Mnemosyne is the goddess of memory.
Annie rested her cheek against Maelstrom's shoulder and let the dark woman's slowing pulse lull her. If ever she had been close enough to hear the heartbeat of another, she could not recall it. So she attended the sound. Resonant and steady, the primeval melody was achingly familiar, invoking images of the bright, clear waters of Delis. Every liquid throb held echoes of the ocean and suddenly it made sense that blood and tears tasted of salt.
You are still trembling.
Her thoughts were overwhelmed, even now. Seventeen years of training had not prepared her for the force of El's desire, flooding Annie's consciousness with a storm surge of sensation, threatening to drown her in the undertow. Responding had not been a choice, but a necessity, fingers clawing at the leather that enclosed them; clothing, once protective, transformed into a prison. Her body ached to breech the faint barriers that separated skin from skin.
And her mind had followed, uncoiling with the tide of arousal, following the rhythmic press of her body, the driving need in her groin. Only raw intention had remained.
Bloody well dangerous, McKenzie.
Sexual relations with Normals were forbidden with good reason. In the rush of passion that accompanied release, a telepath's consciousness instinctively reached out to his partner, bringing body and soul into seamless union. Before the Guild's creation, many Normals had been driven mad by such contact. They could not abide the mind of another intertwining with their own.
Espers could not conceive of life without it.
An impassable rift.
With a regretful sigh, Annie withdrew from the embrace. Her hands lingered, though, as if reluctant to depart. One lay upon the dark woman's hip, the other on her forearm.
Agitation and unrest grew inside her companion. Thoughts whirred in a twisted tangle. It was no surprise when Maelstrom broke the silence. "So what happens now?"
Annie pondered the question, lifting her eyes to gaze into mirrored lenses. "I must return to the hotel." There was little point in prolonging the inevitable. West had said he would contact the Guild. Regulations dictated that two ranking Enforcers be dispatched to take her into custody. She would await them in her room.
There were unquiet currents cycling around Annie's companion, a sense of dread, of impending disaster. "What will they do to you?"
Concern quivered across the link of thought that bound them. Annie basked in its warmth, and hastened to reassure. "They will return me to Mars and convene a board of inquiry. It is standard procedure."
This turn of conversation was decidedly not one Annie wished to pursue. "And then - what?" Either she would be exonerated and reassigned, or found culpable and retrained. Both outcomes were beyond her command.
The dark woman was unrelenting. "Exactly." Her determination was almost tangible.
Annie ordered her hands to retreat and turned to look at her surroundings. The old church still smelled faintly of incense and wax. Dust had collected on everything, from broken pews, to a toppled crucifix. Votive candles lay scattered. Hymnals, long abandoned, were flung throughout. Some had fallen open, with bone-white pages spread for viewing. The rest were closed, as if in preparation for burial. It was an empty space, forgotten. Even the Virgin Mary seemed lonely beneath her silvery mantle of cobwebs.
What was once God's house is now His sepulcher.
"You're ignoring me again." The purring contralto fit, somehow. It filled the musty air with sound, and for an instant, Annie could almost hear their voices -- a robed priest calling his faithful to Mass, a congregation singing hymns of praise and penitence. Then the phantoms departed. Only the living remained.
"Yes." There was no need to pretend otherwise.
Her skin prickled as Maelstrom drew near.
How quickly your senses attuned to her. You would know if this woman passed you on the other side of a crowded street, without sight, or sound, or -- ugh -- smell.
The odors of smoke and sewage, set free by moving clothing, wafted about in a dancing veil of stench. Annie turned toward the assassin with a half-smile. "We stink."
Coal brows rose into an ebony hairline as Maelstrom sniffed. Her implants remained fixed on Annie's face. "I guess we do." She gestured toward a side door. "C'mon, I have an ion shower in the old rectory."
A few minutes later, Annie shed her clothing beneath a tingling stream of invisible particles. The charged atoms cleaned both fabric and skin. Odors, stains, and dirt were simply lifted away. They felt odd, like little sparks that skittered. It was not an unpleasant sensation, but she would have gladly traded its clinical efficiency for a simple tub of hot water. Nothing else cleansed, rejuvenated, like that element.
No wonder the ancients revered it so.
She gingerly flexed her injured shoulder. It was not happy, and her wounded thigh was similarly insulted.
What did you expect? You've been exerting yourself for the past two nights.
Blood stained the gauze pads, causing them to stick, but the sterile cloth had done its job. No grime had penetrated.
Now if I can just keep from tearing them open...
Turning beneath the spray, Annie felt heated moisture slicking between her legs. She longed to touch, to ease the pang of want harbored there.
That would be rich. Half the block would feel it.
Iva had once told her the story of a high-level telepath who had masturbated in an unshielded room. There had been an orgy in the hotel's lobby.
Oh, to have been a fly on the wall for that incident.
A susurrant chuckle broke some of the tension in her chest, and she turned off the shower.
Would that everything were so easy to control.
She dressed quickly, pulling on her weapons, grateful to be clean and less aromatic. Minutes later Maelstrom took her turn in the facilities. It afforded Annie the opportunity to become acquainted with her surroundings. Private places invariably offered glimpses of their owners, and betrayed small things, unconscious things, that even scans could not reveal. Fogle taught her that.
There was a serenity here. The room had been vacant long enough to make peace with its solitude. What memories remained were too faint for her to sense. No pictures adorned the walls. No pretty baubles cluttered tabletops. A sofa, a chair, and a dusty computer terminal were the only occupants. It was not disturbing. Inside everyone were barren places. Some tried to fill their inner void with an accumulation of things. Others allowed the emptiness to find reflection in their surroundings. Annie belonged to the latter group. So, too, apparently, did Maelstrom.
A tingle of energy roused her from study. Turning, she found the tall assassin dressed in faded jeans and a silk shirt of pale coral, and in that moment, Annie's breath abandoned her. Gone was the predatory killer who seemed perpetually cloaked in midnight. The harsh angles of light and shadow that characterized El's face seemed smoother. Each step caused hips to shift, breasts to quiver. And suddenly Maelstrom was right in front of her, almost touching. Warmth and energy thrummed between them, as if obeying the impulses of a single heart. Mirrored optics regarded her steadily.
For the ten-thousandth time, Annie wished she could look up into eyes, not lenses.
The solo's voice rolled deep and velvety. "We need to talk." She paused. " I need to talk. Please."
Whether plea or request, Annie found she could not refuse. So she nodded, moving to the old chair. It was a thickly cushioned. Under the dust that covered lay black leather, now dry and brittle. Little clouds spiraled upward as she sat.
It smells like Time, like musty books and old shoes.
Maelstrom perched upon its arm. Her closeness set Annie's awareness into overdrive. Every sense was tuned to this woman, to her breathing, deep and slow, to her scent, lightly flavored with perfume, and to her emotions, almost as frayed as Annie's own.
Neither spoke, and she was content to let her darkling warrior gather thought and word. There was not long to wait.
"What is this -- this thing between us?" Maelstrom's voice was strained to breaking. Her implants roved the room, from floor to ceiling, couch to door, any place but toward Annie. "I'm not fucking psychic, but I can feel you in my head. When I'm near you, I want to stay, just stay." She stopped then, as if evaluating her words. Behind them Annie felt uncertainty and more than a hint of fear.
You owe her the truth, McKenzie.
"Bear with me," Annie began. There were no easy explanations. Trying to unfold the subject without degenerating into a physics lecture would be a challenge. "All human beings are like miniature radios. We broadcast energy every moment of our lives, in action, speech, even thought. Some have called it an aura, others, a magnetic field. But however named, it is unique to each person and marks them as clearly as DNA. In telepaths, the energy is stronger. It allows us to 'hear' the thoughts of others, and to focus our own, to transmit them." She rose and began to slowly pace the room, finding the words flowed more quickly when she moved. "From the time we enter the Guild, we are taught to harness that power."
You're babbling like a veritable brook, McKenzie. "Think of it as fire. Controlled, it can be useful, even helpful. But when unleashed in anger, or when unfettered by sexual release, it can be overwhelming and destructive." A glance revealed that Maelstrom was watching intently, brows lowered in concentration. Her face betrayed no other reaction. "That makes it dangerous to become involved with a Normal. I - I might hurt you."
Maelstrom shifted as if she wished to speak, but Annie held up a hand to silence her. "There's more." Drawing breath, she continued. "The Guild's research has revealed that some minds are psychically compatible. They are drawn to one another in a powerful, but largely unconscious way."
"Are you trying to tell me I find you attractive?" Sardonic wit colored the solo's words. "For that I needed a science lesson?"
Annie let her gaze drop to the gloves which concealed her fingers. "Attractive? Yes, but not in a physical sense. Our minds reach toward one another, establishing a flow of energy. Like a path of least resistance or a river carving rock. It is not a conscious thing. I cannot stop it anymore than I could stop the pull of gravity. That is why you can sense my feelings. The longer we are together, the stronger it will become." She arranged her face into a mask, then looked up to Maelstrom. "Until it establishes a permanent bond."
Her words hung lifeless in the air, dead things that filled the room with silence until Annie thought she would smother. The dark woman had become a statue. Tension knotted muscle into ropy bands of steel. "Permanent," she whispered.
Maelstrom's panic fairly sang over the link between them. Images flickered in and out of focus. They came fast, tangled. A sun-brilliant room without doors or windows. A metal chair. Swirling faces, indistinct in the brightness. Mouths that whispered, 'don't resist.' Hands that gripped her head, and the pressure, a terrible, piercing pressure that flayed the skin of her consciousness...
Damn. Annie backed away, and broke the flood of contact. "It won't be like that."
It had not been her intent to speak. Pulling her muddled brain together, Annie rushed on. "It takes time and proximity to make it permanent. We are still in the early stages, El." She invoked the woman's name softly. "So, it will fade when we separate tomorrow." As it must. "There will be no long term side effects."
Conflict had carved itself across the planes of Maelstrom's face. Suddenly she thrust herself upright and began stalking about the room.
She can't handle this. The scars of her prior encounters are festered.
"We should go." The words threatened to lie stillborn in Annie's mouth. Thoughts of separation brought sadness. Try as she would, the feeling would not dissipate.
Maelstrom did not respond. Her metallic orbs starred blindly forward, catching pieces of the light.
"Why did you remove your eyes?" It was a foolish thing to ask, but Annie could deny it no longer. There would be no other opportunity.
"What?" El's head snapped toward her and she halted in mid step.
"You had them replaced."
The ebony head lowered. "To be a solo, you need enhanced vision, targeting scopes, all that. I wanted to be the best."
Annie's narrow-eyed gaze appeared to unnerve her companion. The pacing renewed. She weighed Maelstrom's explanation, and found it lacking. "That does not explain your...inhuman...choice of implants."
"If it were that simple, you would not be so discomfited." Being in control of the conversation put Annie at ease.
The tanned jaw was working and hands had clenched into white-knuckled fists.
"I can wait as long as you can." Annie took a step closer. Inside the dark woman was a churning whirlpool of emotion. New images formed within it, strong, vivid. There was a beautiful girl, with hair that blazed in fiery oranges and reds. Freckles dotted alabaster skin, as if a careless painter had spattered drops of copper. And her eyes. Her eyes were almost crystalline in their clarity, and bluer than the saddest song.
"What is her name?" Annie breathed the words in a sigh of sound.
"In the mind, all wounds are named. That makes them powerful". Iva's gentle wisdom returned to her. Whether it is the mother who abandoned, the father who died, or the friend who betrayed, each hurt is marked by a headstone. Find the name. Find the pain.
It burst into Maelstrom's thoughts and was immediately swept away by memories. They were random, jumbled, difficult to follow. Flashes of passion that blinded, touches so tender they were almost painful, merged in white-water rapids of remembrance.
"You've become a stranger, Jordan." A voice, once rose-petal soft, was lined with thorns. Blue eyes churned, their depths clouded in fury.
The memory was pitiless, orbiting like a dervish around a fevered wound called 'Leigh.'
"I don't know you anymore."
Maelstrom had threatened first, then pleaded. There were flickers of recollection containing broken glass, ruined furniture. Only emptiness remained.
"She left you." Annie closed her eyes, trying to navigate the haphazard torrent of images.
Grief was her only answer.
Another vision followed, of a thinner, younger Maelstrom, staring into a mirror's shard at eyes so like the lover-lost, it hurt to look at them. Pain erupted as the hand closed, snapping the fragment, drawing blood.
Loathing and self-hatred burned across the link that bound them. Annie flinched from it, eyes snapping wide. "They looked like hers."
Maelstrom snarled at that, features contorted in fury. "Not human," she hissed. "I'm one of the monsters now."
There it was, the void reflected in the spartan room around them. Annie moved closer to the anguished woman. "We're all monsters."
"I murder for money." Maelstrom's eyes were slitted.
"Another distinctly human trait." Annie's footsteps circled, bringing her up behind the visibly trembling woman. Hunched shoulders flexed at her approach. "You are no different from the rest of us." It was wrong to touch, but for her life, Annie could not resist the urge.
"I liked killing."
The hand rose. "Past tense." Somehow this battle seemed more important than any other Annie had fought. Fingers came to rest on silk. Muscles below became impossibly taut. "Do you still like it?"
Inside her chest, Annie's heartbeat measured the seconds.
"I don't know." Maelstrom's words were fragile amid the quiet, like splinters of crystal.
Annie stepped around her friend, maintaining their tactile connection. Light shifted as she moved, sliding along the woman's body. "I do." Her other hand hovered above Maelstrom's pounding heart. She did not touch, not there, not yet.
Lids slowly lowered, hiding chrome from view. "How?"
"I've been inside your head." Annie lowered her palm until it rested, flesh to leather to silk to flesh. Cordons of cloth stronger than stone, and just as insurmountable. We may as well be separated by light years. She had not intended to say more, but her throat would not close. "I know a little of darkness, myself."
What are you doing?
Shocked by her own actions, Annie backed away. Maelstrom followed, and her question did not need to be voiced. It was clear, like the vast reaches of space.
You opened the door, Anna McKenzie. Which of your masks are you willing to drop? What truths are you prepared to tell?
"I broke a man's mind." It was a lesser evil, compared to others she'd committed, but would probably send Maelstrom screaming. The dark woman had obviously had a painful encounter with telepaths in the past. Those feelings of helplessness and desecration were not so easily forgotten.
Overhead, an air filter clicked to electronic life. It calmly hummed as if nothing were amiss. Annie found that ironic. "The Guild believes that it is essential to uncover a telepath's limits, to know exactly what he is capable of. They use convicted felons for these exercises." She still remembered his face. What had shocked her was how ordinary it was. Gray eyes, brown hair, features neither narrow, nor wide, nothing to mark the man as evil. "Mine was a rapist." Annie tried to push the image aside. "Drugs are used for memory enhancement. Then, the subject is jacked into a simulation program that recreates his crimes in exacting detail."
Don't think about it.
The desperate command came too late. Mnemosyne had snared her, and she was helpless in Her grip.
"Remove your gloves, Apprentice." Iva's order was crisp and officious.
Annie obeyed, vaguely aware how strange it felt for the air to strike her hands.
There was a metal door, plain gray, and windowless. Annie opened it. The wall of energy behind nearly knocked her flat. She could not see beyond the pictures in her head.
He had already torn the woman's blouse, ripped away her bra. Blood flavored his tongue from the last brutal kiss. His victim's terror thrilled him.
Iva shut the door and locked it.
"Stop him, Annie." The mental command repeated at regular intervals, sounding a soulless refrain.
Now the girl's skirt was in shreds. She was gasping for air. Fingers closed on her neck, squeezing, squeezing.
"You want it, bitch." His tone crawled over her like spiders in the dark.
He enjoyed the way her head snapped when he punched her, so he did it again.
Annie was suffocating. The very walls were inundated with vileness. There was no escape, no respite.
The man cruelly parted his victim's legs. He was erect, throbbing with power. Acid rose in Annie's throat.
"That's right, you cunt, scream."
"Make him stop."
And she did...
"I left him a drooling vegetable, forever haunted by the ghosts of every woman he had hurt." Her tone held less warmth than a Plutonian winter. Even to her own ears, each word was an icicle. "If I found within you any part of him, I would have already discarded the mindless husk of your body."
El was rocked by McKenzie's sudden transformation. The sweet face hardened into marble, and in the vacuum of her eyes, there remained no trace of gentleness.
Just like the others...
Instinct made her retreat.
So cold. They sifted through my brain. Couldn't stop them. Couldn't run.
Targeting scopes snapped to bear, homing in on the snoop's head with mechanized precision. The VP-98 slammed into her palm as her body and hardware reacted to the threat.
She said she wouldn't hurt you.
Green eyes, like moss-covered bones, tracked her movements. "What will you do with that?" They flicked toward the raised weapon, but McKenzie made no move to draw her own.
Fear had become unbearable, twisting El's stomach and hammering in her chest. "Back off." Her finger stroked over the trigger with the intimacy of a lover.
The Enforcer offered up a frigid smile, and began to advance. "Are you going to shoot me?"
She's one of them.
That isn't true.
El was shaking. Every muscle braced for action.
The last thing she needed was another war inside her skull. All she had to do was pull, just flex her finger back.
McKenzie's emerald gems were lit from within, glowing malevolently. Her forehead pressed against the barrel of El's gun. "Do you really believe I would let you?"
It hit her then, an asteroid of memory that broke the grip of terror.
"Your former employer seemed irate."
"She'll kill you."
"I don't care."
"Yes," El forced through the pinhole of her throat. "Yes, you would." She lowered the pistol.
There was no change in McKenzie's glacial image. Instead of replying, the esper turned away, glancing at her watch. Her fine-boned features were closed. It seemed almost deliberate.
Maybe it is.
"Why are you doing this?" El edged nearer.
"Doing what?" The reply was frozen, but familiar.
Measured steps brought her up behind McKenzie. "Trying to repulse me." Moving nearer, she let her breath tickle down the smaller woman's neck.
"You're already repulsed." A laugh that had no humor punctuated McKenzie's response. "And I can read minds."
"Read this." El's lips murmured a sweet invocation as they caressed the esper's skin. Your hair is the only sunset I've ever seen. McKenzie tilted her head back, opening to the gentle exploration. I want to wander the forests of your eyes. Her hands roamed freely, around the graceful sweep of hips, over rough denim. The body beneath them shuddered in surrender. That's it. Come back to me. Fingers slipped through the blouse's edge.
It was a sensation beyond physical. She could feel how her touch affected McKenzie, how it caused skin to crackle with awareness, and heat to smolder in her crotch.
You ache for me.
The blonde moaned.
Burn for me.
With her free hand, she turned McKenzie's head, and united their lips again. The kiss was possessive and territorial.
Only for me.
Whether her thought or the esper's, El could not say. She was caught in the tide that coursed through her veins and pulled at her psyche. More than lust, but containing it without apology, it was an irresistible drive to seep into McKenzie's skin, through muscle, and bone. To taste, touch, and claim her.
Gloved hands gripped her wrists. Their mouths slowly separated. El became aware of how labored her breathing was, how deeply she ached.
McKenzie interlaced their fingers, and looked up with luminous eyes. "I'm not ready for this." The little Enforcer did not move away. Her voice was sweet, welcoming.
"Mac." El wanted to plead. Desire and need were making her weak.
"No." Verdant pools pulled her in. "Annie."
Her name was a gift, an opening in the wall. A few days ago, El might have shied away. Now, she struggled to express her gratitude.
There was no need. Close as they were, McKenzie could already sense it.
I don't know whether to be relieved that she can understand, or afraid. Such confusion was alien to El, and terribly dangerous. In her world indecision was more deadly than bad decisions.
"That is why we must stop." Annie gently moved away. She released her hold on El's fingers. "While we still can."
No. Maelstrom railed against those words. For the past two years, the world had been a dismal, desolate place. No one could hear her. No one could reach her. "I can't go back to that."
Fuck. That sounded needy and pathetic. Fire lit her face with scarlet, and El wanted to bolt.
"You don't have to." She was close again, the telepath. Her voice was so easy on the ears, softer than satin.
"The fuck I don't!" El exploded with frustration. "I've got to kill Aultman, or she'll hunt me into the ground. You get to go back to your fucking Guild and your snoop friends. I don't have that luxury."
"There is a commission in the Colonial Rangers waiting for you."
El's world stopped its orderly rotation and went cartwheeling off into space, or so it seemed. "What?" She stammered. "How?"
"I sponsored you. It is my right, as a member."
She sponsored me? El's mind reeled. Her thoughts struggled to get around a concept so big it threatened to swallow her whole. In the span of one night, this woman extracted me from Shogunata, broke Aultman's iron control, and opened up an avenue of escape.
"Are you all right?" McKenzie wrapped a glove around El's shoulder.
"What price?" El choked out. Her throat was desert dry, rendering speech next to impossible.
Everything costs. And I'll pay it. Just like always.
That's not what disturbs you, is it Ellie?
Annie's eyes were gleaming jewels of power. Without a word, without even a change of expression, she made El feel helpless. It was as terrifying as it was arousing.
You don't care about the cost.
"But you did not agree."
El's roar began deep, spread out like a shockwave. "You make it sound so fucking easy." "If I don't agree to your terms, then what? Will you leave my hollow shell here, lying in a pool of piss?"
Annie reacted as if slapped. The fragile strands of mental touch converged into a single probe, suddenly sharp against El's mind. Anger hummed through its length.
You know she won't hurt you.
McKenzie retreated, taking the electric tension with her. "No." Long steadying breaths hissed through the ensuing quiet as the telepath regained control. "I can't do that to you." It was back, that dull, lifeless tone.
But you can leave me, can't you? Just like she did.
And there it was. Finding the source of her anger withered El's rage, and replaced it with an excruciating sense of loss.
Emerald eyes were vacant. "The Guild will expect me at the hotel. My absence would be seen as subversive." The little Enforcer cast about as if looking for something. Finally, she sighed. "I must have dropped my jacket during the firefight."
"Where do you go, when your voice gets like that?" El wondered. This delicate woman was an enigma wrapped inside a riddle. Like an onion, every layer revealed another, deeper, layer. She wanted to understand. She also did not wish to separate. Any question or tactic that would cause a delay was fair game.
The pale, too-thin face offered up a slight smile. "I retreat inside, like a tortoise. Your defense is anger. Mine is distance."
"How do I cross it?"
"Do you want to?"
"Oh, yes." The intensity of her own answer surprised El. She recognized its truth, however, in the same, sure way she knew which hand she used to write.
Annie's expression was still shuttered, but the jade eyes were clouded with a myriad of emotions. "You already have, and I will never forget you for that."
They looked at one another for a long time before leaving the church's sanctuary.
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