Annie traced a finger along textured wallpaper of twisting vines. It was a beautiful pattern. Deep emerald-colored leaves glistened as if covered in dew and kissed by a rising sun. She tried to follow a trailer as it twined lazily skyward, but got lost in a tangle of its fellows.
It's just another decorated wall covering, in another hotel hallway.
Her eyes flickered up and to the right, where lighted numbers slowly tracked a rising elevator, and beyond to a second set which marked the one descending.
Memories churned forth, of heated flesh, of steaming water. Not even in dreams had Annie imagined a contact so intimate.
Like a thousand mirrors reflecting. My touch on her skin, her sensations flooding my awareness, my reactions to her nearness...How she felt...how she suffered.... the images attacking her from within, my hands assaulting her from without - how she feared my presence, yet yearned for it.
As I yearned for her.
Annie opened her eyes when the elevator's friendly tone sounded its arrival. She entered after a moment, foolishly pleased that it was empty. The solitude was welcome. It gave her time to slow her breathing, quell her raging pulse, and make ready to face the day.
You're in the deep of it, McKenzie. By now, Aultman has notified the Guild, and they have contacted West.
Every floor that slid soundlessly by pared away the distance between her quiet isolation and the conflicts that awaited. Whether or not she was ready to face them remained to be seen.
You did all you could last night.
Sleep had been out of the question. Maelstrom's presence, slumbering though it was, brought in unsettled currents. Suddenly Annie had been glaringly aware of her guest, not as an assassin, nor as a tortured soul, but as a woman, benighted and beautiful. She'd taken liberties with her eyes, letting them caress over bronzed skin, darker nipples, ebony hair. Tiny scars lent depth to Maelstrom's sculpted body. Each was a bit of history, testament that this perfect form did not spring up from tides of foam, but was begotten of blood and muscle, and bore the hurts of life.
With trembling fingers Annie had pulled up the sheet. It was a poor barrier, enhancing as much as it concealed. The urge to touch returned full-force, and she who could banish pain with a shrug of thought, who could stifle grief until it withered, had fled the bedroom and the shadowed figure lying in it. There was nowhere to run. Walls closed in, leaving no escape from Maelstrom's fragrance. Every breath became an invitation for seduction. Every motion brought sensation to a flesh already galvanized for touch, and arousal's pulsing music found expression in the frantic cadence of her heartbeat.
Knowing that Aultman would not so easily surrender the assassin, Annie had thrown herself into useful preparation. Part of her had entertained the hope of finding distraction there as well, but scrolling pages of Interstellar Law offered no relief. She read them anyway. When finished, she cross-referenced them with Guild regulations, then with Ranger Protocol. The monotonous discipline of study slowly tamed her inner turmoil, and she was able to absorb the information. Only then had she filed reports on the night's activities. From Enforcer Command there had been no response. Captain Fogle, on the other hand, had contacted her immediately. An hour later brought communications to a close.
All that had remained was an interminable wait until morning.
Sometime later, plaintive whimpering had drawn her back to the bedroom to find Maelstrom trapped in the throes of nightmare. Fearing to touch, but needing to help, Annie had gathered up her instrument and played. Mendhelsson, Pachelbel, flowed like water from her fingertips. The music helped, somehow. It broke the clutching grasp of demons, and let her darkling warrior sleep in peace. Annie had curled up in a chair and stood vigil to ensure they did not return. She meditated, but more often simply watched. Nicks of pain and sorrow surrounded Maelstrom's shuttered eyes, creating a face that was careworn and weary.
"Do you like what you see?"
That question haunted as much as the answer.
The elevator's motion ceased. Through closed doors came the muffled sounds of shouting. They opened to chaos.
Uniformed men crowded near the lift's entrance. Several spun toward Annie when she stepped forward. Stainless steel weapons pointed at her like accusing fingers. Shadowed eyes behind smoked-glass face-shields swept over her. One man lunged forward, hand open to push her back. She sidestepped right, causing him to miss.
"Get back," he shouted. "Get back inside. Now, god damn it, now!"
There was an embroidered badge on his Battle Dress Uniform. The golden shield was bold against mottled city camouflage and proclaimed him to be a New York Policeman. Annie ignored his shouted commands, scanning the claustrophobic knot of officers. Past the sea of dappled uniforms was Maelstrom. The dark woman was crouched, rippling muscles coiled for the attack. In between hunters and hunted stood Thurman West.
The Enforcer's slate gray eyes intersected hers.
"Come here, Journeyman." His command was colder than nuclear winter.
Annie moved to obey, but found herself facing the barrel of a loaded gun. Her gaze tracked upward, over the pistol, up the arm, and into the eyes of her captor.
"I'm an Enforcer."
An open sneer met her words. "I don't care if you're the fairy-fucking-godmother. Get back in the elevator!"
"Let my assistant through, please." West's biting tenor cut through the standoff.
"Shut the fuck up, snoop," one of the officers hissed. Sewn to his sleeve was a sergeant's insignia. "This woman -" His weapon jerked in Maelstrom's direction. "—is wanted for Corporate Espionage. I have orders to arrest, detain, and transfer her to the authorities of Shogunata."
"And I do not work for Shogunata." The Master Hound's voice became low and threatening. "Maelstrom was arrested for assaulting an Enforcer, and is in Guild custody until I receive counter instructions." His eyes narrowed dangerously. "From the Guild. Not a corporation."
Nervous tension permeated the air. Booted feet shuffled, fingers twitched. Annie could almost hear sweat slide over skin. Everything became brittle to her senses. An ill-chosen word, a too-fast motion, and the very air would be shattered into jagged shards of violence.
"If she's a Guild prisoner," The sergeant spoke carefully, as if he, too, felt how close they were to the edge, "why hasn't she been transferred to Mars?"
A humorless smile swept up one corner of West's mouth. "That is a Guild affair, Sergeant." His arrogant gaze panned over the armed men. "Now, go. I have work to do."
To Annie's relief and astonishment, they obeyed, moving slowly back, grumbling about snoops, and fuming that they had been defeated by a single, unyielding Enforcer. Once the river of gray had ebbed, she approached her Master.
"Thank you." It seemed the least she could say. Despite their differences, West had backed her up.
"Do not thank me, McKenzie." The Hound's fury erupted like an ion storm. Long strides carried him to her. "I have obeyed the Guild's directives in this matter, nothing more." His hand seized Annie's arm in a painful grip and shoved her bodily through the still-open elevator door. "Now I want answers." The crush of his mind battered against her defenses, creating unbearable pressure.
"Do not resist me." His voice slithered over her ears as the weight of his power increased.
Annie tried to obey, to simply drop her shields and let him pass. She wasn't fast enough. West released her arms, ripping away his gloves. Naked fingers pressed. Nails bit into her skin. The power he generated coalesced into a fiery brand that pushed, pushed, pushed...
Her knees buckled, and Annie went crashing back against the cold metal wall of the elevator. A strangled cry ripped free of her control, filling the tiny box with a moment of sound.
West was inside her, a chill alien presence that probed through her thoughts, touching them with unwelcome intimacy.
Then he was gone.
A moment of blackness followed and Annie swam away from it, struggling to remain conscious. When finally she opened her eyes, it was to see Maelstrom holding West by the throat, chromed fingers making furrows in his neck. The man's feet were dangling inches above the floor.
They both seemed so tall, almost gigantic in their proportions. That was when Annie realized she was kneeling.
Shame scorched a path of scarlet across her face, and she clambered unsteadily to her feet. Such weakness was inexcusable. The rankest apprentice showed himself in a better light.
"Maelstrom." Her voice sounded distant and tremulous. "It's all right."
The dark woman answered in a guttural growl. "The fuck it is." Sheets of rage sluiced off like tropical rain.
Annie spoke again, lowering her tone to give it strength. "He has a right to scan me."
"He needs a fucking warrant."
West's eyes had rolled back in his head as Maelstrom's powerful hold succeeded in completely blocking the flow of blood.
Stepping closer, Annie let a gloved hand come to rest on the woman's back. Ropy muscles flexed at her touch. "Telepaths have no right of refusal. We can be scanned at any time, for any reason." Of its own volition her hand began to move, stroking a small circle over shifting cloth. Warmth pulsed between them. "Please," she urged.
Maelstrom's head turned toward her slightly before dumping West into a heap. The senior Enforcer coughed violently and massaged his neck where dark bruises were already forming. His face flushed as blood returned in force.
"Do you require medical assistance, Master?" Frustrated anger and residual shock hardened Annie's words into audible bits of diamond.
He did not answer, merely glared balefully at her as he regained his footing. Gunmetal eyes filled with icy malice. "Journeyman." A rusted croak was all he produced. West cleared his throat then continued. "This incident will be reported to the Guild in full along with my recommendation that you be retrained. And this -" He spat the next word. "—creature be extradited to corporate authorities."
A swooshing of fabric on flesh alerted her to Maelstrom's sudden motion. Annie thrust out an arm and intercepted the taller woman. Once more there was a jolt of energy.
Like completing an electrical circuit.
West slammed his fist against the elevator's control panel, disengaging the stop button.
When had he pushed it? Annie could not recall.
Sluggish doors slid open to the curious faces of businessmen. They quickly dispersed.
"I will permit you to finish out the work day, McKenzie, but your career as an Enforcer is over." The senior Hound delivered a frigid parting shot as he strode away. "I hope the Normal is worth it."
Annie hesitated only a moment before following. "Come on," she called to Maelstrom.
"I can't go to Shogunata."
The sound of uneasiness made Annie pause, casting a glance back toward the assassin. "You have to," she responded. Silvered implants studied her. A war of trust against instinct was taking place within Maelstrom's psyche. The inner turmoil was revealed in a furrowed brow and clenched jaw.
"Alone, they will simply take you by force," she continued.
"She can do that even if I'm with you." The solo's voice was doubtful.
"True, but it would be very foolish of Aultman to attack me in her own building. The Enforcers would have probable cause to scan her and everyone else who is employed there." Annie shrugged. "Don't leave my side and we should be all right until this evening."
"Why are you doing this?"
The same question as before . "I told you."
"That's not enough." Maelstrom lurched forward like a rusty toy too long neglected. Her movements smoothed as she came abreast. "I'm not worth your career."
Annie pulled out her cell phone to call a cab. No doubt West was already gone. She mulled over the dark woman's observation as her hands took over the mechanical task of dialing. No sensible answer occurred. Maelstrom was an unrepentant murderer, and unworthy of protection.
No. Not unrepentant.
Memories of tormented features and a depthless ocean of regret slipped their gloomy shackles and stepped into the light of Annie's awareness.
She raised the phone to her ear and listened to it ring. Her fingers were quivering. It took little effort to still them, but the throbbing discord in her veins, the tempest caused by West's intrusive violation, was not so easy to dispel.
The cab company answered, took her location, and dispatched a taxi.
If a hearing board upheld West's recommendation for retraining, she would be transported to a remote site on Io. The steps were simple. Sleep and sensory deprivation broke down the psi's defenses. Then a team of upper level Enforcers systematically destroyed the building blocks of personality and reassembled them in a more "acceptable" order.
Who, what, is worth that?
Why, Annie? Why? You know what she is, what she's done.
I felt a spark within her.
No. You felt something unclose within you . By her bedside, in the office, just standing near her, there was a thrill of fear, a pull of attraction. You defend her because she makes you feel alive for the first time in too many years.
Admitting such truth to Maelstrom was out of the question. It revealed too much and Annie could not bear such exposure. They moved in tandem toward the hotel's main entrance. Sparkling lamps of cut crystal winked like a thousand tiny stars, belying the darkled world beyond. Through clear glass Annie could see the dull gray sky peeking out behind colorless buildings. She sensed the assassin watching, felt the shining orbs upon her.
You make her wait for answers to the important questions.
And she waits in silence.
Outside the air was heavy with smog. To breathe required gnawing through car fumes and centuries of dust.
If degeneration has a smell, here it is, the scent of aging concrete, burning fuel, and the weary exhalations of this morning's breakfast from people almost as gray as their surroundings.
Swallowing a well-chewed breath, Annie at last responded to Maelstrom's question. "It is not in my nature to stand by while someone suffers."
She kept her eyes on the street. Dingy cars rolled past, guided by drivers who looked neither right, nor left. Pigeons cooed from ledges and awnings, vibrating softly beneath the rumbling sound of engines and angry blaring of horns.
The taxi arrived. They entered. Several blocks passed before Maelstrom spoke. When she did, Annie had to strain to hear the murmured words. "Did you ever stop to think that I deserve the pain?"
"Yes. Last night." Annie turned to study the closed face beside her.
"And?" Cybernetic implants slid round to meet her gaze. A tiny line of tension divided ebony brows.
"You punish yourself enough, Maelstrom," she answered candidly. "Even sleep provides no respite."
The inhuman regard lowered, then pulled away, apparently finding something very intriguing outside the cab's window. Annie looked herself, but found only droplets of rain, wan and lifeless.
Not since yesterday.
Annie drooped her head back against the taxi's seat. While her outer world was shaded in monochrome, her inner world had gained color...soft, blue sorrow, the fiery scarlet of desire, fear, need, affection, a rainbow of emotion that rewarded yesterday's storm. And when this was over, when she faced the Guild's reprisals, it would be with the memory of a day in which she had truly lived. The urge to smile overtook Annie. A joy rushed through so strong that it neared hysteria. She did not give in to laughter, however, merely savored the sweet delirium until the car rolled to a stop.
Shogunata Tower loomed upward like the burnished sword of a wrathful Earth god. Annie stepped out, resting her hand on the cab's rear door and looked up at fortress until it disappeared into heavy clouds. Yesterday it had not seemed so imposing, so ominous.
She stepped around the taxi with a sigh of resignation. Her feet had barely scraped the curb where Maelstrom waited when the tower's glass doors burst open. From them came a roiling torrent of Corporate Security. Cyber limbs and high tech rifles fanned out around them. Annie froze, waiting.
David Brimley strode out behind the soldiers. West was at his side. Both men wore expressions of triumphant gloating.
Shogunata's Security Chief was the first to speak. "I have received sanctioned orders from the Guild directing you to surrender Maelstrom to my custody." He proffered a data cube with one hand and with the other motioned his guards to move in.
Annie met the cerulean eyes squarely. "I see." It was difficult to keep her voice even, to conceal her nervous frustration. "Have you also contacted the Colonial Rangers?"
The soldiers stopped in their tracks. In a strange skewing of perception, it seemed as if time ceased for the span of a heartbeat before lurching back into motion. Brimstone's face became unreadable, only his eyes had life, whipping down to Annie's badge and pausing. Strong, straight lips scowled in obvious displeasure.
She allowed him no time to recoup. Reaching into a pouch, Annie extracted a data cube of her own. "Here are the instructions from Captain Fogle, my unit commander."
"Journeyman," West spoke for the first time. "You cannot defy the Guild."
"I would never presume to do so." Annie countered coolly. "However, the laws are quite clear. Under Article 31, Section 42, of the Galactic Code, Colonial Rangers have prior claim on any person who assaults a member of their order, unless the attacker is a rogue telepath."
Her words fell fallow on a sterile Earth. West looked as though he would combust from suppressed indignation.
Next to him, David Brimley continued to glare. Slowly, as if moved by a hidden puppeteer, the security chief reached out to pluck Annie's data cube. He weighed it thoughtfully, then spoke again. "You aren't aware of her charges, Ms. McKenzie."
Cunning laced the undercurrents of his speech and Annie's skin prickled in response.
Now it comes.
Maelstrom's forbidding form shifted, muscles tightened, becoming coiled springs of potential violence.
West sidled forward, features molding themselves into a sympathetic mask. Mock reticence filled his tone. "Apparently this - person - betrayed Shogunata and murdered a corporate employee." He paused, drawing in a melodramatic breath, then continued. "Your sister."
Just breathe. It comes as no surprise, not after last night.
Annie did not give him the satisfaction of an external reaction. "I see." She lowered her eyes to dusty concrete. There were cracks in the sidewalk. Yellowed grass labored there, stubbornly refusing to die. Such heroic efforts too often went unnoticed. "Do they have proof of these allegations?"
Brimstone cleared his throat. "Not yet." Regret entered his voice, lending a sincerity that almost seemed out of place. "I wish there had been another way to tell you."
How would Normals react? Would they scream? Cry? Rip their clothing?
She did not know. It had been too long since she had been normal. Annie ended her single-minded study of the ground. "Without proof, the Rangers cannot justify transfer of custody."
Maelstrom was staring at her. Annie could feel the silvered lenses boring into her skull like twin augers.
Sparks of anger fired in Brimley's deep blue eyes. "You could always scan her."
Without a thought, Annie's hand found its way to Maelstrom, resting briefly on a quivering arm. Her touch was light but still caused the dark woman's muscles to cringe, then, gradually, relax. Terror swam below the surface of bronzed skin.
"I do not believe we have probable cause for that." Annie turned to West for confirmation.
The senior Enforcer's eyes were veiled, but he nodded readily enough. "My young assistant is correct." A hand waved dismissively. "We have wasted too much time in these fruitless machinations. Shogunata can apply to the Colonial Rangers for Maelstrom's extradition. As of now, the Guild has no interest in this matter." He spun on heel, calling over a shoulder, "McKenzie, with me."
Annie and her living shadow followed the man inside, past staring guards and pointed weapons.
The rest of the day blurred past in a dreamlike wash of activity. West and she performed a series of scans on Kyle Richmond, each one progressively deeper. There was no way to make them comfortable, nor even bearable. The lab tech had to be sedated for the last. His feelings of violation, of betrayal, cut Annie to her heart.
Finally West was satisfied that all personality alterations had been unearthed. There were only three, each having to do with Richmond's work. Tomorrow would bring the arduous task of undoing the damage.
Maelstrom had remained at Annie's side through it all, an incarnation of midnight silence. Twice during the day's long course, the tall assassin flinched in pain. There may have been others, but Annie's concentration had been centered mostly upon Richmond. As they followed West out of the interrogation area, it happened again. This time color drained away from Maelstrom's face.
"Master?" she caught the Hound's attention. "A moment, please?"
His curt nod set Annie's feet toward an unoccupied conference room.
"You know, don't you?" Maelstrom rasped as the door clicked shut. It was more statement than question. To Annie it sounded as if the words had to squeeze through clenched teeth.
She turned toward the sound, finding her companion leaning weakly against a wall. Corded muscles twitched. Cybernetic orbs were downcast, and the face shielded by faint shadow, but Annie noted its pallor. There was pain. Its insidious tendrils slithered over her mind, not so strong as in the office, but growing in intensity. "Talk to me," she urged, moving to Maelstrom's side and guiding her to a chair. The dark woman all but collapsed in it.
Annie reached inward, breathing life onto the smoldering embers of her power. Upper level Telepaths could cause pain. Some, it was rumored, could even kill. Like a net, she cast her thoughts, searching for the invisible signature of psionic energy.
One question, at least, was answered. Annie's gloved fingers removed a long-range communicator from her belt and began making adjustments. If an esper was not involved, it had to be some sort of chipware. Setting the device to scan would track any incoming transmissions. Within seconds, Annie had isolated the frequency. "Not much longer," she assured.
Maelstrom's head snapped up, jaws straining to hold back an agonized cry. Little jewels of sweat glittered on the darksome brow.
"Now." Annie pressed the transmit button.
The solo's body relaxed with a hoarse whimper. It took almost a full minute before her ragged breathing slowed. Mirrored optics opened, and searched Annie's face. "How?"
"By jamming the incoming transmission." She carefully placed her humming communicator on the table. "I actually thought it might have been the rogue telepath West and I are hunting. When I could not sense his presence, that left Punishment Technology." Her throat was dry, and Annie wished for a glass of water, clear, clean; something you didn't have to filter or purify. "Slavers use it to keep their captives obedient." She let her voice drone on, watching as its even tempo caused Maelstrom's face to loosen, her shoulders to sag. "When colonization was new, it was difficult to find souls adventurous enough to settle on undeveloped planets. Corporations were desperate for able-bodied workers."
Memories from Ranger Recruit Training marched forward in an orderly fashion and Annie picked up the measured rhythm of instruction. "When bonus packages and higher salary offers failed to yield an adequate supply of labor, businesses turned to other means. Slave trade flourished. Colonial industry and agriculture blossomed." She paused to find Maelstrom regarding her intently. "In time, citizens adapted to the notion of living so far from Earth and emigration skyrocketed. That was the turning point. Slavery was thrust into the public eye. Our government responded by forming the Rangers."
You're rambling, Annie, m'love.
A slow breath refocused her thoughts. "The practice of enslavement continues even now. Women are the primary objects, not for work, but for entertainment. To ensure submission, slavers use punishment collars. The electronic devices are magnetically sealed so removal is all but impossible. Then, microscopic wires pierce the neck and spinal column. Using a remote, an owner can deliver bursts of pain, pleasure, or both. I'm assuming you have a similar device implanted in your head."
Annie had seen a slave vessel once. Fogle and she had encountered it while patrolling the reach between Delis and Segova 3. The ship refused to answer her hails and tried to run when they approached. It was a brief battle. The Ranger Captain nailed both portside thrusters.
God how we laughed when the bloody thing could only steam round in a circle!
Merriment was short-lived, however, when they'd boarded. Crammed in a filthy hold were scores of young women, some not even in puberty. All were equipped with collars. Many had been raped.
And the collars made them like it .
Annie had listened as they recounted how they were beaten, then bedded. Continuous jolts of pleasure made them participants in their own violation.
If there were a worse fate, Annie could not imagine it.
"It's Aultman, isn't it? She's the one hurting you." The pointed inquiry received a nod. Other questions occurred, why's and when's, but Annie swallowed them down. There was no need to probe when she had ignored Maelstrom's question for so long. She could pretend to have forgotten, but the dark woman would not be fooled, not after Brimstone's revelations.
You can almost feel the weight of her patience.
Annie did not want to face this, did not wish to acknowledge it openly.
"You know, don't you?"
Her sister's head exploded into a shower of glistening red. In the distance Annie could hear Maelstrom's silent, anguished wail.
"Yes." Their gazes met and held. Annie swallowed, vainly trying to loosen her throat. "I know."
The assassin stood in a blur of motion, fists driving into the table's obdurate surface. A black rage contorted her features. "So what is this? This kindness, this courtesy? Is it some kind of game to you?" Lips curled into a snarl. "Take a number and get in line, snoop. There are a lot of other people with prior claim."
After riding out Maelstrom's initial swell of fury, Annie was able to sense more delicate eddies of fear and sadness. They wove together, creating a rich, oceanic tapestry. "I'm not playing a game," she answered.
The dark woman froze. Lids slammed shut over mechanical eyes. "Then what? Revenge?"
Time stopped for El. There was no past or future, only a question, an invisible rift that threatened to consume her.
Rustled fabric and moving air told her that McKenzie had stepped closer. She did not open her eyes.
The little Enforcer spoke again. "Look at me."
I don't want to.
A gloved hand, gentle, soft, pressed against El's cheek. Its heat oozed into her veins, through her body, wrenching free a heart too long encased in ice. To not lean in, to not slowly rub her skin into that touch was impossible. How had this woman, this esper gotten in so deep? Every encounter drew blood.
"Look at me."
El obeyed, steeling herself to face the hatred which would turn clear emerald into smoky jade.
But the verdant pools were warm and welcoming. "I do not want retribution, Maelstrom."
Fear lanced through her stomach, rendering her body a trembling mass of raw nerves. There was a tightness in her throat that threatened to suffocate her. She wanted to run, but could not, bound as she was to McKenzie's stilling touch. "Then what?" she stammered.
The telepath's intense gaze caused El's world to shrink. It was impossible to think beyond the sudden assault the woman's very presence brought upon her senses.
There should be a law against her standing so close.
And if there were, you would break it.
Then the spell was over and McKenzie had stepped away, breaking the chains of her eyes. "Atonement." The word reverberated, a gong of sound bouncing over an ocean of silence. "I want you to atone."
"You're crazy," she responded, unable to recognize her own voice.
What does she think? That I can suddenly become filled with sunshine and sweetness? It's not fucking possible.
But the green eyes offered no quarter, despite their sparks of compassion. "Perhaps, but you owe me for the life of my sister." Now the voice hardened, betraying a will more powerful than the gentle features implied. "I will accept no other payment."
With those words, McKenzie slid her communicator across the table in El's direction. "Keep this with you. It will suffice until we can remove or deactivate the receptor in your head." The little blonde passed a hand over her eyes, as if suddenly fatigued, then walked out of the room, leaving El to catch up with the quicksilver woman.
She picked up the sleek, black rectangle, running her flesh and bone fingers over it. On the underside, almost invisible in the fluorescent light, was an eight-pointed star. Made of crystal and mined on some far off world, the Ranger's symbol was cool against her heated skin.
It's not that easy.
For too long she had walked in shadow. The darkness had seeped into her, killing her soul and filling up the space that remained. McKenzie had to know that.
You've been in my head, seen what I've done. How could you touch me with such tenderness?
El was on autopilot as she left the room. Her emotions were a tangled mass, like bare, frayed wires, sparking against one another. The journeyman was waiting. Emerald eyes flicked up and showed a nervous insecurity that beckoned El nearer. She obeyed.
The smaller woman's pulse trebled at her neck. El's implants easily detected its frenetic pace. Lifting a hand, casually, placing it next to McKenzie's fair head, she leaned against the wall.
What are you doing? Urgency laced the silent inquiry. This is a fucking snoop.
Coloring the filtered, monotone air were the pastel smells of coffee and soap. No vivid shades of perfume. No subliminal hues of artificial pheromones. McKenzie's canvas was painted in the subtle watercolors of clean skin and sweet mocha.
Her lips lowered to the red-gold splendor of hair. They nuzzled it, drinking in its satiny caress.
The Enforcer was shaking. El could feel little ripples in the air between them.
"Don't," McKenzie whispered hoarsely and tried to twist away. "Please."
Warmth increased tenfold when El pressed her length against the trembling woman. Their bodies meshed seamlessly, blending past the boundaries of flesh. The sensation was overwhelming.
This is what it feels like to be a ship that passes too near the sun, to be trapped in its gravity unable to break free...
Breath met breath.
...and to fall inexorably into light.
Their lips brushed.
McKenzie stiffened beneath her, gloved hands sliding upward to feebly push against El's chest. Instead of retreating, El traced over the soft mouth, teasing, nibbling, bidding it open. The blonde moaned, more whisper than sound.
The kiss deepened.
El's labored breathing could not keep pace with her racing heart. Across their bridge of lips and tongue, she sensed a desire, not her own, an attraction so strong that nothing could quell it. Her mouth became more demanding, wresting from the esper responses of greater passion. The smaller arms stopped pushing and wrapped round to pull them nearer. El's free hand had become entangled in McKenzie's hair, trapping their mouths together.
"Journeyman McKenzie!" West's outraged voice shattered the moment, bringing them back to reality with jarring cruelty.
If not for the gloved hands squeezing into her back, El would have killed him. But something in that simple touch stilled the tide of wrath, just as it had in the elevator. She looked down to find McKenzie's face flushed, her eyes brightly lit with remnants of desire and precursors of anger. Slowly the blonde woman extricated herself from El's embrace and faced off with West.
It was impossible to follow the silent conversation, though both parties were obviously irate. Fingers stabbed into the air. Eyes snapped and glimmered. McKenzie's face became still.
Suddenly West broke away, steadying himself against a wall. El's enhanced vision honed in on tiny splotches of red in the whites of his slate gray eyes.
Broken blood vessels.
The younger hound reeled only slightly. White gloved fingers coiled into fists. "I will turn myself over to Guild authority tomorrow, Master." McKenzie's voice was preternaturally calm, cold as the moon's dark side. She turned and stalked away, past Maelstrom and to the shiny, brass elevators.
No words were spoken, not on the way down, not in the cab, not even upon returning to the hotel. El endured the silence until they arrived at McKenzie's room. When the esper would have entered and immediately shut the door, El pushed in after. "We need to talk," she demanded in a tone that brooked no argument.
"No." McKenzie countered, spurning the living area in favor of the bedroom.
El could hear drawers open, and the sound of cloth slipping over skin. She wished, in that instant, that she could be the uniform, that she could glide over McKenzie's bare chest, linger over nipples, skim over quivering muscle. The image drove her to distraction, and sensation ran riot.
Like her kiss.
It replayed with painful slowness. Warm, wet contact. Mingled breathing. A desire that baptized even as it drowned. Nothing had existed except their bodies moving to the primal rhythm of thrumming hearts.
The esper emerged dressed in a simple cotton blouse and blue jeans. Brown leather gloves had replaced the white ones. She carried a bundle of cloth under one arm and a leather jacket atop the other. The latter was tossed into a wingback chair. Pausing at the coffee table, McKenzie uncoiled her remaining burden, exposing a large knife and a holstered pistol. Both bore the Ranger insignia and were hurriedly clipped to McKenzie's waistband, then covered as she donned the jacket.
"I'm going to my sister's apartment." Shadowed green eyes spared El only the barest of glances.
Was that an invitation, or a dismissal?
Her unspoken question received only McKenzie's retreating back as answer. After a moment's hesitation, El followed her out the door.
They rode in silence, but it was not one of comfort. The Enforcer's face was more inscrutable than ever, almost mask-like in its immobility. El's implants searched those beautiful features for some indication of McKenzie's thoughts. There was nothing to see.
She hates you.
Unexpected tightness gripped her chest and wrenched at her thawing emotions. El was unaccustomed to such pain. It had been too long since she'd allowed herself to feel it.
I don't care.
Yes. You do.
No. A flaming thread of temper rose to her defense. Mother made her. Mother fuck her.
Her lenses strayed toward McKenzie once more, taking in the set jaw, the faraway look to her eyes.
It all ends tomorrow, anyway. You heard her tell West that she'd return to the Guild.
That's where she belongs.
They rode through streets that El recognized, past the pavement where Angela Barnes met her end.
Where you killed her.
There wasn't even a stain to mark her passing. McKenzie's voice sounded in memory, a booming command that refused to be forgotten.
There were some things that could never be undone.
Finally the cab stopped. El stared out at buildings blackened by soot and spotted with graffiti. Cube-houses resembled high-rise sardine cans, cramming humanity in to 12 X 12 boxes of space, side-by-side, one atop the next, at least a hundred in every building. McKenzie passed her credit disk up to the driver and paid him, then gracefully unfolded from the seat and waited for El to join her. As before, the blond head tilted back and green eyes stretched up toward the building's roof. Night had settled around them and the complex was a patchwork of lighted windows.
"I miss the stars." The lilting alto washed over El's raw nerves.
She glanced at the shorter woman, catching a faint whiff of leather amid city smells. There was a look of longing in the gentle features. El was at a loss to explain it. In her few trips off-planet, she'd seen plenty of stars. They made for pretty little pinpoints.
"In ancient days, humans used the stars to guide their journeys," McKenzie spoke again, softly. "I used to look up from the platform, when I was young, and try to count them. Or sometimes I would just lie down and stare at them wondering if someone out there was lying down and looking back at me."
The little Enforcer abruptly pulled her eyes downward. "I've been rambling."
"So?" El wanted to touch her again, wanted it so much that it hurt.
As if sensing her struggle, McKenzie walked toward the building's entrance.
Annie stared at the closed door of her sister's apartment. Flat, gray paint was marred from countless years of rapping knuckles, but that was not what drew her attention. Sealing the portal closed was a strip of neon-yellow tape announcing, "Police Line. Do Not Cross." It almost seemed to laugh at her.
"Yeah, well her cube was busted into the night before last." Her mind, bored with inactivity, began a tedious replay of her conversation with the building's thin-lipped owner. "Police was here, takin' pictures, an' askin' questions."
"Too bad she's a fucking snoop." His thoughts had wriggled around her like hungry maggots. They had undressed her, seeking other, more enticing tattoos, forced her down over his ash-covered desk, pounded into her through every orifice.
A shifting of shadow reminded Annie of Maelstrom's presence, and snapped the curse of memory.
She still faced the door, unwilling to enter, unable to leave.
You're behaving foolishly, McKenzie. You didn't hesitate this much at the morgue.
This is worse .
The landlord's passkey weighed heavily as though comprised of lead, not plastic. Her hand moved, sliding the card into its receptacle. A dry, metallic click sounded hollowly in the corridor. In a single, sweeping motion, she pulled her blade and sliced through the tape. She pushed the steel barrier open.
Inside was chaos.
It looked for all the world like a Delisian windstorm had come howling through the cramped living space. Built-in drawers were wrested from their housings and scattered like seeds upon the floor. Clothing formed lifeless funeral pyres, needing only a spark to set them blazing. Here was a broken bottle of perfume, there a disemboweled pillow. Synthetic stuffing painted the room with gray fuzzies.
Like blood spatters.
Annie shrugged out of her leather jacket, folding it over one arm, and stepped across the threshold. The room was only four meters square. Cheap, white linoleum covered the floor. Her sister had purchased a rug at some time or other. It lay like a broken flying carpet atop a gutted mattress.
Braided green and white. I didn't know she liked those colors.
Turning left, she encountered a sterile, white, shower stall. There was a beheaded teddy bear inside it.
Jeeves . His name swam out of dark remembrance, a birthday present from a thousand years ago, and Anj's guardian against the night. Never mind that his face was sweeter than honeyed sunshine, and his claws were rounded pieces of felt.
Unshed tears tested the mettle of Annie's will. She turned from the sight of her sister's fallen champion before they could gain the upper hand.
He couldn't save you, could he Anj?
The burring contralto startled her. Annie whirled toward the sound, belatedly realizing that she had spoken aloud. Framed in the doorway was Maelstrom. Surprisingly the bronzed features were serious, lacking the uplifted brow that denoted sarcasm. Black jeans and shirt lent a menacing air to her, but did not detract from her statuesque beauty. Soft curves and sharp angles melded into a living work of art. Moving forward, cat-wise and graceful, the tall assassin came abreast.
"Jeeves," Annie answered, pointing toward the ruined toy.
Maelstrom's unblinking gaze followed the gloved finger. Some essential framework in her seemed to crumble. She did not sag, or slouch, but gained a defeated air. "This is the real world, McKenzie." Her voice was hushed. "A stuffed animal can't stop the monsters."
Telepathy was not needed to know who Maelstrom referred to.
"You're not a monster."
Lips turned upward in a frigid smile. "Yes I am." The grin widened, becoming filled with poisonous self-loathing. "I murdered your sister, remember?"
Annie froze a moment as the words impacted. Hearing them uttered aloud, by Maelstrom, turned reality into a razor blade.
"I haven't forgotten." She picked up stray fragments of glass from the hard, tile floor. It was difficult to maneuver the pieces with gloves on, but she managed to deposit the larger ones in a trash receptacle. "Only forgiven," Annie finished, looking up at the dark woman.
Maelstrom was regarding her strangely, black brows lowered in a studied frown. "I never said I was sorry."
"Not out loud." But I heard you, anyway.
Refocusing on her surroundings, Annie began sifting though debris. Her hands moved through fallen clothing and shoes. There were slinky dresses with swooping necklines and raised hems, jeans in various colors -- some with cut outs in strategic places, and underwear that was less than functional. It was an odd feeling to search through Anj's apparel, like trespassing. Yet, it also gave Annie some insight into her sister.
You always were more adventurous than me. From the looks of your undergarments, that didn't change.
Scattered in and amongst the wardrobe were items of jewelry. Annie picked them up, one by one, noting several pieces made of gold.
A thief would have taken these.
Slowly her gaze took in smaller details. Pockets were turned out in every garment. To the left were upended bottles of shampoo and conditioner, forming a syrupy pool of pink. Mini disc cases were strewn about, all open.
This was no robbery. They were looking for something. Something small.
"Don't you want to know why I killed her?" Maelstrom's voice held bitterness, like the last dregs of cheap wine.
"Because someone paid you to." Annie was distracted by the jigsaw puzzle forming before her. The landlord said that the cube was broken into two nights ago. Angela was killed two nights ago.
Too much coincidence.
She turned weary eyes toward the glowering assassin. "Why are you doing this?"
"Trying to repulse me."
That prompted a derisive snort form the dark woman and propelled one ebony brow skyward. "I don't have to try."
Concentration furrowed Annie's forehead as she regarded her companion. "I take it you've decided to take up mind reading," she responded with a scowl.
"You've made it pretty obvious." Challenge fringed Maelstrom's posture, but resignation undercut it.
"That was never my intention." Annie found a patch of bare wall and leaned her shoulders against it. "But I'll be gone tomorrow." The very thought of separation was painful. It took away her breath, making her stumble over words. "And all this will be moot."
The dark woman was not listening. Her black-maned head cocked sideways as if hearing some faint sound or far-off warble. In the next instant Maelstrom leaped forward, knocking Annie down and pinning her to the floor.
Piercing explosions shook the very walls. The door to Anj's room wrenched inward and Annie's world dissolved into an incandescent flash of white light.
Maelstrom's artificial eyes momentarily shut down in response to the argent brilliance of chemical flash bangs . She scarcely had time to register the warm softness of McKenzie's body before rolling to one knee. Her pistol thrust from the spring-loaded cavity in her cyberarm, falling into her palm with mechanical precision.
El aimed high, taking out the room's central light source with one shot. Dark figures rushed through the door, framed by hallway illumination. She killed the first with a single bullet. It blasted through his chest and drove him back into a following comrade.
The little esper had rolled to her stomach, but did not rise. "I can't see."
"It will pass." That was all El had time to utter before more assailants surged in. Bullets filled the room, forcing her down.
Her targeting scopes came on line, guiding her cyberarm with computerized accuracy. Two of her projectiles found purchase in an arm, a leg, rending each into a spewing mass of blood and bone.
Her meat arm scooped up McKenzie and tossed her like a rag doll behind the overturned mattress. She fired three more shots, not really aiming, then dove after her. Two bullets exploded behind her, setting piles of clothing ablaze. Orange tongues of fire bathed the room in a lurid dance of light.
A hollow thunk made El spin. Her optical implants landed on a still-turning cylinder. Panic quickened her reflexes to inhuman swiftness. As three more projectiles passed her body close enough to generate small puffs of wind, she seized up the grenade and sent it flying back out the door. The resulting explosion rocked the walls and sent jets of purple flame jutting into the room.
McKenzie was calling for her. With the physical sound came a sensation like cobwebs delicately stroking her mind. Slender as fiber optics, but stronger than Titian alloy, the mental threads hummed with energy and purpose. Through them, El could "feel" the little Enforcer.
Words, not spoken, but clear as a sonar echo whispered in her brain. "Are you all right?"
All cubes were required to have the long tubes. Find the hatch. Jump inside. Slide to safety. They were simple innovations, but supremely efficient.
The fire was roaring now, like a great beast trapped too long in a cage. It raged. It hungered. El struggled to her knees, eyes whirring audibly in their effort to compensate for shadow and smoke. "I'm fine," she murmured, more to herself than McKenzie.
Where is it? Jesus Christ.
They were running out of time. El flinched away from a fiery hand that clawed at her. Violet tendrils merged with more earthly orange, painting the room in a macabre landscape of undulating light. Air, once sweet, turned poison, choking instead of nourishing, and each breath became a strangled croak. Desperate now, she threw aside burning piles of clothing. Nothing. Then her eyes fell on a corner shaped crack half-hidden beneath a discarded drawer.
Heat seared her lungs. El ignored it, shoving away the obstacle. She grasped the exposed red lever and pulled. The panel slid readily aside. Pivoting on one knee, she shouted, "McKenzie."
El squinted against the glaring conflagration, an unnecessary action born of instinct. Her lenses could not see the young blonde. There was just too much variation in light. The threads in her consciousness tautened, however, as though a hand rested on them, following.
"I'm here." The words cocooned around her even as McKenzie's small fingers touched El's knee. Sweeping the smaller woman into a tight embrace, El pushed them both through the hatch. It was a fast ride down the Teflon tube and within moments they were dumped into a side alley. Despite the mounds of rotting garbage, El found herself content just to lie atop McKenzie, listening as their heartbeats slowed, their breathing evened. Nothing in her life had ever felt so right.
"Someone's coming." The Enforcer's smoke-graveled voice accompanied the transmitted message. In an absent, distracted way, El reckoned she should be angry that this woman was moving in and out of her mind like it was public property.
Booted footsteps squeaking over rain-soaked pavement dispelled further introspection. Stifling a curse, El yanked them both upright. McKenzie latched onto El's arm with a death grip, wiping a hand over scrunched eyes. More roughly than she intended, El pulled the blond along behind her, coercing her into a stumbling run. Pursuing shouts ricocheted off buildings.
We're too slow.
McKenzie's lack of vision turned every stray can and bottle into an obstacle. Finally she ripped her hand away from El's and hissed, "Just go."
The feather-like contact of thought on thought ended. El winced in discomfort, suddenly feeling barren inside.
"Fuck you," El jerked McKenzie by the arm and propelled them around the alley's corner. Shots rang out. Pieces of stonework peppered El's neck, stinging like fleabites.
She knew this street. Faded buildings were ghost-like in the sporadic glow of streetlights. Pockets of inky darkness dotted the sidewalks, creating an otherworldly appearance. A glance toward McKenzie revealed a pallid face tight with tension and streaked with grime. Emerald eyes faced forward, unseeing. Even now this woman did not panic.
El's feet knew the way, turning down another alley, this one black and forbidding, an open maul that threatened to devour all comers. Her implants displayed everything with greenish clarity, the low-light function performing flawlessly. She thrust McKenzie against a damp building wall and pushed aside the tall, green dumpster that had been a fixture here since El's childhood. Chromed fingers reached down and plucked up a hidden manhole cover, forgotten even by the sewage workers, and now lost to all but the oldest city blueprints.
"Down." El pulled her younger companion to the edge, guiding her to the ladder below, then following. Securing the cover above, she waited, listening for sounds of pursuit, and wishing she could teleport the dumpster back to its accustomed place.
McKenzie's small head came to rest against the backs of El's thighs. It trembled.
Above them, running footsteps pounded past. Then silence stretched.
"I think we're safe now."
The telepath's shivering did not ease.
"Are you hurt?" El's concern painted her words with harshness.
"No." Finally the warmth fled from El's legs and sound indicated that McKenzie was descending the ladder.
El followed. In this kind of darkness, her eyes were useless. There was no light to enhance. Her path through the sewers would be guided by memory.
"I've got a shelter near here." Echoed words bounced eerily in the gloom, answering one another countless times.
Where is she?
McKenzie had disappeared into the black sea. Then the soft fibers of psionic touch returned.
Nothing in her experience had prepared El for the sweet caress of McKenzie's mind. It was so tender, so different from -
From the others.
Go on, Ellie. Face it. With her you forget to be afraid.
She spurned that course of recollection, following the tenuous mental tie until her hand rested upon McKenzie's. The gentle woman pulled away with a muffled cry, and El sensed rising panic. Surreal flashes passed over the telepathic link, filling El's unprepared psyche with images of vast caverns, replete with the sounds of dripping water and shuffling footsteps. There was something prowling the darkness. Something not human. El's heart began to hammer as her own childhood fears were resurrected.
"Mac," She stepped toward the Enforcer. Using the familiar nickname offered to Richmond seemed the right thing to do. The sound of her voice vibrated through McKenzie, and began to calm her. "What's wrong?"
"I don't like tunnels." Tension and fear laced the lyrical alto.
"It's just a sewer," El explained, using the distraction to move a little closer. Rats skittered over El's boots as she moved. Kneeling, she found McKenzie curled into a tight ball and wedged in a corner. "You're going to be okay." Her hand rested on a chilled knee. Muscles tensed, then slowly loosened.
"I trust you."
El sat in stunned silence at the bald statement. Its very frankness unnerved her. The sentiments behind it humbled her and if she had tear ducts, El felt certain that moisture would have spilled down her cheeks. The fear in McKenzie did not depart, not fully, but it did diminish. Leather covered hands gripped El's and they stood as one.
She led them carefully down the ledge which bordered flowing sewage. Though she was accustomed to city smells, the fetid odors here were almost overwhelming. McKenzie said nothing, merely held fast to El's guiding hand.
Finally El counted the last steps. The ladder, rough with rust and fungus was as she remembered. "Not much farther," she assured, and climbed up. McKenzie was disturbed when their physical contact broke.
This is too fucking weird, knowing what she feels.
A few moments later and they were above ground. El replaced the cover quickly. She turned to find McKenzie blinking rapidly beneath the streetlights. Beautiful green gems focused on El, and came alive with recognition.
Her vision's returned.
Relief flooded through El, whether hers or McKenzie's she could not say. But suddenly it felt like she had been holding her breath for hours and could finally exhale. With that relaxation came fatigue, a swift, hard burden that made her legs feel like lead.
"Come on." El beckoned, turning to lead the way. She wanted to take McKenzie's hand again, to restore their physical connection, but did not know how the esper would react.
Ahead, the abandoned cathedral loomed out of the darkness like a demonic hand, spires becoming claws, shattered windows becoming eyes. As they approached it, El sensed McKenzie's curiosity. "No one comes here anymore." Bringing the skin of her thumb next to a hidden aperture, El felt the needle's sting as it pricked into her blood. The DNA recognition system immediately opened pneumatic locks with an audible hiss. "I set this place up a few years ago. It doesn't look like much, but there's running water, weapons, food. There are motion sensors and forcefield generators at every entrance." She was babbling mindlessly, filling up the silence with sound.
McKenzie seemed aware of El's sudden nervousness and offered a brief touch from her fingertips. The rough surface of leather whisked over El's arm creating gooseflesh.
You shouldn't touch me. Don't you know how much I want you?
The word filled El with irrational anger. She slammed the small woman into a wall, sending a cloud of dust and old plaster cascading down upon them. "Then don't fucking play with me." Her body bore down of its own volition, thigh slipping between the blonde's open legs. She didn't mean to kiss McKenzie, but her mouth moved to cover the silken lips. Both hands buried themselves in red-gold tresses, pulling the woman closer. Part of her wanted to devour the telepath, to bring her so far inside that there would be no escape. Her thigh ground upward. Her tongue pushed in, finding its mate and dancing over it. McKenzie's mouth fed El's hunger, quenched her thirst, but left her yearning for more. Simmering passion ignited in a soaring blaze that wrested away El's last vestige of control. The kiss became more savage, an outward expression of raw desire that knew little of tenderness.
McKenzie echoed the passion. Her smaller body arched, bringing their torsos together, matching the pressing rhythm of El's knee. But there was also fear. Feeling it, knowing that she was the cause, made El tear herself free. Every particle of her being protested the absence of contact, and she was forced to acknowledge that her desire for McKenzie had already become need.
"What the fuck is wrong with you?" Her only shelter was rage. El entered that familiar safety, stalking around McKenzie like a caged beast.
"The Guild controls all sexual relations." Green eyes studied the dusty floor. "They determine pairings based upon the genetic probability of producing a more powerful telepath. To prevent unauthorized unions -" the sweet voice faltered. "—psis are not allowed to touch. We crave contact, you see, almost like our skin is more sensitive. When we touch, it is all consuming. Everything, all the muffled voices, all the feelings ...it all stops and we sense only one another." The slender woman turned back toward the exit. "Or so I've been told. I'm sorry, Maelstrom. I - " Her voice trailed away.
"El." It only took two strides to catch up to McKenzie. "It's El."
Too many things were revealed in that last exchange for her to truly understand them. There was loneliness, despair, and a desperate longing exposed, not in the words, but in the pauses between them. "I'm the one who's sorry. It's - it's been a very long time since I've wanted someone the way I want you." She faltered then, struggling for words. "Stay. Please."
Warmth spread over El's fractured emotions, making her shiver in relief. It was addicting, she realized. Each brush of McKenzie's mind, each whispered contact, made her want more. She pulled the esper into an embrace, feeling the world slowly fade away.
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