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Authors: J. Kraft Mitchell

The nexus series: books 1-3

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THE NEXUS SERIES

Books 1-3

 

J. Kraft Mitchell

  

Copyright© 2012, 2014 by J. Kraft Mitchell

Allrights reserved.

 

Nopart of this document may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by anymeans, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, withoutprior written permission of the author.

  

CONTENTS:

 

THENEXUS.3

Episode1: The Offer.6

Episode2: Second Thoughts.64

Episode3: Home.114

Episode4:  Cobalt Viceroy.173

THEDARK BENEATH..232

Episode1: Hydra.234

Episode2: Revelations.301

Episode3: Beyond the Dark Star.362

Episode4: Project RedEyez.454

EARTH’S SHADOW...511

Episode 1:  GuardianAngels.512

Episode 2:  Hibernation.576

Episode 3:  Welcome toEarth.625

Episode 4:  Spider Webs.677

   

THE NEXUS

Tothe youth at Calvary—past, present and future.  Always remember youare a part of something much bigger than yourselves. 

 

THANKYOU:

Becky and Emil,my go-to people for all things sci-fi.

Mom and Dad, fornot saying it’s silly of me to want to be a novelist (which it is).

Pastor Tom, foralready calling me a writer even when I wasn’t.

The Wednesdaynight Bible study guys, for the support and the prayers.

Albert and theDiedrichs, for the pointers.

Hannah, mybiggest fan and my best critic.

 Episode 1: The Offer

 

1

 

 

WATCHfor the light,the man on the phone had said.

So Jillwatched.  She watched from an alley across the street while the rainpoured down her face in little snaking streams.  The light would come, sheknew.  Any moment it would appear in the window three stories up the oldbrick building.  When a client on the phone said something would happen,it happened.  People didn’t hire someone like Jill unless they’d alreadymade sure of the details of their plan.

She keptwatching.  Rain kept falling.  Drops sparkled for an instant wheneverthey fell past the amber streetlamps.  No other light shone from anywhereon this block.  Over the rooftops the skyscrapers along the Avenue ofTowers glittered in the distance.  But here there was no traffic, no nightlife, no sound except the far off hum of downtown and the pattering of therain.  It was just one of the floating city’s outer neighborhoods that hadbeen abandoned.

Then a square ofgold appeared with a flicker.  It was a light in the window Jill waswatching.

Jill’s heart beatfaster.  The errand was starting.  You always got a nameless feelingwhen an errand started.  It was something like fear, something likeexcitement, something like pride—but different than all those things.  Thefeeling was good, Jill told herself.  It gave her the drive and the focusto do her job.  And no one could do better at this sort of job than Jillcould.  She pushed stray rain-soaked locks of black hair away from herdark eyes and crossed the empty street.

Don’t enterthe building until the light turns on, the man on the phone had said. Once you’re inside, enter no room but the room with the light.

She walked up thestairs to the front door of the building.  If it had a lock it was broken;it opened easily.  Light from the streetlamps threw amber patterns acrossthe stairs in front of her.  The creaky steps went up and doubled back,went up and doubled back again.

Down the narrowthird floor hall she saw a line of light beneath one of the doors.

She went into theroom.  It had no furniture except a table.  A single lamp stood overit, and a small cardboard box sat on it.  The box was plain and unmarkedlike the man on the phone had said it would be.

She grabbed thebox and left in a hurry.

 

Amanwith a long coat and brimmed hat stood in a dark, empty room.  The roomwas on the ninety-ninth floor of the Trans-Spatial Communications buildingdowntown.  He looked out the window at the countless lights of the city.

MetropolitanSatellite IX.  That was the original name of the city.  Somecalled it MS9 for short.  But to the million or so people who called ithome, the floating city was known as Anterra.

The air was hazywith the rain.  It wasn’t real rain, exactly.  Down on Earth realrain fell from rainclouds that formed naturally in the atmosphere.  Hereon Anterra, rainfall was manufactured by the Climate Control Center as often asthe citizens voted for it.

He waited.

It was quite aview from the ninety-ninth floor window.  The man saw the otherskyscrapers along the Avenue of Towers.  Then there were the high-riseapartment buildings and offices of downtown.  Then the stone-pillaredbuildings of the financial district along the lakeshore.  Beyond all thisspread the patchwork of neighborhoods that surrounded the downtown area and thelake.  From this vantage point the man could see all the way to therim—the edge of the satellite, outside the city limits.

And beyond therim, eventhroughthe rain and the haze, he could seethe Home Planet.

Earth.  Atthis time of night it was a huge semicircle of shadow, like a massive, dark sunhalf-risen over Anterra’s horizon.  All that could be seen on its surfacewere the faint glows from the largest cities in that region of the globe.

Funny howthings turned out, the man thought to himself.

The floating cityhad been designed by the United Space Programs.  Their goal had beensimple: to create a better place for humanity, a place free of the crime andcorruption of Earth’s societies.

The first eightmetropolitan satellites were experimental.  Finally, after years of labor,the United Space Programs builtMetropolitan Satellite IX, history’sfirst human society outside Planet Earth.

More than eightymillion people applied for citizenship.   In the end, just over onepercent were selected.  They were the best of the best humanity had tooffer.  They were educated—plenty of engineers, professors, doctors andlawyers.  They were people of integrity, with not so much as a minortraffic violation on any of their records.  They had passed strenuouspsychological examinations to ensure that they had no violent or dishonorabletendencies.  They had undergone careful interviews to confirm that theywould be devoted to the good of their new society.

Basically, theywere the perfect citizens.  Perfect citizens for a perfect society.

...Or so theUnited Space Programs had said.

In almost no timeat all, corruption tainted the floating city just as it tainted the cities onthe Home Planet.  Now, almost a century after its founding, Anterra had amassive, thriving criminal underground.

Funny, theman thought to himself again,how things turned out.

“Director,” avoice crackled in his earpiece, interrupting his thoughts.

He touched a tinybutton on the lapel of his coat.  “Go ahead,” he said.  His accentwas something like the British back on Earth.

“Sherlock justtold me the sensor went off.  The package has been picked up.  She’son her way.”

“Excellent.”

“You sure youdon’t want us to arrest her right away?”

“No.  Keep itsimple and wait until she’s at the drop point.  Let’s witness the wholejob.  That will mean more leverage for us once she’s in our hands.”

“Whatever yousay, sir.  She’ll probably be at the TSC building within the hour.”

“We’ll beready.”  The man turned away from the window, faced the dark room, andwaited.  “As ready as we can be,” he added quietly to himself.

 

JILLnever thought of checking inside the box.  She didn’t know what was inthere, and she didn’t want to.  She didn’t think of who may have left it,or why.  It could be drugs, guns, stolen jewelry, stolen technology, orwho knew what else.  She was just anerrander,anderrandersweren’t supposed to worry about thatstuff.  If she got caught, she could always claim she didn’t know anythingillegal was contained in the box.  That was one of the nice things abouther job.

Of course therewere some bad things about being an errander too—like the fact that it wasillegal, for instance.  Another drawback was thaterrandersdidn’t make too much money.  But they didn’t have to worry about too much,either.  You didn’t have to do any of the scheming or plotting or decisionmaking.  The big-time criminals did all that.  All theerrandershad to do was whatever the big-timers told themto do.

...And make surethey didn’t get caught.  Jill was particularly good at not getting caught.

The package wassecure in the luggage compartment of her skybike.  There were hardly anyotherskyvehiclesout here in the suburbs.  Mostskytraffic was downtown.  Anywhere else in the city it was illegal exceptover major highways.  She had to keep her skybike at ground level untilshe got to Route 6 heading north toward downtown.  Now she was hoveringthirty feet above the highway, as the law prescribed, and going the exact speedlimit.  The last thing you wanted to do while you were on a job was drawattention to yourself.

The rain keptfalling, glittering in her headlights.  Jill watched the downtown skylinecreep closer, and saw the pointed top of the TSC building.  That’s whereshe was headed.

She had to stopby her apartment first.  She dropped her bike to ground level again as sheangled down a side street into a nice neighborhood.  She headed east—whichon Anterra meant toward Earth.  Soon she’d left the big houses andmanicured lawns behind and crossed into less reputable territory.  Thehoodlums were out tonight in spite of the rain, slinking along the litteredsidewalks and graffiti-covered cement walls.  She passed a fuel stationand turned into a dimly lit parking lot.  She parked in front of aten-story apartment building that may have been a decent place when it hadfirst been built a few decades ago.  Now it had decayed into the rundowntype of place you would expect an errander to live.

She unlocked thefront doors and stepped into the faintly lit lobby.  Muffled noises camefrom a dark corner where a couple sat fondling each other on a sofa.  Jillignored them and crossed the discolored tile floor toward the elevators.

Fat Frank, thelandlord, was getting off the elevators just as she was getting on.  FatFrank was the skinniest guy Jill had ever seen.

“Well, well. Good evening, beautiful.”  He greeted her through a creepy smilethat was missing a tooth or two.  Fat Frank called all his female tenants“beautiful,” and all his male tenants “buddy,” because he didn’t know theirreal names.  Most of them wereerranders, livingand working under aliases.

“Frank,” she saidwith a nod.

“Back home torelax after another night of hard work, are we?”  He stood between her andthe elevator, regarding her with yellowed eyes that wandered a little too much.

“No relaxationtonight, unfortunately.  Still on the job.”

“Well, then,” hesaid, finally stepping aside, “good luck!  Don’t get caught,beautiful.”  Fat Frank was always reminding his tenants not to get caught.

“Not planning onit, Frank,” said Jill.  The elevator door closed behind her and mercifullycut off any further conversation.

She got off onthe ninth floor, and unlocked her small apartment.  One glance at theplace reminded her that work, not housekeeping, had occupied all her attentionlately.  She stepped through the clutter into the bedroom, and opened thecloset.  Her outfit for the rest of the night hung ready—a dark businesssuit unlike anything else Jill owned.  She’d bought it yesterday,specifically for tonight’s job.  It would be her first time blending inwith the uppity business crowd along the Avenue of Towers.

She put on thesuit, and put rain gear on over that for riding.  Then she grabbed thebriefcase that would complete her disguise.  It looked like the sort ofbriefcase a typical Anterran businesswoman would carry.  But itwasn’t.  First of all it had a special insulation that would block metaldetectors.  Second of all it was carrying a handgun that the metaldetectors would pick up otherwise.  It was loaded with stunners, not realbullets.  But no one could tell the difference by looking.

She wouldprobably be the only armed businesswoman on the Avenue tonight.

 

JILLheaded north again.  The skyline of downtown was in front of her. Earth’s massive dark form was to her right.  It was still several hoursbefore the sun would rise over the top of the Home Planet and cast Anterra intodaylight.

Soon she wasimmersed in the lights and noises of downtown.  Traffic never stopped oreven slowed down around here.  Near the Avenue of Towers shoppers anddiners ambled along beneath umbrellas.  Music thumped from theclubs.  Drunken laughter drifted from the bars.  Neon signsblinked.  Buses roared.  Cabs honked.  City nightlife was infull swing.

She stayed at thefirst level of skytraffic.  Ground traffic roared thirty feet beneathher.  The second level of skytraffic hummed thirty feet above her.

She took a rightturn, and she was soaring along the wide and showy Avenue of Towers.  Herethe leisure traffic was mixed with an equal population of businesstraffic.  Like the rest of downtown the offices along the Avenue were noless busy this time of night than they were at any other time.

Jill dropped herbike to ground level.  She parked in a side lot next to the TSC buildingand grabbed the briefcase and the box.  She went into a restroom off theTSC entryway, took off her rain gear and stuffed it in a garbage can. Then she opened the briefcase and took out a small but elaborate bathroomkit.  By the time she’d done her hair and makeup, she couldn’t helpsmiling slyly at herself in the mirror.  She was eighteen; but with thisoutfit and makeover she could easily pass for early twenties, and there wereplenty of aspiring businesswomen of that age working here in the TSC building.

She left therestroom and passed from the entryway into the huge lobby.  Her shoesclicked importantly on the polished floor.  Other formally dressed men andwomen ambled about the lobby, hardly giving her a second glance.  Sheblended right in.

At the end of thelobby was a wide reception desk where visitors were supposed to sign in. But Jill wasn’t playing the part of a visitor.  She walked confidentlytoward the elevators, hoping the desk attendants would assume she belongedhere.  Apparently they did because they didn’t stop her.

She passed alarge decorative fountain with an abstract statue, and reached theelevators.  There were ten of them in a row, each with gleaming metallicdoors.

This was thetricky part.

Jill stood off tothe side for a moment, waiting for a break in traffic.  Finally she wasable to step onto an empty elevator without anyone following her.  She wasalone with the uniformed attendant who stood by the buttons.  She set thebox down next to her.


Page 2

“What floor?” theattendant asked as the doors closed.  He seemed cheerful.  His shiftmust just be starting.  Who could stay cheerful riding up and downelevators all day?

“Ninety-ninth,please.”

“Sure.  Justneed to see your identification.”

She knew he’d beasking for that.  Any floor above the fiftieth required identification.

“Right,” shesaid.

Then she darted ahand to the button that held the elevator doors closed.

The attendantblinked.  “What the...?”

Her briefcasefell open and he was looking down the barrel of her gun.  “Ninety-ninth,please,” she said again.

He nodded slowly,and reached for his key as if he was going to comply.  Then he lunged forthe alarm button.

As if shewouldn’t have anticipated this.  A swift kick sent his arm away from thebutton.  Another to the gut had him doubled over.

“I’m kind of in ahurry,” she said, eyeing him over her gun.

“Do it yourself,”the man moaned.

“Fine.”  Shepulled the trigger and loosed a stunner at his neck.  He slumpedunconsciously against the reflective elevator wall.  Jill grabbed his keyand slid it into the slot for the ninety-ninth floor.  Then she grabbedhis limp hand and pressed it against the print-reader for the required confirmation.

The elevatorstarted moving up.

She looked up atthe tiny security camera that had caught the whole thing.  She smiled atwhoever would be watching the recording later.  By the time they found theunconscious attendant and reviewed the security footage to see what hadhappened, she would be long gone.

 

 

2

 

 

THEelevator doors opened.  Jill stepped out into the ninety-ninth floorlounge.  It was empty.  She put a potted plant in the elevatordoorway to keep it from closing. Take the corridor to your right,the man on the phone had said. At the dead end, take the corridor onthe left to Suite 9999-B.

She carried herbriefcase with one hand, and the plain, unmarked box under her other arm. She didn’t pass anyone in the halls.  The lights were dim, as if these officeshad closed down for the night.

She found thedoor that said 9999-B, and reached for the doorknob.

Then she froze.

Something wasn’tright.

When you lived onthe streets—when you made a living as an errander—you developed certaininstincts.  You got a sixth sense for when things weren’t quite as theyshould be.  And right now, at Suite 9999-B of the Trans-SpatialCommunications building, things were not as they should be.

Jill wasn’t surewhat was wrong, exactly.  Maybe the drop point was compromised.  Maybethis whole errand was a setup.  Maybe something else.  It didn’tmatter, really.

All the matteredwas getting out of there.

She turned andran, grabbing her gun out of the briefcase as she went.  She heard thedoor to Suite 9999-B burst open behind her.  Someone was yelling.

She dropped, spunaround on the floor.

Two people cameafter her.  They wore armored suits and helmets with dark mirroredeyes.  Cops.

A setup.

 

THEman in the long coat and brimmed hat stood with his back to the window.

“We’re blown,” avoice crackled in his earpiece.

“She didn’tcome?”

“She showed, butnow she’s running away.”

Two shots soundedfrom the hallway outside the empty office.

The manfrowned.  “You’re not killing her, are you?”

“We’re not theone’s doing the shooting, sir.”

 

JILL’Sstun slugs couldn’t pierce the armored uniforms.  But for all they knewshe was sending real bullets at them.  They took cover and raised weaponsof their own.  Maybe they were only armed with stun slugs too.  Ormaybe not.

Jill didn’t stickaround to find out.  She was back on her feet running down the hall. One hand still gripped her weapon; the other hand took out the electronic keyto her skybike—a very special key.

It wasn’t untilseveral steps later that she realized she’d dropped the package.

She ducked intoanother dark suite, hurried through the reception area into the office in back,and locked the door behind her.  She went to the window, and looked downat the side parking lot ninety-nine stories below.

There was herskybike, a dot near the corner of the lot.

She pushed abutton on her electronic key.

There was a thumpand a yell at the office door.  Another thump, and the doorknobshook.  They’d be inside in a minute.

She found a shortmetal file cabinet next to the desk.  It was too heavy to lift.

“Put down theweapon, girl!” a voice came from outside the door.  “We’re coming in, andwe don’t want to shoot you.  Just come quietly, why don’t you?”

She yanked filesout of the cabinet until she could lift it.  Then she hoisted it on hershoulder and heaved it at the window.  The glass cracked but didn’t break.

She threw thecabinet again.  The glass wouldn’t last long.

Neither would thedoor.  The frame was about to give way.  Another thump...

On her thirdthrow a spider-web of cracks spread across the window.  She grabbed afloor lamp, using the pole and base to whack the glass out of the frame.

The door burstopen.  The two cops dashed inside just in time to see Jill throwingherself out the window.  Then they heard the roar of her skybike,ninety-nine stories above the ground, booking it away from the TSC building.

 

Avoicecrackled in the man’s earpiece again.  “She, uh...”

“Got away,” hefinished.

“Yeah.”

“How?”

“Out the windowonto a skybike.”

“Alright, backup,you heard.  Get after her.”  He didn’t sound angry in theleast.  “She’s good, eh?”

“Hope plan Bworks,” one of his men muttered.

The boss shookhis head.  “Nothing unexpected has happened yet.  This is still planA, believe me.”

 

JILLdropped to the legal sixty foot elevation and headed away from the Avenue ofTowers.  Seamlessly she slipped into the flow of traffic on Twentieth,heading north through the rain.

Two otherskybikesstarted following her from a block behind. They had no trouble finding her; she hadn’t had time to put on herhelmet.  In her rear-view mirror she saw them weaving closer to her.

Forget trying toseem unsuspicious.  Jill came to an alley, gunned her engine, whippedaround into the narrow space between two office buildings.  She killed herlights as she descended suddenly.  Her stomach lurched.

Overhead thelights of her pursuers showed in the alley.  By the time they saw hershe’d spun around and darted back out into traffic—this time at the thirty-footlevel.  She flicked her lights on again, edged into the passing lane, flewpast a stream ofskycars.  She sneaked into aside street a few blocks later.

Had she lostthem?

No.  Therethey were.

At least she wasgetting some separation.  She gunned it again, angled upward.  Sheraced toward the gap of night sky showing above her between the buildings.

Her bike shotover the edge of the top of a building to one side.  She glided along therooftop and checked her mirrors again.

They were stilltailing her.

She cursed anddipped down behind the building.  The long alley stretched away fromdowntown and emptied into the street right in front of the cathedral.

She knew what shehad to do—didn’t want to, but had to.  She unbuckled her security harnessand swooped the bike down near ground level.

Across the streetat the far end of the alley the massive round stained-glass window over thecathedral doors grew closer and closer—a giant bull’s-eye, and she was thedart.

There was adumpster coming up on one side of the alley, overflowing with swelled garbagebags.

She gunned theengine one last time.

And kickedherself off...

She winced as sheplummeted into a sea of garbage.

It was a longmoment before she swam up through the trash and peeked over the edge of thedumpster.

The twoskybikesthat had been after her were now parked next tothe cathedral, and the drivers were running up the stone steps to the frontdoor.  Above them the round window had exploded inward.  Smoke rosefrom somewhere inside the building.  People were shouting and talkingexcitedly in the street.  A siren sounded from somewhere in the distance,getting closer with each second.

Jill pushedherself out of the dumpster, and walked quickly along the alley away from thecathedral.

 

“DIRECTOR?” The voice that crackled in the man’s earpiece was not happy.

“Let meguess:  She got away again.”

“Well, yeah.”

“It’s allright.  You did what you could, I’m sure.”  He looked at his othertwo associates, now standing in the office with him.  “Don’t worry,” hetold them.  “Still Plan A.”

 

ITwasalmost dawn when Jill reached the cheap motel.  The Avenue was now farbehind her.  She was in a rundown part of town where it wasn’t unusual forsuspicious characters to need a room in a hurry any time of day or night. Around here motels would take cash and not your name—not that Jill’s ID had herreal name anyway.

Still, thesleepy-eyed clerk did stare a little at the young woman in a rain-soaked andgarbage-smeared business suit.  She carried a plastic shopping bag withsome clothes and toiletries she’d bought at a 24-hour convenience store on thesame block.

Her room smelledlike stale cigarettes.  She sat on the edge of the bed and looked out thegrimy window.  The sun was a bright red jewel, rising over the dark orb ofEarth on the horizon.  The artificial sky over Anterra was a nice sunriseorange.  She watched it turn to gold, to gray, to blue.

She couldn’t gohome.  The people after her would be able to find where she lived. She wondered why they hadn’t found her there in the first place...wondered whythey wanted her at all, whoever they were.

She’d have tostart over—get a new alias, a new false ID to match, a new place, a new contactto get jobs.  It wasn’t the first time. Errandershad to start over all the time.  That was the way it was in thisbusiness.  It didn’t stop her from being one of the best at what she did.

She sighed, tookoff the filthy suit jacket, and flopped backwards onto the bed.  Thoughtsturned into dreams.

 

SHE’Dslept maybe an hour before her rude awakening.

Her firstconscious thought was,How did they find me?

They were at thedoor and the window, wearing those same armored suits andvisoredhelmets.  She had no chance, but she fought anyway.  She alwaysfought when she didn’t have a chance...and sometimes she won.

Not thistime.  She’d landed one good kick or two

before they took her down. Her flailing and screaming didn’t stop until astunstickwas pressed into her neck.

Fat Frank,she thought as she slipped into unconsciousness. It had to be him.

 

 

3

 

 

JILLhad never met her dad.

She’d asked abouthim all the time as a kid, obviously.  Who was he? Wherewashe?

Her mother alwayshad answers—vague answers that had something to do with Mommy and Daddy notgetting along.  Sometimes she sounded angry that Daddy had treated herwrongly.  Sometimes she sounded like she felt sorry for him for somereason, and she’d shake her head and call him, “Poor guy.”  Sometimes shewas brief and blunt in her answers, like she didn’t care or just didn’t want totalk about it.

One day when Jillwas ten years old, she asked about her dad one last time.  Her mother gaveher a cold look and said to stop asking about her father.

So Jill stopped.

At least, shestopped asking out loud.  The question was still there inside, unrelenting. How could it not be?

Jill hadquestions about her mom, too.  She’d always known her mother was involvedin things...secret things that she wouldn’t talk about.  Jill had triedspying on her, even following her when she left in the middle of the night onetime.  But she couldn’t keep up long enough to discover anything.

When Jill turnedtwelve, her mother finally confided in her.  She told her that she was anerrander.  She had been ever since Jill’s father had left.

And she wouldteach Jill to be an errander too.  She’d teach Jill to be the besterrander Anterra had ever seen.

That was how itbegan.

 

SHEwas thirsty.

It was her firstsensation as she woke up.  She’d been thirsty for a long time in herdreams.  Now she was consciously, painfully aware of it.

She was lying onsomething soft but not too soft.  There was a greenish-white light thatblinded her when she opened her eyes.  Finally she got used to the lightand saw that it came from a panel in the ceiling.

She sat upgroggily and looked around.  She was still wearing the same filthyremnants of her disguise from last night’s errand, and she was on a cot in acement-walled room.

A cell of somesort.

Something aboutthe room wasn’t quite right.

Besides the cotthere was nothing here but a toilet and a sink.  She went to the sink andtook several gulps of cold water straight from the tap.  It tasted alittle rusty.

Now she saw whatwasn’t right about the cell.  There was no door.

Then, with a deepgrating sound, one of the walls started sliding slowly open.  A cop cameinto the cell.

“Good, you’reawake,” he said.  His masked helmet distorted his voice, making itunnaturally deep and mechanical sounding.  “This way.”

Another cop waswaiting in the dark cement-walled hall.  There must be other cells behindthe slabs in the wall.  They cuffed her hands behind her back, and shewalked between them while they held their guns on her.

They came to theend of the hall.  One of her escorts key-carded the door open, and theywere in a cramped switchback stairwell with daylight coming through smallwindows at each landing.  While they led her downstairs Jill glancedthrough the windows.  She saw a view of the Avenue of Towers across thelake.

And she suddenlyknew where she was: the Anterran Governmental Complex building—GoCom, as mostcalled it.  Up to now she’d only seen the massive island building from thelakeshore.  This was her first inside view.

Not that she wasespecially glad to be here.

They got to theground floor, keyed through another door, and proceeded down a narrowhall.  They passed no one.  Finally they emerged into a small roomwith red carpet and wood-paneled walls.  Old fashioned lamps stood on thefloor and hung from the ceiling.  

They led her toan elevator at one end of the room.  The console inside had buttons forfloors one through twelve.

Her escortsignored the console.  One of them slid aside a panel in the elevatorwall.  There was a numbered keypad behind it.  He typed atwenty-digit code from memory.

When he’dfinished the elevator started moving.  Jill knew they had been on theground floor, but the elevator was definitely moving down.

And down.

And down...

 

THEdoors finally opened.

Between herescorts Jill stepped out into a wide lobby.  The furniture was modern,black edged with silver.  The walls were polished black, accented withpanoramic shots of nighttime city skylines.  Jill recognized some of thecities from pictures she’d seen of the home planet—Hong Kong, New York, Tokyo,London.  The carpet in the lobby was deep indigo blue.  In the verycenter of the room the carpet was emblazoned with a large, official-lookingshield insignia with THE NEXUS written across it.

There wereseveral exits from the lobby.  The escorts led her up a short stairway toone side.

At the top theyentered an office of similar décor.  At the back was a massive blackdesk.  Next to the desk hung a long gray coat and brimmed hat. Behind the desk sat the owner of the coat and hat.

He stood andregarded Jill wordlessly for a time.  She couldn’t read hisexpression—which irritated her, since she considered herself good at readingexpressions.  He had short silver hair and gray eyes.  They were niceeyes, Jill thought.  Eyes that could make you feel at ease and filled withcuriosity at the same time.

She didn’t lookinto those eyes.  She couldn’t let her guard down.

“Well,well...Jillian Branch,” he said.  He had an accent something like theBritish from Earth.

Jill recognizedhis voice from the phone call. Watch for the light, he had toldher.

He nodded at herescorts, and they left her alone with the man with gray eyes.

“It really is apleasure to meet you,” he said when they’d gone.  “Perhaps you don’tbelieve me when I say it.  And even if you do, I doubt you share mypleasure.  After all you didn’t choose to meet—would not have chosen to behere at all, which is why I had to bring you here rather by force, I’mafraid.  I hope that in the end you will find it has been worth yourtime.”

Jill saidnothing.

The man with grayeyes came out from behind his desk and paced slowly while he kepttalking.  “You have no idea how difficult it has been to find you. Then again, maybe you do.  You’re a very elusive person, Jillian. This is one of the first things that drew us to you.  There are plenty oferrandersout there, of course.  But we were lookingfor someone with a particular combination of characteristics.”

It was weirdbeing talked about this way, like he saw much more than she could know throughthose gray eyes; like her whole life had been a film he’d watchedcarefully.  She found him impressive, even a little scary.  And shewasn’t impressed or scared easily.

“Yes, we’ve hadour eyes on you for some time,” he went on.  “It’s not idle flattery whenI tell you we were very happy to have found you.  It just so happens thatyou met our list of requirements to the letter.”

It sounded likehe wanted to hire her.  Was the government in the business of hiringerrandersnow?  Or was this guy running some sort ofrogue operation?  “If you have a job for me,” she spoke for the firsttime, “you don’t have to butter me up first.  Just tell me what you want.”

“Ah, what Iwant.”  He stopped pacing.  The gray eyes were looking right intohers.  She couldn’t look away this time for some reason.  “The veryquestion you should be asking yourself.”

Where was hegoing with this?

“What is it youwant, Jillian Branch?” he asked her slowly, deliberately.  His eyesweren’t budging from hers.

What did he meanwhat did she want?  Maybe this was his way of beginning negotiations forher payment.  “If you’re wondering my asking price—” she began.

The man with grayeyes smirked.  “In the first place, you are in no position to, as you putit, ask a price for your services.  As you did not willingly come to us,you will not be able to leave us until we decide—ifwe decide—to releaseyou.  And in the second place, don’t pretend that money is what you reallywant.”

“No?”

“Of coursenot.  You could easily have already found another job—a quite legal job, Imight add—and be making twice the money an errander makes.”

Well...that wasprobably true.  “So what is it you think I want?”

“The first answerthat occurs to you will not be the correct one.  You have hardenedyourself, Jillian; buried yourself inside a thick, protective shell. You’ve learned to hide your feelings and your desires from even yourself. And I’m asking about a desire far beyond those on the surface.  The animaldrives for food, for water, for companionship...those answers do not interestme at the moment.  You are going to have to look far deeper to answer myquestion.”

Was he some kindof philosopher?  Some religious fanatic who was trying to convert her to acult?  “What does kidnapping me have to do with any of this?”

“Arresting you,” hecorrected her.  “And it has everything to do with it.”

“You have a jobfor me?”

“Indeed we do.”

“Tell me aboutit.”

He still had thatunreadable expression.  “For now, there are only two things you need toknow,” he said.  “Number one:  Should you accept the job, yourcriminal record will be wiped clean.”

She raised aneyebrow.

“Numbertwo:  Until you accept the job, you will be told nothing more about it.”

Shescoffed.  “That’s ridiculous.”

He scoffedback.  “More ridiculous than being a pawn for criminals who couldn’t careless whether you live or die once they’ve done with you?”

She looked at himsideways.  “You’re serious, aren’t you?”

“I could not bemore so.”

“I don’t take ajob unless I know the details.”

“That’s absolutedrivel, of course.  You try to know as little as possible about the jobsyou take.”

“I still knowmore than nothing.”

“You do know morethan nothing.  You know that your only other option is jail.”

Sheswallowed.  “So this job is going to give me this...this thing that Idon’t have but I really want but I don’t know that I want it?”

“It is.”

“But it isn’tmoney?”

“No.  Butdon’t misunderstand me, you will be paid.  Handsomely.  Handsomelyenough to make a generous charitable donation to the cathedral for the reparationsthey will now be requiring.”  He was smiling, but his gray eyes seemedcolder.

She lookedaround.  “Weareat GoCom, right?  Youarewith thegovernment, right?  Wouldn’t you get in at least a little bit of troublefor hiring an errander?”

“If you accept myoffer, you will no longer be an errander.  Not ever.”

Now there wassome food for thought.  Then again, what kind of job did the governmentmake you do when they caught you?  “I’m guessing it’s something dangerousif it pays so well,” she said with a frown.  In her line of work it wasthe riskiest jobs that paid the best.

“At times itcertainly is.  But I’m assuming danger is not particularly distasteful tosomeone who leaps out of skyscraper windows and throws herself off of speedingprojectiles in dark alleys.”  He smirked again.  Jill was noticingthis guy smirked a lot.  “Even at your young age, Jillian, you havelearned that a life well lived involves certain risks.”

“Risks liketaking a job I know nothing about.”

He nodded. “If you decide it’s worth it,” he said.  “I ask you again, Jillian: What is it you truly want?”

Sheshrugged.  “I give up.”

“Ah, but you’renot giving up!  You’re thinking about it right now, even as we speak.”

She was. But she wasn’t coming up with an answer.  “It may take a while.”

“Take all thetime you need.  There won’t be much else to do back in your cell.”

“You sure youdon’t want to give me a hint?”

“I’ve practicallygiven away the answer already, but I’ll sum it up for you:  If you didsomething with your life that you would do no matter what, even if it meantgiving up all the money and all the comfort and all the convenience in theworld, what would you have?”

“A mentalillness?”

He was a littleamused.  A little.  “Perhaps.”  He pushed a button on hisdesk.  “Then again, what sort of mental shape are you in if you plan onbeing an errander for the rest of your life?”

He had her there.

The two maskedcops were back on either side of her.

“By the way,” theman with gray eyes said as she was escorted out of the room, “I don’t supposeyou plan on being in a ten-by-twelve cement walled room the rest of your lifeeither.  Perhaps that will make my offer seem a bit more attractive. Think it over.  Gentlemen, please make sure the young lady is properlydressed for the occasion.”

 

Afew minutes later she was alone in the cell again.  This time she waswearing the style-less gray clothes prescribed to all prisoners.

She wanted tothink things over, like the man with gray eyes had said.  She wanted toconsider his offer as thoroughly and rationally as possible.  But shedidn’t.

She couldn’t.

When you’ve beenan errander for a while your instincts kick in too hard to stop and thinkrationally sometimes.  And the only thing her instincts were telling herright now was:  Find a way out.  An opportunity wouldcome.  One always did.

Any possibilityof accepting the man’s offer was buried.


Page 3

For now.

 

 

4

 

 

COREYStone stepped into the Retro, a seedy café in a less-than-reputable area alongthe south rim.  The evening crowd was already gathering, especially aroundthe bar.  There was a haze of cigarette smoke dimming everything but theneon beer signs.  This was the second time Corey had met someone here onbusiness.

But this time itwas for a totally different purpose.

He didn’t likecoming to the same place, but the guy he was meeting—Mr. Love, he had calledhimself—had picked the location.  Corey hadn’t argued.  He’d justasked for a description.  “You’ll know me when you see me,” was all Mr.Love had said.

Corey startedlooking around the place.  Maybe he would know Mr. Love if he saw him, butyou couldn’t see much of anyone through the smoke.  Even the obnoxiousjuke box, like the old fashioned ones they used to have back on the HomePlanet, seemed to impair his vision.

Wait, that had tobe him.  It was a big guy sitting by himself in a corner booth.  Mr.Love had fairly dark skin—must have had some African or African-Americanheritage, like Corey’s.  He had no hair.  What he did have wastattoos.  Lots of tattoos.  All Mr. Love’s tattoos involved hearts,including a prominent one on his bared right shoulder with the traditionalarrow and “Mom” insignia.

Corey steppedover to the booth.  “You’re...?”

“You must beFredericks,” said the man.  His smile pushed its way up half his face.

“That’sme.”  Fredericks was an alias Corey had used as an errander.  Coreywasn’t an errander anymore, but Mr. Love thought he was.

“Pleasure.” Mr. Love offered a meaty hand.  There were hearts tattooed on eachknuckle.

Corey sat downacross from him.  “So, you...you know, you can hook me up?”

Mr. Love laugheda wheezy laugh and threw back a swig from his immense mug of beer. “Embarrassed!  They’re always embarrassed when they come to me,ain’tthey?”  He had another laugh and another swig.

“A little,” Coreyadmitted.

“Don’t be, kid.” He leaned close.  “Sure, the little business I run is technicallyillegal.  But you and I both know it shouldn’t be.”

Mr. Love’s“business” was selling movies—bootlegged movies from Earth.  They had tobe bootlegged because they’d been banned by the Commission for the Monitoringof Visual and Literary Arts, one of Anterra’s most despised governmentgroups.  The list of banned films was about as long as the dictionary, andgrowing all the time.  The CMVLA had the legal right to ban “any filmcontaining messages or agendas threatening to the societal structure ofAnterra,” which could mean just about anything.

“Sad times welive in,” Mr. Love said, putting on his best distraught face, “when guys likemegottastay underground.  This town wassupposed to be so great.  Next thing you know the whole place is overrunwith thugsshootin’ each other,robbin’people blind, and the cops don’t say boo.  But here’s me,gottakeep everything on the down low fordoin’somethin’ that don’t causenobody no harm.”

“So why do you doit?”

Mr. Loveresponded with a very well-rehearsed speech about artistic freedom, the rightof self-expression, blahblahblah. He sounded like one of the people that were always protesting out in front ofthe CMVLA offices.  Mr. Love didn’t strike Corey as a guy who thought muchabout artistic expression; he struck him more as a guy who just wanted to makesome dough.  But Corey wasn’t saying so.

Mr. Love drainedhis beer and rudely beckoned a waitress for another before he continued histirade.  “Anterra’s a weird place, you know, kid?  I mean, it’s notlike we’re known for being the most morally upstanding city.  Drugs that’sillegal in most Earthside nations is perfectly legal up here.  And we’reselling alcohol to teenagers now.  So what’s with mehavin’to keep out o’ sightsellin’ a few Hollywoodclassics?”

Corey didn’tanswer.  “So did you bring the goods, or what?”

“Not here,” saidMr. Love.  “Not now.”  He slid a business card across the table toCorey.  It said, “Mr. Love’s House of Rare Videos.  Open every night12 a.m. to 4 a.m.”

There was nophone number; just an address.

Corey took thecard.  “I used to have a guy in the West Rim that I went to.  He gotcaught.  The next guy I found got caught before we could even do anybusiness.  How do I know you won’t get caught too?”

Mr. Love raisedan eyebrow.  “You’ll just have to trust me, right?”  He drained hissecond beer and stood to leave.  “We’re done here, Fredericks.  Gotthree other potential clients to see before I open up shop tonight.  Comeby if youwanna.”

“I’ll be there,”said Corey.

He smiled tohimself after Mr. Love had walked away.

 

Afew minutes later Corey was driving a sleek blackgroundcaralong the eastern shore of Lake Anterra.  The massive power plantdominated the scenery here.  The rest of the district was lined withblocky warehouses.  The night was calm.  The mirror-smooth waterreflected the towers of downtown on the other side of the lake to his left. To his right, the glow of Earth shone in the sky between the buildings. It had been two hours since the sun set below Anterra’s western edge.  Butit still shone on most of the Home Planet visible from MS9.

Corey turned downa side street, then into an alcove behind an abandoned warehouse.  Over ahigh garage door the words PETE’S FISH CANNERY were fading on the concretewall.  A button on the car’s console opened the garage.  He droveinto the warehouse.

It was a vastroom, empty except for piles of ancient forgotten crates and pallets.  Afew faintly glowing lights hung from long wires in the ceiling, automaticallyswitched on via motion sensors.

Corey drove tothe corner behind a stack of crates and parked on a particular square ofstained cement floor.  He punched a code on a keypad on his car’sdashboard.

The squarestarted lowering.

When he’d droppedtwenty feet or so, a black opening gaped in front of the car.  He hit theaccelerator and roared into the tunnel beneath Lake Anterra.

 

WHENhe stepped into HQ a few minutes later, he smiled.  Corey always smiledwhenever he got back to HQ.  This past year was the first in his eighteenyears of life that he’d had much to smile about, and this place was thereason.  He looked down the stairs at the rows of cubicles, the bluishglow of computer consoles, the bustle of his superiors and coworkers.

Instead of goingdownstairs he circled the cement balcony overlooking the vast room.  Hekept his eyes open for the director, but Giles Holiday was nowhere to be seen.

“Corey! Hey, Cor!”  A girl with short, wild hair and more piercings than tenaverage people was running up the nearest stairway to where he stood on thebalcony.

“What’s up,Dizzie?”

Shefrowned.  That was bad news.  Dizzie didn’t frown much.  It tooka lot to even slow her smile down to a relative smirk.  “Did you see themission roster for tonight?”

Corey shook hishead.  “Don’t tell me—”

She toldhim.  “Park is going with you.”

Great. Bradley Park—exactly who he didn’t want her to say but figured shewould.  “Okay,” he said levelly.

Dizzie’s frownlengthened.  “Learn to show your emotions, Cor.  You bottle them uplike that, one day they’ll bust out of you like Mount Vesuvius or something.”

“What am Isupposed to do, throw a hissy fit right here in HQ?”

“No.”  Shewrinkled her nose.  “You could at least, you know, sigh exasperatedly orsomething.”

He sighedexasperatedly.  “How was that?”

“Weak, but you’llget there.  I don’t see why you’re not more upset.”

“Your goal was toupset me?”

“No, Ijust...Well, don’t you hate that guy?”

“Bradley? We don’t get along very well.”

“Ah.  Don’tget along very well.  I see.”

“Look, if therewas no one else available, there was no one else available.”

Dizzie clearedher throat.  “Um, I don’t think it’s because there was no one elseavailable.”

Coreygrimaced.  “So the director is testing how well we’ll work together, ishe?”

“Guess so.”

This time Corey’sexasperated sigh was sincere.  “But this is an important mission!” Then again, the director always seemed interested in much more than just themission.

“I know. Talk to him about it if you want.  He’s up in his office.  You gotthe location, right?”

Corey patted hispocket where he’d tucked Mr. Love’s business card.  “Got it.”  Hedidn’t need to look at it again.  He had the address memorized.  Butthe card itself would be an important piece of evidence.  “See you,Diz.  You’re running com tonight?”

“Yep.”  Sherolled her eyes.  “I get to spend all night listening to you and Parkbickering at each other.”

She went backdown to her cubicle, and Corey kept circling the balcony toward the director’soffice.  It had a wall of windows overlooking HQ, but they were shutteredat the moment.  Corey knocked and got invited inside the rear door of theoffice.  Director Holiday was at his desk.  His computer was on, andpapers were strewn in front of him.  But he looked as if he hadn’t beenpaying attention to anything but his thoughts.

“Ah, Corey. How did you get on?”

“Got theaddress.”

“Right. Afraid I have some bad news.  At least, you’ll think it’s bad.”

“Dizzie alreadytold me.  Bradley is going with me tonight.”

“And I’ll bekeeping a very close eye on you both.”

“Good.  Thenyou’ll see how obnoxious he is.”

“He?  Whatabout you?”

Coreyblinked.  “Sir, I follow your orders to the letter.  I always have.”

“And you’vealways tried to make sure others do the same.”

Corey’sexpression tightened.  “Is that a bad thing?  We have orders for areason.  If we’re not interested in following them, our department may aswell not exist.”

The directorsoftened.  “I admire your loyalty, Corey.  We’re very dependent onyour devotion to doing your job and doing it well.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“You’ve learnedthe importance of following orders.  But in time you’ll have to realizesomething else as well.”

“Sir?”

The director’ssteel-gray eyes took Corey in an intense stare as he answered:  “Peopleare more important than orders.  Now, I know Bradley Park can be a bitcavalier—”

“Cavalier? Last time he was on a mission he changed the entire plan on the fly.”

“And it worked.”

Corey shuffledhis feet.  “Well, yeah...”

“We’re a team,Corey.  Different parts of the team have different strengths.  Yourstrength is your loyalty.  Bradley’s strength is innovation.”

“You call directdisobedience ‘innovation’?”

“Calm yourself,Corey.  Bradley was disciplined for his actions as you well know. His one-month suspension from participating in any mission is over as oftonight.”

Coreysighed.  “Figures his first mission back would be with me.”

“It’s noaccident, as I’m sure you’re aware.  He will be a permanent part of thenew team I’m assembling around you.  You see, there’s another strength ofyours that we’d like to cultivate: your leadership ability.”

Corey tried toshrug modestly.  He wasn’t much at taking criticism, but he may have beeneven worse at taking credit.

“People followyou, Corey,” the director went on.  “Even when you don’t try to lead them,they follow you.  It’s in your blood to help others become the best theycan be—even others who seem like they’ll never reach their potential.  Irealize Bradley Park is something of a loose cannon at times.  That’s whyI want him with you.  You can help curb those impetuous notions of his.”

“I’ll try to,sir.”

“But,” DirectorHoliday added, “we can’t have you overreacting.  I want you channeling hisenergies, not suppressing them.  Understood?”

Corey tried topush away his reluctance.  “Yes, sir.  If this is the assignmentyou’ve chosen for me, I accept it.”

“Try to rememberBradley is a person, not an assignment.  Besides, you’re going to have toget used to this sort of thing, you know.”

“What do youmean?”

“We’re lookingfor more recruits like Bradley.  Our department has shown itself to be alittle soft.  Effective, but soft.  We need more—how shall I putit?—more of a free spirit on this team.  More daring. More...recklessness, if I may say so.  It’s a risky element to bring tothe department, I’ll admit.  Risky, but necessary.  We’re working onit right now.”

“You found JillBranch,” Corey concluded.

“We did.”

“And...?”

“She’s thinkingthings over.”

“I see.  Ihope she’ll make the right choice, sir.”

“Yes,” saidHoliday, eyes drifting thoughtfully into the distance.  “I hope so too.”

 

WHENhe left the director’s office, Corey’s plan was to visit Bradley Park’sroom.  It couldn’t hurt to talk things over before the mission and try toget on the same page.  He went down the stairs from the front of Holiday’soffice to the elevator lobby, and crossed the blue carpet.

He paused infront of the hallway to the dorms.

So they werelooking for more of a free spirit, were they?  They liked Bradley’sinnovation, did they?


Page 4

Corey headed forthe elevator instead.

 

“Idon’t know about this, Corey.”

He was in JaniceMoeller’s office on the eighth floor of GoCom.  Her window faced eastacross the lake.  In the distance Earth was darkening as night wore on.

“What is yourreason for refusal?” Corey asked Janice levelly.

“It doesn’t seemlike a good idea.”  Janice handled any interaction between Holiday’sdepartment and the rest of GoCom.  Mostly she tried to help Holiday’sdepartment go about its business undetected.

“You know theprotocol, Janice.  Field agents have the right to see prisoners withoutthe director’s consent.”

“That’s foremergencies.”

“The word‘emergency’ isn’t mentioned in the policy.”

“But it’simplied.”

“Maybe.  Howdo you know this isn’t an emergency?”

“You didn’t sayit was.”

“I don’t have tosay.  Your job is to set up the visitation for me, not ask me why.”

“My job,” Janicesaid purposefully, “is to make sure you can do what you need to do withoutanyone else knowing your department exists.”

“Which is why Ineed you to clear me to visit the prisoner, so no one asks any questions.”

Janice frowned. “Okay,” she said, tapping at her keyboard.  “Which interrogation room?”

“It’s not aninterrogation.  I just want to visit her cell.”

“Fine. They’ll be expecting you.  But I’d still rather Director Holiday knewabout this.”

“He’ll know soonenough,” Corey said on his way out of her office.

When he was outof sight, he let out a tightly held breath.  He wasn’t used to doingthings this way, but it had felt good.

Or so he toldhimself.

 

 

5

 

 

THIStime when her cell wall slid open there was no uniformed cop.  There was ayoung black man, Jill’s age or so.  He nodded in greeting.

She looked away.

“Hello, Jill.”

“What do youwant?”

“Just totalk.  Really, that’s it.”

“Like yourboss?  I figured he’d be sending someone down.”

“He doesn’t knowI’m here.”

Now she looked athim.  In her line of work she’d learned to tell when people were lying,and this guy wasn’t lying.  “A little rogue operation, huh?”

“If you want tocall it that.”

“What exactly doyou want to talk about without your boss knowing?”

He pushed abutton on a remote and the cell door closed.  He sat at the other end ofher cot and faced her.  “I want to talk you into accepting his offer.”

Jill tried not tosmile.  This was it, the chance she’d been waiting for.

But she’d have toplay it just right.

She looked him inthe eye, making sure she came across as mildly interested but not tooeager.  “Okay.”

“I don’t thinkyou understand just what’s being offered to you.”

“You’re right, Idon’t.  No one seems to want to tell me about it.”

“It’sclassified.”

She gave him asideways look.  “Dangerous?” she asked.

He smiled. He was trying not to, but he couldn’t help it.  “Sometimes.”

Now she had himgoing.  “So...how do you plan on talking me into joining up if you can’ttell me what I’ll be doing?”

“By telling youthat it changed my life.  I was an errander myself for a while.  Iwas going nowhere.  Now I’m doing something with myself.  Somethingworth doing.”

If you didsomething with your life that you would do no matter what, even if it meantgiving up all the money and all the comfort and all the convenience in theworld...?

Jill pushed thethought aside. Find a way out of here, her instincts yelled ather.  She had to focus.  “Just because it worked that way for you—”

“Not just forme.  Other people too.  There are a lot of people like us in thiscity, Jill.  This is the best chance we’ve got.”

She let her gazedrop to the cell floor.  She paused like she was thinking it over. “Maybe you’re right.  The way you put it...well, it sounds a little betterthan when you’re boss talked about it.”

“He rubs somepeople the wrong way.  That’s all.”

“To be totallyhonest, I was actually almost convinced even before you came.  But I’mstill not ready to take the plunge, you know?  Joining secret agencies whocan’t tell you about what they’re up too...”

“Sure, Iunderstand.”  He stood from the cot.  “Well, I’ll get out of yourhair for now.  See you tomorrow.”

“You’re comingback here?”

“To do some moreconvincing.  And the next day and the next day and the next day—as long asit takes to get you to come around.”

She smiled shylyand looked away.  “Okay.  Tomorrow, then.”

“Tomorrow.” The wall grinded to a close behind him.

This was goinglike clockwork.

 

MR.Love’s place of business was actually his residence—three cramped rooms in theback of a battered building nestled among a lot of other battered buildings amile from downtown.  His place gave a new definition to the term“cluttered.”  True, he was a bachelor.  But most bachelors usuallywashed their dishes once in a blue moon.  Mr. Love’s method was to buy newdishes, and leave the old ones moldering in stacks in and around thesink.  Apparently he had a similar method when it came to laundry.

But his currentclient didn’t mind the mess, or at least didn’t say so.  His currentclient had other things on his mind.  He was fidgety man, and skinny,especially compared to Mr. Love.  He was a collector.  Most of Mr.Love’s clients were.  Mr. Love told him he had the addition to hiscollection he’d been looking for.  Now it was in a plastic shopping bag inthe fidgety man’s hand.  In his other hand was a wad of cash, which was inMr. Love’s hand a second later.  Mr. Love counted it twice and said goodbye.

The fidgety manwent out the door, down the rusty metal stairs to the alley, and into hiscar.  He drove away in a hurry.  His driving was a little fidgetytoo.

Mr. Love ploppedonto the couch.  There was just enough room for him between piles of oldmagazines.  He put his feet up on a stack of pizza boxes and turned thevolume back up on his TV.  He was missing bits and pieces of his favoriteshow tonight.  No big deal, though.  Business was booming.  He’dhad three clients in the last twenty minutes, and he was expecting at least onemore.  Soon he’d have enough saved up to get out of this dump, and moveinto a much bigger, more expensive dump.

Another knockcame at the door.  He turned down the volume again and got up to answer.

There was anotherknock while he was on his way.

“Be patient, willya?  I’m—!”

The moment heunlocked the door it burst in on him.  Two figures in black leapt into hisapartment.  They had guns.  They had black masks with reflectiveeyes. 

Cops?

One had a silverskull enameled on the front of his mask.  The other had the red and bluetaegeukand four trigrams of the Korean flag.

“On theground!  Now!”

The voice wasn’thuman.  It was electronic and distorted.  Mr. Love stood paralyzed.

They raised theirguns.  “You heard!  Get down!”

Mr. Love gotdown.  His plan was to kneel, but he ended up doing more of atripping-and-falling maneuver.  He was panting like he’d just run up along staircase.

“Where are they?”the skull mask demanded.

“Wh-what?” Mr. Love stuttered.

“You knowwhat.  Now where are they?”

Mr. Love’s lipsflapped soundlessly, and he waved a shaking hand toward the bedroom.

The one with theskull mask kept a gun on Mr. Love.  The other one investigated thebedroom.  He came back with a small, thin black box.  “Must bethese.  He’s got dozens of them on a shelf in there.”

“Hang onto thatone,” said the skull mask.  “We’ll show the boss, come back for the restlater.  And you—get up!”

Mr. Love gotup.  Slowly.  There was still a gun in his face.

Behind the skullmask, Corey Stone said into his microphone:  “We got him, Diz.  We’recoming in.”

“You guys aregood,” Dizzie’s voice came through his earpiece.

Corey reachedback behind his helmet.

“Whoa, what areyou doing?” Bradley Park demanded from behind the other mask.

“I want him toknow who caught him.”

“No, Corey!”

The skull maskcame off.  The voice sounded natural now.  “Remember me?”

Mr. Love’s eyesnarrowed with angry recognition.  “You set me up, eh, Fredericks?  Orwhatever your name is.”  He spat.  “What’s this town coming to? Can’t even trust an errander these days.  What yougonnado, sell all my videos?”

“Actually we’regoing to arrest you.”

Mr. Love’s frowndeepened.  “You a cop now?”

“Something likethat.”

Mr. Love put hishands on his hips.  “What are the charges?”

“Acquiring ofillegal materials.  Subsequent vending of said materials.  Forstarters.”

“Prove it!”

“We intendto.  Meanwhile come with us.  I think you’re going to like your newliving arrangements.”

Bradley lookedaround the apartment through his mask’s reflective eyes.  “Yeah; I thinkI’d rather go to jail than live here.”

It was toughgetting Mr. Love down the metal stairs to the alley; even tougher getting hisbulk into the back seat of the car.  But they managed.

 

“Avideo tape,” said Director Holiday, holding up the little black box forinspection.  “Or a videocassette, to be more exact.”

They were at atable in a small room just off the HQ balcony.

Bradley gave thedirector a puzzled look.  “What does it...do?”

Corey had tochuckle.  Bradley was typically so arrogant—always bragging about his pureKorean pedigree and acting like he knew more than everyone else.  It wasnice to see the kid totally confused.  “You’ve seen old film reels? It’s like those, but a lot smaller.”

“Back near theend of the twentieth century, this was just about the only way average peoplecould personally store and display video,” said Holiday.  “The magnetictape inside winds around these two spindles, see?  As it rolls from oneside to the other the tape sends a video and audio signal to atelevision.  We’ll need a VCR—a videocassette recorder.  It’s thedevice that gets the information off the tape and sends it to thetelevision.  Hello, Dino!”

A funny littleman in jeans and a T-shirt appeared in the doorway at the back of theroom.  Lights and consoles of countless old gadgets blinked in the roombehind him.  “What’s up, Mr. H?”

Holiday held upthe little black box.

Dinowhistled.  “Videocassette!  I’ve heard of them; read all aboutthem.  Never seen one, though.”  He held out his hand.  “CanI...?”  He took the video tape from Holiday and looked at it.  Helooked like an art collector holding a Rembrandt.  “What’s on it?”

“We’re reasonablycertain it contains material banned by the CMVLA,” said Holiday. “Someone’s been renting and selling them, I’m afraid.  I assume you have aVCR in there?”

Dinolaughed.  “Not at the moment, boss.  Had one up until a few monthsago.  All it did was collect dust.  Sent it back to Earth, somemuseum called the Smith Sons, or something.  Got quite a few credits forit.”

Holiday gave Dinoa cold, gray stare.

“Hey,” said Dino,waving the tape, “these things were only widely used for like thirty, fortyyears, tops.  Quick fad, before the digital age set in.  Can’tbelieve you got hold of one.  This would be worth quite a few creditstoo.”

“Don’t even thinkabout it.”

“Don’t worry, Mr.H, I’m not going to sell it.  I’m just saying they’re rare, that’sall.  VCRs, even rarer.  I got quite a few credits for mine. Did I tell you?”

“You did,” mutteredBradley.

“So can we borrowit back from the Smith Sons?” asked Corey.

Dino shook hishead.  “Too much time and paperwork.  Besides, we don’t needto.  If your man is selling and renting these things, his clients have tohave ways to play them.”

“Love probablyhas a VCR himself,” said Holiday.  “When you retrieve the rest of thevideocassettes, look for one at his place.”

“Should be aboutthis big,” said Dino holding his hands about eighteen inches apart. “It’ll be black or gray, with a console in front.  There’ll be an openingjust right for cassettes like these to slide inside.”

After Corey left,Bradley stayed behind with Holiday.  “Sir, can I have a word?”

“I was going toask you the same thing,” said the director.  “How did things go tonight?”

“Fine, I guess.”

“So I won’t behearing about the various creative ways you violated protocol?”

“No, sir. I’m not the one who violated protocol this time.”

Holiday justgrunted faintly and waited for Bradley to go on.

“I know I’m thelast one that should be blowing the whistle on anyone else, sir.”

“True.  Nowthat we got that out of the way, continue.”

“Just as we wereabout to arrest Mr. Love, Corey...”

“Yes?”

“He took his maskoff.”

“Did he,now?”  Holiday seemed neither shocked nor angry.  He didn’t seemhappy either.

“I know it’s nota big deal.”

“In fact, it’s avery big deal.  Revealing the identity of anyone in our department whileon the job could compromise our entire endeavor.”

“I guess Coreyfigured we had Love, and he wouldn’t be getting away, so it would beokay.  He said he wanted Love to remember who caught him.”

“You can nevertell for certain whether or not a suspect will get away.  Suppose Mr. Lovedoesn’t get convicted, for instance?  Even if he does, suppose he has waysof communicating while he’s serving his sentence?  I don’t have to tellyou that bootlegged films are hardly all that’s at stake in this instance,Bradley.  Mr. Love has some very dangerous contacts—contacts we intend totrack down.  That’s the whole point of the mission.  Corey could havea rather large target on his back.”

Bradley shiftedhis feet.  “Look, sir, I feel bad saying anything about this.  I’mthe one who’s been on suspension the last month.  I just thought youshould know.”

“And now Ido.”  Holiday put his hands behind his back and stepped to thedoorway.  He saw Corey rounding the balcony toward the door to theelevator lobby and the dorms.

“Sir?” saidBradley, stepping next to him.  “Don’t be too hard on him.  He’s agood point man.”

“He is indeed. And it’s good to hear you say so at last.”


Page 5

 

 

6

 

 

COREYwas as good as his word.  He visited Jill again the next day, and thenext.  To be as convincing as possible, she waited until the third day togive in.

“I’ve thoughtabout it a lot.  Actually, there was never much thinking to do.  Iget that now.  This is my best chance to make something of myself, and I’mgoing to take it.”

Coreynodded.  “It was just a matter of time.  Will I sound cliché if I sayyou won’t regret it?”

“A little. I just hope you’re right.”  She still had to sound a little hesitant.

“Believe me, Iam.”  He stood.  “I’ll go through the formalities to have youreleased.  I should be able to escort you up to Director Holiday latertoday.”

“So that’s hisname.”

Coreywinced.  Then he just shrugged.  “You’re about to be introduced tohim, so you’d be finding out his name soon anyway.”

 

AGAIN,Corey was as good as his word.  Janice Moeller processed Jill’srelease.  Corey came down for her that afternoon.

“You sure you’reready for this?”

She bit herlip.  “I think so.”

“Let’s doit.”  He reached beneath his jacket.

“Wait...you’reescorting me up at gunpoint?”

“It’sprotocol.  You’re still technically a prisoner, remember?”

“Right.  Iguess I can’t complain.”

“Just be glad I’mnot making you wear the cuffs.”

Time had beenalmost irrelevant in her cell.  She could only count the hours accordingto when her meals had arrived.  When she looked out the stairwell windowsshe could see the sun high in the sky over the avenue of towers.

She tried to getCorey to talk while they walked.  He wouldn’t say anything about Holidayor what their department did.

“Sorry.  Iknow you can’t talk about this stuff, so I shouldn’t be asking you.  I’mjust curious, you know?”

“Yeah.  Don’tworry, you’ll be hearing all about it soon.”

“Just tell methis:  Do you like what you do?”

He didn’thesitate.  “I love what I do.”

They came to theelevator.  They still hadn’t seen another living soul.  Corey removedthe same panel, punched in the same code.  The elevator dropped.

“So who knowswhat you guys do?” Jill asked while they rode down.

Corey shook hishead.  “Not too many people.”  He still had his gun out but he heldit harmlessly at his side.

“Other GoCompersonnel?”

“Not even toomany of them.”

“The police?”

“No.”

“The mayor?”

“I doubt it.”

She was genuinelyimpressed.

The elevatorstopped descending.  “It must be important, whatever it is,” said Jill,“since you guys have such a cool secret base.”

The doorsopened.  “Itisimportant,” said Corey.  “Welcome to thedepartment—the first of its kind.”

When he turnedaround the elevator was closing.

And Jill wasstill on it.

He pushed thebutton a hundred times, but the elevator was already on its way up.  Bythe time it came back down for him, she’d be long gone.

 

“Ineed your help, Diz.  Like right now.”

Dizzie turnedaround.  Her myriad piercings glittered in the light of the many computerscreens spread out around her HQ cubicle.  “You look terrible. What’s wrong?”

“Just help me,all right?  You’re not running com for any missions right now?”

“Not at themoment, but—”

“Can you pull upthe GoCom security cams?”

“Well,sure.  I have the clearance.  But we’re only supposed to do that—”

“Inemergencies.  This is one.  Believe me.”

Dizzieswallowed.  “Okay.”  She rolled her chair across the cubicle to hercentral console.  Expert fingers fluttered across the keyboard. “We’re in.”

The screendirectly in front of her flickered to a very, very long list.

“How many camerasdoes this place have?” Corey fumed.

“A lot. It’s a big building.  And it’s the government, Cor, what do youexpect?  So what do you need?”

“I need the camsin the elevator lobby—the one our elevator goes up to.”

Dizzie pulled upan electronic blueprint of the building on another screen.  “Give me asec.”

“Hurry.”

“What’s going on,Corey?  I have a bad feeling about all this.”

“Just hurry,okay?”

“Hurrying.” She slid and rotated the three-dimensional map until she found what theyneeded.   “There’re four cams in that lobby.  Here theyare.”  The largest screen in the cubicle divided into quarters to show thelive feeds from the four security cameras.  The red-carpeted,wooden-paneled room was empty.  It was always empty.  That elevatorwasn’t convenient for any of the GoCom offices—which made it perfect for thedepartment.  “What are we watching for?”

“It alreadyhappened.  Can you get the footage from a few minutes ago?”

“Sure.”  Shetapped the keyboard.  “This is one hundred fifty seconds ago.”

“Fast-forward.”

“Okay.”

Shefast-forwarded the footage, but nothing changed.

Coreygrowled.  “We didn’t go back far enough.”

“Fine...This iseight hundred seconds ago.”

The view showedCorey and Jill walking into the elevator.

Dizzie gawked atCorey.  “That’s a prisoner!  You’re not authorized—!”

“I know, Diz, Iknow.  Skip ahead a little, will you?”

She gave him asevere look, then fast-forwarded again.

“There, stop!”

Now the camerasshowed Jill getting back off the elevator.

Without Corey.

Jill lookedaround the room and picked a hallway.

“Get that cam!”

“Getting it.”

Dizzie pulled upthe security footage from that hallway in the same timeframe.

“Someone caughther,” Corey whispered to himself.  “Someone had to!”

Dizzie kept pullingup the proper camera views to follow Jill’s route.  Eventually Jill cameto a room off a large lobby, surrounded by offices.  GoCom personnel couldbe seen chatting in the lobby, or working behind the glass walls of theirworkspaces.

“What’s she doing?”Corey wondered aloud.

When no oneseemed to be looking, Jill crossed the room at the edge of the lobby behind arow of large potted plants.  Then she disappeared into a door near the endof the room.

“Get thatcamera!” barked Corey.

Dizzie grimaced athim.  “There’s no camera in the ladies’ room, Corey.”

He groaned, anddashed out of the cubicle.

“You’re welcome,”Dizzie called after him, wrinkling her nose.

 

FORthe first—and ideally the last—time in his life, Corey Stone burst into a women’srestroom, gun drawn.

There were onlytwo stalls.  He saw movement in the second and heard a moan.

He kicked thelocked stall door open.  A middle-aged woman in a business suit was on thefloor next to the toilet.  Her hands and feet were bound.

Coreygroaned.  The bindings were the color of a prison-issued garment. The woman was gagged with a strip of the same gray cloth.

Corey ripped offthe gag.  “Where did she go?”

“Untie my handsand feet!” the woman snapped.

“Where?” he askedagain.

“Through theceiling!  Now untie me!”

He quicklyremoved her bindings.  “Good,” the woman said through her teeth. “You’ve got a gun.  You can kill her.”

He was standingon the toilet lid now, ignoring the woman while he examined the panels in theceiling.  He lifted one of them away, and pulled himself into theopening.  In the near-darkness he peered around the crawlspace.  Itled off in almost every direction.

Jill Branch couldbe just about anywhere in the building by now.

 

WHENhe got off the elevator, Dizzie and Holiday were waiting for him in thelobby.  Dizzie looked tense.  Holiday looked...like Corey expectedhim to look.

A moment thatseemed like an hour passed.

“Just onerequest, sir,” Corey stuttered.

Holiday’s tonewas as icy as his gray eyes.  “A bit of audacity to make a request at atime like this.”

“Let me findher.”

Holiday waitedfor more.

“Let me findher,” Corey repeated, “and the moment after I bring her back you’ll have myresignation.”

“I have yourresignation right now.  But you’re going to find her anyway, Stone. You’re going to find her and put her back in that cell, or you’re going to beits next occupant.”

 

COREYand Dizzie were back at her cubicle.

“I’ve got thelayout of that crawlspace,” Dizzie announced, gesturing at one of herscreens.  “It runs over pretty much the entire wing of the building, asyou can see.”

Corey couldn’tsee because he wasn’t looking.  At the moment he was concentrating ongroaning and burying his face in his hands.  “So she’s gone, basically.”

“Notexactly.  We can watch for her to reappear.”

“Which could benever.”

“No it can’t,Cor.  Come on.  She’s got to come out some time.  And there areonly so many rooms where she can do that.  I’ve got my eye on all ofthem.”  She gestured to the thirty or so live camera views she had pulledup on various monitors.

“Except therestrooms, obviously.”

“Right.  Butwe’re watching the doors to all restrooms in that part of the building. If she walks out, we’ve got her.  But you’d better help me watch.  Wedon’t want to miss her.”

“Can’t you justget Sherlock to tell us when she makes an appearance?”

Dizzie shook herhead.  “Sherlock isn’t allowed to make reports about what goes on inGoCom, other than in our department.  Now come on, help me watch for her!”

“Fine.” Corey pulled his chair over and made a pretense of watching the screens.

“Hey...”

“What?”

Dizzie scootedcloser to him.  “We’ll find her, all right?”

He didn’t answer,didn’t even acknowledge that she’d said anything.

“Look,” she said,“so you made a mistake.”

“Amistake.”  He laughed dryly.  “I let a prisoner escape.”

“True—a prisoneryou weren’t even supposed to be with at the time.”

Corey stared ather.

“Sorry,sorry!  Supposed to be helping.”

“It’s not just amistake, it’s a disaster.”  He stared at the monitors, seeing them withoutseeing them.  “People like us only get so many chances, Diz.  I wasfortunate to be here—to get a second chance at my life.  And now...” He blew a tired breath out between pursed lips.

“Why’d you do it,anyway, Cor?  It’s not like you.  You're such a...”  Dizzielooked away.

“Goody-goody?” He managed something close to a smile for half a second.

“I was going tosay you’re such a by-the-book type of guy, but goody-goody works.  Why thechange?  What exactlywereyou trying to do?”

“Long story.”

“We’ll be here awhile, more than likely.”

He sighed. “What it comes down to is, I wanted to show that I could take someinitiative.  Apparently the director likes that.  I’m usually astickler about the rules.  But that doesn’t always help.  I wanted tohelp another way this time.  I guess I got carried away.”

“Well, youlearned your lesson.”

“Too late,though.”

“We’ll catch her,Corey.”

“And then I’ll beout of the department.  You heard the director.”

“He was justupset, that’s all.  He’s not really going to let you resign.”

“You don’t thinkso?”

“No way. You’re too good at what you do—too important to let go.  Believe me.”

Corey felt aspark of reassurance.  “Thanks,” he whispered.

 

ITwas after five in the evening and nothing had happened.

“Oh, great!”Dizzie exclaimed suddenly.

“What?” Coreyasked, startled.

“I just realizedsomething,” she said, pulling up the map of the crawlspace again.  “Lookat this.”

He looked whereshe was pointing.  “I don’t know what I’m looking at.”

“This is part ofthe crawlspace, here.  And this is an elevator shaft right next toit.  This here is a ventilator between the two.  I’m guessing shewon’t have trouble removing it.”

“So you’re sayingshe can get into the elevator shaft.”

“And ride on topof the elevator to any floor in the building.”

Corey thumped hishead on the wall behind his chair.  “So it’s over.  She could beanywhere.”

She held her handup.  “Wait, wait.  Let’s think about this.  If you were her,where would you go?”

Corey tried tothink.  It was difficult under the circumstances.  “Anyplace to getout of GoCom.”

“How?”

“To the lake, andswim back to the city.”

Dizzie looked athim like he’d lost it.  “That’s the best you can come up with?”

“The garage,” hesaid, leaning forward suddenly.

“You think?”

“Sure! Think about it:  She’s not going to chance taking the bus or theferry.  Her best chance is by car.”

Most GoComemployees took the ferry or the skybus to work.  But a few dozen of theVIPs commuted across the lake via skycar and used the parking garage.

“I like it,” saidDizzie.  She did some frantic tapping on the keyboard.  “Here are thegarage cams.”  One of her monitors was filled with several security cameraviews of the parking garage.

“Most of the carsare gone,” Corey observed.

“That’s becausemost of the people important enough to have parking permits leave at fiveo’clock.  It’s like quarter after, now.”


Page 6

Corey scootedforward.  “Let’s get the footage from the time she escaped, then.”

“She couldn’t havestolen a car.  All these models are too nice.  Too much security.”

“I wouldn’t putit past her, Diz.  She’s good.”

“Okay. We’ll check.”  She went back a couple hours.

“There’s theelevator,” Corey pointed to one camera view.  “Is that the same elevator...?”

“That she hasaccess to, yes.  It would be her only way to get into the parkinggarage.  I’ll speed it up.”

They watched thefast-forward footage.

Just after 4:30p.m. Jill Branch got off the elevator.

Corey smiled tohimself.  “Now we’ve got you,” he whispered.

Jill wore a whiteshirt and the prescribed gray prison trousers.  She looked aroundfurtively and ran from the elevator to the first row ofskycars. Dizzie changed camera angles in order to follow her path.

“What’s shelooking for?” Dizzie asked, watching Jill walk slowly from car to car.

“She’s lookingthem over, trying to find the best target.  She knows which ones she’ll beable to break into and which ones she won’t.”

“There, she’sgoing for that dark blue one.”

“A DaemonMillennium.  Luxurious, but infamous for its weak security.  She’llgo for the back window.”

Dizzie looked athim.  “Sounds like you’ve done this a time or two, Mr. Stone.”

“Or three orfour.  There, what did I tell you?  She knows her stuff.”

The camera showedJill pressing the left rear window until it made a tiny gap.  She workedher fingers into the space and began manually sliding the window down slowly.

“It’s got to bedone just right,” said Corey.  “If she pushes the window too far, or worksit down too quickly, the alarm will trigger.  She should be able to giveherself just enough room...”

Eventually shereached her arm inside the car and touched the unlock button.

“Nice,” saidCorey in admiration.

Dizzie frowned athim.  “What, are you rooting for her?”

“Starting theignition is another story.  If she can do that I’ll be really impressed.”

“I’mfast-forwarding again.  Let’s see how this ends up.”

Jill was in thedrivers’ seat for some time.  But the car never left.

“She’s givingup,” said Dizzie.  “Wait, she’s getting into the back seat.”

“Looks like she’strying to hitch a ride.  Look, she’s getting down out of sight. Quick, Diz, find out whose car that is.”

She punched thelicense number into a database on another computer.  “Daniels, Martin P.”

“Is the car therein the live feed?”

“Let’scheck...Nope, Mr. Daniels isn’t here anymore.”

“When did heleave?”

Dizzie found thefootage.  “Here we go.”  At 5:11 p.m. a somewhat pudgy bald manclimbed into the blue Daemon Millennium and drove away, oblivious to his extrapassenger.  “That’s only eight minutes ago.  He may still be drivinghome, Cor!”

Corey was alreadyon his way to their department’s garage.

 Episode 2: SecondThoughts

 

7

 

 

Adepartment skycar roared out of Pete’s Fish Cannery on the east side of thelake.  The car hovered over the abandoned warehouses and began glidingover the water.

“In the air,”Corey said from the wheel.

“Sherlock justgave me Daniels’ address,” Dizzie’s voice buzzed from the console.  “Helives in Palm Hills Estates.  That’s half a mile south of the lake.”

Lights flashedand sirens sang from Corey’s car as it zoomed that direction.  “DoesSherlock know if he’s home, yet?”

“No.  Wedon’t have cameras on the streets in neighborhoods like Palm Hills Estates.”

“I’m not seeinghis car,” Corey said.  “He must be nearly to his house.  Whatstreet?”

“It’s 820Marigold Lane.  I’m sending it to you now.”

A map to theaddress came up on a console on the dashboard.  “Got it.”

Corey flew pastthe few civilianskycarson the route, and crossedthe shore in moments.  Houses and strip malls passed in a blur thirty feetbelow.  The lights were starting to come on in the city as the sun sank tothe right.  To the left Earth glowed from the graying sky.

“Almost there,”said Corey as manicured lawns of Palm Hills Estates came into view justahead.  The skycar dropped to street level, angled into Marigold Lane,parked on the cobbled drive of the large adobe house marked 820.  Coreytumbled out, dashed to the porch and pounded on the door until a frazzledMartin P. Daniels answered.

“Your garage!”Corey hollered at him, flashing an official-looking GoCom ID.

“M-my what?”

“Open thegarage!”

“Of course, ofcourse,” sputtered Martin P. Daniels, scrambling to obey.

A dark blue DaemonMillennium was parked in the garage.  The backseat was empty.  Awindow in the side of the garage was open.  For a second Corey thought ofgoing after her.

Only for asecond.  He knew she was long gone.

The trip back toHQ was the longest journey of Corey’s life.

 

FATFrank couldn’t sleep.  He had a guilty conscience.  There were a lotof nights Fat Frank couldn’t sleep, but he couldn’t remember the last time he’dhad a guilty conscience.  A man who deliberately rents living space tocriminals and helps sell their services to even bigger criminals doesn’t havemuch of a conscience left.

He decided to dowhat he often did when he couldn’t sleep: look at his collection.

Fat Frank didn’tcollect stamps or coins or anything as trivial as that.  Fat Frankcollected cars—vintage cars from as early as the twentieth century.  Hiscollection was in a warehouse past Palm Hills Estates, south of the lake. He was on his way there now in an old, rusting hatchback.  He didn’t drivethe cars in his collection.  He didn’t do anything with them but polishthem and look at them admiringly in the middle of the night when he couldn’tsleep.

The old, rustinghatchback pulled up to a security gate outside the warehouse.  A guardstepped out of a booth.  “Hiya, Frank.”

“Wannalet me in?”

“Sure, Frank. Got your ID by chance?”

“You kidding me?”

“Hey, just doingmy job!”

“Your job is toopen the gate for me, kid.  Now move it.”

“You said alwayscheck ID, even if I think it’s you.”

“I also saidyou’re fired if you annoy me again.”

“Right, openingthe gate.”

Cameras watchedhim as he parked in front of the warehouse.  He key-carded his way intothe foyer, got buzzed into a hallway by another guard, and key-carded intoanother hallway.  Then he punched a long code at a keypad to turn off theinterior alarm system.

It cost a lot toprotect his collection.  It was even more expensive to have his collectionin the first place, and sometimes more expensive yet to have pieces of hiscollection shipped from Earth to Anterra.  It was an expensive hobby, allright.  But Fat Frank could afford it since he made a nice living helpingpeople commit felonies.

Finally hekey-carded through a thick metal door into the central chamber of thewarehouse.  He stood in the dark at the top of a stairway, and hit abutton.  One after another, banks of lights flickered to life and revealedhis precious collectibles parked at random angles on the vast, polished floorbelow.  Fat Frank looked down on his twenty-three gleaming beauties.

He felt betteralready.

Numbertwenty-four would be arriving next week, a Benz roadster from themid-twenty-first century.  Only a handful had been manufactured.  Ashe walked down the stairs Fat Frank considered where he would park the roadsterwhen it arrived.  Maybe over there near the yellow Ferrari, hethought.  He could back the Ferrari up a little, nearer that pillar, andthen—

Fat Frank pausedin mid-step.  He looked at the yellow Ferrari again.  He squinted,but he couldn’t be sure.  So he ran down the rest of the steps and took acloser look.

No.  Hiseyes hadn’t deceived him.  It wasn’t just a weird reflection in thewindshield.  It was a bullet hole.

So much forfeeling better.

He was shocked atfirst.  Then his shock turned into anger.  Eventually rationalthought made its way through the emotions and brought up the question: How could a bullet have gone through the Ferrari windshield?

Fat Frank made afew sharp deductions:  The bullet would have come from a gun.  Andthat gun would have been carried by a person.  And a person who could havefired that gun to put that bullet through the Ferrari windshield would have hadto be standing inside his warehouse at the time.  But no one could getinside Fat Frank’s warehouse except Fat Frank, and obviously Fat Frank hadn’tshot his own car, so...

He jumped andsquealed, pig-like, at the sound of gunshot.  Another bullet hole appearednext to the first.

Fat Frank whirledaround.  “You!”  He was trying to sound menacing.  He soundedmore paranoid.  “I should have known it would be you, Jill Branch!”

“So you know myreal name,” Jill said from the shadows under the stairs.  The gun in herhand was smoking.  “I didn’t give you my real name when I moved into yourapartments, Frank.  How did you find out who I am?”

“Look what you’vedone!” he said in a high-pitched whine, gesturing at the twin bullet holes.

“You’re avoidingmy question, Frank.”

“It wasn’t enoughto shoot it once, was it?  You had to go ahead and—!”

Another shotechoed deafeningly.  This time the windshield exploded into shards.

Fat Frank coveredhis head and whimpered.

“Talk to me,Frank.  I already know what you did.  I just want to hear it fromyour own lips, learn a few details.  Like who you’re working for.”

“I have no ideawhat you’re talking about!”

This time she putthree holes in the sleek yellow door.

“Stop it!” Fat Frank was clenching his fists and jumping up and down as he yelled. “What do you think you’re doing?  And how did you get in here, anyway?”

Jill stepped outof the shadows.  She was still wearing the gray trousers they’d issued herback at GoCom.  “Let’s just say I’m good at getting in and out of placesI’m not supposed to.  Now talk.  Who hired you to help track medown?”

“I...I can’tsay,” he stammered.

A bullet whistledpast him and took out the Ferrari’s passenger window.

“Hey, quitit!  You’re trigger happy, no problem.  Just shoot at something lessvaluable, will you?”

She shrugged andaimed at Fat Frank.

“Whoa! Whoa!” he sputtered, cowering.

“Talk.”

“All right, allright!  I don’t know who they were.  They showed me your picture,told me your real name.  I said, yeah, you lived here, all right. But you’re a tough one to get a hold of.  I suggested bugging yoursuit.  That’s how they weregonnatrack youdown.”  He scratched his head.  “By the way, why did they want totrack you down?”

She gestured atthe style-less gray pants.  “You don’t recognize the material? Please, Frank, I’m sure you’ve been to jail a time or two.”

“Well, yeah, butI had to give the pants back when...”  His eyes widened, and he cursed andshook his head.

“Why did you doit, Frank?”

“They werepersuasive people!”

“Persuasive likethey offered you a lot of money?”

“Persuasive likethey weregonnathrow my butt in the slammer if Ididn’t help.”

“The police?”

“I don’t know. They didn’t seem like police.”

“No idea at allwho they were?”

Frank shook hishead insistently.  “That’s all I know, I swear!...So why’d they want totrack you down, anyways?”

“No morequestions, Frank.”

“And how’d youget out of jail?”

The next bullettook off the driver’s side rear-view mirror.

“Okay, no morequestions!  Sheesh.”

Jill took theempty clip out of the pistol and pulled out a new one.  “I need a favor.”

“A favor? You break into my storage and shoot up my car and you want a favor?”

The new clipclicked into place.

“Fine.  Afavor.  Go ahead, tell me.”

“First of all,our relationship as landlord and tenant will have to end.”

“It’s a realshame.”

“Isn’t it? And I’ll need a new ID card.  You know the guy you recommended for my lastID?”

“Oh, yeah. Joey.  Joey’s good.”

“Joeysucks.  It took forever.  Give me someone else.  I know you knowsomeone better.”

“Well, sure, Iknow plenty of guys.  But I don’t want to give away all my connections,you know?”

She aimed at theFerrari again.

“Fine,fine!  Look up Matt at theNorthshoreGarage.  He’s the best I know.  Don’t tell him I told you about him,okay?  He’s used to dealing with high-rollers—no offense meant to you,obviously.”

“Obviously. And another thing.”

“What?”

“My skybike.”

“What about it?”

“I need a newone.”

“So?”

“So you’re buyingme a new one.”

“Excuse me?”

“I wrecked minerunning from some people—the people you helped find me to throw me in jail,remember them?  So you can replace my skybike.”

“Look, it’s notmy fault you—”

She aimed atanother car—a burgundy model, one of the originalskycars.

Fat Frankgrowled.  “Okay.  New skybike.  What’s one of those cost thesedays?  Like ten thousand credits?”

“Fifteen.”

“I’ll see if Ican dig it up.”

“Start by diggingin your wallet.”

“What, you thinkI carry around that kind of cash?”

“I know you carryaround that kind of cash.  Hand it over.”

Fat Frank’s lipsquivered.  A minute later Jill had fifteen one-thousand-credit bills inher hand.

“And one morefavor,” she said, backing into the shadows again.

He rolled hiseyes.  “What now?”

“I’m not sureyet.  I’ll let you know when I think of one.”

“Gee, just howmany favors do you think I owe you?”

“Oh, I don’tknow, Frank.  If you don’t want to do them for me I can always come backhere and take a few more potshots at your cars.”

“Great.  SoI’m like your little assistant now.”

“You seemed happyto be a little assistant for the people who caught me.”

“All right,whatever.  Listen, as long as I’m doing all these favors, couldn’t youanswer just one more question?”

“Depends on whatit is.”

“How did you getin here?”

“I told you, I’mgood at that kind of thing.”

“Come on, tellme!”  Fat Frank managed a wry smile.  “Impress me!”

“I’ll give you ahint:  I got in the same way I’m about to leave.”

“Which is...?”

“You’ll have tofind out for yourself.”

“So my securitycameras caught you in the act?”

“Why don’t youcheck after I’m gone?”

“When will thatbe?”

She didn’tanswer.

“Hey,Jill?”  But he couldn’t make out her shape in the shadows any more.


Page 7

 

 

8

 

 

NOTsurprisingly theNorthshoreGarage was on the northshore of Lake Anterra.  It was a little cement-walled afterthought wedgedamong the industrial buildings.

The midmorningsun was hovering above the Home Planet to the east when Jill pulled up to theplace.  She was riding her new skybike and wearing new black ridinggear.  A pair of bay doors revealed cars in various states of disrepairbeing looked at and tinkered with.  In front was a wide lot strewn withcar parts that may or may not come in handy at some point.  The smell ofthe lake mingled with the smell of motor oil and tire rubber.

A guy in a denimjumpsuit and cap approached Jill.  He was chewing a wad of gum that wasjust a little too big.  “Nice bike,” he said.  His accent made itsound like “Nassback,” like he’d just shown up inAnterra from the southeastern United States.

“Thanks.”

“Looks new. Trouble with it already, huh?”

“No.  That’snot why I’m here.”

“New paint job,then?  Maybe give your engine a little more get-up?  I can get thisbaby going three hundred kilometers per hour, no problem.”

“Maybe anothertime.  It’s not about the bike.”

“No? Looking for a little date tonight, sweetness?”  He smiled lewdly amidsthis gum-chewing.

“I’m not lookingfor a date of any size.  I need to see Matt.”

The guy gesturedto the name tag stitched on his jumpsuit.  Apparently it had said “Matt”at one time; it was too faded and grease-smudged to read at this point. “That’s me.”  The smile was gone.  “Who told you to see me?”

“That’s not important.”

“Actually, it’sreal important if you andme’regonnado any business.  ’Course I’m not averse to mixing business withpleasure.”  The lewd smile returned.

“Whatever. Frank sent me, if you have to know.”

“Frank who?”

“Fat Frank.”

“Ah, should’veguessed.  So what do you need, sweetness?”

“A new ID.”

“What kind?”

That was aninteresting question.  This guy must do all sorts of odd jobs for thecriminal community.  “Just a Standard Anterran Identification Card.”

“Sure.  Whatname?”

“Pick one.”

“Okay.  Howold you want it to say you are?”

“How old do Ilook?”

“Got it. Black hair natural?”

She nodded.

“Give metwenty-four hours.”

“What will I oweyou?”

“It’s a simplejob, really—simpler than I’m used to, to be honest.  Call it fiftycredits...unless you’ll reconsider that date.”

“Fifty credits itis, then.”

“Why don’t youpick it up at my place?  Here, I’ll write down my address for you.”

“I’ll pick it upright here, same time tomorrow.”

“You’re a toughtiger to tame, eh sweetness?”

She was alreadyfiring up her skybike to leave.

 

MAYBEshe should have accepted Holiday’s offer.  Maybe she should have joinedthe department.  The thought was still there in the back of her mind...

And the back ofher mind was where she kept it.  There was no time for considerations likethat right now.  There was too much to do.

By the followingevening she had a new name and a new place out toward the west rim.  Theseapartments were a lot nicer than Fat Frank’s.  Of course they were a lotmore expensive, too.

And riskier. This landlord wasn’t like Fat Frank.  He didn’t open communication betweenerrandersand potential hirers.  Jill had toreestablish herself on the grid—make sure the crime world knew how to reach herat her new number and by her new name to offer her jobs.

She had a newerrand within a day.  The guy on the phone didn’t introduce himself. They rarely did.

“You’ll bereceiving instructions soon,” he told her.

She didn’t askhow.

Later thatafternoon there was a knock at the door of Jill’s new apartment.  A boxsat on the doormat.  Whoever had brought it was gone before Jill hadopened the door.

In the box was asmall pad of lined paper.  The first page had a carefully hand-writtennote in blue ink:

 

Miss Branch,

Theoffice computer of Tanaka Brothers’ Gallery on the Aurora Bridge Mall containsa list I should very much like to see.  It is a document entitledHPCAMVEN.  Please copy the document in its entirety onto the subsequentpages of this notepad, and return it to me tonight at the address on the nextpage.  Forgive me for ending these instructions with cliché admonishments,but instinct compels me to do so:  Take every precaution to ensure thatyou are not caught.  Upon copying the file, please immediately eliminateany evidence of your having opened it in the first place.  I am aware ofyour record of excellence, Miss Branch, and am confident of your success. I shall look forward to meeting you.

Sincerely,                                                             

Sketch

 

The first thingJill noticed was that the letter addressed her by name.  By herrealname.  Whoever this guy was had connections.  Some clients referredto you by whatever alias you were using at the time.  Some had enoughconnections to refer to you by your real name.  It was just as well. Jill’s reputation came with her real name, and this guy was apparentlyimpressed.

The next thingshe noticed was that the letter was signed “Sketch.”  That got her heartracing a little. TheSketch?  Anyone with any involvement inillegal activities on MS9 knew that name.  Sketch was involved in justabout every game in town—guns, drugs, prostitution, you name it.  If therewas a governing body for the local criminal underground, Sketch was the primeminister.  If there was a mafia on Anterra, Sketch was the Don.

And now he wantedto hire Jill.

This job woulddefinitely be the highlight of Jill’s career.

 

JILLalways did a little research before an errand.

When she did asearch on Tanaka Brothers’ Gallery, she found out it had been in the news nottoo long ago.  Last week an employee there had been arrested. Neither the gallery nor the police would say why.

Jill knewwhy.  Sketch had tried to use an inside man to get the list off thecomputer, and that inside man had been caught and thrown in jail.  Jillsmiled to herself.  She wouldn’t be joining him.

 

SHEflew her bike to the Aurora Bridge Mall early that evening.  The bridgewas a massive stone and metal structure overlooking the river.  The riverwas actually just a long, skinny extension of the lake, north of the Avenue ofTowers.  The mall was made up of tiers of brick walkways just off thebridge, lined with shops of expensive trinkets, clothes, art, electronics, andso on.

Jill found TanakaBrothers’ Gallery on the third tier.  It was a fairly small place betweena coffee bar and a book shop.  She paid a nominal fee and walked inside.

Photography hadnever been Jill’s thing, especially this kind of photography.  The imageswere all black and white, or else tinted a single color like red oryellow.  The photos were of people, trees, buildings, all at strangeangles and with strange blurred effects.  Most of the pictures weremounted on glass partitions that created a sort of maze through the littleplace.

There was onesecurity guard in the gallery.  He didn’t look as bored as security guardsusually looked.  There was also a nicely dressed Japanese host who must beone of the Tanaka brothers.  At one point she saw him disappear into awhite door in the white wall at the back of the gallery.  The office wouldbe up the stairs behind that door.

She’d have to getinto the office after hours.  Her original plan had been to hide untilclosing time, then have the place to herself.  It wouldn’t be the firsttime she’d used that method.  But there was no place to hide here—norestrooms, no furniture; just one room with glass partitions.

Jill left thegallery, sat on a bench across from it, and started cooking up a Plan B whileshoppers buzzed around her.  She made a quick survey.

The Gallery officeswere on the second floor.  The book shop next door was three stories high.

She went into thebook shop.  It had a nice atmosphere to match its merchandise, tall woodenshelves and reading areas with antique furniture.  A stairway in back ledto level two, which was not as busy as level one.  Another stairway led tolevel three, which was even less busy.  She walked to the back corner—thephilosophy and theology section, which was the emptiest area of all.  Adoor in the corner said “Employees only.”

It was after sixo’clock.  Tanaka Brother’s Gallery closed at seven.  The book shopclosed at nine.  Jill grabbed a volume off the theology shelf and found achair by the window across the room.  She appeared to be engrossed in amassive, centuries-old religious exposition.  She was actually engrossedin other things.  To one side she could see out onto the mallwalkway.  Since the book shop was at an angle compared to the gallery, shecould see the front door of the gallery as well.  To the other side she couldsee the employee door across the room.

The evening grewdark outside as she waited.

At seven minutespast seven, she saw Mr. Tanaka closing up his gallery for the night.  Hissecurity guard left.

At a quarter pastseven, a middle-aged woman in spectacles emerged from the employee door andwent downstairs.

At two minutesbefore eight o’clock, Mr. Tanaka left his gallery.

The middle-agedwoman hadn’t come back.

Jill set the bookaside and approached the employee door.  There were no customers insight.  She knocked.  No one answered.  She knocked again. No one answered.

Jill went throughthe door.

She was in asmall office in the back of the building.  It had a window to one side—awindow that overlooked the rooftop of Tanaka Brothers’ Gallery next door.

A minute latershe was on the gallery roof.  The mall below was brightly lit and crowded;the rooftop was silent and dark.

She went to theback edge of the roof.  Metal rungs built into the wall made a ladderleading down to the alley behind the gallery.  A window in the secondstory office was within reach of the ladder.  The lock on the window wouldhave been easy to jiggle open if she hadn’t been doing it leaning out from aladder.  She still managed.

She was in theoffice.  It was small and cramped.  The computer glowed on thedesk.  The monitor played a slideshow of the Tanaka Brothers’photos.  How narcissistic.

Just about everyerrander had basic hacking skills.  It took only a few moments to bypassthe computer’s security login; a few more moments to locate the document filecalled HPCAMVEN; a few more moments to scribble its contents—a couple dozennames and addresses from Earth—into Sketch’s notepad; a few more moments tocover any sign that the file had ever been opened.

By the time thespectacled woman was wondering who had opened her office window, Jill was onher skybike a half a mile away from the Aurora Bridge Mall.

 

 

9

 

 

SKETCH’Saddress was a high rise suite up the river from the mall.  It wasn’treally his address, Jill was sure; it was just a place he’d picked to conducttonight’s business.  Jill parked on the street a block away from the tall,round building and walked toward it.  Behind one of those glowing windowson the twenty-third floor, he was waiting for her.

She paused half ablock away from the high rise.

The thing aboutdoing a job was that once it started you didn’t usually have time to thinkabout anything except the job itself.  It was rare when you got abreather, had a little time for your mind to wander.

Like right now.

The thought hadbeen pushing its way further and further to the front of her mind.

Maybe she shouldhave accepted Holiday’s offer.

In the notepad inher backpack was the list.  She’d stolen it from people she didn’tknow.  She was bringing it to a man she didn’t know, who wanted it forreasons she didn’t know.

She’d calledHoliday’s offer ridiculous.  And it was.

Moreridiculous than being a pawn for criminals who couldn’t care less whether youlive or die once they’ve done with you?

It was a longtime before Jill started walking again.  And when she did, it was awayfrom the high rise.

 

TWOhours later she was at a classy hotel near the west rim.  Off the lobbywas a row of empty payphone cubicles.  She took out a screwdriver, openedthe inner workings of one of the phones, and made some personal modificationsincluding the addition of a device she’d brought along.  Then she dialed.

A few seconds ofcanned music played on the other end of the line.  Then:

“AnterranGovernmental Complex.  How may I direct your call?”

“I need to speakto a jail warden, please.”

“I’m transferringyou now.”

Canned musicfilled the line for several moments.

“WardenBollis.”

Time for one ofJill’s best impersonations.  “Hello, I’m calling with theAnterranDaily Recorder, regarding the escaped prisoner.”

An uncomfortablegrunt.  “I’m sorry, I don’t have time—”

“It will onlytake a moment, sir.”

“They told us notto talk to the press.”

“Iunderstand.  In that case, maybe you could transfer me to the personnelwho arrested her in the first place?”

“Look, it wasn’tmy people who let that girl escape!  Make sure you write that in yourstory.”

“Of course. In your view, Mr.Bollis, whowasresponsiblefor her escape?”

“They sentsomeone down to move her for questioning.  That’s when she made hergetaway.”

“Whosentsomeone down to move her for questioning?”

“No idea. Our records just say ‘special branch’—that means we’re not supposed to know.”

“Iunderstand.  But someone acted on behalf of the special branch to put theprisoner in your care?”

“Sure, that wouldbe Janice Moeller.”

“Great.  MayI speak with her?”

The warden wasonly too happy to transfer the call away.

More cannedmusic.  Jill held her breath.  It was unlikely that this Janice wouldstill be at work, but there was always a chance...

“Janice Moellerspeaking.”

“I need to speakwith Director Holiday.”

“I’m...afraid Idon’t know who that is.”

“I’m afraid youdo.  Put him on, please.”

“I’m sorry, I’mnot aware of any Holiday.”

“Maybe this willjar your memory:  He’s the one who had you put me in jail—until Iescaped.  I’m guessing he’ll be a little upset when he finds out you hungup on me instead of putting me through to him.”

Janice clearedher throat.  “Wh-who’s calling, please?”

“Jill Branch.”

Silence for along moment.  “I see.  I’ll find out if Director Holiday isavailable.”

“If he’s not onin one minute I’m hanging up.”

It took only afew seconds.  Holiday didn’t bother with a greeting.  “If you’recalling to rub it in, don’t expect me to be rapt with attention.”

“I’m calling tosay I’ve changed my mind.”

“Oh?  You’recoming back to jail?”

“I want to acceptyour offer.”

He paused beforereplying:  “You’re assuming our offer still stands after your littleescapade.”

It wasn’t allthat surprising that he was being stand-offish.  “My record wasn’t exactlysqueaky-clean before that, but you wanted me then.”

“And since thattime you’ve done nothing whatsoever to indicate that you’re interested injoining us.  Just the opposite, in fact.”

“Other thancalling you right now.”

“For whatpurpose?  Who’s to say why you’ve really decided to give us jingle in themiddle of the night?”

“Why else would Irisk making a call and being traced?”

“Don’t pretendyou’re not blocking our trace, Jillian.”

“Trying to,anyway.  But don’t pretend your tracers are not doing everything in theirpower.”

“They are, ofcourse.  Unfortunately it will still take a few more minutes.”

“I’ll take thatto mean about thirty seconds.”

“Take it howeveryou want.  The point is, we would be foolish to extend our offer to youany longer.”

“You wanted mebecause I’m good at what I do.  All I did by breaking out of jail wasprove it.”

“I’m afraid thatisnotall you did by breaking out of jail.”

“So I missed mychance?”

Holiday hesitatedonly a moment.  “All right, Jillian.  You want to join us, tell usface to face.”

“Where can I meetyou?”

“Right here atour headquarters, of course.”

What was heplaying at?  “How am I supposed to get there?”

“Oh, I’ve nodoubt you’ll find a way.”

“You’re talkingabout breaking into a secure section of GoCom.”

Holidaysniffed.  “You seemed to have no trouble breaking out of it.”

“I wouldn’texactly say it was no trouble.”

“Take it or leaveit, Jillian.  If you’d like us to extend our offer one last time,demonstrate your worth one last time.  It’s only reasonable.”

She couldn’t denyit.

“Oh, andJillian?  About the trace—I was a bit conservative in my estimation. You’ve only got a few more seconds.”

She’d hung upbefore he finished saying it.

 

INhisoffice overlooking HQ, Giles Holiday smiled to himself as he broke theconnection.

Corey had beentalking with the director when the call came.  “It was her, wasn’t it?”

Holiday nodded.

“You traced thecall?”

“She blocked it.”

Coreygrimaced.  “Sherlock...?”

The directorshook his head.  “He hasn’t spotted her.  No VOFARE recognition as ofyet.”

“You’re notseriously giving her another chance?”

“Isn’t that whatwe do, Corey—give people another chance?”

“She already hadan opportunity.”

“And she turnedit down at first, yes.  Remind you of anyone in particular?”

Corey lookedaway.  “I didn’t turn down your offer, exactly.  I just needed sometime to think.”

“And so didJillian, apparently.”

“She broke out ofjail!”

“And that meanswe shouldn’t allow her to become one of us?”

“Doesn’t it?”

“Should it? More than any other crime she’s already committed?...More than any other crimeyou’ve committed in your past?”

“I’vecommitted?”

Holidayshrugged.  “You weren’t exactly a saint yourself when we took you on.”

“I didn’t breakout of jail to get away from you.”

“A dangerous lineof thinking, Corey, concentrating on what youdidn’tdo.  There’salways something someone else has done that we haven’t done, isn’t there? Helps the ego immensely to focus on those things, doesn’t it?”

Corey wasindignant, and didn’t mind showing it.  “So we’ll just take anyone, nomatter what?”

“Anyone whowillingly joins our cause, yes.  You disagree?”

“It seems like wehave to havesomestandards.”

“Such as?”  Holidaystood behind his desk and looked Corey in the eye.  “How many crimes mustone commit before one is disqualified?  Which sort of crimes?  Howmany opportunities must one receive before it’s too late?  I suppose youhave a system in mind?  A system that lets you in but not Jillian, or Imiss my guess.”

Corey gritted histeeth.  “No.  I don’t have a system in mind.  But breaking outof jail after our offer has been extended!  If that doesn’t disqualifysomeone, then what does?”

“How aboutlettingsomeone break out of jail, due to personal negligence?” Holiday suggested.

Coreyswallowed.  “Don’t I feel lousy enough about that already?”

“If you stillthink you deserve to be here more than someone else, no; you don’t feel nearlylousy enough.”

Corey didn’treply.

Holiday softeneda bit.  “I know what you’re feeling, Corey.  You’re angry at the wayshe used you.  I don’t blame you.  But if you’re trying to makeyourself feel better by comparing yourself favorably to her, don’t.”

“I’ll make myselffeel better,” Corey said under his breath, “when I find her and get her backbehind bars.”

 

MARTINP. Daniels awoke to the sound of the living room window shatteringdownstairs—or rather, he awoke to the sound of his wife shrieking, and then shetold him the living room window had shattered downstairs.  She called thepolice while he got his gun and tiptoed downstairs, trembling in his paisleybathrobe.

He got to thebottom of the stairs and peeked around the corner.  The window was broken,all right.  Nothing was left but jagged teeth of glass around the frame.

The interestingthing was that the window had been broken from the inside.  The shards ofglass were in the back yard instead of on the living room carpet.

The police alwaysarrived quickly in Palm Hills Estates.  They searched the house thoroughlyand determined that there was no intruder.  Mrs. Daniels then searched thehouse thoroughly herself, and determined that nothing was missing.

“So why would anintruder break in silently, steal nothing, and then leave by breaking thewindow?” Martin P. Daniels thought out loud.

“Maybe to makesure you got this,” said a cop.  He was gesturing to a note tacked justbelow the broken window.  Daniels hadn’t seen it before.  He read thenote, then tossed it aside in disgust.

“What does itsay?” Mrs. Daniels asked.  When her husband didn’t answer, she read thenote herself.  All it said was:  “Thanks for the lift.”

It wasn’t untilthe next morning that Martin P. Daniels realized the intruder had takensomething after all:  His GoCom identification card.

 

THEman sitting across from Director Holiday was very tall and very bald. Those who knew him had a suspicion he was also very old.  But with thosetight facial features, and probably a plastic surgery or two, who could know forsure?  People called him Riley.  It was probably his last name. If he also had a first name no one knew that either.

Riley was one ofthe few who knew Holiday’s department existed.  His official title wasChief Home Planet Liaison.  Basically he kept in contact withEarth—specifically with the United Space Programs who had built MS9.  Hemade sure they were up to date on all the excitement going on in the Anterrangovernment, let them know his complaints, and so on.  He probably had alot of those.  Complaints were one of Riley’s specialties.  Holidaywas reminded of this each time Riley paid him a visit.

Today was noexception.

“You want the badnews, or the bad news?” Riley asked.  Most conversations with Rileystarted roughly this way.

“I’ve heard bothalready,” said Holiday.  “A GoCom ID was stolen, and it was probablystolen by Jillian Branch.”

“Notprobably.  Definitely.”

Holiday didn’tseem to think the bad news was quite as bad as Riley thought it was.  Hewas obviously suppressing a smile.

“I understand youdared this Jillian Branch to find her way back here to your headquarters, isthat so?”  Riley crossed his long arms as he asked the question.

“It was aninvitation, not a dare.”

“Provided shecould get here by her own means.”

“Correct.”

“DirectorHoliday, I hate to question your methods—”

“We both knowyou’re only too happy to question my methods.  Go on.”

Riley sputtered,then continued:  “Have you thought this through?  Is this girl reallywhat you’re looking for to staff your department?”

“Whether you likethe members of my staff or not is your opinion, Riley.  But what my staffhas accomplished is not a matter of opinion.  Our success is awell-documented fact.  I’ll thank you to let me do my job the way I seefit, and recruit the sort of help I want, so long as we’re getting results. Which we most certainly are.”

“Results such asletting a girl escape from the GoCom jail?”

Holiday lookedamused.  “A girl who would never have been in jail in the first place ifnot for my people.”

Riley sputteredagain.  “I’ll concede the point.  But you won’t be the one to catchher again.  That’s up to the other GoCom departments—you know, the onesthat hire qualified professionals and don’t have to operate secretly? Don’t make us keep doing your job for you.”

“It’s none of mybusiness, of course, but exactly how do you plan on catching Miss Branch?”


Page 8

Riley seemedsurprised at the question.  “She has a GoCom entrance ID.  The minuteshe tries to use it, we’ll be waiting for her.”

“Don’t you thinkshe’s well aware of that?”

Rileyhesitated.  “Well, if she doesn’t intend to use it to get in the building,why do you think she stole it?”

Holidayshrugged.  “Here’s another question:  Why do you suppose she’s madevery sure that we all know she has it?”

Riley was alwaysflustered to begin with.  By now he was particularly flustered. “Okay, Giles.  Since you seem to have this all figured out, how about youjust skip to the end and tell me what she’s up to.”

“I’m sure I haveno idea.  And I’m sure you don’t either.”

Rileygrunted.  “We’ll see.”

“We shallindeed.”  Now Director Holiday didn’t try to suppress his smile at all.

 

 

10

 

 

INa poorer neighborhood a few blocks east of the Aurora Bridge, Jill stoodlooking through a rusting chain link fence.  The back yard on the otherside of the fence was small, but still managed to contain a lot of clutter.

She wasn’tlooking at the clutter.  She was looking where she always looked when shecame back to this place, at the boughs of the old tree in the back corner ofthe yard.  The tree house she and Jerry had built was still there, stillholding together.  And their initials would still be carved on the wallinside, though she’d never bothered to check.  They’d promised to staysoul-mates forever, she and Jerry Grant—Jerry G, as he liked to becalled.  Dreams like that are very believable when you’re only elevenyears old.

But a lot canchange in seven years.  A lot had changed in just one year, actually.

Jill stillthought Jerry G had started drifting away from her before she’d drifted awayfrom him.  He was good with computers—reallygood withcomputers.  Especially old computers and old operating systems that no oneused anymore.  But by the time she was twelve, Jill suspected Jerry was nolonger using his skills for innocent purposes.

Of course by thenJill wasn’t living such an innocent life herself anymore.  Since thenthey’d seen each other once a year or so, only when they were partners incrime. Erranderscould make good use of a solidhacker now and then, and the other way around.

It seemedfitting, Jill thought as she hopped the fence, that they should be partners inher very last crime.

There was acement stairwell leading from the back yard to the basement of the Granthome.  She’d heard his music thumping from outside the fence.  It wasnearly deafening when she opened the door.

Jerry G didn’tsee her at first.  He was at his computer—one of them, that is. Computers and parts of computers took up most of the space in the crampedbasement room.  A few glowing monitors were the only source oflight.  His big curly afro was silhouetted against the largestscreen.  The screen was filled with lines and lines of code.  He wasadding more lines as she approached him, and his hair was bobbing gracefully tothe music.

“The GratefulDead, isn’t it?” she asked when she stood directly behind him.

He squawked at anembarrassingly high pitch as he jumped to his feet and whirled around.  Inan instant he’d regained his composure and thrown his gangly arms aroundher.  “Jillian!  Don’t scare me like that, girl!”

“Sorry.” She smiled at the sight of that scraggly attempt at a beard on his pasty whiteface.  The beard was no better than when he’d first tried it at agethirteen.  “Good to see you, Jerry G.”

He turned downhis music.  “Man, it’s great to see you too, Jillian!  What’s up?”

“I need yourhelp.”

“Oh.”

She saw a glintof sadness in his eyes, like maybe he’d hoped that for once she’d come to seehim just to see him, no other reason.  His expression stirred somethinginside her.  For a moment she was eleven years old again and believing inthe promise she’d made as she carved a J. B. just below his J. G.

But then themoment was over and the pretending had to stop.  The sadness mostly fled fromhis eyes, and he was all business.  “Sure.  Anything for you, girl.”

“It’s prettyrisky, Jerry.”

“Isn’t everythingwe do, nowadays?”

“If we getcaught, we’re in big trouble.”

Jerry G jerked athumb at the code on the screen behind him.  “Probably not as much troubleas I’m in if they find out about that.  Come on, Jillian, it’s me! Tell me about it.”

“For starters,take a look at this.”  She handed him an ID card with Martin P. Daniels’name and photo on it.

“Hey, that’s aGoCom ID!  Cool.  Useless, but cool.”

“Not useless.”

“What are yousaying?  You try to use that to get inside GoCom, they’ll be all over youbefore you know it.  Especially considering the recent history between youand that place.  Yeah, I heard all about that.  Nice going, by the way.”

“Thanks.  Iknow I can’t use it that way.  But can I reprogram it?”

Jerry G wrinkledhis forehead.  “How would that help?  They’d still catch you, even ifyou had another profile on the card.”

“Trust me,Jerry.  I’ve got a plan.  So can you?”

“Sure, they canbe reprogrammed.  But I don’t have the stuff to do it.  We’d need alittle thing called a Benson-Starr translator.  That’s what GoCom uses toprogram the cards in the first place.  It’s a device that attaches to acomputer—the computer being used to access the card.  It allowsinformation to pass safely between the computer and the card.  Hence thename.”

“You can’t justhack the card?”

He shook hishead.  “I’ve tried.  The minute you try to hack it, itself-destructs.”

“Like, blows up?”

He rolled hiseyes.  “Like erases itself.  It recognizes a rogue signal trying toinfiltrate its contents.  Besides, these IDs use a totally differentinformation storage system than any I’ve ever seen.  I can’t access themwith my computer, or any computer I know of.”

“So it’s liketrying to talk to someone who speaks another language?”

“Anothertypeof language, even.  You don’t know Spanish, but if you read Spanish you’dat least have a chance of understanding a little.  It uses basically thesame letters as English, and has similar roots.”

“So it would belike if I tried to read Chinese.”

“More like if youtried to understand ASL.”

“ASL?”

“Signlanguage.  Unlike English, it’s not written or spoken; it’s a totallydifferent type of communication.  You’d need a translator who knew how tounderstand both types of communication.  That’s why the device that passesinfo between computers and GoCom IDs is called a translator.  It dealswith two completely separate types of information.”

“What sort ofinformation storage does the ID use?”

Heshrugged.  “No idea.”

“But if you hadthe translator, you could reprogram the card.”

“Sure, but unlessyou plan on going to the Home Planet, breaking into Benson-Starr Enterprises inLondon, and stealing one—”

“I may knowsomeone who has one.”

“Yeah?” Jerry G looked skeptical.

“I’ll bring itover when I’ve got it.”

“I doubtit.  Benson-Starr manufactures them exclusively for GoCom.  But hey,assuming youareable to get your hands on a translator, what exactly doyou want me to do?”

“Why?  Areyou thinking of bailing out on me?”

His eyesshifted.  “It just seems like you may be in over your head on this one.”

“I already toldyou it would be risky.  You didn’t seem to mind.”

“There’s risky,and there’s risky.  I didn’t realize GoCom was involved.  You want tojust summarize what you’re planning on doing?”

“I’m playing thebiggest prank that’s ever been played on the Anterran government.”

Jerry G’s concernwas helpless against the excitement this explanation brought.  “I don’tknow, Jill.  Okay, I’m in.”

“I figured. I’ll be back with the translator.”

He looked intoher eyes a moment—a moment sort of like that other moment when she first gothere.  “Yeah, great, Jillian.  See you then.”

 

WHILEthe sun came up she waited by theNorthshoreGarage.  Matt was the first to arrive.  He seemed a little too happyto see her.  She asked him about the translator.

“Sure I’ve gotsome of those.  You need some GoCom ID work done?”

“I want thetranslators themselves.”

“Well, that’llcost you.”

“So you said youhave more than one?”

“Several.  Iknow a guy in London.”

“I need three.”

“Must havesomething interesting planned, sweetness.  I guess I could spare three ofthem.  Did I mention it’ll cost you?”

“You did, butthat was as specific as you got.”

“Try two thousandcredits.”

“Let’s skip thebantering and hear your final offer.”

The lewd smilemade another appearance.  “What about that date we talked about?”

“We didn’t talkabout a date.”

“How about fifteenhundred credits, and you and I have dinner someplace nice?”

“How aboutthirteen hundred credits, and I don’t kick you in the crotch right now?”

He sniffed. “All right, deal.”

“I’ll give youhalf up front.  You’ll get the other half when and if they work.”

“Believe me, theywork—unfortunately for you.  Messing withGoCom’llonly get you in trouble.”

She winced. He was probably dead right on that one.

 

“Igotnothin’ more to say.”  The man who calledhimself Mr. Love still had several tattoos showing despite his long-sleevedprison garb.  He sat at the table in the interrogation room with armscrossed, frowning exaggeratedly.

Across from himsat Director Holiday.  “I won’t force you to cooperate,” he said blandly.

“I alreadycooperated.  I told you who my clients were.”

“You told us whosome of them were.”

“All of ’em!”

Holiday shook hishead.  “All but one.”

Love lookedaway.  The guilt was all over his face.

“Come, man, stoppretending,” Holiday said evenly.  “We have evidence that there’s anotherclient of yours that you’re refusing to tell us about.  If you don’t wantto name him, fine.  But I recommend that you at least stop lying to usabout him.  That won’t help your case.”  Holiday stood and walkedtoward the door.  Before exiting, he paused.  “On the other hand, ifyou do tell us more about this particular client, itwillhelp yourcase—perhaps a great deal.”

Love bit his lip,darted his eyes around.

“Well?” Holidayasked.

Love shook hishead.

“Have it yourway,” said the director.  He opened the door.

“I got myreasons,” Love whispered behind him.

Holiday closedthe door.  “I’m sure you do,” he said to himself.  He gestured forthe guards outside the room to escort Love back to his cell.

The directorsmiled on his way back to his office.  Love may not have cooperated yet,but Holiday’s seasoned instincts could tell he was cracking.  Sooner orlater he was going to tell them everything.

 

JILLfound Jerry on the couch in his basement.  He had a bedroom upstairs, butno one remembered the last time he’d slept in his actual bed.  Jerry Gwasn’t used to hitting the sack before three or four in the morning.  Healso wasn’t used to getting up before noon, but it was eight o’clock when Jillshook him awake.  That made him a little grumpy.

He got over itwhen he saw the three devices Jill had brought over.  They were fairlycompact, roughly cubic in shape.  Benson-Starr translators.  Helooked at her in surprise and admiration.  “How?”

“You know betterthan to ask.  Can we get to work?”

Jerry G rubbedhis eyes.  “If you explain what sort of work you have in mind.”

“We’d better testthe translators first.”

“Ah, so yoursource may not be the most trustworthy fellow?”

Jill didn’tanswer.  She gestured to his main computer.

Jerry sat at itlike a pilot in the cockpit.  “Okay.  I don’t think I mentioned thatwe need a specific piece of software to recognize the translator and access theID.”

“No, you didn’t,”Jill sighed.  “So how—?”

“Don’t worry,I’ve got the software.  It’s not hard to get, really.  They don’tprotect it very thoroughly, considering it’s worthless without thetranslator.”  He was unscrewing a panel in one side of the translator.

“What are youdoing?” Jill asked concernedly.

“Just checking itout.  I’ve never seen one of these, and I’m curious.”

“It was hard toget, so don’t ruin it, okay?”

He whistled as helooked at the interior of the device.  “I think it’s acoustic.”

“What?”

“The informationis relayed through sound.  See these tiny parts here?  They realignto create different pitches—pitches human ears can’t detect, of course. Different exact pitches translate into different segments of information. That’s what the GoCom IDs use.  I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Cool,” saidJill, sounding like she didn’t think it was that cool.  She’d never sharedJerry G’s fascination for the technical side of things.  She was much moreinterested in the practical.  “So are we good to go?”

He plugged thetranslator into a jack on his computer.  “I think so.  It should takethe info from the card and turn it into info my computer can interact with.”

“How close do Ihave to get for the card to be accessed?”

“You can leavethe card in your pocket and stand up to fifteen feet away if you want. The signal reaches at least that far.  Here, I’ve already got Daniels’info.”

Sure enough,there it was on the screen: scans of Martin P. Daniels’ photo, birthcertificate, social security card, background check, and pages and pages ofother information.

“Now,” said JerryG, turning to look Jill in the eye, “you want to let me know exactly whatyou’re planning?”

“Could you deletethe info on the card?”

“Why would we dothat?”

“I don’t want youto.  I’m just asking if you could.”

“Of course.”

“What if youweren’t here?”

He gave her apuzzled look.  “What?”

“Could you makethe computer delete the information of any GoCom ID card that came within rangeof the translator, whether you were present or not?”


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“I suppose Icould cook up a program that would do that.  I could set it to cycle so itsent out a signal from the translator every few seconds—”

“How aboutconstantly?”

“Okay,constantly.”

“And whenever itdetected an ID card within range, it would erase the info on the card?”

“Yeah.  ButI still don’t—”

“What if therewere a lot of ID cards within range of the translator at the same time?”

“Noproblem.  It would erase all of them in an instant.”  Jerry G lookedpleased and anxious at the same time—pleased that he could write the program inquestion, anxious because he didn’t like where this was going.  “So that’sthe prank?  You want to get this program cycling on a computer near theentrance to GoCom and delete everyone’s ID profile?”

“There’s more toit than that.  I want to get inside GoCom myself.”

Jerry Gwhistled.  “Okay.  You’d better explain more.”

“Nextquestion:  Could the program replace the info on the IDs with new info?”

“If we had theinfo, sure.”

“Like Martin P.Daniels’ profile?”

Jerry G smackedhis knee.  “You’re brilliant, Jillian, you know it?  Brilliant!”

 

THEYwere ready for the job two days later.

Not surprisingly,Jill had done her research well.    Most of GoCom’s hundreds ofemployees worked a standard 9-to-5 shift.  About sixty percent of theserode the ferries across the lake, which were the slowest but cheapest means ofreaching the massive island building.

At roughly 8:25a.m. a trio of ferries departed from a pier on the west shore of the lake nearthe Avenue of Towers.  The ferries arrived at the island about twentyminutes.  The passengers disembarked at a large plaza before GoCom’s mainentrance.  A few would linger in the courtyard, smoking or chatting ontheir phones or doing anything else to pass the time.  Some people had aphobia of clocking in so much as one minute before the appointed hour. But most would file directly through the glass doors into the wide entrancearea.

Once inside, theemployees would form lines before a row of security scanners—boxy white archeslinked together across the entryway.  One by one GoCom personnel passedthrough and had their ID cards scanned.  Their facial features were alsoscanned, making sure each ID was being carried by the person authorized tocarry it.  If the scanner detected no card, if the card and the facedidn’t match, or if there was any other problem, a few of the on-hand securityofficers would ideally resolve the problem as quickly and painlessly aspossible.

Of those whodidn’t commute via ferry almost all took the skybus—quicker but more expensive,which meant most of its passengers were a bit higher up in the GoCom foodchain.  The skybus departed from a terminal just blocks from the ferrypier.  Several busses left every weekday morning at 8:30 sharp and formeda little parade thirty feet above the lake’s surface.  They dropped theirpassengers off at a plaza on a terrace, just as the ferry passengers wereswarming across the plaza thirty feet below.  The bus passengers thenentered a similar entryway, and passed through similar security scanners whereissues were resolved by similar security persons.

The handful ofremaining 9-to-5 folks was the most pampered.  These were the proud fewwho had obtained parking permits for the garage—the garage from which Jill hadmade her getaway in the unwitting Martin P. Daniels’ vehicle.  From thegarage, employees entered a similar but smaller entryway, and passed throughsimilar but fewer security scanners.

By the time theseselect few dozen were entering the building, the workday of Anterra’sGovernmental Complex was just getting underway.

Most of this Jilldiscovered doing searches on her computer in the comfort of her ownapartment.  She enhanced her understanding of the process by donning anewly-purchased business suit and riding a bus on Wednesday and a ferry onThursday.  She also read on the official GoCom post that the complex’s state-of-the-artsecurity had functioned without any major hitch in the decade since it had beeninstalled.

Today would bethe first.

 

 

11

 

 

ITwas 7:30 a.m. when she met Jerry G at a café on the lakeshore.  The caféwas about a five minute walk from the skybus terminal, and an even shorter walkfrom the ferry pier.

“You look good,girl,” Jerry G said as platonically as possible.  “First time in abusiness suit?”

“No,actually.”  She didn’t elaborate.  “You look very professionalyourself.  Had to slick down the fro, huh?”

“I figured itwould be worth it for a prank like this.”

Jillfidgeted.  “Look, Jerry, I should tell you…This is more than just aprank.”

Jerry G didn’tlook too surprised.  He didn’t look too happy, either.  “Want to tellme about it?”

“I’m not sureabout all the details myself.  All I know is...well, this is my last job.”

He looked at hersideways.  “What do you mean?”

“I mean I’m donewith crime.”

“Um, you’reactually about to commit the biggest crime of your career.”

“Maybe thebiggest.  Definitely the last.”

“Hmm.  Sowhat are you getting into?”

“Like I said, I’mnot sure.”

Jerry Gshrugged.  “Hey, it’s okay by me.  Whatever’s going on, I’m glad tobe on board.”

“Thanks.”

“I don’t justmean the plan.  I mean, yeah, I like our plan.  But I mean...youknow, I’m glad to be helping you out.  Whatever you’re doing.”

Jill found iteasier to smile down at the table than at him for some reason.  “Thanks,Jerry G.”

The moment gotlonger and more awkward.

“We’d better getgoing,” Jerry said, clearing his throat.  “You’re sure you want theferry?  The bus is nicer.”

“It’s cool. You take the bus.”

“If youinsist.  By the way, I never did ask you how you were going to cover theother employee entrance—the one off the parking garage?”

Jillhalf-smiled.  “I managed.”

 

MARTINP. Daniels was in a better mood than usual.  He counted the reasons as hebacked out of his driveway and soon began soaring thirty feet into theskyway.  Today was Friday.  He had a nice weekend of golf and leisureahead of him.  He’d had his coffee.  And he finally had his newID.  No more waiting at the door for security to make all the necessarycalls to let him in.  That had been a pain in the backside the past coupledays since his old ID had been stolen.

He also had acomputer in his trunk, but that part he didn’t know about.  The computerhad a Benson-Starr translator attached to it.  The computer was alsorunning a program—a program Jerry G had finished writing the night before, muchlater than he had planned.

 

ONthe first of the three crowded ferries, the same program was running on thecomputer in Jill’s briefcase.

 

ATthe bus terminal, the same program was running on Jerry G’s computer.  Hestood near each bus as it was loaded, then boarded the last one.

When he got offat GoCom, he pretended to be taking a call and wandered around the raisedplaza, getting within fifteen feet of as many people as possible.  TheirIDs should all be reprogrammed by now, but it couldn’t hurt to be careful.

He ended up atthe edge of the terrace and looked at the plaza below.  The ferries hadarrived, and their passengers were streaming toward the front doors ormeandering in that general direction.

Jerry Gsmiled.  Chaos was about to ensue.

He jumped backonto one of the busses just as it was about to return to the shore.  Thedriver eyed him curiously.

“Forgot one of myfiles at home,” said Jerry with an embarrassed smile.  “Idiot!”  Heshook his head at his own stupidity.

The drivershrugged and gunned the engine.  The bus was out over the lake again.

Jerry G lookedback toward the massive island complex.  His job was done.  ButJill’s had just started.  He bit his lip and prayed she’d be allright.  Could you pray for a crime?  Maybe if it was someone’s lastcrime ever...

 

SHEwas just one of a sea of humanity rolling toward the front doors.  By thetime she was in the entryway the lines at the scanners were already backed up,and security personnel were scrambling.

Jillsmiled.  So far, so good.

 

MARTINP. Daniels parked in his reserved spot near the elevator.  He was fairlyearly, as usual.  He got on the elevator and descended one floor to theentryway.

The moment hestepped off the elevator, his semi-good mood evaporated.  As early as itwas, the lines at the scanners were still fairly long and didn’t seem to bemoving at all.  Security people were running around with all-too-seriousexpressions on their faces.

“What’s thedeal?” Daniels asked the guy in line in front of him.

“Some kind oftrouble.  They’re not letting anyone through at the moment.”

“So should weride down to another entrance?”

“I wouldn’t,”said the guy.  “That’s where the trouble is.”

“What trouble?”

“Sounds likeeveryone’s IDs are scanning with the same name and profile—somebody namedDaniel, or something like that.”

Martin P. Danielsgroaned.

The lines gotlonger and longer behind him.  Everyone who had arrived after Daniels hadwalked by his car—which meant their IDs contained his profile as well.

 

“OFcourse I’m seeing what’s happening!” the head of GoCom security barked into thephone in his office.  “We’ve suddenly got hundreds of Martin P.Danielseson the premises, and more arriving everysecond...No, our computers aren’t the problem...No, the IDs can’t be theproblem either!  How could this guy’s info get programmed onto hundreds ofID cards overnight?...I have no idea!  We’re working on it.”

The phone rangagain the instant he hung up.  He didn’t answer this time.

His assistantburst into his twentieth-story office with a tray of coffee, which he slurpeddown without a word of thanks.  “So what do we do?” she asked him.

He thought hardfor a minute.  “Tell them to shut off the scanners and let everyonein.  We’ll have to get someone at each gate to check IDs visually.”

“How can theycheck them if the scanners—?”

“They’ve gotphotographs on them, don’t they?  What else can we do?  Shut down thegovernment for the day?”

“Right,sir.  I’ll spread the word.”

The phone rangagain.  The head of security rolled his eyes and snatched up thereceiver.  “What?”

“I’ve receivedsome new information, sir.”

“Will it help usfix this problem?”

“Perhaps.”

Not as reassuringas he hoped, but it would have to do.  “I’m listening.”

“Do you recognizethe name Martin P. Daniels?”

“You mean besidesthe fact that everyone seems to have adopted it for the day?  No, shouldI?”

“His ID wasstolen earlier this week.”

“Yeah?”

“By the girl whoescaped from jail.”

Now the head ofsecurity was listening intently.

 

TENstories beneath the chaos, Corey Stone parked a department car and led the wayas he and Bradley Park entered HQ.  They circled the balcony to Dino’slab.

“Dino, we gotit,” Corey called through the door.

The funny littleman peeked out and looked at the device they’d brought back with them. “Yeah, that’s a VCR, all right.”

Bradley Parknodded.  “Took some serious hunting.”

It turned out Mr.Love wasn’t interested in watching illegal videocassettes so much as sellingthem or renting them out.  He didn’t own a VCR—or if he did it was soburied beneath the clutter of his apartment that they hadn’t been able to findone despite a thorough search.  But as Dino had observed, Love’s clientshad to own VCRs or they wouldn’t be Love’s clients.  They had tracked downthe address of one of them, obtained a search warrant, and finally nabbed aVCR.

“And you roundedup the rest of Love’s videocassettes for me, right?” asked Dino.

“They’re in theevidence storage room,” said Bradley.  “About fifty of them.”

“Well,” said Dino,“looks like I’ll be verifying the content of those videotapes for a while.”

Corey rolled hiseyes.  “You mean you’ll be sitting back in your easy chair watchingillegal movies for a while.”

“Work, work,work,” Dino said shaking his head.  “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a lotof popcorn to pop in preparation.”

Dizzie appearedin the doorway.  “Finally, you’re back!”  She seemed out of breath.

“You missed usthat bad?” asked Corey.

“Aren’t you offshift until this evening?” asked Bradley.

She ignored bothcomments.  “Do you have any idea what’s going on up there?”

They shook theirheads.

Corey dashed awaybefore she’d finished explaining.

 

BYthe time Jill made it through the line at her gate, the female security guardat the scanner smiled apologetically.  “Sorry about the delay, Miss. We’re having some technical difficulties this morning.”

“Noproblem.”  Jill handed over her GoCom ID.  It had her picture, andthe name matched the name on her current standard ID.  She hadn’t usedMatt atNorthshoreGarage for that job.  Shefound another reliable source who wouldn’t keep ogling her and asking her out.

The guard wavedher through with hardly a glance at the ID card.  “Have a nice day.”

“You too.”

She was in.

Now she crossedthe lobby toward a door in the corner.  She’d carefully studied the GoComlayout (illegally accessed by Jerry G) to figure out the best route to theelevator which led down to Holiday’s department.  It wasn’t a very longwalk.  Another security guard hurried past her as she went.

A moment laterthis guard was handing a printout to the guard who had just let Jillthrough.  “This just came from upstairs,” he told her, handing her thepaper.  “Keep your eyes open for this one.”

The woman lookedat the face on the printout.

She cursed underher breath.

 

JILLwas in the hallway off the main lobby.  She turned a corner, then another,then branched into a narrow corridor with no doors.  The farther she gotthe fewer people she saw.

After anotherturn or two she was alone in the wood-paneled room with the elevator.  Shepressed the button, and stepped inside the moment it arrived.

When the doorsclosed behind her she felt a bit of relief.  She was safe...for themoment.

Not safe enoughto forget to take her gun out of the specially sealed briefcase and tuck itbeneath her jacket.

With one hand sheheld the button that kept the doors closed.  With the other hand she tookthe panel off the elevator wall.  She’d seen the code punched in twice,now, and she’d remembered it perfectly after the first time anyway.

It didn’twork.  They must have changed the code.

Jill had plannedfor the possibility.  She hadn’t just remembered the code; she’dremembered the manufacturer of the console.  It hadn’t taken much work tofind the override mechanism.  She pulled it out of her briefcase. Within seconds the number appeared on the console.

The elevatorstarted descending.

The doors openedhalf a minute later.  There was the blue carpet with the departmentinsignia, the framed photos of Home Planet skylines.  She stepped off.

...And felt coldmetal touch the back of her head.

“Don’tmove.”  She knew it would be Corey Stone’s voice before he spoke. “I’ve been waiting for you to turn up.”

“Look,” she said,“I don’t have time—”

“You don’t havetime to argue with me.  Look on the bright side:  No more being onthe run all the time.”

She ducked, spun,reached for her weapon.

He wasready.  He blocked her move, sent her gun flying, still had his leveled ather.  “Not this time, Jill.”

Her eyes said shewas genuinely impressed.  Her mouth said:  “You know why I came back,don’t you?”

“I don’t care whyyou came back.  I just care about where you’re going next.  And Ithink you know where that is.”

“Holiday said hewould give me another chance if I came back and accepted his offer face toface.”

“So Iheard.  One last test of your skills.  And you almost passed.” He pressed the gun harder against her temple.  “But not quite.  Soclose and yet so far.”

She made anothermove.  He was ready again.  He caught her hand, seized it, held itbehind her.  “I can lead you back to jail,” he said, “or I can have yourunconscious body carried back to jail.  Your choice.”

She didn’t try toescape his grip.  She didn’t try to argue with him either.  “I don’tblame you for what you’re doing.”

“Don’t try tosoften me.  I’ve learned how you operate.”

“I was raised incrime, Corey.  It’s all I’ve ever known.  I’m guessing you didn’taccept Holiday’s offer right away either.”

He hesitated foran instant.  “Stop.  I know what you’re trying to do.”

“Look, throwingme back in jail would be the only logical thing you could do.  I knowthat.  But it seems like there’s more to this place than that kind oflogic.”

Corey didn’trespond.  He didn’t lower his weapon either.  Jill assumed it wasloaded with stunners—but it would be understandable if he was packing somethingmore potent.

“If we all wentbehind bars if we deserved it,” Jill continued, “you’d be in the cell next tomine, wouldn’t you?”

He wasn’t lookingat her any more.  He was staring at nothing.


Page 10

She keptgoing.  “Listen, you have no reason to believe me.  But I promiseyou, the minute I step out of line again, I’ll be the first one to bring myselfback to jail.”

A touch ofsoftness appeared in Corey Stone’s hardened expression.  His gun droppedslightly.

“This is the onlychance I’ve got, Corey.  I know I don’t even deserve it, but this isit.  You know it.  Please don’t take it away from me.”

He sighed andslowly holstered his gun.  “In his office,” he said, gesturing to the stairwayoff the side of the wide lobby.

“Thanks,” shewhispered.

By the time Coreycould bring himself to look her direction again, the office door was closingbehind her.

 

THElast time she’d been in this room, she was handcuffed and accompanied by two ratherlarge men in armored uniforms.

Giles Holidaystood from his chair behind his desk.  His expression wasunreadable.  The slightly raised eyebrows may have meant surprise, ormaybe amusement.  Maybe neither.

“Purpose,” saidJill.

His steel-grayeyes told her to go on.

“If I didsomething with my life,” she said, “that I would do no matter what, even if itmeant giving up all the money and all the comfort and all the convenience inthe world, then what would I have?”

He smiled.

They said it atthe same time:  “Purpose.”

“You knew theanswer all along,” said Holiday, “didn’t you?”

“Somewhere deepdown, I guess I did.  You were right:  It’s the one thing I’ve neverhad.”

“Until now,” hesaid.  He took a touch screen from his desk drawer and walked over toJill.  On the screen was a lot of fine print.  “The contract,” hesaid, handing Jill the electronic pen.

She signed theline at the bottom.

“Welcome to TheNexus, Jillian.  Let me show you around.”

Episode 3: Home

 

12

 

 

“WHYwas Anterra built, Jillian?  Why did the United Space Programs create itin the first place?”

Jill knew whatanswer to recite.  Any Anterran who had gone to school past the thirdgrade knew.  “The nations of the Home Planet were becoming more and morecorrupt.  The United Space Programs wanted to build a better place forhumanity—a place that was more advanced, more progressive, safer.”

Holidaynodded.  They were standing at the back of his office, where the wallpanels had slid into the ceiling and revealed a bank of windows.  Theylooked down on the great floor of HQ, abuzz with activity.

“The floatingcity was to be a step toward heaven—literally,” Holiday continued.  “Asyou know, the first eight metropolitan satellites were largelyexperimental.  Engineers from all over the world worked on them. They had a lot of problems to solve.  How would they create an illusion ofgravity similar to the gravitational force felt on Earth?  How would abreathable atmosphere be maintained?  Finally they built MS9, the firstinhabitable satellite city.  Of course, as it turned out, our biggestproblems have not been engineering problems at all.”

He led the wayout onto the balcony surrounding HQ.

“Apparently,”Holiday picked up, “building a floating city is not as hard as establishing afunctioning society on it.  As they developed a governmental system,Anterra’s founding fathers decided to focus upon one issue above any other.”

“Criminaljustice,” said Jill.

“Precisely. Or, more exactly, crimeprevention.  The builders of our city envisionedthe most crime-free society in history.  I don’t have to tell you thatthis vision has not been accomplished.  Many Anterrans,” he gave her asignificant look, “make their living quite outside of the law.” Funnyhow things turned out...

She ignored hisgaze.  “And your department is changing that?”

“Indeed. The work you see going on here is a critical experiment in law enforcementmethodology.”

“So how does itwork?”

“To answer thatquestion,” he said, “I must first introduce you to Sherlock.”

 

SHERLOCKturned out to be a computer.

A really hugecomputer.

Jill saw thecomputer through a bank of bullet-proof glass doors at the end of a longhallway off of HQ.  From here Sherlock just looked like rows and rows ofcolumns with blinking lights.

“We’ve named himafter the fictional crime fighter created by British author Sir Arthur ConanDoyle.”

“What does hedo?”  It felt a little weird calling a computer “he” instead of “it.”

“To put itbriefly, Sherlock is a data collector and analyzer.”

“What data doeshe collect and analyze?”

“Well...all ofit, actually.”

“Allallof it?”

Holidaynodded.  “Have you heard of the Digital InformationExclusivisationAct?”

Jill shook herhead.

“Most peoplehaven’t,” said the director.  “It was ratified over twenty years ago bythe Anterran Congress in conjunction with the United Space Programs.  Itstates that all information on Anterra must be in digital form.”

“Like,computerized?”

“Essentially.”

“Isn’t prettymuch all information computerized anyway in this day and age?”

“Mostly,yes.  But Anterra is the only society that requires it by law.  Thesame can’t be said of the Home Planet’s societies—even the most modernregions.  For example, on Earth it is still legal to own books printed onplain paper.”

Jill looked athim questioningly.  “Plenty of Anterrans own printed books.”

“They do. But I assume you’re familiar with digital paper?”

“Sure.  Youcan write or mark on it, and it shows up on your computer.  You can alsoprint on it, and the hard copy can be uploaded to another computer directlyfrom the paper.”

“Correct. Digital paper is hardly a new invention, but it’s only lately that it’s becomeinexpensive enough to be widely used.  There are microscopic devicesembedded in the paper which detect whatever is marked or printed on it. But what you may not know is thatallpaper on Anterra is now digital.”

“I thought onlyspecial kinds of printer paper were digital.”

“Most peoplethink so.  The truth is that your personal computer will only interactwith those special kinds of printer paper.   But legally, all paperon Anterra must be digital—every page of every book, magazine, newspaper, orany other published volume.”

“Even sketch padsand sticky notes?”

“Indeed.”

“Journals? Diaries?”

Holidaynodded.  “We neither manufacture nor import any non-digital paper onAnterra.  Furthermore, the devices in our digital paper are designed tosend their information directly to Sherlock’s database.”

“So if I make ashopping list, Sherlock knows about it.”

“Unless yourhandwriting is terrible, yes.  Even then, Sherlock has a copy of it onfile.  And of course paper is just one small example of what Sherlockkeeps track of.”

“Let meguess:  He listens to phone calls.”

“And records themall,” Holiday confirmed.

“He taps intosecurity videos?”

“Those in publicplaces, yes.  We’ve even planted many of our own cameras and microphonesin the city’s public areas.”

“Televisions andradio broadcasts?”

“Sherlock hasthem all on file, of course.”

“How about mypersonal computer?  Can anything go on my hard drive without Sherlockknowing about it?”

“I’m afraidnot.  Your computer has an invisible port built into it which transfersall of your information to Sherlock.  Any personal computer manufacturedor imported by MS9 contains such a port.  The same goes for digitalcameras, voice recorders, cell phones, etcetera.  If anyone snaps a photo,makes a phone call, writes an email, visits a website, posts a blog comment,writes a poem...”

“Sherlock has iton file.”

Holiday nodded.

“So why didn’tpeople vote down this law...this Act of DigitalExa-whatsit—?”

“DigitalInformationExclusivisationAct.”

“Right.  Whydidn’t people vote it down?  Who wants a government agency reading allyour emails or eavesdropping on all your phone calls?”

“First of all,citizens don’t vote about laws.  They vote on representatives.  Therepresentatives do the voting about laws.  Didn’t you take an Anterrangovernment class?”

She ignored thatlast part.  “Okay, then why didn’t therepresentativesvote itdown?  I assume they don’t like being spied on any more than the rest ofus.”

“Probablynot.  But the Digital InformationExclusivisationAct doesn’t say anything about spying.  All it says is that allinformation on Anterra must be digital.  The fact is, there were plenty ofpractical reasons for this law.  Modern societies have been shifting moreand more to digital information for some time, now, whether they have lawsrequiring it or not.”

“So not even ourgovernment representatives know about your department?”

“Very few ofthem.  Our department has a small governing board which holds usaccountable for our activities.”

“You mean theymake sure you’re not just hoarding people’s data for your own amusement,”muttered Jill.

“A very good wayof putting it.  The first rule of The Nexus is that we cannot review anydata unless it is red-flagged.”

“Red-flagged?”

“As I saidbefore, Sherlock is not merely a data collector; he is a dataanalyzer. Sherlock has been programmed to recognize crimes when they’re beingcommitted.  If any data he gathers suggests that illegal activities areoccurring, the data is red-flagged.  This data is then examined by one ofour analysts—humananalysts.”

Jill wasskeptical.  “How can he recognize crimes when they’re happening?”

“For one thing,he knows when any information is being illegally accessed—a student hacking histeacher’s test answer keys, someone stealing the formula for a new drugcompound, and anything in between.  Sherlock also recognizes the sound ofgunshots or other acts of violence, and red-flags us to respond.  I couldgo on and on.  His programming is extensive.”

Jill scratchedher head.  “But no matter how well you programmed him, there’s no waySherlock could notice every crime that’s being committed.”

“Sherlock wasn’tmade to notice every crime.  He was simply made to notice as much aspossible.  And he notices a lot of things no one else could.  Forexample, Sherlock is equipped with state-of-the-art VOFARE—you’re familiar withVOFARE?”

“Vocal and facialrecognition software.”

“Yes. Sherlock recognizes each adult citizen of Anterra by his or her facial featuresand vocal characteristics.”

“So Sherlockbasically knows where everyone is all the time.”

“It’s not thatsimple.  First of all, Sherlock only tracks people in public areas. And it takes quite a good camera angle, or quite a clean vocal sample, to makea match.  Then there are the people who change their hair color or style,get a tan, get cosmetic facial surgery, and so on.  That throws Sherlockfor a loop.  But again, we don’t expect him to keep track ofeverything.  He sends plenty of red-flags to keep us busy.”

“What about falsealarms?”

“They happenfrequently, as you would expect.  Our human analysts sort through a lot ofred-flagged data.  Most of the activities they look into turn out to beharmless. Many, however, do not.”

“It soundsfarfetched, like something out of science fiction.”

“Believe me, thesuccess of our department is no fiction.”

Jill still seemedunconvinced.  “I don’t suppose you could give me an example?”

Holidayshrugged.  “Just last night Sherlock noticed a man carrying a gun in apublic park.  Sherlock recognized the make and model of the gun, andrecognized the man carrying it.  The man had no such gun registered to hisname.  Sherlock notified us immediately, and we arrested the man withinthe hour.  He has already confessed to stealing the gun, and planning touse it to rob a convenience store.”

Jill looked onlyslightly less skeptical.

“Perhaps,” saidHoliday, “another example would be more convincing:  We recently askedSherlock to help us find a certain individual.  We didn’t know what aliasshe would be using, or exactly what she looked like.  However, we did havea vague idea of her recent behavior, as well as a general physicaldescription.  With Sherlock’s help we were able to track her down—thoughnot without a great deal of difficulty.”  He gave her a significantlook.  “I believe you’re familiar with her story.”

Jillswallowed.  “I’ve heard of her.”

“In any case,don’t take my word for it.  Allow Sherlock to demonstrate.”  Holidaypressed a button on the kiosk located next to the glass doors.  “Sherlock,find any pertinent information regarding Jillian Branch.  Send theinformation to this kiosk.”

“Of course,Director Holiday,” an electronic voice replied from somewhereoverhead.  It sounded formal and British, like Sherlock could be Holiday’slittle brother.

Holiday took apage of paper out of the kiosk printer.  “Write your name here,” he said,handing Jill a fountain pen from his pocket.

Even as she wasscrawling her name, the kiosk was alerting Holiday:  “I have yoursearch results, sir.”

“Give me the mostrelevant items, Sherlock,” said Holiday.

“Of course,sir.  There are thirty-seven known Anterran citizens with the name JillianBranch.  I assumed your request regarded the Jillian Branch whom yourdepartment arrested recently.”

“Correct.”

“Facial andvocal match have been made in the following coordinates over the last severalminutes.”

The coordinateswere then shown on a detailed overhead map of Anterra, zoomed to the GoComisland.  Next to the map, the kiosk displayed two live camera views—eachfrom a different angle—of Jill standing before the kiosk.

“The name‘Jillian Branch’ was also written on a sheet of paper in those same coordinatesseven seconds ago.”

An image ofJill’s scrawled signature now appeared on the screen along with the cameraviews and the map.

“I assume thatthis search was for demonstrative purposes, sir.  If my data is correct,Jillian Branch is standing less than two meters away from you at the moment.”

“That will beall, Sherlock,” said Holiday.  He lifted an eyebrow.  “Convinced yet,Jillian?”

“Pretty,” Jilladmitted.  “But I’m still not sure what this all has to do with me.”

Holiday gesturedback up the hallway.  “Follow me.”

 

THEYcircled the balcony overlooking HQ, passed through a small anteroom, andstepped into a dark, cramped chamber piled with very outdated technologicaldevices.

“Welcome to our technologylab,” said Holiday.  “And this is our technician, Dino.”

“Dino?”

“Not my realname,” said the funny little man.  “Dino, as in dinosaur—because I workwith all this old technology.  Real cute nickname.  Mr. H came upwith it himself.”

“Show her thevideocassette,” Holiday told Dino.

“Right.”  Hehanded her the narrow black box.


Page 11

“See the darkmagnetic tape rolled inside?” said Holiday.  “For a time during the latetwentieth century, this was essentially the only way to personally storevideo.”

Jill squinted atthe video tape.  “How did they store video on this thing?”

“The tape is fullof images.  A certain device would scroll through the tape and send theimages onto a screen, along with audio signals to match.”

“This is thedevice here,” said Dino, patting the VCR Corey and Bradley had broughtin.  “You hooked this thing up to a television and put the videocassettein this slot.  Of course, digital video discs pretty much totally replacedvideocassettes by the end of the twentieth century.”

“Why would anyonewant to use this old stuff?” asked Jill.

She realized sheknew the answer before Holiday said it.

“It’s analoguedata, Jillian; not digital.”

“So Sherlockdoesn’t know about it,” said Jill.

“Bingo,” saidDino.

“Any form of datastorage which is inaccessible to Sherlock,” said Holiday, “could not have beenobtained legally, according to the Digital InformationExclusivisationAct.”

“So this thingwas smuggled here from the Home planet.”

Holidaynodded.  “In this case, the videocassette and others like it were beingused to store illegal material.”

“Films banned bythe Anterran government,” said Dino.  “The guy was renting them out. Mr. Love, he calls himself.”

“That’s the leastof our worries,” said Holiday.  “Those videocassettes can record new data. Criminals who are interested in much more than bootlegged films could make gooduse of them—contacting each other, exchanging plans, sending illegalinformation, etcetera.  We have it on good authority that this Mr. Lovehas been in contact with just such a criminal.”

Jill lookedpuzzled.  “So you caught this guy even though Sherlock didn’t know abouthim?”

“Corey Stone knewabout him,” said Holiday, “or at least, how to find him.  Corey used to bean errander like you, Jillian.”

The realizationhit her.  “That’s why you need me.  You want me to go undercover.”

“At times,yes.  You have connections in the Anterran criminal underground,connections that will help us.  But you have more than that.”

“Like?”

Holiday lookedlike he was trying not to smile.  “Like an uncanny ability to get in andout of places without being caught.”

Sheshrugged.  “You guys caught me.”

“We’re good atwhat we do.  And you slipped through even our fingers, Jillian. Don’t be so modest.”

She thought of sayingit was Corey’s incompetence that allowed her to slip through theirfingers.  Then she decided not to.  Instead, she said:  “As ofthis morning, I was still a criminal myself.  Now you want me to be one ofthe good guys.  Isn’t that a little risky?”

“No,” saidHoliday.  “It’s extremely risky.  A risk well worth taking, I mightadd.  If we didn’t think so, we wouldn’t have pursued you to the extentthat we did.”

“In other wordsI’d be back in jail.”

“A distinctpossibility.  Perhaps, when you’ve been on a mission or two for us, jailwill seem rather more appealing.”

Jill thought hemay be right.  “What sort of missions?”

Dino pointed tothe videocassette.  “Finding and getting rid of stuff like that.”

“You see,Jillian,” said Holiday, “it is a primary job of this department to keepSherlock’s information up- to-date.  That means tracking down anyinformation inaccessible to him, and combating the ever-growing problem ofillegal data storage.”

“So it’s a prettybig problem?”

“Andgrowing.  Sherlock has been a well-kept secret for some time.  Butsuspicion is growing.  The smartest criminals are starting to catch on tothe fact that their phone conversations are being listened to, their harddrives being accessed, and so on.  Some are trying to use advancedtechnological defenses—the latest firewalls, phone scramblers, and so on. But others have found a simpler and much more effective way of hiding fromSherlock.”

“Reverting to oldtechnology—non-digital technology,” guessed Jill.

“Bingo again,”said Dino.  He took the videocassette back from Jill.  “Sherlockdoesn’t know what’s on this thing.  We had to go out and get a hold of itourselves.”

“We have reasonto believe,” said Holiday, “that a sector of our city’s criminal underground istrying to create a vast communications network using outdated technology. Our department will be handicapped if they succeed.  Corey’s task force isbeing assembled to see to it that they don’t.”

Great.  Shewould be working with Corey.  They’d have to find a way to make up. Or at least be civil with each other.  “Sounds kind of scary,” she said,meaning more than just having to get along with Corey.

“It mostcertainly is.”

“Downrightdangerous, even.”

“At times,absolutely.”

“But then I’mused to that, right?”

Holiday chuckled. “Welcome to our team, Jillian.”  He led the way back out of the lab. “Let me show you to your room.”

“My...room?”

“Certainly. Along with your salary, the unwitting taxpayers of Anterra are also providingyou with room and board.  This way.”

 

 

13

 

 

HEled her back to the elevator lobby and down a gently curving hallway oppositehis office.  The hallway had the same midnight blue carpet and black wallswith cityscapes.

They walked insilence.  For the first time, everything was starting to sink in. This was really happening.  She’d really broken into GoCom.  She wasreally here.  She was really joining a secret government department. It wasn’t at all like she thought it would be.  It was...better, in away.  This was pretty cool work they would be having her do.  Itwasn’t the sort of work you would expect to be doing in place of jailtime.  And her room and board was being provided too?  It seemed toogood to be true.

She wasn’t quitesure how to take it.

The hall emptieddown a wide staircase into a large room.  “The lounge,” Holiday gestured.

It wasnice.  There were several clusters of couches and chairs, potted plantshere and there, three big TVs, game tables, and a couple bookshelves.  Abovethis was a spacious loft with a kitchen and dining area.  On either sideof the lounge, sliding doors and balconies overlooked the room.  A fewpeople were hanging out in the room now, playing video games, reading,chatting, snacking, shooting pool.  None of them appeared to be much olderthan Jill.  Several were obviously a little younger.

Holiday clearedhis throat from the top of the stairs.  “Allow me to introduce JillianBranch,” he announced.

They waved andsmiled.  A few called her by name when they said hi.

It wasn’t a bigdeal, right?  Just a greeting, like the director had asked for.  Sowhere did that lump in Jill’s throat come from?  Maybe it was the factthat she wasn’t used to people caring when she came or went.  Maybe it wasthe fact that pretty much no one ever called her by her real name.

She could getused to that.

One of the girlsactually jumped up from a couch and ran up the stairs to greet Jill morepersonally.  She had short, wild hair and more piercings than almosteveryone else in the room combined.  “So, you’re finally here!” sheburst.  Now she was throwing her arms around Jill.  It wasunexpected, that was for sure.  But it was welcoming.

“This is DesireeMason,” said Holiday, “one of our technical specialists.”  He rolled his eyes. “She’s a bit shy, but once you get to know her she opens up.”

The girl giggledembarrassedly.  “Sorry.  I get a little...um, overexcitedsometimes.”  She lowered her voice to a whisper, as if the directorwouldn’t hear her:  “Please don’t evereverevercall me Desiree.  It’sDizzie. Really great to have you here, Jill!”

Jill tried tobreathe while she looked around at Holiday, Dizzie, the lounge...“Thanks,” shesaid with a swallow.

“I’ll let Desireeshow you to your room, if she doesn’t mind.”

“Sure,” Dizziesaid enthusiastically.  Enthusiasm seemed to be her most prominentcharacteristic.

“Take the rest ofthe day to settle in, Jillian,” said the director.  “Be at conference roomD tomorrow morning at eight o’clock—that’s on the west side of HQ.  Youand another new recruit will begin your official orientation at that time.”

 

DIZZIEled Jill up some stairs to one side of the lounge, and along another hallway tothe girls’ dormitory.  On one side of the hallway was a long, tiledbathroom and shower room.  The other side was lined with doors.  Theypassed one door with a guitar-shaped sign that said “Dizzie” in flowery pinkwriting.

“Hey, we’regonnabe neighbors!” said Dizzie.  She opened the nextdoor, and Jill followed her inside.

The room was smallbut cozy.  It had a few simple furnishings—a dresser, a desk, a loft bed,and a small closet bathroom.

“Oh, by the way,your things are on their way,” Dizzie told her.

“My things?”

“Yeah, you know,your clothes and stuff.”

“On their way?”

“Yeah.  Ittook a little while to find your new apartment, but we finally did.  Ihelped!”  She smiled proudly, then gasped.  “Sorry.  Thatprobably sounds a little creepy, like I was stalking you or something.”

“Don’t worryabout it.  Just doing your job, I guess.  So...how do you like it?”

“Like, being hereand everything?  Oh, it’s the best!”

“Technicalspecialist, huh?”

“Uh-huh. Basically I do computers—tap records, keep you guys in communication with HQwhile you’re on missions, stuff like that.”

“Us guys?”

“Yeah, fieldagents.  That’s what you are.  You’re the ones that go out and do thedirty work—the real action.  Sometimes I envy you people.  But hey, Ilove what I do, and I’m good at it.”

“Is that whythey, you know, brought you in?”

Dizzienodded.  “I did some serious hacking in my day.  I was in pretty deeptrouble.  I got here like a year ago.  Best year of my life!”

“Corey Stone—he’sa field agent too?  We’ll be working together?”

Dizzie clearedher throat.  “Um, yeah.  Hey, I know things have gotten off to a...arocky start with you two, I guess you could say.”

“You could say,”Jill muttered.

“He’s a goodguy.  Don’t be too hard on him.”

“Tell him thesame for me.  He doesn’t want me here.”

“Well, can youblame him?  Look, don’t worry about Cor, he’s all right.  You twowill patch things up eventually.”

“I hopeso.”  She found herself meaning it as she said it.

“Listen, Igottaget ready to head over to HQ.  My shift startsin a few.  I’ll let you settle in a little.  But if you need anythingbefore I’m gone, just come on over next door, cool?”

Jillnodded.  “Thanks a lot, Dizzie.”

“Noproblem.  And just let me know if you want me to turn my music down alittle.  I won’t mind.  Really.  I tend to crank it a bit toomuch.  Mandy, my neighbor on the other side—she tells me to quiet down allthe time!”  Dizzie smiled and waved before disappearing out the door.

She popped backin half a second later.  “Oh, and Mandy and I are making macaroni andcheese in the dorm kitchen tonight.  We like to do that sometimes to avoidthe cafeteria food.  About seven o’clock or so, that’s when we’ll be onbreak.  You should join us!”

“That soundsgreat.”

Dizzie smiled anddisappeared again.

As predicted, themuffled din of loud, thumping music was soon emanating from the other side ofthe wall.

Jill sat on herbed and looked around the room.

Herroom.

So,sosurreal.

She had to bedreaming.  Any second now she’d wake up and realize that she was stilljust an errander with no friends, no home but a lonely apartment she was rarelyat, no parents, no family.

No purpose.

She stepped outof the sliding glass door at the back of her room.  There was a smallbalcony overlooking the lounge.  The guys shooting pool down below weretalking some good-natured trash.  The video gamers were shouting about animpressive kill someone had made.  The girls chatting in the dining areawere making tea and laughing ridiculously hard about something.

There was anotherrow of balconies above her, apparently for the second floor rooms.  Morebalconies with sliding doors lined the wall across the lounge from her. The guys’ dorms, Jill assumed.  Behind one of those curtained glass doorswas Corey Stone’s room.

Maybe Dizzie wasright.  Maybe they would smooth things out.

Jill glanced overat Dizzie’s balcony next to hers.  It had a hammock, several flower pots,and a stand with a bright pink electric guitar.  She could hear Dizziesinging along with the music in her room as she got ready for work.

Macaroni andcheese sounded delicious.  When was the last time Jill had had dinner withsomeone?

It seemed sillywhen she thought about it, but Jill couldn’t shake the feeling that she hadjust come home.

 

SOMEONEwas waiting for Holiday when he got back to his office:  Riley, the big,bald Home Planet Liaison.  He wasn’t happy.  Then again, when was heever?

“I warned youabout this girl, Holiday.”

“Yes, I rememberthat.  I admire you for coming down to admit how wrong you were.”

“Excuse me? Do you realize what’s going on up there?”

“Chaos? Pandemonium?  Mayhem?  I can think of another synonym or two.”

“We’ll bespending weeks reprogramming each and every employee’s ID.  You don’t seemto think it’s a problem.”

“A problem,yes.  My problem, no.”

“You’re the onewho suggested thatMiss Branch,” he spat her name like it left a badtaste in his mouth, “try to break into GoCom, which she has done.  Are youunwilling to accept any responsibility?”

“As I recall, youseemed quite sure she would never succeed.”

Riley’s lipsquivered.  “I know you’ve got her down here somewhere, Holiday.  Idemand that you turn her over to me.”

Holiday shook hishead sadly.  “When will you learn to stop making demands which you have noauthorization to make?”

“Give her tosecurity, then.”

“They had theirchance to nab her, and they missed it.  I’m afraid I don’t feelresponsible for their failure, as you apparently think I ought to.”

“You seem to beadmitting that Miss Branch is down here.”

“You know therules of our department, Riley.  I reserve the right to recruit peoplelike her.  Their services for Anterra shall be considered their sentence,should they agree.  If she’s here, she has a perfect right to be—which ismore than I can say for you.  Please be careful not to let the door hityou as leave, presently.”

Riley tried toforce his tight facial features into an angry expression.  “The UnitedSpace Programs will hear about this, Holiday!  I’ll be speaking to thembefore the night is over.”

“And I’m surethey’ll be rapt with attention, as they always are when you call them up.”

Holiday wassmiling to himself as Riley left.

Riley wasn’t.

 

SHEwas dreaming again.

The same dream.

A face waslooking at her—a beautiful Korean face.

“We can do this,Jillian.”

Fifteen-year-oldJillian didn’t answer.

“Come on, it’snot so bad, is it?  Are you ashamed to be working with your mother?”

Yes, Jillthought.  “No,” Jill said.

“Then let’s dothis!”

They stood at anabandoned pier on the north shore of the lake.  The water rippled behindher mother, reflecting the lights of the city.

Her mother got intoa motor boat.

Jill got intoanother one.

“Good luck!”called her mother.

Jill didn’trespond.

She wished shewould have.  She couldn’t begin to describe how much she wished she wouldhave.  They would have been the last words she ever spoke to her mother.

 

APPARENTLYthe bed in Jill’s room was comfortable.  She vaguely remembered lying onit to see how it felt, but she didn’t remember falling asleep.  Apparentlyshe had because now she was waking up.  Laughter from the lounge driftedthrough her balcony door and woke her.

Jill wasn’t usedto drifting off to sleep.  In her line of work you didn’t sleep veryeasily until exhaustion caught up with you.  And even then you slept “withone eye open,” as they said—several locks on the doors and windows, a gun underthe pillow, waking instinctively at the slightest sound.

In herformerline of work.

She stayed on thebed, listening to the sounds of conversation coming through the open slidingglass door.  She couldn’t make out any words.  But she could hear thelight-heartedness, the contentment in the voices.  It was peaceful just tolie there and listen.

Peaceful. That was the perfect word for this place.  It had already sent herdreaming, made her let her guard down.  At first she criticized herselffor letting her guard down.  Then she felt glad that she could.

Another voicejoined the others down in the lounge.  She recognized this voice—CoreyStone.

Suddenly thingsdidn’t feel quite as peaceful anymore.


Page 12

 

 

14

 

 

WHENshe went out into the hallway, she saw her possessions neatly boxed and stackedby the door.  Only then did she remember she was still wearing a businesssuit.  She pulled her stuff into the room and exchanged the suit for jeansand a T-shirt.  Then she headed for the lounge.

It was the lastplace she wanted to go.  Corey Stone was the last person she wanted tosee.  She’d rather head back up the elevator and face GoCom securityagain.  But she had to see him, had to try and say something to ease thetension between them.

She’d usedhim—lied to him—to get out of jail.

He’d held a gunto her head earlier that morning. 

How did yousalvage a relationship that had gotten off to a start like that?

Jill tried torehearse some lines as she headed down the stairs out of the girls’ dormarea.  Nothing she came up with sounded that good.  Even if it had,these things never go like you plan them anyway.  You just have to starttalking and see what happens.

She stepped intothe lounge.  He didn’t see her.  He was pretty preoccupied with thestriking blonde sitting on the couch next to him.

The first thingJill felt was jealousy.

The next thingwas anger—at herself.  She had no right to be jealous.  Where hadthat feeling come from, anyway?

Next, fear. Corey was looking at her now.

But he didn’tseem mad—maybe even a little victorious?  “Jill!  Meet your fellownew recruit.  This is Amber Phoenix.”

The blonde girlstood up to greet Jill.  She might as well have just stepped out of afashion magazine.  Her hair fell perfectly about her neck andshoulders.  She had a perfect outfit, perfect skin, a perfect figure.

Jill tried not tolook as disgusted as she felt.  “Nice to meet you, Amber.”

“You too.  Ithink I’m in the room next to yours.”

“Really? Cool.”  Thank heaven Dizzie was on the other side.

“Amber will be onour field team,” said Corey.  He talked about her like she was his sisteror his girlfriend or his protégée or something—like he hadn’t just met her fiveminutes ago, which he had.  “She should come in handy.  She’s amartial arts expert.”

Amber smiled,blushing a little.

Jill wanted to besick.  “Great.”

“I’d better getgoing,” said Amber, “settle in and all that.”

“I should getback to my room, too,” said Corey, standing.  “See you tomorrow at orientation.”

“You’ll bethere?”

“Yeah, I’mhelping the director show you around.”

“Cool.  Seeyou then.  Nice meeting you, Jill.”

“You too.” Not nice at all, actually.

Corey nodded aslight goodbye to Jill before heading up to the guys’ dorm.  She thoughtabout calling his name, asking him to talk, trying to get a helpfulconversation going.  She thought about it.

But she didn’tsay anything.

 

THErest of the afternoon basically consisted of unpacking.  There wasn’tmuch, but Jill was moving really slowly for some reason.  Maybe becauseeverything was still sinking in.  Maybe because she still didn’t feel likethis was really happening, like she was really here...like sheshouldbehere.

The thing thattook longest was figuring out where to put the photo—the one photo she’d everbothered to keep and to frame.  It was a picture of her and hermother.  More than that it was a picture of another time of life. Another life altogether, almost.  The smiles in the picture were innocent.

Jill barelyremembered what innocence felt like anymore.

Should it go bythe bed?  On her desk by her computer?  On the dresser?

Before she coulddecide, it was suddenly seven o’clock.  There was a knock at her door.

She set thepicture down on the bed.  “Come in.”

Dizzie was assmiley and bubbly as ever.  The girl behind her—Mandy, apparently—wasstudious-looking, with bangs and horn-rimmed glasses.  They were carryinggrocery bags.

“Ready to feast?”said Dizzie.

 

THEYstarted chatting while the macaroni boiled.  Other than the three of them,the kitchen/dining loft was empty and silent, as was the lounge below. Everyone was at the cafeteria.

“Thank heavenwe’re doing this tonight,” said Mandy.  “It’s meatloaf at thecaf.”  She seemed nice.  A lot calmer and quieterthan Dizzie, that was for sure.  No big surprise, there.

“You’re...ananalyst, is that what you said?” Jill asked Mandy.

“That’sright.  I look at whatever information Sherlock wants me to look at, andsee if anything needs further investigation or response.”

“You like it?”

“I like it allright.  So what about you?  What’s your story—you know, how you endedup here, and all?”

The questioncaught Jill by surprise.  No one ever asked her anything like that. She found herself inexplicably wanting to tell everything—her father, hermother, her downward spiral, all of it.  All that came out was:  “Oh,you know...I was an errander.  Director Holiday thought this would be agood opportunity for me.”

“How do you likeit?”

“I just got here,really.  But it seems like a cool place.”

“Oh, it is!”chirped Dizzie.  “I’mgonnamake us a salad, Ithink.”

“My mom alwaystried to make me eat salad,” said Mandy, “and I always tried to get out ofit.  I would even feed it to the dog when she wasn’t looking.  Now Ilove a good salad.  It’s weird how when you get out on your own you do alot of the things your parents always wanted you to do and they don’t seem sobad anymore.”

“Yeah,” laughedDizzie.

Jill forced asmile.  Her mother had never tried to get her to eat a salad.  Hermother had never tried to get her to do much of anything—go to bed on time,stop running with the wrong crowd, finish her homework.  She’d just gottenher into her career, that’s all.  “What about you, Mandy?  How didyou end up here?”

“My parents wereboth involved in an embezzlement scandal.  They’re in prison, now. The courts weren’t sure what to do with me, put me in foster care or send meback to my grandparents on the Home Planet.  Director Holiday found me andoffered me a position here since I’m good with computers.  I jumped atit.  I’ve been here almost two years, now.”

“Good choice,”said Dizzie, now furiously chopping carrots.  “I wish I’d had any choiceother than foster care when my parents got busted!”

“Bad experience?”asked Jill.

“The worst! Actually, I had one foster mom that was pretty amazing.  She would havebeen great to stay with longer, I think.  But by then I was in too muchtrouble.  It was go to jail or work here—like a lot of us here at thedepartment.”

“There must behundreds of kids like us on Anterra,” said Jill.  “How does the directordecide which ones to go after?”

Dizzie shook herhead.  “Not sure.”

“He has hismethods, I suppose,” said Mandy.  “He’s a little mysterious, our beloveddirector.  The macaroni’s ready!”

“Salad, too,”said Dizzie.

“I didn’t help,”said Jill sheepishly.

“It’s cool. You’re new.  This is like your little welcome party!”

“I still couldhave done something.”

“You could grabus drinks from the fridge,” Mandy suggested.

It was a reliefto have something to contribute, even a small thing.  “Okay.  What’llit be?”

“OJ, please,”said Mandy.

“With dinner?”asked Dizzie.

“And Desireewould like grape soda, as usual,” said Mandy, ignoring Dizzie’s comment.

“Never call meDesiree.  Ever.  And yes, I would like grape soda, please!”

Jill grabbed abottle of water for herself too.  “Listen, it’s really great of you two tolet me join you.”

“Of course!”beamed Dizzie.  “We didn’t want you to have to endurecafmeatloaf your first night.”

“Plus, too manynew people all in one place,” said Mandy.

“Yeah, I remembermy first dinner here,” said Dizzie with a scowl.  “It was like sooverwhelming!  I had no idea where I should sit, or who I should sit by,or anything.  I ended up sitting in a corner by myself.  No one evensaid hi.  It sucked royally.”

“Is everyone herethat unfriendly?” asked Jill.

“Not anymore,”said Mandy.  “We have a lot of great people working here, now.”

They starteddigging in.

“So, Mandy,”Dizzie asked with her mouth full, “what’s Sherlock been sending your waytonight so far?”

“Nothinginteresting yet,” she said.  “Not like last night.”

“Mandy caught aguy with an unregistered weapon,” Dizzie told Jill.

“I heard aboutthat.  Nice going.”

“Thanks. Every once in a while I’ll have an exciting shift like that.  Not all thetime, of course, but often enough to feel like my job is worthwhile.  Whatare you working on tonight, Dizzie?”

She wrinkled hernose.  “Paperwork, mostly.  I hate it when there’s no mission. If I had it my way, I’d run com on missions all shift every shift.  Butany time you run com for a mission you have to make a detailed report ofeverything you witnessed.”

“How often domissions happen?” asked Jill.

“Depends. We have several teams that do missions.  Sometimes it seems like there’sone after another for days on end.  Sometimes we’ll go a couple days or sowithout any.”

“So what will myjob be when I’m not on a mission?”

“Director Holidaywill find something for you to do.  Don’t worry, you won’t be bored!”

“Do we have timeoff?”

“Oh, yeah! We never work more than six days in a row.”

“Can weleave?  Like, leave the base?”

“You have to getpermission, but yeah.”

“We all havelives outside of the department,” said Mandy.  “The director makes surethis is just our job, not our life.”

“So what do youguys like to do when you’re off?”

“Play guitar!”Dizzie said without hesitation.

“You should hearthe Lawn Flamingos—that’s Dizzie’s band,” said Mandy.  “They’re prettygood.”

“We usually get acouple gigs a month, or so,” said Dizzie.

“Cool.  Whatabout you, Mandy?”

“Rawlie-boy!” Dizzie giggled.

Mandy blushed alittle.  “WhatDesiree,” she emphasized the name with a glare, “istrying to say is that she thinks I spend a little too much time with myboyfriend.”

“Only ifpractically every waking hour is too much,” said Dizzie.  “His name isBroderick Sebastian Rawlings, or so he tells us.  He’s a lawyer.”

Mandy rolled hereyes.  “Other than that, I like to do photography.”

“Check out herroom sometime,” said Dizzie.  “She’s got a bunch of her photos on thewall.  They’re amazing!”

“What do you liketo do, Jill?”

Another questionno one had asked her in a long time.  Whatdidshe like todo?  It had been so long since she had a hobby or a social life...

“I like museums,”she said at last.  “And I like reading.  Biographies, mostly. At least, I used to.  I haven’t had a chance to read much lately.” She laughed shyly.  “I’m a little nerdy, I guess.  Oh, and bowling. I haven’t bowled in a couple years, but I used to love it.”

“No way!” burstDizzie.  “The Lawn Flamingos’ next gig is at a bowling alley.”

“You should go,”said Mandy.  “I’ll be there with Broderick.  I’ll bowl against you,Jill.  But I have to warn you, I’m pretty darn good.”

“You’re on,” saidJill.

“I’m terrible,”said Dizzie, smiling widely as if she were proud of the fact.

“You’re alsoincredibly purple,” said Mandy with eyebrows raised.

“Am I?” sheasked, taking another huge swig of grape soda and then sticking out her tongue.

Jill snorted,then burst out laughing.  “Um, yes, you are.”

There was morechatting and laughing while they did the dishes.  Then Dizzie and Mandy’sbreak was over, and they had to head back to HQ.

Jill stood alonein the kitchen loft.  The only sound was the news coming from the TV inthe corner of the kitchen.  It hadn’t been much, Jill thought as she driedoff the plates.  It was just a simple meal with simple conversation.

It was also thebest time Jill could remember having in a long, long time.  Maybe ever.

“...only fifteenyears old,” the news anchor on TV was saying as she put away the last plate,“making him the youngest known fatality caused by the new illegal substanceknown to users as ‘hysteria.’”

Jill’s eyesdrifted to the screen.  It showed a grainy

photo of a boy with shoulder-lengthred hair and a decent case of acne.  His mouth was sort of smiling; hiseyes were sad, desperate.

“Police are stilltracking the ring of criminals who have been smuggling the substance from theHome Planet,” the anchor went on.  “Officials believe the man ultimatelyresponsible for the distribution of the drug on high school campuses isthirty-seven year old RobertZinn.”

Now the TV wasshowing the kid’s parents.  There were tears in their eyes.  Jillcouldn’t hear what they were saying.

Her vision wasblurring.

She was havingtrouble breathing.

Unsteadily shemade her way as quickly as she could back to her room.

 

SHE’Dforgotten about the picture.

When she walked intoher room she picked it up off the bed and looked at it again.  She staredinto her mom’s eyes for a minute.  Then she stared into her own innocenteleven-year-old eyes.


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She started tofeel something she hadn’t felt in a long, long time.

Guilt.

When you’re anerrander, you don’t feel bad about what you’re doing.  Sure, the first fewjobs you feel a little pang of conscience.  But pretty soon you hardenyourself.  Any guilt you may feel is buried under the hardness.  Youneed that hardness to survive, to do your job and not get caught.

She’d needed thathardness a few weeks ago when she’d worked for a client named RobertZinn.

Jill stashed thepicture in the bottom of a box where she wouldn’t have to look at it anymore.

 

 

15

 

 

NOone knew how the boss had lost his eye.  And he never told anyone. He liked leaving it a mystery.  It would have been easy to get a glasseye, even a state-of-the-art robotic eye that would partially restore hisvision.  But his black eye-patch added to his mystique.  The bossloved mystique.  He liked that no one knew much of anything about himbeyond the fact that he was the boss, that he was a full-blooded Korean, thathe was missing an eye, and that he was involved in almost any illegal activityyou could shake a stick at.

He sat at acluttered desk.  An old phonograph with a flaring trumpet-shaped speakerplayed a muffled classical tune.  He lit a cigarette and blew smoke ringsat the ceiling.

The phone on hisdesk rang.  The boss answered it in Korean.

“That errandergirl is here,” a woman’s voice replied.

The boss satforward eagerly.  He switched to English:  “Good.  Don’t let herout of your sight.”

“I’ll be keepingmy eyes on her, of course,” the woman’s voice said.

“I want to bemade aware of the slightest problem,” said the boss.  “That that girl istrouble.”

“I’ll let youknow the instant anything suspicious happens.”

“I’m counting onit.”  The boss hung up.  He sat back in his seat, blowing more smokerings and wondering how things would turn out.  It was all very interesting. Then again, most things the boss was involved in were interesting, to say theleast.

 

ORIENTATIONwas scheduled for eight the next morning.  But Jill woke up at fivewithout an alarm.  It took a minute to remember where she was, what hadhappened.  The surreal feeling was still there.

So was the guilt.

She should bewaking up in jail; instead she was waking up in a warm bed and a nice room andabout to start an important and fairly prestigious job.  She sat up inbed, her mind involuntarily picturing a fifteen-year-old boy withshoulder-length red hair.  She’d been dreaming about him.  What washis name?  She didn’t think she’d caught it on the news...

Jill tried toshake it off as she stepped out into the hallway.  The lights weredim.  Everyone else was apparently asleep or on night shift at HQ.

She went into theblack-tiled bathroom.  A leisurely hot shower felt amazing.  Then sheput on comfortable clothes and headed toward HQ.

The elevatorlobby was quiet and empty.  A line of light shone from under DirectorHoliday’s office door at the top of the stairs.  Did he always work soearly?  Or had he even stopped working since yesterday?

She crossed thelobby and peered through the door into HQ.  Even at this time of morningthere was quite a bit of activity.  About half of the cubicles wereoccupied.

Jill stepped outonto the concrete balcony that rimmed HQ, and headed around to thecafeteria.  She was glad she hadn’t come last night.  Mandy wasright—too many strangers all at once.  She still didn’t feel ready forthat.  It was good to be here early before anyone else had arrived forbreakfast.  Through the glass wall she saw the empty rows of tables. It was dark except for a little light from the back, where the kitchen was. She could smell bacon frying.

She tried thedoor.  It was open.  Muffled sounds of cooking and orders beingloudly given came from the kitchen.  She sat alone with her thoughts at atable in the dark.

The sounds of thekitchen grew a little louder, and the dim light a little brighter, when aswinging door opened.  “Who’s out there?”  It was a loud, demandingvoice.

Jill stoodup.  “Sorry, I guess I’m early.”

“Early? Girl, you know what time it is?  If you don’t have to be at work you oughtto be snoring right now!  I know I wish I was.”  A light cameon.  Jill saw a big woman with smooth ebony skin and a ruffled apron.

“Sorry,” Jillstuttered.  “When should I come back?”

“New, aren’tyou?” the woman said in a softer tone.

Jill nodded.

“You got a name,child?”

“Jill Branch. Listen, I really didn’t mean to intrude.  The door was open, and—”

The big womangestured for silence.  “You sit right back down there, honey.  Anddon’t mind my complaining.  I’m just a little grumpy, as usual. That’s what happens when my people feel like they can take their good, sweettime instead of getting their work done.”  She scowled exaggeratedlytoward the kitchen.  The next instant she was smiling a perfect pearlysmile down at Jill.  “My name’s Virginia, honey.  Named for the placeI was born, Earthside.  Moved up here when I wasn’t old and fatyet.”  She boomed a laugh that jiggled her belly beneath her apron. “Call me Momma Ginny, all right?”

“Nice to meetyou,” said Jill.  She held out a hand, but apparently Momma Ginnypreferred hugs.  Great big long hugs.

“So nice to haveyou here, Miss Jill!  I hope you get to feeling comfortable around heresoon.  Now you just sit yourself right back down, there.  How’s a bigBelgian waffle with strawberries sound, hmm?  And a little whipped cream ontop?  Scrambled eggs and bacon on the side?”

Jill said itsounded incredible.

“Give us anotherminute, honey, and it’s all yours.  Oh, probably more like two or threeminutes, what with all that fooling around going on back there.”  Shestrode back into the kitchen, rattling the swinging doors and yelling as sheentered.

Exactly twominutes later she emerged carrying a big platter with everythingpromised.  “You like cream or sugar in your coffee, Miss Jill?”

“Um, I actuallydon’t really drink coffee.”

“Don’t reallydrink coffee,” Momma Ginny repeated suspiciously.  “I see. Well.  All right, then.  A little orange juice, maybe?  Justsqueezed it myself.  Someone’s got to get something done around here.”

“Okay,” saidJill.

 

SHEwas almost finished eating by the time the other residents started filingin.  Dizzie and Mandy, bleary-eyed and in their PJs, were among thefirst.  They got their trays and sat down across from Jill.

“Sleep allright?” asked Dizzie with a sleepy smile.

“Sure,” saidJill.  “You?”

Theynodded.  “I always sleep like a rock after an evening shift,” said Mandy.

“So,” saidDizzie, “orientation this morning!”

Jillnodded.  “Me and the other new girl.”

As she said it,Amber Phoenix appeared in the cafeteria line.  Most of the others were intheir pajamas, but Amber had showered, dressed perfectly, and done hermakeup.  Her hair looked like she’d just walked out of a salon.

Jill looked awayand tried not to appear irritated.  “How does it work?  Orientation,I mean.”

“It’ll bedifferent for you than it was for us,” said Mandy, “since you’re field andwe’re tech.”

“Oh great,”Dizzie muttered.  She held a fork full of egg suspended in front of hermouth.  “Corey’s not helping out with orientation, is he?”

“Yeah,” said Jill. “Don’t worry, it’ll be fine.”

“I hope so,” saidMandy.  She tried to look as sympathetic as she could.  “Dizzie toldme about...well, the two of you.”

Dizzie finallyforked the eggs into her mouth with an apologetic look in Jill’sdirection.  “There aren’t many secrets around here,” she said with hermouth full.

“Forget aboutit,” said Jill.

Amber came overwith her tray.  “All right if I join you?”

“Okay,” saidJill.  She’d meant to sound more inviting.

Amber sat downnext to her.  “Ready for orientation?”

“I guess,” saidJill.  “I’m not really sure what to expect.”

“Meneither.  I’m kind of nervous.”

“Is that whyyou’re hardly eating?” said Dizzie, gesturing at Amber’s sparse tray.

Ambernodded.  “I don’t know if I can even handle the little food I took.”

Out of nowhere,Jill felt a twinge of empathy.  “I’m pretty nervous about it too. Don’t worry, we’ll survive.”  She caught sight of Corey Stone at a tableacross the room.  He was laughing and chatting with a few other guys athis table, not noticing her.

“Well, MissJill,” boomed Momma Ginny as she approached the table, “I see you already havea little entourage around here!  Good choice of friends, too,” she said,putting one hand on Dizzie’s shoulder and another on Mandy’s.  “Two of ourdepartment’s finest!”

“They’ve beenreally nice,” said Jill.

“And here’sanother new girl,” said Momma Ginny, making her way around to the other side ofthe table.  Amber introduced herself, and found herself suddenly snatchedup into one of Momma Ginny’s hugs.  “You girls come by and see me anytime, you hear?  I’ll be happy to get out of that kitchen and enjoy somegood, civilized company for a change.  You have any boys chasing you andyou need someone to get rid of them, you let me know!”  She laughedtriumphantly and disappeared.

“Good old MommaGinny,” laughed Mandy shaking her head.

“I actually didtell her about a boy who was stalking me one time,” said Dizzie, “some temp whoworked in the cubicle next to mine for a month.  Believe me, she’s as goodas her word.”  She broke into an amazingly accurate Momma Ginnyimpression:  “‘Boy, you keep your filthy mitts off that girl, youhear?  You so much as glance at her the wrong way and I will whip on yourlittle white hind-parts so you can’t sit down ’til next Christmas, don’t thinkI won’t!’”

 

JILLand Amber got to Conference Room D a little early.  For a few minutes itwas just the two of them waiting for Holiday and Corey to arrive and getorientation rolling.  It was more than a little awkward.  At least,for Jill it was.  Amber seemed fine.  She had no problem starting offthe small talk.

“How was yourfirst night in your new room?”

“Not bad.  Ididn’t sleep the greatest, but, you know.”

“I hardly slept awink!  I’m freaking out that I’m finally here.”

“You’ve beenwanting to join the department for a while?”

“Months.  Ireally had to talk Director Holiday into letting me sign on.”

That’sfunny.  He did everything possible to get me to sign on.  Jillfigured it wouldn’t be smart to say the thought out loud.  “So you weren’tan errander before, were you?”

“How can youtell?”

“I justcan.  It seems like most people around here were into something shadybefore they got here, but not you.”

“I’m here becauseof my dad.  He helped program Sherlock.  Did they tell you aboutSherlock?”

“Yeah, I sawit...him.  So your dad helped build him?”

“Until he gotcancer.  He died two years ago.  Dad never talked about his work, butI knew he was involved in something pretty big.  When he got sick, I didall the snooping I could to figure out what he’d been up to.  Slowly butsurely, I found out about this department.”

“So you’re prettygood at snooping.”

“Snooping andmartial arts.  Those are my specialties.”

And lookinglike Miss Freaking America.  “So Holiday finally figured you’d be agood fit.”

“It was eitherlet me join or I’d tell every newspaper in Anterra about the department.” She laughed.  “No, I’m kidding.  I wouldn’t have done that. Probably.”

Holiday walked inwith Corey Stone in his wake.  Corey smiled briefly in greeting and satnext to Amber.  Of course.

“Let’s get rightto it, shall we?” said Holiday with a more-cheerful-than-usual smirk.

The beginning oforientation consisted of basic household rules:  Respect for departmentproperty, superiors, and peers.  Absolutely no girls in the guys’ dorm orguys in the girls’ dorm—except on special prearranged and properly supervisedoccasions.  “Call us old fashioned if you wish,” said Holiday.  “I’llonly take it as a compliment.”

Coreysmiled.  “Don’t try to break that rule.  If the resident supervisorsdon’t catch you, Sherlock will.  Believe me, I know.”

Amber shook herhead at him.

“Hey,” he saiddefensively, “I was new, and I just took a wrong turn.  Totally innocent,really.”

Holiday clearedhis throat to shut Corey up.  “And,” he continued emphatically,“absolutely no romantic involvement between fellow department members.  Befriends.  Get to know each other.  Learn to love each other asbrothers and sisters in arms.  But for heaven’s sake don’t date eachother—or, if you do, keep it a secret from everyone else.  Especially me.”

“Sherlock mightcatch you at that one, too,” Amber muttered.

Jill laughed inspite of herself.

“I’m not going tobother going over the rest of our residence rules,” said Holiday.  “Readthe department handbook for yourself.  Now, follow me, please.”

 

THEYwent to the office next door.  Holiday introduced them to Miss White, astylish woman with short black hair.  She cordially asked who her firstvictim would be.  Jill volunteered.

Miss White ledher back to a small room with a glowing floor and walls.  Jill stoodperfectly still when she was told to, and the floor and walls got brighter andhummed.

“What’s thissupposed to do?”

“We’re creating adigital three-dimensional model of you.  We’ll need a very precisemeasurement of all your body’s dimensions and joints.”

“What for?”

“For youruniform, of course.”

“Oh. Right.”

“Hold your chinup a little.  We’ll get another scan of your facial features, just to makedoubly sure.  We don’t want your mask to fit improperly.”

“Mask?”

“Holiday requiresmasked helmets during any mission where you’re not undercover.  So what doyou want on yours?”


Page 14

“On mymask?  Like, a design?”

“Yes.  Youget whatever decals or images you want on your mask.  Bradley Park has theemblems from the Korean flag, not surprisingly.  Corey Stone has a skullpainted across his.  How typically male and unimaginative, am I right?”

“What if I haveno idea what I want?”

“Let me knowlater.  It’ll be plain black until then.  Okay, you’re done.”

She waved Jillback into the waiting area.  A minute later, Amber’s measurements weredone.

“Your uniformswill be arriving in a few days,” said Miss White.  “Sorry, it takes rathera long time to manufacture the polysyntheticexoskeletalprotectant at such precise specifications.”

Jillfrowned.  “The poly-whaty?”

“The materialused for the armor on the uniforms.  State-of-the-art stuff.  Light,flexible, bulletproof for all but the closest and most direct shots.”

Amber raised herhand.  “Stupid question:  Do we get shot at much?”

“Occasionally,”Holiday answered.  “If it’s any comfort, the department is yet to suffer afatality—or even serious injury.”

“Another stupidquestion,” said Jill.  “Can we shoot back?”

The director gavea half-smile.  “Follow me.”

 

 

THENexushappened to have the nicest indoor shooting range on Anterra.  Theywatched from behind a glass partition as a couple of field agents pepperedpaper targets with holes.

“To answer yourquestion, Jillian,” said Holiday, “yes, you’re allowed to shoot back. You’re even allowed to shoot first, if you must do so to prevent your enemyfrom harming you.  Our field agents carry weapons at all times.  Ofcourse, our prayer is that they will never need to use them.”

“Just try not toaim for anything vital,” said Corey.  “Our firearms are defensive, notpreemptive.”

“In other words,be like the cowboys in the old movies and shoot the gun out of the other guy’shand,” said Amber.

“If possible,”said Holiday.

The two shootersleft the range, and Holiday led them through the partition.  “Later thisweek you’ll be taking a basic weapons’ safety course.  I realize some ofus,” he eyed Jill, “are used to handling weapons.  But please follow thisdepartment regulation with the finest of attitudes.”

“Will do,” saidJill.

“After thecourse,” Holiday went on, “your hours spent here, as well as your accuracyduring each visit, will be logged.  We’ll be keeping our eyes on yourmarksmanship.”

Amber gazednervously at the range.

“Ever been shootingbefore?” Corey asked her.

“Once or twicewith my dad.  I’m better at kicking.”

“Speaking ofwhich,” said Holiday, “Amber, here, will highly approve of our next stop on thetour.”

 

 

THEYwent down some stairs to a large workout center—weights, exercise machines, andaerobic mats.  A track circled the place.  Several department memberswere using the gym.  Energetic music blared from unseen speakers.

“You will beexpected to keep in prime physical condition,” Holiday announced.  “Eachof you will be assigned a personal trainer who will regularly check up on yourstrength, endurance, and flexibility.”

The director ledthe way past the weight training area into a large, open room with a paddedfloor.  “Welcome to The Ring,” a sign over the doorway said.

A Korean teenagerand an old, impossibly skinny man were in the center of the room.  Theywere fighting.  At least, the skinny man was fighting.  The kidseemed to mostly be falling down in various painful ways.

Holiday gesturedto him and said, “Meet Bradley Park.”

Bradley didn’tmanage much of a smile as he pushed himself onto his feet.

“And this isBear,” the director added, indicating the old man.

Bear smiledwidely.  “Jillian Branch,” he said in an airy voice, “and Amber Phoenix,is it?  I bask gratefully in your radiance!”

Jill couldn’tplace the accent.  Whatever it was, Bear sounded regal.

“Bear isBradley’s personal trainer,” said Holiday.  “And, starting now, he will beboth of yours as well.”

“Such lovelyyoung ladies,” Bear said with a slight bow.  “Can two such beauties trulybelong in the realm of combat?”  He wheezed a laugh.  “I will tellyou a secret:  It has been my experience that the more attractive a younglady is, the greater is her propensity for violence!”  He laughedagain.  It seemed like he meant it as a compliment.

“In that case,”said Holiday, “they ought to be quite the matchup.”

Jill smiledruefully. In that case,she thought,Amber’s going to kick mybutt.

 

 

16

 

 

JILLwas more right than she knew.

They’d hardlyswallowed breakfast the next morning before they were into their workout attireand off to the training area.  Bear squawked at them to come into The Ringfirst thing.

They didn’t boutagainst each other, for which Jill was incredibly thankful.  Bear startedby leading them through a very long and elaborate series of stretches. Then he gave what he called his “preliminary examination.”  The way thisworked was pretty simple:  Bear asked Jill to stand in front of him, andsaid, “So...how would you fight me?”

Jill had been ina fight or three in her day.  You didn’t have much of a career as anerrander without exchanging fists with someone at some point.  But it hadalways seemed pretty simple to her:  Hit the other person; don’t let theother person hit you; get out of there if possible.  Now Bear wanted toexamine every minute detail.  Most of this examination consisted of himgrasping his sparse white hairs and moaning about how she’d loose a kickingmatch with a one-legged old woman.  He seemed to want to correct her everymove and posture.

When it wasAmber’s turn, Bear’s crooked teeth suddenly appeared.  He never seemed tostop smiling while she demonstrated her abilities.  Like everything elseabout her, her moves were graceful and flawless.

Big surprise, Jillthought.  So when were Bear and Corey going to fight for Amber’s heart?

 

THINGSwere a little different in the shooting range.

If possible,Amber seemed to know less about guns than Jill did about hand-to-handcombat.  Jill hadshowher how to hold theweapon, how to load it, how to squeeze the trigger instead of jerk it. She even had to remind her to click the safety off.  “Better thanreminding you to turn it on,” she said reassuringly.

“Hey, I got it, Igot it!” said Amber the first time she put a mark on the paper target.

“Nice going,”said Jill.  “He won’t be able to run with a gimpy left foot, that’s forsure.  Now, let’s go for more of the heart or head area, shall we?”

“Cowboy movies,remember?” said Amber.  “Nothing vital.”

“Right.  Thehand, then.  Or the neck.  That’s where you’d ideally want to put astunner.”

Amber emptiedanother clip without much accuracy, and sighed.  “If we’re ever in ashootout, I’m a goner.”

“I’ll do theshooting,” said Jill.  “When I shoot the guns out of their hands,cowboy-style, you can take over, kung-fu-style, andsavemyrear.”

“Deal,” saidAmber.

Funny how peopledidn’t seem so bad in situations where you were just plain better than theywere.

 

THEYwere evenly matched in the gym.  They pushed each other at a steady pacearound the track and at the exercise machines.

By the time theyshowered and went to thecaffor a late lunch theywere exhausted.  It was a nice, satisfying kind of exhaustion.

 

WHENHoliday had first introduced them to Bradley Park, Bradley had given Jill astrange look.  It may not have meant much to the casual observer. But to Jill, it was easy to interpret.  He saw her Korean roots. More precisely, he saw she came from apartlyKorean background. Most wouldn’t have been able to tell.  Other than her dark hair and eyes,she didn’t have particularly Korean features.

But Bradley couldtell.  And he didn’t like it at all.

Not many“purebloods” lived on Anterra.  Intermarriage between ethnic backgroundswas hardly uncommon.  Anterra was a nation unto itself, and in generalAnterrans married other Anterrans regardless of racial or national background.

It was adifferent story with the Koreans.

It hadn’t beentheir fault, really.  Korea had joined the United Space Programs late,when the Metropolitan Satellite project was already in full swing.  Thiscaused the other nations in the USP to look down on the few Korean scientistsand engineers involved, and to make light of their contributions.

The prejudicecontinued onto the satellite once it was settled.  Of the nearly onemillion original citizens, most had been from the United States, Japan, or theEuropean Union.  Only about 20,000 had been Koreans—a number that wasstill “way too high,” according to many.  The Koreans responded by bandingtogether.  Of their own will they became the most segregated group onAnterra, and expressed a national pride unlike any other on the satellite.

And Koreans onAnterra simplydid notintermarry with/have children withnon-Koreans—not without going against a very strong grain, anyway.

Jill obviouslyrepresented an exception.

“Was it yourfather or your mother?” Bradley Park asked her when they were in line at thecafthat evening.

Jill hadn’t evenseen him approach.  He hadn’t greeted her.  This was apparently hisway of starting a conversation.

“What do youmean?” she asked.  She knew very well what he meant, but she wasn’t goingto play along.

“Your mother, Iwould guess,” he said, ignoring her question.

How had he gottenit right?  “My mother was Korean, if that’s what you’re talking about.”

“So wasmine.  And so was my father.”  He gave her that same look—a look ofsuperiority, a look of disdain, a look of pity, almost, that she didn’t havethe pedigree that he had.

“It looks like youchose excellent parents,” Jill said blandly.  “I didn’t get to choosemine, actually.  They were already together by the time I came along.”

He sniffed ather, mostly because he didn’t know how to respond.  “Well,” he said aftera moment, “I guess we’re on the same team, now.”

“Were we evernot?”

He sputteredagain.  “I just mean we’d better find a way to get along.”

“Were youthinking it would be difficult for some reason?”

He clenched histeeth.  “You know what you are, and what I am.  We can’t just ignoreour differences.  We have to face them.”

“I freely admitour differences:  I can’t choose to stop being half-Korean, whereas youcanchoose to stop being an arrogant jerk about it.”

“What’s up?”asked Corey Stone.  He’d come over from his table when he saw theirconversation heating up.  He was giving Bradley a look that could freeze apolar bear.

“Just meeting thenew girl,” Bradley said in a flat tone of voice, then walked away.

Corey looked atJill questioningly.

“He’s a littleproud of his heritage, isn’t he?” Jill asked.

“Cut him someslack,” said Corey.  “He doesn’t have much else to be proud of.”

Jill chuckled.

It wasn’t untilCorey was walking away that it hit her:  Corey had come to herdefense.  That was a good sign, right?  She tried to tell herself itwas nothing, that he was just getting after Bradley because he didn’t likeBradley much.  Still, it gave her a good feeling.

A little of thatgood feeling actually stuck with her when she noticed Corey was now sittingnext to Amber.

 

Athird hard day of training was rewarded with a night out on the town.  AsJill rode the elevator up toward the ground level of GoCom, she realized thiswould be her first glimpse above the surface of Lake Anterra in almost fivedays.

She and Mandycaught a bus to the Raging Bowl on the south rim.  In a haze of cigarettesmoke they watched Dizzie’s band, the Lawn Flamingos.  Jill didn’t know ifshe could call them “good,” but she felt secure calling them “loud.” Dizzie never stopped grinning or bouncing up and down while she hacked at herpink guitar.

While anotherband played, Jill bowled against Mandy and Mandy’s boyfriend, BroderickSebastian Rawlings, a.k.a.Rawlie-boy.  Mandywas good, as promised.  Jill was even better. Rawlie-boylicked them both.

“Does professionalbowling pay better than being a lawyer?” Jill asked him.

Brodericklaughed.  “It might be more fulfilling,” he said.

Dizzie joinedthem at a table for pizza and sodas.  They laughed and talked about theconcert, about Mandy and Broderick, about bowling...about anything butwork.  Jill even threw in a comment or two, though she mostly just sat andlistened.  She wondered if this was something along the lines of hownormal people lived.

Then sheremembered she was a special agent for a secret government department.

 

AFTERdinner on Jill’s sixth evening at The Nexus, Corey Stone told her and Amberto follow him.  “There’s another part of our department I’ve got to showyou.”

From the balconyover HQ they went down a short hallway.

“The garage,” Coreyannounced.

Several sleekblack vehicles were parked in the wide cement-floored space—ground cars,skycars, motorcycles, and even a fewskybikes.

Jill did adouble-take of one of theskybikes.  “Isthat...?”

“Yours,” Coreyconfirmed.  “We brought it down from the ferry docks the day you gothere.”

“So this is wherewe head when we go on missions,” Amber said.

Coreynodded.  “This way to the locker rooms.”

Men’s and women’slocker rooms off the garage were divided into narrow sections.  Eachsection included glass doors with full uniforms propped on stands behindthem.  The full body armor and masks looked like actual agents standingstone-still behind the glass.

Corey led themdown one branch of the locker room where two new uniforms, external armor gleaming,were propped behind side-by-side glass doors.

“Yours,” saidCorey.

Jill’s breathcaught in her throat.  She stared at the uniform, and the dark, reflectivesurfaces of the mask’s eyes seemed to stare back.  It felt like looking ata person...the person she was supposed to be.

She wondered ifclimbing inside the uniform would help her make the transformation.

“Jill?”

She started,looked back at Corey.  “Did you say something?”

“I said let’shead back to the garage.”

“Sorry. Coming.”

She glanced over hershoulder at the uniform one last time as she walked away.

 

BACKin the garage Corey told them to climb into one of the black cars.  Jillgestured for Amber to ride shotgun before Corey could ask her to, which shefigured he would.

They drove awayfrom HQ via the tunnel under the lake.  The tunnel dead-ended, and Coreyparked and waited.  A platform lowered, and Corey pulled forward ontoit.  Then the platform rose, and they were in the warehouse of Pete’s FishCannery.

They drove out ofthe warehouse to the dark streets of the old industrial area east of the lake.

“This part of thecity is abandoned,” said Corey, “like a lot of districts these days.  Itmakes an ideal exit and entrance.  It’s the only way to get into or out ofthe department besides the elevator from inside GoCom.”

“Won’t anyone getsuspicious seeing vehicles coming and going?” asked Amber.

“We rarely passany other drivers on these roads until we’re a fairly good distance away fromthe cannery.  Even if someone did happen to suspect, only a departmentvehicle can open the garage doors of the cannery or signal the floor panel todrop into the tunnel.”

“So it doesn’tmatter that we’re being watched?” asked Jill.

“What?” askedCorey.  Alarm threw off the tour-guide tone of voice he’d been using.

Jillpointed.  “Someone just ducked behind that brick wall.”

“Are you sure?”

“I saw him too,”said Amber.

Corey pulledover.  “We’d better check it out.”

“We’re notdressed for a mission,” Amber said hesitantly.

“Or armed,” Jilladded.

Corey opened aconsole between the front seats.  “We never go anywhere unarmed,” he said,grabbing a handgun loaded with stunners.  Jill grabbed one too,reflexively.  Amber finally did as well, slowly, like she was grabbing asnake and trying not to get bit.

Jill wasalarmingly used to this kind of situation—the kind that included being armedand dealing with other people that were probably armed too.  “I’ll followhim,” she said.  “You two double back around that warehouse and try tospook him back toward me.”

“We shouldn’tsplit up,” countered Corey.

“He saw us,” saidJill, “and he knows we saw him.  Our only advantage is that we outnumberhim.  We’ve got to try to trap him.”

Corey finallynodded.  He and Amber slipped around the corner.  Jill rounded theedge of the brick wall at the other end of the warehouse.

She was peeringdown a dark alley and smelling the dank puddles in the potholed pavement. She heard but didn’t see the guy slinking down it.  There was a slightbreeze off the lake somewhere behind her.  She heard the distant noise ofcity traffic, but no sound nearby other than the slinking.

Suddenly she wasan errander again, with that familiar sensation rising inside her.  Thesensation seemed more nameless than ever, more distant, even though it was atthe very core of her being.  She’d felt the same feeling a thousandtimes...but it was different this time.  It felt foreign, now, like apuzzle piece that didn’t fit inside her anymore.

It was hard, butshe pushed away the conflicting emotions and focused on the here-and-now. She thought of her new uniform standing uselessly in a glass case back at HQ,while she stood here with nothing but jeans and a T-shirt...oh, and a gun.


Page 15

The guy appearedunder a flickering lamp at the end of the alley, climbed over a shallow wall,and ran down another alley away from her.

They wouldn’t beable to trap him now.

Jill took offafter him.

She thought sheheard him round another bend.  She followed him, gun raised.

She was at anintersection of four narrow roads among the abandoned industrial buildings.

He could beanywhere.

Corey and Amberran up behind her.

“Lost him,” Jillmuttered.

Amber kept hergun raised anyway.  Not that it mattered; the safety was still on.

“Could have beenjust some homeless guy,” said Corey. 

Jill shook herhead.  “He was watching us too carefully.”

“A spy,”whispered Amber.

“Let’s headback,” Corey said through a frown.  “We’d better tell the director.”

Jill’s heart wasstill pounding the way it always did on an errand.  Only this wasn’t anerrand, she reminded herself.  It was something entirely different. Something opposite.

Wasn’t it?

She was picturingthat nameless face again—acne, shoulder-length red hair, sad eyes...How manytimes had she thought about that face in the last week?

“...youokay?  Jill?  Hey, Jill?”

Her mind snappedback to the present. Erranderswere the badguys; now she was one of the good guys...right?  Sure she was.  She’dsigned the papers, joined the department.  She was one of them now. It was official.  She knew it.

But she didn’tfeel it.

“Yeah.  I’mfine.”

Was it reallypossible change into a different person just like that?  The whole rideback to HQ she tried to convince herself that it was.

 

THEboss was wandering through his arcade in Korean Town, west of the Avenue ofTowers.  Korean kids on Anterra loved their arcades, and they’d packed theplace out tonight.  There were modern holographic games, ancient bulkyconsoles with bubbled screens, and everything in between.  Dim violet lightfrom the ceiling mingled with the shifting light of the games.  Musicthumped from invisible speakers and added to the din.

The boss liked towear a tailored suit at his arcade.  It made him seem like a CEO insteadof the owner of a teenage entertainment center.  Then again, he was muchmore than the owner of a teenage entertainment center, so why shouldn’t hestroll around the place in a tailored suit?  The suit was black to matchhis perfect hair, his eye-patch, and his reputation.

He lit acigarette while he walked.  He was in a good mood tonight.  He wasn’tsure why.  The boss’s moods were like the weather on the HomePlanet—uncontrollable, unpredictable, quickly changing.

A quick changehappened at that moment, in fact.  He saw a hooded guy walk quietly inthrough the arcade’s side entrance.

The boss strodeto his dark, cramped office at the back of the building.  Classical musiccrackled from the flaring horn-shaped speaker of his old phonograph in thecorner.

A minute laterthe hooded guy came into the office.

They spoke toeach other in Korean.

“You are backearly,” the boss said.

“They saw me,”said the other guy.  He pulled back his hood.  He was a young Koreanwith disheveled hair.  The dishevelment looked deliberately styled, notjust a consequence of the hood.

“You allowed themto see you?”

“Our source saidthat the department does not patrol that entrance.”

“And you believedthe source?”

The young manhesitated.  “If we are not going to believe the source, what is the use ofhaving one?”

The bosssighed.  “I suppose you are right.”  He lit a cigarette. “Still, it makes sense that the department would keep watch over one of theonly entrances to their headquarters.”

“Perhaps. Then again, why draw any attention to the place by posting guards?  No oneknows there is supposed to be such an entrance.  No one even knows thereis supposed to be such a department.”

The boss noddedimpatiently.  “I assume you did not find the entrance?”

“It would notmatter if I had.  Only department members have the capability to triggerthe door open.  You need more information from the source.”

“The source isafraid to say more than has already been said.”

“The source isonly saying that that so you will pay more money.”

“Perhaps.” The boss went to the corner and switched off the phonograph.  He took awax cylinder out of it, put a different wax cylinder in, and switched it backon.  A different muffled classical tune came on.  “Perhaps we mustchange our focus.”

“I have beentelling you that for a month.”

The boss didn’targue.  He shook a finger at the hooded kid.  “I should listen to youmore often.”

“Then listen tome right now:  Do not take this so far.”

“What are youtalking about?”

“You have somegood resources.  Use them to keep your little...side business transactionsgoing.  You do not have to take the whole department down.”

The bossshrugged.  “Perhaps Iwantto take the whole department down. In the future, no one will remember me for those little business transactionsyou are talking about.  But if I expose an entire secret branch of thegovernment...!”  He blew smoke dramatically at the ceiling.

“They will notremember you if you are caught and imprisoned before you accomplish anything,either,” said the kid.

The bosssmiled.  “Then I suppose I must not allow myself to be caught.”

 

DURINGthe second week of training, Bear finally had the new girls bout in The Ring.

It went about asexpected.  Amber, all grace and smooth moves, danced around and attackedat ideal times.  Jill stumbled back and forth and flailed futilely atAmber whenever she thought she could get away with it.

“Stop it stop itstop it!” Bear cried after about twenty seconds had elapsed. “Jillian!  Have you learned nothing from me thus far?  Show me thatyou heard my words, and were not simply counting the wrinkles on my face! Now...again!”

Amber forced anembarrassed smile before she attacked again.

It didn’t go muchbetter the next twenty seconds than it had the first.

Director Holidayappeared and interrupted the bout.  Bear was annoyed.  Jill was relieved.

“You’ll have tocontinue your training later, I’m afraid,” said Holiday.  “Right now it’stime to participate in that for which you are being trained.”

“Ah, such flowerylanguage!” Bear said, shaking his head.  “What does the director mean?”

“He means,” saidJill, “it’s time for our first mission.”

Holidaysmiled.  “It’s time to break in those new uniforms, ladies.”

“Director?” saidBear.  He gestured at Jill.  “Please make sure this one is wellarmed.  If she is forced to fight without a weapon...well, I am much toobusy in the foreseeable future to attend a funeral.”

“Very funny,”said Jill.

Amber had not theslightest smile on her face.  “Our first mission,” she whispered.

“We debriefimmediately,” said the director.  “Follow me.”

Episode 4:  Cobalt Viceroy

 

17

 

 

DEBRIEFINGhappened in a conference room off the garage.  Corey and Bradley met Jill,Amber and the director there, soon followed by Dizzie and Mandy.

“As you know,” Holidaybegan without preface, “approximately one week ago, Corey Stone and BradleyPark arrested a vendor of illegal materials, a man who calls himself Mr.Love.  We had reason to believe Mr. Love was in contact with a much largerand more dangerous criminal ring.  Since that time, the department hasbeen in the process of tracking down Mr. Love’s clients.  They have beenquestioned and fined on charges of deliberately obtaining materials known to beillegal.  Amanda Farrell,” he gestured toward Mandy, “was the lead analystin finding said violators.  Amanda, would you briefly explain theprocess?”

Mandy stood,looking as intellectual as ever.  “Mr. Love’s apartment and place ofbusiness is accessed by an alley entrance.  A traffic camera just outsidethe alley gave us a clear view of any vehicles which parked at his door, andthe license numbers were then traced to the owners.  However, on a numberof occasions over the last month, Mr. Love had a visitor who arrived in a carwith the license numbers obscured.”

“Sherlock shouldhave alerted us,” said Corey.  “Any time a traffic camera spots a vehiclewhose license numbers aren’t visible, Sherlock is supposed to red-flag it.”

“He did,” saidMandy.

“Then why did noone follow up on the alert?” demanded Bradley.

Many sighed,obviously annoyed at this sidetrack.  “A non-visible license number is avery common alert from Sherlock.  Typically it’s only because of a dirtylicense plate, or a shadow, or something equally harmless.  Thesered-flags are nowhere near the top of the list for analysts to follow up on,particularly on busier days.  We usually bypass the alerts and move on tomore dangerous ones.”

“Was there noother way to determine who the driver of the vehicle was?” asked Bradley.

Mandy shook herhead.  “We have footage of the client walking from his car to Love’s doorand back, but it’s inconclusive.  He wore a hood which shadowed his face,and didn’t speak within the range of the microphones on the security cameras;so Sherlock’s VOFARE was unable to make an ID.  We tried following theroute he had driven to reach Love’s place, but he took too many sideroads—roads without any camera surveillance.  He remains the one client ofMr. Love’s we have not arrested.”

“But now you’vefound him,” said Jill.

“We’re about to,”said Holiday.  “Until recently, Mr. Love has been downright afraid tospeak of this particular client.”

“That just goesto show he’s as dangerous as you suspected,” put in Amber.

Holidaynodded.  “Exactly.  Thankfully Mr. Love’s impending court date hasloosened his tongue at last.  Apparently this client wasn’t a collectorinterested in obtaining Love’s videos; he was interested in where Love gotthem.”

“He wanted to geta hold of a VCR and videocassettes himself,” Corey concluded.

“In all probability,yes.  This confirms our suspicions that the Anterran underground ismanufacturing a communications network using outdated technology—technologySherlock cannot tap into.  This client, whoever he is, wants to make useof Love’s contacts to obtain materials for this plan.”

“What did Lovetell the client?” asked Bradley.

“Love washesitant to reveal his Earthside contacts who had been shipping him thevideos.  The client was very persuasive, however.  They had arrangedto meet late last week to discuss the matter.”

“But Love was injail by then,” said Bradley.

“Precisely. But this morning I persuaded Love to call the client.”

“I don’t supposeyou got a trace?” Corey asked hopefully.

Holiday shook hishead.  “We weren’t so fortunate, not surprisingly.  However, we haveanother plan in place.  During the call, Mr. Love apologized for missingthe meeting, claiming he thought he was being followed.  He has arrangedto meet the client again tonight.  Love won’t make it to the appointment,of course.  You will.”

“Any chance thisclient suspects that Love has been arrested?” asked Jill.

“There’s noreason he should,” said Holiday.  “Love’s explanation was plausible. In all probability the client will be expecting Love to meet him as planned.”

Corey stood, readyto go.  “What’s the location?”

“The parkinggarage elevator of a Korean town business park.  The time of the meetingis set for 9 p.m.”

“We get thereearly and wait for him,” said Bradley.

Holiday shook hishead.  “More than likely the client is planning on being there earlyhimself to scope things out.  You will arrive precisely on time.  Themission is simple:  Bring him in.”

“Right,” mutteredAmber with a swallow.  “Nothing to it.”

 

INthe locker room Jill paused in front of the glass case housing heruniform.  She stared once again into those reflective eyes.

It was time.

The uniform wasvery light and flexible.  And, Bear would be glad to know, she had twoweapons holstered at her sides.  She carried thevisoredhelmet; no need to put that on until departure.

Jill turnedaround and saw Amber, also in her new outfit.  Even the armor-plateduniform couldn’t hide that girl’s perfect figure.

“Let’s do this,”said Jill.

“I think I’mready,” said Amber.  She patted the handguns at her sides.  “Safety’soff.”

Jill was about totell her to put the safety back on until they were actually on their way. Then she thought better.  “Nice,” she said.

 

COREY,Bradley, and Amber took their places in one of the department’s blackskycars.  Jill mounted her skybike.

They waited.

“How are youfeeling?” Jill heard Corey’s voice in her earpiece.  For a second shefoolishly thought he was asking her, not Amber.

“Nervous,” saidAmber.

“Don’t worry,this one’s a cinch.  It’s an ambush mission—the easiest kind.  Andwe’re four against one.”

Holiday’s voicecame over their earpieces.  Whether he had heard Corey’s comments or not,he began:  “Remember, the client is in all likelihood a very dangerousman.  But we have the element of surprise.  Let’s use it for all it’sworth.  Desiree, are you with us?”

“Hear you loudand clear, sir!” crackled Dizzie’s voice.  “I’ve sent the routes to thevehicle consoles.”

Jill touched thenew console the department had installed on her skybike.  A map withautomated directions came up.

“Each vehiclewill be routed separately,” Dizzie went on, “to keep from attractingattention.  For all we know, this guy will be suspicious; he may havelookouts.  Your vehicle will leave first, Cor.  Your departure timeis five minutes.”

It seemed likefive hours.  Jill felt perspiration bead on her forehead, felt her heartrace beneath the plated armor of her uniform.

“Thirty seconds,”Dizzie’s warning crackled.

She saw Corey andhis passengers don their helmets—Corey’s with its silver skull, Bradley’s withits Korean insignias, Amber’s plain black for now like Jill’s.

“Go!”

The black carpeeled out of its spot in the garage.  Jill watched until its taillightsdisappeared around a bend in the tunnel.

“You’ll be ninetyseconds behind him, Jill,” said Dizzie.

She looked downinto the eyes of her helmet, twin dark reflections of her face.  Sheturned it around, slipped it over her head.

“Go!”

She kicked herskybike into gear.  At the end of the tunnel, she didn’t wait for the platformto lift her into Pete’s fish cannery.  She jetted straight up the shaft onher own.

They were ontheir way.


Page 16

 

 

18

 

 

THEbusiness park was on a ridge at the edge of Korean Town.  The buildingswere modern, with strange glass-walled angles and vaulted foyers.  Betweenthe buildings were lawn-covered hills with occasional abstract fountains andgardens along the paths.

At seven o’clocksharp the last wave of businessmen and businesswomen had streamed out of theoffices to the central parking garage and driven away in their luxurycars.  Dim light showed from the deserted foyers; lamps cast pools oflight on the abandoned parking lots and pathways.

The hooded guywalked along one of the paths at the top of the ridge.  To the east theskyline of the Avenue of Towers jutted against the distant shape of the HomePlanet.

He turned up theridge and made his way toward the parking garage.  He walked across thebottom level of the garage beneath flickering fluorescent lights.

He was careful tomake sure the security cameras caught him.

 

“SHERLOCKspotted the client,” Dizzie’s voice buzzed.  “He’s at the garage. We’re tracking him now.”

“Great,” saidCorey.  “We’re around the corner from there.  Let me know if hemoves.”

“He’s in theelevator.”

“Then we’ll get alittle closer.”

The black carpulled into the bottom level of the garage.  Corey got out, and Bradleytook the wheel.

“Wait here unlessyou hear from me,” Corey told him.

“Okay,” saidBradley.

“Okay,” Ambersaid at the same time.  Her voice was shaking a little.

Corey approachedthe elevator, gun drawn.  It was the one loaded with stunners—he kept hisother weapon holstered for now.  He pushed the button at theelevator.  The panel above the doors said the elevator was at the seventhand top level at the moment.  That was strange.  It starteddescending.

When it arrivedat the ground level and the doors slid open, the only thing inside the elevatorwas a small two-way radio.

“He’s on theseventh level,” Dizzie reported.  “That’s not how it’s supposed to work.”

“It never workslike it’s supposed to on a mission,” muttered Corey.

“You broughtcompany,” a voice hissed from the radio.  “I told you specifically to comealone.”

Corey took thetwo-way and did his best Mr. Love impression:  “I panicked, man!  I’llsend ’emaway right now.”

“Don’tbother.  Just get up here.”

“Fine, fine.”

Corey got on theelevator and started up.

 

“SOMETHING’Swrong,” Amber whispered nervously.

“Nothing to worryabout,” Bradley said blandly.

“He was supposed tobe waiting on the elevator.”

“Apparently he’swaiting on one of the upper levels.  No big deal.”

“It still doesn’tseem quite right,” muttered Amber.

“Relax,” saidBradley.

“Where is he,Dizzie?” they heard Corey’s voice asking.

“I lost him,”Dizzie’s voice replied.  “There are only so many cameras...”

The door next tothe elevator opened—the door to the stairwell.  A hooded guy walkedout.  He had a two-way in his hand.  Two steps out of the door, hefroze.  Somewhere in the shadows under his hood, his eyes were locked onAmber and Bradley.

Then he ran—backup the stairs.

“Come on,”Bradley yelled at Amber.  “And draw your weapon!  Corey, we sawhim.  He’s in the stairwell.”

“On my way down,”Corey’s voice came in their earpieces.

“We’re headedup,” said Bradley.

“I told yousomething was wrong!” Amber yelled as they burst into the stairwell.

COREYran down the switch-back concrete stairs from level seven.  At the secondlanding, a huge 6 was stenciled on the door.  He whipped down to levelfive...level four...

He ran intoBradley and Amber on the level three landing.

“He’s got to beout here,” Corey yelled, leading the way out the door onto the third level ofthe garage.

They saw thehooded guy disappear beyond a concrete column past the second row of parkingspaces.

“I should havebrought the car up,” hissed Bradley.

“Looks like Jillhad the same idea,” said Amber.

 

JILLhad waited, as instructed, behind a building fifty yards from the garage. She was the safety net of the mission.

It didn’t take longfor her presence to be required.

She’d gunned intothe air along one side of the garage, seeing the hooded guy running across theempty parking spaces of the third level.  She angled her bike over thebarrier at the edge of the garage and went after him.  Concrete columnswhipped by her on both sides.

She was closingin.

He knew she wasclosing in.  He got to the end of the level and heaved himself over theedge...

He caught thebarrier at the rim of level two and swung himself back into the garage.

It was only atemporary escape.  A moment later Jill had swooped down to level two,right in front of the hooded guy.  She parked, leaped off her bike,leveled her gun at him.

That’s whenthings got interesting.

 

“AREyou sure they went this way?” Amber asked breathlessly.

“She chased himtoward this corner,” said Corey, leading the way as the three of them ran.

They got to thecorner.  No one was in sight.

Then they heardvoices.

“They’re on thelevel below us,” Bradley said.

“They’re on thelevel below you,” Dizzie yelled at the same time.  “They’re outside thesecurity cameras’ view, but I saw them go by.”

Corey ran to thebarrier, leaned out, tried to look down to level two.

Wherever Jill andthe hooded guy were was out of sight from here.

“We’ve got to getdown there,” Corey ordered.

They didn’t goback to the elevator or the stairs.  It was quicker to take the ramp carsused to get between level two and level three.

On their way downthey heard the gunshot.

They’d alreadybeen running fast; now they ran faster.

 

INher cubicle at HQ, Dizzie listened in on the mission.  The largest of hermonitors had an overhead map of the garage, with blinking lights where thedepartment vehicles and the agents were.  The neighboring screens showedthe security cameras’ shots of the garage.

She heard thegunshot too.

She pulled themicrophone of her headset close to her mouth.  “Guys?  Is everythingall right?”

 

WHENthey got there, the skybike was roaring away.  Jill wasn’t on it. Jill was alone in a heap on the cold cement floor.

Corey got to herfirst.

“I’m all right,”she breathed.

“Thank God,” hewhispered.

“Thank God!”Dizzie’s voice sounded in their earpieces.

They helped sither up and took her helmet off.  She looked fine except that her hair was amess from being tucked into the helmet.  She forced a meager smile. “I guess he was a quicker draw than I was,” she said weakly.

“The bullet islodged in your armor,” said Amber, touching the place where the shoulder plateof Jill’s uniform was sharply indented.

“Did itpenetrate?” Corey asked.

“Not sure,” saidJill.  “I can’t feel much...”

Amber startedunbuckling Jill’s uniform top.

“Man,” moanedJill, “that’s the second skybike I’ve lost this month.”

“That’s the leastof our concerns right now,” said Corey.

“Yeah,” whinedBradley, “this meeting was our only link to Love’s client.”

“Forget theclient, Bradley,” shot Amber.  “Jill’s hurt!”

“Dizzie,” Bradleywas asking into his mouthpiece, “are you tracking Jill’s skybike?”

“Heading west,”said Dizzie.

Bradley stood tomove.

Corey grabbed hisarm.  “Leave it,” he said.

“I’ve got to getthe car and head after him,” countered Bradley.

“He’s not dumbenough to stay on the bike for long,” said Corey.  “He knows we can trackhim.”

“Then I’ve got tocatch him before he ditches the bike.”

“We’re using thecar to bring Jill back to HQ,” Corey said firmly.

Amber had theuniform top off.  Jill’s sleeveless shirt exposed the wound.  Thearmor had slowed the bullet, but it had still partially penetrated hershoulder.  Jill gritted her teeth and moaned.

“We have a job todo,” said Bradley, jerking his arm away from Corey.

“Some things aremore important than the job,” Corey said loudly, standing so his face wasinches from Bradley’s as he spoke.

“Bradley Park,”Dizzie’s voice crackled angrily, “you get Jill on that car and you get her backhere ASAP, you hear me?  The client has already ditched the bikeanyway.  He abandoned it at the edge of the business park.”

“Now that he’s onfoot, we can catch him no problem,” said Bradley.

“He’s not onfoot,” said Corey.  “He just borrowed Jill’s bike to get back to his ownvehicle as quickly as possible.”

“Sherlock canfollow him on traffic cams if he stays on main roads—”

“He’s gone,Bradley,” Corey said firmly.  “Let it go.”

Bradley didn’tsay anything else.  He also made no move to get the car.

Jill groaned inpain again.

“I’ll get itmyself,” Amber said disgustedly.

“I’m not ridingback to HQ while he’s getting away,” said Bradley.

“No, you’re not,”said Corey.  “You’re bringing Jill’s skybike back to HQ.”

Bradleyfrowned.  “Fine.  You don’t want me around, drop me off at the bikeand let me ride home by myself.”

“We’re notdropping you off.  It’s not on our way.  Take a hike and get ityourself.”

“I don’t know where—”

“Dizzie can guideyou,” said Corey.  He gave him a long, hard look.  “Say, before youhead back to HQ, why don’t you look for the client?  Now that he’s on footyou should be able to catch him no problem.”

Jill snickered inthe middle of another groan.

 

HERfirst exposure to the department’s medical facilities should have been atour.  Unfortunately she was here as a patient first.  Dizzieinsisted on being in the examination room with her.  Jill tried to talkher out of it, but she wouldn’t listen.  Jill had to admit she was gladshe wouldn’t.

A sour facedbalding fellow by the name of Dr. Gordon studied her shoulder through smudgedspectacles.  “Superficial wound,” he said with a frown.

Dizzie smiled ather and squeezed her hand.  She seemed even more relieved than Jill was.

“I can treat itagainst infection,” the doctor continued, “but I can’t make it heal anyfaster.  No more missions for you for a while, Miss Branch.”

“I guess I canlive without getting shot at for a few days,” said Jill.

 

COREYwas in the waiting room between the medical facilities and HQ.  He putdown the magazine he hadn’t been reading, and stood quickly when Jillreappeared.  “So?”

“So I get avacation already,” said Jill.

“She’s fine,”Dizzie interpreted.  “Just has to stay home for a while.”

“Wow.  Iwent on like ten missions before I got a vacation.  What did I do wrong?”

“I guess you weretoo careful to dodge bullets,” Jill suggested.

He smiledweakly.  “Guess so.”

“Back to yourroom,” Dizzie said, taking Jill’s arm.

They walkedtoward the dorms.  Dizzie was acting like Jill’s nurse or mother. Jill was telling Dizzie what she thought about her acting like her nurse or hermother.  Corey just watched thoughtfully as they disappeared out the door.

Bradley Parkshowed up in the waiting room a minute later.  “Got the skybikeback.  It’s a nice machine, let me tell you.”

“She’s fine,thanks for asking,” said Corey.

Bradley justfrowned.  “What’s with you?  You look like something’s bugging you.”

“You are.”

Bradleyshrugged.  “That’s normal.  Something else—something that wasn’tbugging you until recently.”

“Maybe,” saidCorey, still looking out the door.  He left without another comment.

 

 

19

 

 

ITtook a lot of reassurance before Dizzie left Jill’s side.

The first moment Jillwas alone in her room, she collapsed into her chair and put her head in herhands.  She was shaking.  It wasn’t just because of the mission, thechase, getting shot.  She was shaking for a lot more than that.

Should she tellthem?  Should she tell someone what really happened out there tonight?

Should she tellsomeoneeverything?

She took the boxout of her closet and dug the picture out.  Again she looked into her owneleven-year-old eyes.

When she lookedup she was staring into the mirror above her dresser.

The girl she sawthere wasn’t the same girl in the picture.  The girl in the picture wasinnocent and carefree, hadn’t done the things Jillian Branch had now done...

Her eyes driftedaround her room—the room the taxpayers of Anterra were providing for her. She was a government agent, now.  She was on the right side of the law.

Or so they said.

She’d tried tobelieve it.  But after what had happened tonight, it was all coming backto her...

She looked at thepicture again; in the mirror again; the picture; the mirror.

She didn’t belonghere.

There was justone last thing to do.  They had to know.  The director had to knowwhat had really happened on the mission...what had really happened before sheever joined the department.

She would writeit out; that might be easier than trying to say it out loud.  She dug inher drawer until she’d found a pen and a pad of paper.

A certain pad ofpaper...

Wait a second.

She opened thepad.  The first page was still there:

 

Miss Branch,

Theoffice computer of Tanaka Brothers’ Gallery, on the Aurora Bridge Mall,contains a list I should very much like to see.  It is a document entitledHPCAMVEN.  Please copy the document in its entirety onto the subsequentpages of this notepad...

 

Thisnotepad.

Hmm.

 

THEfloor of HQ was too busy to notice her appear and make her way down the darkhall toward the room where Sherlock was housed.  Soon she was alone infront of the bulletproof glass doors that guarded his extensive mechanizedbrain.  She went to the kiosk beside the doors.  It was the onlyconsole she knew of where she could be alone.

Alone besides thecompany of a machine, that is.

“Sherlock?”

“Yes, JillianBranch?”

It wasn’tunexpected, but it still gave her chills to hear the mechanical voice respondto her.

“You recognize mysignature, don’t you?”

“Of course,Miss Branch.”

“I’d like toperform a test.”

“May I inquireas to the reason?”

She’d thoughtabout this, and she was ready with an answer:  “I’m still skeptical aboutyour skills—no offense intended, of course.”

“None taken,Miss Branch.  I am, after all, an unemotional object.”

“Right. Anyway, maybe it’s just because I’m new here.  I’m not sure.  I’djust like to see another demonstration of your abilities.  The moreconfident I am that you can do what they say you can do, the more secure I’llfeel doing my job.”

“That isreasonable,Miss Branch.  Please explain the nature of the test.”

“I’d like you toreport when you detect my signature being written over the next thirtyseconds.”

“Gladly.”

She took a pageout of the console printer, as Holiday had done a week ago, and placed it onthe flat surface of the console.

Then she took outSketch’s notepad, careful to obscure it from the security cameras.  Shesigned her name on the bottom of the page.

Sherlock saidnothing.

She signed hername again.

Nothing.

She signed thepage from the console printer.

“Yoursignature was detected approximately three seconds ago.”

The consoledisplayed her signature, as she had signed it on the printer paper.

She signed thenotepad again.

Sherlock saidnothing more.

She tucked thenotepad into her pocket.

“Thanks,Sherlock.”

“Of course,Miss Branch.  How is your shoulder feeling?”

“Fine,thanks.  Gee, for an unemotional object you’re pretty thoughtful.”

“I try. But I would be amiss if I did not tell you that this demonstration has beenoverly simple.  If you’d like, I can suggest some other means by which Imight prove myself to you.”

“Maybe later.”

“Of course.”

 

SHEwas back in her room, with Sketch’s notepad on the desk in front of her. The letter would have to be a little different than the one she’d originallyplanned on writing.  For a while she didn’t write anything, just satthoughtfully.

She got up,locked the door, got herself a drink of water, sat down again, and startedwriting.

She finally wentto bed at about 2 a.m.

 

“Idon’t have to tell you how sorry I am for what happened,” said the director.

She’d caught himalone in his office first thing in the morning.  He was kind enough to putaside whatever he’d been working on and offer her the chair across from him.

“All in the lineof duty,” said Jill.  She leaned forward on his desk.

“You didn’t wasteany time taking a hit for the team.”

“It wasn’t myplan, believe me.”

“Things don’talways go according to plan in this business.”

Jill satback.  “Not always...but sometimes?”

Holiday noddedslightly.  “Sometimes.”

“You trusted meawfully quickly, didn’t you?”

“Oh, we may havesent you on a mission right away.  But trust you?  I can’t say we didthat, entirely.”

“I see. I’ll have to prove myself.  Somehow.”

Holiday looked ather intently.  “If I know you, you’ll find a way.”

“Working on it.”

The director puthis hand in his pocket, and stood.  “Come this way, if you have a moment.”

“Sure.”

He led the way tothe side of his office through a door she hadn’t known was there—it looked likea part of the wall until it opened.  Beyond was a short hall, followed bya sitting room of old fashioned tastes.  The room was perfectly tidy exceptfor an old, leather-bound book lying open on the sofa.  Beyond the sittingroom she saw another short hallway leading to other rooms.

“I rarely invitefemale employees into my living quarters,” he said.  “But, then, Sherlockis watching us very closely.”

“You live downhere too?” Jill asked.

“I find it easierif I don’t have to commute to work.”

“Same asus.  So how often do you get above the surface?”

“Not often. Sometimes I go weeks without going outside.”

“That can’t bevery healthy.”

“I won’t arguewith you.  I’ll be taking a very brief sabbatical as soon as possible.”

“Glad to hearit.”

“You may besurprised to learn that there was a time when I spent practically all my lifeoutdoors.  On the Home Planet, in fact.”

“I thought youwere an Anterran native.”

“I’m afraid not,though I got here before you were born.”

Holiday led theway behind the sofa, where several glass-encased frames hung on the wall. Inside the frames were pinned butterflies of every size, shape, andcolor.  “This was my former passion.”

“It’s quite acollection.”

“Thank you. It was years in the making.  I began with the local species in my nativeEngland.  Soon, I was travelling around the world in search of others.”

“Why theinterest?”

Holiday smiledand answered immediately:  “Metamorphosis.  You’re familiar with theterm?”

“I vaguely recallit from school.”

“Nothing comparesto the drastic change these creatures undergo from larva to maturity.”  Heseemed to be looking at her a little too intently during this part.

She moved theconversation along.  “Why did you come to MS9?”

“That’s a longstory, one with which I will not bore you at the moment.  Suffice it tosay I’m happier where I am now than I ever was running around the countrysideswinging a little net.”

“Still.  Ithas to be hard, being a nature lover and now living on a completely artificialworld.”

Holidaychuckled.  “I was never cut out to be much of a naturalist.”  Hegestured toward a particular butterfly in his collection.  It had vividblue wings edged and veined with black.  “This was always myfavorite.  It’s a Cobalt Viceroy.”

“It’s beautiful.”

“I always thoughtso.  It’s also genetically engineered.  They don’t exist innature.  Scientists manufactured them in a lab by manipulating the DNA ofother species.”

“Oh.”

“It was a failedexperiment.  They died moments after emerging from the chrysalis. This is one the very few preserved specimen.  If I’m ever in a tight spotI can auction it off and retire immediately.”

Jill lookedimpressed.  “But you keep it.”

He shrugged. “I happen to like my job.  Besides, I wouldn’t want to part with thespecimen.  It reminds me that sometimes what people call a ‘failedexperiment’ is actually something incredibly beautiful.”

“You’re afascinating man, Director Holiday.”

“Tell that toHome Planet Liaison Riley.”

“Maybe Iwill.  Has he seen your collection?  That might help.”

Holiday shook hishead—almost sadly, Jill thought.  “I’m afraid Riley doesn’t share mypassion for metamorphosis.”

“I think maybe Ido,” Jill told him.

 

ITwasn’thard to get permission to sign out and go above the surface for the day. With her injury she wasn’t supposed to work anyway.

From Pete’s FishCannery Jill guided her skybike south of the lake.  The voters of Anterrahad ordered a sunny day with a few fake feathery clouds.

She cruised intothe nicer neighborhoods until she got to a huge shopping mall.  From theentryway she zigzagged up the escalators to the fifth level, and dodgedshoppers across the polished floor between shops of chic electronics and thelatest clothing fashions.

She came to a rowof phone booths behind a jewelry shop.  The last booth had a sign taped toit that said, “Out of order.”  She ignored the sign, picked up thereceiver, and dialed a number from memory.

A man’s distortedvoice answered in Korean.

“It’s me,” saidJill.

“About time,” thevoice replied in English.

“It’s not easy toget away, okay?  I basically had to get shot to come here, as you probablyheard.”

“Then I guess youmust have some big news for me.”

“You could saythat.  But I’m not telling you over the phone.”

“It’s a securephone.  Sherlock can’t hear us.”

“Still.”

The voice on theother end paused.  “Fine.  We’ll meet in person.”

“Harvest Hotel onthe west rim, tonight, 11 p.m., suite 607.”

“You feel morecomfortable meeting at a hotel than speaking over a secure line?  Hotelsare full of eyes and ears.”

“Not thisone.  Believe me.”

“If you sayso.  You ought to at least give me a little information, being as you’vewaited so long to contact me.”

“See you tonight,”she said, and hung up.  She left the phone booth.

Someone in a highcollared coat and a cap pulled low over his face was on the phone in the boothnext to hers.  Jill didn’t bother looking his direction.


Page 17

 

 

20

 

 

ITwas late afternoon when Amber, Dizzie, and Bradley walked into the coffee shopnear the Aurora Bridge.  Corey was already there waiting for them at abooth in the corner.

“You look ashappy as a kid on the first day of school,” Dizzie observed unsympathetically.

“Have a seat,”Corey said somberly.

He’d invited thethree of them to join him here for some relaxation on their day off. Apparently that had only been a ruse; there were obviously deeper purposes forthis get-together.

“Is Jill coming?”asked Amber.

Corey ignoredher.  He launched into what he had to say without giving them time toorder drinks.  “The department has been compromised.”

That got theirattention.  They waited for him to elaborate.

“I invited youall here so we could talk somewhere privately.  I can’t let Sherlock hearwhat I’m about to tell you.  We don’t know who has access to Sherlockright now.  I started to suspect something the night I brought Amber andJill to the cannery entrance.”

“Someone waswatching us,” Amber remembered.

“We tried tocatch him,” Corey reminded her.  “Jill insisted she go after him directly,while you and I doubled back to trap him.”

Amber lookedpuzzled.  “You’re saying Jilllethim get away?”

“She knew who hewas?” asked Bradley.

Dizzie squirmedin her seat, saying nothing.

“I can’t proveit,” admitted Corey, “but it’s not illogical to assume.  I didn’t thinkanything of it at the time.  But that spy isn’t the only person who’smanaged to avoid us lately.”

“Mr. Love’sclient last night,” said Bradley.

“Exactly. And it was the same in that case.   Who was the one who actuallyencountered the client?”

“Jill,” Amberwhispered.

Dizzie squirmedeven more.

“Remember,” saidCorey, “Jill had chased him one level below us at the parking garage.  Weheard them talking.  By the time we got there, he was gone.”

“You think shelet him get away too?” asked Amber skeptically.  “Why would she want to dothat?”

“Because she’sworking with someone on the outside—someone who wants to know the department’ssecrets.”

Even Bradley, whoselow opinion of Jill was no secret, still seemed unconvinced.  “She did getshot, remember?”

“What better wayto appear innocent?”

“So,” Amber saidskeptically, “she sees this guy, figures out he’s working for the same peopleshe’s working for, says, ‘Hey, shoot me to make it look like I tried to catchyou and you escaped.’”

“Something likethat,” said Corey.

“We did hear themtalking to each other before the shot,” put in Bradley.

“We couldn’t hearwhat they said,” insisted Amber.

“Dizzie,” askedCorey, “couldyouhear what they were saying?”

Slowly, Dizzieshook her head.  “I...didn’t even know they talked to each other.”

“You see theproblem, don’t you?” Corey asked them.  “Dizzie was running com on themission.  The only way she wouldn’t hear them is if Jill purposelydisconnected her microphone.”

“Unless hermicrophone just malfunctioned, or something,” said Amber.

“Why do you keepdefending her?” said Bradley.  “Corey’s right.  These are suspiciouscircumstances.  It’s all good that you like Jill, but you can’t letpersonal feelings get in the way of something like this.”

“Personalfeelings!” burst Amber, jumping to her feet.

The otherclientele of the coffee shop glanced awkwardly in her direction.

She took a deepbreath and sat back down, but she was obviously still steamed.  “Don’tlecture me about emotions getting in the way of clear thinking,” she whisperedfiercely at Bradley.  “We know all too well how you feel about half-bloodslike Jill!  You’ve wanted her out of the department since the moment youset eyes on her, regardless of whether she’s guilty of anything.”

Bradley lookedsourly away.

“She’s right,”said Corey.

Bradley shot anaccusing look at Corey.  “Hey, I’m on your side, here!”

“My side,” Coreysaid firmly, “is not just to get rid of Jill.  My side is to find thetruth.  Keep your prejudices out of this.”

“Speaking ofprejudices,” retorted Bradley, “we all know you’ve had it in for Jillyourself!  Don’t act like we don’t know the history between you two.”

“It’s true,” saidAmber.  “Not to bring up bad memories, Corey, but you may have someemotional bias here, too.  We need evidence, not speculation.”

“You’reright.  And I have evidence.”

“What evidence?”Dizzie asked nervously.

Corey took asmall black box out of his coat pocket.  “This is an old audiocassetterecorder,” he said.  “I borrowed it from Dino’s lab.  Sherlock can’thear what’s recorded on it.  Since I was suspicious, I followed Jill whenshe went out this morning.  She went to a public phone booth.  Listenfor yourselves.”

He pressed play,and the scratchy audio began to emerge from the speaker.

“It’sme...It’s not easy to get away, okay?  I basically had to get shot to comehere, as you probably heard...You could say that.  But I’m not telling youover the phone...Still...Harvest hotel on the west rim, tonight, 11 p.m., suite607...Not this one.  Believe me...See you tonight.”

Corey stopped thetape.

No one saidanything for a long moment.

“But...but if shewas talking at a public phone booth,” Amber said after a minute, “Sherlockshould have heard.”

“I checkedSherlock’s records,” said Corey.  “He wasn’t aware of thisconversation.  The phone booth Jill used had a sign on it that said it wasout of order.  Apparently it’s part of a phone network used by thecriminal underground.”

Now even Amberlooked convinced.  “This phone conversation...it may not be what itseems,” she said, but she seemed doubtful even of herself.  “We don’t knowwhat Jill was talking about, or who she was talking to.”

“You’re right,technically,” said Corey.  “But it’s enough evidence to have me worried.”

“So what do wedo?” asked Dizzie, who still looked very uncomfortable.

“We have theadvantage,” said Bradley.  “We know where this meeting is takingplace.  We go there ahead of time, set up surveillance.”

Corey shook hishead.  “I scoped out this hotel this morning.  It’s in an abandonedneighborhood.  No one’s been in those upper story suites for ages. The dust is so thick it’s like snow.  If we work on the scene ahead oftime, they’ll know for sure we’ve been there.”

“So we followher,” said Dizzie, “and catch them red-handed.”

“Right,” saidCorey.

“Shouldn’t wetell the director about this?” Amber said through a frown.

“We can’t,” saidCorey, “or Sherlock will know.  And if Sherlock knows what we’re up to,Jill will know too.  Whoever she’s working for has access to Sherlock justlike the rest of us.”

“We could find away to tell him without Sherlock overhearing, couldn’t we?” said Bradley.

“We can’t takethat chance.  This is up to us.”

“So that’s whyshe joined the department in the first place,” Amber said quietly.  “She’sselling secrets.”

“Apparently,”said Corey.  “Think about it:  If the Anterran criminal undergroundhas access to Sherlock, the department is crippled.  And who knows howthey could use him!”

“Then tonightcan’t get here soon enough,” said Bradley.

 

INfact, tonight took quite a while to get there.

The waitingseemed almost unbearable.  Amber avoided Jill for the rest of theday.  So did Corey.  Bradley always avoided Jill, so that was nothingnew.

Only Dizzieseemed not to shun Jill’s company.  She still went next door to visit herand ask her about her shoulder, and sat with her in thecaffor dinner.

Then it wastime.  Finally.

They met in thegarage at 10 p.m.  They were in full uniform.  Amber’s mask was newlyenameled with the figure of the mythical bird which matched her last name.

“Don’t you thinkSherlock is wondering what we’re up to?” asked Bradley.  “He’s got tonotice that we’re heading out on a mission even though there’s no missionscheduled.”

“It doesn’tmatter,” said Corey, his voice tinny and electronic behind his mask. “Jill has already left HQ.  She has no way to see what we’re doing now,whether Sherlock is suspicious or not.  You there, Dizzie?”

“Here,” Dizzie’svoice came in their earpieces.  “The map to the hotel should be on yourscreen in a second.”

It was a long,silent drive.

 

THEHarvest Hotel was in one of the abandoned neighborhoods near the westrim.  The only lights for several blocks in any direction were the streetlamps.  Corey parked in an alley behind a trash bin two blocks away.

The streets wereeerily silent, like a ghost town.  The sounds and lights of the inhabited regionsof the city seemed strangely distant.

They went throughthe grimy glass doors of the hotel and switched on low flashlight beams whenthey got into the empty lobby.  Graffiti, dirt, and broken glass wereeverywhere.  The furniture was torn and dusty.

They duckedbehind a half-wall across the lobby.  From here they had a full view ofthe room and the front doors.  It was 10:26 p.m.

They waited.

 

ATseven minutes before 11 p.m., Jill parked her skybike in an alley a half milefrom the Harvest Hotel.  Near one end of the alley was the rear entranceto the Ace of Hearts Pawn Shop, which closed daily at 5 p.m.

She couldn’tremember the last time a lock had been easier to pick.

Jill wadedthrough the shop’s claustrophobic displays until she came to a storageroom.  Behind rows of metal shelves, a corner of the cement floor had beencleared of clutter.  In the corner stood an old cabinet.  On thecabinet sat an old television—really old, with a bubbling-out gray screen andround dials protruding from wooden panels on one side.  On top of the oldtelevision sat an old video camera.  Its lens stared at Jill like aCyclops’ eye.

The gray screenflickered to life.  She saw the silhouette of a man.  Behind him werethe shelves and cabinet doors of what was apparently a small office.

“Finally,” theman’s voice grated through the old television speakers, “we meet face to face,Jillian Branch.”

 

ITwas11:03.  No sign of Jill yet.  No sign of anyone or anything at all inthe littered lobby of the Harvest Hotel.

Amber squirmedimpatiently.  “I think we’re in the wrong place.  Could we be in thewrong place?”

“We’re not in thewrong place,” said Corey.  “Just wait.”

“You’re in thewrong place,” Dizzie’s voice came suddenly in their earpieces.

“What?” saidBradley.

Dizzie heaved asigh.  “I wanted to tell you before.  Believe me!  DirectorHoliday wouldn’t let me.”

“What are youtalking about?” Corey demanded.

“Get to yourcar.  I’m uploading new directions onto your screen.  And hurry, willyou?”

 

“THISdoesnotcount as meeting face to face,” Jill said to the camera andtelevision.  “Number one, I can’t even see your face.  Number two,even if I could, you’re still just on TV.”

“You don’t soundpleased to finally meet me,” the silhouette on the screen said with mock sorrow. “Nevertheless, for my part I am pleased to finally meet you.”

“Oh, and numberthree, I doubt I’m even hearing your actual undistorted voice.  I stilldon’t think we can say we’ve officially met.”

“Well, perhapsnot, then.  We will save that for another occasion.”

“That occasionwas supposed to be right now.  You were supposed to be here in person. What’s the deal?”

“The ‘deal’ issimply that I could not risk allowing you to really see and hear me at thispoint.  In fact, I cannot allow you to even give me a report of yourfindings.  You have been compromised, you see.”

“What are youtalking about?”

“Your friends inthe department have been following you, Jillian.  We dare not speak ofanything important at all.”

“If you think I’vebeen tailed here, you should have cancelled our meeting altogether.  Whygo to the trouble to set up this TV and camera?”

“To warn you,Jillian.  To help you understand that you are not being carefulenough.  And by the way, I do notthinkyou have been tailed. I know it.”

“Look, I’m awarethat department employees have been spying on me.”

“Oh?  Youdon’t sound bothered in the least.”

“Someoneoverheard our first phone conversation this morning.  Why do you think Ichanged the meeting place?  They still think we’re meeting at the HarvestHotel.”

“I suppose youare referring to your young teammates,” said the man on the television. “I, actually, am not.”

Jillpaused.  “What are you saying?”

“I’m saying,Jillian, that there are far more hounds on your tail than you ever knew.”

“What?”

“Hello, Jillian,”a familiar voice came from behind her.

“Goodbye,Jillian,” the distorted voice came from the TV.  The screen went blank.

Jill turned andfaced Director Holiday.  His smirk was more triumphant than she’d everseen.

 

 

21

 

 

“HOWdid you know?” asked Jill.

“A moment,” saidHoliday.  “Let’s wait until the others arrive.”

“The others?”

As if on cue,Corey, Amber, and Bradley walked into the storage room.  Corey’s helmetwas off.  If looks could kill, it would have been an instantaneous andpainless death for Jill.

“I don’t think,”said the director, “thatweare the ones who owe an explanation.”

Jill looked atthe cement floor at her feet.

“Tell us aboutit,” said Amber.  Her expression couldn’t decide whether to be hurt orenraged.

“Spare nodetails,” said Bradley, who looked more pleased than anything else.  ButJill wouldn’t know that.  She was still looking down.

During the longexplanation that followed, she didn’t glance up even once.

 

HADit only been two weeks ago?  It seemed more like a lifetime...

Jill had nabbedthe info from the Tanaka Brothers’ Gallery.  She parked on the street ablock away from the tall, round building, and walked toward it.  Behindone of those glowing windows on the twenty-third floor, the one called Sketchwas waiting for her.

She paused half ablock away from the high rise.

The thought hadbeen pushing its way further and further to the front of her mind.

Maybe she shouldhave accepted Holiday’s offer.

In the notepad inher backpack was the list.  She’d stolen it from people she didn’tknow.  She was bringing it to a man she didn’t know, who wanted it forreasons she didn’t know.

She’d calledHoliday’s offer ridiculous.  And it was.

Moreridiculous than being a pawn for criminals who couldn’t care less whether youlive or die once they’ve done with you?

It was a longtime before Jill started walking again.  And when she did, it was awayfrom the high rise.  She got back on her skybike and headed for home.

Someone waswaiting for her in her living room.  Beneath his hood she could make outhandsome Korean features.  He didn’t greet her, didn’t even get up fromher couch.  He just said, “Don’t be alarmed.”

It was about twoseconds two late for that.  But suppressing emotions was something Jillwas good at.  She set her backpack on the table and went to the fridge tograb a bottle of water.  “Drink?” she asked.  “Or did you helpyourself, as long as you’d broken into my place?”

“I think you knowwhy I’m here.”

“Sketch sentyou.”

“You bailed outon the job.”

“I got spooked,”she lied.  “Someone was watching me.  I didn’t want to blow ourcover.”

“Wewerewatching you.”

“And you cameback here when you saw I was leaving?  You must have put the pedal to themetal.  You beat me here, and I’m not exactly a slow driver.”

“I’m here to makeyou another offer.”

“I already haveanother offer, thanks.”

“We know. That’s why I’m here.”

Jill regarded himthoughtfully.  “Go on.”

The young Koreanpulled back his hood.  “You’ve been in contact with a governmentdepartment—a department no one is supposed to know exists.”

“Well.  Youhave your connections, don’t you?”

“We do.  Butwe could use another.”

“What are yousaying?”

“Our sourceinside the department has not been as helpful as we had hoped.  We wouldlike another inside man.”

“Or insidewoman,” Jill guessed.

He nodded. “Accept the department’s offer.  Join them.  Learn all you can aboutthem.  Report back to us.”

“Why?”

He smiled. “Simple.  We’re taking down the department.”

“So I’d be adouble agent.  Sounds dangerous!” she whispered in phony amusement,flopping down on the other end of the couch.  “I suppose you’d be offeringme quite a bit for the job.”

“That’scorrect.  The more you tell us, the greater your compensation will be.”

“Okay.  I’min.”

The guy looked ather skeptically.  “Just like that, you agree?”

“I agree to giveit a shot.”

“A shot?”

“Right.  Imean, yeah, the department recruited me.  But I doubt their offer stillstands.  I don’t know if you heard, but I kind of snubbed them by breakingout of jail and everything.”

“But you will tryto convince them that you will join them?”

“Sure.  Itprobably won’t work.  If it does, I’ll get back to you.  By the way,howdoI get back to you?”

That’s when theguy told her about the “Out of order” public phone at the mall.  Shememorized the number to call to reach Sketch.  Jill told the guy shefigured that was all they needed to talk about at the moment; in other words,time for him to leave.  He did.

Later that night,Jill headed out to a classy hotel near the west rim—not far from the Harvest,in fact.  Off the lobby was a row of empty payphone cubicles.  Shetook out a screwdriver, opened the inner workings of one of the phones, andmade some personal modifications including the addition of a device she’dbrought along.  Then she dialed.

A few seconds ofcanned music played on the other end of the line.  Then:

“AnterranGovernmental Complex.  How may I direct your call?”

By the end of theconversation, Holiday had told her:  “Take it or leave it, Jillian. If you’d like us to extend our offer one last time, demonstrate your worth onelast time.  It’s only reasonable.”

It was.  Andshe did.

 

AMBERran a hand through her blonde hair and sighed.  “That’s why youjoined.  You’re Sketch’s spy.”

Corey still hadthat same cold look.  “Mr. Love’s client,” he said.  “It was the sameguy who recruited you for Sketch, wasn’t it?”

Jill smiledwryly.  “I figured you might have caught on to that.”

 

THAThad only been a day ago.

Jill had waitedon her skybike, as instructed, behind a building fifty yards from the officepark’s parking garage.  She was the safety net of the mission.

It didn’t takelong for her presence to be required.

She’d gunned intothe air along one side of the garage, seeing the hooded guy running across theempty parking spaces of the third level.  She angled her bike over thebarrier at the edge of the garage and went after him.  Concrete columnswhipped by her on both sides.

She was closingin.

He knew she wasclosing in.  He got to the end of the level and heaved himself over theedge...

He caught thebarrier at the rim of level two and swung himself back into the garage.

It was only atemporary escape.  A moment later Jill had swooped down to level two,right in front of the hooded guy.  She parked, leaped off her bike,leveled her gun at him.

That’s whenthings got interesting.

She switched offthe microphone in her helmet.  “What are you doing here?” she hissed.

The same Koreanface she’d seen at her apartment two weeks earlier was smiling out at her frombeneath the hood.  “The mask will do you no good,” he said.  “I knowwho you are...Jillian Branch.  I bring greetings from Sketch.”

She lowered herweapon and tugged off her helmet.  “What are you doing here?” sherepeated.

“Meeting Mr.Love—or so I planned.”

“Don’t give methat.  I know you have another source inside the department.  Youknew we had Love.  You knew he’d eventually give you away.  You knewthere would be a mission tonight, and you knew I’d be on it.”

“Perhaps Idid.  Perhaps I’ve been sent to remind you to hold up your end of thedeal.”

“We haven’t madea deal yet.  You were supposed to wait for me to make contact.”

“We’ve waitedquite a while.  Sketch is getting impatient.”

“Give me sometime.”

“We’ll give you alittle.  Meanwhile, it’s time for me to be getting back.  Yourfriends will be arriving any moment.  But of course, we can’t let themknow we work together!”  The hooded guy drew his own gun.  “We’llmake it look like I escaped, what do you say?”  He aimed at hershoulder.  “Don’t worry; I hear the armor in these uniforms is verystrong.”

The shot’s impactknocked her over.

When Corey, Amberand Bradley got there, the skybike was roaring away.  Jill wasn’t onit.  Jill was alone in a heap on the cold cement floor.

 

THEstorage room of the Ace of Hearts was silent for several long moments.

“You let him getaway on purpose,” breathed Amber.

“You nailed it,Corey,” said Bradley.

“What about whenCorey showed us the fish cannery exit?” Amber said at length.  “The guy wesaw spying...was that him too?”

“Maybe,” saidJill.  “I never saw him.  He got away fair and square that time.”

“This is allreally interesting,” said Bradley, “but could we talk about it later? Like back at HQ, with Jill in handcuffs?”

“A rather goodidea,” said Holiday.  He took a set of cuffs from a pocket inside hiscoat, and handed them to Corey.  “Would you mind?” he asked.

Slowly, solemnly,Corey took the cuffs.

“Why?” Amberasked Jill weakly.  “Why’d you do it?”

Jill didn’tanswer.

“What would youexpect from a half-blood?” Bradley muttered.

Corey’s punchcame so quickly that no one knew it had happened until Bradley was sprawlinginto a storage shelf.  The impact knocked several tacky figurines onto thefloor.  Bradley ended up on his seat among the broken pieces.  Therewas shock written in his eyes as he rubbed his face and looked up at Corey.

But Corey wasn’tlooking at him anymore.  Corey was staring with questioning eyes atJill.  Then he cuffed her hands behind her back.

“See you at HQ,”Holiday said, expressionless, and left the room.

Corey and Amberescorted Jill out.  Bradley stumbled two paces behind them.

No one seemed tonotice that the little red light on the video camera over the television wasstill on.

 

Aminute later Jill was in the backseat between Amber and Bradley.  Coreyhad just started the car when Holiday’s voice came over the car’s com:

“Desiree, did youget it?”

“Sure, I got it!”Dizzie reported.

“Got what?” askedCorey.

Amber noticedJill’s face.  “Hey, what are you smiling about?”

“There’s actuallyjust a little more to my story,” said Jill.


Page 18

 

 

22

 

 

WHENhe got back to HQ, Holiday headed straight to Dino’s lab.  “I’m notinterrupting anything?”

“Not really,”said the funny little man.  “Just checking out these VCRs we got fromLove’s clients.  I’m still trying to get them to work so we can use themat the trial.  What can I do for you, Mr. H?”

“I need your helpon a matter, if it won’t inconvenience you.”

“Not at all.”

“This way,please.”

 

BETWEENsongs on his phonograph, the boss heard a noise.  It sounded like it wascoming from out in the arcade.  But the arcade had been closed sincemidnight. 

He grabbed hisgun and opened his office door a crack.

All game areasand consoles had been switched off.  The arcade was dark except forstreetlights glowing through the painted windows.

The boss heardanother sound.  He opened the door a little more, and leaned out for abetter peek with his one good eye.

He saw a glowcoming from up a ramp in one corner.  He’d forgotten to turn one of thegames off.

...Or someone hadturned it back on.

 

“UM,no offense, Mr. H, but I don’t have to go.  Even if I did, I’d rather goalone.”

Holiday didn’treply.  He led Dino into the men’s restroom at the back of HQ, then intothe janitor’s closet at the back of the men’s restroom.

 

THEboss hesitated.  The custodians weren’t scheduled to be here for anotherfour hours...though when they got here they’d be plenty busy; candy wrappers,popcorn bits, cigarette butts, even coins littered the carpet.

So who turned thegame on?

The boss leveledhis gun and moved cautiously toward the glow.

As he got closerhe saw it was one of his oldest consoles, an invaluable antique.  Itglowed and chimed an electronic tune while blocky letters asked him or anyoneelse around to insert coin(s) to play.

 

ONa shelf in the janitor’s closet in the restroom was a telephone.  A reallyold telephone.  It had a rotary dial on its bulky base, and a heftyreceiver perched on top.

“You know whatthis is, I presume?” Holiday asked.

Dino scratchedhis head.  “What it is, yeah.  What it’s doing here, no.”

“It’s here sosomeone can make calls,” said Holiday.  “Calls that Sherlock doesn’t knowabout.”

Dinochuckled.  “If someone wanted to make a call from this thing, it wouldhave to be hooked up to—”

Holiday turnedthe bulky phone around, and showed Dino the phone wire plugged into the back.

Dinowhistled.  “Still,” he said, “unless there’s a switchboard or something atthe other end, and other old phones routed into the switchboard...”

“This wire hasbeen fed through the wall,” said Holiday.  “I haven’t yet searched to findwhere it leads.”

“So is that whyyou need my expertise?  I do know a little about these things.”

“I never said Ineeded your expertise.”

“You said youneeded—”

“Your help.”

Dino’s eyesshifted uncertainly.  “What sort of help?”

“A confession,ideally,” said Holiday.

 

THEbossdidn’t approach the game console.  Someone was baiting him.  He knewit.  And he wasn’t taking the bait.

Sure enough, heheard a gunshot.  A bullet—or, if he wanted to be optimistic, astunner—whizzed by him and cracked into the screen of another priceless gameconsole.

The boss duckedaround the snack counter to an exit.  He was in a passage along the sideof the building.  He ran on old patterned carpet beneath dimmed lightsglowing from along the ceiling.

Another gunshotbehind him.

He ducked andwhirled, firing his own shot.

Cops—at least theywere dressed something like cops.  He thought he saw three of them. One had the Koreantaegeukand trigrams on hismask.  They leaped out of the hall and back into the arcade as the bossfired again.

He took hisopportunity.  He ran the remaining distance up the passage and through adoor to the back stairway of the building.

There were onlythree floors.  He skipped the second, got to the third.

The cops werestill close behind.

 

“YOUthink I put this phone here?”

“I know you putthis phone here,” said Holiday.  “How else were you going to call yourcontact—the man who calls himself Sketch?”

Dino was sweatingmajorly now.  “What are you talking about?”

“I’m talkingabout the fact that you’re spying on our department for a criminal ring. You have access to Sherlock—which means the man who calls himself Sketch nowhas access to Sherlock through you.”

Dinosputtered.  “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Maybe this willtrigger your memory.”  Holiday reached behind a caddy of cleaning supplieson another shelf, and pulled out an old audiocassette recorder.

“Hey, thatbelongs in my lab,” said Dino.

“We needed it,”said Holiday with a shrug.  “How else were we going to eavesdrop on yourphone conversations without Sherlock knowing about it?”

Dino swallowed.

“Desiree was kindenough to rig this for me yesterday,” Holiday went on.  “It can beremotely switched on and off.  Of course, a lot of what we’ve recordedover the last twenty-four hours is useless.  Apparently sometimes when youwent to the men’s room, you were just...going to the men’s room.”

 

THEthird floor hallway above the arcade was lined with office suites.  Theonly light was from the exit signs at either end of the hall.

The boss heardthe cops coming up the stairs behind him.

He ran for theother end of the hall.  Maybe he could double back down the otherstairwell, and—

He didn’t see thekick until he was feeling it.  He rebounded from the blow, lifted his gun.

Another kick senthis weapon flying out of his hand.

He was unarmedand staring into a mask enameled with a flaming red emblem.

He took two moreblows in two more seconds before he decided to retreat.  The other twocops, or whoever they were, had now appeared in the hall.  The bossstarted trying the doors to the office suites.  All were locked, ofcourse.

...Except one.

The boss dashedinto the reception area for First Anterran Family Insurance, Korean Townbranch, and locked the door behind him.  Then he lunged into the largestoffice beyond the reception area.

They werepounding on the door to the suite.

The boss lookedat the large window behind the insurance rep’s desk.  Down below was agrassy courtyard complete with trees and a pond.  Beyond that were theKorean neighborhoods he’d disappear into as soon as he got through thewindow—assuming the three-story fall didn’t kill or cripple him.  But hehad no other choice.

Then a lightflooded over him from outside the window.

The light gotcloser.

Closer.

Gunshots soundedfrom outside the window.  The glass pane was suddenly webbed with cracks.

The light goteven closer.

The boss dove forcover as a skybike soared into the office.  He was bathed in theheadlight, showered with shards of what had been the window a second ago.

 

DINOlooked at the floor of the closet.  “So, you know...everything,” hemuttered.  It wasn’t a question.

“Everything,”said Holiday.

The funny littleman heaved a funny little sigh.  “How?”

“JillianBranch.”  The director handed Dino an envelope—the envelope Jill had firststealthily handed him in his office recently.

 

THEboss scooted back into the corner, looking in vain for something to grab anduse as a weapon.

Someone slid offthe bike that had just creatively arrived in the office.  Now that theheadlight wasn’t in his eyes the boss saw the vivid blue butterfly insignia onthe visor.

“Should I tellyou the charges, Sketch?” a mechanically distorted voice asked the boss. “Or can we just assume you already know what they are?”

 

DINOstarted reading the letter:

 

Dear Director,

I’mwriting to you on very illegal, very non-digital paper.  I received thispaper from a client before I joined the department.  The fact is, I can’ttell you what I’m about to tell you in any way that Sherlock might overhear. I’m afraid Sherlock has been compromised...

 

He stoppedreading.  “Just give me the Reader’s Digest version, will you?”

“Jill alreadyknew there was a traitor in our department.  She’d known that since theday she got here; Sketch’s stooge had told her they already had an insidesource.  It didn’t take her long to figure out it was you.  Who elsewould have the resources and knowhow to share department secrets in ways thatcouldn’t be traced by Sherlock?”

Dinohalf-smiled.  “And to think I was about to get out of that gig.  Isuppose they suspected, and that’s why they needed another insider.  Iwasn’t willing to help them quite as much as they wanted.  They wereplanning to take down the whole department, you know.”

“Do you think theywould have let you live if you’d jumped ship?”

“They would havehad to.  I’m safe down here.”

“Maybe,” Holidaysaid inconclusively.

Dinofrowned.  “Believe me, Mr. H, I’d help you catch the guy myself at thispoint.  But he’s cut off communication with me.”

“It makes littledifference.  Any moment now he will be arriving here in the hands of ouragents.”

Dino raised hiseyebrows.

“Jill had more tosay in this letter than the fact that you were a traitor,” said Holiday. “She had a plan to prove it—and catch the one you’d been working for while wewere at it.”  Holiday pressed play on the audiocassette player.

Dino heard hisvoice on the tape:  “...Sure, I can set up a closed-circuit camera...Yes,just name the place...Ace of Hearts Pawn Shop, 11 p.m. tonight.  You gotit.  It’ll be set by ten at the latest.”

Dino reached overand stopped the cassette player himself.  “How does that help you? Sherlock can’t pick up a closed-circuit camera signal.”

“Unless someoneknows the camera is going to be used for such a purpose,” said Holiday, “andrigs the camera to send a feed to Sherlock.”

“Not to mentiontrace the original feed to see who’s receiving it,” Dino guessed.

Holidaysmiled.  “Desiree’s help again.  When you’re going to use your labequipment for treachery, you really shouldn’t leave it lying around for us totamper with first.”

“Dizzie’s good atthis stuff, huh?  Maybe she should take my place.”

“Someone’s goingto have to, being as you’ll be in jail.”  Holiday picked up the oldphone’s receiver and touched a mechanism attached to the mouthpiece. “Don’t tell me you made yourself sound like a woman?”

Dino looked moresheepish than he had at any point yet in this conversation.  “Hey, so longas it wasn’t my voice being heard on the other end of the line, who cares?”

“I’d ask why youdid it, Dino, but I already know it was money.”

“Lots of it.”

“And you’ll bedoing lots of time for it.  Of course, a little cooperation might go along way in that regard.”

“It sounds likeyou already know everything.  What more do you want from me?”

Holiday pointedto the phone.  “Tell me more about this.”

 

THEfloor of HQ became a standing ovation as the team of four agents entered fromthe garage.  A handcuffed and blindfolded prisoner stood between them.

“Here you are,” Jillwhispered from behind her mask, her distorted voice buzzing softly in theboss’s ear.  “You’ve wanted to know all about this place for awhile.  Now you’re here in person.  Welcome.”

“A pleasure,” hemuttered.  “At least take off this blindfold so I can enjoy it.

“I didn’t thinkyou’d mind it so much,” said Corey’s mask.  “You’re always halfblindfolded anyway.”

The prisonerfound that humorous enough to sneer.  Just sneer.

 

HOLIDAYsat in his office again.  He didn’t see his field team arrive with theprisoner in custody.  He didn’t hear the applause at their arrival.

His attention wason the end of Jill’s letter.  He’d read it several times, and now he wasreading it again.  He would probably read it again after that.

He gave a longsigh.

 

 

23

 

 

HALFan hour later they were meeting in the conference room off the garage.

“Thanks to thediligence of each one of you,” said Holiday, “we’ve apprehended a very crookedringleader.  Capturing him was a tremendous step forward for thisdepartment.  As much as we owe Jillian a great debt of thanks forconcocting the plan of Sketch’s apprehension, we owe perhaps even moregratitude to Corey, Bradley, and Amber, who were not let in on the plan untilthe very last moment.  In fact, Corey’s devotion to keeping our departmentsafe nearly foiled Jill’s plan.”

“You’re welcome,”said Corey with a half-smile.

Amber lookedpuzzled.  “You said Corey, Bradley, and me...”  She shot a looktoward Dizzie.

Dizzie smiledsheepishly.  “I wanted to tell you!” she burst.  “I wanted tosoooobad, you have no idea!”

“I think we havesome idea,” Bradley muttered.

“Director Holidaythreatened to kill me and cut up my dead body into little pieces if I told.”

That got thedirector a set of looks.  He just shook his head with a roll of his eyes.

“Well, okay, notexactly,” admitted Dizzie.  “But, you know, something along those lines.”

Holiday clearedhis throat and continued:  “From the moment Jillian slipped me the letterwritten on Sketch’s notepaper, I decided as few people as possible must knowabout the plan.  We chose to include Desiree because, of course, she wouldbe running com on the mission.  Also, her technical skills were invaluablein obtaining proof of Dino’s treachery.  Her ability to keep the matter toherself for nearly twenty-four hours was very admirable—perhaps nothing shortof miraculous.”

Dizzie smiledwidely.

“And speaking ofDino,” Holiday continued, “he has agreed to cooperate with the department bytelling us everything he knows about Sketch’s ring.  The telephone Dinowas using is part of a large telecommunications network created by the Anterrancriminal underground to avoid Sherlock’s listening ears.  An extensiveinvestigation of this network is in order.”

“Let me guess,”said Corey, “our team will be in charge of that investigation?”

“Perhaps,” saidHoliday.  “That decision is for another time.  For now, enjoy acouple of days off to celebrate your success.”

That brought afew whoops and high fives—from everyone but Jill, that is.  When Holidaydismissed them, Jill slipped out quietly before anyone else.

...A fact thatwasn’t lost on Corey.

 

“WELL,it looks like you were right after all,” said Home Planet Liaison Riley. He didn’t actually seem that unhappy.  Holiday thought Riley would cut offone of his own fingers before willingly admitting that he’d been wrong andHoliday had been right.

Ironically,Holiday was the unhappy one.  He hardly seemed to be listening. “Looks like,” he said.  He wasn’t looking at Riley.  He was lookingat a letter lying on his desk.

“Somethingwrong?” asked Riley.  “I thought you’d be gloating the minute I walkedin.”

As if finallyrealizing he had a visitor in his office, Holiday folded the letter, sat backin his chair, and said:  “We don’t all gloat every time we’re right aboutsomething, Riley.  Some of us are more used to it than others.”

Riley ignored thejab.  “Jillian Branch just helped nab one of the biggest criminal ringleaders in Anterra.  She’s proven herself.  Isn’t that what youwanted?”

Holiday smiledmirthlessly.  “I guess we both got something we wanted tonight.  Iwanted Jill to prove herself.  You wanted her out of the department.”

Rileyblinked.  “What are you saying?”

“I’m saying she’sresigned,” said Holiday.  He stood as if to say goodbye.  Theconversation was obviously over.

Riley had apuzzled look on his tight facial features as he left the office.

Outside the backentrance to the office, Corey Stone finally pulled his ear away from thecracked-open door.  “No, Jill...” he whispered.

 

JILLtook a minute to look around her room.  It had felt like home the momentshe stepped into it.  It still felt like home.

Home was thehardest place to leave.

She took in adeep breath, released it slowly, and walked out.

It was two in themorning.  The dorms were silent.  So was the lounge.  So was thehallway.

Not the elevatorlobby.

Corey Stone satin a chair next to the elevator call button.  “Where do you think you’regoing?”

Jill kept herface expressionless.  “What difference does it make to you?”

Corey stood andleaned against the wall...in front of the call button.  “Don’t do it,Jill.”

She cleared herthroat.  “Look, it’s not what you think.”

“You think Istill think you’re a traitor?  I don’t.  Believe me, I know whatyou’re about to do, and I’m warning you: don’t.”

She gave him anaccusing look.  “You’ve been talking to the director, haven’t you?”

Corey didn’tanswer.  He just stood there with his arms crossed.

Jillsighed.  “Remember what I told you when I first came back here?” she saidquietly.  “The minute I stepped out of line again...”

“You’d be thefirst one to bring yourself back to jail.  Yeah, I remember.  Do youremember what else you told me that day?  You said that if we all wentbehind bars if we deserved it, I should be in the cell next to yours.”

“Then come ondown and turn yourself in with me.”

He shook hishead.  “I can’t let you do this.  Stay here.  There’s more workto do, Jill.”

She wasn’tlistening to him.  Her eyes drifted.  “You always tell yourselfyou’re not hurting anyone,” she said softly.  Corey was hearing her, butshe wasn’t exactly talking to him.  Or to anyone.  “You always tellyourself what you’re doing is not really that bad.  But in the end, youcan’t escape the fact that you’re part of something—”  She searched forthe right word.  “Something evil.  Small part or big part, it doesn’tmatter.”  Her eyes still looked beyond Corey, beyond the room, beyond thepresent.

She thought of afifteen-year-old boy with red hair and desperate eyes...

As if finallyremembering where she was, her eyes looked back into Corey’s.   “I’mturning myself in, Corey.  I don’t belong here.  It’s time I paid foreverything I did in the past.  It’s the only logical thing to do.”

Corey met hergaze.  “There’s more to this place than that kind of logic.”

She didn’t knowwhat to say to that.

Corey steppedtoward her.  “We need you, Jill.  The department needs you.”

“I came here as atraitor.”

He scoffed. “If you were really a traitor to our department, you wouldn’t have saved it.”

“I came here as aspy for Sketch,” she said.  “It was an errand.”

“You were alreadyplanning on joining the department, even before Sketch got to you, weren’tyou?”

Jill hesitated. “You want the honest truth?  When I first came back to the department, Ididn’t know why I was here.  Part of me thought I’d just end up sellingdepartment secrets to Sketch.”

“But another partof you?” Corey prompted.

She swallowed andlooked at the floor.  “Another part of me thought I could really doit.  I could really join the department and be one of the good guys. I could really have a reason to get up in the morning, do something meaningfulwith my life.”  Were her eyes getting a little misty?  She wouldnotlet herself cry in front of Corey Stone!

“I think I knowwhy you came back,” said Corey.  “You came back because you belonghere.  Maybe you couldn’t admit it to yourself at the time, but you knewit deep down.  And you know something?  I knew it too, even though Ididn’t want to admit it either.”

When she driedher eyes, she saw she was standing on the department emblem on the lobby floor.

Didshebelong here?

Corey stoodsquarely between her and the elevator door.  “I’m not letting you leave,Jill.  This is the place for you.”

Shesniffled.  “You can’t stand there forever.”

He looked fixedlyat her several long seconds.  Then he sighed and dropped his hands to hissides.  “You’re right,” he admitted.  He stepped out of the way.

She saw the elevatorin front of her, now.  She stared at it.  But somehow she couldn’tmove toward it.

“Just know,” saidCorey, “that if you go you’ll be leaving a huge hole around here.  I don’tknow how we’ll replace you.”

He started backfor the dorms.

She was stilllooking at the elevator.  Still not moving.  “Corey?” she called.

He paused beforethe hallway.  “Yeah?”

She’d wanted toask him since it had happened.  “Why did you punch Bradley?”

At first thequestion caught him off guard.  In a moment, though, he chuckled withsatisfaction at the memory.  “He called you a half-blood.”

“Iamahalf-blood.”

“He meant it asan insult.”

“You thought I’djust betrayed the department to a thug.  Didn’t I deserve any insult Igot?”

Corey ponderedhis answer for a minute.  “He was acting like he deserved to be part ofour team more than you did.”

“And you don’tthink so?”

Corey shook hishead.  “None of us deserves to be here, Jill.  Not a single one ofus.  I think I’m finally starting to figure that out.”

And then he disappeareddown the hall, and Jill was alone with the elevator doors.

She thought abouthis words a long time.

They were stillringing in her head when she fell asleep back in her room an hour later.

 

SHEwoke up in time to stumble over to thecaffor breakfastbefore it closed.  She made it about a step and a half through the doorbefore Dizzie assaulted her with a hug.  “How’s your shoulder?  Somuch for not going on another mission for a while, huh?”

Amber was rightbehind her.  Jill tried not to stare; she hadn’t even done her hair thismorning.

Then Coreyarrived, looking like he’d meant to arrive much sooner.  The minute hestepped through thecafdoors his tired eyes dartednervously around until he found Jill.

She smiled athim.

Every fiber ofhis being seemed to go from tense to relaxed as he smiled back.  He took astep toward the food line, paused, turned around and went back toward thedorms.

Jill laughed toherself.  He looked like he hadn’t so much as closed his eyes last night.

 

SEVERALinteresting mailings went out from GoCom that morning.

One was addressedto Matt at theNorthshoreGarage.  “Thanks forthe Translation,” it said.  Enclosed was a check for six hundred and fiftycredits.

Another wasaddressed to Fat Frank.  It had a note with a single word: “Sorry.”  It included a sizable anonymous check and a coupon for Mike’sAuto Body and Glass Repair.

A third wasaddressed to the cathedral downtown, containing a note with the same singleword:  “Sorry.”  This one included an anonymous check for at leastthe amount required to replace a stained glass window.

None of theletters was signed.

 

DIZZIEpounded on Jill’s room door and burst in without waiting for a response. Mandy and Amber were in her wake.

“We’recelebrating last night’s victory by going out to lunch,” she beamed.

“Cool,” saidJill.  She tried not to look like they woke her up, like she’d just beenlying in bed relaxing.  “Where at?”

“Tail of theDragon!”

“Dizzie’sfavorite Chinese buffet,” Mandy explained.

“Everyone’sfavorite Chinese buffet.”

“Whatever shetells you,” Mandy whispered as though Dizzie couldn’t hear, “don’t try thesesame chicken.”

“Try the sesamechicken!” said Dizzie, elbowing Mandy.

“We’re meeting inthe garage at noon to head there, if you want to join us,” said Amber.

“Actually, can Imeet you there?” said Jill.  “I was hoping to get out and spend a littletime alone this morning.”

Dizzie had barelyopened her mouth before Mandy put a hand over it.  “That’s great, Jill,”she said.  “See you then.  Come on, Dizzie.”

Dizzie sputteredas Mandy tugged her into the hall.  Amber exchanged amused looks with Jillbefore stepping out after them and closing the door.

By midmorningJill was on her skybike heading south on Route 6 away from downtown.  Thehazy dome of the Home Planet loomed distantly to her left.

She dropped tostreet level as she got off the highway and made her way to an abandonedneighborhood.  She parked in a particular alley, stood at its mouth, andlooked across the street.

...At a certainthird-story window.  Just for old time’s sake.

It was lifetimeago—almost literally—since she’d been here in the dark and the rain. That’s when it had all started. Watch for the light, DirectorHoliday had told her on the phone.

And she hadwatched.

  
Page 19

 

  

THE DARK BENEATH

  

Copyright© 2012 by J. Kraft Mitchell

Allrights reserved.

 

Nopart of this document may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means,electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without priorwritten permission of the author.

  

Foreveryone who gaveThe Nexusa chance.

Thisone’s for you.

  

THANKyou:

Hannah, whoseinput I value more than anyone else’s, and whose support I rely upon more thananyone else’s.

Everyone whoposted, reviewed, “liked,” or commented.  Success would have beenimpossible without the momentum you all gave me.

Finally, all ofyou who kept asking me, “When’s the next one coming out?”  You kept megoing.  And here it is.

Episode 1: Hydra 

1

 

 

OTHERthan the ten people in the room, almost no one on Earth—or above Earth—knewthis meeting was taking place.

They met in ahotel conference room downtown.  The bank of windows looked out over thecity lights.  Though night had fallen here, the sun still shone on thedistant form of Earth looming beyond the city’s rim. MetropolitanSatellite IX, or simply MS9, had been the massive orbiting structure’s namewhen the United Space Programs constructed it a century ago.  Themillion-plus citizens of the city built across its face called it Anterra.

Nine of them werealready sitting around the room’s polished black table.  The tenth hadjust walked in the door.  He removed his brimmed hat and long coat as heentered, regarding the others with penetrating steel-gray eyes.

“Welcome,Director Holiday,” the woman at the head of the table greeted him.  Hervoice was as unfriendly as her face.  Her red hair was much too vividlyhued to be natural at her age—maybe at any age.

“Good evening,”he replied, not bothering to sound any friendlier.  He didn’t know hername.  He didn’t know any of their names, though they knew his.  Theywere the governing board of his classified government department, which meantthey were to remain anonymous to him.  Director Holiday only knew them byface, only made contact with them on the rare occasion they asked him to attendone of their weekly meetings.

Which he loathed.

He took aseat.  There were no refreshments, no coffee, though he could certainlyuse a cup.  Strictly semi-cold water and business.

“Now,” theredheaded woman said without enthusiasm, “would you care to begin by presentingany complaints or requests before the board?”

Director Holidaysmirked humorlessly.  “You don’t invite me to your meetings because you’reaching to hear what’s on my mind,” he said in the sophisticated accent of hisBritish homeland.  “So why don’t you just go ahead and tell me what’s onyours?”

His comment wasmet with nine frowns.

“We do have aconcern,” said the man to the right of the redheaded woman.  He was athin-featured, serious man with somewhat pointed ears and dark, tightly kniteyebrows.  His goatee was trimmed a little too perfectly.  “We’vebeen hearing some rather disturbing news about a certain recruit of yours.”

“You’ll have tobe more specific, I’m afraid,” the director said as he poured himself a glassof lukewarm water.  “I’m sure there’s no lack of disturbing news aboutmany of my recruits.”

The mansniffed.  “I don’t doubt it, Director.  But I’m sure you know the onewe mean.”

Holiday knew, allright.  He’d known it the instant he got the message to come to thismeeting.  But he wasn’t letting on.  “I’m all ears.”

“Tell us a littlemore, please,” said the woman at the head of the table, “about this JillianBranch.”

 

SHEwas leaning against a wall of hewn logs.  Hanging directly above her was amoose’s head mounted on a wooden plaque.  Together she and the moosewatched the spacious, bustling foyer of the Hunter’s Lodge Restaurant andBar.  The heads of other various woodland fauna adorned the walls as well,along with some fish with hooks dangling from their mouths and big paintings ofmountain peaks and forest streams.  Flames roared in a huge hearth nearthe hostess’s desk.

Not really hertype of place.

She watched thefront door.  Friday nights at the Hunter’s Lodge were pretty busy. Comers and goers passed through every few seconds, allowing momentary bursts ofurban lights and traffic to intrude upon the outdoorsy atmosphere.  Mostof the clients dressed to fit—plenty of plaid flannel shirts and billed caps—likethere was anywhere on Anterra to go fishing or hunting or logging, or whatever.

A voice buzzed inher hidden earpiece—Dizzie Mason reporting from HQ:  “He should bearriving any second now—if Sherlock is tracking the right guy.”

“Thanks, Diz,”she said, leaning slightly toward the lapel of her coat.

There, that hadto be him.  It was a young man with tousled blonde hair.  He wore aslick black leather jacket and riding gloves.  Hardly the motif mostcustomers were going for.

“Got him.”

 

“WHATabout her?” Holiday asked the board.  He was suddenly enjoying himself alittle.  This would be good.

Another woman atthe conference table—a squirrelly woman with a double chin—pulled out a thickfile and began flipping through it.  “According to our sources,” she said,“Miss Branch is ‘reckless and unrestrained, with a tendency to neglect cautionand common sense.’”

Holiday strokedhis chin with feigned interest.  “I see.  Whoever writes your reportsapparently owns a thesaurus.”

 

THEkidwith tousled blonde hair and a black leather jacket was DougGrandan.  The moment he’d entered the Hunter’s Lodgehe wished he’d dressed to fit in.  Now he would stick out like a toddlerin a nursing home.

Well, nothing hecould do about it now.  Next time he’d know better.  Newerrandersalways had a lot to learn.

Now, to meet thecontact.  He’d saidGrandanwould find him atthe booth in the northwest corner of the upstairs dining area. Grandanwalked toward the wide wooden staircase while hepuzzled over which direction was northwest. Let’s see, when I walkedin, Earth was behind me, so....

“Mr.Grandan?”

He jumped. He hadn’t even seen the girl approaching.  She had jet-black hair and darkeyes.  She stood between him and the foot of the staircase.  “Who areyou?” he stammered.

“My name isCordova.  I’m your contact.  Is anything wrong?”

“N-no.  No,it’s just that I thought you would be....”

“A guy? Don’t worry, I get that a lot.”

“I was supposedto meet you at the northwest—”

“Change ofplans.  I’m afraid I was followed here.”

Grandan’seyes widened.  “What?  Oh, great!”

“Don’tworry.  It’s not uncommon in jobs like this.  I lost the people whowere tailing me, but I have a feeling they’ll catch up eventually.  We’llhave to speak someplace where we can’t be seen.”

He seemed hesitant. “Okay....”

“Follow me.”

 

“DIRECTOR,”the redhead said through a frown, “do you disagree with the report?”

“Notparticularly,” said Holiday.

“Then you admitJill Branch is a dangerous individual?”

“To the criminalsof our city, yes.”  He furrowed his brow.  “I thought that’s what wewere going for.”

“What we aregoingfor, Director, is a new way to fight crime.  We did not put you incharge of The Nexus to give young people weapons and let them run amuck on thestreets with no apparent purpose.”

“We do nothing,”he answered severely, “without a very specific purpose—which is clearly morethan can be said of this board meeting.”

The other nineexchanged annoyed glances.

“By the way,”Holiday added, “there are a few other characteristics of Jillian’s that yourreport conveniently leaves out.”

“Such as?”

“She is clever,passionate, tenacious, utterly devoted to the good of the department, willingto do whatever it takes to get her job done.  Shall I go on?”

 

SHEledGrandanout of the restaurant foyer and down anarrow log-walled passage.  They passed the restrooms, turned a corner,and exited through a side door.  Crisp night air and echoing city soundsmet them in an alley.

He was suddenlyleveling a gun at her.

“Mr.Grandan, please—”

“Something’sgoing on, here!” he sputtered.

“Just remaincalm.  Like I told you, I was followed here, so—”

“I don’t believeyou!”

She put her handson her hips and looked at him like he was her ill-behaved two-year-oldson.  “You haven’t been an errander very long, have you, Mr.Grandan?”

Hefidgeted.  “Why?”

They weren’tlooking toward the end of the alley, where a black car was just pulling to astop.

 

“ISit true,” another man at the conference table asked, “that Miss Branch waswounded by gunfire only a week after joining the department?”

“It’s true,”Holiday confirmed.  “Very reckless and incautious of her, wasn’t it, to bein the way of hostile fire while on a mission?”  The director shook hishead.  “Although perhaps we should blame the shooter.  Only a thought.”

“She’s a danger,Mr. Holiday.  You’ve already admitted that yourself.”

“And what was shebefore she joined the department?” he shot back at the man.  “You may haveheard she was a known criminal until we picked her up.”

“Which means shebelongs in detention,” said the squirrelly woman, “notin a governmentagency.”

“If I wanted torespond to that remark,” Holiday said dryly, “I would casually point out allJillian Branch has accomplished as she’s been ‘running amuck’ on thestreets.  I would mention, for instance, that one of the most lawless menon MS9 was captured due to her efforts; that she exposed a traitor to our owngovernment; that, thanks to her, we have stumbled upon the most vastcommunications network in the city’s underground; things of that nature.”

The board membersexchanged more glances.

“That is, as Isaid,ifI wanted to respond to your remark,” Holiday went on.  “Asit is, I am in the very fortunate position of not having to respond to yourremark.  The Congress ofMetropolitan Satellite IXhas graciouslyallowed me to recruit whomever I wish for my department, without the slightestconsultation of this board.”  He smiled and shot a steel-gray stare atthem.

A bald, mustachedman heaved a sigh.  “You are putting those young people in harm’s way,Director.”

He raised aneyebrow.  “Does that bother you?  I thought you were concerned thatthey were dangerous to others, not in danger themselves.  You’ll have tomake up your mind.  Meanwhile, I’ll pass along your concern.  Jillwill be very touched.  I’m sure she’ll try to steer clear of any morebullets from now on.”

 

GUNFIREerupted from the car at the end of the alley.

“Get down!” criedJill, dropping to the pavement.

Grandan’sbrain told him to shoot back, to hide, to dosomething. But his body wasn’t listening to his brain at the moment.  He just stoodand stared at the black car.

“Grandan,” she screamed at him, reaching up to tug at hiscoat, “get d—!”

Another shot, andshe was lying perfectly limp and motionless in the alley.

“Cordova!” heshrieked.

The girl didn’tbudge.

The black carangled into the alley.  More shots were fired.

Grandan’sbody finally started listening to his brain.

He ran.

 

 

2

 

 

THEblack car was in the alley now.  The driver leaned out the window, stillfiring as he drove.

Jill opened oneeye, not moving from where she lay sprawled on the pavement.  She saw thefleeing figure of DougGrandanheaded for thestreets.

The black carroared past her.

Grandandisappeared out the far end of the alley.  Thecar disappeared after him a moment later.

Jill stood andbrushed off her coat.  “Don’t follow him too close, Bradley.”

Bradley Park’svoice crackled in her ear:  “Just do your job, and I’ll do mine, allright?”

“Good luck to youtoo.”

She went backinside the Hunter’s Lodge Restaurant and Bar.

 

Amumble coursed through the governing board of The Nexus.

“Director,” saidthe man with the goatee and the dark eyebrows, “we may not have the authorityto tell you who you can and cannot recruit, but we do have the authority todecide what you can and cannot do with them.”

“To a degree,perhaps,” Holiday interrupted.  “But we can argue about that later. Go on.”

The man frownedand continued,  “We are also concerned about the role of the new fieldteam you have assembled around Miss Branch.  As we understand it, theirgoal is to track down and eliminate any illegal means of data storage.  DoI have that right?”

“So far as itgoes.”  Holiday took a nervous sip of water.  Now here, he thought,was a much trickier subject.

 

THEnorthwest corner of the Lodge’s upstairs dining room was mostly partitioned offby a half-wall of hewn logs.  There was a single small booth beneath apainting of a mountain cabin.  A lamp made largely of elk horns hung overthe table.

The man waitingalone at the booth was younger than Jill expected.  He had longish hairand a thin moustache.  He was dressed semi-formally.

It looked like hewas just starting to get impatient when she approached.

“Mr. Cordova?”she asked him.

He smiledslightly.  “You must beGrandan.”

“FeliciaGrandan.”  She took the seat across from him in thesecluded booth.  “Is anything wrong?”

He shook hishead.  “Not at all.  It’s just that....”

“You thought Iwould be a guy.  I get that a lot.”

 

“PERHAPS,”the man with the perfect goatee said, “you have heard of a certain mythicalbeast from ancient Greek mythology—a serpent-like creature with many heads.”

“I’m confidentyou’ll come swiftly to the part where you explain how this relates to mydepartment,” said Holiday.

“Each time a headof the deadly beast was cut off,” the man went on, “two more grew back in itsplace.  You see my point, I’m sure.  You are attempting to stop ourcity’s criminal underground from using outdated means of data storage and communication—meanswhich your beloved computer cannot track.”

“Means which areexplicitly against the laws of our city,” Holiday added.

“Quite right,”the man agreed.  “But do you ever get the feeling you are fighting alosing battle?”

“Every time I tryto talk some sense into this board.”

The man drew animpatient breath and went on.  “We have to admit to ourselves that it isfar, far too easy to smuggle these illegal devices onto this satellite—oldcameras and televisions, non-digital paper, telephones, and so on.  Everytime you confiscate one of them, there will be two others that you don’t knowabout.  You simply can’t keep up with it.”

Holiday lookedinto his water glass.  “For once,” he said quietly, “I don’t disagree withyou.”

 

CORDOVAmotioned for a waitress.

“The venisonburger,” he said, “no cheese or pickles.  Coleslaw on the side.”  Helooked at Jill.  “Can I get you anything?”

“A bottle ofwater,” Jill told the waitress with a smile.

“Nothing else?” Cordovaasked as the waitress shuffled off.

“I’m here forbusiness, not dinner.”

“Whatever yousay.  The food’s good.  I always eat here when I come toAnterra—which is as infrequently as possible, of course.”  He smiledcondescendingly as he spoke.  Citizens of the Home Planet did that a lotaround Anterrans.  “I like being on good solid ground, thank you, not onsome contraption floating through space.”

“Not somethingyou’d expect to hear from someone who runs a major shuttle line,” said Jill.

“I may help runthe company, but I rarely ride the shuttles myself.  I spend most of mytime in the office.  Today’s an exception—I wanted to personally overseethe transfer of this particular cargo.”  His smugness gave way to apuzzled expression.  “Speaking of the cargo...”

She looked at himconcernedly.  “Is there a problem?”

“Notexactly.  I’m just confused.  It seems like much ado about nothing,you know?  All the secrecy and sneaking around.  Why go to all thistrouble for just—?”  He stopped himself.  “Sorry.  You’re justthe delivery girl.  You’re probably not supposed to know what the goodsare, are you?”

She wished he’dnamed the cargo.  Some confirmation would have been nice.  But shecouldn’t show her disappointment; she had to play her role convincingly.  “No,I’m not.  So instead of talking about what’s in the package, how about wetalk about how I get a hold of it?”

He sat back, andthe condescending smile made another appearance.  “Are all young people inthis city in such a hurry?”

 

“WEare officially recommending,” the woman with the artificial red hair stated,“that you dissemble this field team and find a better use for your department’stime.”

“Yourrecommendation is duly noted,” said Holiday.  “You’ll be sure to let meknow, of course, the moment your recommendation has become somethingmore.  I listen to direct orders, not to polite suggestions.”

“At least take itinto consideration in the meantime, won’t you?” said the man with thegoatee.  He looked penetratingly into Holiday’s eyes, lowering his darkbrows, and continued very slowly and deliberately,  “I think you’ll agreethat Sherlock finds plenty for your department to do.  There’s no reasonto go out looking for any more than his mechanical brain is already aware of,now is there?”

Holiday returnedthe gaze curiously. An interesting comment.  Could he possiblyknow...?

 

“THEYbuilt this place to be better than anything on Earth,” Cordova said through abite of venison burger, “didn’t they?”

“The Hunter’sLodge Restaurant and Bar?”

He snickered. “Anterra.”

“Oh, right,” saidJill.  “I guess they did.”

“And now it’spractically overrun by crooks.”  Cordova dabbed his face with anapkin.  “Well, not everything goes as planned, I guess.  Theoriginal vision was a nice thought.  But corruption found its way up hereafter all, didn’t it?”

“You mean whenyou arrived on your shuttle this evening?”

“You’re a wittyone, aren’t you?  I’m someone who admires a sharp wit.  You do yourhometown credit.”  He smiled and raised his glass toward her.  “Itseems even Anterra has its positive characteristics.”

She touched herwater bottle to his glass.  “And it seems even Earth has its crooks.”

 

“DIRECTOR,”said the redheaded woman, “I don’t need to tell you just how much time, effort,and money have been spent on the creation of the Sherlock computer.  Isuggest you pay more attention to it—or, should I say, tohim?”

“Yourdepartment’s job,” added the bald one, “is to respond to Sherlock’s findings,not to go digging around elsewhere for information.”

“My department’sjob,” retorted Holiday, “is to protect this city, and I will use any meansnecessary.  The smartest criminals on MS9 know that they’re beingmonitored, and they’re finding ways to avoid it.  Sherlock may have manyeyes and ears around Anterra, but he doesn’t know everything.”

The man with theperfectly trimmed goatee smiled gravely.  “He was never meant to knoweverything,now was he?”

Holiday looked athim curiously.  Now it was clear. This man knows much, much morethan he’s supposed to.

 

“YOUhaven’t told me anything about yourself,” said Cordova, polishing off hisburger.

“And you haven’ttold me where I can find our client’s cargo,” she said.  “Which is why wemet, you may recall.”

He lookeddisappointed.  “If I’m going to do business with someone, I like to know alittle bit about them.”

“Not in thisbusiness you don’t.”

“I see. Forgive me; this sort of thing is new to me.”

“I doubtthat.  What’s the port bay number?”

He sighed. “Bay 337.  The compartment is behind the lavatory.  There’s a buttonon the bottom of the sink.  Push it three times, then push and hold forexactly eleven seconds.”

She got up. “You’ll be hearing from our client.”

“Your name’s notFelicity, is it?”

“Felicia,” shesaid.

“Whatever. That’s not your name, is it?  Next time you should pick an alias that’smore convincing.”

Jill rolled hereyes.  “LikeCordova?”

She was gonebefore he could respond.

 

HERskybike was parked a couple of blocks away.  While she walked she saidsoftly into the concealed microphone on her lapel,  “Did you get that,Corey?  It’s 337.”


Page 20

 

 

3

 

 

Ayoungblack man walked along the port’s main corridor.  “Got it, 337. Thanks, Jill,” he said, leaning close to his collar.

The port was notin the city itself but deep within in the inner workings of MS9.  Itsshuttle bays were along the eastern edge of the satellite, facing Earth. Dozens of shuttles, some for cargo and others for travelers, arrived from anddeparted for Earth every day.  The port was busy.  It always was. Waiting areas lined the shuttle bays on one side of the wide, tiledcorridor.  Restaurants, gift shops, coffee shops, and bars lined the otherside.

In a way it wasstrange that there was so much traffic between the planet and the satellite. As a rule, Anterrans and Earthsiders didn’t like each other much. Residents of the Home Planet thought ofMetropolitan Satellite IXas aden of crooks; MS9 residents thought of Earth’s citizens as arrogantsnobs. 

And yet travelfrom Earth to Anterra was constant.  There were the tourist groups, ofcourse.  They weren’t hard to spot: teens or college students marchingaround with matching T-shirts, giggling and gawking while their leaders barkedimpatiently at them.  Then there were the suit-wearing,brief-case-carrying, never-smiling business travelers, and the vacationerschasing their kids around whenever they weren’t snapping pictures ofeverything, including the port’s decorative fountains and gift shopfacades.  And plenty of others.  It was an easy place to blend in.

Now a young womanwith long blonde hair approached the young man.

“Just in time,”he told her as they started walking together through the crowdedcorridor.  “Jill just gave me the location.  How was your day off?”

Amber usuallysmiled—especially around Corey.  But she wasn’t smiling now.  “Fine,”she answered him flatly.

Corey didn’tpress her.

A bunch of middleschool students in unattractive lime-green T-shirts shuffled past them. The port’s public address system barked that the shuttle bound for Tokyo wouldbe boarding in bay 211 in fifteen minutes.  Music thumped from a sportsbar as they walked by.

They arrived attheir destination.  The lit block numbers 337 hung over the waitingarea.  Red leather seats sat empty in the dim light.  This shuttlewouldn’t be departing until tomorrow afternoon.

They crossed thewaiting area to a bank of windows overlooking the bay itself.  Cordova’sshuttle sat in the center of the open space.  Banks of halogen lightsreflected on its sleek surface.  A robotic tank prepared to fuel the shuttle,and a mechanic tinkered near one of the fins.  The crew of three—pilot,copilot, and stewardess—appeared to be relaxing on board at the moment.

Behind theshuttle was the wide, ridged door of the bay.  Through the airlock beyondthat door were miles and miles of emptiness between MS9 and the Home Planet.

“It’s a Gleason,”Amber observed.  “Looks like an older model, too.”

“Not a shippingvessel, is it?” asked Corey.

“No, it’s forpassengers.  Lots of smugglers prefer passenger vessels.  Lesssuspicious.  He probably used the storage compartment behind the aftlavatory.  That would be the best place.”

He lookedimpressed.  “You weren’t lying when you said you knew your stuff.”

Sheshrugged.  “I’ve done my research.”

“Okay, let’sdress for the occasion.”

 

JILL’Sskybike hummed thirty feet above the Aurora Bridge.  Skytraffic thinnedthe farther she got from downtown.  Across the bridge she dropped toground level and angled along the street north of the lake.  The Avenue ofTowers reflected on the lake behind her.  In the center of the lake glowedthe thousand windows of the massive island structure known as Go-Com—Anterra’sGovernmental Complex.

She kept headingeast along the lake toward the distant form of Earth.  She passed throughthe industrial area on the far side of the lake and entered the suburbanneighborhoods of Anterra’s eastern rim.  Signs over the boulevard beganpointing traffic to the Kichiro Yamanashi Port, named for one of the chiefengineers of the United Space Programs who had designed Anterra.

“Jill,” Amber’svoice sounded in the earpiece of her riding helmet.

“What’s up?”

“We can stickwith plan A.  I recognize the shuttle model.  There’s really only oneplace where they could have hidden the cargo.”

“Perfect.”

“But you’ll haveto make some...structural modifications to get inside.”

Jillsmiled.  “Too bad for Mr. Cordova.”  Or whatever his name was. “So what do I do?”

 

Afewminutes later Jill exited off the boulevard toward the port.  The roaddropped below the surface of the city.  She flowed with the traffic downthe winding tunnel until she reached the port’s vast multi-layered parkingarea.

She walkedthrough the sliding glass doors into the port’s main stretch.  Crowd noiseinterspersed with public address announcements echoed from the wide corridor’svaulted ceiling.

She came to thegift shop she was looking for.  The display windows featured mannequins inshirts and sweatshirts with ANTERRA scribed proudly across them.  Someincluded MS9’s tourism catchphrase of the season:  “Out of thisworld.”  Jill shook her head.  Juvenile.

Next to the shopa small hallway branched away from the central area of the port.  At theend of the hallway was a private locker room, reserved for use tonight by theAnterran Government.  Jill punched in the security code and entered thesmall waiting area before the men’s and women’s sections of the locker room.

Corey Stone andAmber Phoenix greeted her.  Corey was standing a little closer to Amberthan Jill would have preferred, but whatever.

“Let’s do this,”Corey said with a smile.

Jill forced asmile back.  “Let’s.”

 

THEshuttle’s pilot was sitting just off the flight deck reading aless-than-reputable magazine when the copilot interrupted him.  “Captain?”

“Thought you wentto grab a latte from the port shops,” the captain said through a frown.

“They want tosearch her,” the copilot said nervously.

The pilot set hismagazine aside and stood, alarmed.  “Who?”

“Feds.”  Thecopilot jerked a thumb out the window.

Two figures stoodon the shuttle bay floor.  They were armed and wore armored black uniformssimilar to what Anterran cops wore.

“Great,” mumbledthe captain.

“They won’t findanything,” the copilot said stiffly, not believing his own words.

“Seven years Ibeen in this business and nothing’s gone wrong,” said the captain.  Hedidn’t mean the shuttle business.

The rollingstairway was still positioned at the shuttle’s door.  The captain emergedat the top, smiled, and gestured for the uniformed pair to approach.

“The Governmentof Anterra has found reason to search you vessel, sir,” one of them said. This one had a silver skull enameled on his helmet.  The voice was tinnyand fake sounding.

The otherproduced a screen displaying official ID and the sealed search warrant. This officer had a flaming red emblem on her visor.

“Really sorryabout this, sir,” the first one said.  “Bureau of Travel is a little jumpythese days.  They hear any rumors at all and we have to check itout.  You know how it goes.”

“Sure,” thecaptain said through a toothy smile.

“You and theother crew are free to stay aboard,” the mechanical voice said, “But we’ll haveto ask the other personnel to leave, I’m afraid.”  The uniformed guygestured to the mechanic and the fuel-botoperator.

The captainnodded to them, and they disappeared through a door off the side of the bay.

“Make yourselvesat home,” the captain said, gesturing inside the shuttle.

“Thanks,captain.  Out of your hair in a couple minutes.”

 

THEmechanic and fuel-botoperator headed up a darkpassage toward the nearest port employee break room.  They exchanged acoarse jest or two as they passed a figure dressed in dark coveralls.

Jill nodded abrief greeting at them as she walked by them toward the maintenance entrance tobay 337.

She opened thedoor a crack.

The bay wasmostly dark, with just one bank of lights flickering dimly above theshuttle.  Through the vessel’s windows she could see Corey, Amber, and thecrew.

She darted acrossthe bay floor.

 

“WHOblew the whistle?” the stewardess said out of the side of her mouth.

“Wasn’t me!” thecopilot insisted.

“Shut up, willyou?” the captain hissed at them.

They watched asnonchalantly as possible while the two uniformed figures roamed along the rowsof empty passenger seats.  The one with the flaming emblem approached theaft lavatory.

The stewardesstensed.  The copilot startedwringinghis hands.

“Relax,” thecaptain whispered.  “There’s no way....”

They weren’tlooking behind them, where the other officer was doing something with theircommunications equipment.

The femaleofficer emerged empty-handed from the lavatory a moment later.

The crew shared asigh of relief.

 

SILENTLYJill slunk beneath the shuttle and examined its polished underbelly.  Shefound the airtight hatch that accessed the lavatory tank and opened it assilently as possible.  The thick, sealed door hissed open.

There was justroom for her to slip inside next to the currently empty tank.  Above herwas the shape of the lavatory floor.  Next to it was the underside of thecompartment she was looking for.  She used a small laser cutter to make anopening and peeked up inside.

A smallflashlight showed her the compartment.  It was empty except for a singlesmall storage bin.

That was odd.

She hoistedherself into the compartment and checked the bin.  It wasn’t evenlocked.  Inside was....

This wasreallyodd.  She was about to report it to Corey, but she stopped herself. They had to finish here.  There would be time to discuss it later.

 

“READY,”Jill’svoice crackled in Corey and Amber’s helmets.

Amber pokedaround the shuttle’s maintenance closet a moment longer before closing thedoor.  Corey was just emerging from the bridge.  They met in thecenter of the cabin.

“Clean,” shesaid, her visor’s speaker disguising her voice.

“You checked thecloset?” he asked her.

“Nothing youwouldn’t expect to find in a shuttle’s closet.”

“Good.  Bigsurprise.”

They approachedthe crew, who were watching but pretending not to.

“Sorry againabout the fuss, captain,” said Corey.

“No problem,” hesaid, showing his teeth again.

“Let’s grabdinner,” he told Amber as they descended the stairs to the bay floor. “I’m starving.”

“You’re alwaysstarving,” her mechanical voice shot back.

“Check it,” thecaptain said when they’d disappeared.

The copilotwrinkled his forehead.  “We were watching them the whole time.  Theydidn’t—”

“Just check it.”

The copilotshrugged.  “Fine, I’ll check it.”

In the aftlavatory he fiddled under the sink while the captain and stewardess watched.

A section of thelavatory wall slid aside.

The storage binwas still in the compartment.

“Look inside.”

“You’reparanoid.”

“Just—”

“I’m looking, I’mlooking!”

The storage binwas empty.

The captaincursed.

“Should we callhim?” the stewardess asked.

The captain shookhis head.  “He said don’t call.”

“But the goods—”began the copilot.

“He saiddon’tcall,” the pilot said firmly.  “This isn’t our problem.”

“It is if wedon’t get paid,” mumbled the stewardess.

 

COREYand Amber went back into the port, past the gift shop, and into the lockerroom’s waiting area.

“Let us know ifthey contact the client, Dizzie,” said Corey.

“Will do,”Dizzie’s voice replied in their ears.

They removedtheir helmets.

“Dizzie won’tknow if they contact the client,” said Amber.

Corey looked ather questioningly.  “Their cell phones were automatically tied to Sherlockthe minute they entered the port.  And if they try reaching him on theirshuttle com, I rigged it—”

“They’ll noticeyou’ve tampered with their com unit, Cor.  They’ll check before they eventhink about using it.”

Heshrugged.  “Well, I doubt they’ll use it anyway.  Unless they decideto check on the cargo and find it missing.”

“Oh they’llcheck, all right.”

Corey’s lookturned suspicious.  “You seem pretty sure of yourself.”

Before Ambercould respond, Jill stepped through the door into the locker room’s waitingarea.  She didn’t look thrilled.

“What’s wrong?”Amber asked her.

Jill reached intoher pack.  She pulled out a bound notebook and a rather bulkycamera.  “This is the cargo.”

“That’s it?”

Jillnodded.  “Something isn’t right.”

Corey scratchedhis head.  “Not exactly what we were expecting.”

“This is forartists’ snapshots,” Jill said, gesturing at the camera.  She picked upthe notebook and flipped through the blank lined pages.  “And this is adiary.”

“Journal,” saidCorey.


Page 21

“What’s thedifference?” Amber asked impatiently.

“It looks likeit’s for a guy.  Girls have diaries; guys have journals.”

“Notnecessarily.”

“Anyway,”interjected Jill, “the point is, this doesn’t make any sense.”

They couldn’targue.

“Let’s just getback to HQ,” said Corey.  “We’ll see what Director Holiday thinks.”

 

 

4

 

 

HOLIDAYlooked at his watch for the twentieth time in twenty minutes.  “Well,” hesaid abruptly, “if that’s all...”

The woman at thehead of the table nodded her assent.  “I think we’ve covered everything.”

“And then some,”the director said under his breath.  He stood to leave.

“Just one morebrief thing, Director Holiday,” the humorless redheaded woman said.  “Now,we don’t want to give you the impression that we’re unhappy with yourleadership—”

“Then you’renot?  What a relief.”

“—but I’m afraidwe as a board are going to have to watch your department’s activities a bitmore closely.”

“Hire ababysitter, you mean.”

“No, that seemsto be your job,” another board member interjected.

Two or threeother members made a sound similar to laughter.

Holiday let theremark pass.  “We send regular reports.  Very detailed.  Iassume you read them thoroughly.  If you’d like us to use smaller wordsand shorter sentences...”

“As I said,Director, we don’t want to give you the impression that we’re unhappy with yourwork.  We just believe you could use more accountability.”

“Isn’t that whatthis board is for?”

The man with thegoatee huffed.  “It is, Mr. Holiday.  And therefore we have decidedto send someone down to keep an eye on things.”

“I see.”

“If yourdepartment is doing as good a job as you say,” the man continued, “you canhardly be worried about what he will find.”

“Did I say I wasworried?”  Holiday moved toward the exit again.  “Well, it’s beenstimulating, as usual.  Until next time, then.”

 

MINUTESlaterHoliday’s silver car was weaving through the warehouse district near the powerplant east of the lake.  He angled down a side street lined with bulkycement-walled buildings that hadn’t been used in a generation.  Circlingbehind one of the buildings he reached a sheltered garage door.  Above itthe words PETE’S FISH CANNERY weren’t quite totally faded away.

 The dooropened, and the car eased into the warehouse.  Motion sensors brought thelights to life.  The car pulled to a stop beyond a stack of old pallets atthe back of the building.

The section offloor beneath the car began to descend, lowering it into a tunnel.

A mile or solater the tunnel emptied into a wide parking area ten stories beneath LakeAnterra.  The silver car pulled to a stop between two similar blackmodels, and Director Holiday stepped out.  He wasn’t smiling.  Board meetingsnever left him in the best of moods.

He crossed thegarage and went through a large metal door.  He stood on a concretebalcony circling a vast room.  Much of the floor below was divided intodozens of cubicles and workstations.  The room glowed with the light ofcountless consoles and screens, and echoed with the sounds of another eventfulnight at HQ.

Directly acrossthe vast room was Holiday’s office.  On his way there, he descended astairway to the busy floor and crossed to a certain cubicle.  “Hello,Desiree.”

Dizzie Masonhated when the director called her by her actual name, but she’d long sincegiven up trying to get him to stop.  She turned from her computer andsmiled in greeting.  Her hair was short and stuck out here and there likeit had a mind of its own.  Piercings from her ears, lips, and eyebrowsglittered in the glow of the computer screens surrounding her.  “Welcomeback.  Good meeting?”

“Riveting. And the mission?”

“They got thegoods.  Although it wasn’t what we were expecting.”

“Oh?”

“You’ll see foryourself when they get back.  Should be here in a few minutes. Bradley tailedGrandanhome.”

“I don’t supposeGrandanattempted to reach his client?”

Dizzie shook herhead.  “Neither did the shuttle crew.  Bradley’s standing by for ourgo-ahead.”

“We’ll see aboutthis cargo first.”

“One otherthing,” she said timidly, grimacing.  “Chief Home Planet Liaison Riley iswaiting for you in your office.”

Holidayfrowned.  “Well, it’s been such a wonderful night.  Why shouldn’t itget better?”

 

“GOODevening, Director,” saida big, bald, broad-shouldered man in a black suit.  He stood in the middleof Holiday’s office like he owned the place.

Good evening indeed. First the board, now Riley.  “Hope I haven’t kept you waiting,” thedirector said evenly, remaining in the doorway between the back of his officeand the HQ balcony.

“As a matter of fact, youhave.  I expected you much sooner.  I know how you like to leavethose meetings as early as possible.”  Riley’s tight facial featuresusually looked ageless.  But he looked haggard at the moment, as if he’dendured a lot of sleepless nights lately.

“I escaped as soon as Icould,” said the director.

“No doubt.   Isuppose they told you why they sent me here.”  Even Riley’s voice seemedmore tired than usual.

Holiday nodded. “Although I didn’t expect you here this soon.  I see they didn’t waste anytime—something the board usually excels at.”

Riley held up hisbig hands defensively.  “Listen, Director, I’m not here to get in yourway.”

“Glad to hearit.  You know where the door is.”

“I don’t blameyou for not wanting me around.  It wasn’t my decision.”

Holidaysighed.  “I know.”

“Let’s just makethis as painless as possible, shall we?”

“Agreed.”

“You have a fieldteam on mission tonight, correct?”

“Correct. They’re on their way back now.”

“I just need tobe brought up to speed on the situation.”

“Ofcourse.”  Holiday hung up his coat and hat and led the way through hisoffice’s back door.

Riley followedhim out.  They walked along the balcony overlooking HQ.

“As you’veprobably heard,” said the director, “about three months ago we discovered thecommunications network of a dangerous crime lord called Sketch.  They wereusing old telephones and switchboards from Earth.”

“I read thereport—a communications network that would be off the grid,” said Riley. He glanced across the wide room to a certain hallway.  Down that hallwaywas the prize technological possession of the department—perhaps of all MS9.

Sherlock. That’s what they called him—the computer who spotted criminal activity as itwas happening.  He watched the city through every security camera,listened to every phone call, kept track of every computer’s hard drive. No media—audio, video, or print—escaped his notice.  No electronic devicesof any kind were allowed in Anterra without being tied into Sherlock’s systemfor constant analysis.

Unless thosedevices were smuggled in illegally, of course; devices like the outdated phonesand switchboards Holiday had mentioned.

“Maybe mymemory’s starting to go bad,” said Riley, “but I could have sworn you caughtthis Sketch fellow.”

Holidayhesitated.  “His ring is alive and well.  Their work won’t stop justbecause their boss is behind bars.”

They had circledto the other end of the HQ balcony.  Holiday led the way toward the doorsto the garage.

“The report saidthat network is no longer in use,” said Riley.  “They must have found outyou were listening in on them.”

“Most likely,”Holiday admitted as they entered the garage.  “But not before we learnedplenty of valuable information.  We learned, for instance, that beyond asimple phone network they were working on their own elaborate computernetwork.  They planned on sneaking in materials from the HomePlanet—computer hardware that Sherlock wouldn’t know about or be able to hackinto.  We even learned one of the major Earthside contacts for theproject, a company calledInsiteElectronics.”

“You’ve beenmonitoring the contact?” Riley asked as they stepped off to the side of thegarage floor.

Holidaynodded.  “One of our United Space Programs associates on Earth set thingsup for us.  We’ve been tracking every communication fromAnterratoInsite’sheadquartersin Sydney, Australia.  Last week someone on MS9 called them and set up ashipment.”

“It must havebeen Sketch’s people.”

“There’s everyreason to believe so.  The phone call came from anerrandernamed DougGrandan. Grandanhas also been in touch with a certain Earthside shuttle line.”

“The ones whowill be making the transfer.”

“So itseems. Grandanscheduled to meet one of theirrepresentatives here on Anterra earlier this evening.  We saw our chance.”

“And how did itgo?”

Lights appearedin the tunnel across the garage.

“We’re about tofind out,” said the director.

  A blackdepartment car entered and parked near where Holiday and Riley stood.

“Corey Stone,”the director introduced the driver as he exited the car.

“Pleasure,” Rileysaid with a handshake.

A seconddepartment car emerged from the tunnel and parked next to Corey’s vehicle.

“Amber Phoenix.”

“Another recentrecruit, as I recall,” Riley said, extending his hand to the striking youngblonde woman.

“I signed onthree months ago,” Amber confirmed as she shook the Home Planet Liaison’shand.  “I joined up when Jill Branch did.”

“Speaking of thedevil,” said Holiday.

A skybike roaredout of the tunnel and pulled in next to Amber’s car.  Jill dismounted andremoved her black riding helmet.

Riley extendedhis hand again.  “Very glad to meet you, Miss Branch.  I’m Chief HomePlanet Liaison Riley.”

Holiday raised aneyebrow at Riley’s apparent eagerness to meet Jill.

“Hi,” Jill said,and gave the big bald man a brief handshake.  Then she turned herattention to Holiday.  “Something’s fishy, Director.”

“So Desiree tellsme.  Let’s see.”

Jill opened thecompartment of her skybike and removed the camera and notebook.

Holiday took themand looked them over, expressionless.  “What else?”

“Nothing.”

The directorstroked his chin.  “Curious.”

Riley wrinkledhis brow.  “This won’t help Sketch’s people build their network.”

“I don’t thinkSketch’s people are involved,” said Corey.

“We’re on thewrong track,” Jill said in frustration.

“In any case,”Riley said, examining the notebook, “this is non-digital paper.  Whoeverbrought these items here has done so illegally.  You’re on the track of asmuggler, even if it’s not a member of Sketch’s gang.”

That wasn’t muchconsolation.

“What do we tellBradley?” asked Amber.  “Do we continue with the mission?”

“We do,” Holidayaffirmed.  “Riley is right.  And there’s still a chance Sketch’s ringis behind this.” A very slim chance,he didn’t say aloud.

 

DOUGGrandan’sapartment was along the river north of thelake.  It was the sort of suspicious place where you’d expect an erranderto live.

Across the streetfrom the three story brick building sat a black car, and in the car sat the guywho’d fired a few rounds inGrandan’sdirection aboutan hour ago.  The young Korean man waited as patiently as he could manage;patience was not one of Bradley Park’s strong suits.

His consolespeaker finally came to life.  “It’s time, Bradley,” said the director’svoice.

Finally. “Okay, I’m going in.  I’ll let you know how it goes.”

The original planwas for Bradley to pretend he was Jill’s—Cordova’s—replacement to continue thejob, but Bradley was a pretty big fan of improvising.  ThisGrandankid seemed like the type who would be easilyintimidated.

He got the duffelbag containing his uniform out of the trunk and headed into the apartmentlobby.

 

 

 

 

 

5

 

DOUGGrandanawoke to the sound of his front door beingrammed open.  Then Bradley burst into his bedroom.  One hand leveleda gun.  The other blinded him with a flashlight.  When he spoke, hisvoice was twisted and mechanical sounding from behind his uniform’svisor.  “Who are you working for?”

Grandantried to answer, but the words just couldn’t seemto slip out between his quivering lips.

Bradley lunged tothe bedside and grabbedGrandanby the collar of hispajamas.  “Who?”

“I—I—I d-don’tknow,”Grandansqueaked, “I swear!”

“How did he reachyou?”

Grandangulped.  “In person.”

That wasweird.  “He came here?”

Grandannodded.  “We m-met at the back of the parkinglot.”

Where there wereno cameras.  That figured.  “Can you describe him?”

“No, he—he—hewore a mask!”

Not asurprise.  If they had thoughtGrandanwouldknow his client’s identity, they would have questioned him long ago. “Where were you supposed to make the drop?”

“I didn’t get thegoods.  Someone was onto us.”  He wrung his hands.  “They killedmy contact.”

Bradley shook hishead.  “That wasn’t Cordova.  That was us.”

Grandan’swide eyes widened a little more.  “You setus up?”

“We got yourclient’s shipment.  All we don’t have is your client.  Nowhowwere you going to make the drop?”

“I d-don’t know.”

Bradley staredhim down from behind his visor.  “What do you mean, you don’t know?”

“He wasgonnalet me know where to make the drop.”

“How?”

“I don’tknow!  Once I got the goods, I was justs’posedto come home and wait.”

 

“THENyou’ll wait with him,” Holiday told Bradley when he’d reported.  “Let usknow the second you hear anything.  And Bradley?”

“Yeah?”

“Try to set Mr.Grandanat ease, will you?”

“Um, I’ll try, buthe’s pretty shaken up.”

The directorsighed.  “As I recall, we had a much more subtle strategy prepared. You were supposed to play the role of Cordova’s associate and continue theplan.”

“I’m not toogreat at subtlety,” Bradley said defensively.  “I figured it would be easyto scare the answers out of him.  It worked.”

“For the timebeing.  Just calm him down as well as you can.  We may need hiscooperation before this is over.”

The directorsigned off.  The rest of the team were assembled in his office, along withRiley.

“Why didn’t youjust letGrandanmake the pickup and follow him tothe drop point?” the Chief Home Planet Liaison asked tightly.

The questionannoyed Holiday.  They didn’t try to do Riley’s job for him; it would benice if he would return the favor.

“We couldn’t riskhim making the transfer successfully,” Amber answered before the director couldmake a snide remark.

“Not that itwould have mattered, as it turns out,” Corey lamented. A journal and acamera.  Pathetic.

“Well,” the bigbald man said, “you’re all doing an excellent job, here.  I’ll be headinghome for the evening.”

But how willwe get along without you looking over our shoulders?Holiday wanted toask.  “We’ll keep you posted,” he said.

 

JILLsat back on a leather sofa, alone with her thoughts.  Through the glasswall in front of her she looked down on GoCom’s central lobby several storiesbelow.  The lobby was lit and fairly busy.  But the lounge Jill satin was empty and dark, as it always was this time of night.

She’d found thisplace a couple weeks after joining the department.  She usually came hereafter a mission, just to sit by herself and contemplate while idly watching thepeople in the lobby below.  It was relaxing.

At least, usuallyit was relaxing.  Tonight, not so much.

In one way, theevening’s mission had been a complete success.  Her role in the operationhad gone like clockwork.  She’d gottenGrandanout of the way, met with Cordova, and intercepted the goods from the shuttle,all without a scratch or a hitch.

But she stillcouldn’t shake the feeling it had all been for nothing.

She sighed,trying to forget about it. Just think about something else. Something happy.  Something relaxing.

“Hey, Jill.”

She sat up andjerked her head around—and let out a sigh.  “Diz!  Wow, you scaredme.”

“Sorry.” Dizzie crossed the dark room.  “I just thought you could use somecompany.”

Then why doyou think I came up here?  But it was impossible to be annoyed withDizzie.  “Sure.  Have a seat.”

“A drink?” Dizzie stepped over to the vending machine near the sofa.  A minute latershe was back with a bottle of water for Jill and a grape soda for herself.

“Thanks.  Bythe way, how did you find me?”

Dizzie lookedembarrassed.  “Um, I asked Sherlock to tell me where you were.”

Jill shook herhead.  “Stalker!”

“I know, I know!”Dizzie said apologetically, taking a seat on the sofa next to Jill.  “Justbeen a little worried about you lately.”

“I’m fine,” Jillsaid dismissively.  “I mean, thanks for the concern, though.”

“You sure there’snothing bothering you?”

“Well, I’m nottoo happy with how the mission went, to be honest.”

“I know.  Iheard.  You think you’re chasing a wild goose.”

Jill suppressed alaugh.  “On a wild goose chase, you mean?”

“Whatever,”Dizzie said with a wave of her hand.  “Anyway, you seemed kind of uneasyeven before the mission.”

“Really?” 

“It’s just thatyou’ve been a little...quiet lately.”

“I’m alwaysquiet.”

“Well, yeah, Iknow.”

“We can’t all belike you, Diz.  We don’t all just say whatever we’re thinking all thetime.”

Dizziegrimaced.  “I guess I could stand to shut up a little more often.”

“Hard toimagine,” Jill chuckled.

“Isn’t it?” Dizzie swigged some grape soda.  “Sometimes I use my mouth before mybrain.  I should try the opposite.”

“I don’tknow.  I’d say it’s actually one of your best qualities.  It’s kindof nice to be around people who feel free to speak their minds.”

“Really?  Itdoesn’t bother you?”  Dizzie looked skeptical.  “What about that timeI told you I’d rather have a root canal than listen to classical music, andthen you said classical music was your favorite?”

Jillshrugged.  “You were just being honest.”

Dizzie tookanother swig.  “What about the time I described how I threw up aftereating too much pizza, and I could still see all the individual toppings—?”

“Thatwasa little overboard,” Jill agreed.  “I think it got to Bradley more thanme, though.”

Dizzie strugglednot to laugh grape soda onto the leather sofa. “He ran out of the room like itwas on fire!” she burst when she’d finally swallowed.

“Maybe youshouldn’t have told that story when thecafwasactually serving pizza.”

“That’s what mademe think of it, though.”

Jill shook herhead.  “Okay, so sometimes you could stand to say a little less.  Butit’s nice that you don’t hide how you’re thinking or how you’re feeling. I envy that about you, actually.”

“Well, you don’thave to hide either, you know.  You could stand to open up a little!”

“I know,” Jillsaid quietly.  “It just doesn’t come as naturally to some of us.  ButI promise I’ll try, ifyou’llpromise to be patient with me.”

Dizzie pursed herlips.  “Patience—now there’s something that doesn’t come naturally tome.  But I’ll do my darnedest.”  She drained her soda, and tossed thecan across the lounge.  She flung her hands in the air as it bounced offthe wall into a recycle bin.

“You’re good,”said Jill.

“So I hear.”Dizzie stood up.  “Well, I guess you probably came up here to get somealone time.  I’ll let you get back to it.  Don’t stay up too late.”

“Yes, mother.”

Dizzie scowledand started heading back to the lounge exit.

Jill found shedidn’t really want to be by herself any more.  “You know, I’ll head backdown with you.”

 

THEYtook several narrow passages back into the recesses of GoCom.  Now theywere in a small room with deep red carpet and old-fashioned wooden-paneledwalls.  There was an elevator at one end of the room—an elevator almost noone ever used.  It wasn’t convenient to anyplace any GoCom employee orvisitor would be going.

They called theelevator and stepped inside.  The console had buttons for floors onethrough twelve.  Jill ignored the console and opened a panel in thewall.  She punched a twenty-digit code into the revealed keypad.

 

TENstories beneath the ground floor of GoCom, the elevator doors opened.

Jill and Dizziestepped out into the department lobby.  The middle of the midnight-bluecarpet was emblazoned with a shield emblem with THE NEXUS in boldletters.  To one side of the lobby were Holiday’s office and the door toHQ.  They took a long hallway heading the opposite direction toward thedorms.

They found a fewof their coworkers in the dorm lounge.  Three girls sat at a table playingcards.  A couple boys were shooting pool, and a couple others watchingTV.  Another girl was sipping tea and reading in the kitchen/dining loftabove the back of the lounge.

By now Jill knewmost of the residents here by name.  All of them were in their late teensor early twenties—young men and women whose troubled pasts and, in most cases,criminal records had not stopped Director Holiday from recruiting them andmaking them integral members of the department.

People like Jill.

Dizzie led theway up a stairway to one side of the lounge.  They came to a hallway linedwith doors to the girls’ dorm rooms.  They stopped at Dizzie’s door. “See you in the morning,” she said, giving Jill a quick hug.  Dizzie wasalways one for hugs.

“See youthen.  What are you up to the rest of the night?”

“Probablypracticing.  We’ve got a show coming up.  You?”

“I was going tosay sleep, but if you’re playing your guitar....”

“I’ll keep thevolume low,” Dizzie promised.

“I was onlykidding.  I’m exhausted so don’t worry, you won’t keep me awake.  Andthanks.  Thanks for stalking me and coming to see me.  You’reawesome, Dizzie.”

“No,you’reawesome! G’night.”

“Night.”

Dizziedisappeared into her room, and Jill entered her own room next door.

It was still hardto believe she lived here.  In a way she’d grown used to it over the pastthree months.  But in another way she was still shocked every time shewalked into her room and realized all over again that she lived here,belongedhere.

She never gottired of that feeling.

Jill had madequite a few personal touches to the room.  She had some framed prints of afew of her favorite impressionist pieces, some potted plants, a nice collectionof books on a shelf next to the bed.

And onephotograph.  It faced her from the desktop each time she came through thedoor.  There was her own smiling eleven-year-old face with a beautifulKorean woman next to her.

For thethousandth time Jill imagined it was a full family photo, that along with herand her mother there was the smiling face of a middle-aged man—a man Jill hadnever met.  She pictured him sort of like Director Holiday.  Therewas no reason, really, except that Giles Holiday had been the most fatherlyfigure Jill ever had.  She knew her dad had emigrated to Anterra fromsomewhere in Europe.  She didn’t know from where—knew almost nothing elseabout her dad, actually.  She supposed she must look something likehim.  She hadn’t inherited much from her mom other than the black hair anddark eyes.

And a life ofcrime.  But that was a thing of the past, now.

Jill got into herpajamas, grabbed her toothbrush from the closet bathroom in one corner, andstepped out the sliding glass door at the back of her room.  From hersmall railed balcony she looked down on the lounge while she brushed herteeth.  The girls at the card table were ignoring their game and talking.

Just talking.

It seemed to comeso naturally to them.  Maybe, unlike Jill, they’d grown up withsiblings.  Or maybe, even if they hadn’t, they’d had parents who listenedto them; who talked to them the way they were talking to each other now.

Jill looked atthe balcony next to hers.  Behind that sliding door came the muffled roarof Dizzie’s electric guitar.

You don’t haveto hide.

But if you’reused to hiding, it’s hard to stop.  You couldn’t just jump out and yell,‘Hey, here I am!’  Could you?  Maybe she didn’t have to do it thatway.  Maybe over time, slowly but surely, she could come out from behindthe walls she’d always tried to keep between her and everyone else.

Maybe.

 

SHEwas dreaming again.

The same dream.

A face waslooking at her—the beautiful Korean face from her photograph.

“We can do this,Jillian.”

Fifteen-year-oldJillian didn’t answer.

“Come on, it’snot so bad, is it?  Are you ashamed to be working with your mother?”


Page 22

Yes, Jillthought.  “No,” Jill said.

“Then let’s dothis!”

They stood at anabandoned pier on the north shore of the lake.  The water rippled behindher mother, reflecting the lights of the city.

Her mother gotinto a motorboat.

Jill got intoanother one.

“Good luck!”called her mother.

Jill didn’trespond.

Her mother’s boatputtered out onto the lake first.  She kept it at a low speed.  Jillfollowed about fifty yards behind.

One moment hermother’s boat was there ahead of her, a small black smudge on the reflectivesurface of the lake.

The next momentit was a blinding blossom of smoke and flame, and a deafening concussionknocked Jill backwards...

 

“JILL! Wake up!”  It was Dizzie’s voice.

Jill’s eyespopped open.  “Bradley found out the drop point?”

Dizzie stoodsilhouetted in the doorway.  She was still in her pajamas.  “Yep.”

Jill was alreadyon her feet and jumping into her clothes.

 

 

 

6

 

 

“GRANDANgot the call about five minutes ago,” Holiday told the team when they’dassembled in his office.

“Wait, theycalledhim?” Corey asked in surprise.  “Could Sherlock trace it?”

“The call camefrom an unregistered pay-as-you-go cellular phone on the Home Planet,” saidHoliday.  “Dead end.”

“The client surecovered his bases,” said Amber, “using anEarthsiderto make the arrangements.”

“We may not beable to track down the messenger,” said the director, “but the point is, we gotthe message.”

“So where doesthe drop happen?” Jill asked.

“The roof of theAurora Plaza Hotel.  Mr.Grandanwas instructedto make the drop within the hour.”

“We’ll be therein five minutes,” said Corey, leading the way to the garage.

 

JILLalways stared into the eyes of her uniform’s mask before a mission.  Twinimages of herself gazed back from the dark, reflective surfaces.  Justabove them, enameled across the dome of her visor, was the image of a bluebutterfly with wings outspread.

The visor wasmounted over the rest of her uniform, a modern black suit of armor standing inthe locker room’s glass case.

A moment latershe was looking at the world from behind those reflective eyes.  Anameless exhilaration pulsed through her.

The exhilarationgrew as she stepped out of the locker room into the garage and swung onto herskybike, grew more as she fired up the engine with a roar, grew even more asshe gunned it and sped across the garage and into the tunnel.

As she zipped outof the cannery her bike wove between abandoned warehouses until she burst ontothe open freeway along the lakeshore and soared thirty feet above the ground traffic. Earth loomed darkly to her right.  The glittering spires of downtown shotabove the lake to her left.  The wind whipped past her as she sped towardher destination.

Disappointed asshe was with how the mission had gone last night, at this moment everythingjust feltright.

 

AURORAPlaza was north of downtown, not far from the river.  It was acobblestone-paved square lined with gardens and fountains.  There wasstill plenty of foot traffic ambling along the plaza at this time ofnight.  The hotel faced the east border of the square.

“You’ll set up inthe office building south of the hotel,” Dizzie’s voice buzzed over theearpieces in Corey and Amber’s helmets as their ground car neared theplaza.  Half a mile behind them—and thirty feet above them—Jill wasgetting the same instructions.  So was Bradley, coming from the northeast.

Maps lit up theconsoles of all three vehicles.

“Park in thealley west of the building,” Dizzie’s instructions continued.  “I justtalked with their security.  They’ll let you in the service door off thealley, Corey.  While Corey sets up, the rest of you will move intoposition.”

Amber took offher helmet.  “Do you thinkGrandanwasconvincing?” she asked Corey.

Corey removed hishelmet as well.  “You mean when he took the phone call?  Why? You think he blew it?”

“If the callersensed any anxiety in his voice...”

“You’re worriedthey know the job’s been compromised?”

“I think theyalready knew.”

“You think theshuttle crew noticed the goods were missing.”

“I’m sure they checked.”

It was the secondtime she’d said so, and for the second time he looked at hersuspiciously.  “You sound like you’ve done this before.”

“You know I’vebeen on plenty of missions.”

“I mean thesmuggling.”

She looked away.

Corey bit histongue.  He wished he hadn’t said anything.

“My father was asmuggler.”  Amber’s voice was so soft it was barely audible.

“I thought yourfather was with the government until he died.”

“He was.” She didn’t elaborate.

Corey didn’tpress her.  Now wasn’t the time.

 

JILLdropped back to street level as she neared the plaza.  Her bike, Corey andAmber’s car, and Bradley’s car converged on the alley within moments of eachother.

“You have thegoods?” Bradley’s distorted voice asked her.  Thetaegukand trigrams of the Korean flag were enameled across his visor.

Jill opened herbike’s compartment and handed a black bag to Bradley, still sitting in hiscar.  He unzipped it and looked inside.  A silent, sullen DougGrandansat in the passenger seat next to him.

“I’m glad you’rechecking inside,” muttered Jill.  “Maybe I accidentally brought an emptybag.”

“Hey, just makingsure.”

“That’s good,because I might have forgotten one of thetwothings I was supposed to—”

“Quiet, ladies,”Corey interjected as he and Amber stepped out of their car.

Bradley shot hima look, invisible from behind his visor.  “Where’s the tracker?” he askedJill.

“Imbedded betweenlayers of fabric in the bag.”

“What if he takesthe stuff out of the bag?”

“If the trackerwas attached to the goods themselves he’d spot it,” Jill answered inannoyance.  “What was that you said earlier about me doing my job and youdoing yours?”

“Okay,” Bradleyconceded.  He handed the bag to DougGrandan. “You know what to do.”

“I still don’tsee why I have to do this,”Grandanhuffed.

“Your client mayhave surveillance in place watching for you to make the drop,” saidCorey.  “He has to be able to tell it’s you.”

Grandan’sfrown grew.  “Fine.”

“Rookieerrander,” Bradley explained with a shrug.

 “Showtime,”said Corey, taking another bag from the trunk of his car.  “Places,everyone.”

Amber got in thedriver’s seat of their car.  The three vehicles departed from the alleyseveral moments apart from each other to avoid attention.

Corey was leftalone in the alley.  He knocked on the metal maintenance door.

A security guardopened it from the inside.  “Follow me.”

They took theelevator to the fifteenth floor and navigated the dark hallways to a loungebetween office suites on the north side of the building.  The bank ofwindows looked across the street to the Aurora Plaza Hotel.  The rooftopwas a few stories lower than this vantage point.

Corey took offhis visor.  “Perfect,” he said, and dismissed the guard.

 

DIZZIEsat drinking thoroughly caffeinated coffee in her cubicle, still in herpajamas.  Her central screen showed a live map of the Aurora Plaza hoteland surroundings.  One dot of light blinked in the office building whereCorey had taken his position.  Three more lights blinked where the otherssat in the department vehicles.  Bradley was in the alley next to thehotel itself.  Jill was west of the plaza.  Amber had taken the othercar north of the plaza.

“We’re watchingyou,” Bradley’s voice crackled in Dizzie’s earpiece as he spoke toGrandan.  “One wrong move and we’re all overyou.  Put this on.”

She heardGrandangrunt.  Another light started blinking next toBradley’s.

“Tracker andaudio are working,” Dizzie said into the microphone stretching from herheadphones.

“Get going,” saidBradley.

Grandan’sdot slid down the alley and around the corner tothe front of the hotel.  Along with it was a smaller red dot—the bag withthe goods.

“He’s inside,”said Dizzie.  “Corey, you ready?”

“Ready.”

Dizzie took agulp of coffee and rolled her chair to the neighboring screen.  It wasdivided into the images from the hotel’s security cameras.  She watchedGrandanslink across the lobby to the elevator.  Abovethe tenth floor button was a button marked “R” for roof access.  Hepunched it.

“On his way up,”reported Dizzie.  “Send me your view, Cor.”

 “You shouldalready have it.”

She pulled up thefeed from the camera Corey had set up at the office building window.  Thenight-vision image was a greenish but otherwise clear view of the hotel rooftopacross the street.

The hotelelevator reached the roof andGrandansteppedoff.  A floodlight mounted above the elevator doors made a pool of dimbluish light.  The camera mounted next to the light watched fromGrandan’sback as he crossed the rooftop away from theelevator.

Corey’s camerawatched the same scene from the opposite angle. Grandanreached the edge of the roof nearest Corey’s vantage point.  He droppedthe bag behind a raised ventilator near the corner and headed back to theelevator.

On the onscreenmap the little red dot blinked alone at the southeast corner of the hotelrooftop.

“He made thedrop,” Dizzie confirmed.  She went back to the hotel security images andfollowedGrandan’strip back down the elevator andout of the hotel.  The poor kid seemed too nervous to do anything butcooperate, but there was always a chance he’d try to run.

He didn’t. He went straight back to the car with Bradley.  They parked at the far endof the alley.

“Now,” saidCorey, “we wait.”

They’d be waitingfor a long time.

 

ITwas after 4 a.m. when it happened.

Dizzie paused inmid-sip, stared at the screen for a minute, and finally put down her coffeemug.  She tapped at her keyboard, but nothing changed.

The securitycamera over the elevator had shut down.  That section of her screen wasnow an empty grayish rectangle.

“I don’t haveeyes on the roof anymore, Cor,” she said.  “Repeat, I do not have eyes onthe roof!”

 

“Ihear you, Diz,” said Corey, sitting suddenly forward in the lounge chair. He didn’t know he’d been drifting off until Dizzie’s announcement had startledhim fully awake.  “That’s why I’m here.  You’re still getting myfeed?”

“Crystal clear.”

“Let’s not worrytoo much just yet.  It may just be a malfunction.”

Then thefloodlight on the hotel roof blinked off.

“Or not,” heamended.  “The light’s dead too.”

“I see that,”said Dizzie.

Corey checked thescreen on the back of his camera.  The night-vision still gave them adecent view.  “This is no accident.  He must be on his way. Watch the elevators.”

“Watching,”Dizzie confirmed.

Corey glanced upfrom the screen and looked out the window.  He stood up.  “Dizzie,cancel that.  He’s not using thevator.”

A blue car hadjust turned into the alley next to the hotel.  Slowly it began rising.

“He’s in askycar,” said Corey.  “This is it, people; get ready.”

The vehiclelifted over the edge of the rooftop and a figure stepped out of thebackseat.  Corey got behind his camera and zoomed in on the scene. “Okay, we’ve got a male; average height and weight, as well as I can make outfrom here.  He’s examining the bag now.”

“Are you gettinga facial?” Jill’s voice asked.

“Not yet. He hasn’t looked directly my way.”

The figurebriefly examined the camera and the notebook.  He was about to grab thebag when he hesitated.

“What’s the problem?”asked Dizzie.

“I don’t know,”said Corey.  “It looks like he’s suspicious.”

The figure pulledout a heavy-duty flashlight and began sweeping a powerful beam across therooftop.

“He’s checkingthings out.”

“Cor, get down!”Dizzie cried.

But the man onthe rooftop was already shining his powerful beam across the street. White light poured through the window and across Corey and his camera. Corey ducked behind a chair, but not before he’d been seen.

The figure leapedback into the skycar.

“He’s headingnorth out of the alley,” cried Dizzie.  “Go, go, go,go!”

 

 

7

 

 

“I’Mon him,” Bradley’s voice crackled in Jill’s earpiece.  He moved his carout of the alley as the skycar moved in the same direction thirty feetabove.  “Jill, move in!  It looks like he’s staying at skytrafficlevel.”

“On my way,” shesaid, already soaring over the plaza on her bike.

She spotted theblue skycar emerging from behind the hotel.  It circled the block awayfrom the plaza.

“He’s turned backsouth on Denizen Drive,” Jill reported.  “They’re headed for downtown.”

“I’ll stay aheadof him,” said Amber.

Jill whippedaround the corner and regained sight of the car.  She flew a hundred yardsbehind it.  “Okay, he’s dropping to street level.”

“I see him now,”said Bradley.

Jill could seeBradley’s car thirty feet below, weaving through traffic in pursuit of thefugitive’s vehicle.

“Easy!” she heardGrandan’svoice squeak.

The blue carsquealed around a corner into a shopping district, and then took another cornertoward a residential area.

“Stay on him,Bradley,” said Jill.  “He’s just trying to lose us.”

“Stay onDenizen,” he answered, whipping around the same corners.  “I’ll see if Ican push him back your way.

Grandan’svoice whimpered something inaudible.

“Amber, where areyou?” Jill asked as she sped ahead.

“Corner ofDenizen and Route 12,” she replied.

“Staythere.  That’s where he’ll most likely be leaving the residential zone.”

“He’s headedthere now,” Dizzie confirmed.

“I’m right onhim.”

“I’m moving in,”said Jill.

She came to Route12, shot past where Amber was parked, and angled her bike toward the entranceto the residential area.

The blue car’slights appeared in front of her.

She braked to asudden stop.

So did the bluecar.

Amber moved in onhim next to Jill.

The car whippedaround.

Bradley came upbehind him.

All three agentsleapt from their vehicles, weapons drawn.

It was awide-eyed and trembling driver who emerged from the blue vehicle with his handsin the air.  “Don’t shoot,don’t shoot!”

The backseat was empty.

“Where is he?”Bradley demanded.

“Dropped him offon the roof of another building,” the driver answered.

“What building?”

“No idea!  Ijust slowed down low enough for him to bail.  He said keep going, lead youaway from him.”

“And you listenedto him?”

“I was scared,okay?  He said he’d make it worth my while.”

“Who is he?” Jillasked him.

The man held uphis hands.  “No idea.  I’m just a driver-for-hire, youunderstand?  I’ve never seen him before, and I don’t know what he was upto, I swear!”

“You really thinkhe’ll track you down and pay you now?” Corey asked him.

The driver’smouth just hung open.

Amber opened theback door of the hired car.  The black bag sat on the seat.  It wasempty.

“Diz, any sign ofhim?” asked Jill.

“Sherlock hasn’tspotted him,” Dizzie replied.

Bradley ran backto his car.  “We’ve got to get back there.”

“Back where?”asked Amber.  “He could be anywhere!”

Bradleyhalted.  “Okay, so now what?”

“I’ll run thewhole scene fromCor’scamera,” saidDizzie.  “Maybe we can enhance the image, get an ID.”

“Maybe isn’t goodenough,” spat Bradley.

“It’s all we’vegot,” said Jill.

Bradley couldn’targue.

 

“Ithink this is the best we can do,” said Dizzie.  “Sherlock agrees it’s theclearest facial the video gives us.”  Her cubicle’s central screen showeda frozen image from Corey’s video.

Holiday, Jill,and the rest of the team gathered behind her.  She’d gone frame-by-framethrough the video looking for a good image of the client’s face.  Thisframe showed him glancing up roughly toward where Corey’s camera had beenpositioned in the neighboring office building.  He was in the act oflifting his flashlight.  By the next frame his light was raised, washingout the camera’s view.

“Sherlock, canyou enhance this?” asked Dizzie.

“Of course,Desiree,” Sherlock’s British-accented mechanical voice sounded from hercomputer’s speaker.  “In the meantime, may I offer my most sinceresympathies to the team regarding the night’s goings on?”

Dizzie wrinkledher nose while she refilled her mug from a coffee pot in the corner of hercubicle.  “We’ve got to reprogram that machine not to call me Desiree,”she said, eyeing the director critically.

“He stoppedcalling you ‘Miss Mason,’ like you asked him to.  Aren’t you happy?”

The image on thescreen began to clarify.  It wasn’t as easy as it seemed when they did itin the movies; the image couldn’t instantly be transformed into ahigh-definition photo.  But the computer was fairly good at guessing howto fill in the more blurred details.

“If this doesn’twork,” muttered Bradley, “it’s over.”

“Love youroptimism,” remarked Jill.

“You know I’mright,” he retorted.

“Aren’t youalways?”

“Shut up, both ofyou,” growled Corey.

“Agreed,” saidHoliday.

“Enhancementhas reached maximum level,” Sherlock reported, “but I regret to say I’munable to make an accurate facial ID.”

Bradley turned toleave.

“Stay,” saidCorey, grabbing his arm.

“We’d miss youtoo badly,” murmured Jill.

“Can you at leastgive me a list of possible IDs?” asked Dizzie.

“There aresixty-eight possible matches.”

“Too many to dous any good,” said Corey.

Holiday wasleaning thoughtfully toward the image.  “Itisn’t...?”

“You know thisguy?” asked Dizzie.

“I can’t becertain, of course.  The image is still rather grainy.”

“Is his name onthe list?” asked Amber.

“I don’t knowwhat name to look for, unfortunately,” replied the director.

“I’ve got anotheridea,” Dizzie said between sips of coffee.  She returned to her seat infront of the central monitor.  “Sherlock, do you know the route his cartook tonight to get to the hotel?”

“Bits andpieces of it, yes.  Traffic cameras did pick it up several times.”

“Give us anytraffic cam images that show the client’s face.”

“Of course.”

“You’rebrilliant, Diz,” said Corey, giving her a pat on the shoulder.

“Aw, well,” shesaid with a wave of her hand and a beaming smile.  “The caffeine isfinally starting to kick in, I guess.”

A moment laterSherlock had given them four repeating video segments.  Dizzie found thebest still shot from each video.  “Try enhancing these, Sherlock.”

“Of course,Desiree.”

“Those images areworse than the first one,” said Bradley.

“True, but we’llstill get possible IDs from each,” said Dizzie.  “We can cross-match thelists from each image, maybe narrow it down a little.”

Her idea was agood one.  The five lists had only seven names in common.

“Let’s see theinformation for each,” said the director.

Soon Dizzie hadpulled up the seven profiles.  Every adult citizen of Anterra was requiredto submit a thorough personal dossier for the government to have onrecord.  Holiday pointed immediately to the third.

“HolbertDillon,” Corey read the name.  “How do youknow him?”

“I don’t,” saidHoliday.  “But I know he’s your man.”

His address was775 Thirteenth, Suite 12b.

“Can you give usa schematic?” asked Bradley.

“Already on it,”said Dizzie as her fingers fluttered across one of her keyboards.

“I thought wewere done for,” Jill shot in Bradley’s direction.

He ignored her.

A threedimensional digitized model of the apartment appeared on Dizzie’s screen. “Suite 12b is on the northwest corner of the building,” she reported.

They were alreadyon their way to the garage.

 

JILLled the way downtown on her bike.  The other three followed in askycar.  A pale, silvery halo above the Home Planet hinted that the sunwould be rising soon.  They flowed with the downtown traffic, still heavyeven this early in the morning.  Eight blocks west of the Avenue of Towersthey came to Thirteenth.

HolbertDillon’s apartment building appeared ahead on theleft, a gracefully curving structure with a fountain and a pillared portico infront.

They circled tothe northwest corner.  The lights on the twelfth story were lit. “Looks like he’s home,” said Jill.

“Any activity?”Dizzie’s voice asked.

“Can’ttell.  The lights are on, but the shades are drawn.”

“Can you move incloser?”

“If he’s watchingfor us we may spook him.”

“Wait around thecorner, Jill,” said Corey’s voice.  “We’ll park on the street and try fromthe inside.”

 

BRADLEYwaited in the car while Corey and Amber took the lamp-lined walk across theside lawn.  The small glass door to the building was locked.

“Dizzie, canSherlock open this door?”

“No, but he cansilence the building’s alarm system temporarily.”

“Good enough.”

Corey made surethe hallway inside was empty before he put his armored boot through the glass.

He and Amberstepped inside.  Lamps lined the floral-papered hallway.

“Stairway is justahead to your right,” said Dizzie.

They ascended tothe twelfth floor.  The hallway was empty.  At the end they reachedthe entrance to Suite 12b.  Light showed under the door.

Bradley tried theknob.  The door was unlocked.  They leveled their weapons and burstinside.

They stood on thepolished floor of the suite’s entryway.  They saw themselves in a nicelyframed mirror on the far wall.  Below the mirror was a table with a stackof books and a picture of Dillon and his toddler-aged daughter.  Also onthe table was a video camera pointed toward the front door.

“Hold on,” saidDizzie.  “Sherlock tells me he’s just now getting a motion-triggered videofeed originating from Dillon’s residence.”

“He was watchingfor us,” Amber sighed, lowering her weapon.

“He knew we mayget an ID match on him,” added Corey.  “Now he’ll know for sure.  Hewas ready for us.  Dizzie, other than Sherlock’s interception, where isthe video feed going?”

“We can’t tellyet.  Sherlock’s trying to find out.”

Corey shook hishead.  “It won’t do any good.  Dillon knows we’re here.  He’llsever any connection he has to the video feed long before we can trace him.”

“And I’m guessinghe won’t be coming home any time soon,” Dizzie’s voice muttered.  “I’llhave Sherlock watch for any sign of him or the car registered to him.”

“A lot of goodthat will do,” Bradley’s glum voice crackled in their earpieces.

 

ITwas a dejected team that assembled in Conference Room D the next evening.

Jill took a seatnext to Corey.  “Didn’t go so well last night, did it?” she asked, just tomake conversation.

Corey didn’t hearher.  He was saying something to Amber, who had just taken the seat on theother side of him.  Jill grimaced to herself.

“Rough night lastnight, huh?” said Dizzie, sitting on the other side of Jill.

“You could saythat.”

Bradley, about ascheerful and sociable as usual, sat by himself in the row behind the rest ofthem, arms crossed and brow knit.

Holiday enteredat the front of the room.  “Every one of you did your job as well as couldbe expected,” he began.  “Things haven’t turned out the way wehoped.  But that isn’t the fault of anyone here.  You may each beproud of your efforts, whatever happens in the end.”

That was someconsolation, Jill supposed.  “What next?” she asked.

“Question theprisoners again,” Bradley said darkly.  “They have to know more.”

“I believe Dinohas told us all he knows,” replied the director.  “But as for the man whocalls himself Sketch...”  He paused as his cell began to vibrate on thedesk beside him.  He frowned as he checked it, and finally answeredit.  “Holiday.”

“Your team isgood,” said the voice on the other end.  “Very good.  Congratulatethem for me.”

Holiday raisedhis eyebrows at Dizzie and jerked a thumb toward his phone.

Dizzie leaped outof her seat and ran to the computer at the back of the conference room. “Sherlock,” she hissed as she ran, “trace the call the director just took!”

“Why notcongratulate them yourself?” Holiday suggested to the caller.

“I’ve no needto trace the call, Desiree,” Sherlock’s voice emerged from thecomputer.  “It hasn’t been blocked.”

“That’s preciselymy plan,” said the caller.

“The call isoriginating from an unregistered phone.  Vocal characteristics are aprecise match with those of Mr.HolbertDillon.”

“What do youmean?” Holiday asked Dillon.

“Just what Isaid,” he replied.

The connection broke.

“Where did thecall originate?” Dizzie asked.

“I’m not atliberty to give you that information unless you state plainly that this is anemergency; otherwise I will be in violation of protocol according to section—”


Page 23

“It’s anemergency, for crying out loud!” snapped Dizzie.

“Verywell.  The caller is inside the Governmental Complex.”

They looked ateach other.

“What are wewaiting for?” said Bradley, dashing for the conference room exit.

The others wereright behind him.

“Track the calleron the GoCom security cams,” Dizzie ordered Sherlock over her shoulder as sheran.  “Send the feed to my mobile!”

“Of course,Desiree.”

They burst out ofthe conference room, circled the HQ balcony, and tumbled into the elevatorlobby.

“Wait!” Dizzieordered suddenly.

The others lookedback and saw her staring wide-eyed at her phone’s screen.

“What?” askedCorey.

“We have tohurry!” Bradley insisted, reaching out to push the button that called theelevator.

But the elevatorwas already descending.

 

 

8

 

 

“SHERLOCK,stop the elevator,” yelled Corey, “and get security here right away!”

“Wait a moment,”said Holiday.  “Sherlock, is Mr. Dillon armed?”

“He doesn’tappear to be, sir,” Sherlock said from the speaker of Dizzie’s phone. “He passed through the metal detectors on his way here with no problem.”

“Thank you. Let him come.  I’ll call for security later if need be.”

“Of course,sir.”

Holiday receivedfive severe looks.

“We’re ready forhim,” the director said.  He drew a gun from beneath his coat, then drewanother from his other hip and handed it to Corey.

The elevatordoors opened.

He was fairlytall and wore stylish clothes and an expression of confidence.  His earswere somewhat pointed, his dark eyebrows drawn severely over penetrating eyes,and his goatee immaculately trimmed.  “You won’t need your weapons,” hesaid calmly.  “I’m not here to cause trouble.”

“Then whatareyou here for?” Bradley asked him.

“To turn myselfin.”

“Ladies andgentlemen,” said Holiday, not lowering his weapon so much as a millimeter,“allow me to introduce you all to Mr.HolbertDillon,assistant chairman of the board overseeing our department.  Or, should Isay,formerassistant chairman of the board.”

“I submitted myletter of resignation this morning,” Dillon confirmed.  “As for theillegally obtained items, you’ll find them in my apartment if you didn’talready last night.”

“We didn’t wantthem,” Corey said over his weapon, “we wanted you.”

“And here I am tooblige.”

“After avoidingus all night last night,” said Amber.  “Why the sudden change of mind?”

“I didn’t thinkyou would discover who I was; I really didn’t,” replied Dillon.

“You set upsurveillance in your own apartment to watch for us,” countered Jill.

“To watch for thepolice, actually.  I assumed they were the ones who chased me around townlast night.  I doubted they would find me, though there was always achance.  My contingency plan was to disappear somewhere in the city. It wouldn’t be so hard to do, of course.”

“But you didn’t,”said Bradley.

“No,” Dillon saidslowly.  “I discovered it was you who were on my trail, not merely thepolice.”

“You could havekept running,” said Amber.

“It’s difficultto escape from Sherlock,” he replied.  He smiled ruefully in Holiday’sdirection.  “Possible—but difficult.  I wouldn’t have lasted long.”

 

THEtwo of them spoke alone in the director’s office.

“We’re on thetrail of some very dangerous people,” Holiday said severely.  “You knowthat.”

“So you told meat the meeting,” Dillon said emotionlessly.  “I’ve no connection to them.”

“I never said youdid.  But the source for your shipment was one of their sources as well.”

“It was never myintent to get in your way.”

“Whether it wasyour intent or not, we’ve lost valuable time.”

“I tried to tellyou, Director.  It is far too easy to smuggle illegal devices intoAnterra.  Every time you confiscate one of them, there will be two othersthat you don’t know about.  Who knows what these criminals you’re afterhave been doing while you’ve been devoting your resources to finding little,insignificant me.”

“Your actions areno more legal than theirs.”

“I don’t disputeit.  But you’re only trying to reassure yourself.  You know I’m nodanger to anyone.”

“I know nothingof the sort.”  Holiday took the former board member in a cold, steel-graygaze.  “What are your motives, Mr. Dillon?”

He shook hishead.  “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“But you’re goingto tell me anyway.  If you’re as innocent as you say you are, yourstatement can only help you.”

Dillon returned Holiday’sgaze for a long moment before responding.  “Do you ever read sciencefiction, Director?”

Holiday didn’trespond.

“Many generationsbefore ours have foreseen what we have here on Anterra,” Dillon went on. “Countless books and films have been made about an advanced society like ours,ever-watched by electronic eyes, a place where the government constantly keepstabs on everyone and everything, where all information is public, in order toprevent any potential danger.  There’s a common thread in all thestories—every one of them.”

The directorstill didn’t respond.  He sat back in his chair and crossed his arms.

“Those inpossession of such power are never the good guys, Director, always thevillains.  A lack of privacy inevitably leads to the undoing of a society,not the protection of it.  Our artistic creations have always predictedit.  Now we’ll see it come to pass—unless something drastically changes.”

“Something likeyou smuggling illegal devices onto MS9,” Holiday suggested.

“My actions arebut a small sampling of what will happen.  Privacy is an inherent right,Director.  It is not in the government’s place to give or take it.”

Holiday satforward again.  “Well, as riveting as this conversation is...”

“I don’t want mylove letters to my fiancée to be accessible to others,” Dillon stated simply.

Holiday paused.

“When I journalmy darkest thoughts and struggles,” the former board member continued, “I do soas a mode of release.  I know I’m not alone.  They’re for me, and notfor anyone else.”

The director satback again, a softer look on his face.

“I don’t wantphotographs of my daughter to be stored on a government computer,” Dillon wenton, gaze drifting distantly.  “Every other weekend.  That’s all Ihave with her.  That’s all the courts would give me.  Twenty-four outof twenty-eight days, photographs are all I have of her.  I want them tobe mine.  Mine alone.”

Holiday sighedand pushed a button on his desk.  “Just because these things are on filedoesn’t mean—”

“That they’llever be accessed by anyone else,” Dillon finished.  “I know.  Shouldthat console me, Director?  Would it console you?”

Two uniformedguards appeared in the office.

“It doesn’tchange the principle of the matter,” Dillon said.  “I told youyouwouldn’t believe me.”

Holiday watchedsilently as the guards escorted him away.

 

BEHINDa panel in his office wall was the hallway to Holiday’s residence.  Hestood reflectively in his bedroom now.

At last he openedthe drawer of the nightstand beside his bed.  He set aside a thick bookwith a worn leather cover.  Beneath it was an old shoebox.  He setthe shoebox on the bed and lifted off the lid.

He always kepthis favorite picture of her on top—the first thing he saw whenever he openedthe box, though he couldn’t remember the last time he’d done so.  Her hairfluttered in the wind; behind her stretched the channel off the Cornishcoast.  He’d snapped it with a disposable camera, and finally developed itin the village—what was the name of that little place?  It had been solong ago.

This wasn’t theoriginal photo, of course.  It was a scan, reprinted on digital paper tobe legal here on Anterra.  It wasn’t the one he’d held in his fingers backthen, the one she’d held in hers when he’d handed it to her.  He’d askedwhat she thought of it. I’m making a weird face in it, she’d saidself-consciously.

He’d thought itwas beautiful.  Still thought so.

Beneath thephotograph—thecopyof the photograph—there were letters. DearGiles, the first began,How I miss you!  It seems like you’ll neverbe home...

It wasn’t theoriginal letter either, not the actual page to which she had touched herfountain pen and written in her delicate hand.  Just another scanned copy.

The original hadbeen burned.  She’d written it back home on non-digital paper, a specialflowered stationary she’d purchased in that same village.  Would he stillrecognize the brittle feel of the paper if he could hold it again?  Wouldit still smell faintly of her perfume...?

His cell rang inhis pocket, startling him into the present.

“Holiday.”

“Director, it’sJanice Moeller.”

“Yes, Janice?”

“Theinterrogation is set for Room G in half an hour.”

“I’m lookingforward to it.”

Episode 2: Revelations

 

9

 

 

HISoffice was dark, walled and floored with polished black.  It had a singleround window on one side, through which was only inky darkness.  Behindhis desk the wall displayed a modern, stylized outline of an eagle inflight.  The profile of its head bore a glowing red eye.

The man’s attirewas dark and semiformal.  His long gray hair was tied into a ponytail thatspilled across his back.

The phone on hisdesk started warbling.  He picked up the receiver.  “Yes?”

“Forgive me fornot calling sooner.”  The voice that answered was cloaked behind layers ofdistortion and affects.

The mansmiled.  “It’s good to hear from you.”

“Give me a statusupdate.”

“The project isprogressing well.  We’re actually a bit ahead of schedule.”

“Is your locationcompromised?”

“We have noreason to believe so.  Is there a concern?”

“My only concernis that you feel too invincible and fail to take the necessary precautions,”said the voice.

“Rest assured weare doing everything we can.”

“I’m glad to hearit.  Still, I’d prefer to observe things there firsthand.”

The manhesitated.  “I understand.  As soon as we’re ready for testing—”

“Sooner,” thevoice interrupted.

“I thought we’dagreed that, for your own safety, you wouldn’t come here—that we wouldn’t evenreveal the location to you until just before the launch date.”

“That was the originalplan, yes.”

“And I highlyrecommend we stick to it,” the man said.  “We can’t risk your coming here,not when we’re this far along.”

“Very well,” thevoice said reluctantly.  “We’ll speak again soon.  In the meantime,do everything possible to maintain the safety of the project.”

“Of course.”

The line wentdead.

 

THEKorean man who called himself Sketch was secured at the table in the smallinterrogation room.  He was clothed in the prescribed drab-gray attire andwore a black patch over one eye.

“Back to see meso soon, Director?” he asked in perfect English.

Holiday took theseat across from him.  “The pleasure is mine.”

“I can’t staylong, unfortunately.  Regulations, you know.”

“Then let’s getright to it.”

The Korean manshrugged.  “I’ve told you everything I know.”

“Ah, ofcourse.”  Holiday offered one of his classic smirks.  “It’s a ratherinteresting game, isn’t it?  Choosing which tidbits of information to holdback. Deciding when it’s to your advantage to reveal them. Fascinating!  It just so happens I believe now is a good time for somerevelations.”

“Interesting. I hope you’re going to make me a generous offer in return for any information Imight be able to provide.”

Holidaychuckled.  “Thatyoumight provide?  I was talking about me.”

The man whocalled himself Sketch gave the director a sideways look.

“You’re not theonly one who’s been withholding important information, you see,” Holidaycontinued.  “I have a few of my own cards that I’m ready to play now.”

“I’m all ears, asthe English expression goes.”

Holiday sat back,hands folded across his chest.  “I remember the first time I heard of theinfamous crime lord known as Sketch.  Quite some time ago, it was. Of course, by now, everyone knows the name.  And the reputation that goes alongwith it, too—powerful, ruthless, cunning.  Not that you would know muchabout that.”

The prisonerraised an eyebrow.  “You’re saying I haven’t earned my reputation?”

“I’m sayingyou’re not Sketch.”

The Korean man’scocky expression disappeared.  He swallowed.

“Oh, youcertainly work for Sketch,” the director continued, “I’ve no doubt aboutthat.  But we’ve only captured a decoy.”  He leaned close to theprisoner.  “I assure you, we are still very intent upon capturing the realthing.”

“You’ll never findhim.”

Holidaychuckled.  “I won’t argue.  But I haven’t just come to talk about whoyou aren’t; let’s talk about who youare.  Your name is Kim.”

The prisonersnorted.  “Just an educated guess.  Half the Koreans on Anterra arenamed Kim.”

“But only one ofthem is named after his ancestor Hyun Ki Kim, engineer of the United SpacePrograms, martyred a few generations ago on one of the first shuttles to MS9.”

Hyun Ki Kim’sdescendant froze.

Holiday loosenedhis tie.  “When you were seventeen, you joined an underground movementknown as the Flaming Taeguk.  Your eye was wounded in a knife fight.”

Kim was stilltrying to play the tough guy.  “You didn’t think the patch was just forshow, did you?”

“It is,actually.”  Holiday reached across the table and tore the eye patchfree.  “The robotic replacement works just fine, I’m sure.  If not,don’t forget there’s a lifetime warranty on it.  Government regulation.”

Kim blinked—one real eye and one identical glass imitation fitted with a mechanizedlens.

“You rose quicklyamong the ranks of the Flaming Taeguk,” the director went on, undoing the topbuttons of his shirt.  “During one particular heist you shot a younggovernment agent.”

“My first kill,”the prisoner reminisced with a slight smile.  “Funny how quickly you canget so used to taking life.  My second was the next day.”

“Actually, yourfirst was the next day,” said Holiday, spreading open the unbuttoned top of hisshirt.

Hyun Ki Kimstared at the revealed scar on the director’s chest.  He hoped the shockwasn’t written on his face.  “Why are you telling me all this?”

“So you’ll know,”Holiday whispered, leaning even closer, “why I wouldn’t have a moment’shesitation about killing you the first instant I suspect you’re of no more useto us.”

“Don’t try tointimidate me, Director.  I know your record.  You’re a boy scout,not the type to casually knock off a valuable informant like me.”

“Explain to mehow you’ve been a valuable informant thus far.”

Kim didn’trespond.

“It’s not toolate, of course,” Holiday pressed.  “You’re going to tell us something ofvalue, Mr. Kim.  You can either tell it to me right now, or you can tellit to one of our interrogation experts.  You know the type—carries abriefcase filled with all sorts of charming instruments and substances. And accidents have been known to happen during such interrogations.”

Kim kept playingit cool.  “I’ll tell you something, all right, Director.  I’ll tellyou that your measly little team doesn’t know the half of what Sketch is aboutto do in this city.”

“Vagueinsinuations are well and good, but we’ll need something a little more concretethan that.”

“That computernetwork you’ve been trying to keep us from building...”  Kim smileddarkly. “Well, that’s the least of your concerns, believe me.”

 

THEsame dream again...

One moment hermother’s boat was there ahead of hers, a small black smudge on the reflectivesurface of the lake.

The next momentit was a blinding blossom of smoke and flame, and a deafening concussionknocked Jill backwards.  Her boat rocked and swayed.

She sat up,dazed; shocked.

Flames stilllicked the remains of the tiny vessel that had been carrying her mother.

She wanted tocry; all she wanted to do was cry.

But she didn’t.

Survivalinstincts kicked in. They were onto us.  Get away.

Jill was a goodswimmer.  She kicked of her shoes and plunged over the side of her boat.

By the time thefire and police departments arrived at the wreckage, she was back at theabandoned dock.  She crouched on the edge, a cold, wet, tremblingmess.  But the tears wouldn’t come.

Three yearslater, they still hadn’t come.

 

ITwas before five o’clock when her eyes opened.

She showered anddressed quickly and headed away from the dorm area.

The elevator lobbywas quiet and empty as usual.  Even the director’s office appearedabandoned at the moment.  She was glad.  He hardly ever seemed totake any time to himself.  She often wondered if the man even ate orslept.

She crossed thelobby and went through the door into HQ.  Even at this time of morningthere was quite a bit of activity.  About half the cubicles on the openfloor below were occupied.

She headed aroundthe concrete balcony toward the cafeteria.  Through the glass wall she sawthe empty rows of tables.  It was dark except for a little light from theback where the kitchen was.  She smelled bacon frying.

The door into thecafwas unlocked.  Jill crossed between thetables toward the swinging door to the kitchen.

“Orange juicedoesn’t squeeze itself!” she heard a muffled voice call from in the kitchen.

Jill smiled andpeeked through the door.

“Is that garbagecan eight feet tall,” the voice demanded, “or should we go ahead and take it tothe compactor before we try to shove any more in it?  It’s called commonsense, people!”

The big womanbelting out the commands turned toward the door.  The frown vanishedsuddenly, and a smile glowed from the beautiful ebony face.  “Well, MissJillian Branch!”  She put down a rolling pin, wiped her hands on her apron,and called back at the kitchen staff, “Try to getsomework done while Istep out, will you?”

A moment laterJill was in the midst of one of Ginny’s long, warm hugs.

“So glad to seeyou!” she said, leading the way to one of the tables in the mostly dark seatingarea.  “Gives me a chance to get out of that blessed kitchen for a fewminutes.”  She darted a cold look toward the swinging door.

Jill chuckled andshook her head.  Ginny’s legendary bark was ten times worse than herbite.  Her kitchen staff unanimously adored her.

“How are you thismorning, Momma?” said Jill.  Ginny insisted on being called Momma by theyoung recruits of the department.  Many had lost their parents; others hadlittle or no contact with them.  Ginny’s nurturing ways couldn’t make upfor the loss entirely, but she came awfully close.

“Oh, I’m fine,”the cook said with a casual wave.  “Another day.”  She wrinkled herbrow.  “You had a tough night last night, huh?”

Jill shruggednonchalantly.  “Couldn’t sleep, that’s all.”

“Mm-hmm,” Ginnysaid, unconvinced.  “Can I get you some hot chocolate?”

“Maybe a cup ofcoffee?”

The cook eyedJill suspiciously.  “How many times have I offered you my gourmet coffee,just to listen to you turn me down?”

“Today seems likea good day to try it.”

Ginny’s smilereturned.  “Well, all right, then!  Cream and sugar?”

“Is that how youlike yours?”

“Oh, no, I likemine just the way it comes out of the pot.”

“I’ll try that.”

A moment laterGinny returned with a steaming mug and a tray with a small pitcher anddispenser.  “I brought the cream and sugar just in case,” she said.

“Thanks.”

“Careful, it’shot.”

“Okay.”

Ginny sat next toher and begansippingfrom her own mug.

They sat insilence for a minute or two.

Momma Ginny had aknack for knowing when someone wanted to talk but couldn’t do it.  Shealso had a knack for what to say in such situations.  “I know what it’slike to have a heavy heart, Jill.”

Jill looked ather.  “Hmm?”

“I watched my ownmother die before my eyes when I wasn’t much younger than you.”

It was the lastthing Jill expected to hear.  “You did?”

Ginnynodded.  “It was a white supremacist group who did it.”

“Whitesupremacist?”

“You’ve heard ofthe enslavement of blacks in the early days of the United States?”

“Yeah, I’ve readabout that.  That ended a long time ago, right?”

“Yes itdid.  Over the years, a lot of good has been done for the cooperation ofdifferent races back in my home nation.  But....” Ginny’s eyes drifted.

“But they didn’ttotally solve the problem?” put in Jill.

“Maybe neverwill.  There’s hatred bound up in the hearts of people, Jillian. Some just can’t put it aside.”

There was moresilence.

“There was agroup in my hometown,” Ginny went on.  “They had a lot of control in thatlittle village—a lot of say in what went on.  They always let us blacksknow we were the inferior folks.  My mother raised me to call everyone‘Mister this’ or ‘Miss that.’  The habit has stuck.  But now Irealize it was a way we showed our submission to the whites, just like they hadto in the old days.”

“I like when youcall me ‘Miss Jill.’  It doesn’t make me feel superior to you; it justfeels like...I don’t know, like you’re being respectful.”

Ginnysmiled.  “Things are different up here.  Some of the chief engineersof the Metropolitan Satellite Project were Africans or African-Americans. We’re very respected in this place.  Of course, there’re otherproblems.  Look at the way the Koreans are treated here.  Look howyouhalf-Koreans are treated!”

“So that’s howthe blacks were treated in the United States?”

“Usuallynot.  But sometimes.  Some places were worse than others.  Mytown was especially bad.  They beat my mother so she couldn’t stand backup.  She died in the hospital a week later.  They beat me pretty goodtoo, but I was younger back then.”

Jillswallowed.  “Is that why you came to Anterra, Ginny?”


Page 24

The cooknodded.  “Daddy applied for my citizenship here the day Momma died. I got turned down five times, but he kept trying.  The sixth time,Director Holiday stepped in.  I worked in a restaurant back home, but Iwanted to run my own kitchen someday.  Probably never would have happenedback in Virginia.  But Mr. Holiday asked me how would I like to be part ofwhat he was doing?  He told me what it was all about, and here Iam.”  She shrugged.  “Of course, I’m not out changing the world likethe other folks here at the department.”

There was anothersilence.

Ginny looked intoJill’s eyes.  “This is a healing sort of a place,” she said, gesturingaround at the department in general.  “There are a lot of heavy burdens,here.  A lot of broken hearts.  But we need this place.  We needeach other.”

Jill noddedslowly.  “We do, don’t we?”

“You know, I feela little better every time I tell my story.”  She gave Jill a significantlook.

“Momma Ginny,”said Jill, “I think you’re changing the world more than you think.”

Ginny looked awaywith a smile.  “Well, maybe so.”

Jill finallyswallowed a sip of coffee.  She tried not to make a face.  “Um, I thinkI’ll take a little cream and sugar after all.”

 

DIZZIEand Amber were among the first to arrive for breakfast when the cafeteriaopened.  Jill rolled her eyes; Amber was impeccably dressed as usual, andher hair was done perfectly.

They had just startedeating when Director Holiday paid a rare visit to thecaf. He headed straight for their table.  “Desiree, please meet me in yourcubicle as soon as possible.”

“Can I finisheating?” she asked with her mouth full.

“By all meansswallow that bite.  Then come along.”

 

THEYassembled in Conference Room D that evening.  Chief Home Planet LiaisonRiley’s face was on the screen at the front of the room.

“Forgive me fornot being there in person to congratulate you,” the bald man said.  Behindhim were the trappings of a finely furnished living room.

“To congratulateus?” Amber repeated doubtfully.

“I realize yourlatest mission has not gone as you hoped.  But your team deserves creditnonetheless.  As you know, the department’s governing board has appointed myoffice to observe this mission in order to get an idea of the functionality ofyour team.”

Holidayinexplicably coughed.

“And I’m happysay,” Riley went on, ignoring the director, “that your efforts of last nightwere nothing short of excellent.  Each one of you played your role verycompetently.  Our report to the board will be overwhelmingly positive.”

Well, that was apleasant surprise.  “Thank you, sir,” Corey spoke for the team.

Rileynodded.  “I’ve already given my findings to my immediate superior, MissAnne Marie Cole, Administrator of the Home Planet Liaison Office.  Shewanted to offer her thanks personally.”

Miss Coleappeared in another window next to Riley on the screen.  Behind her was anice view of the Avenue of Towers from an upper-story office window.  Shewas a strikingly beautiful woman who appeared to be in her early middleyears.  A sharp-featured face with intelligent dark eyes was framed bywaving auburn hair.  “Ladies and gentlemen,” she said, “I offer you mydeepest appreciation for your services to our city.  As Chief LiaisonRiley has already said, the board will hear great things from us about yourteam.  Thanks to your performance last night, The Nexus has assured itselfa lasting place in our city.”

“Wait a second,”said Bradley, “was our department in danger of being shut down?”

Miss Cole gave areassuring smile.  “Don’t worry, Mr. Park.  The United Space Programswould never have invested so much in the Sherlock Project if we assumed itwould fail.  But you probably know that your department was largelyexperimental when it was founded.  The idea was that other societies mayeventually want to adopt a similar system.”

“We’re showingthe Earthsiders a new way to fight crime,” Holiday told them, though Jillnoticed he didn’t look as happy about it as she would have expected.

“The liaisonoffice,” Riley said onscreen, “is the United Space Program’s foremost source ofinformation about The Nexus.  It’s not just your board that will beimpressed—the entire USP will hear about your success.”

Miss Colenodded.  “I predict it won’t be long before many regions of the HomePlanet will begin buildingSherlocksof theirown.”  She smiled again—a gratifying but intimidating smile.  “You’renot just impacting Anterra, ladies and gentlemen; you’re potentially impactingall of humanity.”

“And Miss Colewill do all she can to continue to ensure the stability of your department,”added Riley.  “I’m pleased to announce that, if all goes as planned,she’ll be Mayor of Anterra by this time next year.”

“I appreciate theoptimism,” she said evenly, “but it’s not a foregone conclusion—though theearly polls do look favorable.  But whether I’m in the mayoral office orhere in the liaison office, I promise you all I will do my utmost to keep TheNexus running strong.”

 

MANYmore kind words and formalities were exchanged before Riley and his boss signedoff.  Holiday kept the team assembled for a brief meeting.

“The bad newsfirst,” he began.

It was hard tohear.

 

 

10

 

 

“WHATdo you mean he’snot Sketch?” Bradley demanded from his usual lone seatin the back.

For once Bradleywasn’t alone in his displeasure.

“Mr. Kim iswhat’s known as a phantom,” said Holiday.

“A decoy posingas an actual crime lord,” Jill recalled aloud.

“Most of thebig-timers have at least one phantom.  It’s another layer of protectionfor them.”

“Sounds like alousy job,” commented Dizzie, “pretending to be one of the most wanted peoplein the city.”

“It pays well,”answered the director.  “And it’s a position of some power in its ownright.  Kim headed up a number of Sketch’s projects.”

“You knew thewhole time, didn’t you?” asked Amber.

“Why didn’t youtell us?” asked Corey.

“I shouldn’t evenbe telling you now,” replied Holiday.  “I kept the knowledge to myself foras long as possible to prevent it from spreading.  I hope it’s perfectlyclear that this information doesn’t leave the room.  So long as thecriminal underground thinkswethink we’ve got the real Sketch incustody, they’ll be off their guard.  Let’s let them continue to thinkso.”

“You think evenin custody Kim has ways of communicating to his superiors,” asked Amber, “andletting them know you’ve called his bluff?”

“Walls haveears.  I didn’t want to, as you put it, call his bluff so soon.  Butthe time had come to shake him and loosen his tongue.”

“So he talked?”Bradley asked impatiently.

Holidaynodded.  “Now for the worse news.”

“Wait,” saidDizzie, “I thought it was supposed to be bad news and thengoodnews,not bad and then worse!”

“If there’sanything good about it,” replied the director, “it’s the fact that we have alead.  But it comes with disturbing news:  One of Kim’s chief taskswas overseeing the obtaining of firearms for Sketch’s ring.  There hasapparently been an extensive weapons stockpiling operation going on for sometime.”

“Meaning what?”Bradley asked anxiously.

Holidayhesitated.  “We don’t know for certain.  It could be a precautionarymeasure.  Or...”

Or somethingterrible.  A coup in the works.  A violent uprising. Revolution.  There were plenty of ways to say it.  No one said any ofthem.

“Mr. Kim,”Holiday resumed, “delivered smuggled guns to a contact named Doreen Maybury.”

The mug shot fromMs. Maybury’s official Anterran ID appeared on the screen.  She had anintense face with a lot of makeup and very short blonde hair.

“He knew the nameof his contact?” Jill asked.

“Of coursenot.  Each time he delivered the goods Miss Maybury was careful not to beseen.  They met in dark places, as befits crooks, and she always wore ahood to shade her face.  She even wore gloves so as not to leave strayprints Kim could trace.  But during one exchange a bit of her left wristbetween her sleeve and her glove happened to be exposed, revealing a peculiar tattoo.”

“Big mistake,”noted Corey.  “This Miss Maybury may just be a recruit, not aprofessional.”

“It’spossible.  In any case, Kim was able to make a rough drawing of the tattoofrom memory.  It was detailed enough for me to recognize it rightaway—though many would probably not.”  Holiday’s look turned amused. “It seems Ms. Maybury has had herself inked with the royal coat of arms of theUnited Kingdom.”

“So it was easyto make an ID,” said Bradley.

“Hey, I wouldn’tsay easy,” Dizzie said, giving him a look.  “It took me all day to checktattoo parlor records.  You know how many tattoo parlors there are inAnterra?”

“Good work, Diz,”said Corey, giving her a high-five.

“And that’s onlya sample of Desiree’s work so far today,” said Holiday.  “It seems MissMaybury works in the PR office for theDurnhamParkConservatory.  Sherlock ran through the onsite security videos.  Onseveral occasions over the past year, Miss Maybury has arrived for workcarrying unusually large unmarked boxes.”

“Can we be surethey’re the smuggled weapons?” asked Bradley.

“The occasionsmatch the time frames when Doreen got a delivery from Kim,” said Dizzie, givingBradley a triumphant look.

“Weird place fora weapons stockpile,” mused Amber.

“Inarguably,”said Holiday.

“Has shecontinued to bring these packages to the conservatory since we nabbed Kim?”asked Corey.

“She has,”Holiday confirmed.

“So she’s still acontact for another weapons smuggler,” said Jill.

“And if they’restill using her, they haven’t guessed that Kim could ID her for us,” saidCorey.

“Or else it’s asetup,” interjected Bradley.

“It’s possible,”agreed the director, “though unlikely.  Too elaborate, with too littleguarantee.”

“Then we have alead,” Corey said.  “What else do we know?”

“Unfortunatelysurveillance at the conservatory is slim,” said Dizzie.  “Just the onecamera in the entryway, and another pair in the orchid room.” DurnhamPark Conservatory was known for its geneticallyenhanced orchids.

“So we have noway of knowing where she’s bringing the packages,” said Amber.

“Right.  Ipulled the schematics of the conservatory grounds.  They’re not verydetailed.  Mostly it looks like just greenhouse area open to thepublic.  But there’s some space that might be offices, classrooms,maintenance closets, things like that.  Plenty of options for a secretstockpile.”

“We should startby scoping the place out,” said Corey.

Holidaysmiled.  “Ladies and gentlemen, you’re going on a field trip.”

 

DURNHAMPark was a spacious locale in the south quadrant of the city—plenty of bigtrees, flower gardens, and walkways.  The conservatory sat near the edgeof the park.  It was a glass structure with a large dome bubbling up fromthe center.  It was Saturday; there were plenty of visitors of all ages,including dozens of high school and college students.

There was noreason to suspect that five of the young visitors were scouting out the placefor a top-secret mission.  They split up to avoid drawing too muchattention to themselves.  Jill and Dizzie went first, ambling fromgreenhouse to greenhouse and looking around like the rest of thevisitors.  Corey and Amber came some distance behind them.  Bradleycame last, slinking along by himself with his usual disdainful expression.

“I love thisplace,” Dizzie told Jill they entered the tropical section beneath the glassdome.  The air was thick with manufactured humidity.  Lush equatorialtrees stretched toward the dome.  Vivid exotic flowers lined thepaths.  Here and there wooden stairways led up to a series of bridgeszigzagging among the treetops.

“Yeah,” saidJill, eyes wandering.  “It’s nice.”

“You all right?”Dizzie asked her.

“Sure.  Justchecking things out.  That’s why we’re here, you know.”

“Right, but thatdoesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it.”

“True.”  Jillhad to admit the tropical area was breathtaking, but it was hard not to thinkabout the mission.  There was a small closed door behind some vines on arock wall just off the path.  She made a mental note.

“If I wasn’talready employed, I’d try to work here,” said Dizzie.  “I think I’d make amean horticulturalist.”

She probablywould.  Dizzie cultivated several very nice plants in her room back at thedepartment.

They passed fromthe tropical room into a section of more temperate shrubs and flowers.  Themain staff offices were to one side of this section.

Next they cameinto the famous orchid room.  In the center was a sealed, glass-walledvault housing dozens of varieties.  Most prominently displayed were theGomez-Bjorgensonorchids, named for the pair ofbiologists who had developed them.  The genetically enhanced petalsgleamed with metallic flecks or stripes of gold, silver or copper.  One ofthe most famous varieties boasted petals that seemed to consist entirely ofpolished chrome, reflecting their surroundings like a mirror.

They wouldn’t behiding the weapons in here, Jill assumed.  It was the most watched andprotected section of the conservatory.

Beyond the orchidroom was an area for kids.  Along with the growing things in this roomwere colorful educational signs and activities.  Several kids, parents intow, were in the process of learning about photosynthesis or the differencebetween deciduous trees and evergreen trees.  Several others were in theprocess of playing tag among the plants while their parents yelled at them tostop.  There was another closet of some sort in the corner of this room.

They went up aramp and curved around the edge of the final section of the conservatory; theywere looking down on a simulated alpine forest, complete with a rocky streamand a stuffed mother bear with her two stuffed cubs.

“Imagine seeing areal bear out in the wild,” Dizzie said with a shiver.

“This is the bestway to get in after hours,” said Jill, spying an employee door leading outsidebelow the far end of the ramp.

Dizzie shook herhead.  “You’re like all business, aren’t you?”

“Um, you mayrecall that Sketch is hoarding firearms somewhere on the premises.”

She sighed. “Okay, okay.  I’ll try to stay focused.  Hey, we’re almost back tothe snack shop.  Let’s get smoothies!  Did you see they havemango-strawberry?  Iwannatry it.”

Jill laughed inspite of herself.  “Nice focusing.”

 

THEsnack shop was in the corner of the conservatory’s entrance area.  Therewere tables on rock-floored tiers along a scenic and fairly extensivewaterfall.  Jill and Dizzie found a table near the top of the falls.

Jill’s eyeswandered around the expansive room. Bradley was by himself sipping a coffee ata table not too far away.  Corey and Amber sat at a table near the bottomof the falls.  Corey said something with a half-smile, and Amber burst outlaughing.  They were sharing a milkshake—one glass with two straws. Jill rolled her eyes and looked away.

“What?” askedDizzie with a swallow.

“Nothing,” Jillsaid dismissively.

Dizzie wasn’tconvinced, but she let it pass.  “I love this waterfall.  Don’t youever wish you could go to the Home Planet sometime?  They actuallyhavethis type of stuff there.  It’s nice to look at here, but it’s just notthe same.”

Jill was stillscanning the room.  “Lots of closed-off areas here.”

Dizziesighed.  “You’re hopeless.”

“I’ve neverreally thought about it,” said Jill.  “Going to Earth, I mean.  Iguess when I was a kid I kind of wanted to.  But you just grow up and getpreoccupied with other things, you know?  You don’t think about that stuffanymore.”

“Then I guess Inever grew up all the way,” said Dizzie with a shrug.

Jill stifled alaugh.

“Hey!” saidDizzie.

“I didn’t say anything,”said Jill, eyes drifting back to Corey and Amber’s table.

“Isn’t theresomeplace on Earth you’d like to go?” said Dizzie.  “The Grand Canyon, orsomething?”

Jill gave Dizziea severe look.  “I know you’re trying to distract me.”

Dizzie shruggedexaggeratedly.  “What do you mean?”

“Don’t pretendwith me.”

“All right,fine,” Dizzie admitted grudgingly.  “I can tell Corey and Amber aredriving you crazy with their lovey-dovey-ness.  Me too, by the way. Let’s just ignore them, okay?”  She held her smoothie toward Jill. “Want to try the mango-strawberry?  It’s delicious!”

“You just want anexcuse to try mine,” said Jill.

“Can I?” Dizziepleaded.

Jilllaughed.  “Of course.”

“Ooo, this is good!”

“Chocolatebanana,” said Jill.

“I like it waybetter than mine.”

“We can trade ifyou want.”

“Okay!”

“And by the way,thanks.”

“For what?”

“Being anuisance.”

Dizzie smiledwidely.  “Don’t mention it!  It’s like one of my best things.”

 

THEteamcompared notes back at HQ.  By their count there were at least twentyareas in the conservatory where the weapons could be stockpiled.

The options forproceeding were limited.  Setting up their own surveillance was highlyimpractical for several reasons—the likelihood of being caught, the vastness ofthe building along with its many twists and obstacles, and the fact that thehumidity would be brutal on the equipment.  Tailing Doreen Maybury to findthe hiding place was out.  There was no telling when her next deliverywould come, and the team couldn’t remain on standby until it happened. Bradley, not surprisingly, suggested accosting Doreen and interrogating her,but Holiday nixed the idea immediately.  “The moment we intrude at allupon Ms. Maybury is the moment we alarm Sketch’s ring.  They’re sure to bewatching her closely.”

“So what do wedo?” asked Amber.

“We do it the oldfashioned way,” Holiday answered.  “A stealth operation.  One agentinside the conservatory, doing a manual search for possible locations.”

“So it’ll beJill,” said Bradley from his traditional back row seat.

The others turnedand looked at him.

Heshrugged.  “She’s the best at stealth missions.”

Jill stared athim, speechless.

“He’s right,” thedirector agreed.  “But we won’t send you in without your agreement,Jillian.  It could be more dangerous than we know.”

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