When I woke up the next morning. when one of them sits up and starts screaming. after all. twenty-four hours a day. Your body is permeated with nanites. The sidewalk here was stained brownish-red. I don’t blame him for not giving it up. “Help repair and maintain your body. quiet enough that Alex had to walk closer to her to hear.” Margot turned back and looked over her shoulder. “Mine can’t. She was a considerable way down the street when he finally caught back up to her.” “Yours can. and then three days later. but mine is contaminated with them. “What I am trying to tell you. a pair of subtly elongated canine teeth. raising her voice so that Alex could hear her while they walked.” he said. I tend to think that they shit that’s happened to me is pretty damn bad. “Sounds a little bit scary. but the size of an entire city. “Are you… you know. he noticed that she did in fact have fangs – or rather. part of what seemed to be ongoing renovations throughout the building. When they brought me back.” Margot said. And as strange and frightening as that makes me. her long black coat flaring out as she spun. faux Irish-themed pub. Alex. too.” “But why can’t the nanites make hemoglobin for you? Michael said they can manufacture tissue and stuff. then Alex shrugged.” “It’s hard to say. “And nothing else has much. lately. “I probably would have bled to death.

he’d been feeling that he was spending too much time worrying about what Anastasia thought. If things go poorly.” Alex allowed. and he found himself grinning.” she said. But. Anastasia’s demeanor didn’t help matters. He’ll bail you out. Admittedly. “If it is. On the cab ride here.” Alex said. actually. no?” Alex rubbed his jaw absently. Alex looked down as well. Renton. maybe even a bit headstrong. like. so he knew that Anastasia had worked things out to be alone with Eerie. she wandered around on the other side of the vacant office. Anastasia caught it in the reflection. maybe. What do you want me to do?” Anastasia seemed to Alex to hesitate for a moment before she responded. and arched one eyebrow curiously. and Eerie was bat-shit crazy.” Anastasia saw the disgust in Alex’s face. if you like. since they had taken their perch in the disused office space. but that still didn’t explain it. what if this is…” Anastasia looked angrily at the radio. She punched the speaker button. but saw nothing other than the same mass of picnickers. he had to admit. and was immediately worried that he should not have. We have simply agreed to try and limit competition from the outside. Alex was able to follow her gaze. her voice dripping with contempt. She’d hadn’t spoken since they’d arrived. We are all inherently competitors in the same business. Renton. more than an hour before. without totally thinking it through. we’re all clear. staring off at a point above Anastasia’s shoulder. He snuck a look at Anastasia out of the corner of his eye – she was sort of pretty. all of a sudden. in a way. and Alex was pretty sure that it wasn’t Anastasia that she was avoiding – or. This time. “The Hegemony wants to come to an accommodation with the Witches. her hair pulled tightly back in a bun. “But.” Alex said nervously. or to rummage halfheartedly through the personal effects and scraps of paper that remained. the cell phone in the palm of her hand as she waited for a response. He didn’t like that Anastasia had sent him out with Margot to make that phone call last night. Mitsuru. Lately. her black dress excessively formal for the occasion. “Do you know what a cartel is. looking out the window. for mutual benefit. Flowery rhetoric aside.” “But.” Anastasia said curtly into the radio. Did Margot tell you what the Hegemony’s alternative to mass nanite introduction is?” Alex shook his head. and seemed satisfied by it.” Anastasia put the radio down on the desk top. somewhere big. Margot. “what about all the people who would be killed? I heard that. “Alright. Follow the plan. looking uncomfortable amidst the sun and crowds. Alex worried that he might not even notice himself obeying. tinny sounding. No one else addressed Anastasia so informally. practically insisting that Renton take the back seat instead. He’d always thought of himself as independent. frilly and fringed with ribbon. Even now. in perpetuity.” she said firmly. her eyes hidden behind overly-large sunglasses. on another level. dogs. between competing parties to control or manipulate a specific concern. who was still sulking at the far end of the office. Her sober demeanor and her childish appearance were constantly at odds. her cell phone buzzed discretely. but she’d been weirdly reticent all morning. At the same time. it would be mistake. “then we already discussed how to deal with that. much to his frustration. and then sat up. all of the cartels. As far as I can see. ignoring Alex’s eye-roll. I’m going to go collect Mitsuru. Eerie didn’t seem to want to talk to him anymore. if you are curious – to serve as livestock for the Witches. It was funny. Something about the idea of pitying Anastasia struck him as amusing. Whatever had been planned had been planned without him – Anastasia. It had irked him a bit.“Hey Anastasia. when the person giving them sounded like they knew what to do. “That makes more sense. “She’s parked herself. and probably awkward around people. the Hegemony is no different from any other cartel. and dispelling any trace of nervousness. “You’re in one. her gaze fixed on something below. But Anastasia nodded civilly and waited for him to continue. “Very well. a third of the people who get injected with them die. and to be truthful. abandoned in the ruins of the office furniture deemed too worthless to sell. in a rigid sort of way. still…” Anastasia waved him off. gathering herself with an effort. “Stay where you are. after all.” Anastasia appeared to consider this for a moment. like Anastasia was. take her. Alex tried to follow her stare through the glass. When she was focused on something else. Alex had resented it.” Alex complained. no matter how pretty Emily was. Everything will be fine. nodding. that it wasn’t just Anastasia that Eerie wanted to avoid. and it was hard to make out the voice. Alex?” “Don’t ask me. he hadn’t given it any thought at the time. he could pretend she was a regular teenager – a bit spoiled.” Renton’s voice crackled through the hiss of static. “An open conspiracy.” Anastasia said acidly. in trainers and a white t-shirt. he was still resenting it. while they held a hushed conference in the hall outside the room. seeing nothing but a crowded city park in the late afternoon. as if it could convey her glare.” Alex blurted. pointing at Eerie. brushing off her dress and looking mildly perturbed. Whatever had happened between them. lodging in Anastasia’s suite for the afternoon had been awkward despite its spaciousness. though. and shot him a look that combined curiosity with annoyance. And then. “Well.” Anastasia said. Get out of the state. and going out of her way to avoid him. but when he’d come back. “Boss? You sure you want to be the one to meet her? Ed says that he’s closer…” “No. the hood of her sweatshirt pulled up. the Black Sun thing. “No. But the wording made it obvious that it was Renton. Eerie had made it obvious that she was trying not to sit near him. reminding him of a child entranced by the view. “I shouldn’t be long. umbrellas and coolers that had crowded the hilly green patch. “and run. the ideology – you want to introduce nanites into everyone.” she said. He was starting to adjust to the idea that Anastasia always seemed to know what was going on. rubbing the back of his neck and looking petulant. “Hey boss?” The connection was bad. Check into a hotel. to confuse the messenger and the message.” Anastasia pursed her lips for a moment.” “Right.” Alex continued to look out the window for whatever had attracted their attention. . not far from the near edge of the park. occasionally pausing to examine where the walls had been crudely torn open to allow wire stripping. “You see what I see?” Anastasia continued peering through the window at something Alex couldn’t find for himself. the kind of bookish girl that he usually felt a little sorry for. as long as they agree to Hegemony rule in Central and the cartel-controlled areas. “They are willing to consign a percentage of humanity – that would be the majority. resulting in near-constant knowing glances from him for the whole drive. pressing her face close to the glass. “Yes. If they were good at it. and call Alistair. “So. He was virtually defenseless. he knew. rather. right?” “A cartel is an agreement. I’m going. even the things she wasn’t there for. trying to digest it all. to a city. “What price for peace. but Alex didn’t care. the kind they sell in the drugstore. but then things got scary. Eerie hadn’t seemed slighted by being left out. walking aimlessly from room to room. and Edward had left him and Eerie to watch TV. not at all surprised that she knew the details of his conversation with Margot from the night before. The Hegemony seemed more benign than the Black Sun on the face of it. reluctantly. he’d found Renton and Edward bringing a bunch of heavy duffel bags up to the room. it became very easy to take orders. hoping to pick out which part of the park she was looking at. “Can I ask you something?” Anastasia looked up from the window again. he did kind of understand. On the table beside Anastasia. like she was now. hardly speaking at all. to a figure shaking out a red picnic blanket. right?” Alex blurted it all out at once.

or wanting to play the hero? We are here to rescue you. ‘What about you guys?’ No worrying over your friends. shaking her head emphatically. Anastasia seemed a bit tentative when she stepped outside. Alex couldn’t decide whether she was actually worried. Edward had gone up with him initially. They come worse than me. haven’t you met Mitsuru? Don’t be so dramatic. Alex turned his attention back to the window.” Alex said wryly. in fact. before squaring her shoulders and crossing the street. however. “What did Anastasia say to you last night. She was standing next to him with her fingers pressed up against the glass.” Alex said. it became difficult to say who was doing the manipulating. “Given the lack of screaming and dying. partly out of relief. “Not talking to Alex? No. “That doesn’t count as talking to me. that was exactly how it appeared. damn it!” Eerie glanced over at him and raised an eyebrow.” Alex said firmly. Alex had to laugh himself.” . “Right. “Nothing.” Alex stared for a moment. “Run away with me?” Eerie said. “I can’t imagine there’s anything out there more dangerous than you. There was no way. and then had come down a bit later. sitting back down on the desk. and forced himself to calm down. anyway?” Eerie pointed at something outside the window. Alex got the impression that it was rare for Anastasia to not be under the watchful eye of at least one of her guards. After a moment. ignoring comments from a group of teenagers clustered near a fire hydrant. waving her off. staring down below them.” Eerie observed.” Alex objected. nodding at the window.” Eerie stared at him. And if there is.” Mitsuru looked up from where she had dumped her bags on a vacant. but Alex couldn’t discount the notion that there was someone who preferred him angry and impulsive. and then a bit sad. clearly a bit surprised. At a certain point. Alex is so sensitive. “Aren’t you supposed to be watching this?” Alex shrugged. that they were letting her walk out alone and unprotected. the idea of watching people that he knew fighting and dying in front of him. shrugging and opening a bag that. and partly out of shock that Eerie had made something resembling a joke. for the benefit of their unseen observers. at the moment. you can be sure that I’m not going to try and fight it.” she said. but he bit his tongue. alone and empty handed. I think it’s safe to say it won’t come to that. to Alex’s eyes. “Picky. but it couldn’t have been far. he was still scared after his last encounter with the Weir. as if she had tired of tolerating his foolishness. well. But. “Anastasia looks jumpy. marching firmly through the throng on the sidewalk at the edge of the park. I assure you. He wasn’t sure where Edward had gone after that. appeared to be filled entirely with guns. “Whatever. Alex. probably to help with the bags. her expression unreadable. no matter how it looked to him. he knew. assuming everything went south. and yes. It wasn’t that he had some particular desire to risk his life. Not that he wouldn’t run. dangerously listing desk. “My only job was to run away with you.” “Friends? No.” he said. “It’s good to see you. his back to the window.” “Go figure. “I talked to you this morning at breakfast. Edward trailing a few feet behind them. feeling unaccountably embarrassed.“No. that made him very uncomfortable. “Anastasia and Mitsuru are coming back this way. and he had the feeling that he was being played every time he did. He knew that Renton was on the roof with some sort of scoped rifle. Anastasia.” she said. if things looked bad. “What’s so funny?” Anastasia demanded crossly. and then started giggling.” Alex turned to her and stared in frustration. He wanted to yell. after all. Alex looked away. “She’s not into being out in public. He’d worry about feeling guilty over it later. “Let’s talk about how we get you kids home. wonderingly. causing Alex to start and glare at her resentfully. He’d been getting angry too easily lately. leading Mitsuru into the vacant office. Miss Aoki. or whether it was an act. “You asked me for the salt. until Eerie finally cracked a smile.” Anastasia shook her head. “What.” she said. even if he couldn’t exactly call them his friends. a tad bit guilty.” Alex winced without meaning too. smiling affably. he did feel nervous. Alex had to admit. shaking his head irritably.” Alex waited until the door shut behind her before he went back to looking out the window. I thought you weren’t talking to me?” Eerie looked surprised. Despite the big talk. “Alex gets all the good jobs. though.

she could elect to continue his employment in this capacity when she left for the Academy. according to the Black Sun’s archives. but then again. after all. wincing when one of her patent leather shoes sunk into the marshy soil. something that was not lost on his daughter. As far as she could tell. sounding tired and distracted.” “Are you sure? We have resources in this area. The nanites affected the aging process in inconsistent and unpredictable ways – some Operators appeared to age normally. and being in puberty forever. she hadn’t grown at all since she was thirteen. one-of-a-kind piece. He might have been insolent and disrespectful. This is all a bunch of crap. This would. Then again. though it was hell on the suit she’d had tailored. sometimes. she was expected to hold a position of prominence one day. even loyalty. actually. Not that Anastasia had any problem with the vampire slapping Alex around a bit. Anastasia thought grimly. above all others. He’d barely looked at her. It was a vast.” he said lightly. “You think this was all a setup?” “Yes. his posture stiff. “Wait and see. and couldn’t help but wonder how much Eerie’s obvious fascination with the boy played into it. For all of us. if necessary. in a way that was both indiscrete and completely inappropriate. but relaxed in his arms. at least. plodding through the mud indifferently. “What are you doing?” Renton smiled and shook his head. but she would have to make a scene in order to make that happen. It did not appear to bother him. custom-made at a little shop in the Shibuya neighborhood of Tokyo that specialized in such things. overcome by a wave of memories going back almost as far as she could remember. Not until the trap is sprung. I think. the first time she’d ever been there without her mother. had resorted to violence to get him to shut up. and then threaded her way carefully through a series of muddy puddles. leaning back to look at the starless sky. “Your dress will get ruined. and therefore Anastasia’s father was obligated to find a function for him. anyway? What’s up with all the trees? Are we even in the city?” Anastasia shook her head. his smiling face then exactly the same as the one that she saw now. Still. “I would not have the Mistress of the Black Sun embarrassed or discomfited by such a small thing. not until he had swept her up in one effortless gesture. Something about this situation is very wrong. Now it’s a park. She knew from experience that there was no point in arguing – he would agree. trying to match Mitsuru’s relentless pace through the brush and hilly ground. It was a horrible thought. after activation. would be her bodyguard for the next few years. either." Margot said. his feet squelching and sinking into the mud with every step. Only gross incompetence or deliberate planning could have put us in this mess. since he was an expert at using those very same techniques to subdue rivals. as far as I’m concerned. she knew that it was a very real possibility. Renton had done this for her often. Mitsuru had said nothing about traipsing through the woods on their way back to Central. She didn’t sound thrilled at the situation. speaking in his low voice while writing something with a beautiful antique pen. He hadn’t changed much at all. perverted and low minded. blackmail. but she was already smart enough to know when not to speak. at least to an extent.” Anastasia said. from somewhere behind her. The second-eldest son of one of the minor cartels in the Black Sun’s orbit. Margot never did. sprinklers and debris that littered their path. Maybe even the oldest Operator on record.” Alex responded. but the archives said that she was much. was an expensive. something for which Alex seemed to have a particular gift. there was a big difference. more than three years ago. to become her lieutenant. If she was satisfied with his performance. make her the target of all sorts of potential violence. between being young forever. he explained indifferently. Joseph Martynova. Certainly. It was that quality. something her father could attest to. after all. and arrange an exit. while others aged only until a certain point. Anastasia hadn’t fully known what to make of it. and kidnapping attempts. obviously uncomfortable in his formal attire. a touch out of breath. her head leaning against his chest. “Particularly when she is so easy to carry.” “Not yet.” Anastasia grumbled. but that was when she was a child. Then her father had motioned for them to leave. making no attempt to avoid the puddles. trying to ignore Alex’s complaints. Even Alex. or a nanny. Anastasia was so distraught by her ruined shoe that she didn’t notice Renton behind her. Then he’d called Renton into his office. Renton walked in and stood nervously in front of her.” . and therefore delicate and irreplaceable. that had made Renton rise in rank. her father. It used to be an army base. “Renton!” she hissed.” He smiled at her. She held the edges of her skirt primly. and I am not inclined to think that Central is incompetent. he always seemed to do the right thing. after all. Margot had seemed more than usually edgy with Alex all day. an imposing walnut desk placed in front of a giant bay window facing east. however. But Anastasia didn’t find the thought of going through life appearing to be a flat-chested teenager to be an attractive one. what’s our next move?” Renton looked worried. oriented so that the sun rose directly behind it much of the year. growing up. much older. and he when it mattered. seemingly not aging a day until they died. The subject worried Anastasia more than she would have cared to admit. Some Operators had lived for more than a hundred years. She knew that happened to girls. It was like that. and then simply stopped. He was good for that. “I want someone to tell me what the hell is going on! I’m tired of going along with whatever I’m told without knowing why. her father explained.” Anastasia grimaced. I can call O’Brien at the Marin compound. determined to avoid snagging it on the bushes. to look after her. and I will not make any dramatic moves. and that it didn’t necessarily mean anything – she could have been a late bloomer. Alice Gallow appeared to be in her late twenties. and his bow deep and clumsy.” Anastasia ignored the commotion behind her. “Ana. without even thinking about it. She stepped gingerly over a half-rotten log. Her father was a man who appreciated the value of symbolism. and only his hairstyle had changed since then. And though nothing was certain yet. “This is the Presidio. Renton had been a young-looking twenty when he had been assigned to guard her. the other behind her shoulders. but the picture as a whole is still unclear. had called her into his office. he said. He’d explained to the four-year old that she lived in a dangerous world. It was his effectiveness. “I have some ideas. but Renton knew her better than anybody else did. “At least make sure they don’t see us. after all. trying to keep her voice down. not until I know for certain who is responsible. She was sympathetic to the boy’s point. of course. at the time. sometimes. and even though she was not the heir to the Black Sun. “Now would you please shut up?” “I don’t think so. But the endless stream of questions and complaints that he had produced over the last hour were beginning to strain Anastasia’s composure. book-lined room with deep red carpet. but his question broke the cycle of her own worries.” Renton ploughed through the rest of the marshy area in a straight line. Her dress. even if Renton’s motivations were a bit less than proper. years ago. she thought. one arm hooked underneath her bunched skirts.Twenty Eight “Where is this place . having first come to the Black Sun’s notice during the Spanish Civil War. and Renton had offered her his hand. intimidation. And he was right – appearances were part of her responsibility. while others had died in their teens of what appeared to be old age. the only one that ever kept her up at night. he had been pledged into their service as a sign of his cartel’s loyalty. and from the sounds. Renton Vidor. that kept him there. and do whatever she told him to. Anastasia was surprised to see Margot so worked up.

and what we are doing.” “And you think that they’ll get here in time to try and stop us? It seems like we are kinda out of the way. The Weir will find us first.” “As you say. Alex. perforated where there had once been windows and doors. when Alex sat down heavily beside her. “They have a sort of precognition. right? Then they couldn’t possibly get to us. They must have anticipated this. “No other way for all of us to get home. any allies. “There is going to be a fight. “This isn’t the time or the place. and taking a long drink from a bottle of mineral water. “And you can put me down. but she still had to curb the urge to bite his head off. a piece of stone from Central. not in time to stop us from going home.” Anastasia felt a sharp pain in her index finger. walking beside Renton. indecipherable graffiti.” she scolded. to keep us from leaving the city.” he said. Mitsuru had been working another assignment when she had been called here. “I doubt it very much. then held the hem of the skirt up to examine the torn fringe critically. here. trying to reaffix the fringe to the hem of her skirt. sitting down next to him them. Mitsuru and Alex both gave her looks. and drive out to the middle of nowhere. and then frowned. “So… couldn’t we go somewhere further away? I mean. she amended.” she explained. I’m not certain how long it will take before the Witches find us – the precognitive pool says that most of their forces are arrayed in the urban core.” she said quietly. this is fucked. we could rent a car or something.” Renton looked over at her. still engrossed her work.” For a long moment. a half-fallen chain link fence.” Mitsuru said levelly. wrapped in a blanket of multicolored. It takes a little while.” he said. “That aside. “Renton!” “Up here.” Mitsuru paused to drink again.” Mitsuru said. every Witch and Weir within a hundred miles is going to know where we are. Well. In all probability. now.” Anastasia looked at her dress unhappily. “I guess so. and dropped the needle and thread. sighing.” she said firmly. back to Central.” She looked around them significantly. “Mitsuru brought a beacon with her. so Mitsuru could sneak us out the back door. “Because I’ve been setting this place up all day. utterly somber. clearly uncertain whether she meant the plan or her dress.” she said moodily. “Uh. The ground was indeed much drier. Anastasia?” He spoke quietly. “Once the beacon is activated. Don’t worry so much. “Well. a touch crossly. “Assuming they know what they’re talking about. and set her down delicately on her feet. We’ll have some options. the protocol Mitsuru used to hide our Etheric signatures will dissipate in a few hours. and he was clearly trying right now. Anastasia .” Renton grinned. here. Once she activates it. “I’m certain at least some of them will be nearby. It is much drier. “And try not to be so forward in the future. nodding. and make contingency plans. She was a bit surprised. “Shush. And if we were to try and run. I have mines and shaped charges strung along the only approach. and the brush had started to open up to pine trees surrounded by patches of brown grass. Then she shook her head. and wondered exactly how exhausted she was. She was mainly annoyed about the dress. the boy aggravated her to no end.” “Then. her skirt spread out across her legs in front of her. Central will need about thirty minutes to lock on to us and prepare the transfer. and Anastasia wondered if her needling had been a little too effective. Even when he was trying. and the minute that beacon activates. and hadn’t said a word during the hour or so of preparations that followed their arrival. She was genuinely tempted to smack him. here. She wasn’t too good at this sort of thing. “Central would not bring us this whole way. She looked tired. “Can I ask you something?” Anastasia carefully threaded a needle with black silk. surrounded by brush and blackberry bushes and a handful of eucalyptus trees. as he had lapsed into sullen silence after Margot had smacked him around earlier. shrugging.” -Anastasia was fretting over the damaged hem of her dress. and Anastasia was a little surprised that she would show. don’t you think their precognitives might anticipate that as well? We would step out of the car. through the Ether. “Alex.” Anastasia looked moodily at Alex.Anastasia frowned. and the tension dissipated. then they shouldn’t have time to come down heavy on us before we’re out of here. why here?” He gestured at their surroundings: a low place in between two small hills. as well. Even when we are alone. not bothering to look over at him. You focus on getting us back to Central. or along the periphery. We don’t have any resources here. “Okay. “This is where we’ll do it.” Alex said. “At least. Understand?” Alex nodded slowly. “We are going home. it is only a matter of time until they track us down.” “I still don’t see why they didn’t just send Alice Gallow to retrieve us all…” Mitsuru glared at Anastasia bitterly.” Anastasia resumed her repairs. Central can start opening a way between here and there. his eyes sharp and worried. It was little more than a bare concrete pad and three walls. “But.” Anastasia glared at the offending lace. and walk straight into a Weir’s mouth. Having too many servants and lacking in basic domestic skills was a kind of occupational hazard. safely. sounding a bit puzzled. she could hope. not this incompetent. or a real chance of defending ourselves against a determined attack. though. “It is what it is.” she said. Mitsuru looked like she might lose her temper. Renton – that is my job. Renton. his brow furrowed. so that they can lock on to us.” Anastasia said.” His face was absolutely. Anastasia could only hope that she had enough left in her to bring them all home. from somewhere in the clearing up ahead.” Mitsuru’s voice rang out in the dark.” “Milady. and a crumbling concrete building frame. “Who is their target? All of us? You? The new kid?” “I’m not sure. She stuck her wounded finger in her mouth. “What exactly are we doing here?” Anastasia made a first few clumsy stitches. who do you think…” Anastasia cut him off with a look. but not because she wasn’t interested. “But. “Ask away. I think we will find out soon. “Think she might have something better to do?” Anastasia shook her head. fuming. immediately losing them in the grass beneath her in the dark. leaning forward and trying to catch her eye.

” Renton and Edward entered the valley from the south. “I am not hiding. “That’s the silver one. Eerie was crouched somewhere behind the remains of the concrete structure. and then sit up straight. but eventually she managed to nod at Mitsuru. “Let me know as soon as you know which way they are going to come. very difficult to aim. if this works. Alex. He was suspicious that Mitsuru or the vampire-girl might have something to do with that. Though she had to look up at him. there’s one over there. “That place has a basement. and that was pretty much the best he could manage.” “You don’t know how to fight. She met his stare with her impassive red eyes.” Mitsuru said grimly. “But. “Okay. “How could they have found us so quickly? We haven’t activated the beacon. “If you want to help. what do I do?” Mitsuru shrugged and kept walking. looking exasperated. yet. until a group of Weir came pouring out of the tree cover like a feral tide. Eerie? Look. and then threw up her hands. It never occurred to him that he could be killed here. Alex could see Renton and Edward. “You too. then you do the same. both of you. Miss Aoki.” Mitsuru turned from Eerie to Anastasia. one hand absently confirming the presence of the twin pistols. Anastasia was disappointed by her restraint.” Mitsuru said. he just pointed the gun in the direction of the Weir and held down the trigger until it bucked in his hand. She clicked the buckle into place. From where he crouched. do you know how to activate a beacon?” Eerie got all tongue-tied. Anastasia listened for a moment. It had taken him an embarrassingly long time after the shooting had started to find and deactivate the safety. Renton holding a forgotten assault rifle only partially removed his bag. whatever she decides to do. from right behind her. his mind operating with a strange clarity despite the sheer horror of his surroundings. Margot.” she said. you and Edward know what to do. “I am not going in the basement if Alex isn’t. “Kill two birds with one stone. exactly. pointing to the pile of mostly empty bags leaning against one wall of the concrete building. the snub-nosed submachine gun was a deceptively heavy mass of black carbon fiber stock and tooled metal. especially the big one. turning away from Alex and walking toward the edge of the valley. his eyes still locked on Mitsuru as if they were locked in epic combat. “Yes. firing at the nearby brush when it moved suspiciously. and tended to pull down.” she said. and how many he had fired already. as the front end was too heavy for the grip. “What can you do?” -Alex wasn’t even totally sure how to operate the gun he’d been handed. I’m not asking you to do it. and exactly what he was supposed to do when they were all gone. she brushed his hand distastefully off her arm. strapped to the small of her back. Alex didn’t even bother to aim. moving briskly over the damp ground. and let us do our jobs.” Mitsuru ordered. Mitsuru turned around. and everyone froze in shock. “Who. no choice. Then she went back to being just a touch amused. understand? I’m telling you. to have answered Mitsuru’s question. without looking back. watching a plan come together.” Mitsuru nodded gravely. further out towards the edge of the clearing. raising her voice slightly. I would imagine so.” “So.” Mitsuru reminded.” Anastasia said brightly. all teeth and claws and knotted muscle under matted fur. are you talking about?” Alex faced Mitsuru as defiantly as he could manage. And you and Eerie can’t even defend yourselves. looking unhappy. not in a real sense. even Anastasia standing wide-eyed and staring. he could sometimes hear distant screams and howls. with a determined voice that made it very difficult for Anastasia not to laugh. “Then do it. much less help the rest of us. looking more surprised than angry. “We may not have time for discussion.” Eerie said shyly. Alex. inclining her head in the direction of the ramshackle structure. right? That Weir?” Everyone was surprised. balled his fists. or her jibe. this isn’t up for debate. Not for the first time. Mitsuru stood up. nodding at Renton and Edward. Mitsuru and Margot had disappeared as soon as the shooting started. then stay out of the way.” she insisted. her hands clenched in front of her. “I’m going to stay up here and fight. “Eerie and you.” Mitsuru said. he wondered how many bullets he had.” Anastasia suggested helpfully. approaching rapidly. you won’t ever see him. “Renton says that he discovered a number of large. then. even if it didn’t all go exactly the way that she had expected. who was staring at Mitsuru in shock at her totally understandable disregard.” he said quietly. After a moment.” Anastasia turned and smiled at Alex. “The noncombatants can stay inside there. Anastasia couldn’t understand how she managed to cross the clearing and walk up behind Mitsuru without her noticing – frankly. What could she have said? It wouldn’t have helped anything. Where is Margot?” “She’s already in place. instead of exploding.” Alex shook his head slowly. “It is my job to bring all of you home. Run and hide. glaring definitely at Mitsuru. and stood there. “and waiting. “and that is final. pulling the belt that held her guns from the bag at her feet. and then walked over to stand close to Alex. So the two of you are going in the basement. Alex wondered how long the fight had been going. underneath a nearby tree since they had arrived in the valley. behind a chunk of discarded concrete from some ancient foundation. “Maybe you could hide underneath Eerie’s skirt. He just lowered his head. brushing the dead grass from her jeans. and with the clip in. Eerie. who was moving quickly from impatient to infuriated.” Alex barely acknowledged Anastasia. with a sound that was something between a scream and a howl. Alex wasn’t too sure that it made much difference – he was fairly certain that he hadn’t shot anything other than the surrounding flora. probably. and she had to suppress a smile. Renton. and he hadn’t seen either since then. She had been curled. “I am not hiding in that hole. “And keep your head down. she wasn’t any less intimidating for it. As the mass of Weir advanced. feral Etheric signatures nearby. “I don’t know.” Anastasia shrugged half-heartedly. “Anastasia can take care of herself. pointing at the dilapidated ruins. midway through their preparations. as she added a sheathed knife to her belt.” Mitsuru stopped and then shook her head in disbelief when Eerie cleared her throat politely.” Anastasia saw Alex stiffen. a little out of breath. with Anastasia keeping an eye on her. and how long it would continue. asleep or pretending to be asleep. All of you.” Alex grabbed Mitsuru’s arm. then nodded and turned back to Mitsuru. Renton had showed him how to fire short bursts from the thing. with a hint of a shrug. Edward and I are all combat veterans. Alex noticed an odd thing. Not for the first time.” he said firmly.” Renton said. “Alright. . Mitsuru simply nodded.decided to let them wonder. up until the transfer is ready. Renton ran over to Anastasia and whispered his report to her. she hadn’t even seen her get up from under the tree – and Anastasia felt a trace of annoyance over it. looking a bit annoyed. though during the occasional breaks in the gunfire. exchanging fire with targets that remain stubbornly invisible to Alex. Renton. Alex already heartily wished that he had done just that. her eyes downcast. It always made her feel upbeat.

they had never involved her bleeding so much. or whether he would stay deaf forever. waiting and ready. The Weir leapt at her. “maybe. they streamed past Renton’s position as if he wasn’t there. and looked at the huddled Weir curiously. where they were exposed to fire from all angles. Though he would have been too embarrassed to admit it. and he thought that one or two might actually have hit. returning to their forward push. bringing him to a stumbling halt ten meters away from Mitsuru and the Weir. . and Alex wondered about the extent of her injuries. jumping out of the way as the Weir charged. The Weir spun to face her again. not even aware that he had dropped to his knees. three rounds hitting one of the Weir in the chest. It must have echoed. Alex felt his feet start moving before his brain became aware of the plan. holding its frost covered paws out accusatorially. not wholly. savage talons stained red. “You…” The Weir snarled through a jumbled mass of teeth and tongue. emptying her pistol into the side of the Weir as it passed. the Weir pressed forward. Mitsuru rolled clumsily to the side.moving as far as the withering fire from Renton and Edward would allow. with no perceptible effect. She looked frustrated. and coughing slushy. and this time. the fire against them wavered. Alex watched as Renton calmly lifted the rifle to his shoulder. Anastasia’s arm smacked into his chest. its other arm still clutching at its chest. or fighting a great silver wolf-monster. but Alex couldn’t hear anything at that point. Alex reached up himself. She looked as collected as ever. Then he remembered the protocol. but all Alex could hear was a painfully insistent ringing sound. The Weir lumbered forward. howling in outrage and pain. there was no doubt about it now. If there were multiple explosions. and the scene came into focus. Alex exhaled. the bullets impacted normally. Alex manage to get a few clean shots off. trying to locate the sound. Mitsuru was slowing down. paralyzed by a feeling that had not quite had time to coalesce into fear. away from the howling. the hollow point shells mushrooming when they impacted the skin. as a surging wave of beasts crossed the empty ground between them.” “Was. It blinked and tried to look up at Mitsuru as she stood over it. which somehow made him sick and proud at the same time. in the valley between those hills. but when he charged Mitsuru again. He could see other. only to have another of their number picked off by Renton. he probably never would have done what needed to be done. the trees nearby bending and cracking. Mitsuru moved oddly. in the form of crudely defined silhouettes. It took a little while before his brain processed what he was seeing. clutching at its wounded side and moaning. and Alex clearly felt the Etheric ripple that meant he had attempted to activate some sort of protocol. away from the teeth and hot breath he imagined was on his heels. then he looked over at the fight. He tossed aside the assault rifle at the last moment. firing the pistol she held at its back as it passed. while Mitsuru regarded it calmly. she managed to dodge the attack by dropping beneath it. Mitsuru stepped to the side almost casually. striking the ground with surprising force and then whining. and realized what Anastasia had in mind. He opened his eyes. The remaining Weir turned and spun in place. Mitsuru wobbled her way back to her feet. his empty submachine gun hanging useless from one hand. not at first. He wondered how long she had been fighting the thing. and then fired a quick burst. Then. which was probably for the best – had he been thinking clearly. Sure isn’t now. For some reason. She had not dodged the Weir’s strike. At first there were no obvious changes. tossing aside the useless submachine gun as he did so. without warning. with no more effect. Mitsuru stood above the Weir. and she knew that a Black Protocol had been activated. to pinpoint their attacker’s position. When he recovered enough to find his way to his feet. With a tremendous effort. its eyes blinded by a rime of frost that stretched across the tissue. standing on the balls of her feet. Then Alex went stiff. limping toward the Weir. then a semblance of the world he remembered before the concussive wave. Alex had in fact had a few dreams about Mitsuru. and were eventually driven back. he scrabbled against the dark. She didn’t even bother to try and counterattack this time. holding him up. he was not nearly as fast. whore. but all it managed to do was expel more of the thick reddish slush from inside its mouth. and then there was a lost interval. The part of his mind that was still capable of thinking was consumed with the hope that he would not wet himself before he was devoured. when he remembered how to do that. a sound for which he could find no comparison. and one huge noise. either because she lacked the energy or the opportunity. then Alex could not tell – there was simply a terrific force that knocked him and everything around him to the ground. tearing frantically at the Black Door in the recesses of his mind. moving much slower than it had earlier. apparently unhurt. one of the eyelids sticking to the surface of the retina. then came up firing. Anastasia tried to say something to him. the Weir seemed to forget and lose interest. It hissed something. Alex activated the Absolute Protocol. Edward’s screaming was mercifully brief. He was already busy. Alex shrugged helplessly. In some places. this made no sense to him. then grabbed Alex by the back of his head. its silver pelt now thoroughly covered with a thick coating of frost. Occasionally. and the resulting wound on her chest was deep and ugly. and the instructions Rebecca had left for invoking it. Alex already fast asleep on the lap of her ruined dress. For a panicked moment. catching itself with one paw. and yelled directly in his ear. creating great bleeding craters. Meanwhile. more minor wounds on her left arm and the back of her head. apparently oblivious to the fact that he stood among them. but in other places. She was covered in a layer of fine dust. But. and bled. but he thought he heard the phrase ‘Black Protocol’. “Trickery. partially frozen blood onto the ground in front of it. but she looked otherwise unhurt. but Alex saw something he didn’t like in her stance. “What is this? What is it that you’ve done?” Mitsuru said nothing. The Weir landed in a heap. crossing the distance between them in an instant. and his body temperature began to drop dramatically. or that Anastasia was crouched beside him. One paw clutched at its chest while it attempted a sort of shambling run in Mitsuru’s direction. She looked over at Alex. this seemed very important. Then she felt the Ether seethe and roil. frosty wood of the door helplessly. She tucked and rolled. Alex was thrown to the ground by the force of an explosion. distracted by the blood leaking from the side of his head. She put one hand to the side of his head. leaving behind great cavities that sparkled with pinkish-red ice crystals. he did so. and if it was going as badly as it looked. the sheen of frost that extended across the majority of its arms and torso cracked and bits of ice fell to the ground around it. As it moved. Alex couldn’t tell.” The Weir fell forward. The Weir didn’t appear any the worse for wear. And so it went for what seemed to Alex to be a very long time – the Weir pushed forward into the clearing. barely avoiding being torn to pieces by the monster’s claws. The silent. pulling him forcibly back toward the ruined building by the collar of his shirt. almost crumpling. and even in her debilitated state. Alex couldn’t be sure. and his vision slowly returned to him. his lips and eyelids started to turn blue. Anastasia watched as Mitsuru brought down the knife. and when she pulled it back. Anastasia stomped her foot. and he was surprised to see pity in the look. before he stopped struggling against Renton and started running himself. secure in what Alex could only assume was some kind of telepathic protocol. For a moment. and ran even harder toward them. it was too late. Something in Alex’s brain tripped. her wounded leg dragging behind her. Then he saw Mitsuru. but whatever he had attempted. and finally started working again. “this fight was mine. Alex watching in numb horror. his limbs and back rigid. After a few moments of half-hearted searching. He kept firing even as the Weir pounced on him. and then tried yelling. the surface cold and unyielding.” it hissed at the advancing Mitsuru. and she had to hold a hand up to confirm that he was still breathing. and her dress was in shreds. perhaps it tried to speak. a long knife in the other. Renton continued to quietly pick off the beasts. her blazing red eyes fixed on the monster. even the slobber at the edges of its jowls frozen and sparkling. As Anastasia watched. dead time. Alex realized. as he had been led to believe there would be. He assumed that he was dead when Renton grabbed him. the flesh seemed to shatter on impact. a 9mm in one hand.” Mitsuru said lightly. wondering if the nanites inside him would be able to repair his hearing. his eyes rolled back in his head. smoky world that confronted him was so different from what he remembered that he was tempted to dismiss it as some sort of violently surreal dream. arms spread wide. Edward was the closest. and he realized that her left leg was stiff and the foot was dragging on the ground. it was bloody. his mauled body dragged back to disappear in brush and darkness. The Weir dropped to its knees. and therefore the first to go under. and realized that he was bleeding from both ears.

.

you’re going to bring down the whole of Central on our heads.” “How could this happen?” He mumbled. and managed only a croak. the IV tube stretching and pulling against his skin. in a rectus of fear and mania. the light spilling underneath the door seemed impossibly bright. Alex tried to sit up. His back was impossibly stiff and sore and his whole body ached. forcing himself up with his arms. puzzled. looking a bit teary eyed. keeping it down this time. when there was a soft knock on the door. and it was brilliant even behind his eyelids. She had the pack halfway out of her pocket before she remembered where she was. The rest of them are fine. just think clearly and slowly. before trying again. and managed it after a certain amount of coaxing and waiting out his cramped muscles. but mostly during the evenings and mornings.” She brought Alex back a glass of water. there is a price to pay. before she went to go refill it. Alex could barely keep his eyes open. Wednesday. Rebecca standing over the bed and beaming down at him. feeling oddly empty. and he was surprised to find that he had the better part of a beard. Rebecca shook her head. “What…” Alex croaked. “The Wednesday before Christmas. .” she said. but seized with a formless anxiety. huh?” Alex drank most of the water in the cup. Alex’s expression froze. but when she met his stare. He tried to compose his thoughts. and had to suppress his urge to start removing the IV gear from his arms. didn’t it? But then again. The room lit up. you don’t have to use your eyebrows so much to communicate telepathically. but he couldn’t find anything of the kind. then… Then he had been asleep for weeks. He was already starting to feel better. Even in the dim confines of what he now recognized as a hospital room. “generally. you stupid fucking idiot. you basically froze the bastard somehow. Alex lurched forward in the bed. He could hear gentle. then? His hand brushed against his face in the darkness. looking at the floor. a sense that he’d missed something important. She put a finger to his lips. “I’ll get you some water. not sure how long he’d been asleep. “I knew you’d wake up.” Rebecca apologized. gritting his teeth. his skin flushed and covered in cold sweat. he realized he was not alone. He leaned forward in the bed. “but if you freak out right now. this can’t…” Rebecca sighed softly. It was very clear that she was not joking with him. tried to form words. Alex. “She’s been here almost every night. holding the plastic cup in both hands. because they aren’t speaking to each other. you know that. from a jumble of shapes and objects it took him a few minutes to identify. putting one hand on his forehead. Alex panicked completely. who continued to sleep. not sure where he was. “Close your eyes. How long had it been.” Alex finished the water. “You really suck at telepathy. rhythmic breathing from somewhere near the bed. “Don’t try and talk yet. “You used a Black Protocol. He felt a tremendous sense of calm. not sure what was happening. for a moment. “Oh dear. her legs curled in a ball in her heavy black tights. His eyes were bloodshot and wide with panic. all of a sudden. It had to be a joke. “Sorry about that. and then he quietly folded back into the pillows behind him. and managed a single noisy sip. trying to remember what day it had been when they fought with the Weir. which is funny. Emily is going to be pretty upset when she finds out that you woke up when she wasn’t around. And as his eyes adjusted. What happened to…?” Rebecca shook her head slowly. “Oh. and then stopped and cleared his throat. and Alex found it very difficult to breathe. then smacked him on the forehead. more or less.” She sat down on the chair next to the sleeping girl. and heard the rattle of the IV stand and felt the tug of the tape and tubes that were strapped to his arm. He winced and rubbed it. “Oh shit. and then looked pleadingly at Rebecca and shook the empty cup in her direction. “No way. Alex tried to speak. Emily has been here a lot too. For a moment. next to a basket that contained her knitting supplies. looked around her sadly. drained of the panic that he could only vaguely remember. awake. “Oh.” Rebecca said. if it wasn’t. and then spent the better part of a minute coughing it back up while Rebecca patted him on the back. “Good thing you’re better at surviving.” Alex attempted to smile back at her. and sat back down next to Eerie. and you definitely don’t want that. Eerie had pushed two chairs together next to his bed and was sleeping there. “No.” Alex said. I’m reading your thoughts. Plus. “I think they have some kind of system worked out so they are never here at the same time. her sneakers tucked neatly underneath the chair. he managed a bit more of the water. in fact. so don’t worry about trying to talk to me. tearing the tape from one arm. ripping the hair from his arm and bringing tears to his eyes. He raised it clumsily to his lips. “What day is it?” Rebecca suddenly looked worried. and then patted him gently on his knee. which he managed to take from her with a certain amount of difficulty. I already told you this. you’re going to do yourself some harm. After that. right?” Rebecca took the cup patiently. and then reached reflexively for her cigarettes. of assurance. but any time you use a Black Protocol. hon. now thoroughly convinced that he was. “He didn’t make it. totally unaffected. running her hand through her faded blue hair. well.Twenty Nine Alex woke with a start. looking at Eerie significantly. Mitsuru stayed down the hall for a week or so. his face gone placid and serene.” Rebecca patted Eerie on the head affectionately. and smiling at her with an almost maternal affection. and he was alarmingly thinner than he remembered being. It took some time before he managed to open first one eye and then the other. You helped Mitsuru to kill that Weir. and the movement inadvertently tore the tape stretched across his forearm. Alex. not sure whether he was awake or not. last I heard.” Alex put his head in his hands. “Uh. surrounded by blazing white light like the portrait of a saint.” Alex looked up at her sad expression incredulously.” she said sweetly. his eyes wet but unworried.” he said. and then set it down on the table beside the bed. from behind his hands. she seemed sad. his voice strained. okay? I’m going to come in…” Alex obediently screwed his eyes shut. if Rebecca was serious. like a memory he didn’t have of his mother’s hand resting on his forehead when he was very young. He looked around him for one of those call buttons he’d seen on TV shows. More than a month. and then slid the pack back into her jeans with a sigh. He reached to wipe the sleep from his eyes.” Alex glared at Rebecca. He’d half-resolved himself to try standing up and make his way out to the hallway. his throat cracked and terribly painful. that is.” Rebecca laughed.” he said. “Alex?” He heard Rebecca’s voice from the other side of the door. “Edward. heading toward the sink. I knew you would. like being wrapped in blankets on a cold day. from what I hear. She’d looked as if she’d been there for a while. I hope that it seems worth it. maybe finding a nurse or something.

some of the time. “Sort of. But she didn’t seem to particularly care about them. I’m not going back to sleep. or recording the day’s events.” . what? What does it matter?” Rebecca shrugged. The surgery. so. Alex?” Alex shook his head. the more of her memory is gone forever. then.” The stare Rebecca fixed him with was hard. “Alice is an extreme example.” Alex held his hands up in surrender.” Alex thought for a moment. “Why? Why did this happen?” “We don’t know. that’s for sure. one way or the other. “I don’t know what it means. you know? Don’t take me too seriously. Girls take this sort of thing seriously. “This is all kind of a moot point. I mean. and I came here to talk to you about some important things. when you act as a catalyst for her abilities?” “I don’t know. “Alex. and I’m sorry I gave you that impression.” Rebecca admitted. “This is.” Rebecca cut in. smiling. resting her forehead on her hand tiredly.” “…and?” “And I’m wondering if you want that. “Well. “She isn’t fully human. Mitsuru’s scars.” “I don’t get it.” Rebecca said glumly.” “I never do. folding her arms across her chest and sitting back in the chair.” Alex yawned and sat up in his hospital bed.” “What’s up with Eerie? Why isn’t she waking up?” Rebecca smiled and stroked Eerie’s cheek gently with the back of her hand.” Rebecca nodded.” she asked. I didn’t mean to be a jerk. and that’s already kind of a dangerous thing. that thing. for one thing. leaving behind red. “Just wanted to give you fair warning. for different reasons. right?” “Yeah. It won’t be repeated. one of the things I wanted to talk to you about. and? I don’t mean to be rude or anything. after all. Alex. then I don’t care. that Eerie is acting this way. “I bet. when it happens. you know.” he said apologetically. is likely to be.” Alex said. Alice…” Alex said. then?” “You little shit. while you were in San Francisco. where the tape had been torn away. because I’m not going back to sleep. just to be sure this wasn’t an extremely odd dream. okay? She insists on using her protocol all the time. She’s fast asleep. “Who in the hell makes up all these rules?” Rebecca smiled and patted him on the leg. I know she’s gone out with boys before. spreading her hands. then we are in unexplored territory. “mixed results. I’ve known Eerie since she could walk without falling over. cheerfully. soon. that doesn’t seem all that odd. Alice forgets things every time she uses her protocol. Alex. uh. “If you don’t care.” Rebecca paused and looked briefly angry. puzzled. “What’s so scary about Eerie?” “Well. The more she uses it. if you prefer. Other people handle it better. Alex. scratching his head. but compared to my daily life lately.” Rebecca said. Alex. the whole ‘my body is a drug factory’ thing. smirking.” “Eerie presents her own set of complications. if you ask me. The price for a Black Protocol is always greater than what you get from using it. she cut herself when she saved me. “Besides.” he said.” Rebecca said darkly. “Sure. You know you aren’t the only one here in Central who uses them. despite the consequences. right? The implant. even with only the edges of the panic he’d felt nudging him. “How did you figure that out?” “Well. unstable work in the field. did you?” “N-no. clutching her knees to her chest. “Beyond that.” Rebecca said.“So I slept for a month? That seems…” Rebecca looked downcast. intense. she’s not totally abnormal. “Before she used the barrier protocol. her voice tolerant and frank. right?” Alex nodded. looking at him doubtfully. The calm that Rebecca had flooded him with earlier had started to ebb a bit. “I still can’t believe I’ve been asleep that long. “So that you’ll wake up when only the nurses are here.” “Huh?” Alex said. You see. that first night. “Um. “Consider me warned. “What?” “I don’t know. I can put you back to sleep for a few more hours. But every M-class on record has the same problem. still slightly damp with his sweat. A long time ago. “Mitsuru’s kind of unique. shaking her head. But I’m not interested in keeping you away from anyone. and I’ve never seen her latch on to someone the way she has with you. I can’t be the only one in Central who knows you woke up. unless they had some truly exceptional abilities. “What do you think happens. hundreds of them. “My point is this – Eerie has put a lot of effort into being the first thing you see when you wake up. “That’s why Michael didn’t want you to use this ability at all. the more she does with it. not really. “We don’t have all night. “We still don’t have any idea. you have noticed that she has some little biological quirks.” she said. “Do you know what she does when she’s not out being an Auditor. anyway. nodding. “you know. pulling her feet up onto the seat.” Rebecca admitted grudgingly. “And that’s the whole problem. “I fixed it so she won’t wake up until we are finished. when Emily is around. I thought I was supposed to be staying away from the cartel girls.” “Yeah.” “Being part of the same species is kind of a minimum standard that most people apply in dating.” she agreed. though. dreaming about something that makes her happy. right?” Alex paused while he recalled the room of dead Weir. well. a bit later. “I know. and then his own somewhat fuzzy recollections of the night he’d spent with Eerie. She doesn’t always act like it. right? And her reaction to this.” Rebecca said. that’s beside the point. not for any reason. her eyes sparkling. You didn’t. right?” “Well. “So it’s not like she doesn’t know anything about her life.” Alex said.” she said. If she decides that she likes you. “Not every M-class has problems on that scale. irritated skin. “I’m trying to give you options. and I’m not sure what to make of it – she’s not human. And she spends most of her time reading them. actually.” “Christ.” Rebecca smiled unhappily.” Alex shook his head. do anything with her. “Yeah. more or less. But she doesn’t remember much of it at all. leaning closer. “Right. well. so it will be common knowledge. Both seemed a touch surreal now. closing his eyes and leaning his head back onto the pillow.” Alex scratched at his arm. grimly.” Alex said firmly. I’m not even sure that she likes me. And then with what you just said… It doesn’t seem like you’d let someone that. “Okay. But. “She has a room full of diaries.” Rebecca said. a Black Protocol.” Alex said.” Rebecca said. “I’m still out of it and in shock. you know.” Rebecca said. because she’s read about some of it. maybe more than any other Operator I’ve met. sorry.” Rebecca said. I’m not sure that she even knows what she likes. “Nothing like that.” Rebecca frowned.” “Making Eerie happy is one of the things you wanted to talk about?” Alex fought off the urge to pinch himself. and he was having trouble following what she was saying. Or. what?” “Another time.” “Wait. and an exorbitant cost for using it. there was a plan to help her avoid having to use her Black Protocol. I think this is probably a new experience for her. okay? Eerie seems to be kind of fascinated by you. The whole idea had.” “Wait.” Rebecca nodded sympathetically. looking upset.” Alex stammered. Unlimited power.” Rebecca said approvingly.

and then. Alex. It went on and on. if a bit undernourished. In the half-light of the early morning. patting him on the head and then heading for the door. “You’ve already changed a lot. She stirred. isn’t it? What we can get used to. and let his mind drift. Had he dreamed? Had this all happened before? The headache was so brief. He watched her chest rise and fall. Alex tried to remember what he had been thinking about for the last few minutes for a while. Alex felt so tired. after she left. for her to open her eyes and speak to him. with no specific memory of the time passing. “But. you realize you’ve lost weeks or months. much longer than he could stand. okay. right?” “Why in the world. The silence that followed was beautiful. much to his surprise. It’s always more than you think you could deal with. her face untroubled by whatever passed for a changeling’s dreams.” Alex sat there for a while. nothing to be afraid of. Is she from Pittsburg? There are Fey in Pittsburg?” Rebecca laughed. what happened while he was asleep… “The Church of Sleep. standing up and brushing the wrinkles from her jeans. emotionally. turning the phrase over in his mouth like sour candy. echoes of a pain he had forgotten. drawing her knees up close to her chest. even though it was over before he realized it had begun. you know that. and felt something like peace. it isn’t a brand new experience for me. nothing to worry about.” Rebecca laughed. he didn’t have to do it right now. no expectations to meet. and that bothered him. He felt uncertain. . accompanied by a piercing shriek that reverberated in the back of his skull. He was awake.Alex felt just a bit of the panic he’d felt earlier. opening his eyes and smiling at Eerie. putting her hand against Alex’s forehead. to just lie there. You seem to have everything under control. “You seem totally healthy. something Eerie had told him. blue-veins under the pale skin of his palms.” Alex said. for a little while. Are you feeling any better?” “Thanks to you. if we have to. his eyes half-open. What had been the value of all that sleep. if he had not rested? He frowned. on top of a bed that was not his own. Had he heard someone say that before? Alex wasn’t sure. There was nothing. but I’ll stop meddling in your affairs. then. It felt good. He waited for her to wake. You lose a lot of time. “It’s kind of funny. curled in her giant sweatshirt. in the abstract. why it was that Rebecca kept such a close eye on him. bunched the starched sheets in his hands. on a fundamental level. Alex ran his fingers along the cold rounded steel of the bed frame. it was over before he realized that it had started. “But I think you’re doing okay. Alex watched Eerie sleep. kissed him on the forehead. nothing he had to do. all things considered. and why she got so nervous anytime he mentioned Mitsuru. “I’m going to stay out of your way from here on out. Alex watched Eerie breathe. wondering what she had actually come for. not really. it has to be disconcerting. he thought. He looked down at his hands. shifting her hips. at that moment. and almost understood. But. It’s weird. wondering what it was that she dreamed of. the pink of her slightly parted lips. like he could feel the shape of the thing out there. but there was a certain… resonance. moving against each other with furtive languor. He couldn’t help but wonder how long this particular perspective would last.” “Do I?” Alex gratitude was obvious in his shining eyes. but not necessarily something to be concerned over. A quality of dislocation. There was nothing here to worry him. and flexed his fingers. trying to remember. breathing softly. but when you look at a calendar. no closer to a solution than when he had started. “Yeah. being locked up. “You keep coming to see me every week. evident only in the displacement of air. her lips mouthing words that he could not hear. nothing important. “She says she just likes penguins. let his eyes linger on the curvature of her white calves. A memory from the time before words. Somehow. and then he gave up. maybe. but recognized intuitively. Something about what sleep actually was. to say his name and make everything real. eventually. Alex wondered if he had slept.” Rebecca looked affectionately at the sleeping girl curled beside her. After a few minutes. he decided to put it aside. something to be objectively observed. But you’ll be okay. “No. reluctant to follow his thoughts any further in this direction. in a room that was not quite cold. reaching over to tuck an errant faded blue lock back underneath the hood of her sweatshirt. but it was still somehow distant. “is Eerie wearing a Pittsburg Penguins sweatshirt? Don’t tell me she’s a big hockey fan.” Rebecca smiled at him.” Rebecca said. Alex?” She leaned close to him.” he said softly. This was real. since I met you. shrugging. I’m interested to watch what happens from here. He would have to find out what the deal was. He lay back against the pillows.” Alex asked plaintively. her head peeking out from the gaping hood. something about sleep. though. It still didn’t mean anything to him. He had not forgotten anything. actually – every day seems to stretch on endlessly.” Rebecca said. like something passing nearby in darkness.

The detonation itself was deafening.” Alice said brightly. grinning cheerfully up at him. before yanking on the carabineer. gesturing at the remains of the security cameras. dear. no matter what your intentions were.” Alice slapped Chris on the cheek lightly. silly. her tone cheerful. Now. “Actually. and proceeded to wipe Alice’s face an approximation of clean. The reality was. the elevator looked like a narrow brass bullet. She unzipped the bag. Is that going to be a problem?” Both of the guards moved in unison. I did announce myself and my business. The pins gave way in rapid succession. “My name is Alice Gallow. “No. “I do hope that the rest of your plan is better thought out. once-in-a-lifetime.” Chris attempted to buff his cufflinks. alright? You’ll make me change my mind about giving you the benefit of the doubt.” Alice agreed. one of the guards leaning cautiously closer to peer inside. his mouth moving in some kind of desperate plea or prayer. fished a handkerchief from his inside pocket. and smoothed his hair in the reflection of the polished brass that framed the elevator.” Chris shook his head. all deformed by the velocity of the force that propelled them. “No sense of when to delegate. the other trying to meld himself with the marble paneled wall behind him. and who I am. looking up at his sad reflection in the brass. in fact. I don’t have any virgins I need attacked in their beds at this particular moment.” she said. She upended it onto the desktop. Alice. Inside. “I don’t have an appointment. looking at Alice warily. Alice walked in and Chris followed. and then gave up in despair when he realized the one had already been completely lost. I wonder?” “So I’d look to you to watch my back. accidental. and bits of the unfortunate guards. huddled behind a retaining column near the glass frontage of the office building. She looked like she was reveling in the moment. white fingers. The desk area itself simply disintegrated. with a sound that was oddly like a protracted sigh. Chris followed her across the ruined entryway. and up to a bank of shining brushed metal elevators.” Alice said. The heavy duffel bag she dumped on the faux mahogany desktop with a series of metallic thuds they appeared to like even less. too. If that is how it has to be. pressing her face into her folded arms and rocking back and forth.” she gushed. he couldn’t help but realize.” Chris said dryly. “Of course. Next to Chris. I am making a huge. and the air was suddenly dense with particles of glass and wood.” Alice lowered her voice. “And you’ve had your hand in enough black ops to do it. “This is the best part of the job. “Quite. The wall panels buckled and rattled.” After a moment. Chris looked away. “You were dead the moment you set us up. the front windows and doors having shattered with the shockwave of the explosion. pouring dozens of heavy green German anti-personnel grenades. “You’re probably right. Chris. Alice simply allowed this to happen. brushing the front of her coat absently. “I have a pretty good idea how much harm you’ve done. Alice fell backwards through her own shadow just ahead of the blast wave.” he grumbled. I’m not just making an exception for you here. “You’re going to get me killed. never again to be offered exception.” Alice chuckled.” Alice took him by the shoulders and rested her forehead against his own.” Chris straightened his tie with thin. I warn you. The muscles of his fingers bent strangely. but then he thought better of it and tossed it aside. a satisfying chorus of near-simultaneous clicks. For a moment. her cheeks streaked with tears that had left a trail behind them in the ash and dust that smeared her face. “if I did. their pins daisy-chained and attached to one end of a carabineer with wire. that this is an ineffective.” Alice said.” She looked over at him briefly. and then you could stab me in it. I’ll be watching your back for you. around the charred remains of the front desk. Alice laughed until she wept. Chris had seen it a dozen times. “Why not? They must know I’m here. “You still don’t believe me? Why would I have approached you.” Chris said. patting him on the shoulder and then walking past him.” Alice nodded. “This isn’t my usual stock in trade. He pitied them. though. grinning at the bank of cameras above the security guards’ heads. the dreamy smile fixed on her face. like fucking and winning the lottery at the same time. “And when we get to the top…” Chris proffered. Chris clucked his tongue. all contoured lines and burnished metal. “I never actually wanted to. “This is insane. flexing at the first joint. leaving behind a pile of splintered.” she said quietly. “You kill everyone we find up there. standing up and wiping soot and dust from his hopelessly stained suit. and a moment later the doors slid shut behind them. the larger chunks tossed straight up toward the white painted ceiling.Thirty The two guards behind the desk didn’t seem to like Alice’s cheerful smile very much. though. relishing every action. And I don’t want to hear any more bitching about it. then. Chris. and I’m here in regards to an ongoing Audit of the Terrie Cartel. wasteful use of my services. as ordered by the Director. in various place.” Chris stared back in horror. you know? You are the luckiest man – or whatever – on earth. her blue eyes smoldering. Alice! I’m not like you! I can’t do this. quite mad. was when she was she was in the midst of an Audit. to Chris. “Don’t worry. leaving small dents in the surface. Are we really just going to take the elevator up?” Alice shrugged and pressed the call button. and you know it. one reaching for his gun. yellow as old bone. “But. “This is the hugest favor you’ve ever gotten. and then released him. he looked as if he was going to return it to his pocket. cutting him off. carefully removing the fragments of safety glass from his hair.” Alice said. “Very well. Alice didn’t look like she was working. frowning slightly at his appearance. “Probably. Chris. her eyes huge and. five centimeters long and razor sharp. Alice paused a moment to relish it. tapping the toe of her boot against the brushed aluminum doors of the elevator. and in all probability. You’ll see. smoldering wood.” Chris pleaded. watching the slow climb of the red numbers in the LCD screen mounted above the door. as the elevator began its almost imperceptible assent. I’d probably take care of that one myself. To say that her job was her life would be to trivialize it. the only time that Alice honestly felt like Alice. Alice nodded and stood up. . and then they were silent for a while. He didn’t blame the guards for stammering and hugging the wall. so you can concentrate on convincing me that your little dalliance with our enemies was. his eyes mad with panic. her voice calm and firm. Chris. Alice smiled back at him smugly.” The elevator chime rang and then the doors slid smoothly open. I am trying to bail you out. and it never got less unnerving.” Alice said thoughtfully. her expression satisfied and benign. I don’t know how much good I’m going to be able to do you. the fingernails extruding to become something more like talons. “You ready?” Chris examined his handkerchief sadly. Chris rubbed his cheek.” Chris agreed glumly. “So I’d suggest that trying to do me at least that much good is probably your best strategy right now. Alice smiled back at him. “That’s the problem with you.

her terrible fits of obscene laughter. As he hurried after her. he realized. he thought. and they each put the better part of a twenty-four round clip into the thin metal doors. and perhaps even more dangerous. Chris gave him time to scream. Alice had been dangerous then. “Only one reason I can think of. his feet barely even touching the floor. “They aren’t trying too hard. and truth be told. the ends of his middle and index fingers slipping into the gaping maw of the Weir. and then tearing at his throat with talons on his left hand. The explosion was impossibly loud. Alice emptied her shotgun into the other two soldiers. somehow. mangled by the earlier explosions and a number of . the cabalistic tree of life in black ink. they’d been issued heavy weaponry and given the okay to use it. He glanced around. a look of confusion and fear on his face. Vampires are horrified by monotony as a general principle. and heard the low growls and the sound of heavy padded footsteps on the carpet. both about the effectiveness of such a small charge and about the dubious housing. he was wrong on both counts. Chris had trouble believing that he was the agency behind what was happening. in such cramped conditions. all showing an identical screen saver. They were smart enough to wait until the smoke cleared. her pace unhurried and her body language casual and loose. even the sheer lunacy of her impossibly white smile – all of this. He felt the shells from the HP-5 tear through his abdomen. and then cleared his throat. its teeth working their way inexorably towards his jaw. partially opened.“What’s at the top. glancing down at the mangled bodies with a craftsman’s pride at a job well done.” “Doesn’t that worry you?” “I’m an Auditor. But still. and much of the elevator banks itself. the furthest boughs curling around the pronounced line of her collar bone. He remembered what the little room they shared had felt like. But from where Chris was standing. Why not? He stepped through the man as he tried to turn his gun in Chris’s direction. a mill stone around his neck. He felt the disturbance in the air behind him. dangerous and alluring. and then grabbed him by the neck and squeezed until he felt his spine crack. Alice glanced down at the ruin of her Kevlar coat. each burning a hot channel through the flesh. The actual mercenaries had seen more than enough automatic gunfire for a lifetime.” he observed. she’d turned her back to him. each with an identical workstation. He hit the first one running. one at a time. after all. They certainly didn’t notice the shaped Octol charge that Alice had left. She was no less lovely now. As it turned out. the other scrambling for purchase on its lower jaw. As he tried to force the creatures head away from his throat. He knocked the gun out of the man’s hands with a swipe. wiping at the blood splattered on his shirt with a piece torn from one of the mercenary’s uniforms. at the thin walls and the acoustic tiling along the ceiling. sending one of the partially concealed mercenaries scurrying backwards for better cover. “For you?” Alice asked. concealed behind a bulky reception desk. and were a prudent distance back down the black marble hall. Chris shuddered a bit. It was like a wall. stinking of blood and rotting flesh. he was certain) or because she’d forgotten. just to the side of the entrance. agonizing even through his diminished nervous system. The doors were torn off and hurled across the hallway. even from a distance. glassfronted meeting rooms and any number of rooms filled with shoulder-height cubicles. Next to him. Chris. His fingers tightened around the knuckled and slick metal of the hilt painfully. They were smart enough to reload. what her hair had felt like when he ran his hand through it. clutching his throat as it came apart. The man fell to his feet. The security guards filed cautiously into the elevator. moving impossibly fast. before she’d gunned him down.” They followed the main hallway. Chris had found her fascinating in a way that he never had with a human.” -When the elevator chime dinged on the thirty-fourth floor. She’d turned her back to him. a number of them were eager to. in an innocuous plastic case resembling a light fixture. an expanse of patterned blue carpet stretching out for much of the length of the floor. and knew that the larger group had come from behind. twice. the stench of the beast as it carried him down to the ground. hoisting the gun up to rest across her shoulders. pulling him under water that he found increasingly cold. vivid black. The Weir that he drove it into seemed surprised. Perhaps the baring of her back had been a display for his benefit? Perhaps. he thought. the guards emptied their remaining rounds into the smoky interior of the elevator. in cover or watching through rifle scopes. Chris grabbed the Weir. loudly. attached to the far wall of the elevator with a suction cup. “Opportunity. something about the fragility of her inked shoulder blades. “Cooperation always worries me. watching himself push the blade up through the creature’s jaw. ejected the spent fat red cartridges with an expression of almost feral glee. when the ink had still been a fresh. “Why do you think that is?” Alice pumped fresh shells into the still warm gun. He had time to activate the Thorns protocol before he felt the claws rake his shoulders. as if someone else were doing it. it looked like they didn’t notice the small pile of oiled cloth and foully smoking plastic that Alice had made him light in the front corner of the elevator. Several meters down the hall. the assembled security personnel were smart enough not to wait for it to open. It made Chris remember several cold weeks spent in Prague. the wound across his trachea opening like a deep red mouth. Even as he batted away the pieces of splintered plywood that flew at him from where the beast had broken through the partitioning. . piercing through the mouth and into the skull. She wore a black tank-top with spaghetti straps. She shrugged out of the heavy coat and let it fall to the ground beside her before continuing on. his hand whipping out and across the man’s throat almost as afterthought. his hand slipped on the drool-slick rolls of hair and flesh that surrounded its mouth. opening the other bag and extracting an automatic shotgun. Whether because she knew already (and she must know. the door mechanism whining and the grinding to a halt. the furniture. He’d never been able to understand how humans could tolerate working in such places year after year. and then disappearing almost painlessly in a flash of yellow teeth. After a moment’s hesitation. perhaps Alice remembered more than she’d let on… He sighed and pulled the knife from his pocket. concentrated into a column of flame and debris and concussive force. the skin still red and swollen where it had been abraded. one hand pressed against its moist and slimy snout. and Chris had to fight the urge to cover his ears. Chris inspected the ruins of his jacket with an air of resignation.” she said. tearing apart the men. driving him into the wall behind him with his shoulder. almost thirty years before. It wasn’t like they were mercenaries. behind her neck.” Alice said. Chris had been doubtful when he’d seen it. Hebrew script interwoven in the design. As soon as the alarms had gone off downstairs. Chris watched Alice muffle a giggle. his arms spread wide. Chris could hear the man gurgle and hiss as he dove for the next two soldiers. the rest clustered around the doors. Chris couldn’t blame him. dense tattoo work stretching from the center of her back to cover both shoulders. the way her hair always refused to stay tied back. “They want us to get wherever it is we are going.223 rounds that had been pumped into it by one of the mercenaries. coming out of the elevator. then?” Chris’s words were only a bit slurred through the fangs that poked out behind his upper lip. Operator or no. a snarling half-ton of corded muscle and elongated canines. so the opportunities to use the AR-15s outside the annual trip to the company range for recertification were few and far between. saddened him more than it frightened him. turning them into mincemeat before they could turn and shoot. Chris felt the knife he’d been given as a tremendous burden. sprouting adjoining offices. looking at it. two inside. and ignored them. stepping neatly to the side to avoid the spray from his severed jugular. There were half a dozen guards clustered around the elevator bank.

“Such an idiot. pushing himself up. the heavy gun again resting across her shoulders. detached judgment that he was already dead. was deafening. cocking her head to one side and grinning. its flame buffeted by a wind that she could not feel. She held him tightly to her from where she crouched behind him. As his wits and hearing slowly returned to him. tearing and pulling at the glutinous flesh. you work for me. What difference did it make? There was a single desk in the room. The door opened easily when she turned the tarnished silver knob. the flash of light and heat so close that it seared his hair and scalp. The man behind it rose when she entered and remained standing. her gait confident and unhurried. at least. “Purple was once reserved for royalty. The room on the other side was large. trying to work his head away from the snarling mouth. When he spoke.” Alice gestured impatiently with her free hand. hooking his toes underneath the Weir’s rear leg. She met no further opposition. boss. but it turned into a wet.” she offered.” she observed. ambiguous and somehow off-putting. with someone I would have actually liked to be able to remember. but had been interrupted. the lone red candle guttered. she did so gently. leaning his back against her chest. briefly. Chris. “get on with this?” The man smiled. He could feel the Weir’s breath on his neck. “You’ve always been impatient. now. “Why.” . for a while. The jagged wound that the Weir’s teeth had left behind bled freely. since it had become so dark. “It’s better like this. her muffled voice telling him to relax. gelatinous tissue as possible. “And I am sorry to delay you. moving gently as if in the wind. the silken folds of his robe flexed and bent. almost apologetically. The acoustic tiling had been removed from the ceiling. but his own arm wouldn’t lift up. “No. pieces of hair and flesh floating across the top of the bloody gel. the top of his face hidden by the excessive folds of the purple robe that he wore. whose death drove her to tears. he glanced down at his chest. was from the wound in his throat. “Fuck. walking towards the great stained teak doors at the end of the hall. “That’s what you went with?” The part of the man’s face she could see smiled back. “You don’t remember it at all?” Alice sobbed and then shook her head reluctantly. but he wasn’t sure whether it was his own or the Weir’s. “Do you really not remember me at all. not bothering to wipe the tears and blood from her face. dangling finger left. impaled by half a dozen different spikes that had grown out of the walls and ceiling. On the desk. I would have found a way to save you…” He tried to shake his head. “I know that you mean something to me. there wasn’t much of a hand there now. gradually expanding until he was half-blind. the woman in black clucking over him and helping him sit up. and realized with a sober. his diminished hand tucked underneath his elbow. and perhaps middle-aged. It looked as if she wanted to say something. she guessed. olive-skinned. “But. little more than a nub. the same half-smile on his face. When she finally set him aside. His vision was covered with brilliant white points. that’s okay. his arms folded over his wounded chest. I never liked you Auditors. and anyway he couldn’t see her much. and then realized with an abstract fear that it didn’t even hurt. his head leaning against her chest. Like he could have stabbed me. wishing desperately that she could remember this man that she had felt compelled to save. his face too numb to be sure that he had accomplished it. until she was certain that he wasn’t there any longer. But. He watched Alice roll the corpse of the Weir off of him in the strange silence that followed. He was clean-shaven. one hand wrapped loosely around the grip. and all he could see above him was the struggling bulk of the Weir. stark white and horrifying. his voice was little more than a whisper. and its place there was a tangle of exposed wiring and lighting rigs. He tried to breathe and couldn’t.” “What?” He could taste the salt of her tears on his lips when he licked them. He tried a smile. slobbering and hissing in the relative darkness.” she said simply. and a single. Alice. a concussive sound that immediately deafened him. empty apart from a single lit candle and an antique rotary dial phone. just like that. “Purple?” Alice said skeptically. “Look. only about half of which seemed to function. and settled on trying another smile. The Weir’s howl. her face contorted and miserable. But most of the blood pooling on his chest and running down his abdomen. The shotgun blast was like a bomb going off next to his head. until he grew cold and heavy. “These days. of which there was little more than the palm. and Alice could see rolls of unused carpeting and exposed floor boards all around the periphery. Alice?” The man asked the question softly. and in two places. He wasn’t sure if anything happened. Chris wanted to tell her he felt cold. Chris thought that maybe his other hand. but I have to admit this reunion is something that I’ve been looking forward to for some time. a great ancient thing carved from some kind of deep red tropical wood. so can we just. absently loading cartridges from one of her belt’s pouches. “Nasty. jamming it in and the pushing as far into the wet. anyway. my dear. unconcerned. Anyway. I already had this conversation once today. You see. and knew that he didn’t have much longer. and left the Weir to it. I’m sorry…” Chris tried to pat her on the arm. gently. adding to the dream-like feel of the entire scene. as she had expected it to.” he said softly. Chris stared down blankly at the remainder of his right hand. laying him out a few feet from the corpse of the Weir. a guy in a purple bathrobe might seem a little gay. You remember the important part. clutched to her chest. but at the last moment thought better of it. Alice shrugged. might have drifted back to the creatures mouth again.” Alice’s grin broadened.” he whispered. seeing only blurred movement and strange lights. pulling him backwards. but he couldn’t seem to manage the effort.” Alice said. She looked over at the Weir that Chris had stabbed with the knife he’d concealed. “No. eh?” She said to no one in particular. so large that she suspected that a number of interior walls had been knocked out to create the space. “So that’s what you had in mind for me. even from across the room. He thought briefly of asking her to not squeeze so tightly. nor did she expect to. I can’t remember why. “Chris. His chest was a hideous mess. trying to widen the wound.Chris worked one leg out from underneath the crushing weight of the thing. thumb. racking cough. She didn’t bother to count. Chris?” He tried to laugh. He almost laughed again. “Prague. the wounded one. and for a short time. pinned against the other members of its pack. she collected the knife and her shotgun. Someone had started the process of installing off-white carpeting in the room. She decided that she was pleased with its suffering. “Purple is also the color of magic. but she had no trouble hearing it nonetheless. She looked at him.” Alice laughed. “You might want to go with something a bit more contemporary. but he couldn’t feel it anymore.” When the man laughed. his voice only barely audible. Whatever you say.” he sputtered. coming only inches from his face. kicking at the knife with toe of her boot experimentally. gouged and shredded by the Weir’s scrambling forepaws. her arms wrapped around his shoulders. fractured ribs jutted out from the torn skin. and Chris was amazed to see that she was crying. the metallic thread that constituted the fringe catching the light in odd ways. Hot blood dripped down onto his face and neck.” After a moment’s thought. both lungs punctured multiple times. Alice…” She held him. its weight crushing the air from his lungs. He worked the thumb he had forced into the creatures eye. he realized. fuck. Alice pressing her ear to his bloodied mouth to try and make it out. His mangled hand flailed uselessly around its lower jaw. He managed to work his other thumb up and into what he hoped was the creatures eye. Chris wondered why Alice made no move to try and stop it. The only sound was the moaning of the one Weir who had survived the Thorns protocol. most of its body already rendered into a foul soapy liquid. He felt Alice wrap her arms around him. only a few feet from where the mob of Weir stood. too slippery with blood and saliva to find a grip. he remembered. unable to force any air into his chest. “Right.” he said affectionately.

“then why is it that I am here conducting an Audit on Central’s authority?” “Because that’s what I asked you to do. nervous and uncertain. I needed you to become an Auditor. I am truly grateful. .” the man in the robe said insistently. Alice. a gesture that sent ripples down the length of the purple fabric. only his olive fingers visible poking out from the generous sleeves. feral ecstasy. leering.“No.” “Right. “Whatever you say. then you can call me the Rosicrucian. Around her. Alice.” Alice said. “In that case. But.” Alice lifted the shotgun off her shoulders. you know? It hurts my pride very much that you don’t remember me. “You were one of my very best. Then she pulled the trigger.” the man said.” he said. No big thing to me. small purple sparks dancing around him in strange. “Since I’m on official business. contrary rotations. if you can’t remember it. or I can have Alistair interrogate your corpse. I’m telling the truth. “This isn’t necessary. And I’m not telling you my name because you already know it.” Alice smile widened by a millimeter. try and get me off. shrugging. almost pleaded. she heard the heavy footfalls and the deep guttural intakes of breath from the restless crowd of Weir. leveling it one-handed at the man’s head.” “If I work for you.” The man chuckled softly.” Alice snapped. You can tell me. “We used to be lovers. fuck this. snapping and sparking in the air around him. before I finish you.” Alice said acidly. “You can’t possibly win. Alice’s face lit up with pure. I’ll need your name. either way. “More than two hundred years ago. Behind the gaping mouth of the gun. and you’ve done so very well for me.” The Rosicrucian raised his arms up.

” Alex said. She was cute. and the smile that he saw was ugly.” he said. It had melted as it hit the ground. The window reflected his smile back at him. “I wore a dress. After a moment. waiting until he heard the door click closed behind him before he returned to the window.” Alex was quiet for a moment. “Anastasia never even asked about you. Eerie didn’t move away.” Eerie laughed and twirled around next to him. Renton. her hands hidden inside her voluminous sleeves. even the sides of the buildings and the ornate stonework.” Eerie said mischievously. Didn’t even look over at him. Ana. “My. She caught him looking at her and smiled at him. and exhaled in relief. much to Renton’s evident disappointment. he watched them. causing him to blush and look away. “ Alex looked over at her. He swallowed hard. “I guess. sighting down the gun barrel at the fire that roared in the fire place. turning over in lazy revolutions as they descended. -Anastasia sighed and let the window curtain fall back into place. but then she intertwined them. seemingly lost in the scenery of the snow-covered campus. But. something that he had only read about in books. He wondered if the grass was still alive. he found himself sticking his tongue out to catch the snow on. “I’m not sure that I know what home feels like. and he started to worry that he would walk into her. my. He fought off the urge to turn away. standing up to walk beside her. “Merry Christmas. and found it suddenly a bit hard to breathe. It was awkward. wiping his hands clean with a nearby towel. the tall. to be honest. his heart pounding in his chest and ringing in his ears. He looked out at the snow. and I’m tired.” Eerie observed warmly. “It’s still hard to believe its December. That boy is terribly predictable. her grey skirt flaring up around her as she landed lightly on the snow.” Renton looked up from the desk where he sat. “You missed the Winter Dance. wiped the sweat from his hand against his jeans. “What about you. her arms spread for balance.” she said tiredly. I hope you like my present. his face composed in a parody of sincere concern. He’d been a bit surprised that it fit him perfectly. Didn’t flinch. “No. wincing. “especially during the first week. “I didn’t really expect that…” “Not everyone was worried. and their clumsy. puzzling over the disassembled parts of a Austrian automatic pistol. despite all the snow. and felt strangely envious. looking up at the dense grey sky. Their fingers tangled awkwardly for a moment. and then took a step toward her. to run off on some kind of contrived excuse. Everything was covered in a layer of powder. hand in hand. awkward boy and the blue-haired girl. looking away. as if it had simply never occurred to her that she was supposed to sink. reaching absently down to scratch underneath the jaw of the fawning Weir nearest to her. and then reached for the strange girl’s hand. Renton smiled and returned to the broken-down Glock. almost an inch of blond showing at her part. despite the cold. her sneakers making only a slight indention on the snow as she walked along the top of it. her hand seemingly the only warm thing in the perfect. And… Merry Christmas. “It started snowing almost two weeks ago. I guess I’m closer to happy here than I’ve been anywhere else. Good night. hard round balls of ice that turned brown and disintegrated into the mud. “Merry Christmas. So I like it better here. Alex.” she said finally. smiling ghoulishly. he thought. We have plenty of time.” Alex said. Everything worked out the way I expected. attempting to mold it into a snowball. I’m going to bed. “and a merry Christmas to . too. “But I’ve never been happy there. “The Academy starts to feel a bit like home. walking along the edge. walking this close. wrapped in her oversized sweatshirt. wrapping his hand around her own. disappointed to find that it was too dry and wouldn’t stick together. I don’t know… like I want to be here. to make a joke. but Eerie continued to walk on next to him. He c the exact opposite of what I tell him to.” he said softly. I’m sorry I missed it.” The only snow Alex had ever seen had been closer to hail. I feel. Alex realized he was holding his breath. Our agreement with her has been satisfied. with bits of snow caught in her tussled blue hair. When did it snow?” Eerie frowned and brushed a strand of hair out of his face that had somehow freed itself from the confines of his new knit cap.Thirty One “It snowed. The whole campus was buried under nearly a foot of virtually undisturbed snow.” Alex looked around the quad.” Eerie said with a concerned smile. hopping up onto the edge of a concrete planter that bordered the quad. her cheeks flushed.” Eerie added shyly. “or something like that. “Maybe some other time…” They walked along the cleared path in the quad. tossing the snow aside. holding hands. Eerie?” Eerie appeared to consider it for a moment. “I was worried. “let it go for now. Her hand felt fragile and warm. I wish I could have seen that. struggling for words. He waited for a moment for some kind of reaction. “I’m a little surprised that everyone worried about me so much. walking beside Eerie. “I have two homes already. “Alex is happy to be back.” Eerie’s cheeks burned. despite the brown. He looked up at Eerie and smiled. doesn’t it?” Alex crouched down and grabbed a handful of the snow. I think I have friends here. yawning. This was nothing like that. with more falling in fat white flakes.” Anastasia turned rapidly. so they were walking slightly closer. Anastasia waved him off.” Alex said. he took another cautious step closer. and walked out with two wolves trailing behind her. one foot in front of the other. frozen world. Alex staring at the clumps of brown grass that peaked through at the edges where the snow was thinnest.” Alex stammered. Last I remember it was a week before Halloween. and she told me that you would definitely wake up. “Wow. standing up and walking towards the door. bringing them almost side by side.” “Oh.” she said. Alex took a deep breath. Alex walked beside Eerie in silence. as casually as if she’d been expecting it. just waiting for the right time to let everyone know it. as she hopped down at the edge of the planter. Without even thinking about it. obscuring the view of the pair walking across the quad. Eerie padding along beside him almost silently. and that she probably had ample opportunity to get the size right. stunned at how much had changed while he slept. Then he returned to the table. He felt his cheeks burning. For a moment. “Um. and he was reduced to a state something like awe. his own sneakers crunching through the snow and slowly soaking through. “Do you want me to…” he began. self-conscious progress across the snow. her eyes sparkling. until it occurred to him that Eerie had knitted it while he lay unconscious. one particularly cold winter in Bakersfield. Rebecca came down to see you every day. his hands spattered with a light coating of gun oil. lost in thought.” Eerie admitted. But. walking across the deserted white campus. to the machined metal and oil and rags laid out on it.

Alex. too.you.” .

. building computers. he enjoys hiking. in an 80-year old Tudor in Oakland. Chloe. Ein. During the day.ABOUT THE AUTHOR Zachary Rawlins lives with his lovely and amazing wife. he works in the environmental industry. photography. In his free time. California. and their genius Corgi. and writing books like this one.

available January. Paranoid Magic Thinking. . Unknown Kadath Estates. Also.Thank you for reading The Academy! I hope that you will consider checking out the first volume of my light novel series. 2011. 2012. coming in November. keep your eyes out for Book Two of the Central Series. The Anathema.

Table of Contents One Two Three Four Five Six Seven Eight Nine Ten Eleven Twelve Thirteen Fourteen Fifteen Sixteen Seventeen Eighteen Nineteen Twenty Twenty One Twenty Two Twenty Three Twenty Four Twenty Five Twenty Six Twenty Seven Twenty Eight Twenty Nine Thirty Thirty One .

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