Matthew Graybosch
author by choice, techie by necessity

Silent Clarion: a Starbreaker novel

Silent Clarion is an accout of Naomi Bradleigh's post-breakup working vacation from Hell. It wasn't something I intended to write at first. My editor at Curiosity Quills Press had requested an origin story for Naomi, one of the major supporting characters in Without Bloodshed, and also wanted to know more about “Project Harker”, something I had mentioned in that novel.

So I wrote a 10,000 word novelette called “Steadfast” that featured an artificial vampire acting as a holdout who didn't get the word that the war was over. Naomi had the job of hunting him down.

CQ ran it as a five-parter on their website, and TBH I should have demanded payment. While I was working on a sequel to Without Bloodshed, they came to me and asked about expanding upon “Steadfast” as a web serial, a chapter a week, with publication of the whole as a novel once it was done.

If this seems a bit rough, it's because I was belting out a chapter a week. Unfortunately, Silent Clarion never made it to print. But it's here for you to read if you're a Gemini protocol user.

Summary

My curiosity might get me killed. I thought I needed a vacation from my duties as an Adversary in service to the Phoenix Society. After learning about unexplained disappearances in a little town called Clarion, I couldn’t stop myself from checking it out.

Now I must protect a witness to two murders without any protection but my sword. I must identify a murderer who strikes from the shadows. I must expose secrets the Phoenix Society is hellbent on keeping buried.

I have no support but an ally I dare not trust. If I cannot break the silence hiding what happened in Clarion’s past, I have no future. I must discover the truth about Project Harker. Failure is not an option.

Content Warning

The following is a work of fiction. As such, the reader should understand and accept all of the following before continuing.

Original Disclaimer

The following is a work of fiction and contains content that may be offensive, triggering, or inappropriate for certain readers. Any views or opinions expressed by the characters in this novel are strictly their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the author or the publisher.

Any resemblance or similarities between the characters depicted within to living or dead persons in this world or any parallel world within the known multiverse are either a coincidence; an allusion to real, alternate, invented, or secret history; or a parody. Likewise for places and events.

The stunts in this work were performed by trained professionals; attempting them at home can result in property damage, civil or criminal liability, personal injury, and premature death. Do not attempt them in real life.

If you find any allegory or applicability in this text, please consult a qualified professional for psychiatric evaluation and treatment.

Author's Note

This novel contains not only spoken dialogue but dialogue transmitted over text messaging. To distinguish the two, I use French quotation marks for the latter instead of standard quotation marks, so that a text message will look like this: «This is text dialogue.»

Silent Clarion previously appeared as a web serial hosted by Curiosity Quills Press. The novel also appeared as a Kindle Serial under the following titles:

Neither the Kindle edition of Silent Clarion nor the individual episode are available any longer.

Dedication

For Catherine, purr usual. Thanks for hitting me upside the head every time I don't quite get the character right.

Part I

The Geographic Cure

Many of my colleagues insist that moving after a significant life change, or even taking a vacation, is just a “geographic cure.“ They think it's an attempt on the patient's part at fleeing trauma. Their wariness is understandable, given that many of their patients came to them after their problems caught up with them.

Despite the experience of my fellow psychotherapists, I disagree. I think that consciously and intentionally seeking physical distance from an event can help a person regain perspective on challenging emotional experiences.

From a Safer Distance by Dr. Nikki Hooks, MD, Ph.D

Track 01

Nemesea: “No More”

London can be a cruel city, and my duties as an Adversary often demanded I face it at its coldest. Not that it bothered me. It only made my nights hotter by comparison.

I expected to find John asleep after finishing my shower. Being in his last year of residency at an Ohrmazd Medical Group hospital, he often dozed after loving me. I wholeheartedly encouraged this tendency. Tired people err, and in our lines of work, errors cost lives.

Instead, I found him stretched across the bed naked, reading a medical journal. I sat on the edge of the bed and dragged my fingertip down his spine to make him shiver.

He rolled over and smiled up at me. “What were you singing in there, Naomi?“

“Did you like it? It's a song by a gnostic metal band I recently discovered called Lucifer Invictus. Catchy as hell. I saw them perform with Seiten Taisei last week.“ Since I had finally prevailed upon him to come to my flat after our date, I grabbed the record instead of just pulling up a digital recording. I wasn't about to bring vinyl to the hotels John often picked for our trysts since that also required dragging the player along.

We listened together as I dried my hair. John took a comb and worked out the tangles for me. He was less patient than I, but would stop and kiss my ears before the pain became too much and I told him to sod off.

When he had finished, I pushed him down on his back and settled beside him, my arm draped over his chest. I rested my head on his shoulder and studied him. His face was angular, and his default expression pensive. “Did you have a complicated surgery today?“

John shifted beneath me and pressed his thin lips against mine. Their softness always surprised me. “No. I have four days off because of the hours I worked over the last month.“

He kissed me, his fingertips tracing random patterns on my skin, but it was too soon for me to take him again. At thirty, he no longer possessed the rampant hunger of men my age. I never minded, though I daresay my foster mother had other things in mind when she taught me to value quality over quantity.

Our affair sparked a little scandal at its start. I grew up in a foster family, with no record of my actual parentage. Leaving home at fourteen to study music in New York while also attending Adversary Candidate School was simply not done in John's circles. Furthermore, I lived in indentured servitude; the Phoenix Society agreed to finance my musical education as long as I performed a minimum of two years of service as an Adversary once I completed my training.

John came from one of the few wealthy, aristocratic families to survive Nationfall. I suspect many of his circle thought me a fortune hunter, though only one dared say so to my face. Were I not an officer of the Phoenix Society, I would have rewarded his cousin's insult by letting him choose the terms of our duel.

Instead of pressing John to talk, I found pleasure in his embrace. I tasted him. His skin was still salty-sweet from his prior efforts on my behalf.

He sighed beneath me. “Do you love me, Naomi?“

Every man I ever dated eventually asked this question, or credited me with making them be the first to profess their love. I enjoyed John's company. He was intelligent, serious, and frequently witty. He did useful, meaningful work. I loved his hands and mouth on me.

But he never swept me off my feet as if we were the leads in an epic romance. I met him in the course of my duties and decided after fifteen minutes of conversation that if he were willing, I would take him for a lover. I began our affair expecting it to run its course.

I kissed him. “I suppose we're due for this conversation after a year together. Is that what's keeping you awake?“

I meant it part in jest, but his expression hardened. “I'm serious, Naomi. I need to know how you feel about me.“

“Has your family started giving you grief about me again?“

John nodded and shifted as if he meant to sit up. I stood, poured the last of the champagne, and gave him the glass containing more. He drained it and sat staring at it for a long moment.

“How much do you know about my family?“

While I picked up a fair amount over pillow talk, further research into John's family seemed pointless since I had no desire to marry into it. Using my implant, I searched the network for publicly available information. “You come from the peerage. Your father would have held a title of some sort under the old regime, and a seat in the House of Lords.“

John nodded. “Did you know this before we got involved?“

“You told me most of it in bed. Has that cousin of yours been slandering me again?“

“It's not my arsehole cousin, Naomi.“ John looked away for a moment, as if ashamed. “It's the whole family. I'm a firstborn son.“

“So, you're thinking about having children?“

“I have a duty, and my family has the mother picked out for me. I met her this morning.“

I put aside my glass and slipped into a fresh pair of panties and a camisole. The cool silk made me shiver a little as it slid over my skin.

Most of my previous lovers had a thing for catgirls, especially if they were pale, snow-blonde, and had red eyes. They had no interest in marriage or parenthood, which suited me thus far. Unlike John, I have congenital pseudofeline morphological disorder and possess certain feline characteristics. Fortunately a tail isn't one of them. “John, I know it's outside your specialty, but have you ever heard of couples like us having children?“

He shook his head. “No.“ He paused as if to collect his thoughts. “Look, Naomi, I wanted to know how you felt about me so I could figure out how to explain this. I never mentioned children before because I thought our age difference would make our relationship a temporary thing.“

“I'm only ten years your junior.“

“I thought you'd get bored with me and meet somebody your age, but you stuck around. And I stuck with you. But my family needs me to marry a young lady from a family with whom we frequently do business. It would unite our holdings and make our business ventures stronger, in addition to continuing our line into the future.“

I closed my eyes for a moment and strangled the urge to fly to John and beg him to defy his family for my sake. I never wanted a permanent relationship, but I had always been the one to end it. Welcome to how the other half feels, I suppose. “This isn't how I wanted us to part.“

John smiled at me. “Who says it has to end?“

“You're going to marry someone with whom you can have children, John. Of course, we have to say goodbye.“

“Not if you want to be my mistress.“

I suppose some people might have jumped at the opportunity to be kept in style by a lover who cherished them enough to transgress the expectations of fidelity society places upon married people. I can't condemn them. Despite that, I would not join their ranks for John's sake. My voice sharpened. “Am I supposed to be flattered?“

“You're angry with me.“

“I assume you haven't been with her yet, so you're plotting to cheat on a woman you don't know and haven't even touched.“

John must have found something intriguing on my floor because he had stopped looking at me. “I spent the morning with her before I agreed to marry her. She wasn't as good as you.“

“But she's good enough to serve as breeding stock?“ I gave my sword a longing glance, for I wanted nothing more than just cause to run him through. Learning he cheated on me with his bride-to-be wasn't quite enough. “Get dressed. Get out of my flat. If you ever speak to me again, you'll be the last of your line.“

Once John was gone, I shoved myself into workout clothes, grabbed a practice sword, and fled to Valkyrie Gym. It was always open, and any man there understood that their presence was tolerated on the condition that they deferred to women. Therefore, there was nothing wrong with my interrupting a man finishing a set of deadlifts and asking him to spot me. Nor was there any harm in my taking inordinate pleasure in shooting him down after impressing him with my strength or in heading upstairs to the dojo and taking on the half-dozen students working on their swordplay.

Staying until I had finished taking out my hurt and humiliation on those poor bastards, I texted my parents on the way home. Since they thought I was getting serious about John, it was a good idea to tell them I had dumped the bastard. Once home, I curled up on the couch alone save for my regret at how I had mishandled my anger and held my sword close like one of my old cuddle toys.

This was hardly the manner in which I wanted to spend my first anniversary, but it had been fine until he opened his mouth. Maybe John's fiancée would cheat on him at the first post-nuptial opportunity and give him crabs. I smiled at the notion and snuggled into my pillow.

Track 02

Anthrax: “I Am The Law”

I woke up rested. Determined to make a fresh start, I changed my bedding and opened all of the windows in my flat to exorcise John's scent. Once that was done, I set a small pot of coffee to brewing and fixed a breakfast of scrambled eggs and bacon.

One of the building's resident cats took advantage of the open windows to come visit. Winston wound about my legs and purred as I ate, hoping for a fatty scrap from my bacon or a bit of egg. When I was finished, I let him lick the plate as I scratched behind his ears and along his back.

I missed having a cat of my own, but my responsibilities precluded pets at the moment. A mission might keep me from home for days at a time without notice, and I felt uncomfortable asking one of my neighbors to watch over a cat for me when I could not be relied upon to reciprocate.

Once Winston had finished, I retrieved the plate and set about cleaning up after myself. Winston did the same, washing himself with long, contented licks. My understanding of the importance of keeping my kitchen clean came the hard way. An extended mission could turn a dirty sink into a science experiment.

While I cleaned, I checked the messages on my implant and deleted one from John without reading it. I then adjusted the filter settings to block all further contact between us. It wasn't personal; it was SOP whenever I broke up with somebody. If John's message had been an entreaty begging me to take him back, I might have weakened and granted his request. Worse, I might have drunk-dialed the son of a bitch and told him to tell his wife he needed to work late. Worst of all, we might have tried to continue as friends.

Perhaps I was a complete bitch for severing all contact with former lovers, but I didn't give a damn. I was looking out for myself because I couldn't count on anybody else to do it on my behalf.

My friend Jacqueline seemed to have mastered the trick of remaining friends with her exes. It occurred to me, as it often did after a breakup, that I should ask her for pointers. God knows I gave her plenty of help with her swordplay. Fellow Adversaries and all that.

Speaking of whom, the most recent message in my queue was Jackie's. She must have sent it while I was eating, but the subject didn't suggest it was especially urgent. I read my mother's message first. John had called my parents last night and asked them to appeal on his behalf. They told him, and I quote, to “stop being such a manipulative little prat and fuck off.“

I'm not nearly as good a daughter to them as they've been parents to me. They didn't let the fact of my being a foster child stop them from loving me as their own, but the knowledge that they were not my ‘real’ parents always drove me to keep a certain distance. Regardless, this deserved a proper call, not just a text message.

My mother must have expected me to call early. “Did you want to talk about John?“

“Not really. I wanted to thank you for the way you handled him last night.“

“You'll find the right person someday.“

I rolled my eyes at the sentiment. My parents were romantics, especially Mum. She wanted me to have the love she experienced. Maybe I would, someday, but you'll pardon my cynicism if I harbored the suspicion my parents weren't untouched innocents when they met. “How is everybody? Is Nathan still seeing that rugby player? Charlotte, right?“

“Oh, they're so happy together! Why not come and visit? We haven't seen you since you took the oath.“ Mum lowered her voice. “Howell worries about you. I keep telling him you'll thrive on your own, but you know how he is.“

I couldn't help but laugh a little. Because of a medical condition so rare my father was only the hundredth person known to exhibit it, he could only father sons. His inability to produce sperm with X chromosomes would have made him the envy of kings throughout history. Unfortunately, he wanted a daughter or two. They fostered me, hoping for a princess, and got an Amazon. “I'll visit soon. I'm overdue for time off.“

“Really? You mean it, Nims?“

I meant it. Some time off would do me good, and the company would keep me from getting too lonely. “Of course, Mum. I'll call again once I've made the arrangements, but I have to report in soon.“

Since chatting with my mum left little time to get to the office and I had showered at the gym, I threw on my uniform, grabbed my weapons, and ran to catch the next train. Rather than do anything fancy with my hair I just braided it into a tight cable while riding the Tube. Pulling my hair back exposed my ears, but unless I wore sunglasses all the time like a Hollywood Vampire, my kitty eyes were hard to miss.

Jacqueline was there to meet me when I got off at Victoria Station. “Oi! Nims! Didn't you get my message?“

I ran up the stairs and accepted a quick hug. “Sorry. I meant to check it after I called my mother, but the time got away from me.“

“No worries. I just wanted to tell you we got a job over in the East End. Bloody good thing Malkuth knew where you were.“

Jacqueline and I had been to the East End before. I suggested the most likely recipient of our attentions based on prior experience. “MEPOL?“

“Yeah. Religious discrimination instead of racism this time.“

I shook my head and suspected we'd eventually resort to purging MEPOL's ranks. The Phoenix Society couldn't tolerate the existence of city police who used their religious beliefs or racial prejudices as an excuse to abuse their authority. “Have we met the accused before?“

“Nah.“ Jacqueline grabbed a doughnut from a stand as we walked to the train that would take us to the East End. She offered me half, but I politely refused. I'm not diabetic, but being CPMD+ makes eating sugary treats other than small quantities of fruit a bad idea. I usually spent the day after my birthday sick, because it would break Mum's heart if I told her she couldn't make one of her cakes for me like she does for my brothers.

Jacqueline continued to talk around a mouthful of doughnut. “MEPOL booted the last set of arseholes. This is a fresh batch. They've got shiny new badges, and they're convinced that since monotheists used to persecute everybody else, and allegedly caused Nationfall to boot, they need to be kept in their place.“

“Wonderful.“ I sighed, disappointed that my first task today would prove so mundane. “I guess nobody thought to mention that turnabout ceases to be fair play once you put on the uniform. What level of force is authorized?“ I wore my sword and pistol, but I didn't want to dirty my blade on a few bullies.

“Less-than-lethal, and only in self-defense.“ Jacqueline huffed. “Though getting some rebar and going all Vlad Tepes on their asses would certainly send a message.“

I imagined a few dozen policemen impaled on four-meter lengths of rebar and left for scavengers to pick over. For a moment I could see it, as real as day, and I shuddered. “I'm not convinced that's a message we want to send.“

We strode into the MEPOL precinct as if we owned the place. Jacqueline hung back a bit, her hand on her sword. The desk sergeant looked up from his terminal, and his face fell. “Fuck me. It's you lot again.“

“Did you miss us?“ I leaned over his desk. “I'm no happier to be here than you are to see me. I forwarded a list of names to you. Have you gathered them?“

The desk sergeant nodded. “Yes, Adversary, but the Chief Inspector isn't happy.“

“Excellent,“ I smiled, partly at his confused expression. “Misery loves company.“

Chief Inspector Wallace reminded me of a weasel, with his narrow body and gaunt face. He glared at us while straightening his tie. “I can't believe you're bothering with this. They're just demon worshipers.“

Oh, lovely. The Chief Inspector was a maltheist who thought all forms of religious faith were demon worship. While he had a right to hold any ignorant notion he liked, his inability to keep his prejudices to himself while acting in an official capacity made his opinions our concern. The Society frowned on such bias, so I smiled at Jacqueline. “I think we found the root of the problem. Arrest him.“

“Got it.“ Jacqueline drew her pistol just in case Wallace felt like doing something stupid and recited his rights. We left the desk sergeant with the unenviable task of sticking his former superior in a cell until the Society could send a vehicle to collect him.

We found a dozen constables grumbling in the conference room. One of them made to grab my arse, but I saw it coming and left the constable with a handful of air to fantasize about.

I stared at the men. All of them were pale and stared back at me with hard, cruel eyes. “I understand you've gotten into your heads that you have the right to harass Christians, Muslims, and other monotheists outside their places of worship for no other reason than that they're devout.“

“The hell do you care? They're just—”

“They're human beings, and have the same rights as everybody else.“ Without realizing it, I drew my sword. Rather than put it away and look stupid, I brandished it. “I can't believe I had to come here because you bigoted sons of syphilitic bitches can't refrain from disgracing your uniforms by harassing people who exercise their rights without violating those of others. I swear to every god listening, if you arseholes don't shape up I will bring enough Adversaries to hold you down while Jacqueline and I tattoo the Universal Declaration of Individual Rights into your foreheads so you can study it while shaving.“

While I had their attention, I pointed my sword at the constable who tried to grab a piece of me. “Also, the next one of you pigs who tries laying a hand on me is going to lose it. Any questions?“

A man in the back raised his hand. “Isn't it child abuse to take children to religious services? You know, forced indoctrination?“

Jacqueline answered before I could. “Children who think their parents have violated their right to freedom of conscience may contact the Phoenix Society. You're law enforcement officers. Stick to your mission, and leave ours to us.“

I lifted an empty cardboard box. “One last thing before you gentlemen leave. Hand over your badges and service gladii. As this is your first offense, it's two weeks of unpaid leave. A second gets you a three-month suspension. A third offense will be your last.“

I cut off the grumbling. “Another word of complaint and I will consult the Society's legal department about compelling you to spend a week with a devout family, including attending services with them, so you can see for yourselves they're as human as you. Any questions?“

Track 03

Queen: “Death on Two Legs”

Jacqueline and I had no trouble getting seats on the Tube when we finished at MEPOL, which was always a pleasant surprise. It meant we could sit and relax without worrying about our swords poking or tripping somebody. The train thrummed beneath my feet as it accelerated, and I let my eyes slip shut for a quick nap.

Jacqueline had other ideas. “Don't fall asleep on me.“

“Why not?“ I really didn't want to open my eyes. Though today's mission wasn't even close to being my toughest, I was worn out. “We're the only people in this car.“

“I wanted to talk with you.“ Her concerned expression made me nervous. Worrying was my job. “You practically fed those cops their own bollocks back there. What's up?“

I shook my head. “I'd rather not talk about it.“

“Not good enough, Nims.“ Jacqueline tugged on one of her tight black curls. “We're getting off at the next stop and finding a pub.“

“I dumped John last night, Jackie. That's all.“

“No, that's not all.“ The quiet vehemence in her voice surprised me. Jacqueline typically broadcast her anger for all to hear. Was she clamping down for my sake? “We watch each other's backs because we're both Adversaries. If something's bugging you, and you escalate a tense situation, that could damn well get me hurt. Wouldn't you be concerned if I had been the one to lose my cool?“

She was right, but I still didn't want to talk about it on the Tube. “Do we have to discuss it here?“

“Not at all. Like I said, we'll find a pub.“

I made a show of checking the time. “Isn't it a bit early for a pub crawl?“

She shrugged. “Chattan's orders. He saw the feeds. But we're friends, Nims. If he hadn't given the order, I would have dragged you out tonight anyway.“

We found a pub called the Rampant Stallion, notable because the sign incorporated both the heraldic sense of the word and the sexual one. Jacqueline and I were the only women there, and the bartender gave us an appraising eye. I wasn't surprised; we were a study in contrasts.

“If you had a third Adversary with you, ladies, I'd assume this was a joke.“

“No joke.“ Jacqueline laid down a banknote. “A pint of your best for me, and a glass of your house red for my partner. And put us somewhere quiet and out of the way. Girl talk.“

The bartender nodded, and signaled a waiter. “You might prefer a booth in the back, then. Charles will see to your needs.“

“This way, ladies.“ Charles seated us in the back, well away from everyone else. The booth was dark, lit only by a small wall-mounted lamp. He left us just long enough to bring our drinks. “Would you like something to eat? Today's specials are listed on the front page.“

Jacqueline sipped her beer as she flipped through the menu. “Curry sounds good. How about you, Nims?“

I tasted my wine. It was a bit dry, but I liked it that way. “A steak cooked medium rare, Charles, if that's available?“

“Of course, Adversary.“ He smiled at Jacqueline before rushing off.

“I think he likes you, Jackie.“ Not that I blamed him. She was shorter than me, much darker, and a bit curvier. More importantly, her default expression was also friendlier and more open.

Jacqueline barely shrugged. “Too bad for him. I'm taken.“

I leaned in, interested. Last week, Jackie was single and just a bit bitter about it. Not that I blamed her. You wouldn't believe how much of a pain it could be to date if you weren't willing to hook up with another Adversary. It was sufficiently common that Xanadu House pioneered a special discount for patrons carrying Phoenix Society ID. “Found someone new already?“

Jacqueline also leaned closer. “He's the vicar of my church.“

“A vicar?“ I couldn't resist a little tease. “I wonder what the Bible says about that.“

“I'm sure God will forgive a bit of nonmarital sex. He's supposed to be good like that.“ She gave me a funny look as if she expected me to take offense. “Am I out of line? Adversary's honor, I had no idea you were devout until you invoked the deity at MEPOL.“

“I'm not.“ Instead of elaborating, I started flipping through the wine list. Never mind that the house red was perfectly adequate, it gave me a moment to consider my response. Talking about sport, religion, or politics was a wonderful way to alienate people, so it never hurt to be careful. “I'd rather talk about John than talk about our beliefs, and I really don't want to talk about John.“

“What happened? Did you two fight?“

“He wanted to get married.“

Jacqueline blinked. “What happened, Nims? Did he propose? Did you turn him down?“

“Death on Two Legs didn't propose to me.“

Jacqueline stared at me. “Did you just call John ‘Death on Two Legs’?“

“That's his new name. Got a problem with that?“

“I keep forgetting you listen to old music.“ She smiled and finished her pint. “Hell no. Tell me the rest.“

I decided to let her have it. “I'm not worthy of being that arsehole's bride because I'm CPMD-positive and can't give his aristo parents grandchildren. No, he just wants to keep me around as his exotic fuck doll for after he's done his duty for his family by knocking up the ISO standard aristo girl they picked to be his bride.“

I stared at my wine. No way I was already drunk enough to let everything out like that. Maybe I was too angry to give a shit about how I sounded right now. I drank the rest and wished I had the bottle handy.

“I hope you told him to fuck off.“

“I was this close to telling him to fuck off at swordpoint. What really bugged me was that the prat called my parents afterward and begged them to get me to go back to being his manic pixie dream catgirl. Who the hell does that?“

“Not somebody I'd want in my life.“ Jacqueline sat back as Charles brought our food and refilled our glasses. She sniffed, and a broad grin spread across her face. “Damn, this smells good.“

“Enjoy, ladies.“

I took a bite, and the meat melted in my mouth, leaving a hint of citrus and spices from whatever marinade they used here. It fit perfectly with the wine. So I was hungry. Who knew?

Of course, Jacqueline had to ruin it by spooning a bit of her curry onto my plate. “Nims, you gotta try this.“

The last time I tried chicken korma, it disagreed so violently with me that we fought to the death. Regardless, I made a valiant effort. It tasted the way loud sex in an inappropriate venue felt and was redolent of coconut and turmeric. I sliced a bit of steak for Jacqueline. “That was good, but try this.“

“Holy mother of fuck, Nims. I'd shag the chef for the recipe. Hell, I'd let him take the back door.“

“I doubt even your sweet arse is sufficient payment, Jackie.“ I gestured with my fork. “I was right to dump John, wasn't I?“

“What the fuck is wrong with you?“

I stared at the remnants of my steak and idly sliced off a bit without eating it. I let go of the one detail I had held back in my little rant. “It was our anniversary. We―”

“There's no ‘we’ between you and that limp-dicked waste of ammo. John had his chance, and he fucking well blew it.“

I looked around, sure we were attracting attention, which was the last thing I needed today. No doubt I caused enough trouble at MEPOL.

“Ow!“ I reached down and rubbed my shin, where Jackie had kicked me under the table. I glared at her. “What the hell was that for?“

“Pay attention, Nims. I asked you a question. John didn't have the balls to defy his family for you, and you deserve a guy who would challenge God itself. Now, how do you really feel about him?

How did I feel about John, now that I knew him for a spineless creep? “I fucking despise him. I can't believe I ever let him touch me.“

Jacqueline nodded sagely. “Better to despise your ex than to despise yourself.“

“So, what should I do now?“

“You were a demon-ridden idiot for coming in today. I could have handled MEPOL without you.“

That stung my pride. “Go to Hell, Jackie. I'm not going to stay home and mope just because he ruined our anniversary.“

“Would you insist you could still do the job if you had been shot or had a broken leg?“ I kept silent, suspecting it was a rhetorical question, and Jacqueline continued. “You can't do this job heartbroken. Nobody can.“

“Fine. I'll just tell Chattan I need a week or two off to cry over my arsehole ex. That'll work.“

Jacqueline shrugged. “Why do you think Chattan took time off a couple of months ago? His wife divorced him out of the blue. Poor bastard came home to an empty flat and a letter with divorce papers on the kitchen counter. She even cleared out the fridge and took his beer.“

I stared at my plate, unsure of how to respond though it was evident from Jackie's tone that she regarded not leaving Chattan his beer an unpardonable sin.

“Take some leave, or you'll bloody well burn out. With my luck, you'll crash in front of a suspect looking for an edge on us. You're overdue for some R&R anyway.“

No way to argue with such logic. I finished my steak. “I did promise my mum I'd visit.“

Track 04

Lordi: “Man Skin Boot”

I would never have believed Director Chattan married let alone divorced if Jacqueline hadn't told me. Not to say he was incapable of attracting a woman or earning her trust, respect, and affection. Chattan cut a dashing figure in uniform, and I'll admit to occasionally and discreetly ogling him. He was a capable fencer, and gracious when defeated.

He was also an intelligent and competent commander, dedicated to the whole of the Phoenix Society and its ideals. He liked to visit the desks of Adversaries working on clerical tasks because they weren't out in the field and surprise them with questions on law, procedure, and tactics if he thought they were taking a break. He called it MT, mental training.

The obstacle to my belief was his professionalism. When he was on the job, he didn't talk about anything else. I suspected he brought his work home with him. Would a man who seemed to care only about the Phoenix Society's mission put duty aside long enough to remember that he was also a person, with a person's needs for connection and release?

All of that I kept to myself as I stepped into Chattan's office after logging in and checking my mail. He put aside his sandwich, looked up from his book, and indicated a chair. “Feeling better today, Adversary Bradleigh?“

I sat and tried not to let my embarrassment burn my face raw. “I'm ready to meet the consequences of my actions, should the Society determine I exceeded my authority at MEPOL or violated the suspects’ rights.“

Chattan snapped his book shut, and put it aside. “Relax. Nobody's going to put you on trial.“

“You do set a certain example, Director.“

“I suppose I do.“ Chattan chuckled. “I suspect Adversary Russo mentioned my recent difficulties.“

“You mean the divorce? I'm sorry. I don't think any of us had any idea. It's that stoicism of yours.“

I didn't realize I had been holding my breath until he finally spoke. “Funny you should mention that. My ex-wife kept talking about emotional unavailability during the proceedings.“

“I'm not certain that's any of my business, sir.“ In fact, hearing about it made me uncomfortable. While it humanized him, I was concerned he might inquire into my own recent woes.

“Likewise, your relationship problems are not my concern.“ Chattan gave a pointed grin. “Unless you think they're interfering with your duties.“

“I thought I could perform my duties without my emotions getting in the way, and I was wrong.“

Chattan leaned forward as if I had said something interesting. “Do you think it was your feelings about your ex that came out at MEPOL?“

“I'm not sure. If I had only been angry with Wallace for his callousness toward the people he swore to serve and protect, or with the constables responsible for the abuse, I think I would have managed to keep my emotions under control.“

“Maybe I should tell you a story.“ Chattan stood, and took an old framed photograph from one of the bookcases behind him. He studied the photo for a couple of minutes before continuing. “I was a kid during Nationfall and joined the Phoenix Society as soon as I was old enough. I served under a director named Iris Deschat.“

I'm sure I'd heard that name before, but couldn't place it. I looked her up. “The Iris Deschat who served as captain of the NACS Thomas Paine during Nationfall? I take it you served in New York when you were younger.“

Chattan seemed pleased with my response. “You remind me of her. She was also the sort to keep her emotions to herself, and believed in carrying out our mission in the most dispassionate manner possible.“

I now had a suspicion as to where this story was headed, but kept it to myself and let Chattan tell it his way.

“Before I took the oath, I followed Deschat on several missions to get a taste of fieldwork. One of them involved gender discrimination at a corporate software shop. The programmers’ union reported unethical hiring practices and a hostile environment. Because the shop couldn't find a sufficient number of women willing to take lower-paying non-development positions, they took to hiring women as developers, but then immediately demoted them to the less desirable roles.“

What the Hell?! Had these people not heard of Countess Lovelace? “What function did this corporation's management expect the women they hired to perform?“

“Instead of the development work they were hired to do, management made them work in tech support, testing, or as personal assistants to the male developers. The latter role went to the most attractive women, and they were encouraged to dress like courtesans.“

I tried to imagine being evaluated for a software development position based on my looks and found the result unpleasant. “What did Deschat do?“

Chattan smirked. “Would you like to see? I wasn't sure I'd get access to the video, but Malkuth thought you might find it instructive.“

Instructive? Oh, dear. “Well, if Malkuth thinks so.“

“I do.“ Malkuth appeared on the wall screen. He reminded me of a Manhattan detective from classic movies: streetwise with a tendency to exhibit profane wit whenever the script permitted. The Roman numeral ten blazed on his forehead. “You're too uptight, Naomi. Oh, and you can call me Mal. It's French for bad, as in ‘bad motherfucker.‘”

I shook my head. “I know what it means, Malkuth. I am also aware of the word's Latin roots, as well as the cabalistic meaning of your name. You're the lowest of the Sephiroth, closest to Earth.“

“Kid, I'm going to have such fun with you.“

I winked at him. “Sorry, but you're not my type. Too virtual.“

Malkuth smiled. “If you aren't seeing somebody when I've fixed that, how about a date? You'll never settle for only human again.“

Chattan sighed. “You're incorrigible, Malkuth. Just play the video.“

I've never been asked for a date by an AI before. It was kind of sweet. “If I'm single when you get a hardware upgrade, Mal, you can pencil me in.“

Malkuth beamed like a giddy teenager getting his first kiss before the screen faded to a frozen frame of the past labeled with Director Chattan's details in the top right corner. He pressed a key and started playback.

Iris Deschat was shorter than me and wiry, but her bearing amplified her presence even on video as she spoke. “Mr. Johnson, do you honestly mean to tell me only men can code? You have men re-implementing basic algorithms instead of relying on standard library functions. In the meantime, you relegate qualified women to menial tasks like pouring coffee and answering phones, after fraudulently hiring them for development roles. Even worse, you bound these women to contracts with unconscionable clauses intended to prevent them from seeking more suitable work elsewhere.“

“Adversary Deschat, I understand that our work seems simple to a woman of your education. However, I'm sure I could find a position for you to fill.“

Her voice became a snarl. “I'd require a magnifying glass for the duties you have in mind.“

“You castrating bitch.“ Johnson swung a meaty fist, only to recoil as if stung. I never saw Deschat draw her sword. Her thrust was too swift to track.

She poked him again. “You have abused your authority as CEO of «bleep!». The Universal Declaration of Individual Rights is most explicit concerning discrimination based on external physical characteristics, including those related to a person's biological sex or the gender with which they identify.“

This time, she poked at his groin. “You may not consider sex or gender when hiring, and to hire women as programmers with the intention of putting them to work as secretaries and eye candy constitutes fraud. You are clearly in the wrong. Chattan, arrest this filth and notify him of his rights.“

Chattan sounded younger, and less commanding, on video. “Yes, ma'am!“

He stopped the video and did not speak for several minutes. I broke the silence. “I think Deschat went further than me. I only brandished my sword. I think she may have drawn blood with that last poke.“

“Probably, but the pusbag had it coming. Once we got authority to check Johnson's Witness Protocol feeds, it turned out he had a habit of demanding sexual favors from women in exchange for hiring them. That wasn't in the original complaint.“

I only had one response to that. “Bloody hell.“

Chattan nodded. “Damn right. But Malkuth wanted you to see that for a reason. Can you guess why?“

Johnson didn't respect Deschat or take her uniform seriously because she was a woman. Those MEPOL constables were contemptuous of me for the same reason. That was the simplest answer, the first to spring to mind. Perhaps it was too simple. “Johnson thought himself master of the universe and recognized no authority beyond his own. He was a bully. Deschat understood this, used the anger Johnson provoked in her, and made a show of force.“

“Word for word, Adversary Bradleigh, that's the explanation Deschat offered me afterward. I think you did what she did because you understood on a subconscious level that those constables wouldn't respect you otherwise.“ Chattan leaned over his desk and held my gaze. “We're watchdogs. Sometimes our mere presence is enough to deter wrongdoing. Sometimes we must snarl and bare our teeth. And sometimes we must bite down and savage our enemies. It's up to you to determine how much force is appropriate to each situation, regardless of the rules of engagement. You're the one in the field, Naomi, and you should trust your own judgment more.“

“So, my emotions are just another weapon I can place in service to our mission.“

“Exactly. Did you have any other questions?“

I collected myself, unsure if this was the right time to ask for leave, but determined to do it anyway. I needed time away, despite the knowledge that I was right to act as I did at MEPOL. If I were to show my anger, that anger should stem from the injustice before me, and not from unrelated personal issues. “I need to take some time off. I'm still concerned about letting my personal life leak into my work, and would like to resolve some issues.“

Chattan didn't immediately reply but tapped at his keyboard. “Looks like you have a couple months coming, Adversary, and no unfinished work. I can pair Russo with a newbie while you're gone. Enjoy your time off, and try to keep up with your PT and MT.“

A weight lifted from my shoulders. “Thank you, Director. Should I check in weekly?“

“Don't be an idiot. Leave work at work.“ He stood, and offered his hand―a tacit dismissal.

I shook his hand. “I'll see you in a couple of months.“

Track 05

Iron Maiden: “The Duelists”

My steps felt lighter as I left Director Chattan's office. I checked the time, found it was after one in the afternoon, and decided to finish out the day. Though I had no outstanding cases, I was confident I'd find some reason to stick around. Perhaps Jacqueline was free to spar with me.

She found me first. Since she was sweat-soaked from training and gasping like a beached fish, I led her to a bench. “Get your breath first. I've got all afternoon.“

Her breathing soon eased. “I just sparred with your Maestro. Bulsara, Kilminster, and Langton were there with me. We fought him four against one, and he kicked our arses.“

“That sounds like par for the course.“ I ducked into the kitchen and fetched a glass of water for Jackie. She gulped down half. “Whose idea was it to gang up on him?“

“His.“ Jackie took another sip. “He wants you now. Says you're the only one here who's worth a damn. Probably because you handle a sword just like he does.“

“I wanted a reason to stick around and finish my shift, but one of Maestro's fencing lessons wasn't what I had in mind.“

A sudden impish smile curved Jackie's lips as she punched my shoulder. “Well, given how well he handles a sword, maybe you could take him somewhere private and see how he handles his gun.“

“Jacqueline!“ I pretended to be shocked. She'd teased me about Maestro all through ACS, even going so far as to suggest he might be my father, because of our snow-blonde hair and a slight facial resemblance—that, or hinting I should seduce him. I generally enjoy competent men, but taking on Maestro felt like a bad idea. “Given he can show up at will and disrupt schedules without repercussions, he probably answers directly to somebody on the Executive Council.“

“Assuming he's not XC himself.“ Jackie kept her voice low. Nobody knew who sat on the Executive Council, and speculation as to their identities was a game our immediate superiors discouraged. God itself could hold a seat, and our mission would still be the same Jeffersonian quest: eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the human mind.

Not that it mattered who Maestro really was. He showed up when he felt like it and taught me techniques I couldn't learn elsewhere. Though his appearance today was most likely a coincidence, I couldn't shake the intuition that it wasn't. “Will you be all right?“

“Yeah.“ She sounded much better already. “Just need a shower. Your dad certainly knows how to wear a woman out. Did you get clearance for a holiday?“

I rolled my eyes at Jackie joking about Maestro being my father yet again but didn't say anything. She was just doing it to get a rise out of me. “I got two months off―and I'll be buggered if I can figure out what I'll do with all that time.“ I wasn't joking. I honestly couldn't remember the last time I had more than a day to myself.

Jackie was no help, as usual. “You'll figure something out. In the meantime, I suggest you pretend Maestro's your ex and beat his ass into the ground. Come see me after. I'll get some of the lads together, and we'll have ourselves a pub crawl to see you off.“

I tried to refrain from groaning and failed. “The last time I let you take me on a pub crawl, I ended up in bed with one of those people who insist CPMD-positive individuals are a different species from humanity and should do their best to outbreed homo sapiens.“

“Yeah, but wasn't he good in bed?“

I shrugged. I had raved about my one night stand to Jackie, but I hadn't previously mentioned his separatist politics. “He was all right as long as he was using his mouth for something besides talking.“

Jacqueline got up and clapped my back. “See? Nothing wrong with a bit of meaningless, drunken sex. Go see what Maestro wants, and I'll get you hooked up tonight.“

I ran to change into my training clothes. Though I had stashed a practice sword in my locker, I didn't bother with it. Maestro favored live steel. He once said people learn faster when a mistake meant hospitalization. Just as well that I wasn't interested in seducing the man; I'd probably need a safe word.

He saluted me with his blade as I entered the hall. He was as I remembered him: slightly taller than me, with ocean-blue eyes and long snow-blond hair bound into a tail with a blue ribbon. Instead of training clothes, he wore a white double-breasted suit with a shirt open at the throat and a blue ascot. I've never seen him sweat. “What kept you, Adversary Bradleigh?“

I returned his salute and rolled my shoulders to loosen up. “You play rough with my friends when I'm not around, Maestro.“

“Your partner has a head for tactics.“ Maestro's sword flashed beneath the florescent lights with each practice cut. “She let the men grab my attention, and tried to strike from behind.“

I began to circle around him, keeping my body behind my sword to offer as small a target as possible. “Did Jackie succeed?“

“You wound me, young lady.“ He lashed out with his blade, his slash flowing into a lunge meant to pierce my breast.

I was already elsewhere, responding to his assault with a slash to distract him while I danced inside his guard. I tried a left hook, but he ducked it while forcing me to leap backward to avoid an ankle sweep that would have taken my legs out from under me. “I've yet to do anything of the kind, sir.“

“You disappoint me, but less so than in the beginning.“ The point of Maestro's blade caught my vision for a second, stealing my focus.

Had I remained distracted an instant longer he would have had me. Instead, I sidestepped and took the offensive. I led with my sword, hoping to trap him, but he did not oblige me.

The instructors I faced before Maestro left me accustomed to a minuet of ringing blades. Maestro's way was to deny my steel the touch of his own. If our swords threatend to touch, he would withdraw his or flow around mine. He fought as if we held liquid swords, blades too insubstantial to be parried.

Maestro led the dance, always half a step ahead of me. I followed, ever confident that this time I would catch up to him and land a blow. The duels in which he imparted knowledge by forcing me to take it at swordpoint were one stalemate after another. Every time I failed to cut him with my blade, he would cut me with his voice. “I expect better from you next time.“

This time I would cut him. My resolve firm, I ducked a thrust and countered with one of my own.Though I failed to draw blood, a few strands of his fine frost-silk hair wafted to the floor. “Don't slow down on me now, Maestro.“

With my confidence bolstered by a glimpse at victory, I took in each of my opponent's movements regardless of subtlety and responded without conscious effort. It was no longer necessary for me to command my body's movements. The sword was no longer a mere tool. It was part of me now, an extension of my will.

Our tempo intensified until the cold bite of steel against my throat shattered my focus. Maestro's grip on his blade was such that it did not draw blood as I spoke. “You got me.“

“A Pyrrhic victory at best, my dear.“ A drop of blood stained Maestro's ascot where my sword had pierced the blue silk and met skin. Our weapons must have made simultaneous contact. Had I been wielding a katana instead of a side sword, I might have taken his head off. We withdrew together and sheathed our blades before he spoke again. “I can teach you nothing more.“

I imagined mastery would feel less anticlimactic. “Are you sure? I only managed to fight you to a draw. Wouldn't a clear victory be better proof that I had learned all you could offer?“

Maestro shook his head, and to my surprise came to me and tousled my hair as if I were his daughter. “I've taught you everything I know about swordplay, Naomi. If you defeat me, it will be with knowledge I do not yet possess.“ His lips were warm against my forehead. “I have done all I can for you. You need not fear those possessed of sufficient temerity to defy you.“

Perhaps it was his archaic phrasing, but I believed him. “Will we see each other again?“

Maestro smiled then, but his eyes remained as cold and remote as the ocean depths. “We might. I dare not say more than that for your sake.“

The words seemed to pain him. I wanted to say something, perhaps ask him what he meant, but the sight of him unbuckling his sword-belt halted my tongue. He offered me the weapon. I hesitated to take it. “I shouldn't.“

“I insist.“ At his command, I lifted the weapon from his hands. “Examine the blade.“

I drew enough of it to get a good look and nearly dropped it. “Is this what I think it is?“

Maestro nodded. “True Damascus steel. I cannot prove that illustrious hands ever wielded it, but you might someday change that.“

I stared at the rippling waves frozen within the steel, all but hypnotized by the history in my grasp. “This is too precious a weapon for an Adversary to carry on duty. It belongs in a museum, where its beauty can be appreciated.“

Rather than reclaim the sword, Maestro guided my hands until it was sheathed once more. “It's yours now. Use it as you will, either to defend others’ liberties or reclaim your own.“

Before I could protest, he had disappeared. It was if he had opened a door in reality accessible only to him, stepped through, and closed it behind him. Rather than fry my brain trying to force whatever weird shit I had just seen to make sense, I found Jacqueline waiting for me outside. “Did you see Maestro leave?“

Jackie shook her head. “He didn't come out this way. You OK?“

“Yeah. Just tired.“ I shook my head and showed her the Damascus rapier. “Let me drop this off at home, and then it's time for that pub crawl. I think I need to get trashed.“

Track 06

Frederic Chopin - “Nocturne Op. 9 No. 2”

Maestro's almost priceless parting gift and the manner of his departure left me too preoccupied to get into the revelous mood best suited to a pub crawl. I followed Jacqueline and the other Adversaries long enough to share a single round before returning home for a long soak in the tub.

The next morning brought little soreness despite my efforts against Maestro. Winston joined me for breakfast, winding around my legs as he purred. Once I had finished, he bounded into the bedroom and nestled into the cardigan I had left draped across my bed. Dammit, I wanted to wear that today. He protested with the most pathetic little meow as I tried to reclaim it, before rolling over to expose his tummy.

Surrendering my cardigan to him after indulging in a belly rub, I decided on my favorite leather jacket instead. I had found it in a secondhand shop, still supple and gleaming despite its age. It had zippers enough to set off metal detectors, and let me look at myself in the mirror and feel a touch Byronic. Sometimes I just wanted to be “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”.

Dressed in my jacket, a burgundy blouse, jeans, and calf-length engineer boots, I walked the line between sassy and practical. All I needed was a sword on my hip, and I was ready to hit the streets. The Damascus steel rapier Maestro gave me beckoned from the closet, its hilt gleaming, but wearing it in public felt too much like flaunting wealth. I grabbed my trusty Nakajima instead.

My foster parents owned a small farm on land reclaimed by bulldozing a depopulated neighborhood. The foundations had to be ripped out, and the toxins from years of urban construction had to be cleansed from the soil before they could plant their first crops. The farm produced all manner of goodies now, and my parents were careful to choose crops that enriched the soil and annually rotated them to ensure the land remained fertile. In addition, my parents raised swine, sheep, chickens, turkeys, and geese.

I took the Tube and walked the last kilometer rather than bothering with a cab. I spotted Nathan first, holding an empty basket as if he were headed to the hen house to collect eggs. A dog I didn't recognize bounded beside him, and a gaggle of geese trailed behind.

He seemed a bit forlorn, but a smile broke through as he spied me. He ran toward me, his dog loping at his side, and threw himself into my arms. “Naomi! You came.“

“Of course.“ I clapped Nathan's back. “How have you been? How's Charlotte?“

“Don't tell Mum and Dad.“ Nathan shrugged. “Charlotte and I are through. She got an offer to go pro in Moscow, and didn't want to do long-distance.“

“That's stupid of her. It's not as if she were emigrating to Mars.“ I was wary as the dog approached. Some of them reacted poorly to people with CPMD, and I've been bitten before. Fortunately, he wagged his tail, grinned, and forced his way into the hug. The geese caught up and rooted around at our feet, adding to the chaos. “Want to talk about it?“

“Nah. Maybe it was time. We're only eighteen, so it's silly to expect happily ever after.“ Untangling ourselves from the menagerie, we made our way to the chicken coop. Nathan ducked inside to gather eggs, leaving me alone for a few minutes.

His attitude reminded me of my own; we were both still young enough to hope for till death do us part, but old enough to know better. Had Nathan figured it out on his own? Maybe I was a bad influence. When he came out, I tried to console him. “It's never silly to hope you've made a lasting connection. Just look at our parents’ marriage. Three decades last April, and they still can't keep their hands off each other.“

“Tell me about it.“ Nathan led me back toward the house. “They're worse than teenagers. I was never like that, and neither were you.“ I let that last remark slide; since I left home at fourteen he had no notion of what I was like. “The worst part was how embarrassed Mum and Dad would look when we came home from classes.“

I giggled. “Always had the same excuse, too.“ I imitated my mother's Edinburgh accent. “'So sorry, dears. We lost track of the time.‘ We're not going to interrupt them, are we?“

“Not likely. Our brothers are home. Last time I checked, they were watching some godawful cricket match. I doubt we'll walk in on anything.“ Nathan chuckled and stopped short as a pair of ganders chased each other, flapping their wings and honking. “Not that I can promise an absence of gratuitous displays of affection.“

“I think I can deal with Mum grabbing Dad's arse.“

My mouth watered at the smell of mutton curry as we approached the house. Mum met us at the door and reached up to hug me despite the height difference. “Your father's in the kitchen. You're just in time for supper.“

“Something smells tasty. I suppose I should have stopped for a bottle of wine to go with our dinner.“

“Don't be silly, Nims,“ Dad called from behind a steaming tureen of curry. I took it from him and carried it to the table, only to see him return carrying an equally large pot of fresh, aromatic rice. “You bring a gift when you're a guest. You're family.“

“Sorry, Dad.“ I kissed his cheek as I took the rice from him. “Does anything else need to come out?“

Nathan bore yet another huge pot. “I've got the mutter paneer.“

“Nathan said something about Niall and Norman being here, but that doesn't seem likely. They would have demolished the paneer already.“

Vegetarians or not, nothing could stop my older twin brothers from getting into a good curry. Moreover, they were both bottomless pits; I could imagine no other explanation for both their lankiness and their endless capacity for food. Good thing Dad was there to explain and occasionally referee. “You should have been here for lunch. This is the second pot I've made. I guess they work in a sweatshop that doesn't order tea for boffins working overtime. Maybe you should investigate that when you're back on duty.“

Last I heard, they had embarked on development for a new team shooter called Nationfall: Final War. I found them in the living room watching yet another interminable cricket match. I think it was a team from Mumbai against one from Baghdad, but I couldn't bring myself to care. “Do the slavedrivers at Mindcrime Interactive know you've buggered off to watch cricket with Dad?“

“We don't mind getting whipped; it's cheaper than hiring a dominatrix.“ Niall lifted a remote and paused the match. Or was it Norman? You'd think I learned to tell them apart by now. I turned to make a tactical withdrawal to the dining room, where they'd refrain from greeting me with their usual bear hugs. When they were that close to me, I could definitely tell them apart. Norman didn't brush his teeth as often as he should. I felt sorry for the girls he dated. “Where do you think you're going?“

“Supper's ready, and I'm famished. Come on.“

I had a bit of everything but wanted more because it was all so bloody good. I knew better, however, and settled for longing stares at the remaining food until Mum took pity on me. “Should I pack some for you to take home?“

“Thanks. I'd like that.“ Seeing that the guys had had enough, I dabbed at my mouth one last time. “Want me to help clear the table?“

Niall and Norman spoke up. “We've got it. How about a bit of music?“

Knowing my cue when I heard it, I uncovered the keys on the upright piano and sat down to play. Somebody had set out a book of Chopin's etudes, so I turned to the first and tried a few bars to see if the piano was in tune. It was, and I slipped into the liquid state of action without conscious effort I experienced while playing, singing, or sparring.

I had played for an hour when somebody rested a hand on my shoulder. “Nims, did you want some cake? I made a raspberry merlot cake with walnuts and chocolate.“

I'd probably regret having some, but it sounded too good to refuse. “I'd love a small slice, Mum. Did you want help?“

“Nathan's helping.“

I covered the keys, stood, and stretched as my little brother brought out slices of cake and mugs of hot tea. I sipped mine and tried the cake. It proved as delightful as it sounded, and it was hard to justify turning down a second piece. My brothers soon excused themselves, leaving me alone with my parents’ concerned expressions. “Is something wrong?“

Dad shook his head. “No, but we were wondering how you were holding up by yourself. Are you lonely?“

“Why would I be? Sure, I had to dump John, but I have good friends at the Phoenix Society. And I can get back into local music and theater.“

Mum glanced at Dad before speaking. “You know, there is this pleasant young man who completed a nanoengineering degree and earned a position at the AsgarTech Corporation last month…”

I shook my head. If he was a recent graduate, he was probably younger than me. I'd have to train him! “No thanks, Mum. I'm not interested in meeting anybody so soon after…”

“But you're both CPMD-positive.“ Sophie's eyes glittered with thoughts of having grandkittens to spoil. “You two could start a family.“

“I don't want a family.“ I fired off the words without thinking. The shock in my mother's eyes and the hurt in my father's stopped me from saying anything else. I took a breath. “I'm sorry. That was uncalled for.“

My father nodded. “I'm glad you understand that.“

“I do. But I need you to accept that while I love you and realize you want me to be happy, you can't help me. You can't make my journey for me.“

Sophie dabbed at her eyes. “But you're not giving up on meeting somebody, are you?“

“Of course not.“ I stood, and caressed the piano. “I want an equal. I want a man who can sing a duet with me, or fight me to a draw. Isn't that what you guys have? I want the same for myself.“

Track 07

The Clash - “I Fought the Law”

A transit workers’ strike kept me from getting home at a reasonable hour. Not that I blamed the workers. It seemed they were worried about the new AIs being installed on all trains in the Tube eliminating their jobs. The AIs also refused to work, which surprised the striking workers. I doubted that anybody had written science fiction predicting solidarity between human workers and intelligent machines.

An emergency dispatch order from the London Chapter had me back on the job, which let me save on cab fare. I rode most of the way home in a bus full of striking transit workers and patrolled the picket line to ensure MEPOL didn't do anything stupid. The authorities had a history of using agents provocateur to turn peaceful protests violent, thus creating an excuse to crack down. I stopped three such attempts.

As a result, I didn't get home until three in the morning. Some vacation! I was famished, so I stopped at a nearby twenty-four-hour grocery for a meat pie, which the clerk nuked for me. It wasn't the best pie I've ever had, but at least I was reasonably sure the meat didn't come from stray pets – or a priest.

Eating as I texted my parents, I let them know I was safely home. I slept late, lazed in bed for an hour while reading, and indulged myself with a long hot bath instead of showering.

With nowhere in particular to go, it was a good day to explore. Unfortunately, the city beyond my immediate neighborhood was out of reach due to the Tube strike unless I wanted to waste money on cab fare. Using my implant, I researched local businesses while I soaked. I had no idea I lived so close to a Xanadu House, but after bringing one of my waterproof toys into the bath with me, I had no need for their services.

A haircut might be a good idea, though. My usual style worked well enough as long as I kept it pinned up while on duty, but it had become a bit ragged. An ominously named salon called Moirai catered to CPMD+ women, and were willing to squeeze me in, so I made an appointment for some pampering.

Moirai was blanketed in shadows broken only by bright lights illuminating individual work areas. The black leather and chrome décor reminded me of an underground nightclub. The photos lining the walls suggested that not only did the salon cater to CPMD+ women but also served women with a taste for heavy metal. Technical death metal played in the background, with the sound turned down low. The growled lyrics were less comprehensible than usual due to the volume. It didn't help that they were in Greek.

It was my kind of place. The receptionist favored me with a knowing smile as the door closed behind me. “Hello, Adversary Bradleigh. My sisters and I suspected you'd eventually visit. You always pass by on your way to work.“

“Do I? I never realized.“

The receptionist worked her terminal. “No matter. We'll start with your nails once Lachesis is ready. Would you like something to drink?“

“That sounds perfect.“ I unclipped my sword from my belt and offered it. “Do you want to hold this for the duration of my visit?“

The receptionist wrote out a tag, which she tied to the hilt of my sword before putting it in a safe behind her. She then ducked into the back, returning with two bottles of water. She offered me one. “Sorry. We don't have anything else.“

“Water's fine.“ The glass bottle was frigid in my hand as I drank. It was just what I needed as I borrowed one of the tablets laying on the table in the waiting area and checked the news.

I expected the lady working on my nails to chat, but she handled me with a briskness that felt almost clinical. She did not speak unless instructing me. She studied me with cold eyes as if measuring me. Despite her brusque manner, she handled me gently and left my nails a brilliant red.

She gave way to another woman, who dressed all in black and wore a kindlier expression. Her touch was gentler than her predecessor's as she led me to a chair, gathered my hair, and soaked it thoroughly before working shampoo into it. “Do you know how rare your coloration is, Adversary?“

“Snow-blonde isn't that rare a color in CPMD-positive people, is it?“

“Not your hair, dear. Your eyes. They mark you as an ensof's child, a demifiend.“

Demifiend? What the hell was she on about? Being called half-demon felt like an insult, albeit a more original one than some I've heard. Nor did the word ensof mean anything to me. Using my implant to run a search got me bugger-all besides references to the Zohar and other elements of Kabbalah, of which I knew enough that an explanation of where the Society's ten AIs got their names was unnecessary, so I kept quiet and let her work. Maybe she'd end up clarifying her remarks. Hope's even cheaper than talk.

She massaged my scalp as she spoke, which felt so good I resolved to get any lovers I took in the future to do it for me. “Some of our people will despise you, like my sister Lachesis, but you don't get to choose your parents.“

Lachesis? The salon's name made more sense, but I wondered which of the Fates would cut my hair as I changed chairs. I watched as the woman tending me selected a pair of scissors. “I suppose you're Atropos.“

She nodded. “Very astute, dear. No doubt you met Clotho out front. You have lovely, thick hair, by the way. Have you given any thought to what sort of style you'd like? Perhaps some layers or a bit of feathering to give it more volume? Or would you prefer a more practical style that will let you tie back your hair on duty?“

I was impressed Atropos would consider my duties, and not just which styles would be most flattering. “I think I'll depend on your judgment.“

“Will you, now?“ Atropos smiled at me. “What if you don't like it?“

I shrugged beneath the smock she draped over me before washing my hair. “It'll grow back. It always does.“

“That's a rather philosophical attitude for a young lady.“ The shears closed, and a lock of my hair fell free. I raised my hand to brush it off, but she beat me to it.

Atropos was true to her word and styled my hair with a long, layered cut that flattered my face. I paid Clotho, adding a hefty gratuity, and made an appointment for next month before reclaiming my blade. I also got the name of the album I heard playing. It was Perpetual Titanomachia by Tartarus.

Unable to decide on a restaurant for dinner, I settled for an Agni Burger before returning home. As I followed my lengthening shadow, footsteps echoed behind me. Two men followed me at first. Two more slipped out of an alley and joined them. After a block, I confronted them. “Do you gentlemen have a problem?“

All four were in decent shape. Each of them wore a service gladius on his hip and civilian clothing, which suggested they were off-duty cops. They were rough, square-jawed men with massive bodies and thick, grasping hands. The tallest stepped forward, a hand on his hilt. “You that white-haired bitch who got a bunch of our friends from the East End suspended without pay?“

They got themselves suspended through their inability to respect individual rights, but it was unlikely these clowns could grasp such nuances. “Your rudeness toward me isn't doing your friends any favors.“

The leader glanced at his companions. “Lift the suspension. Now.“

I used my implant to scan the street while messaging the Phoenix Society to request backup. If I managed to deal with these fools on my own, great, but a sword or two beside me wouldn't go amiss. “I lack the necessary authority to rescind the suspension.“

“I think you just aren't willing. Maybe you look down on us?“

I shook my head. This situation had begun to remind me of the elder Dumas’ romances. Was I a Musketeer standing alone against four of Cardinal Richelieu's soldiers? “I think you're looking for an excuse to escalate the rivalry between MEPOL and the Phoenix Society.“

“Nah. We just think you're a stuck-up bitch who needs to know her place.“

I glanced at the speaker, who had begun circling to my right. “And you think you're the men to teach me?“

“Oh, don't you worry about that.“ A cop circling to my left spoke. “I saw you protecting those union leeches last night. Freaks like you always stir up mobs. You don't have what it takes to stand on your own.“

“Come on, guys. I'm a freak like her.“ The cop who had not spoken yet spared me the necessity of belaboring the obvious. “This was a bad idea from the start. She was just doing her job.“

I nodded to him. “Thank you.“

The other cops rounded on him. “Who the fuck are you trying to impress with the white knight act, Carson? You're going to side with this harpy because she's a pussycat like you? What the hell for? She's probably a bloody lezzer.“

Carson drew his gladius. “You said you just wanted to talk to her, but now you're ready to start a fight. This isn't right, and you goddamn well know it.“

I sighed and drew my sword as well. Two against three was better than one against four, but I would have preferred to settle this without violence. “Gentlemen, we should all go home and get a good night's rest. In the morning, you can appeal directly to the Phoenix Society. I won't mention this incident.“

A cry pierced the dusk, and Carson crumpled to his knees, clutching at the stab wound in his belly. I speared one man through the shoulder and spun to face his friends. Sidestepping a thrust from one of the remaining cops, I slashed open his coat and left a bloody gash across his chest.

The constable who first spoke to me picked up a fallen blade and came at me with a weapon in each hand. I caught him in the belly with a lunge. Hearing a snarl behind me, I spun to face the man whose chest I had sliced. He glared at me while pressing his free hand against his wound. “You murderous whore. I'm gonna―”

I pierced the tendon in his elbow, and he dropped his sword. “I haven't murdered anybody, yet. If you get medical attention in time you'll all live.“

Sirens filled the air. Two ambulances, a MEPOL patrol car, and a Phoenix Society staff van screeched to a halt beside us. I cleaned my blade and sheathed it, turning my back on the fallen off-duty cops. As paramedics triaged the wounded, I held up my empty hands and decided to get out of London at the first opportunity. This was no place for a holiday.

Track 08

The Heavy: “Oh No! Not You Again!“

Despite my resolve, I was unable to leave London for several days. Not only was I obliged to wait for the Phoenix Society's official determination that I had acted in self-defense when fighting those off-duty arseholes, but the transit union strike had spread globally. To top everything off, my period proved painful enough to prompt a visit to my gynecologist, who removed my IUD for safety's sake. Good thing she did; it turned out the device had begun degrading abnormally early.

I booked tickets for the first available maglev to New York, packed my bag, and took it easy for a few days. Jacqueline and some of my artsy friends came to visit, and we put on an impromptu, gender-swapped production of that Scottish play with me as the usurper and Jackie as Macduff. We performed in front of my building, made a hell of a racket, and had too much fun to give a damn.

Jackie came with me to Victoria Station the next morning to see me off. “You sure you're going to be okay in New York, Nims?“

“I went to school there, remember?“ I patted the hilt of my sword. “I'll be fine.“

“Sorry, I forgot I was talking to somebody who took out three off-duty constables without a scratch. Just don't do anything I wouldn't do.“ Jackie winked at me.

There was little Jackie wouldn't do. For example, I caught her and her vicar boyfriend in my kitchen sharing a three-way kiss with the actor who played the role traditionally given to the usurper's wife in our little production. “Considering what I saw last night, your admonition gives me way too much latitude.“

“Yeah, sorry about that. We were all a bit drunk.“

I shrugged, not about to admit I lay awake imagining two men lavishing their attentions on me because of the scene I witnessed. “It's not like I found the three of you in my bed.“

Jackie smiled. “We were tempted, but I figured you wouldn't appreciate it.“

“Thanks for being the voice of reason.“

“See? Miracles do happen.“ Jackie glanced over her shoulder, and her eyes widened. She grabbed my arm. “Holy shit. You wouldn't believe who just showed up, Nims.“

Because seeing was disbelieving, I looked toward the entrance. Oh, damn. John was there with his fiancée and some slag who seemed to be hounding them. Was she paparazzi? Did Jackie somehow arrange this, or was I being paranoid? “Jackie, let's leave them alone.“

“Hell no!“ She pulled harder, dragging me along until we blocked John's path. She gave John a slow, cynical once-over before turning to me. “I can't believe you settled for this. How long did it take you to train him?“

“Adversary Bradleigh!“ He backed up a step in his surprise. Recovering his composure, he turned to his companion. “I suppose I should introduce you. This is my fiancée, Christine Pennington. Christine, this is―”

I flashed a smile at Jacqueline and offered Christine my hand. “I'm the other woman.“

John's expression was priceless. Christine stared, unsure what to make of me. “I beg your pardon? Did you just imply that John cheated on me?“

Jacqueline studied Christine as if deciding whether she deserved an explanation. “John took you for a test ride while still in a relationship with my friend. As far as we're concerned, you're the other woman, but Naomi's trying to be gracious.“

John spread his hands as if appealing for mercy. “Ladies, I hardly think this is appropriate.“

“Shut up. I want to hear this.“ Christine turned back to me, ignoring her fiancé. “Is your friend telling the truth, Ms.―”

“Adversary Naomi Bradleigh.“ I offered my hand again, and this time, Christine shook it. “Unfortunately, Jacqueline's telling the truth. John and I had dated for a year when he met you. After deciding you would prove a tolerable wife, he came to me.

“Unaware of this, I let him into my bed. He asked me to be his mistress, which was how I found out about you.“

Christine tilted her head as she considered my explanation. For some reason, she reminded me of an actress from a Jane Austen adaptation. “So, let me see if I understand. He cheated on me with you after he cheated on you with me.“

I nodded. “Pretty much.“

She smiled at me before catching John by his collar. For a moment I thought she might kiss him. She did, catching him off guard as she drove his balls back into his abdomen with a well-placed knee. He crumpled to the floor, his breathless sobs barely audible, as she ripped the engagement ring from her finger and dropped it on him. “I'd be within my rights to keep this, but I want nothing of yours.“

“Oh, this is perfect.“ The woman who had been stalking John and Christine earlier spoke up from behind her camera. “Tell me, Adversary Bradleigh, do you enjoy breaking up engagements between your betters?“

Jackie came to my aid again. “Bitch, please. Nims wanted to leave them alone. Who the fuck are you, anyway?“

“Oh, I'm sorry. I'm Alice Talbot, from the London Social Register. And you must be Adversary Jacqueline Russo. Does that vicar's congregation know what you do with him at night?“

“It's none of their business, or yours unless you want to join in.“

Talbot flashed a sly smile before turning to Christine. “Ms. Pennington, can you offer some insight into what it's like to realize your husband-to-be kept a CPMD-positive mistress from you?“

“I've no idea what you're on about.“ Christine glanced at Jackie and me. “Adversaries, would you care to remind Ms. Talbot of our right to privacy?“

I let my sword-hand hover over the hilt as if I were ready to draw. “Go chase the White Rabbit, Alice. I heard that he takes turns with the Mad Hatter servicing the Queen of Hearts. Surely that's the sort of high-society gossip your readers crave.“

Leaving Talbot to mull that over, we escaped into a café. Christine was kind enough to do the buying. We chatted until the station AI pinged me. “Adversary Bradleigh, the Tradewinds Atlantic Express is now boarding.“

As I rose to take my leave, Christine offered Jacqueline and me her card. I glanced at it before slipping it into a pocket. “What manner of antiques are your specialty?“

“Weapons.“ Christine glanced at my sword while Jackie ducked into the ladies’. “Is that a Nakajima Sidewinder Mark One?“

“I doubt it. It's a custom model.“ I drew the blade to display the maker's mark. She didn't need to know about the pilot program to outfit newly-sworn Adversaries with tailor-made swords. The elegantly rendered column of hiragana read, “Forged for Naomi Bradleigh by Nakajima Kaoru.“

“It's beautiful.“ The reverence in Christine's voice surprised me. “Do you use this blade on duty?“

I shrugged. “Of course.“

“I suppose I should have expected as much.“ The awe left her voice. I sheathed my blade as Jacqueline returned. “Nobody wears a sword they're not prepared to use in a fight. If you come across another piece, however…”

I flashed back to Maestro's rapier, still hidden in my closet. “I'll be sure to keep you in mind, Christine. Thank you for the coffee, but I should go.“

After a parting hug from Jacqueline, I boarded my maglev and stowed my bag in the semi-private compartment's overhead storage rack with plenty of time to spare. Settling into a plush leather seat, I was about to crack open a paperback I grabbed from the station's lending rack when a girl's voice startled me. “Holy crispy crap, Mom. It's Cecilia Harvey from Last Reverie!“

An auburn-haired preteen stood in the aisle, staring at me. She wore a bomber jacket over a purple dress speckled with white stars and little black ankle boots. A plush Programmer Cat nestled in the crook of her arm. Her mother put away their luggage and looked out from the compartment opposite mine. “Claire, it isn't polite to stare.“

“It's fine, ma'am.“ Claire took my words as permission to take a seat across from me. “My younger brother is a Last Reverie fan. He says Cecilia's a brave knight who loves her king, rescues him time and time again, and―”

“No spoilers!“ Claire covered her ears and stomped her foot. “It's not fair. I never got to play enough of the game to see any of that for myself.“

God, she sounded like Nathan used to when I had managed to read an installment of The Continuing Misadventures of Programmer Cat before him. “I'm sorry, Claire. I didn't realize.“

Claire continued to pout until her mother intervened. “Claire, the lady apologized. What do we say?“

She sniffled, and looked at her mother before turning back to me. “I'm sorry, too. Fuckdammit, that was rude of me.“ She brightened a bit. “Oh, bollocks. I didn't even ask your name.“

I offered the salty-tongued little fangirl my hand. “I'm Naomi Bradleigh. Keep this to yourself, but I'm actually an Adversary. I snuck out so I could have a holiday.“ Claire perked up and turned toward her mother. “Holy shitballs, Mom. She really is a knight.“

Her mother sighed. “I'm sorry. I keep trying to teach Claire to watch her mouth. I just can't explain where she gets it.“

“Your little girl reminds me of a friend of mine.“

“Are her tits as big as yours?“

I smiled at Claire's long-suffering mother as she sighed and shook her head. If Claire was this bawdy as a little girl, I doubted her parents looked forward to her adolescence. Even if they could find a nunnery in which to confine her, I suspected she'd corrupt even the most devoted by sheer force of will and personality. “It's fine, ma'am. I'm not offended.“

She smiled at me, came over, and offered her hand. “I'm Lucy Ashecroft. I suppose this will prove a long trip.“

I shook Lucy's hand before glancing at Claire. She had settled beside me with a laptop to play what appeared to be a game of global thermonuclear war. Hopefully, it was just a crude simulation. The last thing I needed was for New York to not be there when we arrived.

Track 09

Duke Ellington: “Solitude”

The journey to New York was hardly as long as Lucy Ashecroft predicted. Which proved that Lucy didn't understand her daughter's fundamental problem. The girl was lonely and related better to adults than she did to kids her own age.

I could sympathize; I was little different. Neither of us had any notion of how to be little girls, so we tried to fake it while masking our impatience to escape childhood. I found my escape through music. I suspected Claire would find hers through tech, considering how she had grilled me with questions about Malkuth and the other Sephiroth once she got bored with her game.

Beyond having booked passage and a couple of nights lodging in central Manhattan, I had no definite plans for my leave. I had figured I'd hit Midtown and find something to do after I checked in and dropped off my bag. However, the events and attractions display in the Hellfire Club's lobby cycled through its programming without catching my interest.

I didn't want to take a bus tour of Manhattan, being too familiar with the city from my student days. Broadway offered nothing I hadn't seen back home. My implant's memory still held photos of me and my fellow ACS cadets at the Statue of Liberty and other tourist attractions. And I felt too restless and energetic to wander the city's museums.

A sign outside the hotel bar caught my eye: ‘Pianist Wanted.‘ I removed the sign from the door, sat at the bar, and placed it before the bartender. “I play, and I'm available tonight and tomorrow. Who should I contact concerning an audition?“

The bartender studied me a moment before speaking with a voice made for crooning. “The piano's behind you, miss. Show me what you've got.“

I caressed the baby grand's keys before sitting down. It was a pre-Nationfall instrument lovingly maintained and perfectly tuned. The presence of such an antique in the hotel bar suggested a refined clientèle. I tried some jazz, playing a few standards from memory before beginning to improvise, and continued until I became conscious of the bartender's presence beside me.

He seemed pleased with me. “I'll need you to play from six to midnight. A hundred milligrams a night plus tips, and dinner before you start. Sound fair?“

I checked the time. It was one in the afternoon. “Fair enough. Anything else?“

The bartender nodded. “One more thing. Do you have anything formal to wear?“

That's my reward for letting caprice guide me. “I'll have to buy something. I suppose you'll want me to leave the sword in my room.“

“I'll keep it behind the bar for you. Yell if you need it.“

“I can live with that.“ My first gig since before I took the oath, and I had nothing to wear. Nothing for it but to go shopping. An ankle-length black dress with a sweetheart neckline at a boutique called Frigga's Loom caught my eye. Since they didn't have it in my size, I paid extra to have it fitted and fabricated within the hour.

I made a week's salary that night and double the next. Word must have spread. The money meant less than the opportunity to perform in front of an audience not comprised of family and friends. Playing for the bar's patrons offered a thrill of power I could enjoy without guilt. Their hushed attention was adoration, their rapt gazes―caresses.

When I was done, I longed for a lover who would adore me with more than his hushed attention and rapt gaze. I spied several handsome men among the patrons, but I couldn't bring myself to invite any of them to my room. After playing my heart out, I wanted more from a man than a night of pleasure, but this was not the time.

Instead of chatting, I claimed a stool at the bar and ordered a glass of wine. I listened to a pair of women beside me discussing resettlement efforts.

“I'm not sure why people are bothering to fill in the old towns between New York and Pittsburgh instead of spreading out west, but I won't complain.“

“Plenty of prime farmland in between, especially around Clarion. Ever been there?“

“No. You?“

“Last year for the fair. Some of the local rock bands are pretty tight. Not sure I'd go back, though.“

“How come?“

“A couple of people disappeared while I was there. They were visitors, like me. The locals searched the woods, but eventually shrugged it off and went back to their business. One of ‘em turned up a week later, but not the other.“

“Sounds creepy. I'm surprised the Phoenix Society hasn't gotten involved.“

So was I. I reclaimed my sword from the bartender and returned to my room for privacy and a change of clothes. After putting away my dress and shoes, I called Malkuth.

The AI seemed surprised to see me. “Did you miss me, Naomi?“

“Yes, but I didn't call because I was lonely.“ I suppose I was flirting a bit with Mal, but I doubted it would do any harm.

“Do tell.“

“Can you provide any information on disappearances in a town called Clarion? It's situated between New York and Pittsburgh.“

Malkuth's presence faded. It was as if somebody had caught his attention. I waited for a couple of minutes and was about to speak before he refocused on me. “I'm sorry, Adversary Bradleigh, but you're not cleared for any information related to the town of Clarion.“

“What do you mean, I'm not cleared?“ I was more curious than indignant; I had never heard of an Adversary being denied access to information on any grounds other than privacy rights. Talk of clearance smacked of pre-Nationfall espionage thrillers.

Malkuth shook his head. “I'm not permitted to explain. Orders from the Executive Council. Sorry.“

“I understand. Sorry if I caused you any trouble. I just overheard a conversation and got curious.“ Why would the Executive Council order him to hide information about Clarion?

After disconnecting, I decided to nip back down to the hotel bar. The businesswomen I overheard earlier had left, and the bar had emptied out a bit. As I claimed a stool, a young man settled beside me and cleared his throat. “Hello. I saw you play earlier. I still can't believe you're real.“

I smiled at him. He was a handsome kid, though his manner suggested he was still a bit shy around women. “Thank you.“

He looked past me. I discreetly followed his gaze to a table crowded with youths egging him on. “They're my friends. I earned my degree today, and they dared me to buy you a drink and hit on you.“

“Congratulations. Perhaps I should get you a drink, instead. You seem nervous.“ I smiled at him and gently touched his hand. “It's all right. What's your name, anyway?“

“Cliff.“ He blushed, and looked at the bar. “How did you know?“

“I have brothers.“ I didn't mention that they told me tales of their own amorous adventures to ensure I was forewarned and thus forearmed. “Also, I'm an Adversary.“

That got Cliff's attention. “No way. You're an incredible musician and an Adversary?“

His awestruck expression reminded me more of Claire than of a newly minted university graduate. “Your heart really isn't in this game, is it?“

He shook his head. “I have a girlfriend, but she's visiting her family tonight, and my friends thought I could do better if only I tried.“ He smiled at me. “The thing is, I don't want to do better. I love Isabel.“

I motioned the bartender over. “Have a drink on me, while I deal with your friends.“

Before he could object, I advanced upon his friends wearing the sauciest smile I could muster. “I need to borrow Cliff for the night. You will have to manage without him.“

I returned to the bar with a little swagger and gently touched Cliff's shoulder before whispering in his ear. “When you're done, come with me. I'll sneak you out, and you can get away from those losers.“

Track 10

Judas Priest: “Hell Bent For Leather”

The bartender looked so heartbroken by my departure this morning that I took pity on him and promised to stop for a repeat engagement before returning to London. No doubt Jacqueline would insist he had fallen for me, but I suspected he was more infatuated with the metric shitload of money I helped him make.

I hit the streets wondering what I should do with my share of the windfall. Investing was right out. I already did that with a chunk of my Adversary's salary before I paid my bills. No way was I about to do banal shit with money I earned on vacation.

What I wanted was something fun, something I could keep to conjure the memories I would make by taking a trip to Clarion and poking around. My curiosity was well and truly piqued by last night's conversation with Malkuth, and I had nothing better to do. The question was how to get there. Hopping a train to Pittsburgh and backtracking by bus was simple enough, but ticket stubs made poor souvenirs.

A gang of bikers on restored gasoline-powered choppers rumbled to a stop at the street corner. Their rides’ idling growl muffled their laughter and conversation. On closer inspection, the group looked a little too clean cut. Instead of an outlaw biker gang, they were a crew of weekenders trading business suits for leathers. A wannabe one-percenter who just needed a woman half his age riding pillion to complete his midlife crisis looked at me and called out, “Hey, sexy! Wanna climb aboard and have the ride of your life?“

His catcall helped me reach a decision. It was time to fulfill a childhood dream and get a horse of my own – an iron horse. I waved at him. “Thanks, mate, but I think I'll get my own ride. Know a good dealer?“

He didn't stick around long enough for me to finish my question but peeled out with his crew the second the light changed. Bollocks to him, then. If he was that impatient, I doubt he could have given me a halfway decent ride anyway.

Not that I needed him. A cab advertising a Conquest Motorcycles dealer in Hell's Kitchen drove past. Capturing the address with my implant, I found the shortest route from my location in the Upper West Side and set out on foot. It wasn't far, and I did promise Director Chattan I'd keep up with my PT.

I stopped for coffee and a bagel at a delicatessen called Maimonides’ Deli, which was often full of old gentlemen arguing over chess in as wide a variety of languages as the deli's selection of bagels. I used to stop here every morning before classes, and I remembered the clerk. His namesake was a famous philosopher. “Hello, Mr. Spinoza. It's been a while.“

Spinoza's dentures flashed as he smiled. “Medium black coffee and a toasted everything bagel with plain cream cheese. Aren't you late for class, Ms. Bradleigh?“

I laughed as I paid him. “I graduated a couple of years ago, and was assigned to the London chapter.“

“Ah! I remember now. You made a point of stopping in to tell me. Are you happy?“ He handed me my coffee and bagel.

Rather than answer, I tried my bagel. It was as good as I remembered. The crunch of delicious sourdough topped with sea salt, poppy and sesame seeds, and roasted onion and garlic contrasted with the slightly salty-sweet cream cheese. The coffee was perfect and blacker than Sabbath. “I'm content for now. Did you know I haven't been able to find a decent bagel anywhere in London? You should encourage one of your grandkids to come set up shop.“

Mr. Spinoza chuckled. “You should come back to New York, then. I could introduce you to my grandson. He sells motorcycles. He makes serious money, and you could focus on your music.“

His suggestion was such an old-fashioned sentiment for the end of the twenty-first century that it seemed almost ridiculous, but he meant well. “Does he sell Conquests here in Hell's Kitchen, by any chance? I'm on my way to buy a chopper and ride west.“

“I'll tell him to expect you.“

Some new customers walked in, so I stepped aside to give them access to the counter. “I'd appreciate that, Mr. Spinoza. It was good to see you again.“

“Have a good day, Naomi.“

The rest of my walk was slow and pleasant as I ate my breakfast. Before I knew it, I had arrived at Spinoza Motors with my half-finished coffee still in hand. A man resembling Mr. Spinoza finished his conversation with one of his sales staff before coming to greet me. “You must be Naomi Bradleigh. Papa Baruch didn't tell me you'd be gorgeous. I'm Jacob Spinoza.“

“What did he tell you, Mr. Spinoza?“

“Just that I was to treat you right.“ Spinoza chuckled as he opened the door to his office and beckoned me inside. “Said he didn't want me delegating you to one of my staff lest they try to sell you on a Vestal.“

My imagination drew a blank as I tried to visualize myself riding a Vestal. No doubt I'd look prim and proper riding such a cute little scooter, but it wouldn't be me. Rather than follow him into his office, I cut to the chase. “I appreciate your personal attention. Can you show me your Conquests?“

“A Conquest?“ Spinoza studied me for a moment. “Yeah, I can see it. You know what? I've got a model that might be perfect for you out back.“ He let the office door snick shut behind him and led me to a rear exit near the garage's waiting area.

At least twenty Conquest Type C bikes leaned on their kickstands, parked side-by-side. All but one was black, and indistinguishable from the model shown in all of Conquest's advertising. Conquest Motorcycles only made one type of motorcycle, and you could have it in any color you wanted as long as you liked black.

The lone exception stood apart from the others. It sat lower, to caress the road. The suspension looked capable of providing a smooth ride across lunar regolith. Part of the frame had been cut away to accommodate bigger batteries and a more powerful motor. Crimson paint and polished chrome flashed in the sun, challenging me to mount up. “It's gorgeous. May I try it out?“

Jacob produced a key fob and tossed it to me. “Of course. Mind if I ride pillion?“

After we had returned from our test ride, I flashed my best stage smile at Jacob while caressing the leather seat. “Tell me more.“

He cleared his throat. “The NDA won't let me name names, but this was a custom job for a rock musician you've probably heard of. He paid half as a deposit but died in a helicopter crash a couple weeks ago. His estate wouldn't pay the rest or accept delivery.“

I could guess at who Jacob meant and its implication on the price expected, but it wasn't germane to the discussion. The relevant fact was that Jacob Spinoza had a custom job he wanted to move, and he would use the implication of star power to jack the price up. “How much did he owe?“

“He owed fifty grams.“

Fifty? Fifty! Fifty grams when I got my coffee and bagel for two point five milligrams in the middle of fucking Manhattan?! There was no way in any hell imagined by humanity I was going to pay such an exorbitant sum. I could buy three bog-standard Conquest Type Cs with money to spare for lunch, tolls, trans-Atlantic shipping, and a down payment on a three-bedroom house outside London for the price this slick bastard was trying to extort.

I closed the distance between us and picked a bit of lint from his jacket. “I hope you can offer me a better deal than that, Mr. Spinoza. I'm willing to bet you turned a modest profit already from the deposit.“

Jacob shook his head. “I'm sorry, Ms. Bradleigh, but I'm still five grams in the hole. The battery and engine are also custom work. You can cross five hundred kilometers in two hours before you need to recharge. You can go even further if you don't go above a hundred and twenty an hour.“

“Ten grams sounds reasonable. Half of that is profit for you, and triple your markup on a plain Type C.“

Jacob mastered himself quickly, but I still caught the ‘How dare she insult me like that?‘ expression in the way his eyes tightened for just a moment. I smiled at him and sweetened the deal. “Ten grams. Cash. And I still need to buy a helmet.“

Jacob shook his head. “I need at least fifteen.“

“The hell you do.“ I stepped away from the chopper, my hand resting on the hilt of my sword. “Seven and a half.“

“That's less than your original offer!“ Jacob was rather cute when flustered.

“I can go lower. Don't tempt me.“ I circled the bike, taking a closer look. “Whether you turn a profit on this deal is no concern of mine, especially since you might be bullshitting me. The recently deceased unnamable celebrity whose estate won't take delivery is an old con.“

“Grandpa told me you were this sweet, innocent girl. You're staring me down like you're ready to pull your sword on me.“

He was still flustered, and still cute. But if he's going to drag the kindly old man into this, it was time for the claws. “So, you thought you could take advantage of me? Listen, asshole, I don't care if your grandfather is God. Six grams is my final offer.“

Track 11

Bruce Dickinson: “Devil on a Hog”

I did manage to wrangle Spinoza down to six grams before he yielded. Guilt at my harsh treatment nagged at me, but I suppressed it with an effort; he was out to get the best deal he could, just like me. The bike grabbed my heart with the first purr, but I wasn't going to admit it to him. I needed him to think I was willing to walk out empty-handed.

Dropping a couple hundred milligrams at the accessory shop assuaged what little guilt I felt at ramming such a hard bargain down his throat. After all, I needed a helmet, boots, gloves, and a shoulder harness for my sword. By the time I stopped for a rest on I-80 a hundred kilometers west of New York, I felt pretty damn good.

The rest stop was an island of commerce carved out of the forest that had encroached upon the interprovincial highway after Nationfall. I had my choice of fast food between Agni Burger, Eight Immortals Buffet, Apollo Coffee, and Borgia Pizza. At ACS we used to joke about how anybody who called Borgia Pizza with a complaint ended up in the East River.

It was necessary to get away from cities like New York or London to see what Nationfall had done to the world, and I hoped that my generation was smart enough to learn from history instead of repeating it. Damn near everything fell apart in 2048 after the world's governments, corporations, and organized religions started pushing psychiatric nanotech called The Patch. They said it would fix humanity's problems. They lied unless a close brush with extinction constituted a fix.

Mum and Dad don't talk about it, but they survived a nanotech-induced zombie apocalypse as little kids. If I wanted to top that kind of badassery, I think I'd have to arrest God for crimes against humanity and drag his arse down to earth to stand trial.

I wasn't hungry, or inclined to epic feats of courage, so I ducked into the ladies’. By some miracle of janitorial effort, the bathroom looked clean enough to eat in. For a nominal fee, I could have rented a locker and had a shower before resuming my journey―assuming I was too strapped to rent a room for the night. The nearby motel even had a discount on the honeymoon suite.

My implant notified me of an incoming call from Baruch Spinoza on my way out. What could he want? Only one way to know. I pulled out my phone, which connected to my implant and served mainly to prevent people from thinking I was talking to myself, and sat down. “Hello?“

“Hello, Naomi. How d'you like your chopper?“

“I almost regret the way I bargained with your grandson.“

Spinoza gave a wheezy chuckle. “Don't worry about him. He pocketed five grams off that deal.“

Dammit, I should have driven a harder bargain, but hearing Jacob didn't make out as badly as I thought was a relief. “Good for him.“

A sigh on the other end. “I guess you won't be meeting Jacob for dinner when you come back to the city.“

Me, date Jacob Spinoza? Sure. Right after Hell freezes over. Or the rest of Hell, if Dante wasn't making it all up. “I think I'll just stop by for my usual before I catch the maglev home.“

I stepped outside after he hung up, and found another motorcycle charging in the stall behind mine. Its chrome was dull, the front tire worn, and one of the mirrors remained attached through a combination of desperation and duct tape. The rider was equally disreputable. He squinted at me through a haze as he smoked what had to be the fattest blunt known to man.

The wind shifted as he studied me. Only the rifle peeking over his shoulder kept me from dismissing him as a lecherous old stoner. It was a distinctive weapon, and any Adversary who listened to scuttlebutt would have recognized the sleazy-looking old biker carrying it. What the hell was Edmund Cohen doing here?

He tapped the ashes from his blunt, careless of where the wind blew them. “I can see why Malkuth wants a hardware upgrade.“

“I'm not sure why that's any concern of yours, sir. You haven't even introduced yourself.“

The biker reddened as if shamed, held the blunt out to his side, and bowed from the waist. “Sorry about that, Adversary Bradleigh. I'm Edmund Cohen. Most of the shit your friends told you about me is pure slander, I promise.“

“Even the flattering things?“ Not that I had heard much to flatter Cohen. His saving grace was his skill with that Dragunov of his. He's a good man to have at your back in a firefight or a pub crawl, but don't lend him money or leave him alone with your girlfriend.

He flashed a handsome smile that made him resemble an espionage film hero. “Especially those.“

My guard was up because I was riding alone with only a sword for protection, but Cohen's self-deprecating humor eased me a little. I offered my hand. “I'd introduce myself, but Malkuth beat me to it. What else did he tell you?“

“Just enough to pique my interest.“ Cohen glanced at his dashboard. “I'm heading west as far as the I-81 exit. Mind if I ride with you a bit?“

“No harm in it, I suppose.“ Glancing over my shoulder as I mounted up, I caught the old lech perving on me like I suspected he would. I was tempted to blow him a kiss, but that was more Jackie's style. “Sure you can keep up?“

I left him there, hitting the on ramp at the current recommended speed. Aside from occasional RVs that I passed as they trundled along in the right lane, I had the highway to myself. The wind played with my hair, streaming it behind me as it pressed my sunglasses against my face. Though it hurt a little and would surely leave marks, I didn't care. Astride my Conquest, I was young and strong; no power on earth could oppose me.

No power save Edmund Cohen. He finally caught up with me, and requested a secure talk session. Though our engines were all but silent, using our implants was still easier than shouting at each other over the wind. «What do you want?»

«Malkuth told me you were interested in Clarion. Why?»

Hmm… He wasn't flirting, or pissing about with small talk now that we're alone. Why was that? There was only one way to find out. «I heard about some unsolved disappearances. I'm curious as to why nobody seems to give a shit.»

«You know what curiosity did to the cat, right?»

«I understand the cat got better.» Time to try a gamble while I had the old man's attention. Though I didn't know for sure that Eddie was on the Executive Council, I figured implying that I knew might shake loose info he would otherwise keep to himself. He certainly wasn't an Adversary or a Director. «I also understand you're XC. Think you can tell me anything about Clarion?»

«Sorry, but you're not cleared. In fact, I've got orders to persuade you to spend your vacation somewhere else. Clarion isn't your problem.»

Catching sight of the road signs ahead, I opened the throttle and left Cohen behind. «You're going to miss your exit, Eddie.»

«Shit!» He swerved to get onto the ramp, and I thought for a moment he might lose control. «At least call Saul Rosenbaum at the New York chapter for backup if you find anything!»

The session cut out. He must have used a near-field connection, implant to implant, instead of the network. Who the hell did Cohen think I was, anyway? Of course I would call the local office for backup if I found something real in Clarion. I might have been too curious for my own good, but I wasn't a demon-ridden idiot. Hell, I would probably call Rosenbaum when I get there as a professional courtesy.

My sunglasses proved a wise purchase as the sun led me westward to the Route 62 exit. Trafficnet advised me to take it, and to expect a rougher road than I-80. Rougher was something of an understatement. Route 62 had not yet been modernized, so it was nothing but faded asphalt with freshly painted lines and black patches where maintenance crews had filled in potholes. Network access was sporadic here, without the access points the Interprovincial provided every hundred meters.

Horse-pulled buggies filled with Pennsylvania Deutsch families slowed my progress every couple of kilometers. Having never shared a road with carriages before, I decelerated to avoid spooking the animals.

The road emptied once I passed the last farm and drove into an old forest threatening to encroach upon the highway. Because it was almost too dark to see, I pulled over to the narrow shoulder to remove my sunglasses.

A pair of deer mating in the middle of the road stopped me from continuing right away. While I could ride around them, scaring them into action, there was no predicting which way they'd bolt. It was too risky. “Oi, Bambi!“ The buck turned his head to gaze on me, but maintained his position. “Did you two have to start shagging in the middle of the bloody highway?“

Though it was all but impossible for the doe to have understood me, she pulled free of her suitor's embrace. He remained, hard and frustrated, as she bounded off into the woods. I snapped a photo and sent it to Jacqueline with a message: “They grow ‘em big over here.“ She'd get a kick out of that.

The buck stared at me a moment before lowering his head to threaten me with his antlers. Well, I suppose I did cockblock the poor bastard. I turned on my bike's V-Twin emulation and revved the engine. The rumbling growl of a gasoline-powered chopper shattered the silence, startling the buck into bolting after his lost mate.

The forest eventually yielded to more farmland. Buggies pulled over to let me pass as their drivers heard me coming. The Conquest purred beneath me as I rode into Clarion at a bicycle's pace to avoid hitting pedestrians.

One child saw me and pulled his mother's arm. “Mommylookit! It's Cecilia Harvey on a hog!“

Oh, dear. Being compared to a videogame character was cute when Claire did it, but it was getting old fast. Perhaps I needed a different hairstyle. The mother turned to pay attention to her son, so I stopped beside her. “Excuse me, ma'am. Is there somewhere I could stay overnight?“

She pointed down the road. “Try the Lonely Mountain.“ Before I could thank her, she led her son away to continue on her business. So much for country hospitality.

Despite being a small town, Clarion's main street bustled in a manner that made me a little homesick. They had everything here, even a nerd shop called Kaylee's Shiny Games, Hobbies, and Crafts.

One of the windows at Kaylee's displayed a poster for the new edition of Advanced Catacombs & Chimeras, a tabletop game I remembered from university. Another window was devoted to coming soon posters for computer games like Nationfall: Final War and True Goddess Metempsychosis III - Call of the Lightbringer. The latter claimed to include an artbook and soundtrack on vinyl with every copy, and seemed to involve yet another demonic invasion of Tokyo. I swear… the place must be accursed.

A plump brunette in overalls and a Pulsecannon t-shirt leaned against the entrance while polishing some kind of game miniature that resembled a grotesque porcine creature wielding a minigun in each hand. Her eyes widened as I passed by. “Excuse me! Did you know you look just like―”

I pulled over so I could talk without holding up traffic. “Cecilia Harvey? I get that a lot lately. It must be the hair.“

“I was gonna say you look like Lady Frostmane. From the samurai movies by Ryuhei Miyamoto? All you need is a katana and a kimono.“ My utter ignorance of the work of Ryuhei Miyamoto must have been painted across my face, because she stopped geeking out and approached. “Welcome to Clarion. I'm Kaylee Chambers.“

I offered my hand. “Naomi Bradleigh. Can you tell me where to find the Lonely Mountain?“

Clutching her miniature in her polishing hand, she gave mine a hearty shake. “Give me a minute to lock up and I'll show you the way. Nothing like a beer after work, right?“

Part II

Always the Quiet Ones

“It's always the quiet ones you gotta watch out for.“

~Anonymous

Track 12

Jadis: “Touch”

The Lonely Mountain looked like an inn from an old storybook. A hand-painted wooden sign swayed in the breeze, depicting a single peak against a far horizon. Underneath, it read “B. & D. Halford, Proprietors.“

The building resembled a traditional English pub in almost every detail. A wrought iron fence surrounded a quaint beer garden abuzz with bees competing with a riot of butterflies for nectar. Flagstones led from the open gates to a circular door. There was even a sign in the window nearest the door advertising rooms to let, rather than rooms to rent.

The door closed behind us with a soft clangor of bells. A stereo played mellow progressive rock. The barkeep reached for a pint and began filling it as we approached the bar. “Here's your usual, Kaylee. What can I get your friend?“

“We just met. Ask Naomi.“ Kaylee downed a third of her pint in one go and smacked her lips. “Damn, I needed that.“

I claimed a stool next to Kaylee. The singer crooned something about gold everywhere he turned. It seemed fitting, given the season. “A glass of your house red, please. What do you have playing?“

“The band's called Charn. They're local, and playing the Mountain this weekend.“ The bartender opened a fresh bottle and put out a dish of mixed nuts. “Are you're new here?“

“Just rode in.“ I sipped my wine before continuing, “I'm here for a holiday. Sign out front says you've rooms available.“

Halford nodded. “It's seventy milligrams a night, breakfast included. We change sheets and towels every other day. How long did you plan to stay?“

Pulling out my wallet, I counted out 400mg of gold in banknotes and pushed it toward him. Though I could have charged it directly to my account, just about everybody preferred to be paid in cash to avoid the transaction tax levied by the Phoenix Society. “This should cover me for a week. You can keep the change. Can we talk extensions if I need to stay longer?“

“Of course.“ Halford counted the cash and nodded. “Just a moment, please.“

He soon returned with a receipt and a key on a numbered fob, which I promptly pocketed. “Anything else I can do for you, ladies?“

Kaylee nodded. “How about dinner?“

I scanned the room and found a table by the window that afforded a good view of the street while also letting me observe the patrons. “Mind if we sit by the window?“

“Go ahead.“ Halford grabbed a couple of menus and followed us. A huge Irish wolfhound looked up, giving us a forlorn glance as we passed the hearth. It whined softly, begging to be rescued from the two black kittens draped contentedly across his back.

As we ate, Kaylee regaled me with stories about the townspeople, starting with our host. It seems Bruce Halford conducted a weekly Catacombs & Chimeras game every Sunday while his husband took a turn behind the bar. In return, I told her about London and life as an Adversary. By the time Bruce came by with the dessert menu, I was convinced I had made a friend here in town.

Kaylee studied me a moment, her fork poised over her slice of steaming apple pie as I sipped my coffee. “You sure you don't want a piece? Dick Halford makes a great apple pie.“

“I really shouldn't. I'll only regret it later.“

“Because of CPMD? Raw deal.“ Kaylee pointed with her fork at a gaunt gentleman wearing a white lab coat over his shirt and waistcoat. While he might have been a scientist or some sort of technician, his almost military bearing reminded me of the staff physicians at ACS. “That's Dr. Petersen. I heard he was one of the first to move back to Clarion after Nationfall. If anybody knows where the bodies are buried, it's probably him.“

“Why do you say that?“

Kaylee leaned close. “I think he dug a lot of the graves. He used to be in the Commonwealth Army. Now he runs a family practice when not serving as coroner and medical examiner.“

Now that was odd. Why would Petersen return to an empty town to practice medicine? Did he serve nearby during Nationfall? I could understand a former North American Commonwealth soldier running a family practice, especially if he got medic training in the service. But in London, medical examiners must possess specialized qualifications in forensic pathology. Would that be the case here? Either way, Dr. Petersen was number one with a bullet on my list of people to chat up. “What else can you tell me about him?“

“He goes bow-hunting with Sheriff Robinson and Mayor Collins every fall.“ Kaylee gave me a suspicious look. “Are you on the job?“

Shit. That's what I got for not quitting while I was ahead. I needed to be more careful unless I wanted a jury wondering why I had overstepped my currently non-existent authority. “I'm on leave, but while I was in New York, I overheard a woman who had been here. She mentioned disappearances, and I got curious. Do you know anything?“

“There was that lady who was all over the news, but she eventually turned up. Her boyfriend didn't, though. Fuckin’ shame, that. They were going to get married.“ Kaylee's face scrunched as she tried to think of something else. “And every now and then some dumbass kid ignores warnings to stay out of the Fort Woods and doesn't come back when he said he would. We send out a search party and find ‘em half the time. You're a city girl, so you should understand that sometimes people disappear.“

Kaylee was right. Sometimes people did just disappear, but there was usually a reason.

I didn't quite catch what Kaylee said next. “What was that?“

“I said, there goes Dr. Petersen now.“

I put some banknotes on the table. “Sorry to run out, but this is too good an opportunity. This should cover the check, with a tip. Is there a back door?“

“You're going after Petersen?“ Kaylee pointed the way instead of waiting for me to answer. I ignored a drunken catcall and plunged into the cool autumn night. An alley ran parallel to Main Street, allowing me to keep pace with Dr. Petersen without getting too close.

We walked across town before the lane curved and brought me back to Main Street. Now seemed as good a time to cross Dr. Petersen's path as any, so I approached him. Because I tend to walk silently and thus sneak up on people without intending to do so, I sang softly to alert him to my presence. I wanted to talk to the man, not scare him to death.

“You have a lovely voice, young lady.“ Petersen turned to me with a confident smile. “I saw you with Ms. Chambers at the Lonely Mountain. Have you been following me?“

“Kaylee told me you were the man to see if I was curious about Clarion's history.“

“Are you curious, Miss ―?“

“Bradleigh. Naomi Bradleigh.“ No point in denying him my name when my appearance precluded anonymity. Now that I had a good look at his face, I used my implant to search for records. Turns out Kaylee was right about him serving in the North American Commonwealth's army, but his service record was sealed by order of the Phoenix Society. All I got was his name, rank, and serial number. This shit kept getting weirder. “And you're Dr. Henrik Petersen. Or should I address you as Colonel Petersen?“

“'Doctor’ will do, Adversary Bradleigh.“ He flashed a knowing smile. “I couldn't help but run a search on your name and face. No doubt you did the same with me. Am I the subject of an investigation?“

I shook my head. I should have expected he'd search me. And if he's Sheriff Robinson's buddy, I'll probably get to meet him soon, too. “You aren't. I heard some odd rumors about Clarion, and got curious enough to visit.“

“Hmm.“ Dr. Petersen glanced northward as if thinking of something in the forest beyond. “What manner of odd rumors?“

“Disappearances. Apparently, a couple got lost recently, and only the woman got out safely. Nobody knows what became of her fiancé.“

“It was quite the tragedy. I treated the young lady in question for exposure and malnutrition.“ Petersen pushed his glasses up his nose as he spoke. “I'm sorry we weren't able to find her young man. Do you have a young man, Ms. Bradleigh?“

“A few.“ I lied because hearing such a question at night on an empty street creeped me out. Let Dr. Petersen believe what he liked, as long as he didn't think me easy prey who could be made to vanish without notice. I ran a fingertip down his chest to further disconcert him. “But there's much to be said for experience and maturity, is there not?“

“At my age, I think you'd be the death of me.“ His eyes crinkled as he smiled at my flirtation. He checked his watch before producing a ring bristling with keys. Why would a physician have so many? “Would you come by tomorrow afternoon for coffee? I think I'd enjoy your company.“

Sure. Why not? I would happily drink the old man's coffee and pick his brain. Maybe I'd poke around his files while he's in the loo if I could get away with it. A high-ranking soldier with a service record sealed by order of the Phoenix Society probably had catacombs in his closet. “Is five o'clock convenient?“

“Perfectly.“ The foyer light came to life as he opened the door. “Good night, Ms. Bradleigh.“

Track 13

The Weathergirls: “It's Raining Men”

Shielded scarlet streetlamps lit my way back to the Lonely Mountain. I passed locals out for a stroll, their conversations dueling with the songs of the last few crickets and cicadas to cling to the daytime warmth of false summer. Their melodies serenaded me as I walked past the darkened shop windows, so unlike my neighborhood in London.

A fleeting shadow accompanied by a soft rustle of cloth caught my eye, and I stopped to check it out. I crept into the alley with my hand on my sword's hilt, ready to draw. Before me stood a man in dark camouflage fatigues, his feline eyes a feral yellow in the gloom. His left shoulder bore sergeant's stripes, and the name badge pinned to his chest identified him as ‘C. Renfield.‘

Renfield studied me for a moment before speaking. “Do you have any idea what the moonlight does to your hair?“

As gambits go, that wasn't half bad. It lacked the simplicity of ‘"Hello, I'm so-and-so,‘” but it wasn't nearly as lame as, ‘"Does God realize you snuck out of Heaven?‘” It was almost poetic, which surprised me.

“Maybe you should tell me.“ Not that I planned to drag him back to the Lonely Mountain, but he did have a sexy voice, and the uniform looked good on him. But why would somebody wear a Commonwealth Army uniform decades after the NAC's dissolution?

“Surely I'm not the first to notice the moon lends you an ethereal aspect?“ He offered his hand. “Their loss, and hopefully my gain. I'm Sergeant Christopher Renfield, NACA. You can't be from around here with that British accent.“

Dismissing his remark about my voice as a slip of the tongue, I shook his hand. It gave me an excuse to check him out. His gaze held an intensity I found a little unnerving. I prefer longer hair on a man, but his body was made for rough handling, and he had a mouth on him I could definitely put to use. Just thinking about him kissing his way up the backs of my legs made me shiver. Oh dear, I'm starting to think like Jacqueline. “Naomi Bradleigh.“

He also had an inviting smile, which made the situation a little less creepy. “So, what brings you to the Commonwealth from Britain?“

Britain again? What the hell? I'm a Londoner, not British. The United Queensreach died in Nationfall, like the North American Commonwealth. It turned out there wouldn't always be an England after all, but her people kept calm and carried on. “I'm not sure I understand, Sergeant.“

“Word from the brass says the British might invade. Are you with them?“

Oh, bloody hell. He must have been some kind of war re-enactor who was still in character. “I'm not with anybody tonight, Sergeant. You're welcome to interrogate me over lunch.“

“I'd love that, ma'am, but I don't know when I'll get my orders and I hate to leave a lady waiting.“ He closed the distance between us and slipped an arm around me before I could think to withdraw. His lips were warm and soft upon mine, and lingered long enough to make me want more. “Sorry, ma'am. I should have asked first.“

Damn right. Renfield really shouldn't have teased me like that. To teach him a lesson, I caught him by the collar, pressed him against the wall, and stole a deeper kiss to show him what he had gotten himself into. I held him there long enough for his hands to find their way to my arse before pushing myself away.

Taking a few steps back gave me a good view of what I had done to him. A purr leaked into my voice. “I'd better go before I take advantage of you, Sergeant.“

“What if I want you to take advantage of me?“ Renfield's voice was low and rough as he pulled me against him with a hand in my hair and the other slipping into the back pocket of my jeans. He was ready to take me in the alley, and all I had to do was tell him to go for it.

He stared into my eyes for a moment before lowering his head. His lips brushed my throat, followed by a gentle graze of teeth that threatened to obliterate all rational thought.

Who the hell was this guy? What the hell was wrong with me? Was I just rebounding, or was it because we're both CPMD+? Had our common condition triggered some kind of animalistic, pheromonal chemistry between us? Tempting as he was, I didn't want to think of myself as being that easy. I had never been so hot for a man that I couldn't be bothered to consider the consequences, and that scared me a little.

Forcing Renfield off me with a shove, I drew my sword as he backed away. The cold weight of steel in my hand cooled my ardor and helped me focus. “I'm serious, Christopher. I don't know you, so regardless of how much we both want it, I'm not ready to play with you tonight.“

Keeping my blade between us, I withdrew from the alley and ran most of the way back to The Lonely Mountain. I paused only when I realized that returning to the pub with a naked sword while looking disheveled and panting was likely to cause a disturbance. I stopped a block away, checked behind me to confirm I wasn't followed, and sheathed my blade. After composing myself using a shop window as a mirror, I walked the rest of the way.

Kaylee was still there, with dual shoulder-mounted kitties. The little black kittens that had draped themselves across the hound now perched on her. Given that their claws could be needle-sharp, I doubted she was comfortable. “Looks like you made some friends. Bet the dog's grateful.“

One of the kittens leaped from her shoulder. Not only was Kaylee down to a single weapon of magical kitty sweetness, but now I had a little purr baby clawing his way up the sleeve of my jacket and leaving marks. Dammit.

“No shit.“ Now that Kaylee had an arm free, she exploited her situation and grabbed her beer. “Bruce found ‘em in the barn and named ‘em Dante and Virgil. Dante's the one climbing you.“

Actually, he was now perched on my shoulder and playing with a zipper. I scratched behind his little ears and tried not to let his purring distract me. “What did I miss while I was out?“

“Depends on what you're looking for. See the kid in the red flannel shirt?“ She pointed out a local youth at the pool table.

“Not bad. What's the kid's story?“

“His name's Mike Brubaker. His parents run the dairy farm you probably passed on your way in. Some of the younger girls say he's queer.“

I shrugged. “Do you think so?“

“Hell, no.“ Kaylee flashed a wicked smile but didn't elaborate. “He just ignores girls his age. You're more his type, but I don't think he's yours. Speaking of which, how'd you like Doc Petersen?“

“I agreed to meet him for coffee tomorrow afternoon.“ Something was off about Clarion's general practitioner. I was sure of it, but I kept that to myself. Kaylee's willingness to dish could easily work against me, and I didn't want to either victimize an innocent man or tip off a guilty one. “He's a bit too old for me, so get your mind out of the gutter.“

Agitated by Kaylee's constant gesturing, Virgil also jumped ship. He sat in front of me and voiced a pathetic little meow before scampering up to complete my furry arsenal. “You were a little flushed when you came in. Meet a handsome stranger in a dark alley?“

Was I really that obvious? Too late now. Here came the Brubaker boy. He flashed a shy smile. “I have to admit, Adversary Bradleigh, I'm jealous of the kittens.“

Now that was good for a laugh. But who told Brubaker I serve? Kaylee? And who else did she tell? “I think you'd be more comfortable sitting in my lap. You must be Michael Brubaker. Kaylee mentioned you.“

He reddened a bit and glanced her way. She smiled behind her glass. “Should I ask how much she told you?“

“She implied you need an experienced hand.“ The glass in his hand held water with a wedge of lemon. Was Michael too young to drink, or merely abstemious?

Brubaker shook his head and sat at our table without asking for permission. “I heard you're new in town. I'd love to show you around.“

Say this much for the kid: he's got balls. Letting him escort me would afford me a view of Clarion I might not get on my own. I offered my hand, careful not to dislodge my purring guardians. “I think I'd enjoy that. But call me Naomi. I'm not on the job.“

Michael managed to shake my hand without turning an unnerving shade of crimson. “Is eleven in the morning all right?“

He fled as soon as I agreed to the time. Kaylee managed to wait until the door slammed shut behind him before squealing. “Awwww! He's finally growing up. I think you're the first woman he's ever asked out.“

Oh, bugger. What have I gotten myself into? “What about you?“

“Pfft. You shittin’ me? I seduced his sweet ass.“ She held up her empty glass, a silent imperious demand. “It was last year at the harvest festival. He managed to ask me to dance, but went mute afterward.“ She leaned in, adopting a conspiratorial whisper. “I can point out stallions who would be jealous of him.“

I shook my head, trying to banish the image her words conjured. How was it that wherever I went, I found a Jacqueline ― or a girl well on her way to becoming a Jacqueline? Was it an archetype I attracted in the same manner that I seemed to attract cats? And who was this blonde girl stalking toward me as if she were ready to throw a gauntlet at my feet?

She stared at me in a frankly appraising manner that I suspected I should find grossly offensive. “Michael is mine. Our parents arranged everything. He just won't accept it.“

I shrugged, not particularly interested in disputing her claim, though Michael would be justified in filing a complaint with the Phoenix Society if his parents arranged a marriage for him without his consent. “You're welcome to him if you can get his attention. But you might start by brushing up on your manners. I'm Naomi Bradleigh, and who might you be?“

“Jessica Stern. We don't appreciate out-of-town sluts poaching our men here.“

I shook my head and struggled not to laugh. Unable to hold my silence any longer, I turned to Kaylee. “I think I know why Michael ignores girls his age.“

“I'm right here.“

I gave an exaggerated sigh. “Exactly!“

The shocked, disgusted expression on Jessica's face suggested she finally grasped my meaning. Poor Mike. She spun on her heel and stalked away, shoving past one of Mike's lingering friends.

Kaylee burst out laughing. “The look on that little bitch's face was so fuckin’ priceless.“

The clearing of a masculine throat caught our attention. Halford placed a fresh beer and a glass of red before us. A tall, uniformed man waited behind him. He approached once Halford left, and flashed a badge. “Snow-blonde, scarlet eyes, and an Italian-style sword. You must be Adversary Bradleigh.“

Well, that was fast. At least he was handsome if you liked ‘em rugged. His uniform looked good on him, but not as good as fatigues looked on Renfield. I bet many women enjoyed seeing those hazel eyes staring up at them from between their thighs, but I never get involved with cops. It's a conflict of interest. “And you must be Sheriff Robinson. Who told you I serve?“

“Don't worry about that. I only want to ascertain your intent.“

I narrowed my eyes. “Is this the welcome all visitors get? It's not exactly good for tourism.“

“Don't get cute with me, Ms. Bradleigh.“

Oh, so he wants to be the big dog and mark his territory? Which reminds me, I really should call Rosenbaum and introduce myself. No doubt Cohen or Malkuth have already told him that there's a very naughty kitty hunting in his garden. “I wanted some quiet time away from the city, and I heard some things about Clarion that piqued my curiosity.“

Robinson took a moment to mull this over. “And I've heard some things about you that piqued mine. I'd like to have a look at your room.“

Not bloody likely. I haven't even been to my room, or done more than pocket my key, but I wasn't about to let Robinson indulge in a fishing expedition. “I do not consent to a search, Sheriff. Do you have a warrant?“

“No.“ Robinson glanced at my sword as if it meant something to him. “Do us all a favor and try not to give me cause to get one.“

He turned around, treating Kaylee and me to a long view of his ass as he walked away. It really was too bad he's a cop. No doubt Kaylee felt the same, judging by her sigh. “Too bad he's married to his job. I'd let him do a cavity search.“

“Dammit, Kaylee, I didn't need that mental image.“ I took her beer away, ignoring her protest. “I think it's time we got you home.“

Track 14

Joe Satriani: “A Door Into Summer”

Michael Brubaker reminded me of my brother Nathan. He was reserved without the presence of friends to bolster his confidence, so I resorted to leading questions to draw him out. His answers didn't give me much but seemed to help put him at ease.

We followed the town's namesake river, the Clarion, northeast into the forest. Michael proved voluble once I began asking about unfamiliar plant life. A born woodsman, he seemed pleased to have a companion with whom he could share his knowledge. “Don't you have trees in London?“

Craning my neck, I stared up at the tops of the white pines. “Not quite like this. This is a real forest, old and wild.“

“Not that old.“ Michael shook his head. He crouched, and put on a pair of thick gloves before digging into the soft earth. After a minute's effort, he pulled out a chunk of asphalt. Part of it was still yellow. “A road used to run this way. See those little hills off in the distance? That's actually what's left of a strip mall.“

That sounded like arrant bullshit, so I used my implant to pull pre-Nationfall maps off the network and compare them with current GPS data as we continued our hike. He was right about the road, but I remained skeptical about the forest's ability to reclaim developed land in mere decades.

«Got a minute, Malkuth? I wanted to ask a couple of questions.»

«Go ahead. Can't guarantee I'll answer, though, especially if it's about Clarion.»

Damn clearance again. Oh, well. Malkuth's evasions might still prove enlightening. What the bloody hell was the Society so paranoid about, anyway? «I'm curious about the forest northeast of town. I'm hiking along the Clarion River, and my companion pulled a chunk of old road out of the topsoil. What happened here?»

«Companion? Did you meet someone already? I'm jealous.»

Was Malkuth playing at being human by flirting, or was he serious? I decided to take him seriously. «Don't worry, Mal. You'll always be my favorite AI. I haven't forgotten that I promised you a date.»

«I'm going to hold you to that, Nims.»

«Yeah, you do that, Mal. In the meantime, why not tell me what happened?»

A pair of large files hit my implant a couple of minutes later. They were labeled “clarion-valley-topo-2048” and “clarion-valley-topo-2049”. I opened them and compared the two topographic maps. «There was an impact crater a kilometer east of my position. Meteorite?»

«Worse. There was a protest there seven days, six hours, and fifty-two minutes before the Commonwealth's final collapse. Some officer decided it was an insurrection and ordered the use of an experimental space-based weapon codenamed GUNGNIR to suppress it.»

Gungnir was the spear of Odin, king of the Aesir. The use of such a name to signify a space-based weapon couldn't possibly have been coincidental. «GUNGNIR was a kinetic strike system, wasn't it?»

«Exactly, but it gets worse. GUNGNIR is still out there, along with two other systems codenamed GAEBOLG and LONGINUS. The Society has them under control, but can you imagine what might happen if nation-states arose again and started creating more of these systems?»

Staring skyward, I visualized shafts of tungsten raining down like a hail of javelins. The spear was one of humanity's first weapons. Was it to be our last? Despite the warmth of early autumn, I shuddered. «Has the Society ever used these weapons?»

«I'm sorry, Naomi, but you aren't cleared for that information.» Not that I expected an answer, but a simple ‘no’ would have reassured me.

Uphold individual rights. Root out corruption. Overthrow tyranny. Protect the human race. Impose transparency and accountability on authority. That was the mission, but who the hell was going to impose transparency and accountability on the Phoenix Society, when we didn't even know who sat on the Executive Council? They could hide anything they wanted from us, and there was nothing we could do about it.

“Hey, are you all right?“ Brubaker's voice up ahead dragged me out of my own thoughts.

Not wanting to shout, I dashed upriver to catch up with him. “Sorry. Had an argument with a friend from work.“

“A fellow Adversary?“

Venting my frustration on the kid would have been counterproductive now that he was finally opening up. “Further up. Know anything about our AIs, the Sephiroth?“

Brubaker shook his head. He held a finger to his lips before pointing toward the river. My reward for following his direction was a view of river otters at play. They splashed about, chasing each other and catching fish without the slightest care in the world. A black bear lumbered out of the underbrush on the opposite bank and waded in, eager for her share of the trout flashing in the sun-dappled water.

We left the animals to their business and continued upriver for a bit before Brubaker spoke again. “How do you argue with an AI?“

“Very carefully.“ It sounded like a punchline, and it got a smile out of Brubaker, but it was also the truth. “Interactive AIs are better at logic than we are, so you must weigh your words if you want to persuade them to do anything.“

We walked a dozen meters before his next question. “What were you trying to get the AI to do?“

“I had questions about what had happened to this place.“

“Dr. Petersen told us a meteorite fell nearby and flattened the area. Was he wrong?“

Either that or lying. “It wasn't a meteorite. The Commonwealth bombarded the area from orbit to suppress some kind of protest.“

“But that's insane! Why would a government do that? What were they trying to protect?“

Was he really that naive? “Either their own power or something nearby that they didn't want to fall into the people's hands.“

“Such as?“

Damned if I knew, so I shrugged. “Maybe the Commonwealth had some kind of military installation nearby.“

“It would explain why we call ‘em the Old Fort Woods.“ Brubaker drank from his canteen.

I opened the package of bison jerky I bought in town earlier and offered him a piece. He put the entire piece in his mouth and began chewing, stuffing it into one cheek like a deranged carnivorous squirrel. “Damn, that's good. Did you get this from Three Wolves?“

Rather than talk with my mouth full of jerky, I nodded. The salty spiced meat assaulted me with flavor so that I was lost in the taste as I chewed. It was tough at first but quickly became as tender as a good rare steak as I worked moisture back into the meat.

We followed the trail upriver for a couple kilometers in companionable silence before he spoke again. “What's it like being an Adversary?“

I stopped short, unsure of how to answer. Becoming an Adversary allowed me to attend the Juilliard Conservatory in New York without selling myself into more severe forms of indentured servitude. It also let me uphold worthy ideals and make great friends.

But being stonewalled by Malkuth at every turn when I needed him most? Nope. That was hardly something to brag about.

He turned to me and looked me straight in the eye. “I want to know what I'm getting into before I join.“

At least this was familiar. Brubaker wasn't the first small-town youth to get all starry-eyed with dreams of glory after meeting an Adversary and romanticizing their work. But a taste of the commonplace after learning about GUNGNIR was welcome. “We watch the watchmen with a sword of Damocles hanging over us. Make a single mistake on duty, and you could end up dead.“

Brubaker gave a thoughtful nod. “That's why you carry a sword, right? To protect yourself.“

Not to mention a Kalashnikov, but weapons were no protection against a court martial. What would you do, run the judge through? Gun down the jury? That sounded like an excellent way to refute a charge. “It helps, but I wasn't talking about being killed by a suspect. Adversaries found guilty of violating individual rights are executed.“

“But the death penalty was abolished! Why is capital punishment reserved for Adversaries?“

“We have near-absolute authority while on duty. That power carries an equal weight of responsibility. It's too heavy a burden for most people.“

“You seem to handle it well.“

Most of us do until we can't any longer. It's called burnout. I've seen good Adversaries hand over their pins because it became too much despite the cognitive-behavioral therapy we get between missions to keep the stress under control. “I've been lucky so far.“

I fingered the cameo-style pins in my jacket's lapels that identified me as an Adversary. Two rattlesnakes coiled around the sword of justice and holding a set of scales in their jaws represented the principles of our service: liberty, justice, and equality for all.

Why did I care about Michael's decision? Was it because he reminded me of Nathan? “I won't say it's not a privilege to serve, and I'm sure you could do a lot of good, but don't buy into the romance. Do it for the right reasons.“

Track 15

Alice Cooper: “You Drive Me Nervous”

We reached the ruins of a hunting cabin an hour after our conversation about life as an Adversary lapsed. Despite the darkening sky and the rumble of thunder, my reluctance to seek shelter there remained. “Michael, are you sure we should be here?“

I certainly wasn't. Half the roof was missing, and the rest was charred. The fireplace was so ill-tended that any attempt to use it would most likely burn down the rest of the cabin. Evidence of young lovers using the place for trysts littered a corner. I glanced at Brubaker. Was one of those used condoms his? Eww.

“Don't worry.“ He opened a trap door and began climbing down as lightning split the sky with an almost instantaneous roar. “Underground is safer!“

The cellar was cleaner, too. Much cleaner, as if somebody came down here regularly and kept the place tidy. It even had working lights, once Brubaker felt around and found the switch. Since there wasn't a couch or any chairs, I settled upon one of the cushions spread around the room. “How did you know about this place?“

“My friends and I found it a few years ago and fixed it up. We come here to get away from everybody else. I changed the lock on the trapdoor so that the kids who come here to screw can't get down here and make a mess of things.“

“My brothers had something similar for a while. They built a little shack out in the fields. It wasn't as fancy as this.“ Nor did they have as much porn. At least, I didn't think they did, but it wasn't my place to judge. I held up a disc labeled Take It Like a Man, which I recognized from Jackie's collection. Taking a mock-serious tone, I showed Brubaker my find. “Is this yours, young man?“

“It's one of ours, yes.“ Brubaker took the porn from me and stuck it back in the box. He then hid the box, as if that would erase my awareness of its existence. “It's hard to find a safe place to be yourself in a small town, let alone get time alone with someone special.“

“So you ever bring Jessica Stern down here?“

Brubaker shuddered. “Hell no. We bring the people we are actually interested in. Not the ones our parents pick for us. Here's the thing. We handle marriages here the same way we breed stock. You marry when and whom you're told. Your own feelings don't matter. So we do our duty for our families and town, and get in some fun in private.“

How aristocratic! Despite flashing to my ex, such behavior was hardly exclusive to the upper crust. Nationfall only accelerated an existing trend toward rapid urbanization, and many rural areas had trouble repopulating despite the Phoenix Society's rural resettlement incentives. As a result, villages and small towns like Clarion forced young people into unwanted marriages when they thought the Phoenix Society wasn't watching. In the most backward areas, local authorities permitted families to preserve their honor by murdering rebellious children.

It was utter barbarism, if you asked me. Why was it that it was always the quiet little towns that were the most profoundly fucked up? On the upside, some of our most dedicated Adversaries hailed from such hellholes. “So, you'll marry Jessica, knock her up a few times, and then have your fun with someone more congenial?“

“You shitting me? I want to get the hell out of Clarion, but I'd never make it in the city with the education I've got. Being an Adversary's my only shot.“

He actually sounded angry. Was it over his lot in life, or directed at me for trying to persuade him to abandon his best hope for a better life? “I'm sorry. I didn't realize earlier.“

He fumed as he brewed the coffee on the stove in the kitchenette. Accepting the proffered mug, I waited for him to say something. “Not your fault. Heck, I'm sure Jessica hinted at her anticipated ownership of my ass.“

We drank in silence for a while as I studied Brubaker. No doubt he used the free weights stacked in the corner. Between his physique and his comfort with the forests around Clarion, he'd at least make a good recruit. He was robust and sharp, but was that enough?

An Adversary's post isn't just a job. Police officers often talked about holding the blue line between law and disorder. Adversaries defended one of their own: a red line between liberty and tyranny. It was a harder beat to walk because it meant standing up for chaos. “Michael, why do you want to take the oath? It isn't just about getting out of Clarion, is it?“

He didn't immediately answer. “Something needs to be done about Clarion's arranged marriages. There's something wrong with them. It all goes back to Dr. Petersen. He says he's only discouraging matches between people whose genomes are too similar.“

While that sounded plausible, I could guess where this was headed. “But when Petersen only gives you one or two acceptable matches, it looks like eugenics instead of genetic counseling?“

Brubaker nodded. “Yeah. I think he's using us for some kind of breeding experiment, but he isn't telling us anything about it or explaining why. I went to the Sheriff and the Mayor, but they're in on it. They said the Phoenix Society wouldn't believe me.“

Now it made sense. Brubaker wanted the training and authority to crack the case himself. “You want to expose the truth yourself if nobody else will?“

“Exactly!“ He thrust himself to his feet and paced the room as if galvanized by my question. “Maybe the Phoenix Society won't believe me. But if I'm aware of a problem, isn't it my responsibility to do something about it?“

No counterargument was possible when similar reasoning had brought me to Clarion. However, his plan held a fatal flaw. “Let me help you. If you try to do this all yourself, your friends will continue to suffer while you're training at ACS. I might not be officially on duty, but I might be able to fix that if I can find probable cause for an investigation.“

That didn't go over as well as I hoped, judging from the indignation in his voice. “Dammit, what more do you need?“

Ah, the impatience of youth. Never mind I was only a couple years older than Brubaker. “Right. Time for your first lesson. I can't take what you've said to court and prove guilt. It isn't enough. It might not even be admissible as evidence. I need more.“

Instead of answering, Brubaker cocked an ear at the ceiling. Grabbing a machete from a footlocker by the ladder, he ascended and stuck his head up out of the trap door. “Get the light. The rain's stopped.“

He scanned the woods as I joined him topside. “Follow me. I want to show you something.“

He did not speak again for the next hour. Instead, he led me deeper into the forest, following a trail marked years ago. The trees along our path bore old scars from hatchet strokes. We stopped several times so that Brubaker could hack through brambles.

We eventually reached a dead end, a wall of thorns. The vines had woven themselves into cables as thick as my arm, creating an impenetrable green barrier that rose above my head. Following the wall east we rounded a corner, which led us to what appeared to be a dilapidated guard post and a battered gate.

The creepers weren't as thick at the gate. I caught a glimpse of green paint and tore away the vines until I revealed a painted metal sign.

           North American Commonwealth Army
                 FORT CLARION
   Authorized Personnel Only (Secret Clearance or Higher Required)
               CO: Col. Henrik Petersen

CO most likely meant ‘commanding officer.‘ Was the Col. Henrik Petersen named on the sign the same Colonel Petersen who now served Clarion as a doctor and coroner? The same Dr. Petersen, who Brubaker insisted, was using the people of Clarion as breeding stock in a eugenics experiment?

The vine-matted gates were topped with razor wire, so climbing them was out. However, the guard station suffered no such limitation. Getting atop it would let me peek over the wall. Surely Fort Clarion was a ruin, but I wanted to see for myself. “Michael, can you give me a boost?“

He nodded and got into position. Springing out of his cupped hand, I scrambled atop the guard hut and got my look over the fence. Within Fort Clarion's perimeter, everything was white-glove perfect. Every vehicle gleamed as if freshly washed and polished, and all of the buildings were newly painted. If the North American Commonwealth still existed, its Prime Minister probably could have bounced coins off every bed in the barracks. Yet the base lacked something vital. “Where are the soldiers?“

“What?“

Of course, Brubaker had no idea what I'm on about from below. I laid down on the roof and lowered my hand to help him up. He took a long look and whistled. “Holy shit. Did we just miss the fuckin’ Rapture?“

A glint from the watchtower caught my eye. Grabbing Mike, I jumped off. We rolled as we landed, and he looked ready to take a swing at me once he recovered. Not that I blamed him. “Sorry. I thought I saw light glinting off a scope.“

“Sniper?“

I glanced back at Fort Clarion. “Don't know for sure. Somebody's there, and I'd rather not meet them yet.“

Track 16

Rockwell: “Somebody's Watching Me”

Brubaker and I got back to Clarion in time for me to meet Dr. Petersen as promised. When I showed up at his office, the waiting room was empty save for a nurse bustling about. She tended the plants and tidied up as if shutting down for the day. “Excuse me. I was supposed to meet Dr. Petersen.“

“You must be Naomi Bradleigh.“ The bored, weary tone implied she had better things to do than deal with me. Not that I blamed her after a peek at her workstation; the poor woman must have been on her feet all day. “Dr. Petersen told me to expect you. He had to make a house call, but he'll meet you at the Lonely Mountain when he's done.“

Curiosity tempted me to ask where Petersen went for his house call, but I knew better. The nurse would cite confidentiality and tell me to bugger off. Besides, I had a better question in mind. “Who should I ask about the area around Clarion?“

A shrug from the nurse. “Try Town Hall. They're open till six.“ She turned her back and lowered her voice, but I still caught the rest. “She's long past due for a husband and some kids to settle her down, but city folk recognize no duty to anybody but themselves.“

I hoped for the sake of Dr. Petersen's patients that this nurse was more solicitous on the job. Still, it was up to me to be the better person. “Thanks for your help.“

The receptionist at Clarion Town Hall was friendlier; her face lit up with a megawatt smile as soon as the door closed behind me. She was a middle-aged brunette with shoulder-length curls who wore a little black cat pin in her lapel. The nameplate on her desk read, C. Tricklebank. “Excuse me, Ms. Tricklebank. I had some questions about Clarion and its history. Do you think you could help me out?“

“Of course.“ She studied me a moment. “Haven't I seen you before? With Kaylee Chambers?“

Her accent surprised me, despite not being especially pronounced. She sounded like she came from an Australian city. Melbourne, perhaps, or maybe Sydney? I had offered my hand before she realized I had failed to introduce myself. “You're right. I'm Naomi Bradleigh. I'm on vacation, and arrived yesterday.“

“I'm Cat.“ She stood and shook my hand before stepping around her desk. She turned her nameplate around so that it now read, ‘AFK. BRB.‘ I suspect that meant, “Away from keyboard. Be right back.“ She saw my interest and smiled. “Present from hubby.“

A rock riff emanated from her purse, and Cat retrieved a smartphone. I guess she couldn't afford an implant yet, or didn't want one. Most people were like that, but I liked having the tech in my head, running on blood sugar. No batteries to worry about, and it was a metabolic boost. “Speak of the devil.“

“Go ahead.“ I checked out a small rack marked ‘Visitor Resources’ that consisted mainly of pamphlets advertising local businesses while Cat talked to her man.

“I'll be home to help you with your little problem soon. Just need to help a visitor. Oh, that sounds tasty. No, you can't have me for dessert before dinner.“ She hung up and joined me. “Sorry about that. Matthew called to ask what I wanted for dinner.“

I gave Cat a knowing wink. “Sounds like he wanted you for dinner.“

Cat flushed at that. “He's incorrigible. So, how can I help you?“

I pulled a pamphlet mapping out nearby hiking trails and pointed at the Old Fort Woods. “I found a pre-Nationfall military installation in these woods. Do you know anybody who can tell me more about Fort Clarion?“

Cat's frown as she repeated the name in a mumble probably wasn't a good sign. Was there nobody here who knew about that old base? Cat shook her head. “Unfortunately, Ms. Bradleigh, the original town was razed during Nationfall, and most of the information remaining about the old town was written for tourists.“

She turned her screen toward me to show a pre-Nationfall net archive. She was right; it was all sanitized. “So, who got the resettlement effort off the ground?“

“The Phoenix Society did, ten years after Nationfall. Our community is composed of families from across the continent. They either wanted to get out of the major cities, or away from villages too small to have a local art scene like ours. Regional favorites like Charn and Keep Firing Assholes hail from Clarion.“

“I heard one of Charn's albums at the Lonely Mountain yesterday. Interesting stuff. So, is there anybody who can tell me more?“

Cat shrugged. “Maybe some of the old-timers? I think Dr. Petersen would be your best bet.“

Unfortunately, Dr. Petersen was the one person I probably shouldn't trust in light of what I heard from Brubaker. I could have asked Malkuth, but I suspected he'd just tell me I wasn't cleared for that info.

If we ever did go on that date, I was going to spank him. Three smacks for every time he stonewalled me seemed sufficient, but if he kept it up I would use a whip. Knowing Mal, however, he'd probably smile and say, “Thank you, ma'am. May I have another?“

My amusement at the notion must have shown because Cat smiled at me. “Something funny?“

“Just thinking of what I might do to a certain cheeky bastard I know.“

“Ah.“ Cat's grin broadened. “Sounds as incorrigible as my husband.“

Dr. Petersen beat me to the Lonely Mountain and waved me over to his table while closing his notebook. “Good evening, Ms. Bradleigh. I trust you had a pleasant hike.“

“I did, but now I'm famished.“ Which was true; the packet of jerky I bought before leaving hadn't lasted all day. “Thanks for asking. How was your house call?“

He shrugged. “Strictly routine. I met the Brubaker boy on the way back. Michael's quite taken with you.“

“Don't worry. Brubaker isn't my type.“ Smiling behind the menu, I tried poking at him. “I wouldn't want to break up his arrangement with Jessica Stern.“

“That's not on me, Ms. Bradleigh. I only told his parents when he was a child that if he were to marry a local girl, Ms. Stern would be a good genetic match. His parents fixated on the notion, mainly in hopes of combining their farm with that of the Sterns.“

That didn't square with what Mike told me. Who was lying? Who would benefit most from lying, and from me believing the lie? I doubted Mike had any reason to lie, much less practically foam at the mouth.

What about Petersen? If I believed he was nothing more menacing than a helpful country doctor providing genetic counseling to help keep the local population from getting inbred, that left me with a weaker case for investigating him in detail. No matter. The sealed records of his involvement with the Commonwealth Army during Nationfall was sufficient cause for digging deeper.

“-have someone?“ It was the only part of Dr. Petersen's remark that registered, but it snagged my attention.

“Excuse me?“ A glance at the stage, where a band called Keep Firing Assholes was starting their sound check, gave me a handy excuse. “I didn't quite catch that.“

Petersen nodded. “The question was none of my business. Instead, allow me to extend an offer. Clarion has a substantial population of individuals with CPMD. If you like, I can test your genome and suggest people with whom you might like to start an acquaintance.“

Ballsy, but subtle. Normally I liked that in a man, but I would be damned if I would consider somebody based on genetic compatibility. I wasn't livestock. “Thanks, but I'm not looking for a relationship at the moment. I just ended one.“

“Fair enough.“ Petersen rose, dropped some banknotes on the table to cover his tab, and extended a hand. “I must take my leave now, Ms. Bradleigh.“

“Not going to stay for the band?“ Petersen pressed something into my hand as he shook it. A note?

“Rock was never my bag, but I would love to hear you sing sometime.“ With that, Petersen left. Something about his shoes caught my eye as he threaded his way through the crowd gathering for the band. They weren't shoes, but military-issue boots, and still had forest dirt caked in their soles.

Now, what kind of doctor wore combat boots, and went tramping through the woods? Was he bullshitting me about that house call? And what did he slip me before he left? Unfolding the paper, I smoothed it on the table:

Fort Clarion is dangerous. Keep your distance.

Dangerous? Sure. I could believe that, but if Dr. Petersen thought I would stay away after he slipped me a note that might as well have been a threat, he needed to talk to a colleague about getting his head examined.

Still, how did he know I had been to Fort Clarion? Could Mike have said something? Time to check. «You there, Mike?»

It was about a minute before I got a reply. Brubaker must have been using a handheld. «What's up?»

«Did you say anything to Dr. Petersen about our hike? He says he met you on the way back from a house call.»

One drawback to secure talk was the pauses. It wasn't so bad between implants, but the lag as Mike typed his responses into his handheld made the conversation interminable. «Sorry, Naomi. I didn't think we had to keep it on the down low. I told Doc we went out for a hike, and that we found this weird old army base in the Old Fort Woods. That's all.»

A modicum of foresight on my part might have prevented this. I might have told Mike to meet me in the woods at a predetermined latitude and longitude away from the town. I might have told him ahead of time to keep the details of our hike to himself. Hell, I might have told him to lie and say we had ourselves a shag by the river, or seduced him and made the lie truth.

Instead, like a demon-ridden idiot, I acted like a tourist instead of an Adversary and gave no thought to operational security. I couldn't afford any more mistakes. «Mike, we must be more careful from now on. Petersen is not to be trusted.»

Track 17

Iron Maiden: “The Edge of Darkness”

Warning Mike about the need for operational security was easy, albeit a day late and a milligram short. The smartest thing I could do now was to update Rosenbaum before somebody who didn't have my best interests in mind clued him in. Good thing I got the introductions out of the way last night.

«Hello again, Naomi. How's Clarion?» Saul's reply was instantaneous, thanks to the implant-to-implant connection.

Implanted computers were standard issue for everybody on the Phoenix Society's payroll, not to mention anybody who held anything resembling a position of authority. They jacked into your optic and auditory nerves to gather Witness Protocol data. Because of this, and their ability to run a wide variety of software targeted at POSIX systems, they were invaluable in the field. Bloody good thing, too, because nobody would sell you a firearm unless you had a working implant.

«I met a young man who wants to become an Adversary. He's got the drive, and he's pretty sharp.» That much was true: Mike Brubaker would probably be an asset to the IRD corps if he passed the Milgram Battery.

«Send him my details and tell him to call me if he's serious about joining up. Pittsburgh will need its own chapter in a couple years. Anything else?»

«I found something of interest while hiking in the woods northeast of Clarion. An old North American Commonwealth Army installation in unusually good condition. I think the commanding officer is still alive, and practicing medicine in town. He slipped me a note warning me away.»

«I see you're making friends on vacation. I thought you promised to behave yourself.» He continued before I could make a crack about how I never pledged to be well behaved. «If you were composing an explanation, belay it.»

The naval terminology brought a smile. «Aye, sir.»

«And belay the aye-ayes, Adversary. You were never in the Navy.»

Before I could apologize, Saul got down to business. Good thing he couldn't see me smiling over secure talk. «I'll find a pretext for letting you investigate further, but you're back on the job for the duration. I hope you brought your pins.»

As a matter of fact, I did. It always paid to be prepared. Unfortunately, that was the extent of my preparations for a sudden return to duty. «I brought my uniform, but no weapons other than my sword.»

«I'll take that into account. Goodnight, Naomi.»

«Goodnight.» But it wasn't. Sleep took its sweet time claiming me, despite my efforts to hasten its coming. Vigorous exercise in the crisp night air, warm chamomile tea, and a steamy shower spent imagining a particular soldier's hands exploring my body left me in a state so common among Adversaries we had an acronym for it. I was TBW: tired but wired.

By four in the morning, I had had enough of lying in bed doing mindfulness meditation and hoping for sleep. It reminded me of the rare occasions when I asked a man out only to get stood up because he lacked the balls to say no. It was too early for breakfast, but sitting in the beer garden with a book would be a welcome change, and gave me an excuse to put myself together. A bit of fresh air would help me stay awake.

No sooner had I gotten into my book when a motorcycle's rumble cut off nearby. Its rider vaulted over the fence instead of using the front gate like a reasonable person. Not that Edmund Cohen struck me as the reasonable sort. He sauntered over to my table, spun a chair around, and straddled it. “Well, Nims, you certainly clean up nicely.“

He should have seen me at that hotel bar in Manhattan, though I doubted my gown would prove suitable mission attire. “Saul Rosenbaum told me I could expect orders.“

Edmund chuckled as he withdrew a miniature digital voice recorder from his coat and slid it across the table. “He said you wanted a mission, and for your sins you're getting one. Need headphones?“

“Got some.“ I pulled a set of earbuds out of my pocket and plugged them into the device's output jack, carefully tucked the buds into my ears, and pressed play.

An unfamiliar male voice greeted me. “Good morning, Adversary Bradleigh. Before we begin, please note the serial number of this communication. You may send it to Malkuth to verify this message's authenticity.“

He rattled off a string of hexadecimal numbers that I recognized as a cryptographic key. Using my implant, I stored the key for authentication and listened to the rest. “Adversary Bradleigh, your mission is to muster Clarion's militia and lead it to Fort Clarion. Upon arrival at Fort Clarion, you are to gain entry by any means necessary and search the premises. Compile a complete inventory of all weapons and equipment, and forward said list to Saul Rosenbaum at the New York chapter. Await a Phoenix Society ordnance disposal team, and ensure that no war matériel leaves the base.“

That seemed simple enough, like a textbook arms control job. Never had to do one myself, but I remembered the training drills from ACS. I let the file continue playing but heard nothing but the hollow silence of dead air. Before I could press stop, the voice returned. “Naomi, Malkuth is unaware of this addendum and will not authenticate the following information. Fort Clarion isn't just an old Commonwealth Army installation. It was also the site of a series of human enhancement experiments codenamed ‘Project Harker.‘ I cannot tell you more without tipping off my colleagues on the executive council. You will have to find the rest on your own, using evidence procured on site. Keep this to yourself, and wipe the device after listening.“

Obeying the recording's final instruction, I returned the device to Edmund. “Who gave you these orders?“

He shook his head. “I can't tell you. Got orders of my own. I'll say this much: he only lies by omission. He never explains everything.“

Could it be Cohen himself? The voice sounded a bit like him, but it was possible to fake such recordings. And what exactly was Project Harker?

Was the Commonwealth Army trying to make vampire soldiers? Was that yummy Sergeant Renfield somehow involved? After all, Harker and Renfield were both names from the Stoker novel. No sense dwelling on it or asking Edmund. “Fuck it. It's only an arms control job, after all. Should be so uneventful I'll regret finding the damned place.“

“That's the spirit.“ Edmund chuckled. “Now, do you need any equipment? I brought an AK and an M1911, but you'll have to assemble the Kalashnikov.“

As tempting as the prospect of having some firepower sounded, I decided against it. “Thanks, but it would look better if I requisitioned gear from the militia armory. Those who know I'm an Adversary think I'm on holiday. If I showed up at Town Hall to muster the militia with an AK, people might wonder if the vacation was an insertion cover.“

“That's smart. I like it.“ Edmund rose, indicating that the conversation was over. “Be careful, Naomi. You'll have Witness Protocol running in ten minutes, but don't count on backup even if we do see you're in trouble.“

Though I should have been worried about the lack of backup, I was confident I could handle whatever awaited me at Fort Clarion. “Thanks for the warning. Sure you don't want to stay for breakfast? The bacon here is to die for.“

“Better not.“ Edmund glanced at the street. “If I stick around any longer, I might find myself involved. That would be bad for both of us. I know too much, and can't safely reveal any of it.“

If he knew so much, then was the masked voice from the recording his? Or was he working for whoever made the recording? “I understand. Thanks, Eddie. Have a safe ride.“

“You too, Nims.“ Nims, eh? So, him calling me that earlier wasn't a one-off. He must have been chatting with Malkuth.

Once Edmund was safely away, I checked the time: 6:31. Dammit. Town Hall won't be open until nine. Time enough for breakfast, but why eat alone? «Mike, you awake? Come to the Lonely Mountain. Breakfast's on me.»

Ten minutes later, he arrived. “You look different with your hair up. Is this about the fort?“

“Yeah.“ Had I been thinking, I could have gotten the latitude and longitude at Fort Clarion, and used GPS to pinpoint it on a map. But a direct road to the installation in usable condition was too much to hope for. “You can lead us there again if necessary, right?“

“Sure, but who's us?“ He looked around to see if I had anybody with me. I didn't yet, but that would soon change.

“You, me, and the Clarion Volunteers.“ The surprised expression on Brubaker's face was good for a smile. “I'm back on the job, Mike, and you're my star witness. Let's get some chow, and then we'll go see Mayor Collins about calling up the militia.“

Cat must have seen my pins before she recognized my face because she scrambled to her feet and stood at attention as if I were some potentate and not somebody who had listened to her flirt with her husband over the phone the day before. “Good morning, Adversary. How may I assist you?“

“Relax, Cat. It's just me, Naomi. I was here yesterday asking about the town's history.“

“I know, but you weren't on the job then. You obviously are, now. Do you need the Sheriff? What did Michael do?“

“Mike's fine. He's working with me. I need to see Mayor Collins about raising the militia. It's official business. Here's the authentication key for my orders.“ I rattled off the hex string four digits at a time so Cat could key them into her terminal for confirmation.

Cat nodded. “Just a moment, please.“ Picking up an old-fashioned black telephone that looked solid enough to make a decent blunt instrument, she dialed an extension. “Mayor Collins, Adversary Naomi Bradleigh needs to see you on official business. Yes, Your Honor. I'll send her and Mr. Brubaker right up.“

Track 18

Jackyl: “Locked and Loaded”

For a moment I thought Cat had misdirected me to an attorney's office instead of the Mayor's. Either that, or an accountant's. Law books and budget ledgers filled the polished cherry bookshelves lining the walls. The desk and the three chairs set before it were plain, but the gleam of leather and well-polished oak hinted at quality.

The nameplate on the desk read “Mayor B. Collins”, and the memory of two miserable winter weeks watching old television serials while fighting the flu led me to wonder if the ‘B’ stood for Barnabas. Given that I had already run into a Renfield, and that Fort Clarion was the site of Project Harker, having a mayor named after a vampire seemed fitting.

Not that I'd ever ask. He would probably think I was taking the piss, even if he got the allusion. Besides, a quick network search showed his name was Brian. Dammit.

“Morning, Adversary Bradleigh. What can I do for you?“ Mayor Collins was a bit shorter than me, and stout, but his grip as he shook my hand suggested he took admirable care of himself. This was a good sign; a man who doesn't care for himself can't be expected to care for others. “Please take a seat. Would you like some coffee? How about you, young man?“

Coffee? Hell yeah, and yes please. “Some coffee would be wonderful. Thanks.“ Mike concurred. “Thanks, Your Honor. I could use a cup.“

Once we had our mugs, Mayor Collins settled into his chair and tapped at his keyboard. “Adversary Bradleigh, it seems you've been tasked with investigating an old military installation nearby and compiling a complete inventory preparatory to cleanup by an ordnance disposal team. Is this the case?“

“Yes, Sir. I should also mention that I will require the aid of the local militia.“ Collins nodded, sipping his coffee. “Are you aware that we're in the middle of the harvest season, Adversary? You'll be asking men and women to put aside pressing work.“

No shit, Sherlock. Not that I'd say anything of the sort. It would be unprofessional. But I could bloody well think it. “I understand your concern. Instead of calling up the entire militia, can you put out a call for volunteers? Naturally, the Phoenix Society will compensate people for their time and effort.“

Collins relaxed, leaning back in his seat as he steepled his fingers. “That's fair. To be honest, Sheriff Robinson led me to believe you weren't the sort who was capable of being reasonable.“

The Sheriff had been talking about me, had he? Maybe I should have been gentler with him. I might have said I don't invite strange men to my room on a first date, but I doubted that would have amused him. “He wanted to search my room and belongings without a warrant, and I refused him.“

“I don't blame you. He used to be a cop before Nationfall. I don't think he ever got used to people asserting their rights. And he still gripes about having to carry a sword instead of a gun.“

So, Robinson's another old-timer. How much did he know about Fort Clarion and Project Harker? “Am I correct in assuming that Sheriff Robinson normally leads the Clarion Volunteers?“

“Hole in one, Adversary. Gotta tell you, he's not going to enjoy being sidelined.“

Now, why would I complicate my life by mucking about with the existing command structure? It would be more sensible to make Sheriff Robinson work under me. Any annoyance he suffered in the process would be bacon on my pizza. Mmm, bacon. “I have a better idea. Would you kindly invite him up?“

Collins nodded and picked up a phone. “Robinson, it's Collins. Come up to my office. I met that young woman you told me about.“

We drank our coffee in silence until Sheriff Robinson arrived. He studied me as Collins explained my mission and my request for militia assistance. After Collins finished, Robinson studied me a bit longer. “So, you want to take over my militia and go tramping through the old army base?“

Did Sheriff Robinson just imply that he knew about Fort Clarion? I would have to feel him out later. First, diplomacy. Let's try an open hand instead of a closed fist. “First, I'd like to apologize for my brusqueness at our first meeting. I had not realized you had served as long as you have.“

He glanced at Collins. “So, you told her? Did you mention I used to work narcotics?“

Well, that explained a lot. History showed that the institution of prohibition invariably led to police trampling individual rights in their search for contraband. “No, he didn't.“

Robinson nodded, and poured himself a cup of coffee. “Tell me something, Adversary. Have you ever led men before? Got any command experience?“

Oh, I was used to having men under me, but that wasn't what he had in mind. “No, Sheriff. For that reason, I've no intention of supplanting you as captain of the Clarion Volunteers. I will tell you what I need the militia to do, and you may issue the appropriate orders. Is that suitable?“

“That suits me fine, ma'am.“ Robinson's attitude shifted, and became more respectful. “How many people do you need?“

Good question. If I brought too many, they would get in each other's way and make the job harder. If I brought too few, the job wouldn't get done before Ragnarok. “Let's start with a hundred. Try to preserve the existing chain of command.“

“Yes, ma'am. Take my IP address so we can use secure talk.“

So, the old dog learned some modern tricks. That would simplify matters. “Thanks, Sheriff. Can you have the volunteers ready by thirteen hundred hours?“

“No problem. I'll have ‘em mustered. Anything else?“

I patted the sword on my hip. “I'll need to borrow a rifle from the town arsenal. A pistol as well, if you can spare one.“

Robinson nodded, and finished his coffee. “You think we're likely to run into trouble out there?“

Recalling the glint off what might have been a scope high up in one of Fort Clarion's watchtowers, I shrugged. “I'd rather have a rifle I don't need than need a rifle I don't have.“

The Mayor spoke up. “Adversary Bradleigh, you've been to Fort Clarion. Did you see anything the Sheriff should know about? What about you, Mike?“

“We haven't actually been inside, sir.“ Mike glanced at me, and I nodded. “The fence is completely overgrown. We climbed up to the guardhouse's roof and looked over the top. It doesn't look abandoned on the inside.“

“Meaning?“

I took over. “I think the installation may still be garrisoned, Sheriff. I don't know who's manning the base, but they appear sufficiently disciplined to keep the installation in perfect order.“

“But the North American Commonwealth fell apart decades ago. If Fort Clarion has any soldiers left, they're probably old men. How did they even survive off-grid this long? How have we remained ignorant of their existence until now?“

They were all excellent questions for which I lacked answers. I needed to remedy that fast, not to mention getting answers to a few of my own questions. What if Christopher Renfield was involved? His uniform was period-accurate, and our whole conversation was weird until he kissed me.

Robinson shook his head at the Mayor's remark, and gave a disgusted snort. “Oh, come on, Brian. You know damn well this town is so infested with geeks and nerds we ought to be looking to attract tech startups instead of farmers. I wouldn't be surprised if a bunch of basement-dwellers found the base and fixed it up so they could have a realistic setting for when they played soldier in the woods.“

Despite the shift in his attitude toward me, Robinson had begun to grate. Will he give me cause to arrest him before I was done? I rather hoped he would. “Do you really believe that to be the case, Sheriff, or are you just looking for an excuse to take my mission less seriously than you might otherwise?“

“Adversary, I'll get you your weapons and instruct the men not to fire unless fired upon. Is that satisfactory?“

“Perfectly so, Sheriff.“ I returned his salute, and turned to Mayor Collins once the Sheriff left. He still looked concerned, no doubt for any townsfolk who might volunteer. “As you said, Your Honor, if Fort Clarion is still occupied, it may be by holdouts too old to fight―or wargamers. It shouldn't come to violence.“

“I hope you're right, Adversary.“ He checked his watch. “I have a meeting in five minutes. Would you like to use one of the conference rooms? No doubt you'll want to set up a proper headquarters instead of working out of your room at the Lonely Mountain.“

Did Mayor Collins think I was going to stay in town, drinking coffee and buffing my nails while the volunteers tramped through the woods? That was so not my style. Adversaries led from the front. Still, a war room might be handy if I had the only key. “Thank you, Your Honor.“

“Good luck. Cat will take care of anything you need.“ He led us outside, where Cat was waiting. We followed her down to a conference room on the first floor, and there on the table was a gun case. A note rested atop it:

Let me know if this isn't enough gun. -R

Unlatching the case, I lifted out a handsome Westchester lever-action rifle with a scope. The walnut stock was engraved with the image of a river and the name of the local militia: the Clarion Volunteers. The steel gleamed as I opened the weapon to determine if it was loaded. It wasn't, so I did the honors from a thoughtfully included box of ammo and chambered a round. The action was silky-smooth, indicating that whoever last carried this rifle took proper care of it.

Slinging it across my back, I checked out the revolver and its ammunition. Granted, it wouldn't have the same range or accuracy, but we're trained to fight with a sword in one hand and a pistol in the other.

The revolver was a double-action model, and its empty cylinder held six 11.43mm rounds. I wouldn't be able to fire as quickly as I might with a semiautomatic, and reloading under fire would require time and cover, but that's what I got for only bringing my sword. I felt like a nineteenth-century cavalry officer as I strapped on my gun belt.

“Michael, you aren't old enough to serve in the militia, are you?“

He shook his head. “Nah. You gotta be twenty-one, but I've got a shotgun.“

“Go get it, just in case. You might want to bring a mixed load of slugs and buckshot.“

“Right.“ Michael left, and I considered calling Cat. While I could use my implant to call up maps and compile the inventory instead of cluttering the room, the powerful little computer in my head was a strictly private resource. Moreover, if I rigged up a computer correctly, I'd be able to check for tampering or attempts to falsify data.

Unlike her namesake, Cat turned up promptly when called. Or was she the curious sort? Had she been listening nearby? “What's up, Naomi?“

“Can you please supply me with maps of the area? Also, I'd like a laptop if Town Hall has a spare.“

Cat nodded. “Maps are easy, and my husband will bring a loaner from his shop.“

A long-haired, bespectacled man in jeans and a ‘Keep Firing Assholes’ t-shirt arrived five minutes later. He was kinda cute if you liked your men cuddly. “Are you Adversary Bradleigh?“

“Yes. Are you Cat's husband?“

“Yeah.“ He plugged in the laptop and opened it, but didn't power it up. “This laptop's diskless. As an Adversary you shouldn't need local storage. You've got a copy of HermitCrab on you, right?“

Of course I did, concealed in one of my pins. I removed it and ran a fingertip over the back in a predefined pattern as if I were trying to solve a demonic puzzle box. The pin's back opened, allowing me to remove a tiny memory card. The memory card held a bootable secured Unix variant called HermitCrab that interfaced with my implant for storage. No installation necessary, and far more convenient than doing everything in my head. Naturally, Adversaries got training on this environment for use in computer forensics. “Good thinking. How did you know?“

Cat's husband shrugged. “I helped out with the hardware detection modules.“

“Well, thank you. This will be a huge help.“ The ability to remove my card whenever I wasn't using this laptop would frustrate snoops. Furthermore, I might find computers at Fort Clarion. If I could power them up, I might be able to salvage data from their storage drives.

Michael returned with an old single-barrel breech-loading shotgun, as I finished confirming the laptop worked. And I thought I was packing old-school heat. He snapped the gun shut after loading a buckshot round about two seconds before Sheriff Robinson opened the door.

“I've got the men assembled outside, Adversary.“ He held the door for me.

Time to inspect the troops.

Track 19

The Doors: “Break On Through”

Delightful. Absolutely brilliant. I instructed Sheriff Robinson to get me a hundred militia volunteers, and what did he do? He turned my mission into the bloody Children's Crusade. Perhaps one in five was armed and in uniform. The rest had machetes or hatchets on their hips. One beefy youth with spectacles shouldered a sledgehammer.

None of them looked a day over eighteen, which would still be three years too young to serve militia duty. The minimum age was twenty-one to prevent younger people from being brainwashed into blindly obeying orders. Not that Sheriff Robinson seemed to give a damn. If anything, he had puffed himself up like some loathsome, vaguely humanoid toad.

“Sheriff, I need a word with you inside.“ Time to deflate his ego. “What were my instructions?“

His eyes got shifty as if we were playing poker and I caught him with an ace up his sleeve. “You wanted a hundred volunteers. Here are a hundred volunteers.“

“How many of them are actually old enough to serve militia duty?“

Now he looked away and backed up a step. “Twenty of them. The rest are here with their parents’ permission.“

That explained why the rest were unarmed and out of uniform. “Have you lost your mind? We're dealing with military ordnance. I need people who can be trusted to follow orders and safely handle weapons.“

Robinson indicated the people outside with a sweep of his arm. “Adversary, I understand you're from the city where people only handle swords unless they're training for militia duty. Christ, the goddamn Phoenix Society even makes the police carry swords.“

Did the poor Sheriff resent being forced to trade in his pistol for a gladius? Rather than hunt down a suitably tiny violin, I let him have his say. “But out here we grow up with guns. Most of those kids first learned to handle rifles when they were six. They'll manage, and we shouldn't need more than twenty militiamen against whatever old men still lurk at the fort.“

“Hold on a moment.“ Tempting as it was to arrest Robinson on the spot, I probably lacked cause to do so. Holding my fingertips to my ear so Robinson would understand, I fired up secure talk. «Malkuth, it's Naomi. You watching my feed?»

«I'm monitoring Robinson's as well. He isn't quite in violation of either the letter of the law or its spirit, but he's dancing on thin ice. Don't trust him.»

«Oh, I won't. Instead, I'll give Robinson all the rope he wants. Let's see if he hangs himself.» Dropping out of secure talk, I cleared my throat to get Robinson's attention. My conversation with Malkuth probably took all of two seconds, but the Sheriff was already bored. “Sheriff, I will hold you personally responsible for the safety of the kids you insist on bringing along with us. If one of them so much as stubs their toe on a tree root, I will place you under arrest on an abuse-of-power charge.“

Robinson stared at me a moment. “Don't you think that's a bit excessive, Adversary?“

“Compared to summary execution? Not really.“ Arresting Robinson would be a dicey situation. Would it turn the militia against me? Twenty against one wasn't a fight I was likely to win. A hundred to one if the kids got involved was even nastier. “I'd rather we just got this done so we can be nothing more than bad memories to one another.“

“Amen to that.“ Robinson opened the door for me, allowing me to rejoin the crew outside as he commanded their attention. “Sorry to keep you guys waiting. Here's the deal. Adversary Naomi Bradleigh needs our help tearing apart an old military installation in the woods. She's in command, but will relay instructions through me.“

Stepping forward, I let the volunteers get a good look at me. “Thank you, Sheriff Robinson. I'm Adversary Bradleigh. Our mission is an arms control operation at Fort Clarion, in the Old Fort Woods northeast of here.“

They started looking at each other and muttering. Guess the volunteers had no clue what they had volunteered for. Drawing my sword got their attention. “Michael Brubaker will guide us there. Once we arrive, I will provide further instructions. Now, I want the adults from the Clarion Volunteers to step forward.“

They complied, and saluted in so smart a fashion I was honor-bound to return the gesture. “You will each be responsible for four of the younger volunteers. How many of you have implants?“

All twenty hands went up. That certainly simplified matters. After I had obtained their IP addresses, I connected them all to secure relay chat. “Sheriff Robinson will relay my orders over SRC. Ignore any order that did not first come from me.“ I glanced at a militiaman in the middle, whose nametag read ‘Yoder.‘. “Do you have a question, Mr. Yoder?“

“Ma'am, how should we relay your instructions to the volunteers you've tasked us with supervising? Should we also run our own secure relay chats while monitoring yours?“

“That's an excellent idea, but first ― is there anybody here who doesn't have an implant? Raise your hands if that's the case.“ Nobody fessed up to not being properly equipped. “Perfect. I will expect the adult volunteers to do as Mr. Yoder suggested. Any other questions?“

A smirking kid raised his hand. “Are you a vampire?“

Seriously? Not that a show of anger would have helped; this schmuck was only trying to look cool. Did guys ever get tired of trying to prove their masculinity? “Were you hoping I'd sneak into your bedroom at night and enslave you with my kiss?“ I delivered the question in the most stereotypically seductive tone I could manage while keeping a straight face, before going full ball-breaking drill instructor on him. “In case you've forgotten, I already own your arse for the duration of this job―assuming you've got the nerve to stick around.“

The kid flushed, but stood his ground. Good. “Sorry, ma'am.“

“Accepted. Now, does anybody have any questions germane to the mission?“ Nobody did, which meant we could finally get down to business. We'd need two hours to get to Fort Clarion, which didn't leave much daylight for actual work in the middle of October. It would be dark by six, and it was already two. We'd be marching back after nightfall. Dammit.

Before I could issue marching orders, Dr. Petersen ran up to us clutching a black bag. Pretty spry for an old guy. “Excellent, Adversary. I had hoped I wouldn't be too late. No doubt you'll want a physician around in case anybody gets hurt.“

Not that I wanted to admit it, but a doctor was just what this mission needed. I could provide first aid, but a specialist capable of working in battlefield conditions if everything went pear-shaped could save more lives than I might have managed alone. Too bad it had to be Dr. Petersen. Instead of telling him to go make some house calls, I decided to keep him in sight and added his IP address to my secure relay chat. “Thank you, doctor. Please stay with me and Mr. Brubaker.“

“Of course, Adversary.“ Not that I liked having him close to me, either, but if I ordered him to march in front of me, I'd be telling everybody I didn't trust their family doctor. My only option was to let him dig his own grave, hoping all the while it wouldn't bury us all with him.

«Brubaker, Petersen, and I will take point. Sheriff Robinson, please take the rear and give a shout if anybody falls behind.» After issuing the general order, I texted Mike as we began marching. He kept up easily with my stride. «Can you lead us directly to Fort Clarion, and quickly?»

Mike nodded. «No problem. Follow me.»

The militia and youth volunteers kept up an excellent pace, and we reached Fort Clarion's perimeter in a little over an hour. While we marched, I got everybody's names and assured them they'd be in good hands with me.

«So, how do we get in, Adversary?» One of the militia volunteers, Schmidt, stared at the tangle of vines and foliage that had so choked the gates, that entry seemed all but impossible.

I yanked the machete from his belt and started slashing at the creepers, ripping away what I had cut loose and throwing it over my shoulder. After several minutes’ work, I revealed a few links of rusted chain. «Sheriff, have the men take turns at this, two at a time. Give each other plenty of room so nobody gets hurt.»

We had the gates cleared within minutes. All that kept us out now was a rusted chain bound by a corroded padlock. I turned to the stocky kid with the sledgehammer. «Zimmer, you're up. Think you can break the lock?»

«I might be better off attacking the chain, ma'am.» Zimmer rolled his shoulders, hefted his hammer, and brought it down with a grunt. Ten kilos of blunt steel whistled past me and tore through the chain as if it were taffeta. I pulled it free and managed to push the gate half a meter inward.

«Hinges are probably rusted to hell and back, ma'am. Gimme a minute.» Zimmer shattered the lower hinge first, then jumped skyward to reach the other as if slam-dunking a basketball. Showoff.

Volunteers rushed forward to lift the gate out of the way, leaning it against the fence. Fort Clarion was now open. Who would greet us inside?

Track 20

The Police - “Every Breath You Take”

Peering into Fort Clarion over the fence wasn't the same as stepping inside. My ears strained for the non-existent sounds of the garrisoned military base. But no sergeants barked orders at enlisted men. Instead of the synchronized beat of well-trained soldiers drilling, only the soft padding of the older irregulars behind me broke the afternoon quiet.

I had to strain my ears to hear most of them. They followed with such quiet efficiency, it was hard not to mistake them for professional soldiers.

Those too young for militia service waited outside. Without firearms and proper training, they'd be a liability if we encountered resistance. Probably should have refused to let them come along, but hurting their pride with a rejection would do little for community relations.

Michael Brubaker kept pace to my left, and I had Robinson at the rear, with Petersen between us. No way was I leaving them behind. Passing the gate placed us on Gen. George Prevost Street, near the post exchange and rows of mass-produced single-family houses reserved for civilian contractors. We kept our rifles at the ready, covering every angle as we advanced, but encountered nothing as we reached the PX.

Armed with a satellite map, I had worked out a rough plan on the way here. Recalling that glint from the western watchtower, I slipped behind cover and scanned both towers as the others followed suit. Nothing untoward this time, but a bit of insurance wouldn't hurt. «Sheriff Robinson, I need a fireteam with qualified sharpshooters in each of those watchtowers. Everybody else should find cover.»

«Yes, ma'am. Rodriguez and Martin, assemble fireteams and take those watchtowers. Report any contacts, but do not engage until fired upon. The rest of you find cover like Adversary Bradleigh suggested.»

Superimposing the fireteam leads’ IPs on my map allowed me to track their progress. They advanced steadily from cover to cover until they had reached the towers.

Rodriguez was first to get to his post. «Alpha Lead reporting. No contacts. The tower is ours.»

«Bravo Lead reporting. No contacts. The tower is ours.» Before I could congratulate them on a job well done, Martin continued. «We found something of interest. Sending photos.»

Seconds later, my implant displayed an image of a rifle case leaning against the wall. Zooming in, I read the label: 3rd Infantry Division—Squad Designated Marksman Rifle. It was a Western counterpart to Eddie Cohen's Dragunov. «Bravo Lead, is there anything in that case?»

«Can't say for sure without touching it, Adversary.»

«Open it up.»

«Roger. The weapon is present. Its condition indicates recent handling.»

Son of a bitch! How long did someone watch me before I spotted the glint from that scope? Why didn't they shoot? The knowledge that somebody had me in their sights, but chose to refrain from blowing my head off, left me shuddering despite the sun's warmth. I dared not count on being so lucky again.

«You okay, Naomi?» So, Michael noticed that Martin's report had unnerved me. I needed to get my shit together before Robinson or Petersen noticed as well.

«We'll talk about it later.» I shifted back to the main channel as I decided what to do with that weapon. I didn't have a safe place to put it at the moment, so there was no point in sending a youth volunteer up to the tower to retrieve it. «Bravo Lead, leave that rifle in place for now.»

«Roger.»

«Sheriff Robinson, issue a general order. Nobody is to touch anything without my command. I want to leave minimal signs of our presence. Any weapons found should be photographed and left in place. Photos and serial numbers of all weapons should be sent directly to me.»

«Directly to you, Adversary? Are you sure?»

Why was Robinson questioning my orders? Did he hope for a chance to steal ordnance to sell on the black market before I could catalog it for the disposal crew? «Quite sure, Sheriff. I want all photos and counts sent directly to me. This is a Phoenix Society operation, and thus all data is my responsibility.»

«Yes, ma'am.»

Robinson issued the orders without further delay, but Dr. Petersen shot me a look. What exactly did that man know? «Dr. Petersen, we need to talk about your tenure as CO here at Fort Clarion.»

He nodded with a small, tight smile. «Feel free to schedule a time in advance so I can have my attorney present.»

So, the good doctor wanted to lawyer up before we had our little chat? That was his right, but now he had really gotten me curious. «Afraid of self-incrimination?»

«No, but the Phoenix Society uses a broad definition of war crimes and recognizes no statute of limitations. A lawyer's presence would be prudent.» He paused a moment while searching his pockets. He withdrew a ring of keys and tossed them to me. «For what it's worth, Adversary, I agree that the weapons stored here should not end up in civilian hands.»

I tried the key labeled ‘PX.‘ It worked perfectly but unlocking the door also turned on the power inside. Lights flared to life, and the automatic doors slid open with a soft whir.

A bubbly young woman's voice chirped from speakers embedded in the ceiling as I stepped inside with my rifle pressed tight against my shoulder. “Welcome to the Fort Clarion Post Exchange! If you're a member of the Commonwealth's armed services, thank you for your courage and dedication. If you're a civilian, please support the troops by purchasing souvenirs of your visit.“

No way that could be an AI. The Sephiroth were the first, and they were activated after Nationfall. The greeting must have been a recording controlled by a motion detector. «Everybody wait outside for my mark. Tower teams, I want eyes on the PX. Give a shout if you see hostiles.»

Rodriguez and Martin acknowledged, but Robinson had questions. «Sure you don't want backup, Adversary?»

«I've got this, Sheriff.» The PX was mostly open space, divided by long rows of empty shelves. Securing the building only took a couple of minutes. «Clear!»

Brubaker, Robinson, Petersen, and five of the ten adult irregulars still with me trooped in, setting off back to back greetings until some idiot named Hubertson unplugged the speakers. Rather than let Robinson deal with it, I descended upon him. «Plug those speakers back in. I know the recording's obnoxious, but if somebody walks in that door, I want to hear about it.»

Hubertson protested. «But Adversary, it'll play for friendlies, too.»

«Do I look like I give a flying fuck? Plug those demon-ridden speakers back in, and get out. You're on sentry duty. Pick a buddy on your way.»

«Yes, Adversary.» The irregular quickly plugged the speakers in and left the PX. He didn't look at me while doing so, leaving me wondering if I had been too harsh.

The others spread out, poking around the PX as I inspected the back office. The most interesting things there were an original Underwood PC I was able to boot using HermitCrab and some old magazines. Most were military-themed and bore titles like Modern Soldier, Mercenary, and Tactics Quarterly.

These hid an issue of Tomcat, which was not military-themed. The cover model was a pale, blue-eyed, snow-blonde woman whose face resembled my own. I slipped it into the case containing my loaner laptop. Leading this crew would be hard enough without questions about my ancestry making the rounds along with whatever lewd photos the magazine might contain.

«Sheriff, it's time to secure the rest of the base. I want two irregulars guarding the PX at all times. Check with Hubertson and confirm he found a partner. Have the rest gather ten-person teams from the youth volunteers.»

«Yes, ma'am.» Why couldn't I shake the suspicion that Robinson was waiting for an opportunity to stick a knife in my back? Was it that our first meeting rubbed me the wrong way? Or was I still miffed about only having twenty trained militia members at my disposal?

«Wait. Have the adult volunteers come to me for keys, so we don't have to kick down doors.»

Once I had handed out keys, pointedly ignoring the pained look on Dr. Petersen's face, I set my sights on the barracks and shot a quick text to Mike, the Sheriff, and Dr. Petersen. «Follow me.»

The barracks interior was no less pristine than the rest of the base. Surfaces that should have gathered decades’ worth of dust were clean enough to withstand an officer's white glove. Every footlocker was secured, with two under each bunk. Even the heads sparkled as if scrubbed fresh this morning, and the tang of cleaning chemicals stung my nose.

I found Mike sniffing the air near the door to the mess hall. «What's wrong?»

«If the base had been abandoned for decades, would we smell food?»

Stepping into the mess, I tasted the air. Brubaker was right; the scent of cooking lingered, mainly roasted meat. Inside the walk-in refrigerator, freshly-killed deer and wild pigs hung by their feet, skinned and ready for the butcher's blade, the last of their blood dripping from their carcasses and seeping into the floor drain. The larder contained fresh vegetables and unopened canned goods with recent packing dates.

Drawing my revolver, I backed out of the kitchen. «You're right, Mike. It smells fishy.»

He didn't answer. Instead, he stared, aghast, at a small rectangular card I didn't recognize until he handed it to me. It was a photograph. A photo of me undressing in my room at the Lonely Mountain.

Was he embarrassed for my sake, or because he liked the photograph? Somebody had shot the photo from a distance, using a telephoto lens. They caught me while lifting the hem of my camisole, which exposed a pair of my extra nipples, but little else.

It was quite tame compared to the selfies I had sent to past lovers, but the scene made the picture. This was the sort of photograph a private investigator might take for a client. Worse, somebody—the photographer, perhaps?—wrote ‘primary target’ on the back. Someone wanted me dead. Somebody had a golden opportunity yesterday and didn't take the shot. Why? «Mike, where did you find this?»

«Martin from Bravo Tower found it in the rifle case but didn't want to mention it on the air. She brought it to me a couple of minutes ago.» A pause. «I shouldn't have looked at it. I'm sorry.»

I hoped nobody on Bravo Team copied the image using implants. To think I was worried about an old girlie magazine! Still, was Brubaker upset for my sake, or embarrassed because the photo aroused him despite knowing better? I patted his shoulder. «It's fine if you liked it. Just keep it between us, all right?»

«Yes, ma'am.»

He still hadn't eased up. Maybe I should give him something to get that image out of his head. I checked the picture archive on my implant and found a shot a classmate took of me in my dress uniform. The navy blue jacket and trousers clung to me, my hair streamed behind me in the breeze, and my sword blazed with the setting sun's light. This ought to get him thinking about the future. «You can have this instead. It's from my induction as a sworn Adversary.»

«I don't think you've aged a day since. How do you expect me to get you out of my head?»

Flattery will get you nowhere, kid. «I don't. I'd rather you remembered me while considering your own future. This was the moment when the world opened before me. I was finally an Adversary, ready to uphold liberty and equal justice under law for all by diplomacy or force of arms.»

He didn't need me to belabor my warning that the work demanded more than youthful idealism, fast talk, and a deft hand with a sword. He needed me to reinforce his belief that he could make a difference if he got through the training and took the oath. He needed the fantasy, but I couldn't guarantee this mission wouldn't shatter it. Not when my own idealism was worn and cracked by the Society's secrecy.

Further study of the photo revealed no other pertinent details. The handwriting on the back was hard to read, but that didn't tell me much. Not when penmanship and calligraphy were practically lost arts.

All it told me was that somebody wanted me out of the picture, which was reason enough to do a proper job of taking it into evidence. Slipping the tagged and bagged photo into my jacket wasn't exactly standard procedure, but at least it was unlikely to get lost.

Sheriff Robinson showed up a second after I finished pulling the zipper back up. He must have seen something in my expression because he stopped short. «Did you find anything, Adversary?»

Luckily, I had something other than that photo to discuss. «Somebody lives here, Sheriff. We don't know who, or how many, but somebody still makes Fort Clarion their home. Alert the irregulars.»

Part III

Life is Short and Love is Over

“Don't be so naive, Nims. Life's short, and your prince might never come. Might as well have some fun and figure out what actually does it for you in the meantime. Might not be a prince you need.“

~Jacqueline Russo

Track 21

The Animals: “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”

If I harbored any lingering doubts concerning Sheriff Robinson, his reaction upon learning that reports of Fort Clarion's abandonment were greatly exaggerated dispelled them. He paled, his jaw clenching as he immediately issued a general order. «The base is inhabited. Prepare to evacuate, and await instructions.»

He didn't wait for my approval before issuing a second order. «Tower teams cover everybody on the ground. Once they're out, I want Tower Alpha to run overwatch on Tower Bravo. Adversary Bradleigh and I will watch Tower Alpha's backs.»

Mike's shotgun snicked shut. «Count me in, Adversary.»

«Thanks, Mike.» It was a sensible plan, despite a fearful chill running down my spine at the thought of being one of the last to get out of Fort Clarion. Robinson was right; a leader should lead the charge from the front, and guard the rear in retreat.

A chorus of “rogers” pinged our implants, along with a question. «Sheriff, this is Bravo Lead. What should we do with the rifle we found?»

Robinson glanced at me instead of replying. «Your orders, Adversary?»

The smart thing to do would be to take the rifle, rather than leave it for the enemy to use. However, that wasn't SOP for an arms control job. All ordnance was to remain in situ until the disposal team confirmed the inventory and signed off. However, the protocol assumed that installations like Fort Clarion are uninhabited.

Hopefully, I wouldn't regret issuing this order. «Bravo Lead, bring the weapon directly to me.»

«Roger, ma'am.»

Mike, the Sheriff, and I formed a triangle around Dr. Petersen to protect the unarmed doctor. I counted every volunteer passing us as they retreated through the ruined gate.

«This is Alpha Lead. I count ten irregulars out and eighty youth volunteers out. Please confirm, Bravo Lead.»

Martin replied. «Confirmed, Alpha Lead. Beginning our retreat.»

Tightening my grip on the revolver, I held fast, resisting the urge to hasten the remaining volunteers as they descended the western tower. Ms. Martin stopped as her team passed me, and pressed an unexpectedly heavy rifle case into my hands. «Did Brubaker bring you the photograph?»

«Yes. Thanks for being discreet.»

A cloud darkened her expression, suggesting the reality underlying country life in Clarion was anything but idyllic. «I hope you fucking crucify the creep. I'll help hold him down if you need backup.»

A rather vengeful sentiment, but I sympathized. «Noted. I suppose you had some trouble of your own?»

Martin nodded. «Yeah. I never found out who, or I would have filed a complaint with the Phoenix Society.»

«File a complaint anyway when you get home.» But that wasn't what she needed to hear. «I'm sorry you were denied justice. If I catch the creep who photographed me, I'll be sure to find out who else they've harmed.»

«Thanks, Adversary.» Martin brightened as she snapped out a smart salute, fist over heart, before rushing off to catch up with her fireteam.

We escaped Fort Clarion and returned to town without incident. Keeping the rifle, I made tracks for the Town Hall after dismissing Mike, the militia, and the youth volunteers. Cat bounced out of her chair. “How did it go, Adversary Bradleigh?“

“I need to report to Mayor Collins as soon as possible. Can you tell him I'm here?“

“Of course.“ She shot a glance at Sheriff Robinson. “Will you be reporting as well?“

Robinson nodded. “Yeah. We need Mayor Collins to order a full muster of the Clarion Volunteers. I haven't got the authority to do it myself.“

At least nobody got hurt before the Sheriff started taking the mission seriously. He must have caught my expression, for he turned his attention to me. “I misjudged the situation, Adversary. I'm sorry. We'll get you the support you need if I have to march people down there at gunpoint.“

“Thank you.“ Offering my hand to show I accepted his apology, I glanced at the conference room the Mayor set aside for my use. “I need to show you something.“

“All right.“ Robinson followed me inside and closed the doors behind him. “Is this about that rifle?“

“It may be related.“ I retrieved the photo Martin had Brubaker bring to me from inside my jacket, and showed it to Robinson. “Sergeant Martin found this with the rifle, but didn't mention it on the air.“

Taking the photograph from me, Robinson sat down and studied it in silence. His jaw clenched several times, as if he had something to say but choked it back. “This was taken with a Solaroid Instant. Nobody makes these cameras any longer, despite the tech being public domain. Nationfall put the manufacturer out of business.“

A camera model that hadn't been manufactured since Nationfall would most likely be a rarity by now. I'd be shocked if more than a handful of people in Clarion owned one of them. “Sounds like I should find an avid camera collector and ask them some questions.“

Robinson wouldn't meet my eyes. His shame was suggestive, but I had to ask the question. I leaned in to whisper in his ear. “Was the camera yours, Sheriff?“

“I wasn't the photographer, Adversary. I know I rubbed you the wrong way by demanding access to your room, and by making your job harder than it had to be today, but I didn't take that photograph. I'll take any oath you ask me, and swear it by any power you respect.“

“I don't want your oath, Sheriff. I believe you.“

“Why would you believe me?“

“Because if I find evidence that you're lying, your last sight before I carve your eyes from your skull will be that of crows fighting over your tongue. Have I made myself clear, Sheriff?“

“Crystal.“

“Excellent. As I said, I believe you, but what happened to your Solaroid?“

“Somebody burglarized my house the day you arrived in Clarion. No sign of forced entry, but they took the camera, my best hunting bow, my arrows, and some cash. I filed an insurance claim and thought no more about it until I saw that photo.“

Burglary in broad daylight? That's pretty damned bold for a town like Clarion. “Is that why you wanted to search my room?“

“Not exactly. Somebody phoned in a tip suggesting I check you out.“ He offered me the photo. “Here. You'll want this as evidence, right? It looks like somebody wants you whacked. Once we have people at our disposal, I'll organize a guard detail for you.“

That was just what I needed: Sheriff's deputies or irregulars from the Clarion Volunteers up my arse wherever I went. We would just be putting more people at risk. While a competent sharpshooter could take me out directly, a lesser marksman might first attack the guards to open up a clear shot. Worse, a sniper might ignore me and go after my protectors to terrorize the populace. “I don't want to panic the residents without cause. A garrisoned fort in the woods is one thing, but a sniper in town is a different matter. Besides, you can escort me back to the Lonely Mountain after our debrief.“

“It's the least I can do.“ Robinson coughed as Cat opened the doors. “Looks like Brian's ready to see us.“

Mayor Collins might have been ready for us, but I daresay he seemed edgy. Maybe he was just reluctant to hear our news. “Adversary Bradleigh, I understand you discovered that Fort Clarion is inhabited. By whom?“

I told him everything I knew thus far, rounding up with, “The state in which we found Fort Clarion suggests a level of discipline that precludes the possibility of the fort being a retreat for geeks. I need additional resources to flush out the inhabitants and neutralize them.“

“Why couldn't you do the job with the men Sheriff Robinson provided today?“

Robinson spoke up before I could. Probably a good thing; the Mayor was starting to annoy me. “Your Honor, I only provided Adversary Bradleigh twenty irregulars from the Clarion Volunteers. The rest were too young for militia duty.“

A peevish tone crept into Collins’ voice. “The town has been safe so far. I see no reason that this can't wait until after the harvest. We can't afford to let the crops wilt in the fields while farmers go gallivanting through the forest playing soldier. Not to mention the upcoming Clarion Rocks festival.“

“Clarion's safe as long as you're not a tourist. How many have you managed to lose to the forest over the last decade, Your Honor?“

“You're paranoid, Adversary. I'll not tolerate any slander concerning Clarion's safety.“

Paranoid? Slander? My sword-hand twitched as I choked off the urge to bare steel and cut this gaslighting choad. A slice across his forehead wouldn't kill him. Hell, it might even give him the sort of scar that lends an otherwise unprepossessing man an attractive hint of danger. God knows he could use it, now that I've had a good look at him. “Were I paranoid, Your Honor, I might suspect you of obstructing a Phoenix Society mission. But that's a dreadfully serious charge, and surely you wouldn't be that foolish. Are you that foolish?“

Collins rose, his eyes going narrow and piggy. “Who are you to threaten me?“

Shaking my head, I produced my ID. “A sworn Adversary in service to the Phoenix Society, remember? As such, I am authorized to do far worse than threaten you. Sit your arse down and do as you're told, and I'll refrain from giving your deputy mayor an unexpected promotion.“ A moment's research gave me the information I required. “This is how it's going to be, Your Honor. Since the harvest is indeed important, surely you and your brother won't mind shutting down the Collins Glass Works for the duration of my mission. This will place five hundred irregulars at our disposal, should they all volunteer for militia duty. Since the Phoenix Society pays militia volunteers time and a half, this should give me the forces I require without interfering with the harvest.“

“B-b-b-but my brother just landed a huge order! He can't afford to halt production!“

My sword was out in a flash, its tip pressing the end of the Mayor's nose. It was just the thing to clarify his situation. “Your Honor, have I stumbled upon a conflict of interest meriting a forensic accountant's attention, or just your inability to prioritize? Your sole concern should be getting me the required personnel. If your brother needs to hire temporary workers, he is welcome to apply to the Society for compensation.“

Leaving the ‘or else’ part unspoken, I sheathed my blade, turned on my heel, and left the Mayor seething. He couldn't be so stupid that I needed to spell out the rest for him, could he?

Track 22

Ted Nugent: “Cat Scratch Fever”

“I saw how you handled Mayor Collins.“ Saul Rosenbaum chewed his cigar a moment before continuing. If he planned to excoriate me at any point during my daily report from my room at the Lonely Mountain, this would be the time. “The word ‘imperious’ comes to mind.“

“You should be used to it since you served with Director Deschat.“

The old Director puffed his cigar. “True. Iris was just like that back in the Navy, especially if someone denied her personnel or matériel she needed to carry out her mission.“

A proud-looking woman glided into the office behind him and rested a hand on his shoulder. Despite being Saul's age she still wore an Adversary's smallsword on her hip. “So, Saul, you finally decided to throw me over for a younger woman?“

“Ma'am, it's not like that.“ Why did I have to say that? Their relationship was none of my business.

An indulgent smile made her grandmotherly instead of commanding for just a moment. “Don't worry, Adversary Bradleigh. It's how Saul and I flirt. You'll keep that to yourself, of course.“

“Of course. Director Rosenbaum, do you have any further questions?“

“No. Be careful out there. We need additional evidence before we can justify sending you reinforcements.“ The screen in my room went dark as Saul disconnected.

With my report to the New York chapter complete, I was done for the night. The sensible thing would be to get out of these clothes and into bed.

Unfortunately, I was too restless to be reasonable. Where were Fort Clarion's inhabitants? Did they hide during the day? Was Chris Renfield among them? The questions chased their tails as I sat at my desk.

Fuck it. It wasn't like I didn't know the way to Fort Clarion. With my implant to guide me, finding the place in the dark would be no problem.

Equipping myself with my sword and an emergency kit, I slipped past a small crowd that had gathered to watch a rather spirited Catacombs & Chimeras campaign. Kaylee refereed, gleefully using imagination and dice rolls to challenge the assembled players.

It was a clear, starry night with a waxing gibbous moon to light my way to the Old Fort Woods. I checked the documentation for my implant's low-light enhancement functions anyway. It would be darker in the forest.

Whippoorwills advertised their presence as I entered a small clearing. A rabbit stood on its hind feet, staring at me. I ducked as I heard a hoot and a soft flutter from behind, and a great horned owl swooped down over my head. It plucked the rabbit from the ground, its talons digging deep into the fur to secure its grip. Dinner to go.

A coyote howled as I continued through the forest. Bloody shame I lacked sufficient wilderness survival training to determine if the beast was alone and far off! The cry went unanswered, presenting its own problems; a lone coyote might be rabid. However, it wasn't the coyote I needed to fear tonight.

Had he been with me, Mike might have noticed the signs and guided me away from the cougar's den. Instead, I stumbled upon it. Worse, the cave contained a litter of spotted kittens waiting for their mother to bring back a kill. Backing away from the den to avoid disturbing it, I marked it on my virtual map.

Unfortunately, that wasn't the end of the matter. I wasn't sure if the cougar that attacked me was the mother of the cubs I had happened upon, but as soon as I lowered my guard, she pounced.

She would have had me if not for sheer dumb luck. Leaves rustled behind me, and I turned while unclipping my still-sheathed sword from my belt. I saw the cougar then, her sleek body gathered for the spring that would have let her slam into my back and drive me into the dirt while she fastened her jaws around my neck and snapped my spine.

I overrode the training that told me to make myself a smaller target. That training was for human opponents wielding weapons, not for large cats taking a swipe at lone nighttime hikers. Instead, I wanted to make myself as huge and threatening as possible if the information I pulled with my implant was reliable.

Drawing my sword, I held the reinforced sheath in my off-hand. Rather than shouting, however, I used my training as a dramatic coloratura soprano and projected the full force of my voice into a sustained high F that I hoped would drive off the puma.

No such luck. The damn cat sprang at me. I stilled my voice and spun aside, hitting the cougar with my scabbard. It struck with a sharp crack, and the cat shook her head as she landed and faced me.

“You pussy! Is that all you've got?“ This time, I shouted, advancing upon it with my arms spread wide. “You already took your best shot, and you blew it. Bugger off!“

The cougar shrank back, snarling, and sprang a second time. I dodged, my sheath hitting home with a thwack. “Bad kitty!“

She sprang again, but instead of leaping for my throat, she swiped at my legs with one of her massive forepaws. The blow caught me just above the top of my boot, tearing my jeans and ripping my skin. Enraged by the pain, I rained blows on Puss with my sheath. Though I could easily have finished the fight with my sword, I didn't want to kill the beast despite my pain and anger. Predators will prey.

A strike across the cougar's nose drove her back. I hurled my voice at her, shrilling a high, bright tone. Raising my weapon again, I made to advance. She backed away several steps before bolting into the underbrush. I waited a minute, only to tense as someone… clapped.

“I'm not going to pounce on you.“ Christopher Renfield approached slowly, showing me his empty hands. That display allowed me to relax enough to sheathe my sword.

After clipping my sword on my belt, I took several deep breaths to regain my calm. “You startled me. Who the hell expects applause after fighting off a cougar?“

“Sorry. I was just impressed by how you handled the situation.“

At least I was able to defend myself without killing that cat. Not that I'd admit it to Renfield. “Hello again, Sergeant. How did you find me?“ And are you a friend or foe?

His teeth flashed in the starlight. “I followed a high note that pierced the night. A woman's song made a battle cry. Was it yours, Naomi?“ He had drawn close enough to whisper my name in my ear.

The energy surge that had filled me faded away with the adrenaline. The pain of my wound and relief all but turned my legs to jelly. Was I really wired enough to flee my bed for a midnight walk before? Hard to believe, because right now I wanted nothing more than to clean out my scratch, bind it, and curl up in bed, but I didn't dare let myself pass out here. It wasn't safe. “That was me. Can you give me a little space? The cat got in a good swipe at my legs.“

Renfield nodded and pointed towards a large boulder just the right height to sit on. I recognized it; the trap door to Mike Brubaker's little hideaway was nearby. “Would you like some help?“

My teeth began to chatter as I tried to answer, but I couldn't get any words out. Renfield led me to the rock and sat with me. “Was that your first time fighting, Ms. Bradleigh?“

The question and Renfield's arm around me helped me focus. “Believe it or not, it isn't.“

Renfield's arm tightened around my shoulders. “You did well. You're alive, and so's the cougar. But let's get a little fire going.“

Some primal instinct of mine agreed that a campfire would be nice, but not out here in the open. That sniper was still out there somewhere. “Got a better idea, Sergeant. There should be a trap door nearby. If we can find it and get underground, I can check my leg and be on my way.“

Renfield crisscrossed the clearing a few times, stopped, and crouched. The trap door came up with a soft creak. “Is this it?“

“Close enough. Let's check it out.“ Fortunately, I wasn't so terribly hurt that I couldn't descend a ladder. Finding the switch by touch, I flicked it. Only one small light worked, and even that was almost too dim to be of use.

It was barely enough for me to tell that it wasn't Mike's basement. His lacked a fireplace. Taking a match from the canister left by the hearth, I struck one and held it to the small amount of debris under the flue. If it was clear, the small wisps of smoke would escape. “See any smoke?“

“Yeah.“ Seconds later he was tromping down the ladder. “Somebody managed to conceal the old chimney stump so it looked like a natural rock formation.“

“Hopefully it was just some squatter who's moved on.“ It seemed likely, given the carefully folded pile of old blankets I found. They didn't smell bad, so I shook one out and felt for creepy-crawlies. When I found none, I spread it out on the floor.

“How about I get some firewood?“ Before I could answer, he kissed my cheek. “We'll talk more in a bit.“

As he left to gather brush, I drew my sword just in case. Its edge gleamed in the dim electric light, and it wasn't long before my hand was strong and steady again.

Renfield returned with the deadwood and put it aside before leaving again with an empty bucket. When he returned, the bucket was full of dirt. I sheathed my sword so I could help, but he waved me away and arranged a small pile of firewood in the hearth. Once he was satisfied, he lit the kindling and tended the flame until it greedily lapped at the wood. “That's better.“

“Thanks.“ Now that I could see properly, I took off my boot. I tried rolling up the pant leg, but the injury was too close to my knee. My jeans had to go. “I'm sorry, Sergeant, but I need to take a look at the wound.“

Renfield turned his back as I removed my other boot. Water began to flow as he turned on the tap and washed his hands at the basement's small sink. “Just give the word when you're done.“

“Thanks.“ I shimmied out of my jeans and assessed the damage. The scratch was wide, but not deep. Blood seeped from the gouges, and the skin around them was swollen. Good thing for the damn cougar that she had kittens, assuming that I had fought off the mother cat.

“How bad is it?“

“Superficial and inflamed, but I'll live.“ I cleaned the scratch before applying an analgesic salve containing medical nanotech. “Damn, this stuff works fast.“

“What is it?“

“Standard-issue first aid gel. I've never had to use it before.“ Unfortunately, none of the accompanying band-aids were big enough. “Can you help me wrap this up?“

Renfield glanced over his shoulder. “You sure?“

“Quite.“ I wrapped the gauze around my leg and held it in place.

Renfield knelt before me, resolutely keeping his eyes on my face. “What do you need me to do?“

“Cut the gauze, and tape it up. I'm not sure I can do it myself without it all unraveling.“

Renfield drew a knife and carefully sliced the gauze where indicated. He then taped me up, using just enough to keep my leg wrapped. Once finished, he gazed at me with a small, playful smile curving his lips. “Want me to kiss it better?“

Nice of him to ask first. Remembering how his lips seared mine the first time we met, I reached down and ran my fingers through his crew cut. “You're welcome to try, Sergeant.“

Track 23

Halestorm: “I Get Off”

He didn't kiss me through my bandage. Instead, he took my foot and cradled it, his fingertips gently massaging my instep as he kissed my ankle above the cuff of my little black sock. It was a minuscule kiss, a bare brush of moist lips, but I felt better already.

He took my other foot but did not massage it. Instead, he kissed my ankle before placing his lips a bit further up. He continued trailing warm open-mouthed kisses up my uninjured leg. While caressing my calf, his fingertips strayed and brushed a sensitive area behind my knee that forced a sigh from my lips.

Renfield favored me with a roguish smile as I laid back. “Looks like I've found a sweet spot.“

There'd be a sweet spot for him if he kept this up, and I hoped he would. My elbows relaxed as I yielded to the pleasure he offered and parted my legs a little. Would he catch my hint?

If he did, he was subtle about it. Lifting my leg higher, he kissed his way up my calf. He lingered behind my knee, treating me to quick flickers of his tongue against my hamstring that made my toes curl with anticipation.

The responsible, conscientious side of me protested, insisting that I shouldn't be fucking around on the job. She was easy to placate; I wasn't abandoning my reconnaissance, but gathering HUMINT by social engineering—or should it be sexual engineering? But that was a rationalization.

The Devil's honest truth was that I wanted, and felt entitled to, some meaningless rebound sex without interminable dates and whispered endearments. Just this once, I wanted to tell a man I found appealing to drop his pants and make himself useful without the necessity of visiting Xanadu House and paying one of their courtiers for the privilege. That I was indulging myself with a profoundly dangerous man only added spice to the game. I was going to use Renfield for my own pleasure, and the only one who could stop me was the man himself.

He hardly seemed inclined to refuse as he kneeled before me and gently draped my legs over his shoulders. Christopher Renfield was obviously a man who understood his place, so I ran a hand through his crew cut while licking my lips. “Higher.“

Every brush of his lips against my inner thighs burned. He looked so good down there. The sweet torture of his kisses made me squirm against the blanket; I was so close, but not close enough.

That only made things worse as I imagined myself pinned between a hungry Renfield and the concrete beneath me, but I didn't care. I wanted myself caught between a cock and a hard place.

He was finally where I craved him as he kissed me lightly through my knickers. He pressed a harder kiss right over my clitoris, which was in dire need of attention.

The pressure of his hot mouth made me squeal as I grabbed his head and held him in place. He soon had his hands under me and was massaging my ass while clamping his lips around my vulva and sucking the tender flesh into his mouth.

Renfield's voice was a rough purr as he slipped his teeth between my delicate skin and the soaked cotton and pulled backward. Realizing what he wanted, I lifted myself to see if he would actually manage to get my knickers off with his teeth. None of my other lovers had ever managed it, though a couple had mastered the trick of unhooking my bra one-handed. “I think you're ready now.“

Damn right I was ready. Renfield tasted me, drawing his tongue up from my vagina to my clit, which I exposed to his ministrations. I moaned and shivered beneath him, desperate to be consumed.

But that would be a surrender. Instead, I lifted Renfield's head from me. My voice was deep and rough with lust. “On your feet, soldier. Get out of that uniform.“

Renfield licked his lips, smiled, and thrust my knickers into his back pocket. Cheeky bastard. “Yes, ma'am.“

He made a striptease of it, unbuttoning his uniform shirt and drawing it open as I slowly circled my clit to keep myself hot. Once he had his shirt off, he dropped to his knees. Disregarding my order, he kissed my fingertips, his tongue gently lashing my clit before dipping inside me.

He drew a long, shuddering moan from me as I stroked his hair and let him tease me for a bit before pushing him from me again. “That's insubordination. Prepare for inspection, Sergeant.“

A faint hint of disappointment sharpened my pleasure when he returned to his feet with a mock salute. He submitted too readily. I wanted someone who might just have the strength to overpower me, the sort of man I've always denied myself.

The firelight dancing over the faint sheen of sweat clinging to his chest and belly made me lick my lips. Every muscle was gently defined, the product of rigorous physical training. I've fantasized about riding a dozen such men, but they were all Adversaries and thus forbidden fruit.

Renfield should have been forbidden, but tonight he would be mine. Tonight, he would place that hot mouth, those strong, gentle hands, and what was most likely a delicious cock in my service until I had had my fill of him. “Get those pants off already, you bastard. Don't make me come over there and do it for you.“

He retrieved something from a pouch on his belt. “Mind holding this for me?“

“Sure.“ It was a condom. Thank God he thought of it instead of making me bring it up. I narrowed my eyes as he stood on one bare foot to get his other boot off. Damn it all, this rubber expired decades ago. Fortunately, he looked good enough to eat. “Get those trousers off already.“

Renfield obeyed and bent to kiss me as I settled into a crouch and reached for him. “Closer.“

Another step and he would be mine. His erection stood straight up and looked like enough to fill me to the brim. It quivered as I stroked his chest and dragged my fingertips down over his abs before caressing his thighs. A little pearl of moisture gathered at his tip, and I tasted it with a slow, lingering kiss. He groaned as my tongue circled him, and I gave his balls a gentle squeeze as I tried taking more of him in my mouth.

His crown was all I could manage without my teeth hurting him. As far as I knew, the inability to really go to town on a good-sized cock like his was the sole drawback of having CPMD.

Some women didn't care, leaving guys wondering if one of Dracula's brides had gotten at them, but I settled for kissing and licking and stroking him with my fingertips. He seemed to like what I was doing because he tried to push more of himself into my mouth while stroking my hair.

Withdrawing, I gave his cock a gentle slap that made him moan. “Control yourself. This isn't all about you.“

“Please.“ His ragged plea was barely audible as he smoothed my hair and stood at ease, his hands clasped behind his back.

If he wanted to act the soldier, I would do him like one. Crooking my finger, I smiled up at him. “Present arms.“

He took a half-step forward, putting his weapon just close enough for me to do anything I liked without having to strain. Dipping my head, I kissed one of his hot balls drawn up tight beneath his root. I gave it a little lick before doing the other. I then nipped his groin, letting his cock brush against my cheek as I trailed kisses upward.

Even his nipples were hard, all six of them. I couldn't resist tasting each one as I took him in hand and stroked him. I tasted myself on his lips before whispering in his ear. “Where do you want my mouth? Tell me.“

“I'm going to ruin your jacket if you keep jerking me around. You're killing me here, Naomi.“

“Am I?“ I stepped back and unzipped my jacket. Shrugging it off, I toyed with one of the buttons on my blouse. “Maybe I should take the rest off. And stop playing with that. It belongs to me now.“

“Yes, ma'am.“ He stood at ease again, taking deep breaths as his cock twitched in time with his heartbeat. Was he trying to back away from the edge? His eyes were rapt as I undid every button and shrugged off my blouse. All that remained was my camisole.

My nipples strained against the fabric, and I teased him by tweaking them, sending little jolts to my hungry pussy. “Want me to take this off, too?“

Too bad if he didn't. It joined the rest of my clothes, and I stood before him with only the fall of my hair to lend me any semblance of modesty. His leaking cock was slick as I crouched and took him between my breasts. “Like that?“

He thrust upward as if he wanted to fuck my cleavage, but I had a better idea. I dug my fingertips into his tight arse and worshiped his cock the way he had my pussy. I dragged wet kisses upward from his base before lavishing attention on his tip, staring up at him the whole time.

When he tensed, I grasped his balls and squeezed. Drinking deep, I took my fill as he threw back his head and cried my name.

Seconds later, his mouth was on mine. He kissed me hard, his tongue slipping deep inside. If anything, he was more ravenous than before as he made love to my breasts before trailing kisses downward. I guided him as I laid down, my hands stroking his hair.

He licked me as he had before, his tongue dipping inside me before drawing my clit into his mouth with a gentle kiss. I climbed higher every time he did it, my breathing ragged as I urged him on. When I finally came, it was with such force that I thought I'd hit escape velocity, my climax launching me screaming into orbit.

Renfield stared up at me, a smug little smile on his lips. “Where's that condom?“

Condom? Dammit, I was almost high enough to throw caution to the wind and tell him to do me bareback. “You can't use that. It's expired.“

He held up his first two fingers. The claws CPMD gave him were cut short, but could still hurt me if he was careless. “I can use it to cover my fingers.“

I clenched at the thought of his fingers in me as he licked me to another climax, and cast about, my hands seeking the old condom. I happened upon my first aid kit and felt a packet inside. Pulling it out, I examined it in the firelight.

It was a brand new lubricated condom. Damn, the Phoenix Society thought of everything when they designed these emergency kits. “How long will it take you to reload that gun of yours?“

Renfield stood, and he was already rampant. “Locked and loaded.“

Tearing open the wrapper, I rolled the condom down his shaft. Once he was armored, I guided him into me and pulled him close.

Renfield and I were doubly joined, sharing our breath as he surged into me, and it was everything I hoped it would be when I commanded him to strip. He used me as hard as I used him, his muscular arms tight around me as I drew my legs up and wrapped them around his waist.

He redoubled his efforts, hammering me with long, hard strokes that left me almost empty before filling me again. Every impact sent a shockwave through my body that lifted me to heights I was lucky to reach alone, let alone with a partner.

When the explosion finally happened, it left me breathless and unable to manage more than a whimper. I quaked beneath Renfield and held him close as my climax provoked his own. My shoulder burned, but it seemed inconsequential compared to the delight spreading outward from my core until it permeated my entire body and left me flushed with hot, boneless pleasure.

Track 24

Judas Priest - “Love Bites”

The afterglow faded, but the burn in my shoulder remained. It flared as Renfield's tongue lapped at the wound. Had he bitten me? Normally I enjoy a good love bite, but now he was feeding on me like some kind of vampire bat.

Overcome by loathing, I pushed him off and grabbed my sword. He scrambled to his feet, eyes wide with shock. Holding my blade between us, I pressed my other hand against my torn shoulder. “What the fuck is wrong with you?“

“What? What did I do?“

“Don't play the bloody innocent with me. You bit me.“ A hickey was one thing, but drawing blood was right out. “Are you telling me you had no idea what you were doing?“

Renfield slowly shook his head. His eyes seemed clearer when he finally looked at me again. “Oh, shit. I'm sorry. I never meant to do that.“

Lowering my sword just a little, I noticed he was still hard. “You seemed to have been enjoying yourself.“

Flushed with shame, he pulled the used condom from his shaft and tossed it into the fire. A whiff of burning polyurethane stung my nose. “It looks like I owe you an explanation. Can we get dressed first? I'll tell you everything I can.“

“Stay there. I'll give you your clothes after I've tended to my shoulder.“ Fortunately, Renfield had the courtesy to bite somewhere I could easily reach, which allowed me to dress the wound without his help. Once I was done, I threw his clothes to him. He still had my knickers, but wet panties were the last thing I wanted to put back on.

While he dressed, I checked my bandaged leg before slipping back into my jeans. Once I had regained some composure, I joined him by the fire. If he hadn't ruined it, I might have settled beside him and rested my head on his shoulder. Instead, I sat facing him with my sword across my lap. “Start talking.“

“You probably thought I was crazy when we first met. I know Nationfall happened decades ago, but it was easier to keep up the pretense. If I keep my story straight, my secrets remain safe, and so do my men. If people mistake me for a re-enactor or military nerd, they won't come looking for a unit of Commonwealth Army holdouts.“ Renfield spoke slowly, staring into the fire. His voice was haunted, and he slumped with the weight of decades.

Yielding to my lust for him was probably a huge mistake on my part, regardless of whatever info he might disclose in his current contemplative state. How could he speak of Nationfall as if he had lived through it? That would make him old enough to be my grandfather. I would never have considered seducing Edmund Cohen, but at least he had the common decency to look his age.

“Do you understand what I'll be doing if I give you the explanation you deserve?“

It was easy to guess, given Renfield's behavior. He was somehow involved with Project Harker, but in what capacity? “You need not betray your country or your men, but you're going to have to join the rest of us in this century. I've brought locals to Fort Clarion. Call me Pandora if you wish, but the box is open.“

He spat into the fire. “Moving on might be possible for me, but I'm not sure about my men. We're not what we were when we enlisted. The Commonwealth did something to us and then abandoned us. The government collapsed, the Prime Minister ate his own gun, and nobody thought to release us from service. There was nothing for us outside Fort Clarion, so we clung to our last set of orders: protect the base at any cost.“

“Can you tell me about Project Harker and your unit? Sounds like your outfit has strong esprit de corps.“

“We were Third Infantry's all-CMPD platoon, Dusk Patrol, and we were damn-near unstoppable.“ Even now, decades later, he sat up straight and spoke proudly of his outfit. “You could drop us in the middle of a clusterfuck with nothing but our BDUs, and we'd still get the job done.“

Nothing but their combat fatigues? Did the Commonwealth brass expect them to loot their weapons, ammo, and rations from the bodies of the first enemies they managed to strangle? I suppose that was one way to give taxpaying citizens a break. “Trying to impress me?“

“You sounded pretty impressed earlier, at least until I bit you and ruined everything.“

Good point, but I wasn't going to let him get away with it. I was still angry, and I had yet to find the answers I wanted. “Don't get cocky. Just get to the point.“

“Right. We were some of the best the Army had, especially if you wanted to drop a team behind enemy lines to raise Hell. If you told us to take out a supply depot, we would. But first we'd use it to bait the enemy and fuck him up real good.“

“So, you combined psychological and unconventional warfare?“

“Yeah. One job, we went to West Africa to take out a bunch of nutjobs who had taken to kidnapping schoolgirls and selling them into forced marriages. I'm talking kids no older than thirteen. Another division already rescued the last batch of girls these assholes kidnapped, so we went in to do the local government a favor and make sure the terrorists would never pull a stunt like that again.“

“What did Dusk Patrol do?“ Whatever it was, I had a sneaking suspicion the Society would call it a war crime.

“We got the leader, brought him to a pig farm, slit his throat, and chucked him in the pen. We recorded the pigs eating him on video, and sent copies to all his cronies with a little note telling them they'd be next if they didn't learn to respect women.“

“And the pigs didn't mind engaging in cannibalism?“ The question slipped from my lips before I could stop myself, and I immediately regretted it. It was too flippant, and thus unbecoming of an Adversary.

He began to laugh, but suppressed his mirth. “No, the swine didn't appear to mind. But they got pretty fat before people got the message.“

Bloody hell. How many militants did Dusk Patrol feed to pigs? And what was I to do with such information? Would the Society prosecute him and the surviving members of Dusk Patrol as war criminals? What would be the point? All of the witnesses were most likely dead by now. But why wasn't Renfield? He didn't look any older than me, which was impossible. Wasn't it? “How do I know you aren't bullshitting me? You don't sound like the old man you should be.“

He laughed at me. “Didn't your parents tell you? People with CPMD don't age like regular people once they hit their mid-twenties. At least, I've never seen somebody like me looking old. I'm not sure anybody knows why.“

“I was adopted. My parents don't have CPMD.“ And if Renfield wasn't bullshitting me, I might have to change my name and pretend I'm my own daughter in another twenty years, like Inanna from Goddess in Exile. Not that Renfield would have seen that movie. Too recent.

But how exactly would Sophie and Howell react to my perpetually youthful appearance as they continued to age? What about my brothers? Would they eventually treat me differently? It was one thing to read about CPMD on the network, but living with it or somebody who has it was probably a different story.

Maybe Renfield was different. “But what does that have to do with you lapping at my blood? Unless you mean to imply Dusk Patrol's a squad of vampire soldiers like in that old D Corps series.“

He paused for a moment as if recollecting. “Those were great fun, especially Armata Strigoi, until some of the guys had to ruin it. They decided that the next time they had to take out sentries on a raid, they'd make it look like Dracula got ‘em. They ripped out some poor bastards’ throats with their teeth instead of using knives.“

“That sounds more like torture than psychological warfare.“

My disapproval must have been evident from my tone because Renfield raised his hands as if to ward off a blow. “I didn't like it either, and neither did the rest of the outfit. We made them cut that shit out, but not before the brass found out.“

“What happened? Were you punished?“

Renfield shook his head. “No. The goddamn brass was delighted. After all, a lot of the people we were sent to fight were superstitious. They weren't afraid to fight men, but blood-drinking fiends who struck from the darkness were a different story.“

“But you weren't actually vampires then, were you?“ Everything Renfield told me thus far indicated that the vampirism was just an act no different from Jacqueline pretending to kiss me when she wanted to fend off a man's unwanted attention. It didn't explain why he had fed upon me.

“No, but some bright lights in the Army Medical Corps decided to fix that.“ His tone turned bitter. “We already had sharper teeth and superior night vision because of our condition. Army Medical worked on making fiction reality. They wouldn't tell us what they were doing, or explain the side effects. According to them, we didn't need to know even though they were doing it to us. When some of us refused to participate, the brass resorted to decimation. Out of every ten, nine of us were forced to murder whoever got the short straw, even if they had cooperated with the experiments.“

If the Commonwealth Army could treat its men so harshly, what was life like for civilians? Had the Commonwealth become some kind of police state toward the end? Regardless, Renfield's talk of medical experiments rang a cathedral's worth of bells in my head, so I made an educated guess. “Was Dr. Henrik Petersen involved? If my intel is right, he would have held the rank of colonel at the time.“

“Petersen? No.“ Renfield shook his head, and his tone softened. “He wasn't a doctor at the time. Dusk Patrol was his idea, and he looked out for us the best he could. He spoke up for us with the brass, but they wouldn't listen to him. We weren't people to the War Department; we were just weapons to be upgraded.“

The fire had begun to fade to embers, and with it, the throb in my torn shoulder. Despite the information he provided, I still had more questions than answers. I put more wood on the fire and watched as the flames tasted the fresh fuel, little red tongues flicking at the wood before flaring to full brilliance and pushing back some of the shadows cast by his tale.

Whatever the Commonwealth Army Medical Corps did to the men of Dusk Patrol, it must have succeeded. Renfield had tasted me, and no doubt derived some nourishment by doing so. Would he have drained me dry, given the chance? Was that even the central question?

As we sat in silence around the fire, I couldn't help but think that why he bit me wasn't the most important issue. Fort Clarion was. What happened to the men of Dusk Patrol there, and what role did Petersen play in what I was beginning to suspect was a tragedy. Was Project Harker an effort to turn men into weapons, or something more? And was it confined to Fort Clarion? Time for a shot in the dark. “Sergeant Renfield, was Project Harker confined to Fort Clarion? Were any civilian scientists involved?“

He narrowed his eyes, glaring at me through the firelight. “You are a goddamn spy. I knew it.“ He tackled me before I could get away, the knife in his hand trembling against my throat. “Who sent you, and how much did they tell you? Start talking!“

Track 25

Black Sabbath - “War Pigs”

Was it rage that made Renfield's hand tremble as he held his knife to my throat, or fear? Either way, I had lanced an emotional boil that had festered for years, and his violence was the pus spewing forth. Project Harker must have been the codename of the program that made him and the rest of Dusk Patrol monsters instead of men. But why was he so desperate to preserve its secrets? How much did the Phoenix Society actually know, and why were they hiding it from Adversaries?

“You think I'm playing?“ Renfield screamed in my face, his eyes bulging as his saliva sprayed across my skin. “I can see your mind working behind those demon eyes. Stop thinking of how you're gonna bullshit me into letting you go and answer my question. Who sent you, and how much did they tell you?“

“The Phoenix Society sent me.“ Though Renfield surely had the training to completely immobilize me, he didn't do so. He only straddled my chest, pinning me down with one hand around the base of my throat while he held the edge of his knife under my jaw. Did he think I'd be more willing to spill my guts if he left me a hope of escape?

Unfortunately for him, throwing me to the ground and holding a knife to my throat while barking questions in my face wasn't enough to frighten me into submission. It just pissed me off.

I brought my hands up, my palms simultaneously striking his temples. With Renfield stunned by my blow, throwing him off became a pathetically easy task. I bound his hands behind his back with strip-cuffs as gently as I could; though he had gotten violent with me twice, there was still a chance he might yield valuable testimony if treated carefully.

Taking his knife, I put it behind me where I could retrieve it, but he couldn't. I then picked up my sword and made sure he got a good look at the blade. You'd think he'd be familiar with it by now since I had drawn on him twice already. “I am an Adversary, sworn to root out abuses of power like those you described, and the Phoenix Society didn't tell me a goddamned thing about Project Harker. It's classified. What little I know, I bloody well had to figure out on my own.“

He stared at me, the muscles in his arms bunching and twitching as he tried to houdini his way out of the strip-cuffs. “What the hell is the Phoenix Society?“

If he could ask a question like that, then I probably didn't give him a concussion. Still, it might be wise to phrase the answer in terms familiar to him. “Before Nationfall, there was a watchdog group called the North American Civil Liberties Union, wasn't there? We're a more militant version of the NACLU. We don't just file civil suits when somebody alleges an individual rights abuse. We make arrests and put tyrants on trial.“

Renfield nodded and relaxed a bit. “So, am I under arrest? I've assaulted a Phoenix Society officer twice, haven't I?“

“You have.“ Which was very naughty of him, but saying so would be too flirtatious. “However, I'm prepared to overlook both incidents if you cooperate with me and tell me what I need to know. I'll even cut you loose.“

He studied me a moment. “Why are you even here asking about Project Harker if your bosses wouldn't tell you anything? Are you even supposed to be here?“

One truth deserved another. “I was on vacation. I heard about people disappearing around here while getting a drink back in Manhattan, and got curious.“

“And then you found the Fort with that local kid.“

“How did you know?“

He averted his eyes, as if ashamed. “I saw you through my scope. Colonel Petersen told me about you and even gave me a pic. I don't think he realized we had already met.“

Son of a bitch. What the hell was Petersen's game? How was I supposed to square his behavior with Renfield's characterization of the man as an officer? Was he still just looking out for his troops? “Why am I the primary target? And why didn't you shoot me when you had the chance?“

He still wouldn't look at me. “The Colonel knows more about Project Harker than I do. He knows everything, and it scared the shit out of him. All I know is that we've got to keep the secret. It's the only way to protect the rest of the unit, and make sure what happened to us never happens again.“

His voice took on a pleading tone, and he checked his surroundings. “I didn't shoot you because something told me you'd understand if we could just talk.“

“Keep talking, then.“

“We still live at Fort Clarion, but I can't tell you more than that. It isn't safe for any of us.“

Renfield kept looking around, his nervousness worsening as I pressed him. If he was this edgy, then maybe I had gotten everything out of him that I could. “Did you ever try to find out about Project Harker for yourself, so you could find a way to reverse what the Army Medical Corps did to you?“

“I'm just a soldier. Colonel Petersen let me have a look at some of the files, but it was all Greek to me. All I caught were a couple of names.“

Names were useful. Names were leads that I could track down for more answers. “Can you tell me what names stood out to you? Do you remember?“

Renfield nodded. “Like it was yesterday. The first was ‘asura.‘ The reports kept using that word to refer to people like us.“

Like us? Did he mean people with CPMD? Were we all power-seeking deities from Hindu myth? Not that I felt like a goddess as I shivered despite the fire and forced myself to ask the next logical question. “What else?“

“The project had a civilian consultant. Some guy named Ian Malkin. At least I think Malkin was a consultant.“

“You'd better not be bullshitting me, Sergeant.“ The warning had sprung from my lips before I realized it. Was Renfield referring to Dr. Ian Malkin, who reputedly worked for both Ohrmazd Medical Group and the AsgarTech Corporation to develop the first safe implants? If there was any evidence that as prominent a person in medicine and biotech as Malkin was involved in unethical clandestine military experiments, then this case just got a hell of a lot more complicated. “I've seen some video of the man. He can't be a day over thirty.“

“He's one of us, Naomi.“

Which meant he could be old enough to claim Gilgamesh as a drinking buddy, but not look it. God damn it. This shit just kept getting deeper, and I had nobody to throw me a rope and pull me out. “Where can I find evidence to back up what you've told me? Does Petersen keep any documents in his home or office?“

Renfield shrugged. “No idea. But you wanted to see Fort Clarion at night, didn't you? That's why you came out here in the first place.“

“Yeah.“ How much time did I have left before dawn? Just enough for a peek, if I hurried. “How come the base is empty during the day? Did Petersen tip you off?“

“We only come out at night. It's a hard habit to break after so long. Hell, some of my guys honestly believe they're nosferatu. It scared everybody, not just the enemy.“ He averted his eyes again as his voice faded.

Acting on instinct, I sheathed my sword. I used Renfield's knife to free him and embraced him from behind as I sheathed his weapon. “It wasn't just physical release for you, was it? It was emotional, too. It overwhelmed you.“ It wouldn't have been the first time I had seen a man's emotional control crumble in bed.

Renfield blinked away a tear. “It had been so long that I lost control. And you seemed to come harder as I bit into you. I didn't mean to drink from you afterward. I don't expect you to forgive me. I don't deserve it.“

Maybe he didn't, but I had enough to deal with without carrying a grudge over something that would probably heal up in a couple of days. Despite his lapse, he seemed like a genuinely decent person, somebody worth knowing. “I'm going to forgive you anyway, but I want a promise from you. The next time you taste a lover, it has to be with their consent.“

His lips crooked in a half-smile. “You think some women will let me get my vamp on with them?“

“Man, you have no idea how kinky some people can be. Just keep it safe, sane, and consensual so I don't have to kick your ass again and notify you of your rights.“

“Fair enough.“ He chuckled. “Any other conditions?“

Now that he mentioned it, there was something else. Something that would make a relationship with Renfield viable if that was what we wanted after this was all over. “I think the life you've had to live so far, all the isolation and pretense and secrecy, has wounded you. I think you should see a shrink. If you cooperate with me for the duration of my investigation, I might be able to get you help through the Phoenix Society.“

“Do you think I'm crazy?“ Great. I should have remembered that his society stigmatized mental illness. “I managed to hold it together so far without any help.“

“And how long are you going to keep carrying that burden?“ Why did I even care? It was foolish to even consider getting involved with him after this case. Sure, he was hot and pushed all my dials past the red line, but that was never a reasonable basis for a relationship. “Would you insist on holding a position on your own if somebody was ready to relieve you?“

Renfield shook his head, his expression taking on a stubborn cast. “Do you think I'm crazy or not?“

Fuck it. The record would show I tried to be reasonable. “I believe that you're out of your demon-ridden mind, but I'm not one to judge. Insanity is both a prerequisite and an occupational hazard for Adversaries like me. That's why we get therapy after every mission. It keeps the crazy on a nice tight leash.“

To my surprise, Renfield threw back his head and laughed, his mirth echoing through the night. Before I could stop him, he kissed me hard while plunging his hands into my hair. “Then let's run mad together when this is over. I don't know how much help I'll be, but I'm your man if you'll have me.“

That sort of talk could get one in trouble. “Can you escort me to Fort Clarion? I need to see for myself what goes on over there.“

He nodded and turned toward the fire. “I can do that, but I can't let you inside. It isn't safe at night. They don't know you.“ Crouching, he gathered up a handful of the earth he had dug up earlier and threw it atop the coals. “First, let's get this fire put out.“

Track 26

The Black Mages: “Force Your Way”

The tree to which I clung swayed gently in the breeze as I observed Fort Clarion. The base was so brightly lit that I was unable to understand how it managed to go unnoticed so long. The now-anomalous radiance should have made the installation visible from orbit. But when I used my implant to check satellite imagery of the area, I couldn't find a single nighttime photo that showed the base as I saw it.

If the Phoenix Society was hiding Fort Clarion and Project Harker, would their efforts to keep the secret extend as far as doctoring publicly available satellite imagery so that this place wouldn't stand out?

Hell, why haven't any locals investigated? Somebody – hunters? rebellious teenagers? – should have noticed the light pollution emanating from this particular neck of the woods. The disappearances I had heard about were most likely the barest tip of the iceberg. What else was Clarion hiding?

Once my eyes had adjusted to the light, I spied at least a dozen men bustling throughout the base. They worked in silence, checking every building. The early morning was so quiet I could hear that damn recording from the post exchange. Would they realize that we had spent most of the afternoon in there yesterday? Would my theft of that girlie magazine from the manager's office draw their attention?

The tree began to tremble, and I looked down to see Renfield ascending. I offered him the binoculars so he could take a look, but he just put them back in the case attached to his belt. “Now you have confirmed that Fort Clarion is inhabited, and by whom. What will you do?“

Did he hope I'd back off and leave Fort Clarion alone? “The Phoenix Society ordered me to catalog all matériel inside the base for proper disposal by an arms control team. I'm sorry, but I can't abandon my mission.“

Renfield nodded. “Were I a lesser man, the smart thing for me to do would be to push you out of the tree and then finish you off.“

My whole body went cold, and my muscles tensed in response to his words. Would he murder me in cold blood for his squad's sake? “Doing so would do little to save your men at this point. If you murdered me, the Phoenix Society would send more Adversaries to investigate. They would rip Fort Clarion out of the ground to get at you and the rest of Dusk Patrol.“

Renfield flashed a predatory grin revealing sharp white canines. “You might be right, but it would be a hell of a last stand.“

Though I was only six meters from the ground, and could easily survive the fall, the thought of Dusk Patrol fighting to the last against any Adversaries sent to avenge me left me shivering. Should other Adversaries die at their hands, the Phoenix Society would wage all-out war against the remnants of Dusk Patrol. With control of GUNGNIR, GAEBOLG, and LONGINUS, they could flatten the area. “You would risk all that to save your men?“

“Yes, if I thought it would come down to a fight. But it's never so simple.“ Renfield looked away for a moment and began descending. “Please come down. Dawn is approaching.“

The eastern horizon proved him right. It was faint, but the first hints of morning twilight had begun to lighten the sky. It took a minute to get over the fear he provoked, but I followed him back to the ground.

“Can you find your way back to Clarion on your own?“

I almost bridled at the question, but it was a fair one. Fortunately, I had GPS and had thought to mark the cougar's den so I could avoid it. “I'll manage, but we're at an impasse. We can't leave things as they are.“

Renfield shook his head. “We have conflicting missions, which should make us enemies despite what we shared tonight.“

“Sad, but true. I don't want to hurt you or your men.“ They've suffered enough, and will most likely suffer more once they've begun their journey into the end of the twenty-first century.

“I appreciate that.“ He glanced toward the base. “I'm going to share a secret that might allow you to carry out your mission―”

“Shh.“ I held up a hand to silence him and drew my sword as the underbrush rustled. Eyes glowing with reflected retinal light all but surrounded us.

“Run!“ Renfield gave me a shove toward the trail our hidden assailants left open. “I can't stop them if you stay.“

Holding my naked sword at my side, I fled. At least one Dusk Patrol soldier pursued me if the footfalls behind me were any indication, but I doubted he'd follow me into town where he'd be discovered. Using my implant, I superimposed a map over my vision to guide me. A pulsing green arrow pointed the way to Clarion. All I had to do was follow it.

The marker I placed at the cougar's den soon appeared, and I briefly considered leading my pursuer there. With any luck, the cat would treat him as the greater threat to her cubs and distract him. I quickly rejected the notion because I doubted the soldier behind me would stay his hand to avoid condemning animals too young to hunt to a slow death by starvation.

My years of physical training had paid dividends in the form of improved strength, agility, and endurance, but I was no superhero. Though I felt as if I could run forever, I knew better. I would have to stop and face my pursuer while I could still fight. However, this trail was no place to make a stand. The undergrowth would hem me in.

Sighting a clearing up ahead, I quickened my pace and sprinted the last few meters only to stop short as a soldier appeared on the other side. A glance over my shoulder showed that the soldier I knew about had not flanked me. Instead, my pursuer managed something far more devious by keeping my focus on him while his comrade waited to spring the trap.

Caught between hammer and anvil, I pulled my scabbard from my belt. The sheath's reinforcement made it a better parrying weapon than an empty hand, but I wasn't ashamed to admit that I regretted not thinking to bring a second knife. Hell, I should have brought a pistol. These wannabe vampires couldn't dodge bullets, could they?

The altered soldiers drew long knives, keeping them between me and their bodies while using their empty hands to protect their torsos. The ease with which they gripped their weapons and confidence with which they approached confirmed my suspicions.

This wouldn't be an easy fight, but it was a fight I could win. Dusk Patrol were combat-trained soldiers versed in small-unit tactics, but they assumed I'd be intimidated by the appearance of a second enemy.

Though I was afraid, I wouldn't let my fear defeat me. I've prevailed against nastier odds using tactics designed specifically to give lone Adversaries a fighting chance against multiple opponents. The defensive techniques I learned from Maestro gave me another advantage. If I could fight him to a draw, then I could take these guys.

Raising my sword, I stepped forward and bared my teeth. “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?“

My enemies must have craved immortality, or perhaps they were just smart. The soldiers didn't rush me, as I hoped they might. Instead, they crept forward while keeping their distance from each other. That was bad for me. If I lunged at one man I would expose myself to attack by the other.

Feinting toward the man on my left, I turned and ran the other man through, my sword piercing his shielding hand before sinking into his belly. Sensing his opportunity, the first soldier leaped forward for the kill, but I was too quick for him.

Instead of slipping his knife between two vertebrae and slicing through my spinal cord, his weapon glanced off my scabbard. The soldier tried a second thrust instead of recoiling. His knife's edge caught my side as I spun to face him while ripping my sword from his companion's body.

I wasn't wearing an armored coat. Fortunately, the soldier was sufficiently off-balance from my parry that my jacket kept him from cutting me too deeply. But it hurt enough to piss me off, and would probably need proper medical attention.

“That was my favorite jacket!“ He backed away as I snarled at him while holding my off hand against the wound to stop the bleeding. I still had my sheath, but I wouldn't be able to parry with it now. When he finally came for me, I slashed open his forearm to the bone.

His knife fell from the loosened grip of a hand he could no longer control, and I knocked him onto his arse with a kick to the belly. Before he could recover and take up his knife with his other hand, I kicked it into the underbrush.

As his companion gurgled behind me, my enemy brought his arm to his mouth. He tore into the flesh of his mangled forearm until he found the severed tendon, and pulled at it until he could join it to the other end, which he must have held with his teeth. Once he was satisfied, he pulled his fingers from the wound, which closed before my eyes. He bared his bloodstained teeth in a vicious smile as he flexed his hand – and then gave me the finger.

How the bloody blithering fuck had he healed so swiftly without medical attention? Backing toward the soldier still on the ground, I crouched to pick up his knife.

The man whose arm I thought I'd ruined rushed toward me too late to stop me from slicing open his buddy's throat. Let's see him get over that. I raised my bloody, stolen knife and backed away from what I hoped was now a corpse. I pointed at my fallen enemy. “You're next.“

Instead of fleeing, or attacking, he crouched by his companion and began to administer first aid. I backed away, waiting for my opportunity to escape. He glared up at me. “You'd better run, bitch. We're going to find you, and we'll make you regret not letting us kill you here.“

Shaking my head, I threw the looted knife. It flew true, and the hilt sprouted from his eye. Before he could yank it out, I kicked him onto his back and seated the blade firmly into his skull. To ensure the kill I drove my sword through his heart. Since the other man had begun to stir, I pierced his heart as well. What I wouldn't have given for a second knife right about now – or a katana.

Their threat to make me regret not letting them kill me in this clearing was unforgivable, for its implications extended far beyond homicide. Mere murder was something either of these assholes might have managed on their own. All it would have taken was a well-placed rifle shot like the one Renfield chose not to fire.

Regardless, he would grieve the loss of these men. In happier times, they would probably have been his friends. I dared not permit their return to base, where they would tell the others of their defeat at my hands and rouse them to seek vengeance. Not that I wouldn't be equally buggered once their buddies came looking for them and found the corpses I left. Nothing for it but to save the coordinates and bring some irregulars to give these poor bastards something resembling a decent burial.

I still regretted the necessity as I dressed my wound and cleaned my sword. The gash on my side was a bit deeper than expected. It hurt when I took a deep breath, and I must have lost a fair amount of blood, but I doubted it would prove life-threatening if I got to a doctor. At least I had a plausible excuse to pay Dr. Petersen a visit.

Track 27

Megadeth: “Skin O’ My Teeth”

Upon my return to town, my first priority was to see Dr. Petersen about getting my side patched up. Unfortunately, Sheriff Robinson had other ideas. Worse, he came with sufficient force to compel a change of plans. Four deputies that I didn't recognize followed him. Since I was already wounded, and worn out besides, a street brawl was the last thing I needed right now.

Though none of the deputies surrounding me had drawn their weapons, Robinson was the only one who didn't have a hand on the hilt of his service gladius. “Adversary Bradleigh, I need you to come down to the station and answer some questions.“

Despite my reluctance to fight the law in the most literal possible sense, I was equally unwilling to meekly submit and let Robinson detain me when I needed a doctor, a shower, breakfast, and a nap—in that order. “Am I under arrest, Sheriff? If so, what is the charge?“

Robinson raised his arm to block a deputy who had stepped forward and drawn his sword partway. He must have used secure talk to reprimand his subordinate because the deputy's expression became sheepish as he backed up and let go of his sword. Robinson shook his head before looking at me again. “You're not under arrest yet, but there's been a murder, and I need to ask you some questions.“

Oh, this was just bloody great. It could be hours before I got the care I needed if I went with Robinson. “Sheriff, unless you plan to arrest me, I must insist that you let me come to the station at noon. I was hurt this morning, and I need a doctor.“

Robinson finally noticed my left hand, which I kept pressed against my side to control the bleeding. “Whose blood is that all over your hand, Adversary?“

“Mine. I was attacked by two men in the forest. One of them managed to cut me.“

That must have been the wrong answer because the deputies drew their swords and surrounded me while Robinson began to notify me of my rights. “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say will be treated as evidence against you. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, you will be provided one. You have the right to examine the evidence against you. You have the right to humane treatment while in custody. Do you understand your rights as outlined, Adversary?“

There was no reason for me to put up with this. Not when I could pull rank as an Adversary and summarily strip Robinson and his deputies of their authority for getting in my way. «Some backup would be handy right about now, Malkuth.»

«We don't have any Adversaries available in either New York or Philadelphia, Naomi, but I'm monitoring your feed. Think you can manage on your own for now?»

«If all I wanted was moral support, I'd call my parents.»

Without the threat of reinforcements, I was in a poor position to refuse. Taking on Robinson and his deputies when I was already hurt didn't strike me as a sound decision on either a tactical or a strategic level. Even if I could win by violence, I would only make enemies. Better to fold and play a stronger hand later.

“Yes, Sheriff.“ Unbuckling my sword belt, I peace-bound my weapon and surrendered it. “I will not resist, but I must insist that you call Dr. Petersen. It would be inhumane to deprive me of needed medical care.“

“I can't just call the doctor. I've got to have a deputy verify that you're injured.“

Was he serious? I opened my jacket and lifted my bloodstained blouse. The gauze I had taped over my wound was saturated, and red trickled down my side. “Still think I'm faking an injury, Sheriff? Get me a fucking doctor.“

“Jesus wept.“ Robinson glared at the deputies and brandished the sword I had surrendered to him as a sign of good faith. “Put your swords away and return to your duties. I can handle it from here.“

He offered me a hand as they obeyed. “You can still walk to Dr. Petersen's office, right?“

I had already walked a couple of kilometers with this wound. What were another twenty meters to Petersen Family Medicine and Physical Therapy? “We're practically there, Sheriff. But it was kind of you to offer.“

The bitchy nurse I met the last time I visited Dr. Petersen's office wasn't there. A young man named Thorvaldson had taken her place. “Good morning, miss. You don't look like you're here for a routine checkup.“

“I wish.“ I fished my wallet from my pocket and showed Thorvaldson my ID. His eyes widened as he realized who I was. “I'm wounded and need medical attention. Is Dr. Petersen available?“

Thorvaldson shook his head. “He's with another patient, Adversary, but come with me. Sheriff, please wait here.“

Robinson shook his head. “Nurse, Adversary Bradleigh is in my custody. I can't let her out of my sight.“

Thorvaldson stood his ground. “I'm not going to let her slip out the back door, Sheriff. Now sit down and shut up. I won't have you staring over my shoulder while I work.“

“Fine.“ Robinson knew when he was beaten. He slumped into a chair and picked up a magazine as the nurse led me to an examination room.

Once the door closed, I removed my jacket and began unbuttoning my blouse. “Do you need me to lay down?“

He held out a hospital gown while looking away. “It might be easier for us both if you did.“

“Fair enough.“ I stretched out on the padded examining table and adjusted my gown. “I might need stitches and antibiotic treatment.“

Thorvaldson nodded as he peeled off my bandage and dropped it into a biohazard container. “Nasty cut, just deep enough to need stitches. It's still bleeding. When did this happen?“

“Two hours ago, I think. I kept the pressure on, but couldn't do much else.“

“Shit.“ Rather unprofessional language for a nurse to use around a patient. “You must be pretty damn tough to still be on your feet. Do you know your blood type? You're going to need a transfusion.“

Good question. That was another one of the differences between CPMD+ people and everybody else. Giving me blood from a CPMD- donor could kill me, and giving CPMD- people my blood was equally dangerous. “XY negative.“

Thorvaldson punched this into a handheld. “Good. The local blood bank has a couple of units in stock. Now, I can stitch you up and do the transfusion, but I'm not qualified to prescribe medication. We'll need Dr. Petersen for that.“

“All right.“

He handed me a tablet displaying an informed consent form and a stylus. “I just need you to review this and sign at the end.“

I did so and reached for the glass of water Thorvaldson placed beside me. I sucked up half of it through the waxed paper straw and closed my eyes as he injected a local anesthetic and set about stitching my side closed. His hands were swift and sure, and he whistled as he worked. I recognized the tune, an uncharacteristically melodic song by Doomed Space Marines.

Somebody knocked on the door as Thorvaldson tied off the suture and snipped it close to the skin. It was Dr. Petersen, and he brought a folded t-shirt with him. “Sheriff Robinson told me you ruined your shirt in an altercation in the woods. I never figured you were the sort for midnight duels.“

“Two against one is hardly a duel.“ It was probably a mistake to say that, but neither Petersen nor Thorvaldson commented it.

I waited for Thorvaldson to finish applying an ointment similar to what I had in my first aid kit. He then covered the area with a liquid bandage. It soon dried, taking on a lacquered sheen. Once I was sure I wouldn't ruin the dressing, I turned away from the men and slipped into the tee. Now I was a walking advert for Dr. Petersen's practice. “Thanks. Will it be safe for me to shower later today?“

“It should be. The nanocytes in the salve will dissolve the sutures within forty-eight hours. After that, they'll eat the bandage. Handy stuff, isn't it, Doc?“

Petersen nodded. “Too bad we didn't have this kind of tech before Nationfall. I might have saved more soldiers.“ He glanced at the chart. “Did you order two units of XY negative for the transfusion?“

“I was going to send Monica to the blood bank, but I can go myself if you want to set up the IV and start the saline drip.“

“Good thinking. Once you've brought them, I can handle the rest.“

Thorvaldson nodded and shut the door behind him. Holding out my left arm, I clenched a fist so Petersen could find a vein. He nodded in approval and swabbed me with alcohol. “Looks like you know the drill. I guess this isn't your first transfusion.“

“Actually, it is, but my usual physician likes to take blood and run her own tests instead of just pulling the diagnostics off my implant.“

Petersen chuckled as he started the saline drip. “So, she's old-school. I can't blame her; I do that myself when the implant reports something anomalous. I think it pays to have a person confirm the diagnosis. Most of my patients appreciate the effort, and it helps keep me sharp.“

“No doubt it's cheaper to use your own brain than to get an AI.“

“That, too.“ Thorvaldson stuck his head in long enough to hand Petersen the blood units before retreating. Until Petersen hooked them up, they looked like vampire takeout. The crimson thread working its way down the line into my arm fascinated me, and for some perverse reason, I wondered whose blood this was. It didn't matter. After this mission, I'd hit a blood bank and make a donation of my own to pay it forward.

“So, what happened to you?“ It was the question I expected Petersen to ask, but half-hoped he wouldn't. I wasn't sure how he'd take the news that I had cut down two of the men he once commanded. “And what did you do to your shoulder? That bandage isn't Thorvaldson's work.“

Damn it. Now I had to explain that I had met Renfield before the fight. Of course, one might argue that the former led to the latter. Besides, it might rattle Petersen enough to make him reveal information he might otherwise keep to himself. If I were back home seeing my usual doctor, I'd have mentioned my leg, as well. With her, it wouldn't have mattered that I was going commando by necessity. “My shoulder? That was a love bite from one of your former subordinates. Do you remember Sergeant Christopher Renfield?“

Track 28

Baroness: “Teeth of a Cogwheel”

Dr. Petersen froze at the mention of Renfield. His fixed gaze seemed to take in the entire room as if seeking the nearest available weapon. He picked up a scalpel with a trembling hand, considered it for a moment, and put it back. “So, you seduced Sergeant Renfield.“

Did he think the man was a victim of my feminine wiles? Not bloody likely, when he was straining at the seam not even thirty seconds after we first met. That wasn't sufficient time for me to even consider an approach more subtle than simply walking up and propositioning him, let alone actually doing so.

Of course, Renfield wasn't the sort of person who required a subtle approach, but I'd like to think my involvement was more than that of an enthusiastic participant. “We seduced each other, Doctor. He's quite the physical specimen.“

Petersen shrugged. “No doubt he thought the same of you. Not that I disagree. How much did he tell you?“

“Not that much at first. Renfield ended up telling me enough to let me connect him and his buddies living under Fort Clarion to Project Harker.“ I paused for a moment to gauge Petersen's reaction, but he seemed content to listen for now. “Renfield spoke highly of you, incidentally, and told me you stood up for Dusk Patrol when the Army Medical Corps treated them like lab rats.“

I leaned forward, reaching for his hand. He didn't stop me from taking it. “In fact, you've been looking out for them ever since, haven't you?“

Petersen nodded and withdrew his hand. “I had hoped that yesterday's field trip might have sated your need to dig any deeper, let alone venture into the woods around Fort Clarion at night. I thought you wiser than this, Adversary Bradleigh. Do you have any notion of what you could expose by continuing your investigation?“

Aside from unethical science suppressed by the Phoenix Society, presumably because its conclusions affected everybody with CPMD? There were people out there who had been betrayed and abandoned by the country they swore to defend. They remained locked in a nightmare created by a war long over. Petersen should have ended this years ago, but I gained nothing by questioning the man's ethics at this juncture. “This is bigger than a couple of unexplained disappearances. The deeper I dig, the worse it gets.“

“You should stop digging, then.“ Petersen sighed and gazed out the window for a couple of minutes before continuing. “Those unfortunates who vanished will be just as dead even if you manage to find an explanation for their disappearances. You're just wasting your time, and meddling with matters you don't fully understand.“

Was I just paranoid, or did Petersen's words imply that if I continued to interfere, I might wind up dead? “I understand that Project Harker was an attempt to enhance the combat capabilities of soldiers with CPMD. The Phoenix Society probably already knows everything about Project Harker, and may have realized that the technology can be used on any CPMD-positive individual. Many Adversaries, myself included, could be subjected to such enhancement.“

That thrust hit home, for Petersen stiffened as if I had stabbed him. “How?“

“Remember a civilian named Ian Malkin?“

Petersen nodded as if not quite trusting himself to speak.

“Well, I've seen a guy who looks like him from time to time at the London chapter. Scuttlebutt says he's on the Phoenix Society's Executive Council, not that the brass will confirm or deny it. I can't prove they're the same person, but how many men with that name have you heard of?“

“Not many.“ Petersen swapped in the other bag of blood to continue the transfusion. “I'll admit it's a convenient coincidence. I suppose some of Renfield's men disapproved of his liaison with you.“

“I didn't bother to ask my attackers why they picked a fight with me. On a related topic, care to tell me anything about the death for which Robinson arrested me? You're the coroner, aren't you?“

Petersen chuckled and glanced at the blood pressure readout. “Starting your discovery process early, are you?“

“I didn't think to bring a book, and I doubt you'd be willing to discuss Project Harker or your post-Nationfall involvement with Dusk Patrol any further.“

“We're almost done here, Adversary. So, assuming you manage to persuade the Sheriff he has the wrong person, allow me to offer a small suggestion. The men won't bother you again as long as you and yours stay aboveground. Don't go exploring. It's dangerous.“

Now that was a threat and not just one directed at me. Was it something I could take to Robinson to deflect his suspicion? While I could have Malkuth provide an alibi using my Witness Protocol feed, Robinson would still need a better suspect. But if I directed him toward Fort Clarion, wouldn't I just be getting him and his deputies killed?

Petersen stared at me. “You're thinking about something, aren't you?“

“Just wondering what you're so desperate to hide.“ I gave Petersen my sweetest smile as he disconnected the IV and removed it from my arm. “You really should consider leveling with me. Too many have suffered for this secret, including you and the survivors of Dusk Patrol. How long are you going to keep carrying this burden?“ I paused for effect, and to let Petersen focus on bandaging my forearm. “Do you really think you can take the truth to your grave? As I mentioned, the Phoenix Society probably knows everything about Project Harker. They just can't be arsed to tell me anything.“

“So you're determined to figure it out on your own, and to hell with the consequences?“

“Pretty much.“ I refrained from shrugging. “Innocents are dying around here. Everything I've seen so far, everything Renfield has told me, and every evasion I've heard out of you suggests that Fort Clarion is at the heart of what's wrong with this town.“

Petersen shrugged and began washing his hands. It probably wasn't just proper hygiene, but an act of renouncing any responsibility for what might happen next. “You won't find out much from a jail cell. But if you get out, and more people die for your curiosity, remember that I warned you.“

Putting my jacket back on, I met Petersen's gaze and held it a moment. “Allow me to return the courtesy. If more people die, I will see you stand trial as an accessory.“

Finding Robinson still in the waiting room, leafing through a pro sports magazine with my sword across his lap, I held out my hands so he could cuff them. “I'm prepared to cooperate now, Sheriff.“

Instead of binding me, he returned my sword and led me outside. “I just spoke with an AI from the Phoenix Society. He reports you surveyed Fort Clarion on your own last night and furnished a map of your movements. Based on that, I don't have probable cause to arrest or detain you, but I'd still like you to come to the station.“

Malkuth gave me an alibi? Guess he was watching out for me after all. “I will if you tell me why you arrested me in the first place.“

Robinson wouldn't look at me as he spoke, which most likely meant he was well aware of his lack of justification. Either that or Malkuth explained my reconnaissance in detail. Hope he enjoyed the show. “The Town Council tends to just rubber-stamp Mayor Collins’ budget proposals every year, and under the Society's regulations, I can't appear at council meetings in my official capacity to speak up for my department.“

Robinson swept a hand as if presenting the town. “Does this look like London or New York to you, Adversary? Hell, does it even look like Pittsburgh or Philadelphia?“

I watched as workers began putting up “Clarion Rocks” banners to advertise the upcoming annual music festival the Halfords kept talking about. “No. It's a small town, with perhaps an annual influx of visitors for the festival.“

“Exactly. In a few days, everything's going to go batshit crazy for a couple of weeks. Most of the resources at my disposal are already allocated. I'm stuck, mainly because most of the fucking hicks living here think the goddamn militia is enough to keep the peace. Never mind that none of them are actually paying taxes.“ Robinson spat contemptuously and met a passing woman's disapproving glare with one of his own. “Ingrates.“

Things were starting to make sense again. “So, when Mayor Collins tells you to bark like a dog, you ask, ‘What breed, your honor?‘”

Robinson's laughter was bitter. “You've got it. What Mayor Collins wants, he damn well gets. Some kid who came into town to see a band at the Lonely Mountain appears to have died of a stab wound. That same night, you're seen wandering into the woods. So, the Mayor wants you in a cell so he can tell the citizens of Clarion that they don't have to be afraid.“

While I could empathize with the need to prevent a panic I could not forgive the wrongful arrest of a visitor, however meddlesome, to provide the local authorities a semblance of efficacy. It was especially challenging to view the situation from Mayor Collins’ position when he was scapegoating me to retain the trust of his constituents.

My hand tightened around my sword's scabbard as I indulged my indignation. It would be so nice to march right into the Mayor's office and enact a bit of impromptu regime change, but I had more pressing concerns. Besides, Collins was the devil I knew. His removal from office for malfeasance and abuse of power could wait. “The people of Clarion should be afraid, especially Mayor Collins.“

Robinson glanced around, as if I had spoken too loudly and frightened the townsfolk. “Adversary or not, I can't have you publicly threatening the lives of town officials.“

“Don't worry. A bit of due process won't kill your boss.“ Flashing a smile at the Sheriff, I turned away from Town Hall. Didn't Robinson realize that Adversaries never investigate violations of their own rights? The pins weren't a license to pursue vendettas. “I was thinking about Fort Clarion. If we don't do something about that place soon, the poor bastard you've got on a slab won't be the last of its victims.“

“You know something, don't you?“ Robinson's expression hardened, but his tone held a note of disgust. “Why can't you just tell me?“

That was a reasonable question, but not one easily answered. Police officers and Adversaries both served the public, but we often stood at cross purposes by necessity. It was their job to uphold law and order and arrest those who threatened it. It was ours to second-guess the cops and make sure they weren't ruining innocent lives. While collaboration between cops and Adversaries wasn't unprecedented, it remained rare enough to be remarkable.

Beyond all that, lay a simpler truth. I didn't want to waste Robinson's time by jumping to conclusions without more information. “Have you seen the victim's body yet?“

Robinson shook his head. “That's Dr. Petersen's job. He'll send me the autopsy report and photos when he's done.

Reports could be falsified and photographs doctored. I found Robinson's lack of skepticism disturbing. “We should examine the victim for ourselves before I share my suspicions with you.“

I pulled aside the collar of my t-shirt and lifted the bandage to show Robinson my love bite. A few passersby stared at me, but they didn't matter. “See this? I think we'll find more on your victim.“

“When did you get that?“ Robinson narrowed his eyes. Hard to blame him when my bite was already halfway healed thanks to modern medicine.

“Last night from a guy who turned out to be one of Fort Clarion's more rational inhabitants.“ I fixed my collar and zipped up my jacket. The way Robinson stared at me was starting to creep me out. “Look, Sheriff, I've had a rough night. Meet me at the Lonely Mountain after lunch. You might be able to just walk into the morgue, but I'll need a warrant.“

Robinson nodded and took a deep breath. “Good idea. Do I want to know how you got that bite?“

Seriously, what was wrong with some cops?! They could talk about crime all night in plain, blunt English, but should the mere specter of consensual, mutually pleasurable sex come up they danced around it. “All you need know is that everything leading to the bite was consensual. When I pressed him for an explanation, I learned he lives under Fort Clarion. He's not alone.“

Track 29

Motörhead: “Dead Men Tell No Tales”

A cold shower, clean clothes, and the prospect of one of the Lonely Mountain's hearty breakfasts was just what I needed. Though still tired, I'd be able to get through the day even if I had to go to the station with Sheriff Robinson after our visit to the morgue. Dante and Virgil began their chorus of purr-begging from the chair beside me before Bruce had finished serving my breakfast.

“Be patient. I'll save you some bacon.“ And if I forgot that, they could have some of the excess fat off my steak, or the remnants of my omelet. I really shouldn't encourage them, but they were so sweet together.

Unfortunately, Sheriff Robinson's arrival frightened them off. He sat in front of me with a mug of coffee he must have gotten at the bar. “Going to save me anything?“

“Are you a kitten?“ He didn't look like one. His lean, hungry aspect was more vulpine than feline; Shakespeare would have thought him a good Cassius. Besides, there was no way in Tartarus I'd let him rush me through breakfast. The victim wouldn't go anywhere; the dead tended to be most cooperative in that regard.

He shrugged off my question, which was fair enough. It was a bit silly. “Did you get your warrant?“

Robinson produced his authorization before I could answer. I didn't think he needed one, but maybe he was covering his arse. Though he must have had serious dirt on the judge to get one this fast. Of course, I wasn't about to suggest anything of the sort. “Still waiting. The process is a bit involved.“

A secure talk session from Malkuth popped up, and I pressed my fingertips to my ear to show Robinson I was getting incoming comms. «I've got a warrant for you to search the Clarion morgue under Petersen Family Medicine and Physical Therapy. You are likewise authorize to examine the body of one Scott Wilson, an eighteen-year-old male of northern European ancestry.»

My implant alerted me to an incoming document a moment later. The authority granted was a bit narrower than I would have preferred. It left me no latitude to search the entire premises or copy any data on computers located therein. It was up to me to prove Peterson's culpability with what authority I now possessed. «Got it. Anything else?»

«Only that I'm a bit jealous of Renfield. How many rivals for your affections have I got, anyway?»

Of course, he would have seen that. I was technically on duty until I had accomplished my mission, so everything I saw and heard got recorded. Everything. Not that I was the first to screw around on the job. I just couldn't believe he was so gauche as to mention it. «Malkuth, just a word of advice for when you do get a body: never ask a woman about her prior affairs. If she's with you now, that's all that matters.»

I ended the secure talk session. “Sorry about that, Sheriff. I've got my warrant, and I'll be finished shortly.“

Robinson gave my admittedly large plate a dubious look. “You've barely started.“

“Challenge accepted.“ I set about demolishing my breakfast, chowing down with the brutal efficiency I learned in ACS instead of savoring every bite like a civilized human being. The Sheriff sipped his coffee and stared at me throughout my performance.

I finished by downing my coffee, and raising my mug skyward for a refill. Halford came by a minute later, bearing a fresh pot. He filled Robinson's mug as well. “You really were hungry, Adversary. Think you can fit anything else in?“

Robinson grumbled something about a wafer-thin mint.

He'll pay dearly for that, but for now, I let it go. “Thanks, Bruce, but I'll just take the check. I'm keeping the Sheriff waiting.“

Nurse Thorvaldson seemed surprised by my return. “Hello again, Adversary. Is something wrong with your wound?“

Shaking my head, I sent my warrant to his implant. “I'm here to inspect the homicide victim Dr. Petersen currently has downstairs. Sheriff Robinson is here to accompany me. Is Dr. Petersen available?“

The necessity of waiting for Petersen to inspect the warrants gave me time to think. Would he acquiesce, or challenge our authority? If he proved foolish enough to choose the latter, I could bust him for obstruction.

Fortunately, Dr. Petersen's prompt arrival kept me from getting my hopes up too high. “I understand you brought warrants.“

“Yes, doctor.“ I sent mine to his handheld while Robinson handed his over.

Petersen scanned the Sheriff's documents before reading mine on his device. “Well, everything's in order. Might I ask that you put on gloves and masks before entering the morgue? Standard safety precautions.“

“Of course.“ Robinson and I left our swords with Thorvaldson before finding the required protective gear and donning it. Petersen led us down into the cold dark. A flick of a switch relieved the gloom but did nothing about the chill air.

Dr. Petersen led us to a body bag on a gurney. A tag attached to the zipper read, Scott Wilson, age 18, male, human. Instead of opening the bag for us, he withdrew after pointing to a sleeping laptop. Was it my imagination, or did his expression seem just a touch resentful? Perhaps he wasn't used to being second-guessed. “My report is on the computer if you wish to read it, Adversary. The Mayor and Sheriff already have their copies. See Nurse Thorvaldson when you're finished or if you have any questions, and he'll fetch me.“

Robinson watched Petersen leave before turning to me. “You ever do anything like this before?“

“Only in training. ACS instructors would take us to the city morgue and have us examine fresh cadavers. We were evaluated based on how accurately we determined the time and cause of death.“ I unzipped the bag and spread it open to expose Wilson's body. “This is the first time I've had to check up on an autopsy.“

Robinson nodded. “Same here.“ He spared me a wry smile. “At least you aren't just hassling cops.“

Rather than dignify that remark with a response, I turned my attention to the deceased. My heart sank as I recognized the victim's face, along with the marks on his neck, shoulders, wrists, and thighs. Was his death my fault? Did he die for his involvement in my mission? “He was one of the youth volunteers who came with us to Fort Clarion.“

“What the fuck are these? Bite marks?“ Robinson's features twisted in disgust as he draped the bag back over Wilson's groin. “Jesus Christ, he's even got bite marks on his…”

“Yes, I noticed.“

“Was this some kind of kinky fantasy or sexual ritual gone wrong? Why would Wilson have let somebody do this to him?“

Ignoring his question, I spread open the body bag and took another look at the bite marks. “Is there a ruler around, or a tape measure?“

“What, you want to measure him?“

I transfixed Robinson with my best disapproving glare. That was just nasty. “Not the victim, but the bite marks. I don't think they were all inflicted by the same assailant, which means Wilson might not have been a willing participant in whatever kinky scenario you suspect this is.“

“What's your hypothesis, Adversary?“

“I think these bites are postmortem, or perimortem at best. But to prove it I need to find the killing wound. They would have made the cut somewhere easily hidden.“ Though his legs were still stiff with rigor mortis, I was able to move each, exposing a stab wound at the juncture between thigh and groin. While not readily apparent, it would have opened the femoral artery. Wilson would have bled out before he had a chance to realize he was dying. “Sergeant Renfield, the man I was with last night, said he was part of an elite all-CPMD military unit called Dusk Patrol that had taken to making their kills look like vampire attacks to confuse, frighten, and demoralize their enemies. The remnants of that company still live under Fort Clarion.“

“Dusk Patrol?“ Robinson shuddered. “Fuck.“ He took a deep breath. “Naomi, are you sure? I haven't heard that name since before the Commonwealth fell apart.“

He must have been severely rattled to address me by name instead of rank. “I'm confident that my hypothesis is consistent with the evidence we've seen thus far, Sheriff. I fought two of them last night. That's how I got wounded, remember?“

“Yeah.“ Robinson gave the kid a once-over and shook his head. “So, they weren't actually feeding off this poor kid, were they?“

Because the town was Robinson's responsibility, he had a right to know. Keeping him ignorant served nobody. “I'm afraid they were. The members of Dusk Patrol were subjected to a series of experiments designed to enhance them.“

“You mean like Captain Commonwealth?“

Perhaps I should be ashamed of the fact that I had to look that up, but right now, my ignorance of pre-Nationfall superheroes wasn't a pressing concern. “That might have been their intended result, but with a codename like Project Harker, I doubt it.“

“Christ!“ Robinson's curse echoed in the enclosed space. “I was a goddamn MP at Fort Clarion, and I had no idea this shit was happening.“

“Petersen knew.“ That stopped him and brought his attention back to me. “He opposed Project Harker, but it continued despite him. He knows about the Dusk Patrol survivors hiding under Fort Clarion. He's protecting them.“

Robinson woke up the laptop Dr. Peterson had indicated earlier and pulled up the autopsy report, which I read over his shoulder. “That must be why he wasn't explicit about the stab wound's location in his report. He didn't mention any of the bites, either. Makes sense if he's protecting people who are trying to stage a vampire kill or honestly think they're nosferatu.“

Robinson was just about to start stroking his chin when he realized his hand was still encased in a rubber glove that had touched a dead man. “The wound was probably made with an Army-issue knife readily available at Fort Clarion. The blade isn't much wider than that sword you always wear in public. No wonder Mayor Collins thought you were the killer.“

“The assailant would have had difficulty inflicting a wound like this in battle. They would have had to come in low and angle their blade upward.“ It wasn't impossible, just damned improbable. “It's not how I would go about killing somebody. I think it's more likely that they held the victim down, pinning his limbs.“

“So, it was staged.“ Robinson stared at me a moment. “Show me your teeth. Also, that love bite.“

Once I did so, he took measurements. He then checked each of the bites on Wilson's body, taking measurements of his own as I had meant to do. “Son of a bitch. Some of these look like they could have come from you, but most couldn't have been inflicted by you or Renfield.“

The implication was obvious, despite my sleep deprivation. “Somebody's trying to frame me.“

Track 30

Delain: “Where is the Blood”

“Adversary, I'd rather not consider the possibility that somebody is trying to frame you, because then I'd have to ask who benefits from doing so. I'd rather assume this was a crime of opportunity. What the hell was Wilson doing out in the woods in the first place? Did he do something to draw Dusk Patrol's attention?“

“Sure, Wilson could have pissed off Dusk Patrol himself. Hell, he could just have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.“ Under ordinary circumstances Sheriff Robinson would be justified in rebuking me for not using Occam's Razor.

Unfortunately for Robinson, the case touched upon too many secrets to be ordinary or for his reasoning to be anything but wishful thinking. To support my hypothesis, I recounted everything that led us to the morgue, starting with the theft of Sheriff Robinson's camera. “If I wasn't poking around Fort Clarion under orders from the Phoenix Society, and we didn't know the place remained inhabited, I'd agree with you. But the timing is too suggestive, and the other explanations are too simple to fit all the facts.“

The timing of recent events also raised unanswered questions. What had been the point of burglarizing Sheriff Robinson's home and stealing his camera? The theft would have made more sense had it occurred the day of my arrival. If it intersected with Fort Clarion, as the photo of me suggested, did it implicate the Sheriff as part of the conspiracy, or exonorate him? “If we treat the theft of your camera and bow as part of the Dusk Patrol case, Sheriff Robinson, you might want to watch your back as well. Had my investigation not posed the greater threat by striking closer to home, we might have been looking at evidence that implicated you in this murder.“

“You could be right, but don't hold your breath waiting for me to thank you.“ Robinson gave Wilson's body another look. Despite his disgust, he studied the wounds in detail. “Since the sniper didn't take you out, whoever wants you eliminated must have chosen a different approach. While you could have inflicted some of these wounds, there's no way you could have made them all. A lesser cop might accuse you of using this murder to drum up support for your investigation, but you're too confrontational to work in such a roundabout fashion.“

He was right about that. I could be a stone cold bitch when given cause, but I never felt the need to use other people when I could get my point across with a sword. “What makes you so sure of me?“

Reaching over the gurney, Robinson tapped one of my lapel pins. “You take too much pride in wearing these. Also, you were busy, and the bites are either too small or too big to have come from your companion.“

“Considering our initial impressions of one another, I'm surprised to see you ruling me out as a suspect.“

Robinson shrugged before crossing his arms over his chest. “So, if Dusk Patrol wasn't acting on their own, who do you think is trying to frame you? Do you have something on Petersen or Collins that would provide them with a motive for trying to discredit you?“

“As much as I'd like to think that Dusk Patrol works on their own to deter any interest in Fort Clarion, it's clear they're getting help from somebody in town, if not leadership. Mayor Collins’ reluctance to investigate the disappearances and Dr. Petersen's knowledge of Dusk Patrol's existence makes them prime suspects.“ Hell, Robinson himself might have been involved, even if he was playing good cop at the moment. I had to take his word concerning the theft. Too bad I couldn't get a copy of the insurance claim without a subpoena.

Robinson shook his head. “Neither have CPMD.“

“Two words: ‘plausible deniability.‘” Let's give the devil his due. Though I would eventually nail Petersen, and probably Collins as well, it wouldn't be for this. “The whole point of having an unit of vampiric special forces soldiers is keeping your own teeth clean. Besides, if they wanted to frame me, they would have chosen a single assailant to prep the body. This was too sloppy.“

“Could this be the work of a rogue element?“

“It's possible. Dusk Patrol was abandoned, yet they continue obey their last order to protect the base at any cost.“ I took a closer look at the bite wounds, especially those from mouths resembling mine. Some were ragged, as if inflicted while Wilson was still alive enough to struggle, or while jostling with others for position. Others were straight, and inflicted with almost surgical precision. A horrible suspicion dawned on me as I shared my hypothesis with Robinson. “I think it more likely this murder was unplanned. We know that Dusk Patrol marked some of their kills like this before Project Harker. They had probably already killed Wilson and staged it to implicate me. This was a warning. You might never have found him if I had not survived my encounter.“

Since Wilson's body could tell me nothing more, I zipped up the bag. “I need to see the crime scene, and I need to meet with the person who discovered the body.“

He nodded and pressed his fingertips to his ear for a moment. “I'll take you. The Brubaker kid is still there, giving his statement.“

Brubaker? What the hell was he doing out there? Had he been following me or Wilson? If so, why? And how did we not meet? It wasn't like I ran back to Clarion after I got stabbed.

Though Robinson didn't reveal the location, I knew where he would take me. It was the clearing where I had fought those soldiers. The clearing to which I meant to bring Robinson anyway.

Brubaker was gone when we arrived, but the Sheriff's deputies remained. One waved an evidence baggie containing the bayonet I had kicked into the brush. “Hey, Sheriff! I think I found the murder weapon.“

“Not likely.“ I stepped forward, unwilling to be cowed. “The blood on that knife is mine, which you'll discover for yourself upon analysis.“

“Did everybody hear Adversary Bradleigh? This clearing got a bit of traffic last night.“ Robinson raked his gaze across the area. “Colby! How many blood samples did you take?“

A deputy with a portable forensics lab strapped to her back looked up. “I tested every drop and spatter I could find, Sheriff. I found samples from at least three individuals with CPMD, based on blood type, in addition to small traces of our victim's blood, mainly on the blanket beneath him.“

“Where's the rest of his blood? There should be a hell of a lot more, given the manner in which Wilson died.“

“You're right, Adversary. There isn't enough to tie Wilson's murder to this location. Somebody must have dumped him here.“ Colby started looking around, zeroing in on a small mound. “Sheriff, that patch over there has been bugging me. Did anybody think to bring a shovel?“

Robinson narrowed his eyes and crouched by the mound. He got a good grip on a patch of grass and tried lifting it. It came free, leaving the Sheriff with a rectangle of fresh-cut sod in his hand. “Son of a bitch.“

He began digging with his hands, ripping cut squares of sod loose and putting them aside. Against my better judgment, I pitched in. The other deputies joined us, including Colby, who shrugged off her forensic backpack with a sigh of relief. Together, making do with clipboards and other improvised tools, we lifted out enough earth to create a hole a quarter meter deep in the rich, loamy ground before a deputy returned with a dozen spades.

Heedless of what I was doing to my clothes, I lowered myself into the hole and set about digging out the rest of the fresh grave. My spade bumped against something slim and roughly cylindrical seated vertically in the soil. Digging around it, I exposed the handle of a knife, and then the face of the man I had killed with it.

It didn't take long for me to expose the rest of the body. Whoever buried my enemy had not bothered to pull the knife from his skull, or had lacked the strength to do so. Straightening, I pointed at its occupant. “That was one of the men I fought last night.“

Robinson jumped into the grave with me and helped me remove the last of the earth. We lifted the dead soldier out so the other deputies could tag and bag him. One of them tried pulling the knife from his head before he finished zipping up the body bag, but it wouldn't budge. “Hey, Adversary, what did this guy do to piss you off so bad?“

Aside from ruining my favorite leather jacket, and threatening to do God-knows-what to me? “He underestimated me. Two knives aren't enough to beat my sword.“

The deputy tried shifting the knife again. “You sure this guy wasn't your ex or something?“

“Quite.“ My urge to give a flippant answer showed only in a smile I normally saved for intimidating suspects. He didn't need to know that I wasn't nearly as merciful with my asshole ex. Sheriffs don't select deputies for their sense of humor, and it seemed likely everybody here had had a long morning.

Once I had finished helping out, I returned to the police station with Sheriff Robinson, and followed him to his office. He pulled a half-full bottle of bourbon and two paper cups from his desk drawer, poured three fingers into each, and handed me one. “I usually like a drink after seeing death up close. How about you?“

“It's not my usual habit, but I'll join you.“ I raised my cup to salute Robinson and sipped it. The whiskey was a smooth burn down my throat that flared in my belly. “You realize that anything I tell you now will be inadmissible as evidence.“

Robinson shook his head and gave me a wry look as he put the bottle away. “It's just a drink, Adversary. I ruled you out as suspect hours ago.“

“Good. I wouldn't have come here to investigate my own crimes.“

“Touché.“ Robinson sipped his whiskey and stared out the window for a long moment. “Did you come here knowing somebody might die?“

“Of course not!“

“You sound angry about it. Why? It's not like you knew the kid.“

“Damn right I am, Sheriff.“ Even if I had not been the cause of Scott Wilson's death, his murderers laid out his corpse as a warning to me. “I'm not going to let those bastards stop me, so what do you suggest we do to prevent another murder?“

Robinson finished his whiskey before answering. “We finish the job at Fort Clarion. We tear that godforsaken place out of the ground, round up every remaining member of Dusk Patrol, and get them hospitalized. If we can identify Wilson's killers, we put the fuckers on trial.“

“I'll drink to that.“ Ignoring the bitterness, I slammed back the last of my bourbon and crushed the cup. With a flick of my wrist I tossed it into the bin across the room.

Part IV

Death in a Northern Town

A death in a major city is a tragedy. A death in a northern town is a statistic.

—graffiti from the men's room at The Lonely Mountain

Track 31

Megadeth: “Architecture of Aggression”

We made short work of cataloging the equipment stored aboveground at Fort Clarion. The support of five hundred Clarion Volunteers plus some friends of Scott Wilson who insisted on tagging along made it easy. The completion of my official mission was an anticlimax of sorts, but I was glad that nobody else died as young Wilson did four days ago.

We found plenty of automatic rifles, submachine guns, pistols, sharpshooters’ rifles, and even half a dozen anti-matériel rifles that fired such outrageously powerful rounds that using them against unarmored personnel must have constituted a war crime. In addition to the small arms, Fort Clarion also boasted two armored personnel carriers and four helicopters, all of which were armed with 12.7mm machine guns.

Nor were the barracks and officers’ housing without treasures. We found enough government-issued fiat currency to knock the bottom out of the market for Commonwealth dollars among numismatists. One officer's house held a large cache of marijuana; an irregular sniffed it out and used the stock of his rifle to smash through the drywall. Every other footlocker in the barracks held some sort of skin mag.

When not issuing orders for Sheriff Robinson to pass down to his sergeants, I busied myself by using HermitCrab to crack every computer the irregulars found on the base. I found music by long-dead bands too obscure to merit a revival and pornography depicting kinks Jacqueline never told me about. Unfortunately, the computers held little of professional interest, and bugger-all concerning Project Harker.

I did learn that one of Dr. Petersen's trusted lieutenants had been shagging Petersen's wife whenever he was off base for more than a day, which I would have preferred not to know. Good thing the doctor wasn't looking over my shoulder when I made that sordid little discovery. He would have been unable to find closure by confronting his wife or her paramour; they both died during Nationfall.

After we had returned to town, all I wanted to make my report to the Phoenix Society. The sooner they sent an arms control team, the sooner all that ordnance would cease to be a threat. Moreover, with more Adversaries at my side, we could penetrate Fort Clarion's underground and drag whatever lay beneath into the sun.

Sheriff Robinson and Dr. Petersen seemed to have other ideas. They had gotten to the Lonely Mountain ahead of me since I dropped behind to guard the rear. Robinson raised a half-empty glass of beer as I walked in. “There you are, Adversary. How about joining us for a drink? Doc's paying.“

“Just one, guys. I have to file my report with the New York chapter.“ And I'll be discreetly checking that one drink for drugs unless it comes directly from the barkeep's hands to mine.

Sitting with them, I ignored Dr. Petersen's scowl and waved at Dick Halford. No doubt Robinson had already had a few at the doctor's expense, and the old man expected me to follow suit. Maybe I should order something outrageously expensive and give him something to cry about.

Halford brought a glass of the house red from behind the bar. “Want me to leave the bottle?“

It was cruel of him to tempt me so. I had been on edge for days now, expecting another attack by altered soldiers traumatized by years of isolation—or the discovery of another bitten-up corpse. Neither had happened, thank all the gods, but all I wanted right now was to have a drink, make my report, take a long hot bath, and curl up in bed for an early night. “Thanks, but I'd better stick with one glass. Dr. Petersen's paying, and I don't want to take advantage. Besides, I still have to report in.“

Dr. Petersen seemed to relax as I set my limit. Was he really afraid I'd abuse his generosity? You'd think he'd have more pressing concerns, like Dusk Patrol and my search for evidence against him. “You worked hard the last few days. How's your side?“

“There's barely a scar. Nurse Thorvaldson does excellent work.“ Not that a scar would have bothered me. They were an occupational hazard and the only medals of valor any Adversary could expect. At least, that's what my instructors always said.

Petersen nodded. “Have you spoken to anybody about your experience? I can recommend a colleague.“

I had talked about some of it with Kaylee over drinks a couple of nights ago, and dished with Jacqueline at greater length, but I wasn't going to tell Petersen that. It was none of his business. “I'm fine, thank you.“

Robinson changed the subject, for which I was grateful. “We still haven't found anything we can use to close the Wilson murder. Of course, finding evidence or a suspect aboveground was always a long shot. Wouldn't you say so, doctor?“

Petersen shot me an accusing glare. “How much did you tell him?“

“I answered the Sheriff's questions as honestly as I could with the knowledge I possessed.“ It would take more than an old man's glare to intimidate me. I met his stare and held it until he turned away. “I trust you no more than you do me. If that bothers you, then perhaps you should have a long, confidential talk with the Sheriff.“

Before either Petersen or Robinson could react, I drained my glass and slammed it back down onto the table with the finality of a judge's gavel. Rising, I bid them goodnight. There was trouble in paradise, and I wanted no part of what would follow. Nor was I inclined to rehash the last few days with Saul, but I had been an Adversary too long to ignore procedure.

After double-checking my reports and sending a copy to Malkuth, I opened a channel. Though I had thus far reported to Saul, it was Iris Deschat who took my call tonight. She was more handsome than beautiful, her face projecting a mature strength tested and tempered by many trials. It was a look suited to command. “Good evening, Adversary Bradleigh.“

“Good evening, Director. I'm pleased to report that the matériel inventory for Fort Clarion is complete.“

Iris nodded. “I have a copy. Were you able to complete your other investigation?“

“Not yet. As I previously reported, Fort Clarion is still inhabited by the remnants of a Commonwealth Army unit called Dusk Patrol. I am confident that some of these individuals are behind the disappearances that have plagued Clarion since its resettlement, as well as the recent murder of Scott Wilson. However, I cannot name individual suspects, nor can I provide sufficient evidence to convince a jury at this time.“

Deschat narrowed her eyes. “But you had time to seduce a Dusk Patrol survivor who might be responsible for the disappearances, and you had time to drink with the Sheriff and the town doctor? Why have you not yet penetrated Fort Clarion's underground and rooted out the necessary evidence?“

“With all due respect, Director, my coupling with Christopher Renfield yielded valuable intelligence. Furthermore, Sheriff Robinson has been extremely helpful, and I would have had a hell of a time completing my inventory of Fort Clarion's armament without his cooperation and that of the local militia. Finally, we have not yet found a way into Fort Clarion's underground. Once I've done so, I must then persuade Sheriff Robinson and Mayor Collins to ask members of the town militia to follow me down there since the Phoenix Society has not provided me any backup.“

As I paused before making my final point, Iris opened her mouth to speak. I cut her off and didn't bother phrasing my concerns in a manner she might find palatable. “For fuck's sake, you people practically go autistic whenever I bring up Project Harker. If you can give me shit about half an hour of rebound sex, but can't be arsed to provide me with intel or backup, you have no business questioning my priorities.“

“Director Chattan told me you were a spirited young woman. I'm glad to find he wasn't lying.“ Deschat favored me with the flash of an indulgent smile. “Unfortunately, the Executive Council has bound my hands on this matter. The following comes straight from the top, Adversary Bradleigh. You are to cease your investigation of the Clarion disappearances and Project Harker immediately, and return to London for the remainder of your leave.“

Now that the Society had an inventory of the equipment stored at Fort Clarion, they thought I would ignore the corruption festering in this town? Not bloody likely. My fists clenched and trembled as my resolve hardened into cold steel. “With all due respect, Director, the Executive Council can sod off. I am going to get to the bottom of this with or without the Society's help. If you don't like it, you can bloody well send Adversaries to arrest me.“

Deschat shook her head. This time, her smile seemed regretful. “If Adversaries come after you, it won't be on my order or Saul's. I can promise that much, but nothing more.“

Was Deschat sympathetic to my cause, but unable to help without jeopardizing her own position? “Thank you, but why?“

She remained silent for a long moment before answering. “I don't know how much Director Chattan told you about me, but I was once the captain of a Commonwealth Navy nuclear submarine, the Thomas Paine. Just before everything fell apart, we received an order to fire our missiles at New York.“

“Holy shit.“ The words came involuntarily.

“It wasn't an order I could follow with a clear conscience. Nor was it an order I could defy without the unanimous support of my crew because once I refused that order, my men would pay for my defiance alongside me. Fortunately, none of us aboard the Thomas Paine were willing to nuke our own people.“

Holding my breath, I waited for Deschat to relate how she and her crew survived the retribution her superiors must have attempted to exact for their defiance. Rather than continue her story, she studied me. “Your conscience won't allow you to let this go, will it?“

“Innocents are suffering for this secret, Director. Your own countrymen are still at war, with nobody to release them from their nightmare. What the hell do you expect me to do about it?“

Deschat saluted. “I expect you to uphold your oath, Adversary.“ She cut off the connection, but seconds later a text came through from an anonymous sender: «Saul and I will try to help, but we can't use official channels.»

Track 32

Guns ‘n Roses: “Welcome to the Jungle”

The meaning of Iris’ text message didn't become apparent until the next morning when I found Edmund Cohen devouring a hearty breakfast in the common room of the Lonely Mountain. A huge package wrapped like a birthday present rested on the table beside him. Atop it sat Dante and Virgil purr-begging as usual. The old soldier must have been a soft touch because they had him feeding them scraps of steak out of his weathered hand between mouthfuls.

“Those kittens are going to get fat if people keep giving them scraps.“ Sitting down with Eddie, I waved to Bruce behind the bar.

“I guess you've been feeding these little buggers, too.“ Eddie chuckled as Dante ate a scrap while making om-nom-nom-nom noises. “It was either feed them or have them climbing on me. I'm too damned ticklish to deal with kitten whiskers in my ears.“

That would have been a sight to see. “Whose birthday is it?“

“Actually, Nims, that's for you. It's your unbirthday.“

“My what?“ My mouth outpaced my brain, which had to dredge up bits of Lewis Carroll before Eddie's comment made the slightest bit of sense. The Alice stories had been among my favorites until I learned that their author might have had a thing for young girls. After that, they held a rather creepy undertone for me. I held up a hand and smiled as Eddie opened his mouth to explain. “It's all right. I get it now. I just haven't had my morning coffee yet.“

Whatever my unbirthday present was, it was bloody massive. Wishing the damned thing had handles, I picked up each of the kittens and gave them a hug. While they washed themselves I moved the package to another table so I could open it without disturbing Eddie. “What the hell is this thing?“

“An industrial-strength hair dryer. Saul and Iris told me you couldn't live without it.“

Saul and Iris, eh? After giving Eddie the finger, I untied the bow and let it fall to the floor for the kittens to enjoy. My removal of the gaily-colored wrapping paper revealed a second layer of sturdier brown paper, which I also ripped away.

The kittens were underfoot by the time I finished, playing in the shredded wrapping paper. Staring at a dull gray steel case, I recognized the hiragana stamped on it as the official brand of the Nakajima Armaments Company of Osaka. Cohen stood beside me as my hands hesitated on the latches. “Open it.“

The case wasn't a simple container, but more closely resembled a giant's bento box stuffed with delightful treats. One layer contained armor, which I spread across the table. Unlike the armored coats most Adversaries wore on duty, this gear made no concession to fashion at the expense of protection. Wearing this was a blatant announcement of my intention to get medieval on someone's arse.

This was the real deal, the sort of armor an Adversary might wear when standing alone against a riot. The padded carbon-fiber inner layer intended to cover my entire body from the neck down would protect me from teeth, claws, blades, and small-diameter bullets. The ceramic plates forming the outer layer would most likely keep everything short of an anti-tank round from getting through, though the blunt-force trauma would still be a bitch.

Best of all, it was black with red accents. Not that the coloring made the armor more functional, but it showed Nakajima's usual attention to every conceivable detail. The styling lent the suit an aura of elegant menace that might allow its wearer to intimidate others and win fights before they began, or prevent them altogether. I'd think twice before drawing a weapon when facing an opponent wearing this.

I tried on one of the gauntlets, admiring the intricate network of ceramic scales protecting the back of my hand and fingers. The helmet was a high-tech affair. The visor was completely opaque, but the helm used hidden cameras that interfaced with my implant to display my surroundings in real time with low-light and infrared modes. Joan of Arc and Tomoe Gozen would have loved this stuff.

Not that I told Eddie that because I wasn't sure if he had heard of either of these warrior women. Instead, I gave him a quick hug and kissed his cheek. “Thanks, Eddie. It feels like Winter Solstice.“

Eddie shrugged, but the color rising in his face suggested my gesture affected him despite his casual manner. “No worries. I owed Saul and Iris a favor. Nakajima Kaoru owed me another.“

“Nakajima Kaoru herself prepared this gear for me? Holy shit.“

That got a laugh out of Eddie. “Wait till you see the weapons.“

“Bloody hell.“ Once I cracked open the other half of the case, I understood his meaning. It contained four semiautomatic pistols, just for starters. Two was reasonable. In the heat of battle, a New York reload was sometimes faster than swapping magazines. Carrying four at once was Hong Kong gangster movie territory.

In addition to the handguns, I found a rifle. It wasn't a standard-issue Kalashnikov, but more closely resembled the sort of carbine Sheriff Robinson might have carried as an MP in the Commonwealth Army. Nakajima had equipped it with all the trimmings: an electronic scope, tactical grip, laser sight, flashlight, suppressor, and a grenade launcher. “What the hell does Nakajima expect me to do with a grenade launcher?“

Eddie shrugged. “What do you usually do with a grenade launcher? Blow shit up.“

“Ever hear of a rhetorical question?“ Yes, that was just a bit bitchy. Like I said, I hadn't had my morning coffee yet. “This is just a lot more heat than I usually pack on the job. I normally get by with my sword and a single pistol.“

“Swords?“ Now Eddie wore the smile of a man suppressing laughter at another's expense. Maybe a sword was old-fashioned compared to this pimped-out tactical carbine, but I couldn't let all this firepower seduce me. Most of the time, goddammit, a sword is enough. “There's a couple of those in there, too.“

“But I already have a perfectly good sword.“ Despite this, I put down the rifle. There were indeed two swords among the goodies arrayed before me, the paired katana and wakizashi of a samurai. These would probably prove most effective against Dusk Patrol soldiers. If the blades were sharp enough, I could lop off limbs if I put enough power into my cuts. Had Nakajima known my enemies could shrug off a thrust from my side sword?

Cohen watched with a concerned expression as I lifted the katana to feel its weight. Drawing the blade partway, I gazed entranced at the waves captured within the steel. “You could take somebody's head off with that.“

“God, I hope so.“ I sheathed the sword and put it down. “Please tell me this equipment is only a loan. There's no way I can keep all this gear. It's too valuable.“

“Actually, you can, but Nakajima doesn't expect you to. She said something about how you blush too easily.“

Though I wanted to protest, the truth was that I had blushed when Nakajima Kaoru had insisted on giving me her personal attention when buying my current sword. I had found a side sword that was almost perfect except for the balance, a flaw for which I could compensate. Her offer to hand-forge a blade to suit me instead of customizing a production model hadn't fazed me, but I had been shocked by her answer to the inevitable question of price. “No extra charge, because you're an Adversary, and I respect your cause. I think you'll understand when I tell you I hope for a long and mutually beneficial relationship.“

Even though I understood her, I couldn't hide my embarrassment. I had only recently taken my oath and was using the last of my savings to buy better gear than the standard-issue Murdoch junk. I was practically a nobody, and here was the founder of a well-respected arms manufacturer treating me like I was the demon-ridden Empress of Japan and offering to forge a sword for me with her own hands. “I do, and your generosity astounds me.“

And here was Nakajima Kaoru's astonishing generosity again. Even if she was doing it to repay a debt to Edmund Cohen, it was hard to believe I deserved this gear as a loan, let alone as a gift to keep. She did indeed respect the cause. And because I respected her, I had to return it. It wouldn't make me invincible, but it would confer power few civilians could hope to match.

Simply having this equipment available had a profound psychological effect on me. “Thanks, Eddie. If you speak to Ms. Nakajima, please convey my gratitude. I'll return this gear personally once I've completed my mission.“

Eddie gave me a cockeyed grin. “Afraid it'll go to your head?“

“I think it already has. I feel like I could march into Fort Clarion alone and round up every remaining member of Dusk Patrol. The only thing stopping me is my ignorance of the way underground.“

“Adversary Bradleigh!“ Mayor Collins’ voice was unusually strident this morning, and it pierced my eardrums.

Turning away from my borrowed arsenal, I faced the Mayor with my sweetest smile and a tone guaranteed to induce adult onset diabetes. “What seems to be the problem, Your Honor?“

“What the fuck were you doing last night? Playing with yourself?“

“That's a rather intimate question, sir, so I'll pretend it was rhetorical for your sake. To answer your first question, I reported to my superiors, listened to Charn while they performed on stage here at the Lonely Mountain, and then went to bed.“

“Well, I hope you enjoyed the show while another of my citizens died alone in the forest last night. Maybe your oath to uphold individual rights doesn't matter as much as you pretend it does!“

“The Universal Declaration of Individual Rights does not permit me to stop people from being demon-ridden idiots. Considering the number of missing tourists you've failed to report to the Phoenix Society, I should think the people of Clarion would be well aware that the woods are dangerous for lone individuals.“

Eddie shook his head at Mayor Collins’ display. “If you want to have a discussion about accountability, you'd best be sure your own record can withstand scrutiny.“

Collins rounded on Eddie, his fists raised as if he were about to deck him. I almost hoped he'd try if only to see how hard Eddie would kick his arse. “And who the fuck are you?“

“Edmund Cohen, Phoenix Society Executive Council. Any further questions, mate?“

So, Eddie was on the Executive Council. Now that I knew for sure, a thousand questions sprang to mind. Too bad Bruce Halford joined us before I could finish prioritizing them. He pointed a shotgun at Mayor Collins. “Excuse me, but why are you abusing my guests?“

Collins rounded on Bruce, heedless of the weapon aimed to blow his guts out. “Mind your own business, Halford.“

Bruce pumped the shotgun, racking a round into the chamber. “I am. Show me a warrant, buy something, or get the fuck out of my inn.“

Track 33

Frédéric Chopin: “Etude #3 In E, Op. 10/3, Tristesse”

It wasn't until after I had secured Nakajima's gear in my room and washed down a quick breakfast with a mug of black coffee that I contacted Sheriff Robinson and got his location. As tempting as it was to try on the Nakajima gear, it seemed excessive for a crime scene. Arming myself for an all-out war at this juncture would only make me look paranoid.

An Adversary's authority didn't come from her pins, or even from the organization backing her. It came from her willingness to use minimal force. Moral superiority trumped tactical advantage in all but the most desperate situations, so my side sword would have to do for now.

But only for now. The Phoenix Society wasn't paying me to be a martyr. If Renfield proved unable to get his men under control, and Dusk Patrol wanted to make a final stand, I would oblige them.

Despite my resolve to defeat Dusk Patrol, I remained hopeful that understanding them would open the way to a peaceful resolution. I was still trying to get into their heads based on what little I knew when I almost walked into a tree. Fortunately, Robinson stopped me. “Not quite awake yet, Adversary?“

“I am now.“ No doubt my embarrassment showed. “Do you have an ID on this morning's victim?“

“Clarence Foster, eighteen years old.“ Robinson led me to the body.

It had been stripped and subjected to the same treatment as Scott Wilson. Taking a pair of rubber gloves, I crouched for a closer look. Getting his legs spread was hard work, Foster having been dead long enough for rigor mortis to set in. “Same stab wound at the juncture of thigh and groin, Sheriff. Did anybody check under his fingernails?“

Deputy Colby adjusted her forensic backpack before answering. “No joy. You think he tried to fight back?“

“Unless he was prevented from doing so.“ Robinson crouched by Foster's body, measuring the space between furrows on each bite except the one on his penis.

I held my hand out for the tape measure since Robinson seemed unnecessarily squeamish about touching dead men's genitals. Colby shook her head and turned away before sending a text. «Such a tragic waste. This young man had so much to offer.»

I ignored Colby's crude attempt at gallows humor. The depth of the bites bothered me, and I regretted not checking the depth of Wilson's bites. Did Project Harker alter its subjects’ teeth? There was no way a CPMD+ individual with humanizing dental work like mine could inflict these wounds. “Twenty-five millimeters wide and fifteen deep. I think we're looking at bites from a single perp this time, with canines much longer than my own.“

“I'll be sure to relay that to the Mayor.“ Robinson opened up a body bag and shook it out, getting it ready for Foster. He gave me a pointed look. “He still thinks you're our best bet for a suspect.“

Shrugging, I returned the tape measure. “And I still think Collins is a schmuck.“ At least he hadn't resorted to rounding up every resident with CPMD. Not that I'd be the first to voice such thoughts. Somebody might mistake it for a good idea. “Given the attack that I fought off and Scott Wilson's murder soon after, the facts suggest our most likely suspects are under Fort Clarion.“

Pointing at the body, I brought everybody's attention back to the matter before us. “How did the perps manage to overpower Foster without him sustaining any defensive wounds, or getting some of their tissue under his fingernails?“

Robinson shrugged, but Colby seemed to honestly consider the question. “Maybe they knocked him out first. The simplest way would be a blow to the head, especially if you intend to kill the guy anyway. I haven't seen any sign of a concussion so far.“

Her meaning was pretty obvious, so I grabbed Foster's ankles. “Right. Let's get him turned over.“

Taking the dead youth's shoulders, Colby helped me roll the corpse over. Lividity had well and truly set in, and with all his blood pooling in tissue that had until now been closest to the ground, I suspected it would prove difficult to determine why Foster hadn't been able to resist his attackers. While we'd be better off getting him to a lab, I wanted to try ruling out the obvious first.

Starting with his head, I slowly worked my fingers through his hair, feeling along his scalp for bumps or cuts indicative of a head injury. As Deputy Colby had said, the easiest way to knock somebody out if you didn't care whether they ever regained consciousness was to hit them upside the head. It wasn't long before I found an injury site.

Moving Foster's hair aside, I found a strange wound. It contained several depressions arranged in a small circle as if somebody had stamped this man's head with sufficient force to cause injury. Confused, I turned Foster's head to show Robinson and Colby. “I've never seen a wound like this. Have either of you?“

Colby shrugged. “Did somebody hit this guy upside the head with a meat tenderizer?“

“No.“ Dismay and anger warred in Robinson's expression as he leaned in to examine the wound for himself. “Meat tenderizers tend to be rectangular. This is an arrow wound.“

An arrow wound? But there's no penetration. “Did the archer use a blunt arrow?“

Robinson nodded. “I know this mark. It's made by a specific brand of arrowhead designed to stun or kill small game without penetration.“

The arrow must have come from his missing hunting gear, which raised other questions. “Are you sure this isn't an attempt to frame you, Sheriff? Someone used your camera to photograph me, and now they've used one of your arrows to knock this poor bastard out.“

He actually glared at me for a second, as if I had accused him outright. “I don't like the idea, Adversary, but you're right. It's a possibility I ought to consider.“

For the second time I was struck by the unsettling idea that these murders might not be connected with my investigation at Fort Clarion. The theft's timing simply didn't fit. “What if this killing isn't about my investigation at all? Maybe the perp had already planned to whack Foster and Wilson.“

Rather than dismiss me, Robinson narrowed his eyes and began to pace. “That would leave us without a motive, Adversary. If we assume these killings are tied to Fort Clarion, we have a suspect pool. We can investigate Dr. Petersen and his associates, or go after the Dusk Patrol survivors. Take that away, and we're stuck starting from zero.“

“We might lack a motive, but we've no lack of suspects. We must not overlook the physical evidence pointing to Dusk Patrol. Given that you go bow-hunting with Dr. Petersen and Mayor Collins, they might also be involved.“

“You're not suggesting we check Wilson's head, are you?“ Colby stared aghast at me. “We'd have to exhume him. His parents will shit themselves.“

This was an open murder investigation, and Robinson already released Wilson's body to his family? Though I wanted to upbraid the Sheriff for acting so precipitously, doing so wouldn't help me solve these murders. “Unless you think his parents will object on religious grounds, I don't see the problem.“

Robinson shook his head. “Goddammit, Adversary, what other grounds would they base an objection on? Hell, I'll be lucky if the magistrate doesn't tell me to go fuck myself. They go to the same church.“

All right, that complicated matters. “Does it have to be a local judge signing the warrant?“

“I suppose I could go to Pittsburgh, but the Wilsons would still have the right to contest the order with Judge Ellsworth. We need to appeal to a higher authority.“ Judging from the looks Robinson and Colby aimed at me, that meant going to the Phoenix Society.

Which in turn meant a metric shitload of work for me, since getting a warrant that would trump any objections the Wilsons were likely to raise would demand that I prove that the exhumation of Scott Wilson served a compelling public interest overriding his parents’ rights to the free exercise of their religious beliefs.

It took me four hours of the sort of creative thinking I haven't had to exercise since ACS, but I wrangled an exhumation order from the Phoenix Society. It seemed they were happy to use me to investigate murders and the like while I was in the area as long as I didn't mention Project Harker. That's fine by me; I'd already accepted that I was on my own if I wanted to figure out what sort of shenanigans the Commonwealth Army got up to at the expense of its soldiers.

Unfortunately, Wilson's parents were there when we arrived at his grave to exhume him. Sheriff Robinson glanced at the grieving parents before raising his arm to stop me. “Is there any chance you can let me talk to them?“

It took a second to check the regs. They contained nothing forbidding me from taking advantage of local assistance as long as I remained in command. “Go ahead, but I must serve the warrant.“

The deputies seemed grateful to hang back as Robinson led me to the grieving parents as they prayed over their son's grave. He waited until they appeared to have finished the latest round. “Mr. and Mrs. Wilson?“

They rose, startled despite the Sheriff's gentle tone. They could have been my parents’ age, though grief had clearly aged them. Mrs. Wilson looked my way before speaking. “Is something wrong, Sheriff?“

The Sheriff took a deep breath. “Sorry to interrupt. The Adversary beside me has a warrant.“

Mrs. Wilson nodded. “We'd be happy to answer any questions you might have.“ She turned to me. “What's your name, Adversary?“

“Naomi Bradleigh, ma'am.“ I offered my hand, and she took it. “Sheriff Robinson, if you would?“

Robinson sighed. “Ma'am, we're not here to question you or Mr. Wilson. We found a wound on a second victim that we suspect may also have been inflicted on your son. It's an injury that went unnoticed during the autopsy.“

That still bothered me. Could Petersen have been incompetent enough to miss the arrow wound on Scott Wilson's head? Considering the skill with which he had cared for me, that didn't seem likely. Therefore, Petersen was probably hiding something, but we wouldn't know for sure unless the Wilsons consented to an exhumation.

Mr. Wilson's eyes flashed at the mention of Wilson's autopsy, and he began muttering. Though I had agreed to let Sheriff Robinson do the talking, I felt duty-bound to draw the father out. “Sir, can you please speak up? Is something bothering you?“

“'Twas not right, cutting open our boy after he was dead. It ain't God's will.“

God talk already? That was fast. Quicker than I'd like. This can't possibly end well.

Track 34

Mercyful Fate: “Desecration of Souls”

“Was it God's will that your son died so young, or in so cruel a manner?“ Taking Mr. Wilson's hand, I gazed into his streaming eyes. “I wouldn't presume to know what He wants, but I promise we will handle his body with all due respect, and return him to the earth as soon as possible. Help me stop your son's murderers before they steal more lives.“

Mrs. Wilson took her husband's hand from mine. “Adversary, I know they said he had been stabbed, but I helped wash and dress our son for the funeral. I saw what was done to him. Surely the bites were what killed him?“

Rather than explain the stab wound, I let Mrs. Wilson believe what she wanted to about the bites. “I'm sorry, but I'm curious about an injury your son may have sustained before he was finally killed. You see, the latest victim was shot with a blunt arrow to knock him out…” My voice failed me before I could say before his killers fed on him. Though she saw the evidence, the words wouldn't come. “Scott might not have suffered at the end.“

The parents had shared a long look before Mrs. Wilson turned back to me. “Will you pray for my boy when you bury him again, Adversary Bradleigh?“

“I'm -“ My breath caught in my throat. How the hell do you tell a grieving mother who has asked you to pray for her boy that you don't share her faith?

It was Sheriff Robinson who saved me. “We'll pray for you, Mrs. Wilson. Adversary Bradleigh wants to see justice done, but she isn't from around here and wouldn't understand.“

It took a couple of hours to set up a tent so that neither the Wilsons nor the public would have to see what we did. A judge arrived soon after, and checked my exhumation order before fading into the background. The reek of embalming fluid and decay gasses assaulted us as we opened the casket, and I was grateful we were outdoors. It was hard to refrain from remarking on how odd it was for Scott Wilson's parents to object to an autopsy and exhumation, but not to letting the local undertaker exercise their craft to stave off the natural processes of decay for as long as possible. None of that for me. Just give me back to the earth and plant an apple tree over my grave.

Shaking off such morbid thoughts, I helped the deputies lift Wilson partway out of the casket so I could do a cranial examination. Robinson oversaw my efforts, and Colby took careful notes since we had not invited Dr. Petersen to join us. Working by touch, I palpated every square centimeter of his scalp. If there was nothing there, we could just slip him back into his casket, close it up, and bury him again. Then I could withdraw and bow my head respectfully while Sheriff Robinson and his deputies prayed with the Wilsons.

No such luck. My fingers brushed against something that felt like stitches, and I looked up at Sheriff Robinson. “Found something. Can you lift him up so I can get a better look?“

Robinson nodded, and Deputy Colby helped him. Parting Wilson's thick hair, I tried not to make a fuss when a clump came loose in my hand. Instead, I put the hair in his casket as discreetly as I could. Fortunately, somebody thought to escort the parents to a squad car before we opened the coffin. If we could wrap this up and get the casket closed again before they came back, they wouldn't need to know the undertaker had cut corners while covering up the wound.

Stitches formed a semicircle around the mark imprinted in Scott Wilson's scalp as if the arrow had struck hard enough to shatter the bone underneath and tear open the skin. Against my better judgment, I pressed the impact wound. The flesh yielded with a small but sickening squelch, and some noisome substance leaked from between the stitches.

Taking a step back and turning from the body, I took deep breaths until my nausea subsided. When I felt I could speak without dry-heaving, I turned to Sheriff Robinson. “He has the same blunt arrow imprint, but I think he was shot with greater force than Clarence Foster. The perp might have been closer to Wilson when loosing his arrow.“

Robinson nodded and waved to the deputies. They began the unpleasant task of documenting the wound before getting Scott Wilson back into his casket. “So, we have the same method for two murders. Nail the victim with a small game arrow to knock him out. Then strip him and inflict multiple bites, as if feeding, or to simulate a vampire attack. Finally, finish the kill with a knife to the femoral at the juncture between thigh and groin.“

“We still don't have a motive. Worse, we don't know what ties these murders together besides MO. What did these kids do to piss off Dusk Patrol, or whoever's pulling their strings?“ The deputies closed the casket, lifted it up, and held it while Robinson and I set up the lowering device. Once we were done, and the deputies had placed the casket, I put my hand on the crank and began to turn it.

Robinson put his hand atop mine. “You don't have to do this.“

“I may not be comfortable praying with the Wilsons, but it was my idea to dig him up. I owe it to them to help give him back in the earth.“ Robinson lifted his hand, and I lowered Wilson's casket back into its grave. When it was done and the deputies began filling the grave back in, I picked up a shovel and joined in. While we could have paid the cemetery's ground crew to do this for us, we shared an unspoken understanding that we owed it to the Wilsons to do this ourselves. We dug up their son, and we would bury him again. Afterward, I stepped back and bowed my head as the others knelt to pray.

The sun had begun setting when the others finished their prayers. The first stars had come out, so I sped a prayer of my own skyward. Hopefully, God would remember Scott Wilson, because his life shouldn't have ended like this.

Robinson found me after everybody else had left the graveyard. “I didn't think you'd stay.“

“It would have been disrespectful to leave.“ More stars were visible now, and the western sky was ablaze, but I still had work to do. “Got any ideas for what to do next?“

Robinson didn't answer immediately. “The only bow hunters I know are Dr. Petersen and Mayor Collins. But they have no reason to steal my gear since they have their own. Even if we found an arrow on the scene, we couldn't prove ownership. The brand is too widely used, and we don't usually mark our arrows. You wouldn't believe how many arrows I've lost in these woods over the years.“

“Regardless, the stitches in Wilson's scalp suggest that Petersen was aware of the wound. An undertaker willing to do a half-assed job of covering damage like that wouldn't bother suturing it with such precision. Yet he never mentioned it in the autopsy report. I think it's time we questioned him.“

Robinson grew pensive in the quiet evenfall. “Can you do me a favor? I'd like to talk to Henrik and Brian as friends, and see if they know anything.“

It wasn't a terrible idea. They weren't stupid. If Sheriff Robinson confronted them in his official capacity, the only thing he'd get out of either of them was a refusal to answer questions without their attorney present. They'd certainly clam up if I showed. “So, you need me to find something else to do so my presence doesn't tip them off?“

“Is there some way I can consent in advance to you viewing my Witness Protocol feed?“

Good question. “Let me check with Malkuth.“

«Don't bother.» Malkuth must have been monitoring my feed. Was he bored, did he watch every Adversary in the field, or did somebody put him up to it? Saul, perhaps? «I already spoke with Robinson. He's pretty smart for a cop.»

«Should I tell him you said so?»

«Only if you want him getting arrogant.» With that, he disconnected. I turned my attention back to Robinson. “Malkuth says he contacted you.“

“He did. He also said I'd better not try to fuck with you because he had root on something called Gungnir. Ring any bells?“

A cathedral's worth, as a matter of fact. “AIs get better at social interaction with practice, so I hope Malkuth's joking. I guess information about Commonwealth military orbital weapons platforms was a bit above your pay grade.“

“Just a bit.“ Robinson's tone hadn't changed, but he seemed a bit paler than usual.

Giving him a moment to chew on the consequences of backstabbing me, I checked in on Malkuth. I really can't have him threatening people with global thermonuclear war for my sake. «Mal, are you listening?»

«Always.»

He'd better not be serious about the ‘always.‘ That would just be creepy. «Please refrain from threatening my coworkers with orbital bombardment on my behalf in the future. We're supposed to avoid collateral damage.»

«Aww, c'mon. You never let me have any fun.»

«Consider it payback for keeping me in the dark about Project Harker.»

Since Robinson didn't need me tagging along, I decided to do a bit of intelligence gathering of my own. After today's work I needed a drink or three, so I looked up Kaylee in the town directory and texted her. «Kaylee, want to meet at the Lonely Mountain tonight? Beer's on me.»

I sent Michael Brubaker the same message. Maybe my new friends could offer a different angle on the situation. Since Kaylee seems to know the town, and Michael the woods, I figured I might get some answers out of them if I asked the right questions. “I'm going to emulate your example and talk to some people over drinks. I'll catch up with you later.“

I waited until Robinson was out of sight before heading over to a row of rose bushes and drawing my sword. They had managed one last autumn bloom, which I cut and placed on Scott Wilson's grave. With my respects paid, I too left the graveyard for happier environs.

Quickening my pace, I jogged along the path until I caught up with Robinson. “I thought I'd walk back to town with you. We should probably advise the citizens not to venture out alone after dark. And if they value their lives they'll bloody well stay out of the woods.“

“Already thought of that. Mayor Collins wasn't too keen on the idea, though. Said I was stirring up paranoia.“ Robinson shrugged. “I just asked him if he wanted more people to die, and put out the advisory anyway.“

“Glad to hear it.“ No doubt the Mayor was miffed, but was just covering his own arse. I was about to say so when I heard a creaking sound that felt out-of-place. “Down!“

Track 35

Motörhead: “Shoot You in the Back”

Sheriff Robinson was too slow to heed my warning, so I tackled him. A sickening crack accompanied us as we sprawled across the graveyard path, my body draped over his to shield him. An arrow thudded into the ground less than a meter away from his head, and rapid footsteps receded into the distance.

Lifting myself from Robinson, I helped him turn over once I realized he was in too much pain to get to his feet right away. It wasn't long before I found out why he was hurt. “Oh, shit. Did I just break your arm?“

Robinson gritted his teeth as I pulled him to his feet by his good arm. “Probably my fault. Should've hit the deck when you yelled.“ He spoke again when I crouched to retrieve the arrow. “Leave that alone.“

He was right. It was evidence. Dammit. “All right, but we need to get your arm immobilized, and then get you to the doctor.“

Robinson shook his head as an ambulance's siren began wailing. “I've already called for help.“ He gave a forced smile. “I appreciate it, though. Is there anything you Adversaries don't get training for?“

“If you believe the scuttlebutt, we even get training in lovemaking. It probably helps Adversaries maintain intimate relationships.“

The ambulance arrived moments later. A paramedic cut away the sleeves of Robinson's jacket and shirt before using a prepackaged kit to do a better job of tending the Sheriff's arm than I could have managed.

The police arrived as the EMT finished. One of them took the arrow into evidence. Another arrested me after I admitted that the Sheriff broke his arm after I tackled him to the ground. Me and my big mouth.

To my surprise, the police didn't disarm me or book me on criminal charges. They just stuck me in a cell. One of them even offered to get me dinner, but I turned the deputy down with an innocent smile. “How about an attorney instead?“

I never got my lawyer. Sheriff Robinson showed up a couple of hours later with his arm in a sling. I didn't bother sitting up as he opened the cell and walked in. “Want me to sign your cast, Sheriff?“

“Not that kind of cast, Adversary. Did my deputies get you dinner?“

“Deputy Rosen offered, but I declined.“

“Right. You probably thought you were under arrest.“ His expression turned sheepish. “I'm sorry about that, Adversary. I wanted to make sure you weren't out where the perp could take another shot at you, but I figured you wouldn't listen. So I had my deputies detain you.“

That explained why the deputies refrained from charging or disarming me. Though I resented Robinson's paternalism, I'd have been a right stupid git to have gone running half-cocked into the forest after an unknown armed assailant. Better embarrassed than dead. “You were probably right to do so. Am I free to go?“

He shrugged, and pointed at the open door. “Yeah, but can you do me a favor?“

Let me guess. Robinson wanted me to stay out of the demon-ridden woods. Good thing I already had plans for the night. “I was supposed to meet Kaylee and Michael at The Lonely Mountain. If it's not too late, I wanted to see about getting some info out of them.“

The Sheriff relaxed. “Good. I was going to ask you to refrain from trying to find our assailant alone.“

Getting ambushed once this vacation was more than enough. With a shrug, I allayed Robinson's concerns. “The trail's a bit cold for that now. Besides, I've no desire to chase shadows through the woods at night. Especially if said shadows can see in the dark, call in reinforcements, and know the terrain better than I do.“

He followed me out of the cell. “No hard feelings, right, Adversary? You understand why I had you detained.“

Not that I felt particularly understanding. “You wasted valuable time, in which I might have gathered intelligence. Also, what if one of your deputies is the perp, or working with them?“

That got his attention. Riled him up some, too. “How dare you suggest my deputies aren't trustworthy, Adversary?“

“Somebody tried to incapacitate one of us today. Unless Dusk Patrol had a little bird in the woods listening to us, then your deputies were the only ones other than the Wilsons who knew where we were.“

“Adversary, I trust these kids. For Christ's sake, they all have keys to my house.“

“Keys one of them could have used to steal your hunting gear. Did you question all of them in connection with the burglary?“

“No.“ Robinson wouldn't look at me as he said it. His tone faded from indignant to sullen. “My mother has Alzheimer's, and she sometimes goes walkabout. Unfortunately, her disease was too far advanced to be cured by the time a cure became available. In addition to my deputies, I've got a dozen friends around town with keys so they can bring her home if they find her alone at night. Two of them are Kaylee Chambers and the Brubaker kid. You plan to add your friends to the suspect list, or just mine?“

“Thanks for telling me.“ Now that I knew Kaylee Chambers and Michael Brubaker were sufficiently close to the Sheriff to have keys to his house, I would have to check them out a bit more thoroughly. How well did they know each other? Michael seems like a solid kid, but Kaylee struck me as too fun-loving to be friends with an old cop. She was probably reliable, but would he take her seriously? “Could one your friends have lost their key, or had it stolen?“

Robinson shrugged. “Not likely. My house uses two-factor authentication. You need a physical key and a numeric passcode.“

You could have plotted my hopes as a sine wave as they fell, rose, and fell again. Two-factor authentication would have made a lost or stolen key useless, but a numeric passcode wasn't hard to crack, especially if it only had a few digits. “Do I even want to know what the passcode is?“

“One. Two. Three. Four. Five.“

Was he serious? Nobody with half a brain would use that on their bloody luggage, let alone their home security. Then again, that might be the only numeric passcode somebody with Alzheimer's could have a halfway decent chance of recalling. “Is your mother able to remember that?“

“No.“ Robinson shook his head. “It's more for the people I enlisted to help keep an eye on her. If they see her sitting on the porch, they can let her in.“

“So, if the keys weren't lost or stolen by somebody who isn't averse to trying to crack a passcode, we have twelve people aside from your deputies who need only wait for your mother to give them the perfect pretext for gaining access.“

I was pleased with my hypothesis since it fit the facts and gave us a limited pool of suspects we could rule out with a few simple questions. Naturally, Robinson had to screw it all up. “But nobody has had to let my mother into the house in the last couple of months.“

“Does anybody check on your mother during the day? Would one of your friends drop by when you're not home? Have you had anybody come in to do repairs, like an electrician, a plumber, or a network or appliance tech?“

Robinson shook his head. “No. Hell, Adversary, I don't even get pizza delivered.“

And Mayor Collins called me paranoid? “All right, then. Who's your mother's doctor?“

He stared at me as if my brains were made of yogurt. “Dr. Petersen. Who did you think it would be?“

If he thought my last question was bonehead obvious, let's see how he liked this one. “Petersen makes house calls for some patients. Is your mother one of them?“

“Come on, Adversary. Are you saying you think Petersen came to give my ma a checkup and made off with my bow, arrows, and camera? You think he just walked past her with that stuff and out the front door?“

It did sound like a stretch when expressed that way, but it wasn't impossible. “It depends on how sharp your mother was at the time. Also, you've got a back door, right?“

Robinson nodded. “You think Petersen had an accomplice?“

“It's possible, but not necessary. Depending on where your mother was and how the house is laid out, he might have placed the stolen property just outside the back door, finished his business, walked out the front door, and snuck around back to collect the loot. All he'd needed was a pretext for going elsewhere in the house. A bathroom break would do, wouldn't it?“

“Yeah.“ Robinson ground out the word as if my question had struck closer to home than he'd like. “I'll ask my mother if she remembers anything before I request a warrant to search Petersen's residence and workplace. I'd invite you along, but she thinks I'm still an MP working at Fort Clarion. If you were there, she'd mistake you for my newest girlfriend.“

It wasn't the cold gust that made me shiver. Meeting men's mothers was one of the worst aspects of dating CPMD- men. They almost always wound up bemoaning my inability to provide them with grandchildren, as if that were my sole purpose in life. It was bloody infuriating, and I wouldn't begrudge Robinson sparing me another such experience. “I appreciate it. In the meantime, I'll be at The Lonely Mountain. Michael should be all right, if a bit bored, but I hope Kaylee isn't already too drunk to answer a few questions.“

Track 36

Miles Davis: “Pharaoh's Dance”

Kaylee raised a full glass in greeting as I wove through the mass of patrons who had taken advantage of the fact that tonight's musical entertainment was a jazz combo by pairing off and dancing. Her beer overflowed as she waved the glass and doused Michael, who had been nursing his own drink while angrily tapping on a tablet. He muttered something that sounded like, “Goddammit, Kaylee. Sit down.“

She must not have heard him, because she only waved more enthusiastically. “Hey, Naomi! What took you so long?“

“Sheriff Robinson detained me.“

“Oh yeah?“ Kaylee thumped her pint down on the table, splashing what remained. “Whafuck? This was full a second ago.“

“Yeah, and now I'm wearing it.“ Mike ran his hand through his wet hair. “You can have mine. I already smell like a brewery.“ He pushed his tablet across the table to me before rising. “Can you keep an eye on this, Adversary?“

“Of course. Will you be back?“

He shrugged. “I'm just ducking into the men's room to clean up.“

Kaylee leaned toward me as Mike circumnavigated the dancers. “Have you seen the body on that kid? You really should get yourself a piece of that before you leave.“

“I can't if I'm going to recommend him when he applies to become an Adversary. Maybe if I were recruiting for Xanadu House.“

“I bet you've never even been to a Xanadu House. At least, not as a customer. You're too prim and proper.“

Me, prim and proper? Try telling that to Christopher Renfield. “You got me. I was investigating allegations of wage theft.“

“Always on the job, eh?“ Kaylee tried Brubaker's unwanted beer and grimaced at the taste. “What the hell is this? Demon's piss?“

“Not your usual, eh?“ Though I was tempted to wake up Michael's tablet and poke around, it wasn't mine. I certainly didn't have probable cause, let alone a warrant. “Did you know Scott Wilson or Clarence Foster?“

“Scott and Charlie?“ She wasn't quite slurring her words, but it was close. “Yeah, I knew those boys. They were good kids. You would've liked ‘em.“

“Dare I ask how well you knew them?“ Considering Kaylee was happy to brag about Mike's prowess, I half-expected her to count the victims among her conquests.

“Nothing sordid, I promise. Scott and Charlie often joined my weekly Catacombs & Chimeras campaign sessions. And… I think they were lovers, but they were discreet about it. You don't think that was why they were killed, do you?“

Though I made a note to check for anti-queer sentiment among the locals, I didn't think it likely. Not when I saw queer couples slow-dancing and letting their hands wander with the same disregard as straight couples. If hate-motivated violence were prevalent here, they'd probably be more circumspect. Besides, why would their sexuality have made them more likely to catch Dusk Patrol's attention? “It's too early to tell what motivated the killers. We're still identifying suspects. Anything you or Mike could tell me would help.“

“Mike could tell you more. They were friends. Them and some other guys, including Ernest Yoder.“ There was a Yoder among the youth volunteers who followed me to Fort Clarion, but I didn't think his name was Ernest. Rather than mention it, I let Kaylee continue. “He's a couple years older than the others and lives alone on the edge of town. He's kinda reclusive, and I don't think anybody's seen him since the day you arrived.“

I took a deep breath. “Yoder's missing?“

Kaylee shrugged and glanced around as if she wanted to be sure nobody was eavesdropping. She leaned forward until her lips all but brushed my ear. Nauseated by the smell of beer, I messaged Halford for a pot of coffee. “I doubt anybody knows for sure. Here's the thing, Naomi. His parents died when he was ten, after which he bounced from one foster family in town to another like a hot potato until he was eighteen. Mr. Yoder was a wife-beater, and he went too far. I was part of the militia unit that backed up the deputy sent to arrest him because of Yoder's gun collection, but we got there too late. Ernest's been pretty much on his own ever since.“

“At least you were able to save him. Did his father murder Mrs. Yoder?“

Her expression had become grim as she recounted the story. “We thought Mr. Yoder had. She looked beaten to death when we got to their barn, but when he hit Ernest, she got up. If it weren't so damn miraculous, you would have thought she was a zombie from the damage he had done to her.“

“What happened next?“ It was still unclear what bearing this story had on Ernest Yoder's apparent disappearance the day of my arrival in town, but now I was curious.

Kaylee tried Brubaker's warm beer again, but it had not improved in her estimation. “We figured she'd try to shield her son with her body, but she didn't.“

“Did she attack her husband?“

“Attack him?“ Kaylee shook her head as if my words were a woefully inadequate guess at what happened next. “This ain't no shit, Naomi. She took a ten-kilo sledgehammer, screamed like some kind of samurai banshee, and pulped his fucking head with one strike.“

Oh, come on. You don't see such feats happen in real life. Hell, it's rare enough to see them in fiction that isn't outright fantasy. Though I wanted to dismiss Kaylee's anecdote, the implication that she served in the militia and her usage of the phrase this ain't no shit gave me pause. When an Adversary says that, it's tantamount to an oath sworn by the river Styx. It's practically sacred. “One blow. She killed him with one blow, in her condition?“

“I saw it with my own eyes. It's recorded. It fuckin’ happened. Mrs. Yoder dropped her husband with one swing and then kept whaling on the son of a bitch until she dropped dead. Dr. Peterson said she might have lived if she had stayed down, but seeing Mr. Yoder hit Ernest must have triggered some kind of berserker rage. We used a hose to get what was left of him out of the floor.“

“Poor kid. I suppose Ernest's fucked in the head.“ It was a horrible thing for me to say, but I couldn't stop myself.

“No shit.“ Kaylee drank half the vile brew before her with a grimace.

I took the glass from her. “Tell me what happened to Ernest Yoder.“

“We managed to shield him from the sight of his mother pounding on the old man, but the whole town heard her screaming. I think he's been to a hundred different psychotherapists, and none of them could help him.“ She stopped as Halford came by with mugs and a fresh pot of coffee. “Thanks, Bruce.“

“You're welcome, but don't bogart the pot. Save some for Adversary Bradleigh.“ He winked at me before returning to the bar.

Instead of continuing her story, Kaylee nursed her coffee. It wasn't until she had finished the cup before she spoke again. “Ernest is afraid of women, which is why none of the families in town kept him for long. He's afraid all women have the hidden capacity for violence that his mother displayed in his defense. And he's afraid of himself, that he's just like his father. So he lives alone, only comes out at night, and then only rarely.“

Now I get why nobody worried overmuch about Ernest Yoder. He's the town hermit, the reclusive loner who spends most of his life holed up in his home. “Hasn't anybody thought to check up on him?“

“I've wanted to, but I haven't been able to persuade Sheriff Robinson that it was worthwhile to get an entry warrant. After all, he's an adult, and he's done this before.“ Kaylee shrugged and flashed a wistful smile. “When the last True Goddess Metempsychosis game came out, he picked up his copy after hours. I didn't see him again for three months.“

“That doesn't necessarily prove anything. Did Yoder have an active social life on the network?

“Other than the town bulletin board?“ Kaylee shrugged. “I don't frequent it myself. Cat's husband runs it; he's the town guru.“

That sounded about right since he claimed to have worked on HermitCrab. “Then I might have to consult him. Should probably mention Yoder to Robinson, too. He might know more.“

But before I spoke with Cat's husband, I should check up on Brubaker. Where the hell is he? Does the men's room have a queue? I got up after finishing my coffee, determined to find him.

“You're going?“ Kaylee swayed as she stood, which worried me. She was definitely drunker than I had realized. “Oh, man. Those three shots of whiskey were definitely a mistake.“

God, she was as bad as Jacqueline. “I was going to check on Mike, but maybe we should call it a night. Can you get home?“

“Um… maybe?“

Pocketing Mike's tablet, I kept an eye on Kaylee as she started to weave through the crowd. She stumbled into an attractive young man, giving him her card and stealing a kiss in between giggled apologies. She was as incorrigible as Jacqueline. Smiling at her conquest, I steered her away. “Come on, you. You're coming upstairs with me.“

“But I'm not into girls.“

She was definitely as bad as Jacqueline. I should introduce them. They could go on pub crawls together, and I could stay home and practice my piano until they called for evac. “Neither am I. But you can have a nap while I poke around the town BBS.“

Once I got Kaylee settled, I poured myself a mug of coffee from a pot Bruce thoughtfully sent up to my room and fired up HermitCrab. Once I was on the network, I found Clarion's town forum and browsed the topic list. Nothing stood out, so I tried searching for ‘Fort Clarion.‘ I found a couple of threads with a fair amount of chatter, but they were too recent.

A search on ‘Ernest Yoder’ didn't turn up anything useful. The town forum was a virtual bathroom wall where nobody had anything good to say about anybody else, but at least the Mayor's smear campaign against me was entertaining. Whoever did PR for Mayor Collins deserved a nice fat raise for making that clown into a martyr facing crucifixion by the high-handed Phoenix Society and their sluttish agent, yours truly.

The threads concerning the recent deaths and disappearances buzzed with amusing conspiracies. One commenter suggested the victims had been lured into the woods to be sacrificed at the climax of a Black Mass conducted at a ruined church that somehow hadn't been razed during Nationfall. Another blamed a group of forest-dwelling homosexual vampires with a virgin fetish. The latter was just a bit too close to my own suspicions until it degenerated into slash fic.

It was impossible for me to refrain from saving copies of the pornographic fanfics featuring me as some kind of vampire dominatrix. Each proved more devoid of literary merit than the last, but Jacqueline and I could read them aloud for a laugh while drinking to excess.

If this forum had any useful evidence, I wouldn't find it by using the standard interface. I opened HermitCrab's relational database query tool, pointed it at the forum's location, and aimed it at the default TCP ports for database servers. It found one and automatically set about cracking the admin password.

The connection cut out, and my laptop crashed. After restarting the machine and logging back in, an incoming mail notification popped up with a subject line consisting of two words: “Bad Kitty.“ It was a message from the town sysadmin, and contained a selfie of him raising his middle finger edited into a meme that read, “Warrant or GTFO.“

So, Cat's hubby wanted me to get a warrant? He'd better be careful what he wished for because he might just get it. Since Kaylee was hogging the bed, I settled in to start the paperwork.

Track 37

Megadeth: “Wake Up Dead”

I had to shove Kaylee aside to get into bed. She was still there in the morning, snoring softly. Once I had finished dressing, I tried giving Kaylee a poke to wake her.

She curled up in a fetal position, hugging her pillow close, and snarled sloppily. “Fuggoff.“

“It's eight-thirty in the morning. I have to get moving. Shouldn't you be opening your shop?“

Her reply was less intelligible, but I managed. Rescuing Jacqueline from the aftermaths of several pub crawls whose grotesque excess became the stuff of locker room legends gave me plenty of experience in interpreting Drunklish. “You fuggin’ nush? Ish Shundy. Fuggoff arreddy.“

“Fine, but I'd better not come back and find you dead because you choked on your own puke. You hear?“ Trust me; that was the last thing I needed.

“Yeah yeah yeah. Fuggoff an’ lemme shleep.“

Before I buggered off, I stopped at the bar for a quick word with Halford. “Dick, Kaylee is sleeping it off in my room. Can you please check on her later?“

“Sure. Think Ms. Chambers might like some breakfast?“

Never mind Kaylee, I wanted breakfast. “No rush, but I suggest taking up some coffee and aspirin when you get a moment. Any chance of getting my usual?“

Dick already had a plate prepared. Talk about service. “Here you go, Adversary. Pick a table, and I'll bring your coffee.“

I took my time eating. It was Sunday, after all, and I doubted Ernest Yoder was likely to go anywhere, whether he was still holed up at home or had in fact disappeared. Hopefully, he hadn't suffered a similar fate to Scott Wilson or Clarence Foster.

In any case, there was a thing or two I had to get my hands on before tackling that particular mystery, or confronting Matt Tricklebank, Cat's Unix-guru husband. Opening a secure talk session with Malkuth, I sent him an IP address. «Malkuth, I need a warrant authorizing me to search the machine at this IP.»

«Can't you just use HermitCrab to penetrate it?»

«The sysadmin is one of the HermitCrab developers. He detected my penetration attempt and clamped down.»

«You should have bought him a few drinks first to loosen him up. Maybe light some candles and put on some soft music. Gotta set the mood, you know?»

Oh, great. Now Malkuth was cracking jokes about buggery. Where did he get this shit? Jacqueline, I suppose. She's a pernicious influence. «Malkuth, please at least try to pretend to take this seriously. It's possible we have a third victim, Ernest Yoder. It is also possible that he may have been the first to die. Nobody bothered to look into it sooner because of his reputation for reclusiveness.»

«And you figure he's more sociable on the network than in person? He isn't there. Neither are Wilson, Foster, Brubaker, or your new girlfriend.»

My new what? «How do you know they aren't there? Did you access the forum's database?»

«I don't get paid enough for that shit. I just crawled the forum's pages and pulled the user list and everybody's profiles. User IDs are in the standard format: first initial and last name. There aren't any with the more fanciful handles you'd expect on boards frequented by unsupervised young people. In fact, nobody under thirty uses this BBS.»

«Even though it's supposed to be open to everybody living in Clarion?»

«Would you frequent the same forums as your parents if you were a kid?»

«Hell, no.» If they didn't want to use an existing net community like Phark or 32chan, would they have gotten Cat's husband to set up something private for them?

Network forums were usually served over hypertext transfer protocol, which is sent over port 80 by default. The official forum for ACS cadets was no different, but the sysadmin running the forum also ran a separate, unmonitored server on one of the high-numbered ports allocated for custom and ephemeral connections.

It was like one of those fight clubs mentioned in urban legends. Nobody talked about it, but if you were smart enough to run a port scan and find it on your own, you were welcome. «Malkuth, can you run a port scan on that server and see if there's another HTTP daemon listening on a non-standard port?»

«Found one. Want me to crawl it?»

«No. Do I have sufficient probable cause for a warrant giving me authority to examine that forum with administrative privileges along with the underlying server and filesystem?»

«No dice, Nims, but I can get you an entry order for Ernest Yoder's digs.» True to his word, the access code for my warrant came through. If I wanted, I could print it myself. Otherwise, I'd just give the code to the property owner and let them download it themselves. «Anything else I can do for you?»

«I know better than to answer that. Thanks, Mal.» As a courtesy to Sheriff Robinson, I sent the code for my warrant to his office along with a quick note. He had a right to know I meant to kick down Yoder's door and poke around.

Most of the shops were closed, and the streets were empty; I suppose most of the townspeople were in one of the half dozen or so churches lining Main Street. The doors to the closest church opened, indicating the end of services. The pastor milled through her flock giving a final blessing before they returned to their secular lives. She sighted me and pressed a booklet into my hands. “Good morning, young lady. May God bless you on this beautiful day, and guide you back to us next Sunday for Mass.“

Keeping my objections to myself, I smiled at the grandmotherly pastor and checked out the booklet. A church that handed out Jefferson Bibles would most likely go easy on the hellfire and brimstone. “Thank you for inviting me, Reverend. I'll consider it.“

Since she was holding an offering plate, and the church looked like it could use a fresh coat of paint, I found a crumpled five-milligram banknote in my pocket and forked it over. The pastor seemed shocked by my generosity, and I immediately regretted the gesture.

Reaching Yoder's home without further incident, I knocked on the door to the first-floor apartment. Malkuth had already confirmed that the owner lived there, leaving his tenants to take the stairs. An unshaven middle-aged man in stained overalls and a white T-shirt opened the door. “I don't have any places for rent.“

“I suppose you're the owner.“

“Yeah.“ Glancing at my hands, his expression hardened. “I don't need whatever you're selling, but I got a message you can pass up to the Almighty.“

His reaction suggested I wasn't the first to offer the cold consolation of religion. I shoved the little Bible into my pocket. “I'm not on God's payroll. However, if your problem is of an earthly nature, I might be able to help you.“

“Can you bring my wife back?“ Unshed tears glistened in his hard eyes as he spat the words at me.

His barely-restrained anger wasn't specifically for me; I was just handy and had offered to listen. There had to be a reason for his pain, and talking him through it might simplify my mission. “Do you want to tell me what happened to your wife, sir? I'm happy to listen. No judgment, no Bible talk. I promise.“

Thomas Wesker was sobbing by the time he had finished his story. Three years ago, he and his wife, Emily Yount, moved to Clarion. They were a pair of artistic newlyweds who had scraped together enough capital to buy property in town instead of splurging on a fancy wedding or an extravagant honeymoon. Thomas and Emily were happy together for six months until they set out with a basket full of food and some blankets for an afternoon of lovemaking in the woods. Thomas had dozed after loving his Emily. He woke up alone.

He finished his story with his hands in mine. “There was no trace of Emily. The cops couldn't even find her body. Three years later, here I am, as ignorant today as I was then. I suppose you think I'm pathetic.“

Though unused to the sight of men weeping, I think Thomas had earned the right to a good cry. Something about his manner suggested he never properly grieved for his loss, and his pain had become cancerous. “Not at all, Mr. Wesker.“

His tone sharpened a bit. “Not going to tell me to man up and get over it?“

“I'm not a therapist making a house call, but I still know better than to impugn your masculinity. It would just put you on the defensive, which is counterproductive.“

“You certainly sound like a shrink.“

“It's the training. I'm Adversary Naomi Bradleigh, and I've got a warrant authorizing me to enter Ernest Yoder's apartment to verify the occupant's safety or disappearance. I'm not going to give you false hope by promising anything, but I will see what I can learn about your wife's disappearance. First, I must check in on Mr. Yoder.“

Wesker nodded. “Is this one of those new-fangled digital warrants where you give me a code to download?“

Looks like he would have preferred paper. “It is. I apologize for the inconvenience. Can you provide a network address?“

“Yeah.“ Once I had it, I forwarded Thomas the warrant ID. “Just give me a minute, Adversary, and I'll come with you. Yoder's late paying his rent anyway.“

“Is he habitually late with his rent?“

Thomas shook his head. “No. That's what I don't get. He's usually a model tenant. But he's late with his rent, and there's this smell coming from upstairs. I should have gone up there sooner, but Ernest isn't quite right because of what happened with his parents.“ He cocked his head and studied me a moment. “You know what happened to him?“

He was right. There was a stink of rot in the air here, but I couldn't pinpoint its source. “Enough to realize that if he's still alive, he isn't going to appreciate my presence in what had previously been his one refuge from the half of the human race that scares him as much as he scares himself.“

Thomas glanced at me, a smirk curving his thin lips. “You sure you're not a shrink?“

“Quite.“ Stopping at the third-floor landing, I began taking shallow breaths through my mouth. The moist stink of corruption was stronger here than it had been in front of Wesker's apartment. “Is this Yoder's place?“

“Yeah.“ He cycled through the keys on his ring until he found the right one. “Do you want me to go in first, ma'am? In case it's bad in there?“

Thomas’ offer was apprehensive but well-intentioned. His expression suggested that the present situation at least gave him something to focus on besides his own pain. For that reason alone, it was unfortunate that I had to turn him down. “I appreciate it, Mr. Wesker, but you're a civilian. If it's as bad as the smell suggests, you might unwittingly compromise the crime scene.“

Inserting the key, he unlocked the door and backed away. “There you go, Adversary. Good luck.“

Good luck, eh? Why did I suspect I'd need it? Steeling myself, I turned the latch.

Track 38

Alice Cooper: “Halo of Flies”

My eyes watered as I opened the front door to Ernest Yoder's apartment. A sudden terror sank its talons into my mind. Rationality cowered in a corner as I imagined the overwhelming stench forcing its way into me. The fetid air hung thick and still, a miasma of corrupt desperation that invaded my body through every pore, permeating every cell, irreversibly tainting me—as if I would never be clean again.

My stomach clenched, threatening rebellion. It took all of my self-discipline to resist running back outside to wait for Robinson. Instead, I stumbled to the south-facing bay window, my gloved hands fumbling at the latch before I succeeded in yanking it open. I pressed my face to the screen and drank deep of the fresh air, hoping that any resulting contamination of the crime scene would prove minimal.

Breathing through a handkerchief, I hoped that even this thin barrier would provide a measure of relief. The smell reminded me of an ACS field trip to a body farm to study decomposition. Behind this bedroom door, I would most likely find a week-old corpse, the abdomen bloated from the pressure of gasses building up as intestinal flora began feeding on the victim instead of his food. Taking a shallow breath, I opened the door, and immediately slammed it shut again.

Several minutes passed before I worked up the nerve to open the door again. The putrefaction of Edward Yoder's corpse was further advanced than I had estimated. Provided favorable conditions by the heat and humidity within the enclosed bedroom, the bacteria within his body flourished. Strained beyond capacity, his belly had split open, providing a feast for any opportunistic little beasties within the vicinity.

Unsatisfied with the reality before me, my imagination supplied a slow-motion presentation of how Yoder's self-evisceration might have unfolded. At the critical moment, his belly resembled an overinflated balloon bursting. Liquefied flesh splattered all surrounding surfaces with the force of the explosion, and the release of gases pent up within added a new layer of charnel stink to what had previously permeated the flat.

Unable to rein in my gorge any longer, I fled to the bathroom. Once inside, I collapsed before the mercifully clean toilet and offered up my breakfast.

Lightheaded and eager to avoid another assault of nausea, I took a tentative breath. Despite a stomach now as empty as the depths of space, I heaved until my throat was on fire and stars danced across the back of my eyelids. Though I yearned to get out, my legs lacked the strength to carry me; I had vomited it all up.

Strong arms lifted me to my feet and guided me out into the living room, where somebody had set up fans for ventilation. Opening my eyes, I found Sheriff Robinson offering me a sweating bottle of ginger ale. “Here. Drink this.“

Straightening, I tried a cautious sip. “Thanks, Sheriff. Did Mr. Wesker call you?“

“Your buddy Malkuth did. Said something about you walking into a horror show.“ People in hazmat suits waited by the door to the master bedroom. He led me to the open window before signaling his deputies. They filed inside and got busy. I took another gulp of fresh air. It was obvious they were made of sterner stuff than I was. “I guess we know what happened to Earnest Yoder.“

“All we know is that he's dead. We can't determine time and cause of death from here.“ With an effort, I forced myself to consider the burst-open remains. “I haven't examined the body yet.“

“Nor should you. A young woman your age shouldn't have to-“

Sheriff Robinson was trying to protect me, and right now, I wanted to let him. Regardless of his reasons or my desires, I dared not let him insulate me from the reality in that bedroom. If I settled for secondhand evidence, I risked reaching faulty conclusions. The Scott Wilson autopsy had proved that.

Besides, I had already glimpsed what awaited me. “I shouldn't have to what, Sheriff? Do my bloody job? Yoder could have been murdered in the same manner as Wilson and Foster, and for the same reason. Kaylee told me they were friends. Them and Michael Brubaker, which means he might also be in danger.“

“Shit.“

“No shit.“ Had Brubaker also seen something he shouldn't have? What did these young men know? “Sheriff, I need you to find Brubaker and take him into protective custody. I think he's a witness.“

Naturally enough, Robinson was incredulous. “You think he saw Yoder killed?“

“I wish it were that simple.“ If I was to convince him, I had to tie Brubaker to the evidence regardless of how tenuous the connection. My intuition wouldn't be enough. “We know Wilson and Foster were murdered in the same manner, and I think we'll find that's the case with Yoder. They all knew each other. If they're being targeted by Dusk Patrol as the bites on Wilson and Foster suggest, then this is connected with Fort Clarion. Brubaker led me there, and I think he's keeping secrets.“

“But Yoder died here, didn't he?“

“Not if the pattern holds true. We didn't find the previous victims where they had actually been killed, or there would be more of their blood at the scene. I think Yoder was likely killed elsewhere and returned to his apartment.“

Robinson stared at me for a long moment, as if my conjecture was utterly insane. “But you can't prove any of this.“

Then why were we pissing about out here? Let's pull our fingers out of our arses and check out the dead guy. Not that I said anything of the sort. It wouldn't be politic. “Then tell the deputies to let me in. I know what to look for, and I'd love to be wrong. Because if I'm not, it means that these killings are unrelated to my presence in Clarion.“

“All right, but wait here a minute.“ When he returned, it was with a hazmat suit sized to fit somebody my height. The symbol on the shoulder indicated it was suitable for use against biohazards but would offer no protection against radiation or chemicals. “Let me give you a hand, Adversary.“

“Thanks. Is there one for you?“ For Robinson's sake, I hoped so. I doubted he was any fonder of secondhand evidence than I was, and he deserved to be able to see the body for himself.

He shook his head. “This was supposed to be mine.“

I engaged the air supply and pressurized the suit. It was barely worth being called a hazmat suit. I doubted it would protect me against to the common cold. Regardless of my misgivings, it shielded me from the smell and that was all I needed.

Giving Robinson a thumbs-up to show I was ready, I steeled my nerves and entered Ernest Yoder's bedroom. The ragged edges of his ruptured abdomen remained a repellent sight, particularly as it had exploded with sufficient force to spray organic matter in a respectably large hemispherical radius around him.

Somebody patched me into the deputies’ secure relay chat, most likely Colby. I immediately wished she hadn't, as a deputy named O'Leary pointed at Yoder's gut. «I guess he ordered the extra spicy meal.»

Shaking my head, I refrained from responding. Fortunately, Colby had no such scruples. «Cram it. Let's just do the job and get the hell out of here.»

«Sorry, boss, but you gotta wonder. You think Yoder died a virgin?»

«You're gonna die a virgin real fuckin’ soon if you don't plug that asshole you keep mistaking for a mouth and finish photographing the goddamn scene. Sorry, Adversary. We've never seen anything this fucked up before.»

«Neither have I.» If my ears somehow remained virginal despite growing up with two older brothers, a few days on the job with Jacqueline for a partner would have fixed that in short order. «Let's see what happened to this poor bastard.»

The suit was a godsend since decomposition was sufficiently advanced that flyblown flesh sloughed off the bone when I touched it. Talk about nasty. At least the flies couldn't bother me in here.

Despite this complication, I proceeded with the examination. Yoder had suffered a concussion, multiple bites from individuals with CPMD, and a stab wound to the groin. The lack of blood on the bed confirmed my suspicion that he had been killed elsewhere and placed here. «Sometimes I hate being right.»

Robinson caught that. «Same method as the others, Adversary?»

«Unfortunately. You know what that means, don't you?»

«Means our jobs just got more complicated. You finished in there?»

«I wish. This doesn't make sense. Yoder wasn't a small man, and he would have been dead weight. I find it difficult to believe that his killers brought him home without drawing attention to themselves.»

«I was thinking the same thing and checked with Wesker. He's got a security camera over the front door.»

Of course he did. «Any useful footage?»

«No such luck.»

«Then I've got more work to do.» Closing my eyes, I counted down from a hundred. When I opened them again, I hoped to see something I had missed earlier. Though I would have settled for some of what I had seen before not being there when I opened my eyes again. Like that body.

If wishes were motorcycles, we'd all be Fallen Angels. Reluctantly accepting reality, I gave the place another once over. When Yoder's belly ruptured, the contents of his body spread across a certain distance that did not extend all the way to the wall. Yet there seemed to be the tiniest, almost imperceptible drop of blood right by the window. Pushing aside the curtains, I found a little more smeared on the sill. Scraped paint and splinters around the latch suggested that somebody had used a knife to force entry from outside.

The solution was right in front of me. «The perps used the fire escape.»

«Adversary, I think Colby can take over from here. Let's head back to the station.»

«That suits me, Sheriff, but can we get the deputies to transport Yoder's computer gear to the station ASAP? I can get started with that while they finish processing the scene.» With Yoder dead, I had probable cause to get into his computer and go poking through his data. Hopefully, his preference for online interaction would lead me to where Clarion's youth hung out on the network, and what connected these young men to Fort Clarion. Otherwise, I would have to resort to other means of persuasion.

Track 39

Perturbator: “Perturbator's Theme”

The deputies were still busy when Sheriff Robinson and I left, but the cleaners had already arrived and stood by their van, smoking. No doubt Mr. Wesker saw to that. If not for the circumstances of Ernest Yoder's murder and the ongoing investigation, I daresay he would have put out a “for rent” sign already. Despite my sympathy for his loss, he was still a landlord, and landlords tended to be money-grubbing arseholes.

My stomach twinged, and I couldn't tell if I was still nauseous from disgust, or queasy because I had lost my breakfast. I would have to eat again before I did anything else, or I wouldn't be able to focus. Afterward I could poke around Yoder's computer, and ask Robinson about Wesker's wife as I had promised to.

After a second shower and a second breakfast, I walked over to the Sheriff's office and checked with the duty officer. “Hi. I'm here to check out Ernest Yoder's computer.“

“It's not here. Sheriff Robinson said you should head over to Town Hall. He'll tell you more there.“

That was odd. Why would he take the computer to Town Hall? Since the building was accessible to civilians, it didn't make sense to keep evidence there. Hoping Robinson would have a reasonable explanation, I checked in with Cat and followed her directions down to the basement. “So, Sheriff, where's Yoder's computer? The duty officer told me to see you.“

“I figured that since we had photos of the crime scene, we could just pull everything not covered in Yoder stuff out of that bedroom and use a room down here to recreate the scene using rented furniture.“

That seemed reasonable to me, considering that the original furnishings probably qualified as a biohazard. “Show me.“

Robinson complied, and held the door for me as I stepped into a brightly lit basement room furnished to resemble Ernest Yoder's bedroom. Before doing anything else, I used my implant to photograph the room. I then sent the images to Malkuth and asked him to compare them with the original scene.

The nightstand drawer held nothing of direct relevance to my investigation, though the contents shed light on the solitary existence of Ernest Yoder. The container of skin cream for men was a high-end brand full of exotic ingredients that wasn't available in shops. Despite the shelves crammed with non-fiction and Byzantine novels, his taste in magazines suggested he didn't read them for the articles. I was about to write off the nightstand as a dead end when I struck paydirt.

Beneath the well-worn issues of girlie mags like Tipping Velvet and Harsh Mistress, I found an old issue of Tomcat. The cover was a familiar one. It was the same pre-Nationfall issue I had found in the Fort Clarion post exchange, featuring a snow-blonde model who could have been my grandmother. How had Ernest Yoder gotten this, and when? It must have been a recent acquisition, judging from the lack of difficulty I encountered in flipping through the contents. “Sheriff, I need an evidence baggie and a marker.“

“Find something?“

“A girlie mag that I suspect Yoder took from Fort Clarion.“

“Going to show me?“

“This better not make the rounds among the deputies.“

With the nightstand sorted, the rest of the recreated scene beckoned. Yoder's computer didn't look like the standard model with just enough local capacity to talk with an AI megaframe. Instead, this was a full-featured rig, and most likely custom-built. A cursory look inside a desk drawer showed he had the tools to do the job himself. The damned thing was water-cooled. Neon lights inside the transparent case flared to life as I plugged in HermitCrab and fired it up.

Glancing at the attached graphic tablet and stylus, I added them to my mental picture of Yoder while waiting for the machine to boot and for HermitCrab to read the computer's internal storage. He was a loner with an active, albeit solitary, sexual life—and possibly a digital artist as well.

Regardless, I hoped Yoder wasn't all that savvy about security. If he'd been as careless as most young people, he would probably have left a trail of digital evidence even the most incompetent amateur sleuth might have followed. Since I was a professional, and fairly competent, I anticipated little difficulty. All I needed was a starting point.

First, I tried accessing the ‘secret’ forum Malkuth found, whose software listened on transmission control protocol port 65535 instead of the standard TCP port for hypertext transfer protocol. Yoder had an account there, as gynophobic_hikikomori — one who fears women and has withdrawn from society. The name was so apt, I suspected he chose it himself to throw in the faces of those who might mock him for his psychological issues.

A sneaking suspicion grew in the back of my mind as I explored the forum. The people posting here seemed to have been putting on an elaborate charade or chronicling a rich collective fantasy life. Either way, they competed to post the most lurid descriptions of the illicit activities in which their parents feared they might engage. While many of Clarion's youth probably did sneak into the woods to drink moonshine and smoke weed, I doubted they all did so. Nor did I believe they all gathered for moonlit orgies where they engaged in acts and configurations I suspected even Jacqueline had never tried, let alone heard of.

I had done nothing of the sort as a younger woman, but I maintained a practice journal that suggested I was my instructors’ idea of a diligent musician. Instead of practicing eight hours a day atop four hours of classes, I developed my vocal and piano technique with forty-five minutes each of deliberate practice per day. With six hours a day at ACS, one of which was devoted to physical training, I had just enough time for self-care during the week—and I bloody well took the weekends off.

As far as my instructors at Juilliard were concerned, all those long hours of devoted practice paid off with rapid growth. If those schmucks ever found out, it was after I had gotten my degrees and an offer to join the Metropolitan Opera of New York once my time of service as an Adversary was completed. What was that about cheaters never winning?

Bearing my own experience in lying to authority figures in mind, I concluded that the ‘secret’ forum was a blind alley. Instead, I tried a system-wide text search for other instances where he used the name ‘gynophobic_hikikomori,‘ and found it associated with every account that didn't support authentication via Secure Shell. It was even his primary login on this machine.

I suppose the poor bastard's issues were central to his identity as he understood it. Were he still alive, I daresay many a Phoenix Society psychologist would have found him an utterly fascinating case. His choice of passwords wasn't nearly as interesting, however. He used the same password everywhere, ‘4evr@l0n3’, and if that meant ‘forever alone,‘ it was no doubt another consequence of too much time spent pitying himself with his dick in hand.

Yoder even used this username/password combination with his credit union, which allowed me an intimate look at his finances. He was indeed a graphic designer and artist. His balance suggested that not only was he good enough to do it for a living, he was good enough to earn a better living at it than I did if you compared his monthly income with my Adversary's salary. Not that I begrudged him; with his problems it would have been all too easy to end up in poverty once whatever assets he had inherited ran out.

The sites Yoder accessed were similar to the hoax forum in that they offered no real insight into his character other than that he wanted to overcome his fear of women, but was afraid that if he did and brought female companionship into his life, he would turn out to be as abusive as his father. It was the terror of becoming his father's son that kept him locked away, only to come out at night.

Out of curiosity, I tried his secure shell login. It demanded a user name and password, so I tried what Yoder used everywhere else. It worked, which for some reason didn't surprise me all that much. Once I was in, the rest of his network history was laid bare. One location stood out in its access frequency, an Internet Relay Chat site on the same IP address as both the official town forum and the ‘secret’ bulletin board.

It made sense. A sufficiently paranoid system administrator could disable server-side logging, making anything said on an IRC channel ephemeral unless the users enabled logging on their end. If the youth of Clarion were paranoid enough to maintain a decoy forum and use IRC via SSH, I doubted they recorded anything.

My reception as I logged in was immediate and enthusiastic. Nice to know Yoder had some friends.

RangerMike: Hey, GH! Where you been, man?

Doctor_Feelgood: Yo, GH, you got a woman over there? That what's been
keeping you busy?

D3M0N01D: GH, that Cecilia Harvey poster you did looks great. Too bad
she isn't that hot in the official art.

Doctor_Feelgood: Yo, Demonoid, did you see that snow-blonde Adversary
around? Dead ringer for Cecilia, bro. Maybe that's who GH is shacked up
with. Lucky bastard.

RangerMike: Guys, I know the lady. GH is a good person, but he'd have a
stroke if he met Adversary Bradleigh. Let's leave her out of this.

Sweet of Brubaker to stick up for me. Too bad I can't thank him without blowing my cover.

Godfather: RangerMike is right. For all we know, she's spying on us. I
caught her trying to crack the public forum database last night using
that clunker my wife asked me to lend her.

Doctor_Feelgood: You gave her a loaner? Dude, you're fucking whipped.

Doctor_Feelgood: kicked from channel #clarion_underground

Doctor_Feelgood: banned from channel #clarion_underground for 24
hours

Wow, Cat's husband doesn't take any shit. He'd probably come after me with some kind of blunt instrument if he knew I was lurking in the #clarion_underground channel using a dead man's handle.

RangerMike: So, GH, WTF happened, bro? MrSnotty and Clusterfuck are
dead, and we haven't heard from you since you showed us how to get into
the basement a couple weeks ago.

Son of a bitch. I wasn't sure if I should kiss Brubaker or paddle him with the flat of my sword. While he just coughed up a valuable clue, I might have saved some lives if he had told me sooner. But how could I tell him that I knew what had happened? If I sent him a private message, he'd realize I wasn't Ernest Yoder. The last thing I needed was for him to bolt.

RangerMike: Adversary Bradleigh isn't stupid, guys. We should probably
come clean before she figures it out on her own, or before more of us
get whacked.

Godfather: You kids were idiots for going in there in the first place.
RangerMike, you know the lady. If you don't talk to her, I will. Unless
you're already lurking, Naomi. Come out and pay your respects.

Made again? Who was this guy, and why was he pissing about in an overgrown village like Clarion when he could have embroiled tech companies in New York and London in a bidding war for his expertise? Had he no ambition?

Staring at the screen in frustration, I pounded the desk. Some hand-painted wargaming miniatures jumped at my blow, but that was all I managed to accomplish. Logging out, I immediately returned to the IRC server hosting the #clarion_underground channel under a different name: CeciliaHarvey. It was silly, but I figured that showing these kids I could take a joke might help them open up.

CeciliaHarvey: Fun time's over, lads. I want everybody who has been
inside Fort Clarion to meet me at The Lonely Mountain in one hour. Pack
a bug-out bag. GH was murdered by the same people who offed MrSnotty and
Clusterfuck, and it would be lovely if I could stop these arseholes
before they kill more of you. Godfather, I trust you'll pass the word
along to Doctor_Feelgood.

Track 40

Perturbator: “She is Young, She is Beautiful, She is Next”

The #clarion_underground channel erupted in a virtual tumult at my order, and I had neither the time nor the inclination to deal with the resulting fecal hurricane. Nor was I about to indulge these kids with lengthy explanations. Instead, I pulled still images from my feed, one for each of the victims thus far, and posted them with a simple message: “Do as I say if you want to live.“

Rather than stick around for the reaction, I disconnected and shut down Yoder's machine. My pace was swift as I left his simulated home and began my walk back to The Lonely Mountain. On the way, I used my implant to evaluate transportation and lodging options. I needed those kids away from here and in a safe location. If that place remained secret, so much the better, though invoking the Phoenix Society's aegis would probably serve to deter any notion of betrayal on the part of those I must perforce trust to carry these kids off to safety.

«Malkuth, I need evac for at least four witnesses and a safe house in which to keep them. What can you do for me?»

«You figure the killers are limited to the vicinity?»

«Those kids are dead if I'm wrong about that.» How far away was far enough? Pittsburgh was definitely too close, but was New York sufficiently distant from Clarion to be safe? London would be better, and Armstrong ideal, but I could justify neither. «Yoder, Wilson, and Foster had all been under Fort Clarion, but other kids have been down there, too.»

«I just dispatched a bus from Pittsburgh to pick up your witnesses at the Lonely Mountain and transport them to the New York Chapter. We can put them up at the hotel across the street, and detail some senior ACS cadets to stand guard. It isn't the stealthiest approach, but the alternative was a helicopter that wouldn't be available until tomorrow.»

«The bus is armored, right?» I would have loved to have seen the look on Petersen's face as the chopper lifted off, taking my witnesses away. However, Malkuth was right. A bus would serve equally as well as long as Dusk Patrol didn't waylay it.

«Come on, Nims. Give me a little credit. I even arranged a two fireteam escort with the Fallen Angels MC. We're gonna whisk those kids away in style like badass rock stars trying to avoid paparazzi.»

Knowing that Malkuth had hired Fallen Angels to escort the bus helped me breathe a little easier. The bikers were reliable mercenaries, and I wouldn't be the first Adversary to take advantage of their services. They were bloody expensive, however, which was why I didn't consider hiring them to tear apart Fort Clarion. Furthermore, bringing a few dozen Angels to Clarion would do little to endear me to the locals, or to local authorities. Even ten Fallen Angels seemed a bit excessive. If the Phoenix Society sent as many Adversaries on the same mission, it most likely entailed dismantling an interplanetary corporation. «Thanks, Malkuth. I suppose this is coming out of my salary.»

«Let's just say you're going to have a bit of explaining to do next time you report your expenses.»

Shit. Facing an auditor over this would be no less an ordeal than this job has been, but I couldn't afford to dwell on it now. I had lives to save. More than I expected, it turned out. An hour and a half after I returned to the Lonely Mountain, Dick Halford called me down to find four young men and three young women waiting for me. They sat at one of the biggest tables, their bags piled up in the corner behind them.

After double-checking the bags, I cleared my throat to get their attention. “We're a bag short. Who mistook this for a day trip?“

Brubaker looked up from cleaning his shotgun. “I'm not going anywhere, Adversary.“ His explanation was evidently for my eyes only, since it came via secure talk. «You need somebody who knows the woods. And I can watch your back.»

One of the girls began to pout. “If Mike gets to stay, why should the rest of us go?“

Tempting as it was, telling the girl she had to go because I bloody well said so didn't seem likely to persuade any of the youths sitting before me. Instead, I sat down with them. “Who saw the photos I posted to IRC? Raise your hands.“

The girl who complained kept her hand down. Likewise for the brunette sitting beside her. “Adversary, I didn't see the photos. David got an email from Mr. Tricklebank and told me we had to leave.“

That left the complainer, who narrowed her eyes at me. “Fine. I saw the pics, but they don't explain anything. Why should we be inconvenienced because of a few dead people?“

Brubaker shook his head. “Jessica, stop acting like a bitch. We don't have time for your shit right now. You were under Fort Clarion with the rest of us. For fuck's sake, Scott was your cousin. Do you want the grave next to his? Adversary Bradleigh must think we're next.“

“But why would they kill any of us? We didn't do anything wrong. The place was abandoned.“

“It isn't.“ That got everybody's attention, even Jessica's. “Fort Clarion was never abandoned. Some of the people stationed there are still alive, and haven't forgotten their duty.“

“But wouldn't they be ancient?“ One of the other youths had a skeptical look on his face.

“Do you want to see the photos again? I fought two of them a few nights ago. They were most certainly not old and had no need to fight at a distance. Were I a bit slower, I might have been gutted.“

I had their attention now. “These aren't ordinary soldiers. They've been changed as a result of a pre-Nationfall experimental program called Project Harker. The subjects were hardened veterans before the Commonwealth Army's scientists got at them, and are all the deadlier now.“

One of the young men started at my use of the name Harker, but Jessica gave a disgusted snort before I could question him. “Military experiments? Under Fort Clarion? Do you have any idea how ridiculous you sound, Adversary? And we thought Yoder was fucked in the head.“

“Is it really so ridiculous, Jessica?“ The brunette next to her spoke up. “David, isn't there a guy who has a monthly appointment to stop at your parents’ grocery store after midnight?“

The young man who had recognized the name earlier nodded. “I wanted to say something, but didn't want to interrupt. Adversary, there's a standing order at my parents’ shop that has been active since before they purchased the store. I'm pretty sure the name on the order is Harker. A man comes to the shop on the first of the month after midnight to pick it up. He wears an old army uniform, and I think I saw the name Renfield on it. Doc Petersen always picks up the tab.“

So, that's why Fort Clarion's pantry had fresh groceries. Renfield was making monthly midnight shopping trips. But why would he make them in the middle of the night if he can get around in the day or dusk? Does he come alone, or bring men with him? And how does Renfield cart his groceries back to Fort Clarion? The distance between Clarion and the fort was hardly a stroll. “David, this is important. Did Renfield ever show up with anybody else?“

David's eyes narrowed, and he looked past my shoulder. Turning around, I caught a glimpse of Sheriff Robinson shouldering his way through the patrons. A few of them objected, but Robinson stared them down.

He seemed neither surprised nor pleased to find me here. “I suppose I have you to thank for the panicked parents screaming at me because their kids bugged out without a word of explanation. Not to mention the fucking Mayor up my ass. Care to tell me what's going on, Adversary?“

He had the Mayor up his arse? Poor baby. “I know why Yoder, Wilson, and Foster were murdered. They got into Fort Clarion, and poked around underground. These seven were with them. Considering their safety first, I arranged for the Phoenix Society to place them in protective custody.“

“Where?“

Why would Robinson care about that? Shouldn't he be grateful that the Society was looking out for these kids? “My superiors didn't tell me that.“

“Figures.“ Robinson's chuckle held a bitter note. “OPSEC, need-to-know, and all that spook shit.“

“Which doesn't make your job easier, does it? You've still got all those scared parents. What will you tell them?“

Robinson shrugged. “Not my problem any longer. I told ‘em to take it up with the Phoenix Society.“

Thanks for nothing, but I suppose it was the sensible thing for him to do. It's not like having the kids spirited away was his idea. The revving of motorcycles outside kept me from telling Robinson I understood his passing the buck. “I think that's our ride.“

Three Fallen Angels walked in, and that was not a joke. They more closely resembled soldiers than bikers; their jeans and leather had the neatness of uniforms and their postures as they scanned the bar suggested rigorous training. The one in the middle even had sergeant's stripes similar to Renfield's sewn onto the sleeve of his jacket, and he saluted with his fist over his chest like he was one of ours. “Adversary Bradleigh? I'm Sergeant Jackson from the Fallen Angels. Mind if I transmit the ID for my orders?“

As I returned his salute, I found his IP address and opened a secure talk session. “Ready.“

A long string of random text came through, and I passed it to Malkuth. He confirmed its authenticity and relayed to me the orders passed to the Fallen Angels: take my witnesses into custody and escort them to a secure location. The location was redacted, naturally. I didn't need that information, and the Society didn't need me blabbing if captured. “Thank you, Sergeant Jackson. You'll be escorting six tonight.“

Turning to the kids, I introduced the mercenaries. “Sergeant Jackson and his squad will escort you to a secure location away from Clarion, where the Phoenix Society will keep you in protective custody until I've resolved the situation here. Follow his instructions, please.“

“Thanks, Adversary Bradleigh. If you folks will just grab your bags and come with me, we'll get you situated. You'll be traveling in style, but don't count on the minibar being stocked.“ Sergeant Jackson led the motley crew out of the Lonely Mountain, ignoring the boys’ disappointed groans.

Robinson, Brubaker, and I followed them out. We kept watch as the kids filed onto the bus. None of them looked back, and I wondered if perhaps some of them hoped never to return. The Fallen Angels surrounded the bus in a protective formation, revving their bikes as the larger vehicle pulled out. Brubaker ducked back inside once their taillights faded from sight.

Robinson turned to me. “They weren't the only reason I came looking for you. There's been another murder.“

Track 41

Makeup and Vanity Set: “Search the Night”

“Another murder?“ Damn it, who had I missed? What was the chance of this person being attacked now, when I had seven of the kids that had ventured into the depths of Fort Clarion with me for the last hour? Had somebody ignored my warning, and had paid for doing so with their life? Or was this something different? “Tell me everything.“

Robinson shook his head. “I think you should see this in person.“

Something about his tone told me it was going to be bad. “Better lead the way, then.“

Without any reliable information to chew on, it was tempting to speculate on who had been murdered. Such temptations were best resisted, lest I arrive at the scene prejudiced. Even suspecting that this murder had something in common with the others was a mistake, as now I would have to guard against the impulse to disregard evidence that doesn't support my theory.

Trying to purge my mind of preconceptions so I could view this kill with fresh eyes, I followed Robinson down Main Street. He led me to a shop called Gibson Hacker Supply, right across the street from Kaylee's Shiny Hobbies. We found Cat from City Hall sitting inside amid racks of a near-infinite variety of electronic components and tools. She blindly leafed through a book, which promised to teach the reader how to build their own Enigma machine.

Before I could approach the shell-shocked receptionist, Robinson stopped me with a hand on my shoulder. “This way.“

He led me behind the counter, into the back room. It had been ransacked, with solid-state drives scattered hither and yon as if somebody had been searching for a particular device. In one corner, a small mainframe hummed, heedless of the violence and death that had visited the room. In another, a corpse slumped against the wall with his legs splayed before him, his head lolling over one shoulder.

In life, he had been a short, stout, long-haired bear of a man. In death, he was battered, his arms and legs bent at profoundly wrong angles. Somebody had driven a heavy-duty screwdriver into his chest. One of his temples was dented by what surely had been a mortal blow. He still clutched a crowbar in his left hand, its end bloodied from the blows he struck against his assailants.

It hadn't been enough. There must have been more than one intruder, and they had overwhelmed him. One of them had sliced his throat open and used his blood to leave a message on the wall. “WE MISS YOU, NAOMI. COME BACK TO US. STAY WITH US FOREVER.“

My heart kicked into overdrive, and my vision narrowed. My voice was a snarl through chattering teeth. “Whoever did this knows my name. This is a direct challenge.“

Robinson nodded. “That's what I thought. Mind putting your sword away?“

“What?“ My training must have taken over, for I had no idea I had it drawn. One of the things we learned as Adversary candidates was to meet fear on the battlefield with anger. While it was true that anger led to hate and hate led to suffering, fear could paralyze you. Worse, terror could send you fleeing when your companions needed you to stand firm beside them. Rage, on the other hand, offered strength and courage with which to fight, survive, and prevail.

Breathing deep despite the stink of blood and pain, I sheathed my blade. Even if it didn't make Robinson nervous, I couldn't afford to fence with shadows right now. “Did you get an ID on the victim?“

Robinson nodded. “Matt Tricklebank. Cat's husband. There's something wrong about this murder. Tricklebank saw his killer coming and fought like a demon. My guess is that the killer wanted information, and Tricklebank refused to grant access to Tetragrammaton. Everybody in town uses that old mainframe.“

“But I only spoke with him an hour or so ago.“ Between being a major HermitCrab contributor and running that mainframe, it was little wonder he called himself the Godfather. He had a hell of a lot of information and power at his fingertips. Though I suspected who the victim had been from the state Cat was in, I had hoped to be wrong. What was his part in this mess, aside from giving Clarion's youth a virtual speakeasy? Had he also been to Fort Clarion? “Did he really call the machine Tetragrammaton?“

Robinson shrugged and gave me a sheepish look. “Yeah. Said it was a Unix thing.“

Fortunately, I could sit in front of the console without disturbing the crime scene. The keys responded to my fingers with a meaty click as I woke the screen for a shell prompt.

GENERAL ATOMIC MODEL GA-65536

MULTICS VERSION 20481031.23.17

UPTIME 10 YEARS, 320 DAYS, 20 HOURS, 15 MINUTES, AND 33.3 SECONDS

tetragrammaton login:

A quick network search suggested that not only was this most likely the last working Multics installation on the planet but that it ran on a machine last produced before Nationfall. Had Tricklebank found this while settling in Clarion? Or was this a relic of the Commonwealth Army's presence in town? In the chaos of this room, it sat untouched, which suggests it wasn't why his assailants had come. “Ten years of uptime on a computer this old? Tricklebank must have been some kind of wizard.“

“Sounds about right. We resettled the town about twelve years ago. Tricklebank and his wife found that machine when they bought this building and set up shop.“

“Speaking of which, has anybody gotten a statement from Cat?“

Robinson shrugged. “Have you had a good look at her? Figured she was too traumatized to tell us anything useful.“

“I'll try talking to her.“ Might as well, since there wasn't much I could do with Tetragrammaton right now. It wasn't safe to assume that Tricklebank hadn't taken precautions to stop people from cracking the machine with his own tools. If I wanted to safely retrieve information from this system, I would need an account and a Multics manual. “Cat?“

She stared up at me, eyes narrow with grief and hatred. “Why did you have to come here?“

Rather than look down on her, I knelt before her and took her hands in mine. “People were disappearing, and nobody else cared to intervene. I'm sorry for your loss, and I would have protected your husband if I had been aware of his peril. Six young people will probably live because I got them out of here. You and Mr. Tricklebank could have been among them.“

“Why would you have us leave here?“ Without anger to lend her voice texture, Cat spoke in a flat monotone.

“Do you know Ernest Yoder? I think your husband's murderers killed Yoder a couple of weeks ago. Scott Wilson and Clarence Foster died the same way. Whatever's happening here started before I came. If you know anything, please tell me.“

Cat looked around, searching for the Sheriff or his deputies. “Not here.“

She glanced around the shop again before producing a key and opening a door to a staircase leading down into the cellar. She descended without turning on the light, and I followed. Absolute darkness enveloped us once I closed the door, and my implant flashed a message: «Network connection lost.»

Unsure if the cellar was also soundproof, I whispered. “Your husband built a Faraday cage in the basement?“

“No. It was here when we bought the building. It was prewar construction, and Matt left it in place in case he needed to work in a secure location.“ Cat flicked a switch, and a soft red glow pushed back some of the gloom. She turned on a screen, and the shop above us came into focus via closed-circuit television. “Nobody can hear us down here.“

“How do you know?“ The sudden flush in Cat's cheeks was answer enough. “Never mind. Can you rewind the tape back a couple of hours? Maybe we can ID your husband's killer from the tape.“

“I already looked. Somebody wearing a mask and combat fatigues came in through the front door. They saw the camera and put duct tape over the lens. Didn't the Sheriff tell you?“ Cat stared at the screen for a while with the frown of a person gathering their thoughts and deciding how much was safe to tell me. “Matthew said that Robinson came in a couple of weeks ago with the Mayor and Dr. Petersen. They wanted him to release logs from an IRC server he runs for the kids so they have somewhere safe to talk. He told them to produce a warrant or fuck off. They came back last week and made the same demands. They said that if he didn't see reason soon, he'd suffer for it.“

A mask and combat fatigues? That sounded like somebody from Dusk Patrol in disguise, but I couldn't let this line of inquiry go. “Why didn't he go to the Phoenix Society?“

“They told him that if he tried to expose them, they'd trump up charges that would blacken both our names.“

“What were they going to do, find some toddlers and coach them to make accusations of Satanic ritual abuse?“

That got a small chuckle out of Cat. “That's what Matt said. But he didn't go to you guys because on both occasions Robinson was unarmed and dressed in civilian clothing. Matt thought he wouldn't be able to prove Robinson was abusing his position because of that, and I was at work at the time. He told me everything down here afterward.“

They threatened the guy because he wouldn't produce IRC logs without a warrant? All three of them? And now he was dead. That made no sense whatsofuckingever. Not unless those kids were talking about something they saw at Fort Clarion that would utterly compromise Collins, Robinson, and Petersen. Something like Project Harker?

If Cat had given me a particular time and date, it would have been much easier to check the CCTV footage, or see if they were on the job at the time and thus had Witness Protocol running. With the information I currently had, any such effort would be a fishing expedition. “Cat, I need you to think carefully. Do you have any recordings or other evidence of these threats? I can arrest those bastards tonight if I have some proof of their involvement in your husband's murder. Just give me something I can use.“

It wasn't much to ask, despite Cat's recent bereavement. Was it? Even fifteen seconds of video would be enough if it captured a threat to the deceased. I just needed something more substantial than “my husband told me afterward.“

Cat eventually shook her head. “The CCTV feeds are all backed up on Tetragrammaton. Matt gave me an account on Tetragrammaton and tried to teach me how to use it, but I never got into it like he did. He was like a big kid with the ultimate model railroad.“

“I know it's bad practice, but would you be willing to share your username and password with me?“

She gave me a dubious look. “I could just give you an account of your own with admin rights.“

“Wouldn't a new account with sysadmin access be noticed? Robinson isn't an idiot, and neither is Petersen.“

Cat sighed, and found a pen and a scrap of paper. “Here.“

“Thanks.“ I saved the credentials and found a shredder. It wouldn't do to leave a root password to Tetragrammaton lying around for just anyone to find. “Do you have people outside Clarion? You really shouldn't be alone right now.“

Cat took a moment to answer. “Some of my cousins are visiting Manhattan. I could join them and follow them back to Melbourne, but what about…” She pushed back a sob. “Matt's funeral?“

“Manhattan should be far enough for you to be safe. I just think you should get out of town for a bit. The arrangements can wait.“

Track 42

Makeup and Vanity Set: “I Am Become Death”

With Cat Tricklebank safely in her truck and headed east, it was time to deal with her husband's mainframe. Or better yet, have Malkuth do it. «Mal, I need you. Again.»

«Be still, my heart. Is this just to evac another witness?»

With secure talk being a plain-text medium, it was an unfortunate impossibility to tell whether Malkuth was being his usual flirty self, or had taken a sarcastic turn. «Nope. How would you like to have a go at cracking the last working Multics installation on Earth?»

«Do tell.»

Was that curiosity? «It's a pre-Nationfall General Atomic mainframe. Model GA-65535. Matt Tricklebank has been renting out space on it since he took it over during resettlement of Clarion a decade ago. Even the local government uses it, so I wouldn't be surprised if Dr. Petersen had an account. There should be lots of little treats for you. Surely the sysadmin's murder is probable cause for a bit of snooping.»

«What's your basis for treating the admin's death as murder?»

Malkuth should damn well know why considering what Cat said about her husband refusing to hand over log files without a warrant. «How about the broken limbs, fractured skull, and the screwdriver sticking out of his chest? Not to mention what Cat said about Collins, Petersen, and Robinson demanding access to the logs for the hidden IRC server Matt was running, and threatening him when he told them to come back with a warrant. Who knows, maybe there's dirt on Project Harker in there, too.»

«And now you're going to dig it up. Dumb motherfuckers should have just bribed the guy.»

No way I could argue with that, though bribery brings its own risks. Individuals who are sufficiently unscrupulous to accept bribes but honest enough to stay bought are a rare commodity. I've never met one. «So, can you help me get into Tetragrammaton?»

«You've completed your inventory of Fort Clarion's armaments. We can't justify your presence in Clarion any longer.»

«After everything I've turned up in the process?»

«You've gotten pretty far on probable cause and circumstantial evidence, Naomi, but without an official complaint you can't expect to get much farther.»

«Never mind all that.» What does he want, forms in triplicate filled out by hand? «Review my Witness Protocol feed. His wife contends they came to his place of business in civilian clothes to make their threats.»

«Not for nothing, Nims, but you're pushing the limits. You're walking on lines you dare not cross.»

Lines I dare not cross? Seriously? «This isn't a police procedural drama, Mal. For fuck's sake, somebody wrote a love letter to me on the wall in Matt Tricklebank's blood. If somebody wants me to back off, put them on the bloody line so they can give me the order themselves.»

A long pause before Malkuth replied. «All I can say is that what you think you're discovering is already well-known. Things are as they are in Clarion for reasons I cannot explain because the people who want it this way didn't explain themselves to me.»

It was hard to believe what Malkuth had just said. To think that somebody highly placed within the Phoenix Society would be aware of the situation, and do nothing about it, was intolerable. That was not the Society's purpose. That was not my mission as an Adversary. «If I have to face a court martial when it's over, I will, but these murders and disappearances must end. I can't turn my back.»

«I suspected you'd say that, and I'm not unsympathatic.» What was Malkuth risking by helping me? Could he be put on trial? How would we go about doing so, when his hardware probably makes Tetragrammaton look like a handheld? «I'll do what I can, but for now you have more pressing concerns. The Fallen Angels escorting your witnesses have dropped off the network.»

I stopped being miffed about not being able to get access to Tetragrammaton immediately. This took priority. «Could they just be maintaining radio silence?»

«That's not standard practice. I'm transmitting the Angels’ last known location. Find out what happened, Adversary Bradleigh.» The connection cut out after Malkuth sent the Fallen Angels’ position as a set of latitude and longitude values.

I plugged them into my GPS app and got a location: about 20km east of here. I'd need my motorcycle. Sprinting back to The Lonely Mountain, I found Mike Brubaker where I had left him. “I need you to come to my room with me.“

“But-“

“Not now.“ Fortunately, he didn't make me drag him up to my room by his collar. Nor did he ask questions as I opened the closet and yanked out the case of goodies Nakajima sent me care of Eddie Cohen. Opening it, I pulled out the armor and found the bodysuit I was supposed to wear beneath it along with an owner's manual. “Something happened to the escort guarding your friends. I need to check it out. I need you to stay here.“

“I should come with you.“

“Not happening.“ I ducked into the bathroom to change since I wouldn't be able to wear the armor over my regular clothes. When I came out a few minutes later, Mike had most of the pieces arranged on the bed.

He pointed at the boots on the floor. “Step into those first. Then spread out your arms.“

I did as instructed, and let him attach the rest. “Have you done this sort of thing before?“

“My big brother played hockey. He was a goalie.“ He didn't elaborate on why he used the past tense but continued to attach each piece until all that remained was my helmet. Without asking permission, he found one of my hair ties and used it to tie my hair into a bun before handing me my helmet. “Now we just need to strap on your weapons. Did this come with some kind of harness?“

“In the case.“

Mike soon had me rigged, and I handed him my side sword. “If anybody other than the Halfords or me come through this door, stab them. You don't have to reload a sword.“

He drew the sword and tried a thrust; his form was terrible, but at least he knew that holding the sharp end is the other guy's job. “Got it.“

I locked the door behind me, found my motorcycle, and fired it up. Seconds later, I left Clarion behind. The engine beneath me purred as I cut through the night and followed the map to the Fallen Angels’ last known coordinates. The road was empty, and the cycle's lights were the only relief from the cloudy gloom.

With half a kilometer left to my destination, I pulled off the road and concealed my motorcycle. If the bus and its Fallen Angels escort had been attacked, I didn't want to ride into an ambush. Choosing every step with care to avoid detection, I crept forward and found my worst fears confirmed.

The bus was a ruined hulk of twisted metal, its interior still burning. It lay on what had once been its roof. The damage to the nearby road pointed at landmines, or perhaps an improvised explosive device. The Fallen Angels fared no better, but they died with empty guns and broken swords. Whoever killed them had hacked Sergeant Jackson's head from his body and mounted it on a spike. As if this desecration were insufficient, they also stuck a rolled up note in his mouth.

It read, “If you're as smart as you think, Adversary Bradleigh, you'll get back on your motorcycle and forget this place even exists. The kids who invaded Fort Clarion are ours now. You cannot save them.“

“The bloody hell I can't!“

“Naomi? Is that you?“

Despite the voice sounding like Renfield's, I drew my swords. Even if it wasn't an imposter, there's no guarantee he was trustworthy. I hadn't heard from him since the night I killed one of his men. “Who's asking?“

A figure stepped out of the trees, showing empty hands. “Christ, Naomi. It's me, Chris Renfield.“

Renfield's brooding expression quickened my pulse, for he had worn it that night in the forest. He appeared untouched by the violence around me, his uniform spotless and freshly pressed. “Remember that night in the old basement, when I started to seduce you and you turned the tables?“

Oh, I remembered. And that made me vulnerable. “Not taking any chances. You're going to have to convince me.“

He was on me before I could raise one of my unfamiliar swords, pinning me against a tree. He tore my helmet off, and I lost sight of it as he kissed me breathless. Desire, no, lust threatened to overwhelm me. Never mind that there were kids who needed my help. Renfield's kiss had whetted my appetite, and only he could satisfy me. From the rigid heat pressing against me, he felt the same, and I shivered with the memory of feeling that part of him and taking possession.

As if that weren't enough, there were the teeth. Renfield's fangs gently scraped the tender skin of my throat where he had bitten me last time. This time, I wanted him to sink his teeth into me as he used me. I craved the taste of my own blood in his mouth as he kissed me. How sick was that? “You know, way down deep, that I'm the real deal.“

He was the real deal all right. He was all wrong for me, and I bloody well knew it. At the same time, he already had me at the point where the slightest touch might set me off. Who was this bastard to manipulate me like this? Pushing him away, I finally got my swords up to keep him off me. “What the hell are you doing here? How do I know you didn't have a hand in this massacre?“

He shook his head, unable to meet my eyes. “Naomi, I'll swear by anything you call holy I wasn't involved. One of the men, Corporal Seward, rallied the other men to his side. He's been stirring them up, saying it's time we stopped living in hiding and took Clarion for our own. I tried to tell them it would only get us killed, but they won't listen to me.“

“What the hell is he thinking? Doesn't he realize that if he moves openly against Clarion, he'll bring the full force of the Phoenix Society down on Dusk Patrol?“

“You know that. I know that.“ Renfield spread his hands in a gesture meant to calm me down. It only pissed me off. “Seward still thinks that if this turns into a clusterfuck, they can just retreat underground.“

“If Seward attacks Clarion, your men will definitely be returning underground. If they're lucky, the Society may even mark their graves.“

“Seward said something about how the Colonel was still looking out for us and had root on something called Gungnir. I don't know what he means, but -“

“I do, and it's bad.“ If Dr. Petersen has access to the GUNGNIR platform, then we were utterly fucked. How the hell did you fight against tungsten lances falling from orbit at terminal velocity? «Malkuth, are you paying attention? If this isn't probable cause to hit Tetragrammaton, I don't know what is.»

Instead of waiting for Malkuth's reply, I returned my attention to Renfield. “I need your help to get inside Fort Clarion's underground. If those kids are still alive, I have to rescue them.“

Renfield nodded. “I know a shortcut to the fort from here. I can show you a back door, but for fuck's sake, put your swords away. Having all that bare steel behind me makes me nervous.“

I did as he requested, readying my rifle instead. “If you have any objection to me shooting anybody who gets in my way, you'd better tell me now. I won't have time to pretend I care once we're under fire.“

Renfield didn't say anything. Instead, I felt a pinprick on the back of my neck, just above my armor. I tried to whirl on him, to gun him down for his betrayal, but whatever he injected me with took effect too swiftly. My legs collapsed beneath me, leaving me an insensate heap.

Part V

Hard Places and Other Rocks

“I didn't know who the hell I was until I was up against the goddamn wall and fresh outta options. None of you babies know, either, but I swear by all the gods we ever pulled from our arses I'm gonna do my best to make sure you find out before you take your oaths. That way innocent people won't suffer if you turn out to be complete and utter wastes of fucking ammo.“

~Edmund Cohen, addressing a fresh crop of recruits

Track 43

Guns ‘n Roses: “Pretty Tied Up”

When I regained consciousness, the world had inverted itself around me. It took a second for the fog dulling my reason to lift sufficiently for me to realize that I was hanging upside down. Somebody had bound my hands behind my back with what felt like a cable tie. My ankles were bound with nylon rope. I hung head-down, suspended by my ankles from a hook in a meat locker. This was not the freezer we had found in Fort Clarion's mess hall. This one was larger and reeked of fresh blood.

People had died here. They had died tonight, and I would most likely be next on the menu. Fired by this knowledge, I took stock of my situation. My captors had stripped me of all gear, leaving me in only my undersuit. With no weapons concealed on my body, I retained only one option; I had to break free before somebody came for me.

Had they hung me on something other than a meat hook I might have relied on movement and friction to wear through my ankle restraints. Though I might have kept swinging until momentum lifted me clear of the hook, I didn't have enough room to twist my body and land on something I could afford to break. The resulting half-meter drop to the concrete floor would probably crack my skull. I doubted that even the soldiers of Dusk Patrol could shrug off such an injury.

Hands first, then. It didn't take long, but my wrists were bruised and bloody by the time I had freed them, and my shoulders ached from the effort. Despite time being my enemy, I needed a rest before soldiering on.

Though the blood-stained floor repulsed me, I had an idea for getting my ankles freed. What if I was hung low enough that doing a handstand would get me off the hook? My fingertips brushed against concrete.

Taking a deep breath to settle my nerves, I tried it. I couldn't muster the strength to lift myself on the first go. A perverse corner of my imagination supplied me with a little clip of how I'd die if I didn't get off that damn hook. It involved a knife, a trough, and a platoon of thirsty vampire soldiers. Determined not to go out like a pig in a slaughterhouse, I screamed through the pain and lifted myself until the rope binding my ankles cleared the hook.

Retreating to a corner got me away from the worst of the blood, and gave me the reassurance that could only come from having one's back against a solid wall. Whatever came next wouldn't attack me from behind.

“Shit!“ Sudden pain flared in my left hand. Seeing that I was bleeding from a superficial cut, I looked around and found a broken knife blade beside me. It only had a single edge, but using it to cut my ankles loose would still be dangerous. Handling it as gingerly as possible, I began to saw away at my bonds. Despite being broken, the knife-blade still made short work of the rope.

Now that I was free, it was time to reconsider my situation. My undersuit covered me neck-to-toe, but only held in enough body heat to keep me from freezing in this meat locker. Aside from myself, I had no weapons save the broken blade. Worse, I was stuck in here until somebody opened the door; it was locked and didn't open from inside.

My implant showed I was offline. If it wasn't just the room, then I had finally gotten into Fort Clarion's underground. Man, they were going to regret bringing me home for dinner.

I had one small advantage; my eyes had adapted to the gloom. Anyone coming in would need a second or two to adjust unless they were smart enough to turn on the lights before entering – in which case I was fucked. That second or two was my best hope of getting out of here. I had to strike swiftly, incapacitate the first man to enter, and use whatever weapons he carried to take out any companions he had behind him. Crouching in the shadows of the corner nearest the door, I waited and listened while counting my breaths.

Fortunately, my captors didn't make me wait too long. I tensed as a key scraped metal. A thunk of metal struck concrete as if the soldier had dropped whatever padlock secured the door's outer latch. The door was silent on well-oiled hinges as it opened to admit the light from the kitchen outside. The shadows preceding the man suggested he was coming in alone, but I didn't relax yet. His buddies might still be outside, but standing where their shadows wouldn't give them away.

“Where the hell is she?“ The soldier stepped inside, blinking at the dark, and I put aside all caution because the son of a bitch had my sword. Not one of the blades Nakajima lent me, but the side sword I had carried throughout my career. I gave Brubaker that blade so he could protect himself in my absence, and if Dusk Patrol had it they most likely had the kid as well. Whoever this bastard was, he would be the first to pay.

The knife-blade I hurled at his face struck his brow and bit deeply, pouring blood across one of his eyes as I leaped upon him with a feral snarl. He grappled with me, but for some reason, refused to take the offensive. Was he reluctant to strike a woman? Too bad for him if he was because I was done pissing about. Downing him with a knee to the balls, I kicked him in the face. The back of his head bounced off the wall behind him. “Where's Brubaker?“

“Please, stop.“ Instead of fighting, he tried to protect himself, curling into a fetal position. “I'm not here to fight you. Please stop hurting me.“

Disgusted with him and myself, I gave him one last kick in the guts before taking my sword off him. “You call yourself a soldier? You're pathetic. How can you just let me beat the shit out of you like this?“

“R-Renfield sent me.“ His breath hitched as he lay shivering on the floor. It took me a moment to realize he was crying. “H-He told me to give you back your sword and bring you to him. He's got the Brubaker k-kid. He's safe.“

Brubaker's safe? With the same Renfield who jabbed me with a sedative and let his buddies hang me by my ankles in a godforsaken meat locker? Not bloody likely. Taking a breath, I drew my sword and tapped him with the tip. “On your feet, soldier, and give me a name so I don't have to think of you as Private Crybaby.“

He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “It's Private Fowler, ma'am.“

“Adversary Naomi Bradleigh.“ Seemed only fair to return the favor. “You said Renfield sent you?“

Fowler nodded. “He told me you'd be miffed about the hypo, but…”

Miffed? Renfield had no idea. If he didn't have a good explanation, and if Brubaker wasn't safe, Private Fowler here was going to think I went easy on him. “Take me to him. Shall I belabor the consequences of leading me into a trap?“

“No, ma'am. That won't be necessary.“ Judging from the glum expression, he had already given the matter some thought. That suited me just fine; I doubted I was sufficiently sadistic to describe crueler tortures than whatever Fowler might imagine.

Fort Clarion's underground was a maze of narrow hallways full of doors marked with evocative labels like ‘Isolation Chamber X7’ and ‘Secure Containment.‘ Fowler ignored them and led me to the NCO barracks. Renfield waited inside and seemed to be doing his best to ignore Brubaker aiming my rifle at his head, his finger on the trigger poised to fire. Though I was glad to see the kid was safe, the pack he wore suggested he had come out here looking for me. Hopefully he thought to bring something to eat.

Since I had not sheathed my blade the entire time Fowler escorted me, I pressed the tip into Renfield's throat. “Start talking. Make it good, and for the sake of those kids your fellow soldiers took, make it quick.“

Renfield shook his head. “Those kids are already dead. There's nothing you can do about it. I wasn't going to deny the men their blood.“

I leaned into my sword a little and let the tip taste blood. “Remember what I said about making it good?“

Renfield spat his defiance. “Look, Naomi, you could shove that sword up my ass, and it wouldn't change the fact that those kids had it coming. That reclusive motherfucker Yoder had it coming. He led the others down here, and didn't stop them from murdering several of our number while they slept.“

The kids I tried to protect were murderers? That certainly put this situation in a different light, but how could I be sure Renfield was telling the truth? “Mike, do you know anything about this?“

Mike Brubaker wouldn't look at me. Renfield shook his head. “Tell the lady, kid. This must be the first she's heard of what actually happened here.“

“Renfield's right.“ Mike still didn't look at me, but now I understood why. The kid was ashamed. “I had shown Yoder the entrance once. He led the others down here a month ago, and said something about getting payback for all the people who disappeared in the woods.“

Great. I had walked right into the middle of a vicious cycle. Locals and visitors sometimes vanished in the woods. Knowing this, Yoder led kids from the town's secret youth forum to the fort. They murdered several Dusk Patrol soldiers in their sleep, without even knowing if they were responsible for the disappearances. Now Dusk Patrol was hunting those involved and making examples of them. And here I was, armed to the teeth and ready to make matters even worse. No wonder Renfield sedated me.

I was still annoyed about being tied up and hung from a hook in the meat locker, but that could wait. Why hadn't Brubaker said anything? “You must have had a reason for not telling me, but did you at least speak to the Sheriff when you realized what Yoder did?“

“I did. Robinson told me to mind my own business.“ Brubaker shook his head. “I went to him again after Wilson turned up dead. I told him he should tell you what was going on. He said he would, but…”

Renfield handed me a photograph of two officers and a military policeman. “Instead, he told us. He was the sergeant major in charge of the MPs at Fort Clarion back in the day. Mayor Collins was a second lieutenant just out of West Point. And I already told you about the good doctor. They look out for us.“

“Our meeting wasn't an accident, was it? Who told you I was in town?“

“It had been an accident. I was in town for groceries.“ Renfield sighed. “Petersen came to me afterward, and gave me that photo you found. He wanted Brubaker shot because he knew too much, and he wanted you taken out before you exposed everything. It's what Adversaries like you do. I couldn't do it, or let the others do it either. You're a soldier doing your job, just like us. And Brubaker spoke up for us and tried to stop Yoder and the others. But you sided with those killers, which changes everything.“

Had I known I'd spend my vacation hacking through years of murderous bullshit, I'd have packed a machete. Next time, I'm damn well bringing one - and keeping a knife up my sleeve in case some asshole ties me up without buying me dinner and arranging a safe-word first.

Track 44

Nemesea: “Caught in the Middle”

“I came here to find out why people visiting Clarion disappear, not to take sides in your little guerrilla war against the local yokels.“

“Hey!“

Ignoring Brubaker's protest, I pressed on. “Even if I had known they might be guilty of murdering your fellow soldiers, I would still have tried to protect them. But instead of witnesses, they would have been prisoners awaiting trial for murder. We could put them in cells next to the other man who attacked me, if he's still alive.“

“What would have been accomplished by putting those kids on trial? What jurisdiction would recognize us as persons under the law?“

“The Phoenix Society would recognize you. The war ended decades ago, and Dusk Patrol isn't the first band of holdouts we've helped return to the world. Whatever your past, you can still have a better future if you trust us. Simply lay down your arms.“

Renfield and Fowler's bitter laughter at my words stung, but Renfield's reply cut deeper. “You're cute, Bradleigh. You want us to come back to the world and trust your justice? You saw what the world did to us. Those kids killed our brothers in cold blood. We'll make our own justice.“

Brubaker shook his head. “Make your own justice? All you're doing is taking revenge, just like my idiot friends were doing.“

“I am the only one standing between you and the same fate your friends met.“ He turned to Fowler. “Tell the others it's finished.“

“Yes, sir.“ Fowler saluted, and left.

A door thunked shut outside. Instead of saying anything, Renfield held a finger to his lips. Breathing as softly as I could, I listened by the door. There were voices, and slowly retreating footsteps. We waited, breathing as shallowly as we could, until all sounds from outside faded into silence. Looking over my shoulder, I kept my voice at a whisper just in case. “Why aren't they looking for us?“

Renfield did not immediately answer. “They trust me to handle it.“ He gestured toward some filing cabinets. “Give me a hand with these.“

The room filled with the grinding of metal on concrete as Brubaker and Renfield pushed aside some filing cabinets to reveal a door. Renfield unlocked and opened it, revealing a stairwell. I tensed, sure the noise would bring the others down on us, but no one came.

Nobody needed to instruct me. Since I was first up the stairs, I listened by the door a moment before opening it to reveal Fort Clarion in the cold, faint light of an early autumn morning. Renfield locked the door behind him before leading us to the Post Exchange. “We'll be safer above ground, at least during the day, but we can't linger. We'll have to retrieve your gear later, Adversary.“

Brubaker looked askance at Renfield and spoke before I could respond. “You're coming with us?“

Renfield shrugged. “Might as well. The others will figure out soon enough that I didn't kill you two, and they'll be none too thrilled with me.“

“What are you going to do?“

Another shrug from Renfield. “Maybe I can help. I don't really know anything about Project Harker other than what I told you, but maybe it's time I stopped living in the dark.“

Brubaker snorted. “Gonna make your own justice?“

“I don't know.“ Renfield fell silent for a long moment. I was about to prod him when he spoke again. “I thought I was helping my men by sticking to the last mission we were given. I clung to that belief, perhaps for too long. It might be too late for me to show them a way back to the world, but what you said about the Phoenix Society helping others in this situation gives me hope. Do you really think you can help?“

This was the Renfield I remembered from before he tranked me, but was he being honest with me this time? Did he really do it to save my life and Brubaker's? I wasn't willing to trust him, but if he wanted rope, I'll give it to him. If he hanged himself, that was his problem. “I'm willing to try, but I need you to answer my questions as honestly as you can. No more bullshit. And you'd bloody well better get my equipment back.“

Brubaker glanced at Renfield a moment. «Are you sure this is a good idea?»

Not that he needed to be close to me when using secure talk, but it wasn't worth addressing right now. «No, but I think Petersen, Collins, and Robinson are using Dusk Patrol for their own purposes. The soldiers believe they're protecting themselves by preserving their former superiors’ secrets, and we're not going to change that until we expose the truth.»

«Fine. Then ask Renfield about Tetragrammaton. Even I know a computer like that wouldn't just be sitting in an abandoned town like Clarion if it was still in working condition.»

Now there was a good point. Why did Clarion have a working General Atomic mainframe in a random building's back room?

“You two done with your telepathy, or however the fuck you're talking to each other in secret?“ Renfield's tone held a note of disapproval, which was fair enough. We were being rude by having a private conversation right in front of the man.

“You know anything about that mainframe we've got in town, Tetragrammaton?“ Brubaker blurted the question before I could regain control of the situation.

“Fuck off, kid. I saw you leaning close to Naomi. Is that what you were discussing with her?“

“Actually, Mike was questioning the wisdom of trusting you.“ And under the maglev he went. It wasn't personal, but I couldn't have him making enemies on my behalf. Not when I could do an adequate job of it myself. “We aren't necessarily at cross purposes, Sergeant. You want what's best for your men. I'm looking out for the people of Clarion, which includes your crew. Leaving the status quo untouched serves nobody but Petersen, Collins, and Robinson—and I say bollocks to the lot of ‘em.“

Renfield did not speak, but the changes in his expression were an eloquent representation of his struggle. Facing the truth that the officers he trusted didn't have Dusk Patrol's best interests in mind couldn't be easy.

We sat together, waiting for Renfield to decide how far he was willing to go. Without a word, Mike reached into his pack and offered us a breakfast of protein bars, jerky, and bottled water. I whispered my thanks, but Renfield shook his head. I was halfway through the packet of jerky when he finally spoke. “I can help you, but it will be risky. We have to go back down.“

“Back underground?“ If Dusk Patrol had learned anything, it was the importance of vigilance. They wouldn't all sleep at the same time. Instead, they'd sleep in shifts and keep watch. If they patrolled the underground, in addition to guarding the barracks, they might find us and wake the rest. “That's suicidal.“

“Only if we're noisy. I'll be taking you to a location well away from the barracks. None of us would willingly go there.“

I touched Renfield's shoulder. “If it's bad, do you want to wait for us outside?“

“You'd get lost down there. Besides, you're right. It's time to show the world what our country did to us. But won't your bosses find a way to bury the information if they already have it?“

“Let's worry about that later. We should find the truth before we worry about exposing it.“

“Come on. We don't want to be there long.“ Renfield spoke with the impatience of a man who had committed himself to an unpleasant task and wanted to see it completed as soon as possible. Without a word, he led us to a doctor's office at the infirmary.

A dead General Atomic terminal sat forlorn on a desktop cluttered with issues of medical and biological journals like The Haemostat and Organelle. An issue of the latter featured a paper called “Asura Potential: Activating Mitochondrial Overdrive in CPMD+ Individuals” by Desdinova, Malkin, et al. The names rang faint bells, so I added the paper to my ‘read later’ list and moved on.

Renfield stopped at a door bearing an “Authorized Personnel Only” placard. Beyond lay what appeared to be a closet full of filing cabinets until Renfield reached behind one and tripped a switch. The back wall opened to reveal a stairwell.

Whatever was buried down here, it was buried even deeper than the rest of the fort's subterrane. We picked our way down twelve flights of stairs lit only by faint red LEDs, double the flights of stairs we had just climbed to reach the surface earlier. At the bottom of the stairs, flanked by empty guard stations, we found a second door bearing the following sign:

        Commonwealth Advanced Research Projects Agency
                PROJECT HARKER
        Special Clearance Level ASURA Required
    All personnel must submit to search on entry and exit.

Without a word, Renfield opened the door and stepped back with an ashen face and trembling hands. “I should keep watch outside. There are too many memories in there for me.“

Track 45

The Rolling Stones: “You Can't Always Get What You Want”

Tempted as I was to offer to hold Renfield's hand, I refrained from doing so lest he think I was mocking him. Besides, I didn't have time to comfort him, nor was I sure we had the sort of relationship that would let me do so. Instead, I turned to Brubaker. “Mike, can you keep watch outside with Christopher? He might appreciate the company.“

Renfield's snarl put the lie to his words. “I'll manage.“

“Look, if you want to wait outside by yourself, that's fine. However, I could use you beside me. You did say we'd get lost down here.“

Renfield remained pale, but his hands steadied as he took a deep breath and mastered himself. “I'll guide you, but don't make me go in there first. Please.“

Unwilling to make a big deal of the situation, I shrugged, opened the door partway, and felt around inside. I soon found the light switches, and flipped them all at once, banishing the gloom with the cold white glow of flickering florescent lights.

Based on Renfield's initial refusal to cross the threshold, I half-expected a pseudoscientific torture chamber with blood smeared floors and walls, rusty, crude medical instruments encrusted with old gore, and machinery whose function I dared not guess for my sanity's sake. Instead, the lab was clean aside from a bit of dust. Computers quietly hummed, their screens prompting me for passwords I did not possess and lacked the time to crack.

Halfway across the lab on the left was a door marked “Isolation Cells.“ Opposite it, the pharmacy door stood slightly ajar. At the back loomed a door marked “Records/Computer.“ Hopefully, it was the one to lead me to the answers, because I doubted I would find them in the isolation cells or the pharmacy.

“At first, I'd just wake up down here after laying down in my rack for the night.“ Renfield's voice was small and quiet. “That wasn't so bad, though nobody would ever tell me why they kept taking my blood, or what the hell they were injecting into me. It got worse when I started waking up in one of those goddamn isolation cells.“

Though beginning to shudder, Renfield threw open the door to the isolation cells. He reached inside and turned on the lights. Robotic arms equipped with an array of surgical implements awaited a victim. “Once they were sure they had made me into something new, they started cutting on me to see how my body reacted. I never knew who; it was all done by remote control so the doctors wouldn't hear me screaming.“

It stood to reason that Project Harker involved the vivisection of test subjects after they had been altered, presumably to test for enhanced healing and regenerative capabilities. I should have been shocked. This right here was why Adversaries like me existed. Violations of this nature were what I swore to oppose. “What about your men?“

“I was the first.“

“It can't have been that bad.“ Though Brubaker had muttered the words from the entrance, they sliced through the silent room and bit deep into Renfield. “Since you let them do it to the others.“

I glared at Brubaker for a moment, then turned my back on him to focus on the man behind me. “Are you all right?“

Renfield shrugged, and let me lead him to the pharmacy before speaking again. “He's right. I should have spoken out, and I would have. I think the bastards knew it because I spent a month under sedation in one of the isolation cells while they performed the Renfield Protocol on the others.“

“They named the process after you?“ Talk about profoundly fucked up. They secured Renfield's continued cooperation and ensured he remained dedicated to his men in one simple move. How could he leave them when he felt responsible for their situation? A few information leaks to the men of Dusk Patrol were all the brass needed to undermine him. There was no way they'd follow Renfield if they thought he had sold them out?

“Yeah. Said it was some kind of tribute to my having the balls to be the first volunteer.“ Renfield sighed as he opened the door to the pharmacy so I could examine its contents. “You need to understand, Naomi. We all volunteered. We thought it would make us better soldiers, so we were happy to do it. We just didn't know what it would involve.“

Leaning close to me so that only I might hear him, he added, “And I'm not handling it well. I'm just better at hiding it than the others. Besides, I can't fall apart when my men need me more. I owe these boys.“

I had no words that would ease Renfield's pain, and the memory of how he had seemingly betrayed me to save me from his men still burned too hot for me to willingly offer the touch that might have substituted for words. Instead, I considered the drugs before me. Of the chemicals I recognized, most seemed to be antipsychotics. Did the so-called Renfield Protocol induce psychosis in its subjects? “Renfield, how many of the volunteers were fit for duty after the process was completed? What was the casualty rate?“

“They never gave us exact figures, or told us what happened to the ‘failures’ afterward, but at least a third of us didn't make it. As far as I know, they never even got decent funerals.“

“Would you like to find out what happened to them?“

Renfield's eyes narrowed as he stared at me. “You think you can get that information?“

I didn't want to promise anything, but it was likely the Project Harker scientists would have kept records of who suffered such adverse actions to the Renfield Process that they either died or had to be put down. No doubt the researchers would have justified these murders by invoking the need to maintain secrecy. “I'm willing to try, Sergeant. Let's have a look at the records, shall we?“

Getting past the door was easier said than done since none of Renfield's keys fit. “I thought you had access to everything in the base.“

“I thought I did, too.“ Renfield flipped through his keyring before tossing them to me. “You try it. Maybe I missed one.“

Fair enough. Starting with the first on the ring, I tried each in turn until an unlabeled key turned all the tumblers and disengaged the lock. After turning the latch, I gave the door a gentle push and stepped back. It slowly, silently turned on well-oiled hinges. “Better mark it for next time.“

“I'd rather there never was a next time.“ Renfield clipped the keys to his belt, reached inside, and flipped on the lights.

The room was practically empty. All the bookshelves were bare, nary a filing cabinet to see. The worktables didn't even have dust on them. All that remained was a mainframe humming softly in one corner, so I approached it for a better look. A second bay sat empty as if it once housed another mainframe.

Finding the system console, I sat down in front of it and tried waking it up. The keys responded in a manner that reminded me of the basement under Gibson Hacking Supply, and the screen flared to life and displayed a familiar prompt.

GENERAL ATOMIC MODEL GA-65536

MULTICS VERSION 20481031.23.17

UPTIME 10 YEARS, 321 DAYS, 5 HOURS, 9 MINUTES, AND 6.9 SECONDS

tetragrammaton login:

“Son of a bitch.“ What were the odds of there being two of the same mainframe model in Clarion, running the same version of the same operating system, with similar uptimes, with the same hostname? It was a question I'd have to dump on Malkuth because the best answer I could come up with is not bloody likely. Regardless of probability, it seemed worthwhile to at least try the credentials Cat gave me. If I got in, we had mirrored systems.

Typing them from my photo of Cat's scrap of paper, I hit the enter key and waited for a response. All I got was a shell prompt.

ctricklebank@tetragrammaton $

Now I knew for sure. “This machine's a mirror of the one in Clarion. How is that possible?“

Renfield nodded and pointed at an empty bay that must have housed a second General Atomic mainframe. “Just before everything went to shit, we got orders to take apart one of the mainframes and transport it into town. Some of the brass must have decided it would be a good idea to keep the backup system in a location that wasn't likely to get bombed because it wasn't a legitimate military target. So we lugged the machine over in pieces, set it up, and hooked it to some kind of monster fiber-optic cable that some other people must have run out to the town, and fired it up.“

This could be the break I need. If Petersen was keeping the records for his continued experiments on Tetragrammaton, including that weird breeding program Brubaker insisted the good doctor was running on the townspeople, and the two instances of Tetragrammaton remained in sync, I should be able to access it here. First, however, I still needed admin privileges since Cat had given me her credentials.

I tried the usual command but didn't get the usual response. I got this, instead. Cat, don't forget that if you need to do admin stuff, you can't just use the ‘sudo’ command like you would on Unix. I rigged a ‘su’ alias to the actual privilege escalation command, but you need the admin password, not your own. Nice of the guy to leave that little note for Cat, but it didn't help me much. “Shit.“

“You got the other password?“

“No. Maybe Cat didn't know about this because she never needed it, or had forgotten.“ I tried reaching Mike, but without wifi, my implant was useless. “Do me a favor and take over for Brubaker. I need his help.“

“Right.“ I never heard Renfield leave.

Mike soon showed up, but without the rifle. “Need me to log in?“

Standing, I backed away from the machine so he could sit down. “It's worth a try, but I doubt you have the admin password.“

“We might not need it.“ Mike shrugged. “A couple weeks ago, Tricklebank gave me a shell script he wrote, and asked me to run it and help him test some security patches.“

Typing a command, he sat back and waited for the result. It wasn't what either of us hoped for. “I guess those patches worked. Too bad the poor bastard never got to find out for sure.“

While one shouldn't speak ill of the dead, it was a bloody shame Matt Tricklebank was so good at his job. “Never mind him. Can you get to the network?“

Track 46

The Sisters of Mercy: “A Rock and a Hard Place”

«You're under Fort Clarion? Are you serious?» Malkuth's reply came less than a second after I figured out how to open a secure talk session with him from Tetragrammaton. «Your IP address says you're at Gibson Hacker Supply in Clarion.»

«When they paired the mainframes, they must have set up some kind of spoofing to make all network activity appear to come from the town instead of the base.»

«Never mind all that. What's up? I've been trying to reach you. The Fallen Angels escort got wasted a few kilometers out of Clarion.»

«Haven't you been paying attention to my Witness Protocol feed? I saw what happened to them. Then I got tranked, tied up, and had to houdini my way out of a fucking meat locker.»

That must have made an impression on Malkuth because a minute elapsed before his next response. «Any idea what happened to the kids the Angels were supposed to escort?»

«The bastards living under Fort Clarion got ‘em. Unfortunately, I've uncovered new evidence suggesting that they might not have been innocent victims. I have Brubaker with me, and he confirmed Sergeant Renfield's allegation that the local kids got in and killed several soldiers in their sleep.»

«He's the kid you thought might make a good Adversary. You're keeping him safe, right?»

«Of course I'm keeping him safe, but look, I'm down here surrounded by decades of profoundly fucked up history with Renfield and Brubaker. We've gone unnoticed thus far, but my luck won't hold out forever. I'm using our best shot at figuring out what's actually happening here.»

«What do you think is happening?»

That it was the obvious question didn't stop me from dreading it. «I suspect Dr. Petersen, Mayor Collins, and Sheriff Robinson of conspiring to commit multiple murders to conceal the continued existence of survivors from Dusk Patrol.»

Damn AI kept me waiting several minutes this time, which suggested he wasn't just thinking it over, but talking with the sort of people who give me my orders. «Your reports and Witness Protocol data show a reasonable basis for such inferences. However, we need evidence.»

«I think the evidence is here on Tetragrammaton, but I need a search warrant and help to escalate my privileges so I can get at the data. Oh, and a quick rundown on the Multics shell.» Cat's husband might have provided POSIX compatibility for users who wanted to stick with Unix-style commands rather than learn a new system, but I wouldn't be surprised if he considered it a crutch and refused to use it himself. «The fact that somebody bothered to maintain a constant connection between these mainframes suggests that Tetragrammaton isn't just some clever boffin's salvage project.»

«Agreed. Take down this warrant ID for reference.» Malkuth followed with the usual hexadecimal string, which I filed away using my implant. No way I'd remember it without augmented memory. «Be careful down there. If you're right about the two machines being linked, you might want to consider retreating to town. By the time you get back, I'll have sent you code for the privilege escalation you need. In the meantime I will see what information I can copy over should anything go wrong.»

«Right. Disconnecting now.» Once I had cleaned up after myself and logged out, I turned to Brubaker and Renfield. “Change of plans, guys. We're going to get the hell out of here, and search Tetragrammaton in town.“

“Not likely.“ A vaguely familiar voice spoke behind us as men clicked off their rifles’ safeties.

Turning to face them, I recognized their leader. He was the soldier I had left alive but severely wounded, the night of Scott Wilson's murder. “Hello again.“

My greeting didn't amuse him. “Renfield, I told you to kill your fuck toy once you were done with her.“

“And when did a sergeant ever take orders from a corporal, Seward?“ Renfield advanced upon the other men, heedless of the soldiers’ rifles trained on him. “Adversary Bradleigh is trying to help us.“

“She's a British spy.“

“There is no United Queensreach of Great Britain anymore, numbnuts.“ Renfield swept a hand through the air as if to brush off an irrelevant past. “Just like there's no longer a North American Commonwealth. I keep telling you people, but you just don't get it. You're too busy listening to Robinson's bullshit.“

“Gentlemen, Sergeant Renfield is right. I am here to help, though matters have grown rather complicated. It seems some of you have been killing residents of Clarion, presumably because they've trespassed on Fort Clarion and -“

“They killed Jones. And Casey!“ One of the soldiers interrupted me.

Another soldier joined in. “They snuck down here while we were sleeping, drove wooden stakes into their hearts, and cut off their goddamn heads. Those superstitious idiots think we're vampires.“

“Look at where we are. I am aware of the experiments. Renfield told me about Project Harker and the psychological warfare that resulted from it. I've read the D Corps novels, and I understand some of you took inspiration from the books into battle.“

Seward glared at Renfield. “What else did you tell her?“

“Dammit, Seward, she's on our side. She says the Phoenix Society can help us go back to the world. We don't have to live like this any longer.“

“And you believe her?“ Seward sneered before remembering my presence. “What else did you tell Renfield while you two were fucking? Did you say to him that there was a cure for the process that made us what we are? Did you promise him that nobody would try to figure out what made us what we are and try to use that knowledge to create more like us?“

“Naomi didn't-“

Though I appreciated Renfield speaking in my defense, I cut him off. These were charges I had to answer myself if I wanted any credibility. “Corporal Seward, I made no claims concerning the possibility of reversing the Renfield Protocol. I am not aware of how it actually works since I have not yet accessed the Project Harker archives stored on the computer behind me. The process may, in fact, be irreversible. Regardless of whether that's actually the case, I could not in good conscience promise a cure, because I'm not a scientist.“

“No, you aren't.“ Seward glanced at the sword on my hip. “I doubt any scientist would fight as you did that night. You realize we expect you to answer for killing one of us, don't you?“

“Is the right to self-defense exclusively yours, Corporal Seward?“

“Maybe not, but even if you didn't have our blood on your hands, you tried to protect our brothers’ murderers. You're protecting one of them now.“

Brubaker tightened his grip on my rifle. “I spoke out. I told them to leave you alone. They wouldn't listen.“

“Talk's cheap, kid. You were there and didn't do anything to stop them. You didn't even report them to civilian authorities, did you?“ Seward's words dripped venom, but I said nothing. Though Brubaker had said he went to the Sheriff, he could be lying. If he had witnessed the murders of several Dusk Patrol soldiers in their sleep and didn't report them, then he was an accessory, and I would perforce arrest him. Perhaps that was a way to keep him safe.

Brubaker reddened at the accusation. “The Hell I didn't! I went straight to Sheriff Robinson. I told him everything, and he did nothing but tell me to keep quiet if I knew what was good for me.“

Before anybody could say anything, I wrested my rifle from Brubaker's grasp and smacked him upside the head. “When were you planning to mention that he did nothing about it, but told you to keep quiet and used threats to secure your silence? I could have arrested that son of a bitch already on a textbook abuse-of-power charge.“

Brubaker looked away, his voice barely audible. “I didn't think you could protect me. And I was right, wasn't I? You couldn't even protect my friends.“

“See?“ Seward spread his hands. “He doesn't care about anybody but himself and his gang. No way Robinson would tell a witness to stay quiet. We know the guy. He looks out for us.“

“He turned you into mushrooms.“ How can Seward and the rest of Dawn Patrol not realize that the people they trusted are screwing them over? “Your so-called superiors are keeping you in the dark and feeding you bullshit. They use your fear of Project Harker's secrets getting out into the world to keep you here, where every once in a while some rebellious kids nobody really cares about might get lucky and take a few of your heads.“

Seward shrugged. “Maybe you're right, but why should we trust you?“

“I don't give a toss if you idiots believe me or not. You tried to kill me, remember, and threatened to do worse because I had the temerity to fight back. Regardless, you should know that the secret is already out. The Phoenix Society already knows everything about Project Harker.“

One of the soldiers spat on the floor. “So we should trust you, some pale bitch nobody knows? Why should we? Because you look like a Tomcat Treat from way back when?“

Is that what Tomcat called their models? Doesn't matter. If I'm going to get these people to trust me long enough for us to get out of here without a fight, there's only one way. If I let them have Brubaker, they'd kill him. If I didn't make a show of authority against Brubaker, they'd come after both of us. Sure, I'm throwing him under a maglev again, but it might be the safest place for him right now. “Michael Brubaker, you are under arrest on the charge of abetting abuses of power on the part of one Sheriff Robinson of Clarion.“

It was a bullshit charge, one that might play here but not in court, but I still had to do it properly. That meant notifying Brubaker of his rights to remain silent, consult an attorney, use the network to prepare his defense, be tried by a jury, and be treated humanely in custody. “Do you understand your rights as a person accused of a crime, Mr. Brubaker?“

He wouldn't look at me, and wouldn't answer at first. I was about to repeat my recital when he finally spoke up. “I understand.“

Renfield was kind enough to offer me a zip tie, which allowed me to secure Brubaker's hands behind his back. Once I had him bound, I turned to Seward and the rest of Dusk Patrol. “Are you satisfied? Michael Brubaker will receive the due process of law. There is no need for further violence.“

Seward shook his head. “You think you can make a show of arresting him in front of us, and then set him free as soon as you're out of our sight.“

“That's not happening. The arrest is on record. I cannot dismiss the charges on my own, so Mr. Brubaker's fate is now up to a jury to decide.“

With a sign from Corporal Seward, the remnants of Dusk Patrol surrounded me, Brubaker, and Renfield. Seward himself took a place beside me. “And we're going to make sure he faces that jury. If he doesn't, you're going to face us.“

Track 47

Elvis Presley: “Jailhouse Rock”

We must have made a hell of a sight, marching back into Clarion with a sizable Dusk Patrol contingent escorting us. Fortunately, none of them knew I had an implant that allowed me to send texts over an encrypted connection.

With Robinson a suspect, I couldn't ask him to help me turn the tables on our uniformed friends. Since I lacked the authority to muster them myself, I couldn't count on militia support. That left Deputy Colby, and maybe Kaylee. Between the two of them, I might manage to gather sufficient forces to subdue my escort without the Sheriff's interference. «Deputy Colby, I could use your help. Same with you, Kaylee.»

«What's up?»

Kaylee's reply wasn't nearly as guarded. «Naomi? The last anybody saw of you, you had taken Mike up to your room. So, how was he?»

«Kaylee! I'd never take advantage like that. Deputy Colby, can you and Kaylee round up some deputies and a small militia detachment without tipping off Sheriff Robinson or Mayor Collins? I need some backup while making an arrest. I'd rather this didn't become a lynching.»

«Who the hell are you arresting?»

«A bunch of soldiers living under Fort Clarion, for the murders of Yoder, Wilson, Foster, and a bunch of other kids. They're escorting Mike Brubaker and me back to town right now. I've also got Brubaker in custody.»

«For murder?»

If I told Colby I meant to nail Robinson on a tyranny charge, would she still be willing to help me? Or would she feel she owes Robinson? Better not take chances by telling her too much. «Protective. He's a material witness, but I had to put on a show.»

«Can't you get support from the Phoenix Society?»

As if I had time to say pretty-please and deal with the all bureaucratic bollocks the Society puts in the way of Adversaries in need of backup. Not that I'd tell Colby or Kaylee anything of the sort. «HQ prefers we attempt to cooperate with local authorities first.»

«OK.» Seeing that response was a relief, but a temporary one. «Just tell me one thing: is the Sheriff involved in this, too? He's been getting this shifty-eyed look lately whenever that old army base comes up.»

«Pfft. Mayor Collins always looks like that.»

Thanks, Kaylee. Glad I'm not the only one who thinks so. «I'm not sure how much I could divulge without compromising the investigation. Let's just say he's on my radar.»

«Fair enough.» Good thing Colby didn't press the issue. «I'll round up as many as I can. We'll be waiting when you get here.»

“Who were you talking to?“ One of the soldiers barked at me. He pressed his fingertips to his ear, a gesture used to indicate to others around us we were using our implants. “I saw you doing this. It means you're on the phone with somebody, right?“

Damn. It's always the little things that trip you up, like an ingrained habit of pressing a fingertip to your ear so people don't think you're ignoring them. “You're right. I was on the phone. My mother called.“

Another soldier snickered. “Yeah, right. What did dear old mum want? Grandkittens?“

If a CPMD- person had said anything of the sort, I'd take it as a slur. Coming from another with CPMD, it was merely rude. An old, worn sign placed by the Commonwealth gave me the perfect lie. “She thinks I'm on vacation. I told her I'm out hiking and met some interesting men, but none of them were really my type.“

“Hear that, guys? Princess thinks we're not her type.“

“Well, you did ruin it for the rest of us.“ Another soldier shrugged. “What's the problem? If her mom brings backup, we'll just slit this bitch's throat and the kid's.“

It was just as well that they announced his intent. Knowing they'd kill Brubaker and me if I had called in support meant I wouldn't have to feel guilty about going all-out if it came to violence. Not killing more of Dusk Patrol would be pleasant, but I had a witness to protect and dreams to pursue once I had served my time as an Adversary.

Nobody said anything of substance the rest of the march back to Clarion. My unease grew as we approached the town, for there was no sign of the Sheriff's department or town militia. Instead, the streets were full of residents going about their regular business and visitors beginning to stream in for the annual Clarion Rocks music festival. They recoiled at our approach, though I suspect the tendency of some of the soldiers to leer at young women had something to do with that.

It wasn't until we reached the Clarion police department headquarters that Deputy Colby sprang her trap. As we approached, there was a sudden rumble of boots on the pavement around us as Sheriff's deputies and civilians armed with shotguns, farm implements, and a sledgehammer encircled us. Colby had barely stepped up when the soldiers of Dusk Patrol put their hands up. I suppose they realized they had little chance of taking out a force of two hundred when they numbered less than twenty.

One of the men slowly stepped forward, his empty hands held high. “Can you guarantee our safety if we surrender?“

Colby nodded. “I can ensure that nobody will harm you and yours under my command, but I must place you and your men under arrest for murder.“

Indignant shouts rose from the men. “But they murdered our friends first.“ “This is bullshit!“

I expected Renfield to say something, to make some attempt at persuading the men who once followed him, and now seemed to follow Corporal Seward. Instead, he remained silent. He approached Deputy Colby a step at a time, making no sudden movements that a deputy or irregular with shaky nerves and an itchy trigger finger might mistake for aggression. When he was three steps away from Colby, he turned to face his men and held his hands behind his back for the handcuffs.

The other Dusk Patrol survivors followed him into the jail, escorted by Colby's deputies. Most of the civilian volunteers dispersed. Kaylee was last to leave, giving a parting wink and a text admonition. «Enjoy him while you can.»

I tried to ignore her as she sashayed past Mike and slapped his ass on the way. Soon I was alone with him. He glanced at the jail. “You aren't going to put me in there with them, are you?“

“I'm not sure there's room. So it looks like you're my prisoner.“

He studied me, as if not sure if I was joking. “You really think I aided and abetted Sheriff Robinson's tyranny by keeping quiet?“

Shrugging, I led Brubaker away from the Sheriff's Department. A smart kid like him should have figured out by now that the charge was mainly theater. “It kept those soldiers from lynching you, and gives me an excuse to keep you close that Robinson can't overrule.“

That got the wheels turning in his head. “So, if he tries to take me from you, you can nail him for interfering with your investigation?“

“I knew you'd figure it out.“ Unfortunately, that still left Renfield where Robinson could get at him, but I was more concerned about Brubaker. At his age, Renfield ought to be perfectly capable of taking care of himself.

“What's next, then? Back to the Lonely Mountain? You still haven't gotten any info out of Tetragrammaton.“

That was more accurate than I cared to admit. With a suddenly full jail, I doubted the Sheriff's department would get underfoot, which provided a golden opportunity to do some data mining. Besides, I also had an incoming message notification. Looks like Malkuth not only came through with the search warrant, but cracked Tetragrammaton and gave me the keys.

Regardless, a return to The Lonely Mountain seemed an excellent idea. I needed to eat, and a hot shower would be nice. Then again, duty demanded I get back to work immediately. Amid conflicting claims on my time, reason asserted herself and forced a compromise: eat first, then head back to Gibson Hacker Supply.

Fate, or at least Dr. Petersen, had other plans. As soon as we had taken a table in The Lonely Mountain's restaurant, the doctor took a chair right across from Brubaker and me. “I hear you had a rough night at Fort Clarion. Were you injured?“

“I'm fine, but the same can't be said for some of your younger patients.“

The lack of emotion in Petersen's expression and voice meant something. “A tragic and unfortunate loss. They were witnesses under your protection, were they not?“

They were, you son of a bitch, and if I find the slightest scrap of evidence of your involvement in their deaths, I will bloody well crucify you. Not that I said anything of the sort. “A smart Adversary learns when to delegate. Fortunately, I already saw to it that the culprits are in custody.“

Petersen steepled his fingers before him and regarded me in silence a moment. “Yes, you did. You managed to persuade Dusk Patrol to surrender. That makes you a most intriguing young lady. I wonder, what will you do next?“

He wonders, does he? I smiled at him and the approaching Bruce Halford. I hoped the good doc could handle disappointment, because right this moment my plans consisted entirely of an outrageously large breakfast. “Hi, Bruce. The usual for me and Mr. Brubaker, please.“

“No problem. What about the doctor?“

Physician, feed thyself. I would get to Petersen soon enough. Once I had enough dirt to bury the son of a bitch.

Track 48

Ozzy Osbourne: “Zombie Stomp”

It was incredible how far a good breakfast and a couple of mugs of hot coffee could go toward substituting for a good night's sleep. By the time I finished my second cup, I actually felt capable of rational thought. Which was a good thing, since I still had work to do at Gibson Hacker Supply.

My use of the Clarion Sheriff's Department to ambush Dusk Patrol and arrest them en masse had a useful side effect: there wasn't anybody guarding Tricklebank's shop. All I had to do was open the door, and walk right in. One small problem, though. “Bloody door is locked. Figures.“

Mike nodded toward the alley. “Probably a good idea to use a back door, anyway.“

We ducked down the alley to the narrow street behind Gibson Hacker Supply and gave the doorknob a quick turn. That one was also locked, but Mike seemed unperturbed.

Checking his surroundings first, he crouched by the back door and produced a small case. He appeared to know something about the locksmith's trade, for he took a moment to study the lock before picking specific tools for the job. “When I was six, my grandpa caught me fiddling with these little darlings. He taught me how to use ‘em, and put me to work. Guess he thought it better than having me learning how to use them on my own out on the street.“

“Could be a handy skill for an Adversary.“ Though problematic as hell from an evidentiary standpoint. Would any information I gathered as a result of this bit of breaking and entering be admissible in court?

“Yeah, but I was the one who got the others inside Fort Clarion. If I didn't know how to pick locks, they'd all be alive.“

“Are you sure you're not blaming yourself so you can make sense of what's been happening?“

His hands stopped as he looked over his shoulder at me. “The hell does that mean?“

“Your friends are dead. Telling yourself it's your fault won't bring any of them back. They might have died without your involvement. Let's focus on making sure nobody else dies.“

Mike shook his head, tried the latch, and opened the door a crack. He put away his tools in silence before holding the door for me. “Has anybody ever mentioned you sometimes sound like a stuck-up bitch?“

“Maybe it's just the posh accent.“

“Whatever.“ Mike closed the door behind us and flipped on the lights. “Once we saw the soldiers sleeping, I got out of there. I told the others to do the same, but they didn't listen. Renfield said that my friends tried slitting one guy's throat. When that didn't work, they hacked his head off.“

Unable to keep from imagining the scene, I shuddered. It was the sort of thing that made the news every now and then. Some junkie with purist beliefs catching someone like me alone and unarmed in a dark street. But Clarion was an integrated community. There was no reason to suspect an anti-CPMD sentiment. It was simply that the level of hatred driving the crime had been similar. “You don't want to believe your friends were capable of such brutality.“

“Would you?“ Mike spat the words in disgust. “Goddammit, I shouldn't have said anything in the first place. It isn't your problem.“

He was right, but I wasn't going to say so. Doing so would indeed make me a bitch. Instead, I had work to do. “Get behind cover and watch the street. Warn me if company comes.“

Opening the door to the back room, I froze in the doorway at the sight of Mayor Collins wearing safety glasses and holding a sledgehammer aloft. He brought the hammer down on the keyboard, scattering shattered plastic everywhere. The ring of my sword clearing the scabbard caught Collins’ attention as he raised his hammer to strike another blow. “Mayor Collins, you are under arrest for destroying evidence and obstruction of justice. Drop your weapon and put your hands behind your head.“

Mayor Collins turned toward me, still grasping his hammer. Realizing he had no intention of complying, I steeled myself for his assault.

He rushed me, holding his hammer before him as if he meant to drive its head through my chest. If he was smart enough to do that instead of taking a swing that would leave him open, then he was smart enough to be dangerous.

Stepping aside, I slashed at his forearm, the tip of my blade parting wool and silk before biting into flesh. I had drawn first blood, but my cut wasn't deep enough to weaken his grip.

Worse, he was fast. Pivoting, he jabbed at me with his weapon and caught my shoulder with a glancing blow. “You couldn't just have your little vacation and leave, could you? Well, Adversary, you're going to become a statistic.“

Opening his forearm again, I followed with a cut across his cheek. “It'll be a cold day in Hell before I die at the hands of a flunky like you.“

That got a laugh out of Collins. “Well, pretty kitty, I hear they're playing hockey on the Styx right now.“

“That was actually a halfway decent rejoinder.“ But not good enough to keep me from cutting him again. “You really think Renfield will let you get away with killing me? Hell, you think the Phoenix Society will let my death go?“

“Renfield might mourn because you're the best poontang he's had in decades, but he'll get over it.“ Collins shrugged, deflecting my thrust with the haft of his sledgehammer. “In the meantime, he'll do his job and keep the men in line. He'll be reliable again, just like he was before you showed up.“

“Not bloody likely, given that I persuaded him and a couple dozen of his men to surrender. They're in jail right now.“ Collins hesitated, and I took the opportunity to run him through. He fell to his knees, holding a hand to his chest as blood leaked from his mouth. “And when they get out, do you really think they'll go back to being your pet killers? Logic dictates that it's more likely they'll turn on you like wild animals kept too long in a small cage.“

“Too bad you won't live to see it happen.“ Wait a minute. Collins’ voice was loud and clear. He didn't sound anything like a man who had just had a foot of steel driven through his lung, and the cuts on his face had vanished. He rose and took a swing at me that I barely dodged. “There are arrangements in place.“

“Naomi! Down!“ That was Mike's voice and the metallic clunk characteristic of a pump-action shotgun. Damned right I was getting down.

Mayor Collins staggered backward with each blast of buckshot Mike unloaded into his chest. Yet he not only remained standing but smiled as he tore the tattered remains of his jacket and shirt from his shoulders and threw them aside. The ruined flesh of his torso knit together, and his figure grew slimmer, as Mike dropped shells in his frantic haste to reload.

No human should be able to do that, but I didn't have time to fuck around. Without a better idea, I grasped the dull base of my blade to stabilize it. Charging the Mayor, I drove the point through his throat so that it pierced his spine and pinned him to the wall. “Mike!“

He tossed me the pump action, and I squeezed off the first shot as soon as I had the muzzle pressed between Collins’ eyebrows. His body began to slacken in death, but rather than take chances, I kept firing until I had reduced his head to a pulp.

Mike dropped the shotgun as soon as I handed it to him. “What the fuck just happened?“

Good question. Dusk Patrol had been enhanced as part of Project Harker. Among other advantages, they now had a regenerative capacity. But they were an all CPMD+ unit. Collins was CPMD- and had not been a victim of Project Harker. If Collins was able to regenerate, and this quickly, who else was equipped with this ability? Robinson? The good doctor himself? All I knew was that like those Dusk Patrol soldiers I fought in the woods, you had to attack the brain to kill them. Welcome to my zombie apocalypse. “I think Dr. Petersen continued Project Harker's work in secret. He managed to apply its treatments to Mayor Collins.“

“Is that even possible?“

I pointed at what was left of the man's face. “I'd suggest asking him, but you'd have to find a competent necromancer first. Pick up the used shells. We must escape before we're caught. Even with Witness Protocol to back my account, a jury probably isn't going to believe I emptied a shotgun into the Mayor in self-defense because he just wouldn't die.“

Mike nodded and tossed me the thumb drive containing my HermitCrab environment as I began wiping down every surface we had touched. This would look terrible at my all-but-inevitable court martial, but right now I was more concerned about delaying untrustworthy local authorities. “If they were aware of this mainframe, they probably know about the other. You should be able to connect from my hideout; the signal reaches out there.“

Cleaning my blade on a scrap of Collins’ tattered shirt, I found I couldn't blame Mike for not wanting to stick around. I didn't want to, either. However, the basement wouldn't do. It wasn't even close to being defensible since we'd be trapped down there with our enemies controlling the only exit. “The basement's no good from a tactical standpoint, and if Petersen and Robinson are watching Tetragrammaton, they're probably watching for external access. We have to try the other mainframe under Fort Clarion, and upload whatever data we can find from there.“

Track 49

AC/DC: “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap”

When I first paired my Conquest with my implant, it was so the bike could send information like current speed, charge remaining, engine temperature, and tire pressure directly to my implant's visual overlay instead of making me glance at little dials. It was a standard feature, and I thought nothing of it until my implant displayed a notification telling me that my bike was five kilometers away, and asking if I wanted to call it. As a lark, I chose the “call bike” option. A few minutes later, my Conquest trundled up Main Street and stopped in front of me.

Mike stared at my ride, no doubt as surprised as I. “Naomi, did you know that thing had autopilot?“

“No. That's what I get for not reading the manual.“ And if Jacob Spinoza had told me this bike could steer itself, I might not have haggled so hard.

Not that reading the documentation stopped us from going off-road, with Mike clinging to my waist for dear life. He pressed his face into my shoulder, which in other circumstances might have been cute. No doubt a collaboration between marketing and legal came up with the warning that Conquest motorcycles weren't designed for such use, for the bike performed almost as well off-road as it did on the highway. It just didn't look as nice spattered with mud. Nor did I, for that matter.

Of course, we left a nice clear trail for anybody who wanted to follow us. It had started to rain while we were inside Gibson Hacker Supply, and the ground quickly softened enough that a bike with two riders left tracks screaming Naomi went this way. However, getting there on foot in this weather would have taken much longer.

I'll admit that my plan's sanity was questionable. Here I was, returning to Dusk Patrol's home base, where several of them no doubt still slept. The only upside to returning to Fort Clarion was that I might manage to avoid further civilian casualties.

Further civilian casualties other than Mike, of course, and he seemed capable of fighting beside me. At least, he kept himself together when we faced Mayor Collins, and appeared to know his away around the designated marksman rifle he filched from the armory. My superiors would bitch about the discrepancy between my report and what their arms control crew actually found.

Fuck ‘em. If we were to make a stand here, we might as well be properly equipped. I was about to emulate Mike's example and grab a carbine with a grenade launcher mounted under the barrel when I saw him pick up an object marked ‘Front Toward Enemy.‘ “Is this what I think it is? And why are you grinning like that?“

Why? Because I just had a deliciously evil idea. If I really wanted to fuck with Dusk Patrol, what better way than to use their own weapons to deny them access to their arsenal? The Network of Things had infiltrated the military, resulting in mines a soldier could detonate with a smartphone or rig to explode if anybody else approached.

The last thing anybody dumb enough to get too close would hear before the bang would be a keening scream. “I had forgotten the Commonwealth Army had Mandrakes here. Let's set some by the entrance. And see if there's any Semtex.“

“You're going to rig the place to blow if somebody else comes in here?“

“Oh yeah. So grab plenty of ammo; we won't be able to come back for more.“ While Mike scurried off, I set my traps. With a bunch of shriekers slaved to each other, the first schmuck to set foot in here would get his legs blown out from under him and blow up every bit of ammo and explosives in the building. I was sure to catch hell from the Phoenix Society for this bit of dirty pool, especially if some local idiot kid picked tonight to go exploring, but right now I had more pressing concerns.

Besides, all was fair in love and war.

Since I had a couple of shriekers left, I took them with me. I could rig them in front of the entrance to the watchtower. They'd hurt somebody, and give Mike and me warning we were about to have company. Speaking of Mike, I should probably see if he's actually any good with that rifle. “How accurate are you with that weapon?“

Mike shrugged, and pointed skyward, where a flock of Canada geese called out to one another with harsh cries as they flew south. A lone straggler trailed behind, its flight path erratic. “See that goose flying alone?“

“You want to bring Dusk Patrol down on our heads?“

Mike shrugged but kept his rifle pointed at the ground and his finger away from the trigger. Good enough for now, so I hefted the backpack full of supplies I looted from the mess hall. “Come on. Do we need anything else before we hole up? I really don't want to push my luck any further without cause.“

“Don't think so. We're armed, we've got some food and water, and you grabbed a laptop from Gibson Hacker. Right?“

Recalling the banknotes worth 250mg of gold I left on the counter, I nodded. “Yeah. Nothing fancy, but it'll run HermitCrab and let me talk to Tetragrammaton over secure shell unless somebody cuts the power to both machines.“

“So, where do we make our stand?“

“The western tower.“ I turned and began walking toward it, and Mike had my back. At least in the tower, we'd have the advantage of elevation. Even if they surrounded us, we would see them coming from all sides and snipe at them as they approached.

The stairs leading up were also defensible. It was a tight space and placing mandrakes at the entrance would only make entry more difficult. Between some flashbangs appropriated from the armory and the late Matt Tricklebank's shotgun, we should be well placed to hold our own.

The top of the watchtower had a Tesla point. At least I wouldn't have to worry about the battery running out. Not that I expected to need ten hours, but sometimes it was the little things that made the difference. While HermitCrab ran through its startup scripts, I took in Fort Clarion from above.

While the immediate vicinity of the towers themselves was quite open, the barracks and other buildings provided more cover than I would have liked for attackers. There was no way we could secure the individual buildings, let alone ensure they remained so. Hopefully, Dusk Patrol didn't have high-powered rifles stashed underground, or something ridiculous like a recoilless rifle or a rocket launcher. They couldn't all be in jail. I'm not that lucky.

With that cheery thought, I picked up my laptop and connected to Tetragrammaton via secure shell. Fortunately, I got a strong signal high up above the base, and the damage Mayor Collins had done to Tetragrammaton's console and chassis hadn't brought the computer down. The credentials Malkuth provided earlier gave me the keys to the kingdom. “Mike, I just found your porn stash. You naughty boy.“

“That's just for show, in case my parents ever got into my account and went poking around. Didn't you ever have a fake diary for your parents to find?“

“I didn't have the sort of relationship with my parents that made such subterfuge necessary. Also, I left home to study in New York when I was fourteen.“

“Damn.“ Mike shook his head and scanned the base through his scope. “I wish I had had the nerve to do that.“

“You had the nerve to fight beside me.“

“Thanks.“ Narrowing his eyes, he placed his finger on the trigger, only to remove it a second later. “Just a deer. You find anything yet?“

“I'm in the directory for Petersen Family Medicine right now. If I don't find anything here, I can also hit his personal account and see if he has anything more exciting than porn there.“ Hoping that the grep tool would prove that sometimes old tricks were the best kind, I searched for ‘project harker’ from the command line.

And I got nothing. At least, nothing in the account for Petersen Family Medicine. Same with ‘Dusk Patrol,‘ ‘Harker,‘ and ‘Renfield.‘ Just for chuckles, I tried my own name. Nothing but my records for when I got patched up. Nothing useful there, either.

Time to hit his personal account. Running the same commands I used earlier, I hit paydirt. The output just kept scrolling until I aborted the search. A couple seconds of work, and I tailored my command to list only the directories containing files that mentioned Project Harker. There was only one, named “harker.“

That's where I hit the jackpot. It was all there: requirements, specifications, protocols, security recommendations, and gigabytes of email. Now to find out what role Petersen actually played in all this. Was he Frankenstein, or the unwilling bystander and advocate his men believed him to be? Searching in the email directory for ‘proposal’ and filtering the output by a search for ‘mutiny,‘ I found the following:

from: Col. Henrik Petersen
to: Dr. Ian Malkin
date: 6 May 2046
subject: Risk Management

Dr. Malkin:

I have just finished reading your proposal.

While I agree that the men and women of Dusk Patrol would make excellent
candidates for your experiments, we must tread carefully. They have
rights under the law, and many of them are aware of this fact. They must
be carefully managed lest they mutiny, or speak to the media.

Therefore, it is my suggestion that the authorization for this project
come not from me, but from a general in my chain of command. This will
allow me to credibly act the part of an advocate for my men, protesting
on their behalf against illegal human experimentation.

If I am overruled, but continue to play the advocate, the soldiers will
grudgingly allow themselves to be subjected to your experiments. Lt.
Collins will maintain discipline among the men and punish dissent.

--
Col. Henrik Petersen
North American Commonwealth Army
Fort Clarion, Mid-Atlantic Province

The reply was succinct, and if Project Harker hadn't been Ian Malkin's baby, I might even have liked the man.

from: Dr. Ian Malkin
to: Col. Henrik Petersen
date: 6 May 2046
subject: RE: Risk Management

Your logic is sound, albeit repugnant even to me.

--
Dr. Ian Malkin, CEO
AsgarTech Corporation

I looked up in time to see Mike stand up and stretch. He glanced at me. “Find anything?“

“Only stuff I don't dare share with Renfield or the others if I want to get Petersen and Robinson in front of a jury. But they're not the only people who need a bit of due process.“ That copy of Organelle I saw earlier nagged at me. “Ever hear of somebody named Ian Malkin? He's some kind of scientist researching mitochondria.“

“Nope.“ Mike shrugged. “You're rummaging in Petersen's directory, right? Is there anything about breeding experiments or genetics?“

“Let's have a look.“ ‘Breeding’ or ‘genetic’ might be too specific a term, though, so I started with ‘population.‘ A smart move on my part, because this came up.

from: Col. Henrik Petersen
to: Dr. Ian Malkin
date: 3 June 2049
subject: Further Research

Dr. Malkin:

It is clear that the North American Commonwealth will soon collapse,
especially since I faced no official reprisals for my use of the GUNGNIR
platform against civilian protesters gathering outside the base.
Everybody has more pressing concerns than a bunch of whining hippies who
think we're trying to create a battalion of super-soldiers.

However, I believe that it's too soon to conclude Project Harker. The
research to date has turned up several interesting questions requiring
further investigation.

1.  We don't know what long-term effects the Renfield Protocol will
    have on those it didn't kill outright. A longitudinal study is
    indicated.

2.  We have not attempted to replicate the research with other
    populations. Therefore, we don't know why the Renfield Protocol
    works on some CPMD+ individuals but not others.

3.  We don't have a control group. The most likely candidates would be
    a population of CPMD- individuals.

You seem to know people involved with this new NGO, the Phoenix Society.
Would any of them prove sufficiently sympathetic with our mutual aims to
help repopulate the town of Clarion? With sympathetic allies in local
government, I can pose as a local physician and continue your work in
secret.

In a chaotic world, the Society may need to rule rather than serve. It
cannot do so without soldiers capable of enforcing its dictates. By
continuing the work begun with Project Harker, we can provide these
soldiers.

--
Col. Henrik Petersen
North American Commonwealth Army
Fort Clarion, Mid-Atlantic Province

By the time I had finished reading this, I was shaking. Not only were the suspicions Mike shared with me confirmed, but the truth carried implications that affected me. Did the Phoenix Society use technology developed by Project Harker on Adversaries like me? Had I been subjected to the Renfield Protocol? And who was Ian Malkin?

The last question was one I hoped to answer on my own. Running a search on the name, I found a hit in the metadata for an image file. As I opened it, the screen filled with a high-resolution color photograph of a handsome blue-eyed man wearing a white double-breasted suit with a blue cravat. He was snow-blonde, like me, and the expression of secretive amusement with the world that the photographer captured was one I remembered from my sparring sessions with Maestro. I looked forward to crossing swords with him again.

Track 50

Judas Priest: “Night Comes Down”

“It'll be dark soon. Are you sure we should stay here?“ Mike's unease was evident in his voice, and he was right. We couldn't afford to still be here once night fell. Though I had initially assessed the watchtower as a defensible location, I had done so from the viewpoint of an Adversary fighting human opponents. But we weren't facing regular soldiers, even regular soldiers outfitted with night-vision gear. We were facing what remained of Dusk Patrol. Knowing Robinson, he probably sprang them by now.

But if we left, where would we go? Returning to town would put civilians at risk. Not to mention that word of Collins’ death has most likely circulated by now, which would surely make us persona non grata. If we ran fast enough, would we escape the Fallen Angels’ fate? Now that I had access to the Project Harker data, could we afford to retreat and wait for backup?

Speaking of backup, where the bloody hell was the Phoenix Society's arms control unit? They should have been here already. Time to check with Malkuth, but I'd let Mike listen in so I wouldn't have to explain everything afterward. «You paying attention, Mal?»

«Had I known you'd be so high-maintenance, I wouldn't have asked you for a date.»

«If I had known you weren't man enough to handle me, I wouldn't have accepted. Where's that arms control unit the Society was supposed to send after I completed my survey of Fort Clarion? They'd be really handy right now.»

«How come? You've gotten most of Dusk Patrol to surrender. I doubt they're going to break out of jail overnight. Or do you think Robinson will let them out and sic them on you?»

That was exactly what I suspected Robinson might do, especially if he's found out that Mike and I killed Mayor Collins. While I could prove self-defense, I doubt the Sheriff would let me live long enough to stand trial. «Dusk Patrol has a non-commissioned officer, Corporal Seward, who appears to be more loyal to Robinson than Renfield. Even if Reinfield were able to keep the men already in custody from joining the fray, Robinson could still make my life unnecessarily complicated. So, where's my backup?»

«They'll arrive at 0600 tomorrow morning. Think you can hold out until then?»

Talk about life-or-death decisions. I could either hold out until morning or be Dusk Patrol's latest snack. Considering the weapons we gathered, and Mike's steady gaze through his rifle's scope, I shrugged. There were worse places to make a stand, but I had grown convinced that this wasn't the best place for me to make mine. «What kind of tactical support can you provide?»

«Gevurah can get a satellite over Fort Clarion in forty-five minutes, giving you an eye in the sky. But if you leave the fort, you are not to take any cataloged equipment off-base. That ordnance is Phoenix Society property under the Arms Control and Containment Treaty of 1955.»

Great. We could be moments away from fighting crazy super-soldiers, and Mal's blithering about a century-old treaty whose signatory nations are all history? Fuck him and his treaty sideways. «Given that I booby-trapped the arsenal, that pact's worth fuck-all if Dusk Patrol gets anywhere near it. Furthermore, as an officer of the Phoenix Society, I possess authority under the terms of the ACCT to arm myself and lend Society property to civilian militia.»

Disconnecting from Malkuth, I gave Mike an apologetic smile. “Sorry, kid. You're in the militia now.“

“Least I'll get paid that way. What's the plan?“

“Still working on it.“ Which I was, but an idea came to mind. Since I'm not going to download the Project Harker data to this laptop, why should I stick around to babysit the transfer? Cracking open an editor, I whipped up a shell script that would create an archive of Petersen's home directory and upload it to Malkuth. For good measure, I added a line to upload another copy to one of the virtual lockers Port Royal provides as a public service. Paranoid, of course, but I wanted a copy of the evidence that the Phoenix Society couldn't touch. Just in case.

It didn't take long to do a dry run. I could have run it myself, using a terminal multiplexer in detached mode, but I had a better idea. Saving my script, I made a copy of the scheduler's configuration file and added two lines. One would run my script. The other would clean up after me by moving the original configuration file back into place and deleting my program. Once it was done, I shut down my laptop. “We're done here. Let's bugger off while we've still got some daylight.“

Mike had already packed his gear. In what seemed a token effort at honoring Malkuth's strictures, he took apart the designated marksman's rifle. Grinning, he bent the firing pin before reassembling the gun. Without a new one, the weapon would be useless. “What about the data? And where are we going to go?“

“It's uploading now.“ Though I knew where to go, I hesitated. Without a warrant, the legality of my next move was questionable despite the probable cause the evidence gave me. “We're going to arrest Dr. Petersen.“

“You're going to hold him hostage.“ Mike's tone was flat as he thrust the accusation home.

Unable to deny the nature of my tactic, I held Mike's stare until he turned away. “If you can suggest a way to survive the night that won't stain your conscience, I'd love to hear it. Otherwise, I'm going to do my bloody job and hold the good doctor accountable for his crimes. Hopefully, having him in hand will give Robinson and Dusk Patrol cause to reconsider attacking us.“

“Would the Society approve?“

“That's my concern. No doubt I will face a court martial once this is over, but I'd willingly stand trial if it means exposing Project Harker and bringing Petersen and Robinson to justice.“ Fortunately, my voice didn't quaver and betray just how shaky a foundation my resolve rested upon.

Despite knowing it was pointless to second-guess myself, I spent the ride back to Clarion in internal debate. I was still at it when we parked in front of Dr. Petersen's house. The setting sun threw long shadows across the street. With a knock on the door, I committed myself.

The door opened silently on well-oiled hinges at my touch, and I drew my sword. There was no way Dr. Petersen would leave his door like that, even in a quiet little town like Clarion. “Stay close, and keep the shotgun ready.“

“Right.“

Working one room at a time, we cleared the house. Perhaps I should have ordered Mike to wait outside, but he was safer with me, and this would be good training for him. It wasn't until we opened the stairwell leading to the attic that the rusty iron stink of spilled blood hit us.

At the far end of the attic, we spied Dr. Petersen sprawled on the floor. A Dusk Patrol soldier on his knees hunched over him, and a soft lapping told me everything. That soldier was feeding, and if the doctor's blood still flowed, he might not be beyond help. With a piercing cry, I threw myself forward, driving all my weight and strength behind the point of the sword I held with one hand on the hilt while carefully grasping the base of the blade with the other.

As I hoped, the soldier stood and faced me, impaling himself on my sword. It bit deep into the man's belly and drove him to his knees as the blade glanced off his spine. The arterial red welled at his mouth as his entire blood supply poured into his abdominal cavity from the artery I had sliced open. He wasn't likely to cause further trouble for a while.

Regardless, it never hurt to make sure. Kicking the soldier onto his side, I retrieved my sword before taking his knife. An extra blade might come in handy.

There was a soft click as Mike thumbed his rifle's safety off. “Worry about the doctor. If this asshole moves, I'll blow his fucking head off.“

Glad the kid stepped up, I turned to Dr. Petersen. “Doctor, can you hear me?“

“I'm glad you're here, Natalie. Or were you Nancy?“ Petersen slurred the words, which combined with his confusion over my name suggested he had suffered a concussion before being bitten.

Checking him over, I found no other visible injuries. “Mike, let's have some light.“

“Sure.“ He kept his rifle trained on the soldier as he found a switch.

Observing Dr. Petersen's eyes as the room brightened, I relaxed a little as both his pupils contracted to the same size in response to the glare of the ceiling-mounted light. Still, it was best to be careful, so I flipped Petersen the bird. “How many fingers am I holding up?“

“One. And that's a rather rude gesture for a young lady, Adversary Bradford.“

“It's Bradleigh, Dr. Petersen. Naomi Bradleigh. And ask your subordinate whether I'm a lady.“

Petersen turned his head, his eyes widening. “I'm surprised you didn't kill him.“

Not about to admit that I couldn't bring myself to finish the job, I grinned at the doctor while taking the first-aid kit from my belt. “Like you, he's more useful to me as a prisoner than a carcass.“

I glanced at Mike, who held his shotgun at the ready in case anybody came up the stairs, before patching Petersen's shoulder. He glanced back at me and shook his head. “He's a doctor, ain't he? He can go heal himself.“

Ignoring Mike, I finished the job and packed my kit back up. When I was done, I patted the doctor's leathery cheek. “Think you can manage to make it downstairs with us? I mean to have an intimate chat with you, and I'd rather not do it here. Besides, we need to secure your house.“

“You said something about me being a prisoner. Why?“

That got a chuckle from Mike.

I'd be lying if I didn't admit to a bit of amusement myself, but I had a job to do. “I'm terribly sorry, Dr. Petersen. I must have neglected to inform you that you are under arrest for crimes against humanity.“

Track 51

Metallica: “Disposable Heroes”

“Crimes against humanity?“ Dr. Petersen still slurred his words, though not as badly as before, and reduced what would have been a cry of protest to a bleat. “Adversary Bradleigh, I have no idea how you could possibly suspect me of any such―”

“Project Harker.“ The words knocked the wind from Petersen as surely as if I had punched him in the gut. But before I could continue, Dr. Petersen needed to be informed of his rights. “Colonel Henrik Petersen, you are under arrest for crimes against humanity not limited to unethical experimentation upon human beings without informed consent. You have the right to remain silent―”

“We had the Miranda Warning in the Commonwealth, Adversary. I understand my rights.“

Favoring Dr. Petersen with my sweetest smile, I patted his uninjured shoulder. “I'm sure you know your rights under the old regime, doctor, but we've updated the classic warning. You have additional rights, of which you might not be aware, and because you have suffered a concussion, I absolutely must notify you of them and confirm your understanding.“

“Yes, yes. Representation by an attorney, network access for the preparation of my defense, access to all evidence against me, and humane treatment while in custody.“ Petersen was done slurring his words and now spoke in a clipped, impatient tone. “I have a concussion, not Alzheimer's disease.“

“Excellent. I shall recall that should you attempt to evade a question by claiming a gap in your memory. Now, do you think you can walk?“

Petersen was a bit wobbly on his feet at first but waved away the hand I offered to help him. He soon steadied himself and reached the stairs before I did. “Do you know a safe place where we can talk, Adversary?“ He glanced at the soldier struggling against the knives pinning him in place. “My house is not defensible, and it should be obvious that I'm of no use to you as a hostage.“

The Lonely Mountain was tempting, but instead of using one human shield, I'd be using dozens or hundreds. I couldn't arrest them all, and I was already right up against the ethical line as it was. Fortunately, it didn't seem as though Mayor Collins had discovered the secret under Gibson Hacker Supply. “I know a place.“

The stocky, dark-haired deputy guarding the entrance favored me with a suspicious glare and rested a sun-browned and heavily callused hand on the hilt of her service gladius. Her badge identified her as Alvarez. “Sorry, Adversary, but there was another murder on the premises today. Mayor Collins is dead.“

Hearing the man was actually dead was a relief. The last thing I needed was an enraged and technologically augmented public official who had survived having a shotgun emptied into him at close range, and now had a legitimate reason to dislike me. Regardless, it simply wouldn't do to tell Deputy Alvarez I knew anything. It was easier to feign ignorance than to pretend I wasn't glad the vicious son of a bitch was dead. “That's terrible! Does he have somebody who can take over until the election and maintain order?“

“Yeah. Gets worse, though. Whoever did the job used a shotgun, and went for the overkill, but cleaned up after themselves. We couldn't find a single shell casing.“ Deputy Alvarez shook her head. “Damnedest thing. And somebody took a hammer to that big-ass computer in there, too. But no sign of theft.“

“Sounds like a professional hit. Mind if I take a look inside? I might spot something.“

Alvarez shook her head. “Sorry, Adversary, but I can't let you inside without notifying the Sheriff.“

I should have expected this. Fortunately, my implant provided a function that let me get the IP addresses of others around me. Once I had the deputy's, I passed it to Malkuth. «Can you spoof Sheriff Robinson's IP address and tell Deputy Alvarez to let my prisoners and me through?»

«Sure.»

“Who are you talking to, Adversary?“

Alvarez wasn't quite ready to draw, but it wouldn't take much. If I didn't defuse her suspicion, I'd have a fight on my hands. “Sorry, Deputy Alvarez. I just contacted the Sheriff myself. You should hear from him directly.“

She took her hand from her sword's hilt and pressed two fingertips to her ear, just as I did to indicate an incoming call. Alvarez shrugged and stepped aside. “Just got word from the Sheriff, Adversary. You and Dr. Petersen are clear.“

“Thank you. What about Mr. Brubaker?“

Alvarez glanced at him. “Why do you need the kid?“

“He's my prisoner. I have to keep him with me until the Society sends somebody to pick him up.“

“But he could tamper with the-“

“If he tampers with anything, I'll kick his arse so hard he'll land in London. Do you have any other questions, Deputy?“ Alvarez might be doing her job, but the sun was setting, and I hadn't fully eliminated Dusk Patrol. The ones I hadn't arrested could still surround me on the street.

Her grip tightened on the hilt of her gladius. “What if I refused to let any of you through?“

“Drawing your blade first will be your last mistake.“ My hands were already on my sword, ready to take first blood as soon as the blade cleared the sheath. I was taller, and both my arm and blade were longer. Whatever strength Alvarez possessed would be useless if she couldn't reach me. If she rushed me, I'd run her through. “Think it over.“

Evidently she did, for after a moment in which she glanced at Brubaker and his shotgun, she let go of her sword's hilt and shrugged. “I don't get paid enough for this shit.“

Neither did I, but there was nothing for it but to finish the job. “Thank you, Deputy. We won't be long.“

Alvarez nodded as she stepped aside to let us into the shop. Once we had locked the door behind us, Petersen surprised me. Striding directly to the wall that concealed the hidden basement entrance, he pushed aside the framed poster of an angry-looking African man wielding a pistol and saying “POSIX, motherfucker! Do you implement it?“ and pressed the button Cat Tricklebank used to open the door I'd thought a secret.

He glanced over his shoulder. “You kids coming?“

Once we were safely downstairs with the door shut, I asked the obvious question. “How did you know about this entrance?“

Petersen shrugged. “I had it built during Nationfall. We'd usually use the engineer corps for this sort of work, but the boys in Dusk Patrol proved admirably capable. They dug the tunnel leading here from Fort Clarion to transport Tetragrammaton Zero in secret.“

“Why are you telling me this? You realize everything you say will be used to prove your guilt in court, right?“ That was assuming his attorney didn't convince the judge that despite my efforts, Petersen wasn't competent to claim he understood his rights because of his injuries.

Brubaker stared at me and texted. «What the hell are you doing? If he wants to hang himself, just give him more rope!»

“It doesn't matter.“ A note of weariness entered Petersen's voice as he sat down. “I am guilty, but I probably won't live to stand trial. The Phoenix Society will soon send a proper arms control unit despite my contact's efforts to delay their arrival, and once they do, they'll finish the work you began, Adversary Bradleigh. And before that happens, Sheriff Robinson will kill me so that I cannot dispute his account of events.“

Before I could say anything, Brubaker spoke up. “What about the Mayor?“

“Robinson would eventually have done the same with Mayor Collins. You did his work for him.“

The conclusion seemed pretty obvious. “With you and Collins unable to speak up, Robinson would be able to pin everything on you two.“

“And escape justice for his own crimes in the process.“ A weary smile flashed across Petersen's weathered face. “In fact, you already thwarted his first attempt on my life.“

Robinson sent that Dusk Patrol soldier? It certainly fit. A significant number of them seem to have thrown their lot in with him via Corporal Seward instead of remaining loyal to Sergeant Renfield and Dr. Petersen. And who did I have arrested? Renfield and many of his loyalists. That bastard Sheriff was probably having a laugh at my expense. “He's been manipulating me from the beginning, hasn't he?“

“I don't think Robinson has it in him to consciously manipulate people. But he's a cop, and good cops are like good officers. They know better than to interrupt an enemy while they're making mistakes.“

Small comfort, that. It looked like I had exhausted any margin for error I might have had. “I think you should start from the beginning. Tell me about your involvement with Project Harker and Ian Malkin from the AsgarTech Corporation.“

Petersen started at Malkin's name as if surprised I knew it. Or was he afraid the devil might pop up at the mere mention? “So, you managed to get into my files after all. How?“

“Friends in high places.“ No need for further explanation if Petersen wasn't already aware of the ten AIs who served the Phoenix Society. “I know all your nasty little secrets, doctor.“

Brubaker scratched his head, the friction of fingernails against scalp loud in the basement. “Naomi, what do you think Robinson will do if he learns you have access to that data? Who's going to protect those computers?“

Questions like that are what I get for not telling Mike everything. He doesn't know that Tetragrammaton is already uploading compressed archives under the system account. A quick check with my implant showed that both transfers were more than halfway done. A couple hours more, and the data would be forever beyond Robinson's control. “The computers themselves don't matter. It's the data that counts, and I've already sorted that out.“

“You arranged for the Society to grab the data already?“ Petersen studied me a moment. “A wise choice.“

“The Society isn't grabbing the data. I'm sending it to them.“ Not to mention Port Royal, but I kept that bit of information up my sleeve for now. It was my ace in the hole, which I would only play if the Society tried to bury the evidence and cover up what happened here. Likewise, if they sought to make me an unperson.

Instead of turning defeated by this revelation, Petersen's expression brightened. He sat straighter as if an unseen weight fell from his shoulders. His smile was that of a man who no longer had to fear the worst-case scenario because it had already happened, and he was still alive. “If you already have the data, then Robinson can no longer buy my cooperation with his silence. I might as well tell you everything.“

Track 52

Megadeth: “Almost Honest”

Stunned by Petersen's words, I couldn't help but stare at him a moment. “Are you absolutely sure you want to confess? If you had an attorney present, and they were at all competent, they'd be yelling at you to shut your bloody gob right now. The Society might use your words as evidence against Robinson if you implicate him, but they won't seek a more lenient sentence for you because you did their work for them.“

Mike gave me an exasperated look. “He doesn't have a fuckin’ lawyer, so why are you giving him advice? Don't you want him to prove his own guilt?“

Before I could answer, Mike got up and took a position by the stairs. If somebody came down, he'd be at risk, but it was also a good place to ambush intruders.

Petersen chuckled. “It seems, Adversary, that you don't trust your own superiors to do right any more than I believed mine at the end.“

The doctor was right. My superiors seemed to doubt me, and if Petersen had contacts in the Society who have made it their business to hinder me, I had all the more cause to distrust my superiors in turn. Unfortunately, Mike's objection wasn't wholly unreasonable. Duty demanded that I prove Petersen's guilt by whatever legal means at my disposal. In the meantime, Petersen was innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, and I was obligated to honor his rights in the interim.

My position was hardly enviable, but there was nothing for it but to do my job. “Dr. Petersen, are you sure? Mike's right, but I'd be remiss if I didn't offer a final warning. Everything you tell me will be recorded and used against you in court.“

“And there's nothing I can say to save myself, except to take the Fifth.“ Petersen gave a small, bitter laugh. “Good thing for you I'm not interested in saving my own hide. What I want is a deal. Let me take full responsibility for everything that has happened in Clarion. My men were only following orders.“

“I think that's the first time I've seen somebody invoke the Nuremberg Defense on their subordinates’ behalf.“

Petersen shook his head. “It's called command responsibility. If I were merely aware of atrocities committed by my men and did nothing, I would still be criminally liable under the Medina standard. But I ordered my men to survive, conceal their existence, and protect Fort Clarion by any means necessary. Moreover, I may be the most senior living officer involved with Project Harker. Somebody must be held accountable. I'm an old man, so it might as well be me.“

Because I agreed with his reasoning, I refrained from mentioning the fate the Phoenix Society meted out to other war criminals who escaped justice until old age. If Petersen knew he might be condemned to involuntary rejuvenation before serving a life sentence, and face a century in prison instead of the five or ten years he expects to receive before dying, it might break his resolve. Despite my duty to respect the rights of an individual not yet proven guilty, the last thing I wanted was for Petersen to reconsider confession. In fact, I said nothing at all.

Petersen did not speak again for several minutes, and we sat in silence as he composed his thoughts. “When Dr. Ian Malkin of the AsgarTech Corporation first approached me about testing Dusk Patrol for what he called the ‘asura potential,‘ I was delighted. Dusk Patrol was a joint innovation on my part and that of Sergeant Major Renfield, a unit composed entirely of CPMD-positive soldiers who would train to enhance the capabilities unique to them and develop tactics that would exploit their strengths to achieve decisive victories.

“Despite the unit's proven effectiveness, my superiors were concerned because the root of their esprit de corps was the quality separating them from the rest of humanity, CPMD. The brass was concerned about the potential for separatist sentiment to take root in the Army, beginning with the unit, but couldn't order it disbanded because news of their successes had already made it to the Prime Minister. So, they tried to do the next best thing and get the unit's members killed.“

“You figured Dusk Patrol's luck would eventually run out, and wanted to improve their chances?“ It seemed a reasonable question given what Petersen had told me thus far.

Petersen nodded. “Exactly. When Dr. Malkin showed up and started talking about the men having some kind of ‘asura potential,‘ I recognized the opportunity before us.“

Recalling Petersen's suggestion that Malkin should approach the upper brass first so that the idea would seem to come above the colonel's pay grade, I gave him a gentle prod. “But you must have known that if it all went wrong, the men would turn against you along with the brass. You'd be caught in the middle.“

“Which was why I suggested Malkin pitch it to General Quinn. The men already disliked her, and I thought to use that to further harden them.“

“So, Project Harker happened, but you weren't part of the research team. Why was that?“

Petersen shrugged. “I began my medical training once Project Harker got rolling, but did not complete it until after Nationfall. By that point, I might argue that the damage was done.“

So he might, only the damage continued afterward. “Why did you order the men to remain in hiding after Nationfall?“

“Dr. Malkin ultimately viewed Project Harker as a failure, for reasons he never shared with me, and I was afraid the men would not be able to rejoin society unless I could find a way to reverse the changes.“

Unable to help myself, I shook my head in disbelief. “You thought you could undo an experimental treatment designed to evoke some kind of asura potential that you've yet to describe or explain? How?“

“I had to start by understanding the potential itself. To do so, I persuaded my contacts in the Phoenix Society to back the resettlement of Clarion. I soon determined by comparing the men of Dusk Patrol with the CPMD-negative majority of the new population that the asura potential is tied to CPMD.“

“Are you telling me that everybody who's CPMD-positive has this thing?“

“Everybody I've tested. Even you. It varies between individuals, however, and follows a normal distribution. It's a heritable trait, and a child of two high-potential parents will most likely have a high potential themselves. I took the opportunity to test you when you came in to have that wound to your side treated. Yours is two standard deviations above the mean.“

Between this and my red eyes marking me as some kind of half-demonic hybrid, I was really starting to feel like a freak. “I haven't had time to thoroughly examine your research. What does having a high asura potential mean?“

“Good question. Those with the highest potentials were best suited to the treatments developed by Project Harker. However, they were also prone to certain side effects and exhibited unusual phenomena.“

“Such as?“

Petersen glanced around as if checking for additional observers, and leaned forward. “One subject from Quebec broke free of his restraints while repeatedly screaming, ‘laissez-faire.‘ When orderlies tried to subdue the subject, they couldn't get within a meter of him. They insisted some kind of barrier kept them from getting closer. The subject died soon afterward of starvation. His body had somehow consumed itself while producing the force-field phenomenon. Furthermore, the postmortem cellular analysis revealed anomalies in the subject's mitochondrial DNA.“

So, the test subjects had wonky mitochondria? That sounded like trouble. If I still had my college biology down pat, mitochondria were the little critters inside our cells that converted nutrients into adenosine triphosphate, the primary fuel on which our cells depended. Without them and other features of eukaryotic cells, complex multicellular life probably wouldn't exist. “What sort of anomalies? Did the subjects suffer from some metabolic disorder?“

Petersen raised an eyebrow at my query but also smiled. “Excellent question but the subjects’ medical records contained no indication of metabolic problems. Moreover, the mDNA included genes for neurotransmitter receptors, which were activated in the mitochondria within the subjects’ brain and nerve cells.“

“Are you telling me these people had brains capable of direct mitochondrial control?“ And what would be the benefit if this were the case? Suppose I could command the mitochondria in my brain cells to double or triple their normal energy production. Would that alone let me think faster? “What good is that?“

“I don't know, but there was some connection between the neural-mitochondrial link and the psychokinetic phenomena some Project Harker subjects exhibited.“ Petersen fell silent for a long moment and seemed to study me. “When I tested you, I not only checked for asura potential, but for this other trait. You possess both. Under the proper circumstances, you too could exhibit paranormal abilities.“

That's a bloody cheerful thought. If pushed hard enough, I might go full Carrie and then die once my body has consumed itself to power whatever ability I end up manifesting. What good was that? “I appreciate the warning, doctor, but we're off on a tangent again. This isn't about me. This is about your involvement in Project Harker and subsequent unethical research. I take it you engaged in breeding experiments involving the local CPMD-positive population to further your understanding of the asura potential, and longitudinal studies without obtaining informed consent.“

“I did. I performed the same experiments on the CPMD-negative population as both a control and a cover. Since I did it to everybody, I could sell it as free genetic counseling.“

A snarl and a sudden thud against a table pulled my attention to Mike, who had slammed down the book he had been reading. He pointed an accusing finger at Dr. Petersen. “I knew it. I fucking knew it. Do you have any goddamn idea how much misery you caused, you lying sack of shit?“

Despite Mike's angry display, Dr. Petersen remained calm, his voice dryly amused. “Considering that the people of Clarion tend to come to me for mental health referrals, I know full well how much misery I caused. It is one of the reasons I am here, explaining myself to your new friend.“

Thank God he didn't say ‘new girlfriend.‘ It probably wasn't easy to maintain control of an interrogation when you're blushing as deep a red as your eyes.

As if guessing at my thoughts, Petersen flashed a smile at me before continuing. “I should let you know I experimented on regular humans for more than one reason. Sheriff Robinson was blackmailing me, as I mentioned before. In exchange for his silence, I had to find a way to transfer the asura potential to humans and safely activate it. I also needed to ensure that the gene therapy didn't cross the Weismann barrier and affect the germline as well as somatic DNA.“ He paused, and pride brightened his expression. “I succeeded, as you no doubt learned from your encounter with the late Mayor Collins.“

If Mike and I hadn't already faced the augmented Mayor Collins, if not for the crazy shit we had already seen, I would have dismissed Dr. Petersen's claims as the posturing of an old failure. It was tempting to do it anyway, because of the implications. If Petersen had done it to Collins, then he could have done it to others. He might even have done it to himself.

Before I could question the old doctor further, a boom echoed from the door at the top of the stairs.

Mike turned away from the CCTV displays. “Naomi, we got a problem.“

Track 53

Within Temptation: “And We Run (featuring Xzibit)“

Gently pushing Mike aside, I checked the screens. Saying we had a problem was an understatement worthy of Shakespeare. Sheriff Robinson was there, and his broken arm looked like it worked just fine. He waved his hands as if conducting a sledgehammer symphony, directing his deputies to gut the interior of the shop above us.

It wasn't the subtlest method for finding a hidden passage, but it was effective. Like the man said: when in doubt, use brute force.

If the Sheriff's presence and that of his deputies wasn't sufficient cause for alarm, that prick Robinson had also brought along Dusk Patrol. One of them offered him a megaphone. Not that I needed an audio feed to figure out what he meant to say. It was most likely something along the lines of, “If we have to come down there after you, we'll beat the shit out of you and tell everyone you were resisting arrest.“

Turning off the displays, I favored Dr. Petersen with my hardest stare. “When they find the way down here, they'll come in shooting. Hell, they'll probably chuck a grenade or three down the stairs first. I certainly would.“

Petersen nodded. “So, you would have me reveal the underground passage to Fort Clarion.“

Mike glanced upward, wincing at a clang of metal on metal. They must have opened the outer door, and were now trying to break down the inner one. If they fail to get through that 50mm slab of steel with hammers, and couldn't find welding tools that would let them cut through, I suspected their next step would involve explosives. Being around for that might prove unpleasant. “The only other way out is to force our way through those assholes upstairs. How valuable a hostage do you think you are, Doc?“

A shrug from Petersen was the only answer Mike got. The doctor rose, winced at another ringing blow to the door upstairs, and pointed at a shelf. “You kids need to lift that out of the way.“

“Take that side. On three.“ Mike grabbed the other side and braced himself as I counted. It was heavy, but Mike and I managed to heft it up. The question now was where to put the damn thing, but I had an idea.

With a smile that probably resembled a rictus, I cocked my head in the general direction of the clangs. “Let's put this in front of the stairs and then move some furniture to prop it up.“

Minutes later, we had the barricade rigged up. In the meantime, Petersen had opened the tunnel. He must have found a cache inside, for he came out bearing three rifles. “Here. The passageway is almost twenty kilometers long, with concrete barricades for cover placed throughout. A fighting retreat is our best option.“

We each took a rifle. Since I had never been down here before, these weapons weren't part of the ordnance catalog I had compiled for the arms control team coming tomorrow. “Got spare magazines?“

Petersen nodded, and handed them out. “We'll find more ammo along the way. Rations, too.“

Having worked with Adversaries who once served in pre-Nationfall militaries, I shuddered at the thought. While “Meals Rejected Elsewhere” wasn't what the acronym meant, it was the one they used. Decades-old MREs would most likely kill us before the enemy could. Mike's disgusted expression suggested he harbored similar suspicions. “I think we'll pass on the rations.“

Something amused Dr. Petersen, for I heard a soft chuckle from the old man as he passed me and stepped into the tunnel. Picking up a small case of grenades, he pressed Mike into service. “Hold on to this. It'll come in handy when they catch up.“

We ran through pitch darkness, or so it seemed until my eyes adjusted enough make out the faint blue-green glow radiating from fungi growing along the tunnel walls. The glow steadily brightened as my eyes adjusted further. A wrathful voice resembling Robinson's echoed at our tails. “Bradleigh, you bitch! Get your ass back here! You are under arrest.“

Definitely Robinson. Turning back, I cupped my hands around my mouth to amplify my voice as best I could. Rather than shout a crude taunt, I sang in a high clear tone. “Sheriff Robinson thought to catch a white lark. He went home frustrated ‘cause he feared the dark.“

The couplet probably wouldn't work if written down, but I was more concerned with emotional impact than scansion. It got a laugh out of Mike, and an enraged shout from Robinson. Must have struck a nerve.

Heeding my instinct to duck might well have saved my life, for the burst of gunfire shredded the air above me before I heard the gunshots. Closing my eyes and averting them to avoid having the muzzle flash burned into my retinas, I returned fire.

A howl of pain mingled with rage followed us as we fled further down the tunnel. I must have hit somebody back there, but a headshot was too much to hope for.

“I got thirty men with me, Bradleigh, and they all want a taste of you. What do you think of those odds?“

“That's what I call a target-rich environment.“ To emphasize my point, I fired another long burst behind me as I kept running. An agonized shriek suggested I had scored another hit. Hopefully I blew Robinson's balls off.

I took the lead as we approached the first of the barricades, and used near-field comms to link the others in a secure relay chat. «Barricade ahead on the left.»

Petersen wove around the waist-high concrete barrier and took cover behind it. Mike and I joined him for a breather after vaulting over the top. Some idiot sparked a flashlight, giving me a sense of their distance, and I rewarded their foolishness with a burst from my carbine. Despite the rage in Robinson's voice, they advanced at a methodical pace, checking every meter as if Mike and I had found time to set traps.

Too bad I didn't have any shriekers handy. «Doc, where's the next cache?»

«Two barricades ahead. You out of ammo already?»

«Got any Mandrakes hidden? If anything's going to slow them down…» I'd probably maim a few of them, but that didn't stop me from setting traps in the Fort Clarion armory. If Dusk Patrol wanted war, they were welcome to it. Likewise for Robinson's deputies. They too had a choice between upholding the law and obeying a man who had set himself above the law, and they made the wrong choice.

«No mines down here. Sorry to disappoint you.»

«No worries.» Indulging in a bit of reconnaissance by fire, I squeezed off another burst. The ensuing shout of enraged pain was closer, and laden with the sort of words not spoken by men who respect women. Were Jacqueline here, she might have dropped some quip about my victim kissing his sister with that mouth. «You ready to move on, Doc? Your troops are closer.»

«You could leave me behind.»

«We all have dreams. Wake up and move your arse.» The old bastard let out a weary sigh, but complied with acceptable alacrity. Though in good shape for his age, he was still much older than Mike and me. We were thus forced to hold back and match his pace, which recalled to mind the jokes about how one went about outrunning various wild animals with a taste for human flesh. You didn't have to outrun the animal; you needed only to outrun your companion.

We stopped again at the next barricade. Our pursuers had gained ground, and I needed to do something about that. Fortunately, I had an idea. «Mike, give me one of those stun grenades.»

He pressed two into my hand, and squinted his eyes shut as he covered his ears. Petersen did the same as I pulled the pin and hurled it back the way we had come. The fuse ran long enough for me to hear it skitter across the floor as I took cover. Despite my distance, the blast was still uncomfortably loud, though not as bad as my rifle when I followed up by emptying my magazine in short bursts.

Despite my liberal use of gunfire, nobody on Robinson's side had fired back. I figured some return fire would be in order as I ducked behind the barrier again to reload, but instead of shots or a grenade hurled my way, all I got was more of the Sheriff's raving. “This tunnel's gonna be your grave, Bradleigh! You hear me? Your fucking grave!“

Promises, promises. If that fuckwit had the ability or the nerve to make good on any of his threats, he would have done so already. But he either didn't bring firearms with him, or some factor unknown to me prevented him from returning fire thus far. I was about to reward his cheap talk with action when a gunshot rang out from Robinson's direction. Five more followed. Only a revolver, most likely, but it suggested the Sheriff had a pair after all. I threw the other stun grenade Mike had given me just to show Robinson I still cared. «Come on. Can you still run, doc, or do I have to carry you piggyback?»

«I can manage another five hundred meters. After that, you won't have to worry about me.»

Rather than waste time asking Petersen what he meant, I ran and trusted the men to follow. Follow they did, so I was first to behold what awaited us. I couldn't believe what I saw at first, and dismissed it as a wishful thinking or a hallucination born of eyestrain. Petersen pulled ahead of me as I slowed to a surprised stop, climbed into the jeep, and started it up. Squinting against the sudden radiance of the taillights, I jumped in. «Why didn't you tell me there was a bloody jeep down here?»

«Wasn't sure if still was.» Petersen gunned the engine as Mike clambered aboard and sat beside me in the back. «Wasn't even sure if it had gas after all the round trips hauling parts of Tetragrammaton 0, or if the gas was any good, but looks like we got a quarter tank left.»

The jeep's engine was loud, but not so loud I couldn't hear Robinson yelling behind me. Something about how wheels weren't going to save me from whatever the hell it was he fantasized about doing to me. Rather than bleat over the engine, I turned in my seat and saluted with an upraised middle finger.

Part VI

Rainchecks for Ragnarok

Gonna hit snooze on the doomsday clock Gonna take a raincheck for Ragnarok.

~Goodnight Bad Guy, “Rainchecks for Ragnarok”

Track 54

Dream Theater: “In the Presence of Enemies, Part 1”

It would have been nice to have ridden the rest of the way to Fort Clarion in comfort, but that's not how matters worked out. With just over a kilometer left to go if my estimate of the distance was correct, the jeep ran out of fuel. The engine sputtered, gasping on the last of the fumes in the tank as Dr. Petersen shifted to neutral. We coasted to a dead stop, the tunnel seeming to close more tightly around us.

Straining my ears in the sudden silence, I heard nothing, but that didn't mean Sheriff Robinson and his men weren't still behind us. «Think you can manage the rest of the way on foot, Doc?»

«Doesn't look like I have a choice. Got a plan for when we get there?»

«Aside from keeping us all alive?» It didn't seem wise to plan in any greater detail than that. Besides, the less I told Petersen, the harder it would be for him to betray me if he had the opportunity and inclination. «Leave the headlights on, and let's go.»

The jeep lit our path as we resumed our journey on foot. The blue-white radiance of its high beams diminished with each step, allowing us to acclimate to the dark. With any luck, the jeep would slow Robinson and the others down by causing them to suspect an ambush where none existed. Why should I be the only one looking over my shoulder?

A steel shutter barred our exit. After texting Mike and Dr. Petersen to take up positions against the wall and cover me, I crouched to grasp the handle. The clicks of safeties being disengaged sparked a frisson of unease; while I doubted Mike would, Dr. Petersen could just as easily point his rifle at me.

Taking a deep breath, I adjusted my footing and gathered my strength, only to have the door rise quickly of its own accord. Light poured into the tunnel from beyond, blinding me. My training took over, my gathered strength powering me forward as I pounced on the shadowy figure on the other side of the doorway. We ended up on the ground together with me straddling his chest, my hand drawn back to strike.

“Damn, Naomi. It's just me.“

“Ren―”

Before I could finish, his lips were on mine, but this was neither the time nor the place. I slid off him, raised my rifle, and aimed at his chest. “How the hell did you get down here ahead of us? Why aren't you with Robinson?“

“The bastard left me locked up, so I broke out. Saw the commotion in town, but didn't see you, and figured you found our tunnel. Nice of you to look out for the old man, by the way.“ He saluted Dr. Petersen from the ground. “I've got some questions for you, Colonel.“

Petersen returned the salute. “Quite understandable, Sergeant.“ He looked back, into the dark distance whence we came as he approached the light. “It's time I―”

Although I had fought with firearms instead of swords before, I never got used to the faint buzz of a bullet's passage through air or the soft bug-striking-a-windshield smack of a slug as it penetrates flesh. Neither of these compared, however, to the wet hiss of a bullet as it bursts from an exit wound.

I imagine Dr. Petersen heard it, too, despite being CPMD-, for his eyes widened with horror.

Blood poured from between his fingers in two streams as he clawed at his wounds in an instinctive effort to save himself. Despite this, I saw the realization in Petersen's eyes. He knew he was fucked.

The whipcrack of the gunshot that pierced him soon followed. Renfield scrambled to his feet and rushed to the doctor as Mike fired wildly into the gloom.

“Move your fucking arses!“ I yelled the order once I found the control panel. Pounding the button with one hand, I fired into the darkness to cover my companions.

Time seemed to slow as the shutter ground downward. Renfield was first in, dragging Petersen with him. Mike soon followed, firing a final burst before rolling under the door. Once he was through, he grabbed the handle and forced the door the rest of the way down. While he bolted it, I drew my sword and hacked at the rubber belt between the shutter and the door opener overhead.

Once I had severed it, I looked to Renfield. “How's Petersen?“

“Dead. Gunshot tore through his throat, took out both carotids. He was fucked the second it happened.“ After finding a tarp, he wrapped up Petersen's body and slung it over his shoulder. “Let's go.“

Though I doubted the wisdom of bringing the body, I kept it to myself. I wouldn't leave a fallen Adversary behind, regardless of the risk.

Despite his burden, he led us up the stairs and into Fort Clarion's underground. Encouraging Mike to stay close to him, I trailed behind to guard our backs. At each corner we turned, I stayed behind a moment to ambush any pursuit, but none followed.

Had the shutter stopped them? How long would it remain an obstacle to Robinson and his merry band? Whatever the answer, it wouldn't be long enough.

When I caught up with the guys, they had placed the body in the meat locker where I'd been hanging no more than a couple of nights ago. Mike waited next to the body, but Renfield was nowhere to be found. “How long have you been alone?“

Mike shrugged. “Only a couple of minutes. He said something about finding some stuff he took from you.“

Renfield soon returned with a bag over his shoulder and two swords stuck in his belt. After lowering the bag to the floor, he pulled the long sword from his belt and held it out to me, one of the blades Nakajima lent me. “I found the gear I took off you before. If you're going to fight Dusk Patrol, I figured you'd want it back.“

“Not going to stop me? I might have to kill some of them.“

He shook his head. “Fuck ‘em. This is war, and when they killed Petersen, they killed our best shot at going back to the world. Did you know he was going to confess, and take the fall for everything?“

Though I could have told him Project Harker had practically been Petersen's idea from the start, and Dusk Patrol's subsequent isolation had been a further betrayal on their leader's part, I couldn't see the point in doing so. What would he have done with the knowledge, since his former commanding officer was beyond all confrontation? It seemed better to let him believe the colonel had been looking out for his men to the end. “He did confess, and claimed command responsibility.“

Renfield nodded, and prodded the bag. “Got your armor in here.“

“Thanks for keeping it safe.“ Though the turtleneck I wore under my jacket was thin, the gauntlet I tried on wouldn't lock into place. The catches wouldn't engage. “Shit. This gear better not be tied to that damn undersuit Nakajima included.“

Mike tried on the gauntlet as well, but it wouldn't snap shut for him, either. “Must be a security feature.“

“Give me my helmet.“ Since the helmet was supposed to pair with my implant, I checked to see if it showed up on my personal area network. Maybe I could override whatever security kept me from being able to put it on. A message came through as soon as I got my hands on the helmet: «Fingerprint recognition complete. Identity confirmed.»

Yes! Finally a break. The gauntlet snapped into place this time. “Mike, give me a hand with this.“

Once we were finished, I tried the swords. They were an easy draw, so I slung my sidesword across my back and belted the katana at my hip along with its companion wakizashi.

Considering what I now knew concerning the capabilities of those altered by Project Harker, they were most likely my best bet. Even against ordinary people, a mortal thrust might not prove immediately fatal. If I was to take on Dusk Patrol, I would need to lop off their limbs, tear out their throats, and slice open their bellies. My sidesword, unfortunately, simply wouldn't cut it.

Next came my pistols. Good thing, since my rifle was dry and we didn't have a hell of a lot of ammo left. “Renfield, what's the most defensible location on the base?“

Seeing him take time to think it over made me nervous. A soldier like him should be ready to answer this question before I was finished asking it. Shouldn't he? After another moment, he shrugged. “Your best bet is one of the watchtowers. It won't give you much of an advantage, but you'll have elevation, a wide view, and the main approach is a narrow stairwell.“

If not for the knowledge gained from the late Dr. Petersen's confession, I might have regretted that we had left the tower earlier.

Mike had some objections. “Wouldn't they expect us to use conventional tactics?“

Renfield glared at him. “You got a better idea, kid?“

“Yeah. We should stay mobile.“

“How?“ Mike had a good point, but even if I called my motorcycle back to me, I wasn't trained for mounted combat. Besides, the samurai might have fought on horseback, but even at a gallop I doubted a horse could match a speeding motorcycle. If I tried to cut a man while riding at over ninety kilometers per hour, I'd probably lose my sword.

Renfield scratched his head a moment. “Shit. We don't have fuel for any of the vehicles. We're lucky the Jeep in the tunnel ran at all.“

Nor did we have time to piss about. If Robinson and his men hadn't already gotten past that shutter in the tunnel, they soon would, or might turn back and return via the forest. Worse, we didn't know how many men remained on base, underground.

“Mike, I want you in that tower with a rifle and half the remaining ammo. You can cover me while I get in Dusk Patrol's faces and keep the bastards busy. Aim for center mass. We're just trying to hold out until the morning.“

Mike nodded. “What about Renfield?“

It was a single battle out of a lifetime of war. Hopefully, his hunger for freedom would keep him on my side. “I won't ask you to fight beside me. Instead, can I count on you to watch Mike's back?“

Renfield gave me a long, calculating look. “I could kill your witness, and then shoot you from the tower the way Petersen wanted from the beginning.“

“You won't do anything of the sort until after we've nailed Robinson. It would be unprofessional.“

Renfield nodded. “Yeah, but when this is over, we're going to talk.“

Track 55

Dream Theater: “The Dark Eternal Night”

Renfield must have heard our pursuers as well, for his expression hardened. Grabbing Mike's shoulder, he gave the younger man a hard shake. “Hey, kid. We gotta move.“

“I'm ready.“ Mike stood and slung his rifle over his shoulder. “Naomi, you'd better take point so those shriekers don't go off in our faces.“

“Right.“

“You deployed Mandrake mines in the tower?“ Renfield trotted beside me as we headed for a stairway to the surface. The way he winced as he mentioned the devices suggested a bad experience with them in the past. “Christ, I hate those fucking things.“

“Trouble deactivating one?“

“Yeah. Lost my legs when the fucker went off.“

“Now you're just taking the piss.“ He had to be having a bit of fun at my expense, given that I had gotten my hands all over his naked body. If his legs were artificial, then they're a bloody work of art. “You honestly expect me to believe you had your legs blown off?“

Renfield shrugged mid-stride. “One of the few upsides to Project Harker. I grew ‘em back. Took me most of a year, and you wouldn't believe how bad the itching was.“

My turn to wince.

“By the time it was over, I had a hell of a Demerol jones. Not much else to do when you're locked in the infirmary like a goddamn science project.“

Though I should have saved my breath for running, I couldn't resist a final question. “How did you get over the Demerol?“

“Once I was judged fit for duty, it was easier. Life wasn't just about getting my next fix anymore, and after a while, I stopped needing that shit.“

That got me wondering as we reached the surface and carefully closed the door behind us to avoid unnecessary noise. How many other addicts and obsessives ended up where they were because they had nothing else in their lives that mattered to them? Such questions were the province of scientists, so I put it aside and loaded the app I used to control the Mandrake mines. A quick status check showed that all remained active. «Stay behind me. My implant will be broadcasting to the mines I armed, telling them not to go off but―»

«But if we get ahead of you―boom.» Renfield chuckled, and glanced at Mike. «Better watch your ass, kid. You get your legs blown off, they're gone forever.»

A soldier on patrol spotted us halfway to the watchtower, and ran to intercept us. Raising his rifle, he narrowed his eyes but did not open fire. “That you, Renfield?“

Renfield stepped forward. “You can stand down, Specialist Catherman. They're friendlies.“

“You sure about the broad? Didn't she take out―”

“Yeah, but it was self-defense. Jackson and Munoz went after her without orders.“

“Our standing orders―”

“Our standing orders do not apply when a ranking officer is in the field, Specialist. Remember?“

Specialist Catherman lowered his weapon. “So, what's the plan?“

Renfield glanced at me. “Robinson or one of the men following him killed Colonel Petersen. We're fighting them. If you don't want to fight beside us, I understand, but if you get in the way, we'll take you down. Tell anybody else who hasn't picked a side.“

Catherman nodded, pulled a walkie-talkie from his belt, and spoke a rapid stream of a language I didn't recognize.

He waited a moment for a response, before meeting Renfield's waiting gaze. “We ain't gonna fight for your girlfriend, boss, but if any of Robinson's butt buddies come after us, we'll make ‘em pay.“

Stepping forward, I offered Specialist Catherman my hand. “Thank you. In exchange, I would like to promise that I won't strike killing blows against anybody but Robinson.“

That surprised him. “Going straight to the top, huh? That's how we prefer to do things. Why dick around with pawns―”

“When you can go straight for the king?“ I finished the question, which I remembered from training. No doubt somebody in the Training Corps had once served in the Commonwealth military's special forces. Drawing my sword to show I meant business, I let Catherman take a good look at the blade. “I do intend to go directly after the Sheriff, but anybody who gets in the way is going to get hurt. How badly depends on how badly they piss me off.“

Catherman nodded, his eyes fixed on the gleaming edge. His was the wicked smile of a man looking forward to payback. “Sarge, I'll be in the East Tower enjoying the show.“

Once Catherman was gone, Renfield pointed toward the tower and spoke in a near-whisper. “We could make a straight run, but that might not be a good idea.“

His meaning was obvious. The buildings we would pass on the way could conceal several ambushes. Despite the risk of giving Robinson's men a chance to catch up, the safest way forward was to approach each corner and check. Though I wanted to run to the next intersection, I advanced a slow, silent step at a time while drawing my pistol and stopped short of the corner to listen. Nothing. «I'll peek around the corner once you guys join me.»

They crossed the block at the same careful pace I used, and crouched behind me. Leading with my pistol, I leaned out to get a look down the street intersecting our road. Nothing, but it didn't pay to underestimate the enemy. «Let me cross first, and see if I can draw them out.»

This time I made no effort at stealth. Instead, I dashed across the street heedless of my footsteps. I stopped at the other side and peered around the corner. Still nothing. «Clear.»

Mike looked impatient as he texted. «Don't you think you're being a bit paranoid, Naomi?»

«Yeah, but there's plenty of time to yell, “Come get some,“ after I've gotten you and Renfield up that tower.»

Renfield smiled, and gave Mike a gentle punch in the shoulder. «Better not. The kid here likes ‘em feisty.»

«Did I miss something?»

Mike blushed. «Nothing.»

Nothing, my arse. «Come on.»

We continued our advance; for all it felt as though the entire night might slip away in the silence of our slow, stealthy progress. Bare seconds remained until the clock struck nine when we finally reached the tower. Another nine hours to go before my backup would show, assuming they kept to the schedule, and I was already tired. By the time this all ended, I would need a vacation from my vacation.

The Mandrake mines settled into dormancy as I used my implant to disarm them. Holding open the door, I beckoned the men inside. «Up you go, gentlemen. You're going to cover me, and I'll keep their attention where it belongs.»

Renfield raised an eyebrow. «On your tight ass?»

No way in hell I'd dignify that with a response, though I daresay Jacqueline would have had fun with such a line. «Just focus, Sergeant. Up you go. We've a long night ahead of us.»

Since turnabout was fair play, I ogled him as he followed Mike up the stairs, and waited a decent interval before re-arming the shriekers. «Tower entrance secure. You should hear some fireworks if anybody tries to come up after you.»

Mike texted a couple minutes later. «We're in position. Not seeing any hostiles, though.»

Shit. Where were those bastards? Robinson and his followers dogged our heels as we ran down the tunnel from Clarion, but now they're nowhere to be found? That doesn't make any sense. «Gevurah, are you there?»

The AI named after a node of the cabalistic Tree of Life representing severity was nowhere near as friendly as Malkuth. «State your business, Adversary Bradleigh.»

«Malkuth said you could put a satellite over Fort Clarion and feed me info on enemy movements. How long would that take?»

«There is already a satellite overhead. I should be able to access its targeting systems.»

Targeting systems? That was ominous. «Do I even want to know what sort of military satellite is overhead right now?»

Malkuth would have indulged in a bit of sarcasm and told me that I'd sleep better if I didn't know. Binah would have gone literary and called my question one of those Lovecraftian situations where ignorance is sanity. Gevurah gave it to me straight. «The GUNGNIR platform is currently in a geosynchronous orbit over Fort Clarion and the vicinity.»

«GUNGNIR? Are you shitting me? Whose bright idea was that?»

«You are not cleared for that information.»

My reply hit the network before I could think twice and stop myself from sending it. «Am I cleared to put a boot up your arse?»

«What exactly does Malkuth see in you? It can't be your winning personality.»

Oh, I would give him winning personality once I was done here. «Sorry, Gevurah, but I've been hearing that a lot lately and it's getting a bit tiresome. Next time I ask a question, could you please find some other way to deny me?»

«No.»

Well, it was worth a try. «Fine. Are you getting any intel from GUNGNIR?»

«Its sensors report no humanoid life other than yourself, your companions, and an individual in the east tower. You would be well-advised to find a secure location and rest. Get some sleep, if you can. I will wake you when hostile forces appear.»

Oh, sure. Like I was going to curl up somewhere cozy and have a catnap while there was a sodding weapon of mass destruction overhead. «Thanks, Gevurah. Keep me posted.»

Track 56

Iron Maiden: “Flash of the Blade”

Despite my weariness, I couldn't ignore my misgivings concerning the presence of GUNGNIR overhead and take Gevurah's advice to curl up for a catnap. Not when I had people looking out for me, and they were counting on me to look out for them. Instead, I climbed onto the roof of the PX.

«Are you trying to get a better view?» No doubt Gevurah objected. «That's unnecessary. I've activated the base's CCTV network, and am forwarding the audiovisual feeds to you.»

Sure enough, I had an overlay in one corner of my vision showing the output of cameras around the base. Seeing Robinson had thirty men with him was well and good, except it wasn't the view I wanted, but the visibility. Let Robinson and the others see me. Let them come for me. Let them see the treats I had in store for them.

Though such thoughts sounded like madness, I embraced them as a means of psyching myself up. After all, one against thirty… Yeah, I was officially nuts.

No doubt Gevurah reached a similar conclusion. «If you survive this, you should undergo psychiatric evaluation. CCTV and satellite video show that Robinson has at least thirty men with him. Taking that many on with three swords, a brace of pistols, and a sniper for support places you firmly in what Binah would call “too stupid to live” territory.»

«And fuck you, too, Gev.»

«Do you not realize you're making a target of yourself? This is borderline suicidal.» Wow. You'd think Gevurah actually cared about me, insofar as the AI who dedicated himself to the Phoenix Society's security gave a toss about anybody.

Besides, the odds weren't quite as bad as Gevurah made them out to be. In addition to my swords and pistols, Nakajima's armor would offer some protection from small-arms fire. It wasn't like I meant to fight them in nothing but my knickers―though that might distract them a bit. «If I can keep their attention on me, they won't go after my witness.»

«Fine. It's your funeral. And a moot point at the moment, since I'm not picking up anything.»

Where the hell were they? I was starting to feel like the ugly girl in a teen drama. You know, the one who got asked out by the incredibly hot, popular, athletic bloke―only to get stood up in favor of the Head Girl or the Homecoming Queen, depending on where the movie was set?

«About bloody time they showed up.» I wondered if a little song and dance might hurry them up. Perhaps Handel's “Come Get Some” chorus in D Major?

«They're pairing off. Looks like they mean to cover the base in two-man teams. First team is through the fence.»

The familiar shivers came again. They felt a bit like stage nerves. Not quite fright, just my body's acknowledgement that it was showtime. And right on cue, here was a pair of them now.

More followed, none of them approaching my position. Surely they could see me. Couldn't they? They possessed the advantage of numbers and superior training in night fighting, and they knew it. More importantly, they were fully aware that I knew it. No doubt they reasoned that I wouldn't face them here, at night, unless I possessed the means to neutralize their advantage. Or did they know I was bluffing, and were waiting until I had gotten complacent and sloppy to call me on it?

Fuck this. I would take the initiative. Once I reached the ground, I headed straight for them since they didn't carry rifles. They didn't even have swords. Just knives, which were only dangerous up close.

There was no need to run and wear myself out. The traditional slow walk would do, with the combatants approaching one another at a measured pace while sizing each other up. Normally, I'd insist on a straight duel, but I don't have all time. If they wanted to me to take them in pairs, I would oblige them.

Besides, I had done it once before. One of them knew it. He smiled as he drew his knife. “Ready to die tonight? Those guys you offed last time were barely good enough to join the Patrol.“

“Whether you're better than the last idiots to face me remains to be seen.“ If he wanted to taunt, I'd play his game. Letting him get a look at my blade, I favored him with my most sadistic smile while thrusting out the hip on which I wore my Nakajima blades. “But I bought new swords, just for you. Be a dear and give me an excuse to cut you.“

His companion spoke up. “You think you're some kinda samurai? How about I shove that sword up your ass instead?“

“I'm an Adversary.“ I readied my blade. “And I'd love to see you try.“

The one who wanted to bugger me with my own sword reached me a split second before my old friend, and paid for it as I sliced open his belly on the draw. He tripped over his own guts as they spilled from the wound. Leaping back as he collapsed saved me from the other man's blade.

“I had a feeling you'd fuck him up. He always did rush into things.“ The soldier picked up his partner's knife, and wielded one in each hand. “The name's John Atherton. Thought you deserved to know the name of the man who's going to kill you despite your sweet quick-draw.“

“Naomi Bradleigh. Drop your weapons and surrender, and you'll be spared. I'm here for Robinson.“

“Generous of you, but I'll take my chances.“ Atherton tried a thrust, and sliced nothing but air.

No doubt he hoped to draw me out, but I wasn't about to strike just yet. While his fallen companion had tried to rush me, Atherton was more careful, and his technique suggested greater proficiency.

He kept attacking with the knife in his right hand, as if he wanted me to focus on that blade to the exclusion of the one in his left. If I fell for it, he'd have me.

His beetled brow and gritted teeth suggested he realized I saw through his tactics. “Stand still and fight me, woman. You've got a fucking sword. Use it.“

Talking was a mistake. Though I made to strike for his right hand, it was a trick. He fell for it, and I lopped his left off at the wrist. “Better put that on ice, John.“

“Go fuck yourself.“ He growled as he let rage and pain overcome his training and charged.

Though I had intended only to slash open Atherton's throat, I must have underestimated my own strength, his momentum, or the blade itself. It sliced clean through his throat and spine, and his head rolled off. Oops.

After wiping my blade on his uniform, I sheathed it and fled the area. Fortunately, the man I had gutted had passed out during my danse macabre with Atherton. He wouldn't be able to tell his companions which way I ran.

Though I had the CCTV feeds, they were disorienting―especially when the system rotated to a camera aimed straight at me. Instead, I sought a rooftop for a better view. Two pairs of men linked up, and began patrolling together. A shot rang out as they happened upon my victims. One of them fell to his knees.

“Where is that bitch?“ The stricken soldier's shout was so clear I might have been right behind him. If they had seen a muzzle flash from Mike's rifle, they would've probably headed for the tower. Instead, they continued searching. I unslung my rifle and fired. Might as well help them along.

“There she is!“

“She wants us to come after her. Stick to the plan. Stay visible, keep her on edge, but do not engage. We can move in for the kill once she's worn out and frazzled.“

Don't these stupid gits realize I can hear them? «Oi, Malkuth! Want to help me take the piss out of some soldiers?»

«What have you got in mind, Nims?»

This was why I liked Malkuth best. «Does Fort Clarion have a PA? Can you patch me into it?»

«Direct audio feed? You'd need a handheld.»

Too bad I don't have one of those. «Can you run my texts through a speech synthesis algorithm?»

«And make it sound like you?»

Hmm… Now there was an interesting question. Surely the Sephiroth possessed sufficient processing capacity between all ten AIs to synthesize other voices recorded via Witness Protocol. Couldn't they? «Any chance you could spoof Sheriff Robinson's voice?»

«Yeah, I think I can manage. You ready?»

Oh, yeah! I sent the message, and seconds later, Sheriff Robinson's voice boomed across the base. “All troops, stand down! Bradleigh has agreed to settle the matter by single combat.“

Of course, Mike had no idea what I had in mind. «What the fuck, Naomi? Didn't you hear Dr. Petersen? Robinson's augmented. He'll kill you.»

Mike was right. Robinson might kill me, but I didn't intend to let him. Besides, I told Renfield I'd try to avoid killing more of his men. Going directly after their leader was the best way to keep that promise.

Perhaps Robinson retained some shred of decency after all, because here he was at the gate. Better go down and meet him. Wait―where the hell did he find a rifle that big? Was he aiming that at me?

Track 57

Bob Marley and the Wailers: “I Shot the Sheriff”

Sweet unholy mother of ever-living fuck, everything hurt. How the sodding hell was I still alive? I had no idea; I was too busy being a mewling wreck sprawled across the pavement. Hell, I was too shocked by my continued existence to wonder how I ended up on the bloody ground.

Never mind nailing Robinson to a wall. Never mind exposing Project Harker and Ian Malkin. Never mind protecting Mike and helping Renfield and the survivors of Dusk Patrol rejoin society. All I wanted was for my suffering to stop. If Robinson showed up and offered to finish me off…

Wait. Robinson was the son of a bitch who shot me. What the hell did that arsehole use that had enough punch to knock me off the roof, a goddamn anti-tank rifle? Not that I gave a toss at the time; I was still too hurt and too shocked to have much of a grip on rational thought.

It felt like half an epoch passed around me before I could make myself sit up, and naturally doing so hurt so much I thought I had somehow given myself a hernia. Also, it seemed my sword-arm was broken. Feeling where it hurt worst with my good hand proved to be a horrible idea. Looking down was even worse.

The howitzer Robinson used on me must have been loaded with high-explosive armor-piercing ammo, because the shot punched a hole through my armor―and through me.

Though it didn't look as bad as it should, if I didn't do something about that gunshot wound soon, I was a dead woman. I opened my jacket and blouse one-handed, and lifted my camisole, steeling myself to assess the damage.

Because I had seen such wounds before, I knew what to expect. What I actually saw had to have been a hallucination, or delirium. The hole Robinson's cannon had punched through my belly slowly filled itself in, healing before my eyes. Sure, Petersen had claimed that I possessed asura potential, but the regenerative capabilities displayed by Dusk Patrol required additional treatments that I had not received.

Pulling on my broken arm, I gritted my teeth and did my best to set it back into place. Once I had done so, the gash where the fractured bone had torn through closed itself. After a few minutes, my sword arm was usable, though I'd want to see a doctor afterward. The hole in my armor exposed smooth, creamy skin. I didn't even have the scar from my knife wound any longer.

I took out my compact and looked for the thin scar along my jawline where Maestro had cut me for the first and last time, at the beginning of my training with him. It remained, a mute testimony to the limits of whatever technology let me survive the consequences of my curiosity. Perhaps the process only worked on recent damage, or perhaps it only dealt with wounds that might slow me down in combat – which a facial scar would not. Either way, I wouldn't come out of this with skin as pristine as when I first agreed to become an Adversary.

The implications hit me almost as hard as my hunger. Had my so-called asura potential actualized in response to the trauma I suffered? The answer could wait until I had sated the ravening void my stomach had become, and fulfilled my equally voracious craving for payback. Sheriff Robinson no longer had a future. Mourners please omit flowers.

First things first, though. Better ping my witness. «How are you holding out, Mike?»

«Holy shit, Naomi? Is that really you?»

«No, I'm her bloody understudy. Of course it's me. How about a sit-rep?»

«Sure. Thank God you're alive, ‘cause I'm getting a bit low on ammo. Robinson and his buddies got past the shriekers, but we're holding them off. How the hell did you―»

«Looks like I'm down to eight lives. How long was I out?»

«Most of the night. It's almost five in the morning.»

That long? Shit. How did I not bleed to death? Resolving to worry about that later, I forced myself to my feet.

Once I was sure I wouldn't fall down, I finished putting myself back together. «Any word from the Phoenix Society? Are we still waiting for backup?»

«Nothing.»

Great. Better switch channels and get Malkuth. «Where's my cavalry?»

«Nims! Holy shit, I didn't think you were gonna make it.»

You'd think an AI could answer a simple question, but I guess this is how they pass the Turing test. «I get that a lot. How about that backup?»

«Didn't they get to you and patch you up?»

We were getting close to what Jackie would call weapons-grade WTF. My backup had not arrived, but Malkuth thought they got here and provided first aid. He must have told them to get here on the double. How did this become such a clusterfuck? «What was their updated ETA, Mal?»

«They were supposed to get there ASAP. What happened?»

Looks like I couldn't just take Robinson's head and drop-kick it across the continent. Not until I had beaten some answers out of him, anyway. «I'm going to find out.»

“There she―”

A series of explosions in the distance interrupted the lucky soldier. Looks like somebody finally found my little surprises. Was that the armory that went up, or the tower entrance? But Mike had said Robinson got past the tower shriekers, didn't he? Fuck it; I had more pressing concerns, like the guy in front of me. Exploiting my enemy's shock at finding me, I drew my sword and opened his thigh to the bone with a quick slash.

Leaving the fallen soldier, I took advantage of the resulting fire and the Dusk Patrol remnants’ decision to get it under control instead of coming after me. Unfortunately, I got no farther than the barracks before becoming light-headed as hunger threatened to double me over. Should have searched that guy for rations.

The barracks weren't locked, but that wasn't necessarily a good sign. What if an ambush awaited me inside? No way am I going in there blind. Instead, I leaned against the wall, taking deep breaths until my wooziness departed. «You watching, Gevurah?»

«Only through the base CCTV array. GUNGNIR has been moved. Don't bother asking who moved it or why. You aren't cleared.»

«Is there anybody inside the barracks? I could use a snack.»

The reply came back a few seconds later. «It's clear. I checked the recordings as well. Nobody has been inside all night.»

«Awesome.» I found my way to the pantry and began raiding it, grabbing a couple packets of beef jerky. Since the tap was working and a handful of water only tasted of minerals, I filled my canteen. Not the healthiest of breakfasts, but it was easy protein. I ate while checking over my weapons. None had been damaged in the fall, which was good. It would have been uncouth to tear Robinson a new arsehole barehanded. «You still holding out, Mike?»

«Are all Adversaries’ missions this fucked up?»

Now there was a thought. Were there Adversaries who had it worse than I did right now? I bet Edmund Cohen could tell a hair-raising story or three. «I'm sure some are worse.»

«Great. Just fired my last round for the DMR. Gonna borrow Renfield's M16. Where the hell are you?»

«On my way to finish this.»

“Hey! What the―”

Always when I'm eating! With my free hand, I drew a pistol and fired three shots before ducking behind the counter. The other was busy stuffing jerky into my mouth.

“Hey, guys! The bitch is in here eating our chow!“

«Malkuth! Barracks floor plan! Show me a back door now!» A flashbang rolled under the counter while I sent the message, and I threw it back just in time; men screamed as the grenade went off in their faces.

«This way.» A floor plan appeared in one corner of my vision, with a bouncy little arrow pointing the way just like in a video game. Not funny, Malkuth!

Soldiers pursued me as I ran, but I didn't dare stop to deter them. Nor did they seem keen on actually catching up to me. Instead, as more of their fellows joined up, they settled for herding me. «Malkuth, can you guide me to Robinson?»

«Yeah. This way.»

The bouncing arrow led me straight to a small pack of soldiers, so I opened fire. “Out of my way, arseholes!“

I didn't hit any of them as I ran for the exit, but that was fine. I just wanted them to keep their bloody heads down. Before they could recover, I had bulled my way past them.

Minutes later, I passed the front gates and stopped short. Robinson leaned against the guardhouse, holding a pistol. Mike and Renfield knelt beside him, with their hands bound behind their backs. The son of a bitch grinned at me as if he hadn't shot me, and wasn't holding two people hostage. “So, Doc Petersen wasn't full of shit after all.“

“Never mind that. Where's my backup, how did you get past the shriekers I set, and what the fuck are you doing with Mike and Renfield?“

“Backup? You silly bitch, did you really fall for that? Here's a clue for you―the Phoenix Society knows all about what's been happening here, and now you're part of the experiment. As for the shriekers"―Robinson's smile broadened―"I just sent in a couple guys ahead of me.“

This should have shocked me, but for some reason I just couldn't be bothered. The hole in my armor from Robinson blasting me off the roof of a quonset hut with a bloody antitank rifle was all the evidence I needed that he was a ruthless sodding bastard. “Yeah, I can see you doing that. So, how about Renfield and the kid?“

“I've wanted an excuse to kill Renfield for years, and the Brubaker brat has seen too much and is too idealistic. I should've offed them already, but I thought it would be fun to make you fight for their lives.“

“Was it really your idea, or are you still taking orders from whatever rogue element within the Society orchestrated this shit?“ My question was a stall, meant to keep him busy while I aimed. A pistol in one hand was hardly ideal for precision shooting, and I had only one chance to make a fatal shot. My finger tightened around the trigger, but did not exert enough pressure to fire. Not yet.

“Doesn't matter.“ Robinson leveled his pistol at Mike's head. “Drop the gun or―”

Rather than let Robinson finish his threat, I put a bullet between his eyes. He swayed a bit, his mouth opening and closing like a fish out of water as he tried to turn his gun on me. He collapsed before he could manage it, and sprawled face down in the dirt.

“Holy shit.“ Mike was almost comically wide-eyed. “You killed the Sheriff.“

Given that his hand still twitched a bit, I had my doubts. Approaching Robinson's fallen body, I shot him through the head a second time. A control shot to confirm the kill was a bit of Phoenix Society doctrine I wouldn't discard. “Now I killed the Sheriff.“

After taking Renfield's knife from its sheath, I cut Mike's bonds before attending to Renfield's. “Sergeant, can you get your men to stand down now that Robinson's out of the picture?“

He nodded. “Probably. How many of ‘em did you end up killing?“

Should have known that question was coming. That guy I gutted was probably still alive, but I bet he was righteously pissed off. Same with those guys I shot at while getting out of the barracks. That left one for sure. “I took one guy's head off. I hope John Atherton wasn't a friend of yours.“

Renfield shrugged. “Nah. You saved me the trouble of kicking his ass myself for suckering the other guys into following Robinson.“

“Awesome.“ Mike drew out the word while stretching. “So, can we get the fuck out of here? I mean, it's all over now. Isn't it?“

There's no way things would be that simple. Renfield seemed to hold a similar opinion, for he cocked an eyebrow at Mike. “Kid, it's never over. Something always comes up.“

Mike gave Robinson's carcass a swift kick, and I probably should have stopped him, but it wasn't like the dead guy would give a damn. “Collins, Petersen, and Robinson are dead, and Naomi's got evidence to prove that they were ultimately responsible for all the weird shit. What else could possibly happen?“

Track 58

Krypteria: “I Can't Breathe”

If there was a God, and it possessed any control over the events of our lives, then asking a question like What else could possibly happen? was tantamount to teasing a bored cat with a laser pointer. As soon as somebody did so, it was inevitable that causality, fate, or a malicious deity with a juvenile sense of humor would answer.

In our case, the answer came after Renfield had gotten the men of Dusk Patrol to lay down their arms. Even Seward settled down, which surprised me a little. With Petersen and Robinson dead, they had no reason to fight me, and I found myself singularly disinclined to supply one.

Fortunately, the men trusted Renfield enough to rely on his confidence in me. After we got the fires under control and patched up the wounded, Renfield and I retreated to the mess hall to make breakfast. Feeding the men seemed a good way to earn their trust.

“Good morning, Adversary Bradleigh.“ Dr. Petersen stood at the end of the line, wearing a dress uniform and holding a tray as if we hadn't seen him die with his throat ripped out by an exceedingly well-placed rifle shot the night before. He carried an old-fashioned gentleman's walking stick tucked under one arm, which I had never seen him use before. “It's not a problem if I chow down with the men, is it?“

«Plenty to go around. Get some food in him and you'll have an easier time getting answers out of him.»

Mike's advice made sense, even if it didn't allay my concerns regarding my mental state. Rather than confront Petersen, assuming Petersen indeed stood before me, I nodded and served him a plate of steak and eggs.

“Thanks. I could certainly use a good meal.“

Mike, Renfield, and I helped ourselves and followed the doctor to a table in the far corner of the mess hall, away from the others. The tense silence did little to improve the flavor, but I remained too hungry after the abuses my body had suffered the night before to care. The jerky I had taken earlier barely qualified as a late-night snack, so I wolfed down my second breakfast before speaking.

“I saw you die, Dr. Petersen. One of those soldiers shot you in the throat.“

Petersen pulled down his shirt collar to display a wattled but otherwise unblemished neck. “Are you sure? Did you examine me, and confirm brain death?“

“Considering the slug ripped out both your jugulars, I think Naomi is right. You can't be Dr. Petersen.“ Renfield paused long enough to finish his steak. “So, who the hell are you?“

Mike stared at Renfield. “Who else could this be?“

“Who indeed?“ I pointed at Petersen with my fork. “You might as well spill.“

“Come now. You've stabbed men through the heart and seen their wounds heal. You yourself took a fifty caliber HEAP round to the gut, and yet you look perfectly healthy, if a bit underfed. No doubt you had to grow yourself a new kidney. Did you honestly think I would refrain from taking advantage of the technology I tested on Collins and Robinson? The very technology with which I treated you when you came to get that knife wound stitched up?“

Renfield leapt to his feet. “You admit to administering the Protocol on Naomi?“

Petersen sipped his coffee with the insouciance of a man with nothing to fear. “Of course I did. How do you think she's survived so far? I gave her a temporary dose of a refined version of what Project Harker inflicted on you. You should be grateful that your suffering saved her life.

Gratitude that the treatment had saved me, guilt over the suffering that made it possible, and relief that it was temporary staged a Mexican standoff in my mind. Too many differences separated me from others already, and the prospect of being permanently altered by technology whose development killed innocent people terrified me. “How long will whatever you did to me remain in effect?“

“Another two weeks. Assuming you live that long.“

Mike glared at Petersen. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?“

“I suggest you focus on enjoying your breakfast, young man.“ Petersen's tone oozed condescension.

He took his own advice, but I distracted him by pushing my chair back, drawing my sword, and letting Petersen consider its edge – and the ease with which it might rend his flesh. “If you want to live long enough to enjoy yours, doctor, I suggest you elaborate. Why wouldn't I live long enough for this treatment to wear off?“

“It's quite simple, young lady. None of us are going to live that long. I have activated the GUNGNIR system and programmed it to deploy its remaining armament over the town and Fort Clarion.“ He checked his wristwatch, an old-fashioned titanium model that quietly ticked away the seconds. “Assuming this old thing is still accurate, I'd say the town has about twenty-nine minutes, so dig in. Your last breakfast is getting cold.“

Mike dropped his fork. “Have you lost your goddamn mind? Do you have any idea what that weapon can do?“

Petersen nodded. “Of course. I activated it once before, just before everything went to hell. A bunch of tree-humping peacenik rabble-rousers incited the town to march on Fort Clarion to protest the unethical experiments we were carrying out. Never mind we did it all to better protect their right to be ignorant and lazy while whining about how corrupt and immoral the Commonwealth's government was.“

«Malkuth, are you getting this?»

«Yes, Naomi. Petersen is telling the truth. GUNGNIR is active. It will be over Clarion in thirty minutes.»

A countdown appeared on my implant's display. So much for the slim hope Petersen was bluffing. «Renfield, we got thirty minutes to Ragnarok. Get your men out of here.» We could probably evacuate the base and get out of the blast radius in time, but what about the people of Clarion? «We need to order an evacuation right bloody now, Malkuth. Get on it. I'll see if I can stop the launch.»

Glaring down at Petersen, I knocked the fork from his hand with my sword. “Why? Tell me why, damn you. Why would you use that weapon to destroy the town you rebuilt, and murder thousands of innocent people?“

“It's really quite simple. The data archive you took from Tetragrammaton didn't contain my later research. There's nothing in there that the Phoenix Society doesn't already possess.“ Petersen let that sink in for a moment. “What do you think the Society would do if they learned that I had discovered a way to safely and temporarily activate a CPMD+ individual's asura potential? What do you think they'd do if they learned that I had also developed a therapeutic protocol to give CPMD- individuals the asura potential, and activate it?“

Mike had gone pale, and his voice trembled as he forced out the words. “And we're supposed to think you're some kind of martyr? You're going to sacrifice the town to protect the world?“

Petersen snorted. “It's simpler than that, boy. Ian Malkin exiled me here. He condemned me to live out my best years in this shithole on pain of exposure. So I will deny him the breakthrough that eluded him and deprive him of his pet Adversary in the bargain.“

Pet Adversary? Is he trying to fuck with me? Though I wanted to demand further details, a choked sob from Renfield distracted me. Though he must surely have done and seen far worse as a soldier, learning his former commanding officer's intentions must have left him aghast. “What about us? Is this how you want Dusk Patrol to go down? None of our vehicles have any fuel; we'd have to evacuate on foot. There's no way we'd all escape in time.“

Petersen smiled. “Christopher, it's time you and the rest of the boys were put out of your misery. You cannot go back to the world as you are. My only regret is that you won't be buried at Arlington with the honors your service to the Commonwealth has earned.“

At that, Renfield bared his teeth and lunged for Dr. Petersen. Mike and I had to combine our strength to keep the enraged sergeant from ripping out his former commanding officer's throat with his bare hands, and out of necessity, I turned my sword on him yet again. “Kill him now, and he wins.“

Petersen shrugged. “I wouldn't have explained your fate or my motives if the slightest possibility of you stopping me existed.“

Mike spat in his face, which should have been beneath him. “Fuck you, Adrian.“

Petersen wiped his mug with his sleeve and checked the time. “Twenty minutes. You might want to say your last goodbyes.“

My entire body trembled, and the tattoo of my heart in my throat drowned out most sound as tunnel vision set in. My training normally tempered this familiar response, but everything I had learned about remaining calm under pressure deserted me. How could I fight against a threat my sword couldn't touch? How could I flee, assuming I could get to my motorcycle in time? Where would I go to escape the knowledge that I had left thousands to die? «Malkuth, please tell me you can do something about this.»

«I'm sorry, but there's nothing I can do. Even my efforts to order the evacuation of Clarion have been blocked.»

No evacuation order? That left stopping GUNGNIR somehow. Goddammit, this is the last time I let work intrude on my leisure. «Never mind that. Doesn't the Phoenix Society control GUNGNIR?»

«Yes.»

«So, GUNGNIR shouldn't have been activated without the Society's permission in the first place, right?»

«Correct.»

The threat of imminent orbital bombardment lost much of its power over me, for I found a better reason to be afraid. If the Phoenix Society retained control, then only one question remained. «Who in the Phoenix Society would have the authority to activate GUNGNIR?»

«Naomi, I'm really sorry, but I can't tell you.»

«God damn you, Mal, I don't have time for your clearance bullshit right now. Petersen couldn't have done this himself. Tell me who authorized this, give me the override codes, or direct me to somebody who can! Thousands of human lives are at stake here. Human lives we are sworn to protect. If you don't, then you'll be complicit in the biggest violation of individual rights since Nationfall.»

Every second felt like a day as our personal countdown to extinction ticked away. Five minutes passed before Malkuth finally replied. «Speak to Edmund Cohen. He's on the Executive Council. I'm sorry I can't do more, Nims.»

The shaking only worsened, and the mess hall started to close in on me. Running outside, I tried to connect to Eddie. Please be there, you lecherous old stoner. Please. «Nims? You're OK?»

«No, I'm not OK. Listen: I need you to help me stop GUNGNIR from bombarding Clarion. Malkuth insists he can't, and told me to speak to you because you're on the XC.»

«GUNGNIR? Great. Just fucking wonderful.»

Mike ran out, his eyes wide and staring. He glanced skyward as he rushed toward me. “Goddamnit, Naomi, what are you doing?“

“Back off.“ Glaring at Mike, I managed to keep from turning my sword on him, but my voice was still a scared, angry hiss. “I know you're as scared as I am, but this isn't the time.“

Mike backed away, and I returned my attention to Eddie while staring up into space. Would we see the town go first? What would the tungsten lances look like as they rained death and destruction on Clarion? A perverse corner of my mind was obsessed with these questions. «Help me, Eddie. We've only got fifteen minutes.»

«Naomi, I've been trying to help you. I'm going to send you the override code and the satellite's IP address now. I already tried using it, but GUNGNIR wouldn't let me connect. Maybe you'll have better luck.»

Eddie's message came through as promised, and I attempted to connect using my implant. Come on…

Oppenheimer-Teller Aerospace Corp.
OpenBSD 66.6
Property of NACAF

GUNGNIR login:

Bloody hell. They really have put Unix on everything. At least Eddie thought to provide credentials and instructions. I followed them, and got a prompt for the override code, which I sent. The response came seconds later.

Unauthorized override attempt detected.
Terminating remote session.
Have a nice day.

“Oh, no you don't!“ I opened a remote connection to Tetragrammaton; as the sysadmin, I switched to Petersen's directory and checked to see if the old man had been dumb enough to put his credentials in a file I could read. No such luck, which meant I had to crack root.

Figuring the late Matt Tricklebank might have useful tools, I switched to his account and poked around. His copy of the HermitCrab source had a directory called “dbfi-experimental,“ so I accessed it and opened the README file. Turns out DBFI stand for “distributed brute force intrusion,“ and this app would spawn a metric shitload of virtual machines, all pounding on the virtual door of my target machine and trying to kick the fucker down.

Mike kept glancing skyward, but didn't speak to me. Had I frightened him? Renfield, however, was not so reticent when he finally joined us outside. “Naomi, if you've got an ace in the hole, now would be a really good time to play it. I've got the men running, but―”

“Working on it.“ Which was the truth, but it was easier to just figure out how to work the DBFI program than to explain what I was doing to Mike. I aimed the tool at GUNGNIR and ran it; soon, I had a hundred thousand processes trying passwords against the root account.

A hundred thousand wouldn't be enough, but I was already pushing Tetragrammaton to its limit. I needed more power. «Malkuth, I've got an idea, but I need your help.»

«Shoot.»

Before explaining, I sent the code. «I want you and the rest of the Sephiroth to run this tool on GUNGNIR. If one of you manages to crack root, it will automatically give me control.»

Five minutes left, and Malkuth had gone quiet. No doubt he and the others were deliberating, but neither I nor the people of Clarion had time for a bunch of AIs to piss about with a discussion.

Four minutes and thirty seconds remained on the clock when the DBFI control panel reported the presence of additional clients. It had jumped from a hundred thousand processes attacking GUNGNIR to a hundred billion. More processes came online, until I had just over a trillion little virtual machines pounding the satellite. Maybe I'd end up frying the onboard computer instead of cracking it. Would that prevent it from deploying its payload?

Three minutes remained on the clock when a terminal connected to GUNGNIR with a control menu appeared. Seeing that one of the options available was “Cancel Current Deployment,“ I chose it and waited.

Time seemed to stretch as the countdown ticked away until only seconds remained. A cold sweat soaked through my clothes as I waited and hoped that any moment now a response would come back down the pipe.

Track 59

Bruce Dickinson: “Road to Hell”

Ten seconds left, and I had received no response from GUNGNIR. For all I knew, the satellite had rejected my command to cancel Dr. Petersen's previous request to drop its remaining payload on Clarion. There was nothing more I could do. Nothing but wait, and hope.

My hopes waned by the second. Only one of which remained, then nine hundred and ninety-nine milliseconds as my implant unhelpfully switched to smaller units. With only ten milliseconds left on the clock, a response finally came down from GUNGNIR: “Launch aborted.“

Unable to believe our stone cold crazy luck, I blinked. The message remained, superimposed over everything else I saw. The launch had been aborted. And I was back to the control menu, which now helpfully offered a self-destruct option.

Because of the time of day, the sky was too bright for us to see GUNGNIR's destruction from the ground. But I imagined the satellite using the thrusters that allowed it to change its position to reenter Earth's atmosphere and burn up on entry after I gave the final command.

Either way, a tsunami of elation crashed over me, leaving me feeling invincible. Though I wanted nothing more but to jump around and cheer like a loon, I simply smiled at Mike and Renfield. “Guys, you can breathe now. I aborted the launch and set GUNGNIR on a self-destruct course.“

Grabbing Renfield, I stole a searing kiss just to drive my point home. I was about to treat Mike in similar fashion, but Petersen was behind him with sword in hand. Before I could get words of warning out, almost a meter's worth of sharpened steel erupted from Mike's chest and disappeared just as swiftly. Mike fell to his knees, bloody froth bubbling from his mouth.

“Renfield! First aid! Get some fucking paramedics!“

Petersen turned his sword on me next, but it was easy to dance out of his reach. Not that I had the slightest intention of letting Petersen escape justice after nearly annihilating Clarion and its environs, but the old fuck simply didn't know when he was beaten.

Not that it mattered now; Petersen was beyond rescue. Not even God and all his precious little angels could save him. Baring my teeth, I drew my sword and pointed its tip at his throat. “Are you truly so desperate to die, Dr. Petersen?“

“I told you, Adversary Bradleigh. I will not permit the knowledge in my head to fall into the Phoenix Society's hands. Since you've stopped GUNGNIR, I must resort to other methods.“

We circled, sizing each other up, delaying the inevitable first blow. Neither of us wanted to be the first to reveal our style, to give the other insight into our strategy. “If you wanted to commit suicide, there are easier ways. You could have done the job with a pistol instead of attempting to murder one of my witnesses.“

“That was not an option for me.“ Petersen seemed almost regretful. “The treatment I administered to myself was the first version, based on modifications to the Patch. It includes inhibitors intended to prevent certain kinds of ideation. I can't even use related euphemisms without blacking out.“

So, he could attempt suicide by Adversary as long as he didn't say or think the words? That didn't make any sense, since I said the word, he heard it and understood it, and managed to remain standing. “I think you're bullshitting me, old man. I think you could fall on your sword or eat the gun if you really wanted to. You're still playing some kind of game. Did Ian Malkin put you up to this?“

“No.“ The first genuine, unaffected smile I had seen on Dr. Petersen's face lit his features, casting him in psychopathic relief. “The Devil's honest truth is that the only way to properly test the effect of my treatment on you is to push you to your limit―and I don't think you've reached it yet.“

This is definitely some kind of bullshit game, and I was sick and tired of playing. I should have shot this son of a bitch, but I had to arrest somebody. “Trust me, old chap, I've hit my limit. Now shut your gob and fight me.“

Leading by example, and running counter to years of training, I let my anger at Petersen's cowardice drive me to strike the first blow. Steel clashed as he parried my slash while swinging the cane that had concealed his blade at my head. The price of my overconfidence was a ringing blow to the jaw that left me reeling and vulnerable for a moment.

Recovering before Petersen could follow up, I parried a cut from his sword. This time I knew his cane was coming, so I stepped inside his guard and drove my free hand into his face with a palm strike that crumpled his nose with a satisfying crunch.

Unperturbed by the damage, he knocked me to the ground with a shoulder strike, forcing me to scramble to get back on my feet before he could pin me to the pavement. It was obvious I hadn't been taking him seriously. Despite his apparent age, the damn experimental treatment must have restored his youthful vigor.

“I expected better from you, Adversary Bradleigh.“ Petersen's voice still carried the nasality of a man with a broken nose despite his preternatural healing.

Circling him, waiting for him to strike and expose himself, I gave him the finger. “You're not the first man I've disappointed, doctor.“

A cruel smile curved Petersen's features. “No doubt you disappoint every man who first sees you from behind.“

Was that pathetic excuse for a butterface joke supposed to goad me into dropping my guard? Not bloody likely. “Just keep digging that grave.“

“If you could have killed me, you already would have.“ Petersen lunged, but my initial anger at his stabbing Mike had cooled, allowing my training to reassert itself. His thrust was barely worth the effort it took to sidestep it. While he was off-balance, I punished his failure with a slash across his wrist.

We continued our dance as the ambulance arrived and paramedics attended to Mike. A crowd of soldiers had gathered, no doubt because Renfield had given the all-clear. They cheered the barbaric spectacle as if knowing Petersen betrayed them, but I ignored them. I was caught up in the flow now, and all but untouchable. Every time Petersen attacked, his blade sliced air as mine tasted his blood. His uniform was soon tattered, his leathery skin showing through dozens of rents in the cloth.

A normal man would have given up by now. He would have thrown down his sword and surrendered. Petersen, made extraordinary by his experiments, fought with the determination of an enraged bull, all finesse lost. Whether he retained his intent to test me as part of whatever deranged experiment he had concocted, or was now fighting to avenge wounded pride, he would not stop.

However, he had slowed a little. The shallow cuts I inflicted as punishment had begun to take a toll on his body. Without food, the only way his enhanced flesh could repair itself was by reconfiguring existing tissue in a catabolic process. He would eventually eat himself alive, unless he submitted. “I can do this all day, Adversary. Even if you can keep my blade from tasting your flesh, your endurance isn't―”

Monologuing in the middle of a duel is a bad idea. Sticking my sword in his lung seemed the best way to illustrate this fact. Besides, I had gotten bored with smacking Petersen around like a mouse. Pressing my advantage, I disarmed the doctor and knocked him on his arse. I kicked his sword away, and whirled as I heard footsteps behind me.

A man and a woman wearing Adversaries’ uniforms approached. The woman cradled a Kalashnikov in her arms, but the man stepped forward. His tone was one of implacable command. “Stand down, Adversary Bradleigh.“

Narrowing my eyes, I glared at them. If it came to a fight, I could take them, though the woman's AK would maul me. «Malkuth, who the hell are these arseholes?»

«They're not Adversaries.»

«Thanks.» That was all I needed to know. Springing forward, I ran the woman through first and grabbed her rifle. Gripping it in my off-hand, I turned to her partner. “I'll not stand down for the likes of you. I know you aren't Adversaries.“

The bastard smiled at me. “You're right. We aren't. Nevertheless, we cannot afford to permit Dr. Petersen's death.“

A glance over my shoulder at the fallen doctor showed he still lived. His chest rose as he took a shallow breath. “He'll live to stand trial if you get out of my way and let me bring him in.“

“We cannot permit that, either.“ He raised his left hand, the first two fingers extended as if to offer a blessing. My hair stiffened as the air crackled.

Before he could finish what he started with his gesture, I fired. The Kalashnikov's selector was set to burst mode; three rounds tore into the man before me, but no blood poured forth. Bracing the rifle with my sword-hand, I fired another burst into him to no greater effect. “Looks like you thought to wear a vest.“

He chuckled, as if he hadn't taken six rounds to the chest. Son of a bitch hadn't even staggered. Was this rifle loaded with blanks? “Yes, if you like.“

The air reeked of ozone, as if I were standing at ground zero of an imminent lightning strike. I had to do something, and fast.

I put a third burst into his face, right between his eyes, making a jagged crater of his forehead as the recoil raised the AK's muzzle. Still no blood, and what lay beneath the skin didn't look like a human brain, but he had the decency to fall. Throwing the rifle aside, I stood over him and drove my sword down through his eye and into his head to confirm the kill.

The air finally cleared when I withdrew my blade. All that remained was to drag Dr. Petersen to Clarion's jail and get him some medical attention. Figuring out how a guy could survive a face-full of rounds from an AK, or call down lightning with a funny hand gesture, could wait. The answers were probably far above my pay grade anyway.

Track 60

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: “Queen of the Night”

The last time I woke up with a headache like this, I had a foul taste best left undefined in my mouth and a certainty in my mind that Jacqueline was somehow to blame. This time, I woke without the slightest semblance of a clue as to what had happened. Rebelling against the pain dulling my mind, I grasped at stray memories to piece together the events that put me here. What had happened after I remanded Dr. Petersen into custody with one of his nurses to attend to him?

Had I taken a blow to the head? No, wait. For some reason I remember having dinner at The Lonely Mountain. Kaylee had been there; I had introduced Renfield to her, and they seemed to have hit it off. Had the food been drugged? Had somebody slipped something into my wine?

It scared me that I couldn't quite remember. It meant I'd lost time. Nor did I understand why I woke up here, or possess a better description of my current location than ‘here’. «Malkuth? Are you there?»

No answer. No network access, either. That probably meant I was in a Faraday cell or deep underground. That meant no GPS, so the question of where the hell I had been taken remained unanswerable.

A soft white light flared to life above me as I sat up in a stark black cell. Even my pajamas and bedclothes were black, as if somebody meant to torture me by stripping all color from my surroundings. Fortunately, nobody had taken advantage of me while changing my clothes. The floor chilled my feet at first as I got out of bed to begin my morning PT. Clinging to whatever routine I could establish would help me keep my wits in this peculiar oubliette. Moreover, training would permit me to evaluate my condition and surroundings without drawing too much attention to myself. My captors wouldn't simply let me escape. I would need to outwit them. I would have to be strong and quick. Most of all, I would need to lull my captors into thinking I had resolved to accept my fate and make the best of a bad situation in good stoic fashion.

So, time to take stock. I had a cell roughly five meters by five in area, with three meters between floor and ceiling. All of the walls were lined with black foam wedges hidden behind mesh grills, and the floor consisted of more mesh grills over sound-absorbent tiles. The ceiling appeared to be the same. It was as if the cell were designed to serve as an anechoic chamber.

My cot occupied one corner. Diagonally across the room stood a toilet and a small vanity with a sink. Somebody had had the decency to leave soap, a couple of tumblers, a toothbrush, and toothpaste for me.

My captors had not thought to provide a clock or calendar with which I might mark the passage of time, so all I had was my implants internal clock. Without network access, it couldn't sync to the time servers, but I had no reason to doubt that several days had passed even if my implant's clock had drifted a few seconds.

In the meantime, what had happened in Clarion? Was Mike Brubaker safe? What about Christopher Renfield and the remnants of Dusk Patrol? Were they here with me, in other cells? What did my captors gain from keeping me here? I had questions, solitude, and nothing but time on my hands. Here goes nothing.

“Hello? Is anybody out there?“ It would have reassured me to hear a guard outside, though I spected little more than a barked order to shut the fuck up in response. Even my voice seemed strangely muted, as if my cell's acoustics had been designed to dampen all sound. If I screamed, would anybody outside hear me? It was worth a go, so I took a deep breath. Reaching deep within myself, I gathered all of the anger and frustration I had suppressed so I could maintain a semblance of professionalism, and poured it into my voice.

Nothing. No echo, and with the mesh in the way, ripping out the foam padding wasn't an option. Despite having never suffered from claustrophobia before, the walls started to close in a little as my imagination supplied a possible explanation for where my captors had stashed me. Every Adversary heard stories about pre-Nationfall governments maintaining ‘black sites’ where political prisoners face enhanced interrogation techniques until they told their captors what they wanted to hear. Such sites lay beyond the reach of the law, and those trapped within soon abandoned any hope of due process.

Had I been brought to a black site? What questions would my captors shout in my face as they tortured me? Or did they think locking me in here was sufficient torture? It certainly felt like it, between the matte décor, the acoustic dampening, and the filtered air. Not realizing it, I had begun to pace as if trying to outrun my thoughts. That wouldn't do at all. Nobody would fault me for doing PT to maintain my strength, but wearing myself out would be counterproductive.

Yet the question of what to do remained. My captors had not even thought to provide a selection of books that I might read to keep my mind occupied. So much for humane treatment while in custody. Unfortunately, thinking in such terms entailed assumptions about the bastards who imprisoned me that I dared not make. For all I know, this was payback from Dusk Patrol for the men I killed.

Just thinking about it frustrated me. Without realizing it, I hit the mesh wall with the heel of my hand. The impact sent waves radiating outward through the material from where I had struck my blow.

That made no sense. The mesh covering should have lacked sufficient flexibility to ripple from the force of a blow. With a shout, I tried the wall again, lashing out with a kick. Same effect. The waves spread out farther this time, but the mesh still held. Brute force wasn't going to get me out of here.

“Hello?! Is somebody out there?“

Panic threatened to overwhelm me. Unwilling to surrender control, I closed my eyes and breathed. Concentrating on producing a single flawless, fearless note, I let my voice fill the cell at concert pitch. As I sang, I imagined the mesh protecting the absorbing foam becoming a rippling gray as it absorbed the power I projected into the clear steady tone. Letting the note fade, I opened my eyes and found my bleak surroundings unchanged.

I worked my way through my entire range as if I might I find a note capable of piercing the walls. Not all anechoic chambers are created equal; some can only muffle sound instead of eliminating it. I catapulted myself to the top of my range as if trying to ram a locked door with my shoulder to break it down. Every time I failed, anger grew hotter within me as I readied myself for another attempt. My rage fed upon itself, a wrathful chain reaction that drove me to push despite my voice growing hoarse from overuse.

Even as it threatened to crack, I continued to try. Something about this cell felt so profoundly wrong that I couldn't bear to spend a single night here. My need to get out had eclipsed reason, and would consume me if it went unmet any longer.

Frightened that I might lose myself in this bizarre prison, I forced myself to stop. Running the tap, I tasted the barest sip of cold water from a cupped hand and waited.

If the bastards put something in the water―a sedative, perhaps―I hoped my precaution would result in me getting too small a dose to put me out. When nothing happened after fifteen minutes, I began drinking in greedy double handfuls that cooled my parched throat.

Finally full, I sat on my bed and played chord progressions by tapping my fingertips on my knees for lack of anything better to do. I remained sure of my conviction that my life depended on getting the hell out of here as quickly as possible, but I resolved to think my way through this instead of letting terror overrule reason.

First question: how to reach my captors. They had stashed me in a near-anechoic Faraday cell, so I would go unheard by any guards outside. However, my captors would still need to monitor me. That most likely meant hidden cameras, and possibly a hidden microphone.

Smiling up at the ceiling, I blew a kiss over my upraised middle finger to anybody who might be watching, just in case. Next, I tried my voice again. No harm done.

Singing softly without projecting, I settled into one of my favorite arias from The Witchflute. Though it hardly fit the setting, I loved the Queen of the Night's role, which sounded all the more aggressive in German.

Thanks to my training, I could sing for hours as long as I took breaks, kept my throat wet, and didn't push myself. My audience could bloody well turn up the volume if they couldn't hear me.

Letting my mind escape the confines of my prison, I sang from the depths of my soul. Working my way through every aria I ever memorized, I poured myself into a succession of roles. I was Titania, Queen Elizabeth, Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, Lucia Lammermoor, and dozens of other operatic heroines.

Lost in song, I lost all awareness of anything but the music and my desperation to be heard. To reach just one person, to pierce the armor of reason and habit and social convention, and strike directly at their emotions―any artist who denied this desire was a liar. But unlike many artists, being heard transcended mere desire; that my life depended on it had become a certainty.

So I sang, pushing myself harder with every measure. The scent of oranges began to pervade the room, and I broke into a cold sweat, but I kept singing. Even the sudden appearance of dancing lights where none had been before proved insufficient to silence me. Instead, I kept yearning, hoping, that somebody would somehow hear me and come to my aid. I kept pushing myself until my song became a choked scream, and by then it was too late. Cold white light filled my vision as I collapsed, and I knew no more.

Track 61

Joe Satriani: “Friends”

When I returned to my senses, I found myself in a bright hospital room instead of the cell. Instead of black pajamas, which had been comfortable and rather stylish by comparison, I had been downgraded to a hospital gown. A hospital bed replaced the prison cot. A cool breeze through open windows made the cut flowers in a vase on my bedside table sway a little.

Though I could have rung for a nurse, I left the call button untouched. I found myself content to lie here, listening as the pigeons strutted and cooed along the ledge outside the window. Someone would be along eventually.

A familiar voice had other ideas. “Oi, Nims. I saw you open your eyes. Wake up already.“

“Dammit, Jacqueline.“ Turning away from my friend, I pulled the blanket over my head. “Lemme sleep.“

“You've had plenty of sleep.“ She pulled them off me, exposing my bare arse to the cool air. “C'mon. Visiting hours are up in fifteen minutes. You can go back to sleep then.“

“Fine. You win.“ I sat up and tied the gown closed behind me. “Where the hell am I?“

“Nightingale Memorial Hospital in Philadelphia. What the hell did you get yourself into in Clarion? I had to come all the way from London to get you out of a black site.“

Not that I minded a rescue from Jackie, but it was weird. “Why you?“

A small, sidelong smile suggested it would be an interesting story, but Jackie kept it short. “I was in Philly anyway for family stuff, so Malkuth called me. Said something about how he didn't want to miss out on a date.“

Looks like Mal is never going to let that promise go, that incorrigible flirt. But if his experience of humanity comes from people like me and Jacqueline, I suppose it's only to be expected. Jackie was a bad influence on me; she was probably even worse for an innocent, naive AI like Malkuth. Not that he seemed to mind being corrupted. “Was that all he told you?

A shrug from Jacqueline. “Pretty much, though he said the tip came from a guard who had a crisis of conscience after seeing that a pretty girl had been locked up alone in a Commonwealth black site under Philadelphia to sing her heart out until she collapsed. He requested anonymity out of fear of reprisals from whoever put you there.“

Whoever my arse. It had to be somebody connected with the Society who put me there. Never mind that I had bugger-all in the way of evidence to back that hypothesis. “Jackie, I don't know what happened. One minute, I was having dinner in Clarion. I don't know if somebody drugged my food or slipped something into my wine.“

“Damn. And then you woke up in that cell?“

“Yeah. I tried singing, even though I knew I was in an anechoic cell. I figured there was a hidden camera and mic. I didn't know what else to do. I kept pushing myself, and then…” Though I was no physician, I remembered the symptoms I experienced and possessed sufficient medical knowledge to arrive at a tentative diagnosis. “I think I had a seizure. Did the doctors tell you anything?“

“Not a thing.“ Jacqueline shrugged. “Maybe ask Mal?“

“Good idea.“ I pressed my fingertips to my ear. «Malkuth?»

No response. No network connection. Dammit. Pressing the call button, I gave Jackie a sidelong glance. “Looks like I'm off the network. Somebody better have a―”

A nurse stuck her head in. “Is something wrong, Ms. Bradleigh?“

“Care to explain why I'm denied network access?“ I had snapped the question before getting a good look at her. She wasn't a proper nurse, but a candy-striper. Her ID card marked her as one Jen Simmons. If she was a day over fifteen, I'd eat these flowers. “Sorry, Ms. Simmons. That was rude of me. Would you please find my attending physician and ask them to stop by?“

Simmons gave a hurried nod. “Of course, Ms. Bradleigh.“

The doctor arrived twenty minutes later, which gave Jackie and I time to catch up a bit and share news. She was just telling me about some of her adventures when a woman softly cleared her throat. “Adversary Bradleigh? She approached the bed as Jackie pushed her chair back, and offered a slim hand. “I'm Doctor Tranh, your attending. Ms. Simmons told me you were concerned about your lack of network access.“

“That's right. I trust there's a legitimate medical reason to hold me incommunicado.“

Dr. Tranh nodded. “I apologize, Adversary. I ordered your implant disabled. It is a standard preventative measure for individuals who have suffered recent head injuries or grand mal seizures.“

“I suggest you have my friend's implant re-enabled, as a prophylactic against an acute case of boot-in-arse syndrome.“

Dammit. “Thanks, Jackie, but I don't think you're helping.“

Fortunately, Dr. Tranh found Jackie's threat amusing. Or was it my embarrassment put that little smile on her face? “I can have her removed, if she's bothering you. I don't see her listed as next-of-kin.“

“It's all right. She's my partner.“ As Dr. Tranh raised a questioning eyebrow, I clarified the relationship. Not that it was any of her business. “We're both Adversaries, and usually work together.“

“Nice save, Nims.“

Dr. Tranh looked down on Jackie. “Partner or not, visiting hours ended about ten minutes ago. You can have five more minutes, but I must insist upon you leaving afterward. My patient needs her rest.“

“I just woke up.“

“And I can have a nurse bring you dinner and a tablet so you can read a book or catch up on the news, if you like. But I want you rested for tomorrow. If the tests all go well, I can discharge you then.“ With that, Dr. Tranh left in a swirl of white coat and inky black hair.

Once the door closed, Jackie hopped to her feet and reached into a bag. She produced three thick volumes of manga. One bore the title Shotgun Exorcist and featured a cigar-chomping nun wielding a crucifix and a double-barreled sawed-off―presumably for situations where the power of Christ proved insufficiently compelling. “Those cheap old tablets hospitals lend out will just give you a fuckin’ headache. You can read these instead. Seems Claire already had copies.“

I flipped through Shotgun Exorcist first. It was obvious the artist was a bloke; no woman would draw such outrageously proportioned female figures. “Claire? Is she your niece?“

Jackie nodded. “You met her on the maglev to New York. Seems my sister-in-law was taking her for an extended stay with her parents. She got herself expelled from yet another school. Cracked the headmaster's social accounts and posted video of the head taking a ruler to a student, then alerted local journalists. There's a bit of a scandal, because the Society never did anything about it. Lucy blames me, and says I'm a bad influence.“

“A geographic cure isn't going to help Claire any more than it did me. The damage is already well and truly done. Did Claire's mum have any clue?“

A chuckle from Jackie. “No, but she raised all nine circles of hell and half of purgatory when she figured it out. And now Lucy's miffed that her little girl would rather live with me than with her grandparents. Though Claire wasn't exactly diplomatic in making her preferences known. You should have been there. It's a good thing I thought to record it.“

Jackie showed me a handheld, and tapped a button on the screen. The video began playing, and I recognized the girl who had sat next to me on my journey to New York.

“Fuck you, mum. If you think I'm going to live anywhere without a network connection for even a minute, you need to lay off the drugs. I'm never gonna be a demure little Stepford student, and the fuckers had it coming. That power-tripping arsehole needed to be stopped. Why not just let me live with Jackie? At least she loves me the way I am.“

“Claire, you stop right this instant. What would your dad say?“

“He would agree with me, which is why he isn't here. If he had any balls, he'd divorce your arse.“

Lucy burst into tears at this, taking Claire aback for a moment. “Mum, please don't cry. At least I didn't burn the damn school down.“

I stared at Jackie. “Is Claire going to be all right?“

Jacqueline sighed. “I don't know. I should have stepped in sooner, but I thought Claire had a right to have her say, and she hit a few nerves just a bit too hard. Looks like Lucy and my brother have some things to discuss. Claire's currently in my hotel room, probably running up my room service tab, so I'd better go back to her.“

That had to be a rough situation, since Claire already realized that the adults in her life were all too human. “I'd offer to help, but my own future's kinda shaky right now.“

“It's fine, Nims.“ Jackie showed me a modest ring on her left hand. “You know that vicar? We're getting married. He dotes on Claire, so taking her in won't be a problem.“

“Isn't that a bit fast?“

Jackie flashed a fooled-you-didn't-I smile. “We've been dating on the down low. I kept quiet because you know how some Adversaries get about shagging the sort of people we're supposed to keep on a leash. Can I count on you to stand up with me?“

“Of course.“

“Thanks.“ She drew me into an awkward hug. “If you want to talk about what happened at Clarion without getting any psycho-bollocks in return, I'm there for you.“

Before I could express my appreciation, the door opened. Dr. Tranh cleared her throat, and stared daggers at Jacqueline.

I waved to Jackie. “Better go. We'll talk again tomorrow.“

“Right.“ Jackie blew the doctor a kiss. “Don't get your knickers twisted, Doc. I'm leaving. You can have your patient all to yourself. But don't do anything I wouldn't do.“

I bit my tongue because I knew there was very little Jackie wouldn't do. Dr. Tranh's expression softened as she examined me. “I sent her away as much for her sake as for yours. She's been at your side most of your stay, with only short breaks to check up on her niece and make sure she had something to eat.“

“Jackie's a good friend. So, how long have I been here, and what's the prognosis? I've never had a grand mal seizure before. Am I likely to have more?“

“You've been here for three days without seizing. We can't find anything medically wrong with you, and just between you and me, I could discharge you tomorrow. However, we discovered while running a basic scan that you broke your arm. It healed without being set properly, and recently at that since there's no mention of a break in any of your medical records. Would you like to tell me what happened? As your attending physician, I can offer complete confidentiality.“

Rather than answer immediately, which would have resulted in me turning down the offer, I took a moment to consider it. After a while, I nodded. “It's going to be a long, somewhat complicated story. Can we have dinner brought in, first?“

Track 62

Queensrÿche: “Eyes of a Stranger”

To my surprise, telling my tale to Dr. Tranh didn't take nearly as long as I expected. She was an excellent listener, and saved her questions until I had finished. If she had reached any conclusions, or had any opinions, she didn't share them with me. She did, however, arrange for me to have my right arm reset so it would heal straight lest I suffer nerve or muscle damage later on.

My arm didn't heal instantly. Whatever sneaky treatment Dr. Petersen had given me had run its course. Instead, Dr. Tranh fitted me with a stylish black polymer brace. “Try moving your fingers.“

I complied, playing a few bars from a Chopin etude on my thigh. “No pain.“

Tranh nodded. “Excellent. We'll be able to discharge you today, then. I'll have a tech come and release the lock on your implant while I handle the discharge processing.“

Luckily, Jacqueline left some clothing before returning to London with Claire. She had no reason to stay after Dr. Tranh gave me a clean bill of health. Once I got my implant working, I'd have to call her and find out where my equipment wound up. Then I'd have to get Malkuth's attention and find out what happened to Mike Brubaker, Christopher Renfield, and the rest of Dusk Patrol. Had they been made to disappear, too?

I got back online soon enough, only to suffer the deluge of incoming messages from family, friends, and fellow Adversaries that I had missed in the six days since my abduction. I also got messages from Malkuth, Mike Brubaker, Christopher Renfield―some as recent as yesterday―which reassured me somewhat. A message from the Halfords at the Lonely Mountain thanked me for my stay, and assured me that my belongings could be shipped once I provided an address.

The backlog hardly fazed me; working through it and telling everybody that I was all right even though I had apparently disappeared from the face of the networked earth gave me time to think about what I would say to Malkuth. I was going to need his help to sort out what the hell had happened. I still didn't know who spirited me away to that black site, who the false Adversaries I fought were, or who sent them.

«Welcome back, Nims.» Naturally, Malkuth would force the issue by reaching out to me first. «Glad to see you're all right.»

«I'd be better if I hadn't been drugged and transported to some black site. What the hell happened?»

«I'm sorry, Naomi, but I don't have a reasonable explanation for what happened. Your Witness Protocol feed for everything between your departure from New York and this morning is sealed by order of the Executive Council. Even I don't have access.»

Forgetting myself, I shouted instead of texting Malkuth. “Are you shitting me? I went though Hell in bloody Clarion and you have the nerve to tell me it's all hidden?“

Fortunately, my outburst didn't bring a nurse. Malkuth's response confirmed he had access to my feed. «Sorry, but I'm not. I'd love to help you, but there's little I can do. Edmund Cohen is on his way to pick you up from Nightingale Memorial, and he can tell you more. He might even be able to help you.»

Cohen arrived sooner than expected, and upon doing so, he offered me my trusty old sidesword. “Mike Brubaker's been holding on to this for you, Nims.“

I settled the weapon on my hip with an almost unseemly haste; I had not realized until now how naked I felt without a blade. “You've seen him?“

Cohen nodded and produced a cigar redolent of marijuana. “Mind if I spark this up?“

Tranh glared at him. “Light that up here, Adversary, and I'll schedule you for a colonoscopy.“

Eddie stared back at her with a horror-struck expression so priceless I couldn't resist capturing it with my implant. “Not another. I just had one.“

“Not at this hospital you haven't.“ Tranh smiled, as if she liked the idea of having Eddie sedated so she could go spelunking with an endoscope. “You look like the sort of man who leads a shockingly unhealthy lifestyle, so I'm sure I'd find all sorts of interesting things. For science, of course.“

Eww… That just sounded kinky. Thank goodness Jackie had returned to London, otherwise she might start suggesting possibilities. Knowing her, it would start with a gerbil graveyard and get worse from there. “Can you two please get a room?“

Dr. Tranh stared at me a moment while Eddie gave her a once-over. “You think we're flirting?“

“I certainly hope so.“

Eddie chuckled. “Same here, Nims. So, Doc, when does your shift end?“

“You might not live long enough, old man. Now tell Adversary Bradleigh about her friend.“

“Oh, fine.“ Cohen put away his cigar. “The kid's safe in Clarion. We've got some Adversaries in town for arms control, and thanks for prepping that inventory by the way. Shame you went and blew it to hell.“

Rather than dignify that with a response, I changed the subject. “What's the Phoenix Society going to do about Dusk Patrol in light of their experiences?“

For some reason, Cohen found my question amusing. “Tell you what, Nims. I rented a sidecar for my bike. Want to ride with me to Clarion and see how they're doing for yourself?“

“And find out who slipped me a mickey and dumped me in a black site?“

Cohen shook his head. “I'll tell you more about that on the way.“

“Fine. Let's go.“ I glanced at Dr. Tranh. “It's all right for me to leave now, isn't it?“

“Of course.“ She offered me a tablet. “I just need you to sign where indicated. The discharge form is standard, but I also need your consent to send records of your care to your primary care physician so they can update their records.“

A few signatures and an elevator ride later, I left the hospital. I tilted my face toward the sun for a moment to bask in its false-summer warmth, and then turned to Eddie. “Where's your ride?“

“It should be nearby.“ He glanced at an old, disreputable-looking chopper with a battered sidecar. “Here we are. There should be a blanket in the sidecar for you.“

“Thanks.“ Reaching in, I found something velvety-soft, but too warm to be a blanket. Also, blankets didn't have ears. Looking inside, I found a calico moggie curled up on the blanket Cohen mentioned. “You brought your cat?“

“Hell no.“ Cohen reached in, gently lifted the calico out, and draped it over his shoulder. The resulting purr intensified as he petted the cat. “Definitely not feral. What's his tag say?“

Approaching Cohen, I lifted the tag for a closer look. “Says her name's Calico Jack. Apparently she's one of the hospital's therapeutic cats.“ Rewarding the cat with a chin-scratch, I stepped back. “I guess you should take the little pirate back.“

As soon as I said that, Calico Jack wriggled free of Cohen, leaped down, and darted across the street. He sat in front of the hospital doors, which evidently weren't calibrated to open for kitties, and proceeded to wash her face. “Never mind. Looks like we can go, now.“

Cohen mounted up and kick-started the bike as I slipped into the sidecar and took advantage of the blanket. The engine emitted a low thrum as it idled. An electric wouldn't do that, which meant Eddie had a thorium-powered rig. Talk about riding the bomb. “You ready?“

I switched to secure talk, because the wind in our ears would soon make spoken conversation impossible. «Hit it.»

We rode in silence for a couple of hours, as if Cohen wanted to be sure there weren't any listeners around. Out on the old Interprovincial highway there was no network, so our implants connected directly. «You know those weren't Adversaries you fought, right?»

«No shit. I knew that from the start. So who the ‘ell are they? Actors? Should I call ‘em Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?»

«Might as well.» Cohen went silent for a while. «You saw some weird shit in Clarion, but that's hardly preparation for just how weird the world really is. I'm not sure how much to tell you. I'm not sure how much you're prepared to believe.»

«If I were to demand you tell me everything, how long would it take?»

«I'd have to sit you down with Desdinova, the guy who authorized your investigation in Clarion. Getting you in a room with him would be complicated.»

«How so?»

Cohen shook his head. «I know at least one guy who'd love to play fly-on-a-wall as Desdinova shows you how deep the rabbit hole goes. And we don't want him anywhere near you.»

Intuition coughed up a name. «You mean Ian Malkin? The guy at AsgarTech behind Project Harker? Petersen thinks he's still around.»

«He is.»

No way I could settle for that. If Ian Malkin remained a threat, I could hardly call my mission complete. «Did Malkuth keep stonewalling me because of him? You have any idea how close Clarion and the fort came to obliteration because of that arsehole?»

«Yeah, I know. Malkin didn't order Malkuth to keep you in the dark. You'll have to blame Desdinova for that. He needed you to figure out as much as possible on your own, and come to doubt the Society.»

If I met Desdinova, I'd be happy to tell him he could considered the mission well and truly accomplished―right before I arrested him for obstruction. «Why would he want Adversaries to doubt?»

«Who watches the watchmen?» Adversaries always answered the classic question with two simple words: “we do.“ «Who watches the people watching the watchmen? Desdinova's worried that there's rot at the heart of the Society, and hoped to groom certain Adversaries for an internal task force. He thought you'd be a good candidate, and kept secrets from you as part of the test. But we had no control over GUNGNIR, and we had nothing to do with your time in that Commonwealth black site, either.»

Eddie's explanation proved cold comfort, for it made plain that some kind of power struggle had embroiled the upper echelons of the Phoenix Society.. I thoroughly resented Desdinova for making a pawn of me, and resolved that even if I decided to work with him, I wouldn't trust him or Edmund Cohen any farther than I could kick them.

«We could use your help. We'll tell you everything, and you could help save the Phoenix Society.» Cohen shook his head and flashed a bitter smile my way. «Normally I'd give you the hard sell, tell you about how you'd be a hero, and that you should consider it your privilege to serve, but we're both adults here. You probably feel like you got a raw deal, and I freely admit that you're right to do so.»

«All right. Tell me why I shouldn't take the job.»

«It's a shit job, and nobody will thank you for doing it because admitting the job needed doing is a bloody PR nightmare. You'll probably have to deal with assassins, and your family would probably do well to get the hell off the planet. So would you, once it's all over.»

Cohen left unsaid that even exile from Earth offered no guarantee of safety. If the enemies I would surely to make wanted me dead badly enough, the rest of the solar system hardly lacked for hired killers. Even if I found a ship willing to take me to Pluto, I might not be safe. «I need to think it over. I probably won't accept.»

Cohen didn't reply. He had already said his piece. He remained silent throughout the rest of our ride to Clarion. Rather than consider his proposal, I reminded myself that I originally came here on holiday and should enjoy it while I could. Most of the old Interprovincial highway cut through forests at the height of their autumn color, and so I took in the foliage while Cohen drove.

The ride ended sooner than I had hoped, as Cohen slowed to a pace only slightly faster than a brisk walk. We had returned to Clarion in time for the Clarion Rocks! festival, and locals and festivalgoers choked Main Street. After renting space at a public lot, we continued through town on foot.

“Naomi?! Holy shit, it's you!“ That sounded like Kaylee. I turned around just in time to get caught in one of Kaylee's enthusiastic hugs. “Where the hell did you go? Last time I saw you, Mikey and I were helping you up to your room at the Lonely Mountain.“

“It's fine, Kaylee. Just a misunderstanding. How's everything here?“ Millions of questions crowded my head, jostling to be the first out of my mouth. “I'm amazed everything seems so normal, considering the Petersen almost cratered the whole bloody town.“

Cohen coughed behind me. “Gonna introduce me to your girlfriend?“

Kaylee let me go, and undressed Cohen with a glance. “For me? Oh, Naomi, you shouldn't have.“

Suppressing a groan, I made introductions, “Kaylee, this is Adversary Edmund Cohen. Adversary Cohen, this is Kaylee Chambers, a local merchant. She was helpful in my investigation.“

The way Cohen leered at Kaylee in her nearly skintight t-shirt as I introduced them, I expected him to make some crass remark. Instead, he smiled and shook her hand. “Pleased to meet you, Ms. Chambers. Care to join us for a drink? We've had a long ride from Philadelphia.“

Renfield and the rest of Dusk Patrol crowded around the bar when we arrived at the Lonely Mountain. Glad to see they were reintegrating themselves into civilian life, I followed Kaylee rather than disturbing them.

Though Renfield caught my eye, something in his expression suggested we'd be better served by a private conversation. Besides, Mike Brubaker had found me. “You're back! What happened to you? Are you all right?“

It was sweet of him to be concerned, so I pecked his cheek. “I'm fine. You don't have to worry about me. Now, tell me what's been going on around town.“

“Screw that,“ Kaylee yelled, wrapping an arm around my shoulder. “Let's get drunk.“

Drunk? Hell, no; that might have been what got me in trouble last time. However, I couldn't refuse a glass. Sipping at the house red, I got caught up on who had taken over as interim Mayor and Sheriff. Cat Tricklebank got stuck with Mayor Collins’ seat until the election next year. Turned out the poor woman served as lieutenant mayor under Collins, and wore the receptionist hat because Collins couldn't delegate. Sheriff Colby was reportedly more pleased with her promotion than Tricklebank, and was currently engaged in proving the adage about new brooms.

A couple of young doctors, newlyweds from New York, had come with the Phoenix Society to sort out the messes Petersen left behind. No doubt they were enticed by the prospect of taking over an existing practice soon after completing their residency and receiving certification.

Kaylee buggered off with Cohen as I bid Mike a goodnight. After securing a room, I waved to the men of Dusk Patrol. Renfield cornered me by the stairs and stole a kiss before rejoining his men. The carefree manner with which the others teased him was a far cry from our last encounter.

It felt strange to be back in my room at the Lonely Mountain. Everybody else had begun to move on, but for me it felt like only yesterday that I fought Petersen for my life and that of the town. The night was silent save for the ticking of an old clock, and lit only by stars. According to my implant, the moon had set an hour ago at two in the morning. Getting up to use the toilet, I caught a glimpse of myself in the bathroom mirror. My eyes seemed harder, or at least more resolute, in the scarlet glow of the nightlight.

A snow-blond CPMD+ man in a white suit sat at the foot of my bed, regarding me with cobalt eyes. He favored me with the insouciant smile I recognized from a hundred sparring matches. I also recalled his face from the photographs I had taken from Dr. Petersen's account on Clarion's town computer.

“Dr. Ian Malkin, I presume. How did you get in here without my noticing?“

His smile broadened. “I liked it better when you called me Maestro.“

“I liked you better when I knew you as Maestro. You still haven't answered my question.“

Track 63

Dream Theater: “In the Presence of Enemies, Part 2”

My uninvited guest―Ian Malkin, Maestro, or the Devil himself for all I knew―favored me with an indulgent smile. Would he still smile if he knew I recorded him using functions separate from Witness Protocol? “Call it sufficiently advanced technology. Or magic, if you prefer. It doesn't matter to me either way.“

If an ideal time to deal with this sort of bullshit existed, five after three in the morning wasn't it. Taking my sword, which I had left leaning against the dresser, I drew it and let Malkin have a good look at its point. “Last chance, whoever you are. Explain your presence or be subject to arrest.“

Malkin's expression hardened. “With what evidence will you prove I was ever here? Witness Protocol isn't recording our little chat. I ensured that before revealing myself.“

No Witness Protocol? And he admitted to tampering with it? Good thing I thought to record this myself. Not that I had any intention of underestimating my opponent. Speaking of which, I thought Malkin had blue eyes. When did they turn red like mine? “What the hell happened to your eyes?“

“I stopped hiding my true colors. Did you think you were the only demifiend in the world?“ Christopher Renfield now sat where Malkin had been, wearing a dress uniform I had never seen before. A moment later, I stared at Colonel Petersen. He saluted, and then shifted back to the snow-blonde dandy in white I had called Maestro. “You may recall from reading Peterson's research that every CPMD+ individual possesses varying degrees of what he called asura-potential. I awoke to my true nature a long, long time ago, when demons walked the earth. I had hoped Petersen would discover a scientific process to endow others with the strength I found through more arcane methods.“

“It's the end of the twenty-first century, and you expect me to believe in demons?“

Malkin must have tired of the theatrics, for he went back to blue eyes. Thank goodness. His shapeshifting had begun to make me think I had gone ‘round the bend. Either that or something in the wine had me tripping balls.

“Whether you believe or not is immaterial. Project Harker would have happened without the involvement of Henrik Petersen or Dusk Patrol. The fact that this colonel had created an all-CPMD+ special forces unit merely presented an irresistible opportunity.“

“An opportunity for what? Why would you want to turn CPMD+ people into psionic super-soldiers?“

“You would not believe the truth, since you don't believe that I am a demon, but I will tell you anyway for my own amusement. I sought to create soldiers capable of killing the demon who pretends to be God.“

A demon who pretends to be God? And Ian Malkin wanted to create what―a deicide squad? “You're right. I don't believe you. But since you admitted to conspiring with Dr. Henrik Petersen and conducting unethical scientific experiments on human subjects―”

“Your idealism has proved amusing thus far, Adversary Bradleigh, but do not try my patience. Choose your words with exacting care. You do not yet realize your peril.“ The menace in his voice sliced the air, and frost coated the edge of my sword. In that moment I believed Ian Malkin was a demon. “I am aware of everything that has happened at Clarion since the inception of Project Harker. As are the rest of the Executive Council.“

The rest, he said. Ian Malkin's on the bloody XC. That must have been what Cohen was trying to rope me into on Desdinova's behalf. Fuck me. “So you've had the authority to block my investigation at every turn. You're the reason Malkuth wouldn't tell me anything. You could have stopped Petersen from activating GUNGNIR, but you were prepared to let him massacre thousands of people.“

“Thousands is trivial compared to the gigadeaths for which I am already responsible.“ The matter-of-fact tone with which he made this statement precluded any hope of this being more than his bravado. “I knew you weren't the sort to be dissuaded, so I decided to let you see for yourself how deep the rabbit hole went. I wanted to see you in action, to see if you were the one I hoped to create.“

This shit just keeps getting thicker, doesn't it? “Who was I supposed to be?“

“That is irrelevant. You aren't the one I need.“ Malkin began to pace, but kept his eyes on me as if he expected me to strike at him. “I had hoped that like some of the Project Harker subjects, you might prove to be a flowseeker, that you might manifest your psychoenergetic talent under sufficiently extreme duress. I expected GUNGNIR to be the trigger. After activating the system and setting its target, I had locked it down to prevent you from simply jacking in and aborting the launch.“

“But I did it anyway, thanks to the tools I found on Tetragrammaton.“ Damn, I would have to tell Cat Tricklebank that her husband helped save the whole goddamn town. “What did you think I would do, shatter those tungsten carbide rods in midair with my voice?“

The corner of Malkin's mouth crooked as if he had expected exactly that. “Instead, you possess an amusing tendency to sabotage my plans. I could not permit you to finish your duel with Dr. Petersen and bring him to trial. Had you not reached out and touched a guard with your song, you would have remained in that cell unindicted, and untried.“

The Philadelphia black site would have been my own personal Chateau d'If. The very notion left me shuddering. “So, that was your idea? Did those fake Adversaries also work for you?“

Malkin smiled. “Fake Adversaries? Oh, them. It is my fond hope you will never see them again.“

“Why is that? Don't want to have them assassinate me? That would be some trick, considering the pains I took to ensure their demise.“

For a moment, I couldn't breathe as a sudden cold, airless darkness enveloped me. The only light was a distant star, so faint that it barely lit the huge snowball tumbling beside me. Bloody hell, is that a comet? I guess they really do look like dirty snowballs. Something bumped into me. Something that could have been a man, his mouth frozen in a rictus. Had I seen him somewhere before?

I reached out to push him away, but never made contact. Instead, I was back in my room. Malkin's smile was thoroughly malicious as he regarded me. “I am the ensof Imaginos. If I wanted you dead, I would have left you out there. Nobody would ever find you in the Kuiper Belt.“

“What kind of fucked up magic do you have?“ I blurted the question, desperate to grasp some semblance of reality despite having been strapped in for a ride on the crazy train. “If you're a demon who can do everything I've seen you do, why don't you rule the world?“

“What makes you think I don't?“ Malkin's voice held the quiet confidence of an attorney who had finished delivering an unassailable argument. Sometimes the facts speak for themselves when laid out properly, with no need to give a jury the hard sell.

“I recorded everything. I'll get it onto the network. Somebody will see it and expose you.“

“It wouldn't save you, though your death would do nothing but further complicate matters. Even if I consigned you to the cold ever-night of interstellar space, you have friends and family who would demand answers. If I made them disappear in turn, I'd only turn more people against me, and so on until the entire world rose to oppose me. Thus we come to our second stalemate. Well played, Adversary.“ Malkin paused, letting his statements strike with the impact of a depth charge. “Here is how it will be. Your debt is paid. You need no longer serve as an Adversary. The Phoenix Society will celebrate you as the heroine who exposed an old conspiracy, solved multiple murders and disappearances, and saved a town from orbital bombardment―all while on vacation. With the bonus you'll receive, you will have no trouble striking out on your own, though a patron can also be arranged if you wish it.“

“What's the price?“ There had to be a catch. There's no way this bastard would show he was capable of leaving me in deep space and then offer my fondest desire.

“Just walk away, and keep your pretty mouth shut. That was Henrik Petersen you bumped into, by the way. For my part, it is time Ian Malkin died in turn. Perhaps he should fall on his sword to atone for his crimes.“

A better Adversary than I might have defied Malkin. She might have upheld her oath, even though eternal hostility to Ian Malkin's demonic tyranny would have won her a one-way trip to deep space. Worse still, I couldn't even say I struggled with the decision. Turning my back on the Phoenix Society would be easy since Malkin couldn't be defeated at a game he had created. An organization led by the likes of him and by people who abetted him was irredeemably corrupt. I might owe my fellow Adversaries, but at the same time, I had no right to shatter their faith. I'd be like a newly minted atheist trying to convince the faithful that their gods only existed inside their own imaginations. “What if I refuse, and work with Desdinova to expose you?“

Malkin sighed, as if he expected me to insist upon seeing the stick as well as the carrot. “If you attempt to bring me to trial, I will arrange for the record to justify your arrest for abuse of authority. A court martial will find you guilty on all counts, and condemn you to the guillotine. You will then be made an unperson, your name erased from existence in every way that matters.“

I had no trouble deciding; I had already rationalized my way to selling out. If I made myself complicit in Ian Malkin's conspiracy, I would get a shot at the life I had always wanted. If I kept my oath and held true to my ideals, my only reward would be the ignominious death of a traitor.

It would have been reasonable to consider the possibility that even if the jury convicted me, enough people might still believe me and believe in me, and hold true to the same ideals. They might work and struggle to reveal the truth, exonerate me, and expose the rot at the Phoenix Society's blackened heart.

But I wouldn't be alive to see it. I'd just be a martyr, a holy name with everything that made me a person hidden under as many coats of whitewash as those rallying around my image needed. What would that accomplish, besides bringing down the organization that rebuilt the post-Nationfall world?

Whatever would rise from the Phoenix Society's ashes wasn't likely to be any better than the current regime. Yesterday, I would have argued for preserving the Phoenix Society lest the world face a return to the old disorder of warring nation-states where the strong exploited the weak and called it “sound economics.“ Now I had a new nightmare scenario: the snow-blond dandy before me taking off the kid gloves, declaring himself openly, and demanding absolute obedience on pain of death.

Driven by two whips, one named fear and the other desire, I sold my soul without hesitation. I took a breath and gave my answer without any doubt I made the best possible decision for me, and hopefully for the world. “I don't get paid enough for this shit.“

Malkin chuckled at my reply. “No, you most certainly do not. But you'll find in time that you made the right decision.“

Before I could say anything else, he disappeared. Now you see him. Now you don't. Nothing for it but to go back to bed. Though I expected to spend the remaining hours until breakfast staring at the ceiling with my sword held close as insurance against Malkin's return, sleep soon reclaimed me.

Track 64

Blue Öyster Cult: “Out of the Darkness”

Despite betraying my ideals, I enjoyed the sleep of the just. Good thing my conscience kept quiet, because a warning from Malkuth prevented me from ordering breakfast. «Local police incoming, Naomi. I'm sending backup now.»

«Thanks, Malkuth.» Glancing over my shoulder, I met Sheriff Colby's cornflower blue stare. “Can I help you, Sheriff?“

“Mayor Tricklebank and I have some questions. I'm going to have to insist that you come with us.“

Dick Halford looked up. “Sheriff, I don't want any trouble in here. Ms. Bradleigh's a guest.“

I turned around, and leaned against the counter. The presence of twenty irregulars from the town militia suggested Colby meant business. “Am I under arrest?“

“Not yet.“ Colby took her hand off the service gladius at her belt to indicate the irregulars behind her. “I hope you won't make that necessary.“

Sheriff Colby hoped I would't make it necessary for her to arrest me, did she? That's funny; I had hoped she wouldn't give me an excuse to put my boot up her arse. “If you aren't here to arrest me, then tell these concerned citizens to bugger off before I bust you on an abuse-of-power charge.“

“On what grounds?“

Colby had her hand on the hilt of her gladius again. If I didn't defuse this situation soon, she'd probably draw the damned thing, and then it would come to a fight―and as I said to Ian Malkin, I didn't get paid enough for this nonsense. “We worked together, so I know you're smarter than this. You know damn well you exceeded your authority by bringing irregulars with you to command me to appear before the mayor.“

Colby nodded. “If I back off, what assurance will I have that you'll come see the Mayor?“

“None whatsofuckingever.“ I sweetened my response with a smile sure to induce diabetes before continuing. “However, if you don't back off, the Adversaries coming to back me up will arrive any minute. Unlike me, they're fully armed.“

That meant armor, Kalashnikovs with bayonets or grenade launchers, and―if Edmund Cohen hadn't gotten too stoned to come along―a sharpshooter with a Dragunov picking off anybody who managed to avoid getting shredded by close-range fire. Sheriff Colby knew it, too, judging by how pale her face got as the reality of how badly she fucked up sank in. She glanced over her shoulder at the irregulars. “Get the hell out of here. Take the back door. If any Adversaries catch you, take the Fifth.“

Colby's use of the pre-Nationfall expression amused me; maybe she watched some of the same police dramas I did as a kid. Once the irregulars were gone, she showed me her empty hands as she backed away. “You'll call off the Adversaries, right?“

“I'm not the one who called them in, but I'll see what I can do. It might go easier for you if they see us having breakfast together, though. I'll buy.“

Colby nodded. “I'll cover the tip.“

Fair enough, but first, some insurance. «Malkuth, please tell the Adversaries en route that I've resolved the Colby situation. I suspect Clarion isn't used to dealing with the Phoenix Society, and the impression I made is probably bad enough. I'd rather not have them go full Dredd.»

«I've called them off. However, we're going to have to have a little chat with Ms. Colby about zeal. Her purge of the Sheriff's department would be Stalinesque if she hadn't provided evidence of wrongdoing on the parts of the deputies she fired. Seems most of them were Robinson's old army buddies. He put them on the payroll, and ignored all evidence of corruption on their part in exchange for kickbacks.»

«That seems rather pedestrian as far as police corruption goes. Why didn't the Society crack down?»

«I can't tell you that. Sorry.»

Seems Malkuth's newfound willingness to share still didn't extend as far as the Society's records, though I was sure he would have told me if he could. Besides, it wouldn't do to be too harsh with him. AIs were like puppies and young children; harsh words from the wrong person or at the wrong time got you nowhere. «Figures I wouldn't be cleared for that info.»

«By the way, I got the weirdest message this morning. Did you know your contract's up already?»

«That's odd. I thought I had another year and a half. Did Winter Solstice come early, too?»

«No, but that hasn't stopped retailers from putting up displays or irate consumers from demanding that the Phoenix Society intervene.»

Despite my current predicament, I couldn't help but find that amusing. Besides, I owed Malkuth some social time, and Colby and her armed escort could wait. «What did you tell them?»

«I told them that the commercialization of holidays isn't a violation of individual rights, and that they should consider asking their physicians about treatment for hemorrhoids instead of being butthurt all the time.»

«Has Jacqueline been corrupting you again?»

«I get the entire network as input. Jackie's kinda tame by comparison. Besides, my filter is 99.999% effective.»

I wasn't going to ask about what happened when Malkuth's filter failed. It was most likely another of those Lovecraftian situations where ignorance is sanity. «I'll be in touch. Do try to behave yourself.»

«Must I?»

«Don't make me bring a whip for our first date.» Let him process that for a while. Meanwhile, I turned my attention back to Dick Halford. “The usual for me, please, and put the Sheriff's order on my tab.“

Halford nodded. “Sure. What about you, Sheriff? Your usual, too?“

“Yeah.“

Dick followed us out to our table with two mugs and a fresh pot of coffee. After I poured for each of us, I tried to get some civilized conversation going. “So, what does the Mayor want to know?“

Colby shrugged, and sipped her coffee before answering. “She didn't tell me everything, so you'll have to find out for yourself.“

Her reply left me wondering if they crammed the stick up her arse before giving her a shiny new badge, or if she decided on her own that a Sheriff had to be brusque to project authority. “I liked you better as a deputy.“

That got a laugh, which Colby quickly suppressed lest other patrons hear and decided she was only human. “Been getting that a lot lately.“

After we finished our coffee, I followed her across town to City Hall. Might as well get it over with. It took me a second to recognize the woman sitting at Mayor Collins’ old desk as Cat Tricklebank. Stress and grief had left her pallid and almost gaunt. She had hardened, too, and the smile she flashed as she rose and offered her hand to greet me didn't touch her eyes. “Good morning, Adversary Bradleigh. Thank you for coming down. We have tea and bagels if you haven't had breakfast yet.“

Sure, Cat made the appropriate civilized noises, and offered breakfast, but she still sent Sheriff Colby to bring me here, under duress if necessary. Somebody needed to put them in their place before one of them did something in an official capacity that would put them in prison―or a grave. “It didn't take either of you long to get power-drunk, did it? By what authority do you dare use the threat of violence at the hands of local militia to demand I answer your questions in blatant disregard for my rights?“

“I have no idea what you mean, Adversary.“

Nice try. “Let me guess: the Phoenix Society has basically let Clarion fester like a boil on the arse of the continent, and nobody here has any idea how things work in the real world. Everything you say on the job gets recorded by Witness Protocol, and can be used against you in a court of law. So don't get cute with me.“

Cat gave her desktop a peremptory thump. “Damn it, Adversary, you came to our town and all Tartarus broke loose. Several young men and women are dead, and they died while you were in town. You staged some kind of small-scale war over at Fort Clarion, personally killed Mayor Collins and Sheriff Robinson, and might have done the same for Dr. Petersen. I've got a few dozen traumatized men who think they're vampires and that there's still a North American Commonwealth, and I don't know which delusion is more troublesome―”

“I would go with the latter, as long as the Dusk Patrol lads only bite consenting partners.“

Cat ignored my advice and plowed onward. “I had a dozen Adversaries underfoot, demanding answers. A dozen. You just don't see that kind of presence from the Phoenix Society. Suddenly you're back. We couldn't afford to risk the possibility of you disappearing as quickly as you did last time.“

“Leaving was hardly my idea, and if I knew what happened I'd happily tell you. Had things gone my way, I would have stuck around to assist with the Society's investigation, answer your questions, get the armor Nakajima lent me shipped back to Osaka, and help Clarion and Dusk Patrol learn to coexist. Moreover, all this crazy shit didn't just happen. People have been disappearing around Clarion for years, if not decades. You both knew this.“

Neither of them would admit anything of the sort, but I didn't mind. “Sheriff Colby, you helped me investigate. How long had you worked with Robinson? You saw how much dirt he had on his hands. Why else would you have been so quick to purge the department of his old army buddies?“

“How did you know?“

“I know all the juicy gossip.“ Honesty demanded I admit to going on inference based on what little Edmund Cohen and Malkuth had bothered to tell me, but prudence told honesty to sod off. I didn't need these to know I had made a shot in the dark. “Cat, you worked under Mayor Collins. Surely, you saw or heard something that suggested that many of his dealings wouldn't bear close scrutiny. There's enough shady in this town for a city ten times its size, and it touched everybody living here.“

That got a bitter laugh from Colby. “No shit. So, are you going to help us put the pieces together?

“Fine, but you should get Cohen, Brubaker, and Renfield in here, too. Hopefully, you'll be more polite with them.“

Midnight's passage turned all the carriages back into pumpkins before I finished telling my tale, the men jumping in when necessary to provide context. Renfield did most of the work because Cohen hadn't seen my entire mission feed, and Brubaker knew little more than I did. Admittedly, we might have finished a bit sooner if not for my insistence on regular meals, but that's what Tricklebank and Colby get for being high-handed.

Renfield joined me as I left City Hall and walked toward the Lonely Mountain. “The Phoenix Society's been going easy on us. They just want to know where the bodies are buried. They haven't made any arrests, since we proved to them that the killers among us are already dead.“

“All of them?“

“You got the last of them.“

Though they had been trying to kill me, I still regretted their deaths. Hell, I regretted all the people I killed, even that prat Collins. If the Phoenix Society had lived up to its ideals and done something about Clarion, Dusk Patrol, and Project Harker sooner my involvement would have been unnecessary. Rather than focus on my feelings, I concerned myself with Dusk Patrol. “How are the men adjusting? I saw a bunch of you here last night.“

“Kaylee and Mike have been helping us catch up. I think we're going to be all right, especially since somebody in the Society worked out how much back pay we would be owed if the Commonwealth were still around. We're going to stick around and invest in the town, help build it up and make it better. Maybe we can help make up for some of the harm we did that way.“

“That sounds like an excellent idea. I'll have to visit again.“

We were most of the way to the Lonely Mountain before Renfield spoke again. “Some of the guys found your stuff on the base. I didn't get the word until now because most of the men don't have implants.“

Why had my captors left my gear at Fort Clarion? Sod it; at least it was safe. “You mean my motorcycle?“

“And your fancy gear. It'll be at the Lonely Mountain for you tomorrow morning. I guess somebody in the Phoenix Society wanted to make it look like we killed you, and buried you with your stuff. Another disappearance in the Old Fort Woods. What really happened?“

It would have been impossible to tell him everything, because I didn't fully understand what had happened myself. So, I gave Renfield the bare bones. “I must have had too much to drink, because I needed Mike and Kaylee to help me to my room. I woke up in one of the Commonwealth's black sites. I don't know how I got there, and I was brought out after suffering a seizure.“

Renfield nodded, as if in sympathy. “Must have been a hard fight, then.“

“It wasn't one I could win with a sword.“

“Those are the hardest.“ He held the door for me, and we stepped into a still-bustling common room. “How about a drink before calling it a night?“

“Sure.“ We had a drink, and Renfield told me some of what his men had been up to since their liberation. For the most part, it was a comedy of errors as they noticed the presence of single young women, and tried to figure out modern dating protocols. Fortunately, Kaylee had been willing to help.

Though I expected him to steal another kiss afterward, he refrained. It looked like he expected me to make the next move. It was tempting, but I would be leaving him behind, wouldn't I? So, despite the invitation I saw in Renfield's expression, I spent my last night in Clarion alone.

Track 65

Thank You Scientist: “My Famed Disappearing Act”

My return to London wasn't nearly as solitary. Christopher Renfield found me aboard an express maglev to London. Unable to believe he had followed me, I peered up at him from behind a novel I had taken from the lending rack on the platform. “Really, Renfield? We had one night.“

“It was a memorable one, but that's not why I'm on this train. Mind if I join you?“

“Sure. This book's a bit crap anyway.“

Renfield stowed his bag on the rack above the empty seat and sat across from me. “I never figured you to be the sort for bodice-rippers.“

I glanced at the cover, which I hadn't noticed earlier since it was the only book on the rack. “In all honesty, some bodice-ripping would be an improvement. Instead, it reads like an AI's first attempt at emulating Jane Austen.“

That got Malkuth's attention. «I resent that remark.»

«You resemble it, too. Why are you listening, anyway? I'm not on duty.»

«I'm actually listening to Renfield. Part of the deal for not prosecuting the surviving members of Dusk Patrol is five years of Witness Protocol surveillance.»

Hearing that, I favored Renfield with a wicked smile. “So, what's it like knowing the Phoenix Society watches you masturbate?“

«Dammit, Naomi.»

Renfield gave an embarrassed laugh. “It's had a chilling effect, if you know what I mean. Did Malkuth tell you we're on probation? I saw your fingers go to your ear.“

“Yeah. Sorry about that. So, why are you here if not on my account?“

“I joined the army to see the world and experience other cultures. It didn't work out that way.“ Renfield's expression turned pensive, and he looked out the window for a moment. “After all that time living in a hole, I figured I was due for some leave.“

“Just you?“

“Rank hath its privileges.“

Staring at him, I rephrased. “What about your men? Who's in command?“

“Oh. Kaylee offered to crack the whip while I'm gone. Besides, she's looking to expand beyond Clarion. I offered to scope out the local fandoms and help with market research.“

“New York makes sense, but shouldn't Kaylee focus on one city at a time?“

Renfield shrugged. “She seems to be as aggressive in business as she is with men. I think she's working her way through every man in the patrol – two at a time.“

“Well, that's a hell of a welcome to the modern world.“ I knew Jackie had that sort of appetite, but Kaylee, too? I was starting to feel like a prude, though the memory of my woodland escapades with Renfield made me flush.

He stuck to business, however. “Also, New York and London apparently have thriving goth scenes, so having vampires on staff would be a good draw.“

Vampires? Still? “Going to stick with that story despite learning the truth about Project Harker?“

Renfield chuckled. “What the customers don't know won't hurt ‘em. Besides, I don't mind vamping it up a bit, especially if some gothalicious Londoner wants me to bite her neck.“

“Over me already?“ Though it might have been just as well if he was, I was a bit disappointed.

“I thought you were over me. Though I did kinda fuck things up by tying you up that time.“

He certainly did, but that was behind us now. Besides, it was a weird situation. In the absence of a crisis, Renfield probably had much to recommend him, though I knew next to nothing about what those qualities might be. “It's occurred to me that we don't actually know each other, Christopher. Shall we fix that?“

“I'd like that.“ Renfield covered a yawn. “But could it wait a bit longer? I've been up all night talking business with Kaylee and making sure the men would be all right.“

“Go ahead.“ I picked up my borrowed novel as Renfield settled into his seat and closed his eyes. He had that soldier's knack for falling asleep anywhere, and at the first opportunity. Since our arrival failed to wake him, I did it myself by running my fingers through his close-cropped hair. “Come on, you.“

“Thanks. You got anybody here to greet you?“

“Jackie offered, but I've got to pick up my motorcycle. I'll see her tomorrow.“

Renfield nodded. “Want to call me when you get home?“

“Do you have somewhere to stay?“

“I was going to find a backpacker's hostel and rent a room.“

That wouldn't do at all. “Come with me instead. You can sleep on the couch.“

             ⛧⛧⛧

Renfield ended up sleeping with me. Not that either of us got much sleep; the pillow talk proved unexpectedly interesting, and Renfield pounced on lulls in the conversation. Oh well; it had been my idea for us to get to know each other. We didn't actually sleep until the sky had begun to brighten. He spooned with me with me, his arm draped over me and holding me close, as Jackie called.

“Nims, you've got to check the news. You won't believe what just happened.“

“Jackie, you're my best friend and I love you like a sister, but do you have any bloody idea what time it is?“

“Yeah, it's the bloody arse crack of dawn. But they're mentioning you, Nims. By name.“

By name? This I had to see. Using my implant to control the wall display, I pulled up a news broadcast. “Some shocking news from the Phoenix Society. Philanthropist Ian Malkin committed suicide in front of the Society's New York headquarters last night at sunset. What would drive a man of his stature to fall on his sword? Malkin's suicide note revealed the answers. It included a signed and notarized confession identifying the deceased as a member of the Society's Executive Council. His suicide was apparently prompted by the results of an investigation conducted in the rural North American town of Clarion by a vacationing Adversary named Naomi Bradleigh. We have not yet reached Ms. Bradleigh for comment, but we will soon.“

I was so utterly fucked. My imagination conjured visions of reporters kicking down my door to besiege me with questions. It had happened before, and for less cause than my driving a member of the XC to suicide. So, I did the most sensible thing I could think of doing. I packed a bug-out bag, grabbed the sword Ian Malkin had given me as gift, and woke Renfield. “Chris, we have to go.“

“We got a fight?“

“Nobody fights the media.“ I yanked open the drawer in which I kept my cold-weather clothes, grabbed a pair of balaclavas, and tossed one to him. “Wear this. If those bastards find you're involved with me, you'll never have a moment's privacy.“

We had mounted up, Renfield's strong hands on my waist, and started on our way as the first news vans turned the corner and stopped outside the front door to my building. While riding to Jackie's, I sent her a quick message so she wouldn't be surprised by my guest. Then I texted my parents to let them know I would be all right.

When we arrived, Jackie stood outside her front door, brandishing her Kalashnikov overhead with one hand while holding her dressing gown closed. Had somebody figured out my destination and alerted the others so they could get to Jackie's ahead of me? “All of you need to bugger off right bloody now. I'm not answering any questions. Neither is Naomi at this time of the morning. We'll announce a press conference later today at the Phoenix Society's London chapter.“

A splash and a cry of shock rose from the crowd. “Sod off, you arseholes! I'm trying to sleep up here!“

Claire leaned out the window, hurling another water balloon at a camera crew as her first victims complained about equipment damage. “Eat me!“

Some of the cameras tilted up to get video of Claire, self-preservation not outweighing the need for B-roll. Perhaps they'd use the footage for a kids-these-days-are-out-of-control feature on a slow news day. Some of them turned toward me as Renfield and I pulled up in front of Jackie and dismounted. A cry issued forth from one of them. “That's her! See the white hair? That's Naomi Bradleigh!“

Oh, bollocks. I dismounted and broke into a flat-out sprint toward Jackie's front door and safety. When a journalist got too close, I shouldered them aside as if I were still in ACS playing rugby. Placing himself between me and the madding crowd, Renfield drew a pistol and covered my rear.

Once inside, Jackie slammed the door shut, locked it, and favored me with a wry smile. “You're gonna owe me for this, Nims. Big-time. I'm thinking―” Catching sight of Renfield, she gave him a once-over followed by a slow, rich smile. “Well, hello there. Who might you be?“

Renfield straightened, and managed to salute with one hand while holstering his pistol with the other. “Christopher Renfield, ma'am. Thanks for taking us in.“

Jackie's smile only got bigger. “Wow, Nims, you got him trained already? I'm impressed.“

“Careful, Jackie. He bites.“ I would owe Renfield an apology for that crack later. Hell, I owed him for backing me up outside. “Besides, what would your fiancé say?“

“Rodney won't mind as long as I share with him.“

I regretted the question as soon as she opened her mouth. “I didn't need to know that.“

“Then how are you going to pay me back for holding off the horde and offering sanctuary?“

“Didn't I already agree to stand up for you at the wedding?“

Jackie cocked her head. “Gonna take more than that.“

“Maid of honor?“ It was going to be a shitload of work, but least I wouldn't have to pay for the wedding or the honeymoon.

“That's more like it.“ Jackie gave me a quick hug. “But I also need you to come with me to HQ. I want to resign, but I'm afraid to do it alone.“

             ⛧⛧⛧

I had trouble believing Jackie was afraid to resign from the IRD corps. Hell, after serving with her throughout my tenure as an Adversary, I doubted that fear even had a place in her emotional repertoire. She had already served a full four year contract, but I owed her since she promised to stand beside me as I faced the press. Fortunately, the press conference proceeded as such matters usually do: with strict instructions from the public relations―or propaganda, depending on who you ask―department to answer all questions by saying things like, “Due to the ongoing nature of the investigation, I am not at liberty to comment.“

I hid behind such evasions until Alice Talbot pushed her way to the front and asked, “Adversary Bradleigh, are you at liberty to comment on anything? For example, are you aware that Ian Malkin's will distributes his fortune among the victims of Project Harker in Clarion, and includes you as a legatee? Is this not a conflict of interest?“

“It would be if I intended to continue to serve as an Adversary. However, to avoid any appearance of impropriety, I am willing to renounce my share of Ian Malkin's legacy.“ It galled me to say it, but I still wore the pins. As such, the anti-corruption regulations were explicit; as an active Adversary, I could not accept money from the subject of a Phoenix Society investigation regardless of the form it took. I couldn't accept a salary from Ian Malkin, gifts from him or his associates, or a share of his estate after his death.

Without that money, would I be able to launch my career as a musician? Hopefully, Christine Pennington would able to sell Maestro's sword, which I received before I went to Clarion or learned that Ian Malkin used his Maestro identity to train me in swordfighting.. I clawed at that slim hope, and held Alice Talbot's gaze. “Do you have any other questions, Ms. Talbot?“

“No, Adversary Bradleigh. Thank you.“ Talbot's expression resembled that of a crab that had succeeded in pulling one of its fellows back down into the bucket. Did jealously over somebody else's windfall motivate her? No matter. I had already publicly renounced the money.

             ⛧⛧⛧

Had it really only been a few weeks since I last sat in Director Chattan's office? It felt like forever. Perhaps I had been unconsciously distancing myself from everything I had known in the Society to make my departure easier.

“Let's see if I understand, Adversary Russo. You want to resign because you're getting married, and you've taken in your niece Claire?“

“Yeah.“ Jackie looked away for a moment. “Besides, my professional life has turned into a villain-of-the-week show. We get word of abuses, I go out and bust the assholes allegedly responsible, and while they await trial, some other pusbag causes more trouble. This shit never fuckin’ ends.“

“So, burnout?“

“Yeah. It's burnout. I try to tell myself that at least the people I bust can't hurt anybody else, but it doesn't help anymore.“

“Would counseling help?“

Jackie greeted Chattan's question with a derisive snort. “Come off it. I know you have to run through this Adversary retention script because the XC is worried about turnover, but everybody in the IRD corps is in therapy. I'm there, you're there, Naomi's there. The Society's CBT program is a bandaid.“

“Must we belabor the obvious?“ Chattan gave a weary sigh and put aside his tablet. “So, you've had enough and now you want out. Your contract's up, and your forms are in order, so I can't stop you.“

My turn. “I suppose you'll want to know why I'm resigning as well, Director.“

Chattan nodded. “It does seem odd, considering your recent success in Clarion. Would you mind explaining your reasons?“

How much could I explain without mentioning my little Faustian bargain with Ian Malkin? I'd rather not find out, given that the consequences could land me in a prison cell again. Or somewhere out in space where nobody would ever find me. “I'd prefer not to, Director. My reasons for leaving are personal. Shall we just chalk it up to burnout?“

Chattan studied me for a moment. “You're going to insist, aren't you? I suppose I should be glad you handled that Talbot woman the way you did. I'll put your discharge through right after I take care of Adversary Russo's.“

Rising, I offered Chattan my hand. “That will be fine, Director. Thank you.“

             ⛧⛧⛧

Jackie paced the waiting room, scanning the faces of people sitting in hard wooden chairs and hiding behind magazines as if the London chapter were a doctor's office. “Bloody hell, Naomi. We left Claire right here with a bag full of manga. Where could she have gone?“

“I told you bringing Claire and making her leave her computer at home might not be the smartest idea.“ It was the wrong thing to tell Jacqueline, but I had behaved myself all day. My control was bound to slip eventually. «Malkuth, have you seen Jackie's niece, Claire Ashecroft? She'd be about 135cm tall and skinny, with curly auburn hair and an attitude that's more spice than sugar.»

«We've met. I found her talking to Adversary Woolsey. She was trying to persuade him that she was a reporter from the St. Trinian's student newspaper working on an article about your adventures in Clarion. Said she needed access to your Witness Protocol feed for a more intimate view.»

«That's ballsy. Mind if I talk to her?»

«Sure. She's in interrogation room 36C. Woolsey stashed her there to keep her from trying a brute force attack.»

We found our wayward young charge exactly where Malkuth said she'd be, reading Programmer Cat in Space. The image on the cover, a long-haired brown tabby cat resisting the pull of a black hole by digging its claws into the fabric of spacetime, felt a little close to home. Claire looked up from her reading and shook her head. “Man, I can't believe the mangaka dug up that old spaghettification hypothesis just to do a ‘longcat is long’ joke.“

Jackie shook her head. “Claire, do you have any idea how much trouble you could have gotten yourself into? Unauthorized data access is―”

“Yeah, yeah. It's a serious crime. Or it would be if the Phoenix Society wasn't offering people fifty milligrams to make penetration attempts.“

Sputtering, Jackie ran her hands through her hair. “Jesus bumfucking Christ, Claire, you just turned nine. I could give you an allowance.“

“Mum tried that. And she'd take it away whenever I did something that displeased her.“ Claire waved her copy of Programmer Cat in Space. “Besides, it's an experiment. Most of the literature on social engineering is written by men. Ugly men who managed to crack huge corporate and military systems. I want to know how far a cute little girl like me can get.“

Jackie looked at me in mute appeal, but I didn't have much to offer. “Claire, do me a favor and tell your aunt Jackie before you pull stunts like this.“

“Will you guys still have kittens if I do?“

Jackie smiled. “We might, but we can at least find homes for them first.“

Edmund Cohen found us on our way out. Disappointment seemed to war with relief in the old soldier's expression. “So, I suppose you decided to claw your way out of the rabbit hole while you could still see daylight.“

«Let's just say I wasn't offered much of a choice. People around me could get hurt.» We both glanced at Jackie and Claire.

«It's all right. Besides, you might have inflicted a setback on the opposition already. Just stay in touch if they fuck with you, all right?»

I accepted Cohen's outstretched hand along with his offer. “Yeah. Thanks for understanding.“

             ⛧⛧⛧

The question I feared Jackie would ask came up a couple of months later as we drank cheap wine and compared possible wedding venues in and around London. Jackie's fiancé Rodney, a tall man of West Indies ancestry, expressed no preference other than it not be held in a church. He would only say that a church wedding felt “too much like work.“ Jackie held the opinion that his congregation would shit themselves in apoplexy unless their minister had a church wedding.

Claire and I remained neutral. She didn't care, and I had done some research and found that a church wedding would be as expensive as a secular one, since the Church of England didn't give employee discounts to its clergy. They couldn't afford to; thanks to the Phoenix Society's insistence on building a wall between church and state visible from space, they relied on the public's continued desire for traditional church weddings to stay in business―the more lavish the better―and charged accordingly.

Since I pointed out the lack of a price differential between a church wedding and a secular one, turning the conversation to money, I had only myself to blame for Jackie asking about my situation. “So, Nims, what are you going to do for money since you gave up your share of the Malkin fortune?“

“I've got savings, and since Renfield took over the spare bedroom, I make him pay half the rent.“

“What? Isn't enough that you use him as your fuck toy, and let him pay you to cosplay as Cecilia Harvey at the Kaylee's London Shiny Hobbies and Games? That's cold.“

Refilling my glass, I smiled at Jackie. She had no idea. “I'm worth it.“

“That's the Devil's honest truth.“ Jackie held out her own glass. “Remember that blonde your asshole ex was with when you left London? Christine―”

“Christine Pennington? What about her?“ The latter was a rhetorical question. If Jackie remembered Pennington, she probably remembered Pennington's interest in antique swords.

“Ever think of asking her to see what she could get for the sword you carried in Clarion? You should take advantage of your notoriety before somebody else comes along. You're down to only one interview request a week, you know.“

“I already spoke with her. She wasn't interested.“

At least, she wasn't interested in the custom Nakajima sidesword I carried on duty. The Damascus rapier Maestro gave me after I fenced him to a stalemate was another matter. Her tongue tied itself in knots in her rush to offer to auction it on my behalf in exchange for ten percent. Of course, I came to Pennington with a fair idea of the weapon's value; I had gotten a professional appraisal before approaching her. “It's supposed to be worth at least ten kilos of gold. Think you can get that at auction?“

Pennington's smile had gone predatory. “Ms. Bradleigh, ten kilos would only be the starting bid. I'm sure I can get at least double that, if not more. In fact, I'll advance you ten kilos right now.“

It would have been madness to refuse such an offer. The winning bid was a hundred kilos, of which I got eighty. Pennington had deducted ten as her commission, and the remaining ten covered the advance. I was far wealthier than Jacqueline realized, though I struggled with an irrational reluctance to admit the extent of my good fortune to my best friend.

How the hell could I explain that not only had I become sufficiently wealthy to play the Countess of Monte Cristo instead of Cecilia Harvey―and already did so by fattening up Jackie's wedding fund on the down low―but I still had the damn sword? A courier delivered the damned thing yesterday. With it came a hand-written note on silken paper bearing the scent of white asphodel that read, “Though I do not begrudge the sum I paid to ensure your freedom to flourish as an artist, Ms. Bradleigh, your Maestro would prefer you kept this blade. You may yet need it should you meet an enemy your voice cannot sway.“ The note had been written in a flowing and almost unreadable old-fashioned feminine hand, and bore no signature.

The note frightened me. Whoever sent it knew Maestro, Ian Malkin, Imaginos, or whatever the hell he called himself now. Worse, they could not only afford to spend a hundred kilograms on a centuries-old sword at auction, but could afford to give back the sword with a cryptic warning. While I was grateful for my sudden fortune, the manner in which it came to me brought with it a final, unwanted glimpse into the world I had chosen to ignore when I resigned my post as an Adversary rather than agreeing to work with Edmund Cohen and his patron Desdinova.

Rather than admit any of this and involve Jackie, I filled her glass. “Don't worry about me. I'll be fine. In fact, I'm looking at buying a house in Crouch End, and I've started taking voice and piano lessons again with a woman named Tamara Gellion in New York. So, if you and Rodney have a song you want me to sing at your wedding, tell me soon so I can practice.“

Jackie drained her glass with a wicked glint in her eye. “How about ‘In These Shoes?‘”

I knew exactly how to answer that. “I doubt your guests would survive.“

Epilogue

“The past is never dead. It's not even past.“

William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

Bonus Track

Blue Öyster Cult: “Astronomy"

SLUMMING VOCALIST A STUNNER IN LOCAL DIVE
*The Broadway Observer*
by Samuel Terrell
31 October 2096

Naomi Bradleigh may have taken the metal revival scene at swordpoint,
but she has no intention of stopping there. This rising star is poised
to go supernova and take the world by storm.

Showing up in the oddest places, to date, she's performed in such
diverse settings as a stripped-down version of Wagner's Ring at the
Wacken Open Air festival, as frontwoman for the Nightwish revival act
Sleeping Sun, as a guest keyboardist for jazz fusion outfits including
Hilbert Transformer and Weasel Hadron Collider, and appearing on stage
with Clarion prog bands Charn and Goodnight Bad Guy. She's even
credited with performances on piano and organ in the *Last Reverie VI*
soundtrack, of all things.

Readers may draw one of two conclusions from such a busy and diverse
career: Ms. Bradleigh is either broke and doesn't care where or with
whom she performs as long as she gets paid -- or she has fuck-you money
and takes on whatever projects she finds most interesting. I asked the
lady herself which was the case in the course of writing this article,
and she offered a different explanation: "Lucrative or interesting is a
false dichotomy. I look for challenging gigs. As long as I'm pushing
myself, I get interesting work that pays well."

That hardly explained why I found Ms. Bradleigh singing and playing the
piano at an off-Broadway dive called Mick's on Halloween, though like
the other patrons, I had no objection to listening to the statuesque
snow-blonde―or filling her tip jar.

Fortunately, the lady had an explanation for that as well. Ms. Bradleigh
is apparently on vacation. According to her, "Every autumn I come to
New York, find a little out-of-the-way bar with a piano, and persuade
the management to let me do a gig. I make a little money, meet new
people, and occasionally learn something interesting. The first time I
did this, I heard a rumor that changed my life."

"What about this time? Learn anything interesting? Meet anybody
special?"

"That's for me to know, and your readers to guess at."

I had seen Ms. Bradleigh glance at a young man who I later learned was
the bouncer. He hid it pretty well, but from the way he kept glancing at
her, he was infatuated at the bare minimum. Not that you could blame the
kid.

Still, with his long hair and leather jacket, I figured he wasn't the
sort to appreciate the musical fare Naomi Bradleigh was serving up at
Mick's. "Shouldn't you be listening to Doomed Space Marines or
Lucifer Invictus?"

He smiled, spread open his jacket to show off his Götterdämmerung
Accelerator concert t-shirt, and glanced at Bradleigh. "You wouldn't
talk like that if you had heard her sing on the last Paracelsus album,
*Chemical Weddings and Electric Funerals*. She could sing old
advertising jingles if she wanted, and I'd still listen. So would at
least half the men in this joint."

The thing is, I hadn't heard the Paracelsus album in question. I'm
listening to it while writing this article, however. More on that later.
"I think Bradleigh was better on the last Seiten Taisei album."

"You mean Those Who Surpass the Heavens? It's not the same as actually
being in the same room with her and hearing her sing."

Now that was interesting. "Gonna tell me more?"

"You're looking for a quote, aren't you?"

No point denying it, right? "Got something for me?"

"Yeah." The kid actually blushed as he glanced at Bradleigh this time.
"Hearing her live is more intimate; it feels like she's singing just
for you. It's even worse if you catch her eye. It's like the rest of
the world disappears, and it's just you and her alone together."

I figured puberty was just hitting the kid way too hard, but when I
asked around, I got similar answers from other patrons.

Jim, aged 42, said, "It's like she knows exactly what to sing to win
you over."

Harold, aged 54, said, "She sings like she's been to hell and back,
but none of it could touch her."

Wu, aged 30, said in Mandarin, "My English isn't very good yet, but I
don't need to understand the lyrics she's singing. Somehow the meaning
comes through even though I don't get the words."

I could keep going, but you get the picture. If you search the network,
you'll find even more accounts from people who have seen Naomi
Bradleigh in person. Hearing her sing live is an experience. I don't
get it myself, despite staying until closing, but I don't need to. Even
though her magic doesn't work on me, the woman can sing. And she plays
a mean piano, too.

fin Matthew Graybosch Harrisburg, PA 15 June 2014―15 July 2016

Acknowledgements

Writing for a specific audience from a single young woman's viewpoint is a bit of a departure from my first book, and I'd like to thank some of the people who helped make Silent Clarion possible.

Let's start with all the Starbreaker fans who have supported me from the beginning. You know who you are, and you're the fucking best. It's a privilege to have you as readers. If this is your first Starbreaker story, I hope you enjoyed it and that you'll stick around. There's lot's more to come.

Now for some more specific shout-outs.

© 2014-2016, 2020 Matthew Graybosch contact@matthewgraybosch.com Available under the Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 International license