Lightning spat across the night sky, causing clouds to glow a putrid green. Had maggots crawled over their roiling surfaces, Annie would not have been surprised.
Maybe what they say is true... that the earth is just a rotting corpse.
Thunder, muffled by the reinforced walls and windows of her hotel room, vibrated through the floor.
No wonder the ancients believed that the gods were angry.
She looked down as rain fell in sheets upon passing cars. Their headlights cut into the night like scalpels. On adjoining sidewalks, streetlamps revealed hurrying pedestrians, most wearing protective hats and jackets. The acid rainstorms of earth were legendary. Ruined paint, first-degree burns, and brittle clothing were the usual result of over exposure.
You should rest, Annie.
The voice was small, but insistent.
At least meditate.
Closing eyes that felt encrusted with grit, she leaned her head against the sturdy plasteel window. Her leg ached. Numerous scrapes and bruises only added weight to the fatigue which pressed heavy upon her. A subtle shift of cloth behind her caused Annie to turn. Maelstrom lay upon the suite's couch, her deep, even breathing a result of Morpheus' embrace.
Lurid flickers peppered the sky and Annie attended the storm once more. Grayish light to the east heralded dawn's approach. Strange that she found peace in watching the tempest outside. Its violence matched her inner turmoil and created a chaotic kind of harmony.
They had returned a few hours ago, and El had steadfastly refused to separate. Despite her better judgment, Annie had agreed. Last night's attack had been a near thing. Alone, the assassin would only be more vulnerable.
Why is she so important to you? Why do you risk your career and sanity for a woman you scarcely know?
Same questions, over and over. The side of Annie's mind that dealt in reason and logic could not fathom her decision.
She silenced the voice. It was time to get ready. Turning, Annie lingered another moment, watching her darkling companion sleep. Maelstrom looked different, relaxed and serene, capable of innocence now that her inhuman orbs were closed.
I wish things were different, my new friend. In a world with no Guild, no telepathy&
The feelings welling up inside her could not be named. There was attraction, of course, and longing.
You waste your time with such foolishness. Put on your uniform and report to West, else he will add dereliction of duty to your list of crimes.
The iron-gray uniform fit comfortably, like a second skin. Donning it always made Annie remember the year she graduated. Everything had seemed so noble then. Her badge was a knight's shield, and her mission, a sacred trust. With visions of serving the Guild and protecting citizens, she had stepped out of the Academy's sheltered world for the first time in 14 years.
Titan had laid such childish dreams to rest.
Hush, now, McKenzie. Let it be.
When Annie returned to the living area, Maelstrom was awake. Silvered lenses swept over her and dark brows furrowed. "Do you ever sleep?" The rich contralto seemed to expand, filling a once-empty space with vibrant sound.
"Of course." Annie's answer was automatic. Her mind was erstwhile occupied in memorizing the tones and pitch of her companion's words. She decided that it was better to know that this was the last time she would see the dark woman. It allowed her to pay attention, to savor these moments of rapport. Too often Fate would wrest away someone special without warning.
Like your sister?
With graceful movements, El rose and stretched. The sight jarred Annie back to reality and her eyes traced over the supple lines of muscle that flexed beneath soft cotton. Then the solo fixed her with a long stare. "Really? When?"
Chromed implants captured emerald green, and held them. El's mind was open, filled with a sensual desire that left Annie breathless. "When I'm alone," she stammered.
A crooked grin lit up the tanned face. Slow, feral steps brought the tall assassin within inches. "Now that's no way to sleep."
Oh, Annie, m'love, you are in way over your head.
"Perhaps," she responded in as neutral a tone as possible, acutely aware of El's body heat and proximity. "I need - " Her attempted change of subject was cut off when warm lips pressed to hers. Unlike the first tentative kiss, or the passionate desperation of the second, this was a lingering caress. Annie yielded to its sweetness.
This. The sentence was completed by an inner voice. I need this.
So much was conveyed in the touch - sadness, desire, yearning. Her mind, long honed by training, categorized each emotion, each reaction with clinical precision.
Their mouths opened, tongues undulated. Annie's fingers buried themselves in raven locks, pulling her shadowed love nearer. She could feel Maelstrom's passion, like a fire at the edge of some vast, deep forest.
Please. The word formed. Hers? El's?
Bodies moved tightly together as the larger woman's arms tightened. Their physical distance closed. So did the gossamer weave of their minds. Need, fear, a desire that was more a craving, merged into a rolling ocean of consciousness.
This time it was El who backed away.
The break was so sudden that Annie gasped in pain. Her eyes opened to find the shadowed assassin standing several feet away, leaning over one of the over-stuffed chairs.
Panic trembled over the link that bound them.
"Can't. Sorry," El whispered.
Anne struggled to quell the throbbing of her core, and the frenetic pounding of her heart. "It's all right." Shaking legs carried her to the sofa. Sitting, she buried her face into gloved hands.
And still she could feel her companion, feel the memories of drowning in another's consciousness, the raw terror at losing her identity. Dealing with the subtle touches of Annie's mind was one thing, but to be merged into it, swallowed whole by it, was quite another.
You are so stupid, Journeyman Anna McKenzie. So stupid. What in the hell did you think was going to happen? She. Is. A. Normal.
Leave me alone. She commanded the chastising voice.
You are a telepath. You don't have the option of being alone.
A knock at the door brought merciful relief from such thoughts. Annie was absurdly grateful as she crossed the floor to answer it. "Yes?" Her fingers played across the view screen imbedded in the adjoining wall. The pimple-faced image of a hotel bellboy appeared.
"Excuse me, ma'am."
Annie half expected to hear his voice crack. A gentle smile played at the corners of her mouth as she keyed the intercom and answered.
"Umm. I have a message from Enforcer West."
She had the door open before he could finish. "What is wrong?" Behind her, Annie felt Maelstrom's dark presence.
The young man stepped backward, gray eyes widening at El's cat-like movements. "I - ah - don't know that anything is wrong." His words tumbled together in a rapid jumble. "He just told me that if he didn't call this morning at exactly 6 am, that I was to deliver this envelope to you."
Hellfire. Annie quelled the sudden knot of tension that contracted in her bowels. "Thank you." She calmly took the envelope. "A tip will be added into the hotel bill." With that, she closed the door.
Maelstrom shadowed her every move. The envelope was of plain paper, sealed, and labeled with West's strong hand. Opening it revealed a message written in pen.
Check my room.
"What the fuck?" El's crude question echoed her own.
Instead of replying, Annie snatched up her weapons and darted out the room door. "Stay here," she instructed.
"The shit you say."
From the set of Maelstrom's jaw, Annie realized there was little point in arguing, and so did not waste the energy or time.
It was a short trip to West's room, but the express elevator seemed interminably slow, and it took most of Annie's will to resist pacing.
He wouldn't have written me if there had been any other choice.
A pleasant chirp announced their arrival to West's floor.
Why didn't he leave a message on voice mail?
Because he didn't want someone else to hear it, you daft beggar.
The door to West's room was slightly open. Annie froze. Her senses came alive. No telepath ever left a door open.
Especially one leading into a shielded room.
A snicking of metal told her that El had drawn a weapon. Annie gripped her own pistol, stood to one side, and gently nudged the door open.
Only silence greeted them. The dark solo slid forward with silent grace. Annie followed.
As soon as she crested the room's threshold, her psyche was bombarded. There were memories here. Violent. Like the storm outside. Trapped within the reinforced walls, energy crackled over her skin, raising gooseflesh. Annie's mental shields struggled to withstand the tornadic force that slammed into them.
Pain. Refusal. Pain. Frustration. Pain .
"Are you okay?"
The deep rumble of El's voice pulled Annie back into reality. She opened her eyes to meet chromed implants and murmured, "Yes."
Focus, Journeyman. Focus.
Her companion was moving forward cautiously, crossing the oriental carpet, stepping around a Victorian style sofa - where she froze. "I found him."
Maelstrom's emotionless statement drew Annie near. The crumpled form of Nathan West greeted her. A jagged gash split his abdomen all the way across, laying open his entrails. Blood spattered the golden brocade of the sofa, and pooled in little patches on the floor.
Forensic training told her that the wound must have been post mortem. Her eyes raised slowly up the body.
West's face was frozen in a fierce look which combined anger, surprise and raw terror. Dull gray irises stared blindly at the ceiling amid whites that were stained a bloody red.
In an instant, Annie was kneeling beside her fallen master. Instinct caused her to remove a glove and feel for the pulse she already knew would be absent. Cool flesh answered her question far more eloquently than the silent absence of a heartbeat.
Dimly she was aware that Maelstrom was sweeping the rest of the rooms. It made her look up. The room had been ransacked. No container sat unopened or unbroken. West's handheld computer was on, the screen blank and flickering erratically.
More searching. First Anj's place, now here. What were they seeking?
She looked over the body more slowly. He was wearing a robe and pajamas, but no gloves. On the inside of his palms were tiny cuts.
Fingernails. His fists were clenched tightly enough to draw blood.
El returned. "All clear." There was a pause followed by a sharp intake of breath. "Why do his eyes look like that?"
The question made Annie's gaze snap back to the bloody pools in West's face. A dried, brown track marred one cheek where a single tear had trickled forth.
They made him weep. Cold tension coiled in Annie's belly.
They? More than one? Or just one? Too many questions. No answers.
"When psions fight, it is largely an invisible battle." Already her fingers were dialing Guild Headquarters on her cell phone. It took several moments for the Interstellar links to engage. She punched in her security access code at the automated request.
Annie looked back at the assassin, feeling confusion. "The strain of channeling energy takes a toll on the physical self. Burst blood vessels in the eyes are the first sign of strain." Her gaze took in the gaping wound in West's stomach. "He was already dead when that happened."
Minutes later all information was relayed to the Guild. The team West summoned had just docked in and was being expedited to her location. After taking her into custody, they would begin a preliminary investigation.
"How the fuck can you kill someone with your mind?" Scared disbelief emanated from Maelstrom. A fear that was primal, typical of all Normals. To face a threat that could not be sensed, could not be stopped was unspeakable to them.
"Remember that thought is nothing more than energy." Annie gently closed her Master's eyes. "And the synapses of the brain are much like electrical circuits. Too much current fuses them." She paused. "At least in theory. I've never actually seen it done."
Understanding the process did not explain how it was done to an Enforcer. West held a Crimson rating. He was powerful and experienced. Her forehead wrinkled in concentration. It must have been the rogue esper. And yet&
No telepath of such strength could have escaped the Guild without every Hound in the quadrant being marshaled to give chase.
So how can this man be dead?
She activated her cell phone again and contacted the Metroplex Police. It was a short conversation, more a courtesy call than anything else.
Only then did she feel the weight of El's regard. Chromed orbs faced her squarely on a face that was grave. "There's something you aren't telling me."
Annie sighed. Perception, it seemed, was a trait not confined to espers. "The Guild requires that its most powerful telepaths be inducted into the Enforcers." Rising smoothly, she crossed to the door and examined its lock.
"So Asshole, here, was killed by one of your own?"
The question stopped Annie in her tracks.
One of my own.
There was no sign of forced entry.
Could the Guild be responsible?
Either the murderer had a passcard, or was invited in.
Why? No one was more loyal to Guild interests than Nathan West.
Soft footfalls on carpet told of El's approach. "Is it possible?"
Annie stepped over the threshold and back into the hall. She was suddenly bone-weary. "Anything is possible. It could be the rogue we are hunting. But, yes, it could be the Guild. If they thought that West had become a threat somehow." Her voice trailed away. Don't even think it. The Guild is all you have.
Maelstrom joined her in the corridor. "So what happens now?" The dark woman was close, not quite touching.
"There will be an investigation. I have instructions to secure the scene until a team arrives. No one enters or leave until then."
"I take it they don't want word to get out that some nut-ball is running around with enough dynamite in his head to fry half of New York." El's sardonic wit had a razor's edge to it. Her words almost slashed the air.
"Correct." Annie heard the flat tone of her own voice. Years of training, of learning to distance herself from pain, from grief, helped her to focus. Master West had not been a friend. He had not even been a good partner. But no one deserved to die like that, with every nerve screaming in the wake of an invisible inferno and the titanium drill bit of another's mind rending consciousness asunder.
Heavy footsteps drew her attention outward. Like harbingers of death, a line of corporate militia assembled at one end of the hallway. Brimstone's cerulean blue eyes contacted hers. They contained calculated triumph. In one hand he bounced a data cube. Up and down it danced in a mocking rhythm.
"Journeyman Enforcer McKenzie." His words were spoken softly, with deceptive gentleness. "The Guild has informed my company that you are no longer authorized to retain custody of Madame Maelstrom. It seems that you are under investigation." The burly man all but rocked from heel to toe, so great was his pleasure. "And as the Rangers are not here to lawfully detain her, protocol demands that she be given over to corporate authority." He tossed the cube with his last words. "You can check Interstellar regs, if you like. I already have."
Annie caught his arcing missile. Though her face remained carefully schooled, her mind was spinning rapidly. He was right.
Tensing muscles from the tall woman warned that Maelstrom was preparing for action.
"Ah, ah." Brimstone shook his head. "Don't even think about fighting, El. Your little girlfriend might get killed." Three assault rifles zeroed in on Annie's chest. "I'm sure you wouldn't want that." A sly smile crossed his rugged features. "Oh, and running won't help you either. There's a tracer in your head."
Jesus, McKenzie . Annie could have smacked herself in the forehead. She should have thought of tracking technology. Imbedded chipware could easily emit long-range signals. If Aultman went to all the trouble of inserting slave tech, she would certainly protect her investment.
You are not working to your potential, little one. Iva's prodding words returned to her.
She needed time to think.
What is she worth, Annie? This assassin. This murderer. What is she really worth?
Time was a luxury she no longer had.
Your career is already in shambles. Why make it worse for a woman you just met and barely know?
The slow burn of her power from a glowing ember to a brilliant flame served as an unspoken answer. As the corporate guards edged forward, she coaxed that hidden fire into a blaze. Shields lowered one by one until she could hear them all, buzzing like gnats.
'We've got her now. We've fucking got her.'
'Be cool. Be cool. Watch 'em close.'
'The Snoop is planning something. I can see it.'
'I won't be taken alive.'
The last thought was Maelstrom's.
Tension, like ice too brittle for a child's weight, stretched taut. Annie did not move, nor really even watch the men who approached. Her eyes were cast to the floor, tracing a carpet patterned with pink flowers and golden suns.
Someone is coming.
Her thoughts slid around the cybered corporate and edged past his TIC chip. Like all such counter-intelligence hardware, it was useless against the channeled energy of a psi. She raised her gaze to meet his.
Do you hear them? Creeping up the stairs?
Brimley's head turned left to right. His brow furrowed and squarish fingers tightened on the grip of his pistol.
Enforcers are so resourceful. Why is McKenzie standing there, doing nothing? Is she calling other Snoops for help?
A bead of sweat formed and wound its way down one cheek.
Was that a so-quiet scrape of rubber on linoleum? Did you hear that? The handle jiggled on the stairway door.
As Annie watched, the man shifted, licked his lips.
She wouldn't just stand there, would she, David Brimley?
A gesture from the security chief stopped his grunts' advance and fanned them outward to face the stairway. Only two men continued to guard her and Maelstrom. Through the link which still hummed between them, she sensed El's coming attack, the poise of muscle and intention, like a wound spring.
Opening elevator doors made everyone spin. Weapons snapped toward the sound. All eyes narrowed as if moved by one mind.
"What in the fuck are you doing?" The unmistakable voice of Stephen Fogle reached Annie's ear long before his short frame appeared around the corner.
El remained coiled for action, her implants tracking the newcomer as he came into view. The only hair on his shining pate came from bushy eyebrows and a bristling handlebar mustache. Dressed in the black and silver uniform of a Colonial Ranger, he glared at the rifles aimed in his direction through narrowed brown eyes. In their depths, El could see a calculating intelligence. His stride was belligerent and made him seem larger than he really was.
"You in charge?" The pointed question was directed at Brimstone.
"This is corporate business, Citizen. You would be wise not to interfere," was the only reply.
"Did I fucking ask you that?" The Ranger looked to his left as if speaking to some invisible companion. "I don't think I asked him that?" Muscles along rugged cheeks clenched. "Thanks. See, I just frickin' knew I wasn't getting Alzheimer's." He turned back toward the security chief. "So let's try this again, smart boy. See this badge?" Stubby fingers swept toward the diamond shaped insignia. "This means I'm a God damned Colonial Ranger, not just some piss-ant citizen you can shuffle off to Buffalo."
"David Brimley, Shogunata Industries." It was obvious that the security chief was angered at the interference. "I'm recovering a prisoner."
"Nice to meet ya. Fogle's the name. Captain Stephen Fogle. And the prisoner you want belongs to me. So why don't you take your little toy guns and go play with the big kids." Without another look, he swaggered through the knot of soldiers and pulled out a set of magnetic cuffs.
"Why the hell isn't this woman restrained, McKenzie?" His voice was gruff and demanding, but El was positive she saw the esper's lips quirk upward in a quick smile.
"She's been out of restraints the entire time," Brimstone called out as he approached. Being summarily dismissed had apparently not gone over well with the corporate security chief.
Fogle sighed with exaggerated volume. "And you're rude too." Muddy pools narrowed. "Look Junior. I've only got one fucking nerve left. The elastic is shot in my boxer shorts, and if I don't get to take a shit within the next ten minutes, I'm going to fumigate this hallway. So would you mind letting me deal with my business while you go find some of your own to get in?" Without missing a beat, he continued. "I asked you a question, Ranger."
"Sir." Annie seemed calm, but snapped to attention. "Shogunata Security was attempting to take custody of my detainee. Under the circumstances, I thought it best if she was able to defend herself."
Twinkles sprang to life in the muddy pools, but Fogle's voice was cast in iron. "That is the single most piss-poor excuse I have ever heard in my life." He gestured toward Maelstrom. "Put out your hands."
It was in her to fight. The edge of violence was close. She could take her chances with Shogunata. Seasoned instincts assessed the odds of success. They were slim, but better than submitting to bondage.
It will be all right, my friend.
Only the reassuring brush of Annie's mind averted disaster. Never removing her optics from Fogle's face, El slowly extended her wrists.
"I have authority here." Brimstone apparently refused to give in. All around them, corporate troops bristled.
"Oh really?" The Ranger's bushy eyebrows frowned as he replied. Then his head turned to the left where he addressed the empty space beside him. "Can you believe this asshole? Last time I checked, it was totally un-fucking-wise to kill a Colonial Ranger in broad daylight." He cut umber orbs back to the guards. "So shoot me, stab me, throw my ass out the window, but don't stand there and yammer at me, because I find that boring. Your authority ended the moment I walked around that corner and you damn well know it."
What a blow hard.
Fogle's love of his own voice irritated El. She usually found such people to be less competent than they purported to be. The bragging Captain certainly seemed to fit into that category.
The next moment, El found herself being led to the elevators.
She stood, frozen in place by the recent events. One close call after another left her feeling vaguely shell-shocked. It was hard to believe that she was walking out of the hotel, away from the corporate dogs sent to retrieve her.
El stared out the lift's doors as they slowly closed. Annie walked into view, emerald eyes glittering more brightly than usual. Inside them was a depth of sadness. Just as the gentle esper's face disappeared from view, El would have sworn she saw a shining drop of moisture slide down one cheek.
Her anger rose inside her, like a volcano, primal and molten. She wanted to fling herself through the steel barriers.
"Settle down." Fogle's resonant growl ordered. "You'll only make things worse for her."
"What the fuck do you know about it?" Behind El's cyber eyes, a headache blossomed. It was only a pinprick of pain, more a nagging irritant than anything else. She spun toward her captor. The rage within had reached boil-over, and her captor was a ready target.
Strangely, the Ranger Captain did not even look at her. Not one muscle twitched. "You know," began his quiet rumble. "I would frickin' pay you to try and escape." He yawned loudly. "There you are -- stuck in an elevator in a hotel filled with corporate geeks who want to bundle you up and take you home to Mama Shogunata, a transmitter in your head that is broadcasting at the top of its electronic lungs, and now you're thinking about attacking the only person with a fuck of a chance to get you out of here in one piece. What a fucking genius!"
The sliver of discomfort in El's skull intensified. If someone had jammed an ice pick in her brain, it couldn't have hurt more. Nausea assaulted her stomach. Inside her mind was a growing emptiness.
What is happening to me?
The doors opened.
"Hello little Ellie." The smooth tones of sugar over cyanide preceded the butterscotch vision that awaited.
Targeting scopes snapped on line and zeroed on the coldly beautiful corporate.
"Did you miss me, lover?" Her smile stretched out into a feral grin.
She's so lovely. So dangerous.
El felt the sensuous effect of that voice right down to her core. Memories of fists and lubricants, straps and chains made her senses waver. She was getting wet from the piercing promise in Aultman's eye. Sometimes a single look from this goddess in gold had been enough to send her past the edge.
Fogle's grating basso rolled out into the hallway, filling it with thunder. "Excuse me, ma'am. I need to escort my prisoner out of this very public area." A hand fell upon El's elbow, the grip almost hurtful in its strength.
If Aultman heard him, she gave no indication of it. Her rich chocolate eyes were focused solely on El. "Do you really want to leave me, Maelstrom? After all we have done for each other?"
Waves of fierce desire coursed through her. Heat suffused her being. She wanted this slender woman. Right here. Right now.
As suddenly as the passion blossomed, it faded. Blinking in confusion, El found her stocky escort holding up a plain, black rectangle. The device beeped softly, but steadily.
"Nice try, bitch." Obviously the man had lost his mind. "See, I was born in the dark, but it wasn't last night. I know all about the pleasure side of slave tech. Now go toddle back to your glass playpen and find someone else to manipulate while the big people take care of business." The hand on her arm propelled El forward.
Muddy eyes narrowed. Blonde, pencil-thin brows furrowed in fury. To El's implants, it was plain to see the homicidal rage that coursed through her former lover.
... the pleasure side of slave tech... The whispered words taunted her, the way a will-of-the-wisp lured travelers to their deaths.
"You're in my backyard, Ranger." Aultman's voice was barely audible. "Don't become a weed."
... the pleasure side of slave tech...
Thoughts formed slowly for El, fighting to cross the growing void in her consciousness.
... the pleasure side of slave tech...
Fogle's hand urged her forward, but his next comment was directed toward the interloper. "Go fuck yourself."
... the pleasure side...
"You'll never get away with this. Maelstrom is mine."
She's been manipulating your responses to her.
The headache was growing worse, booming with every beat of her heart. Around her, the world faded into sounds and blurred images, spinning madly.
Making you want her...
"If you want this fucking raven-haired bitch so much, then you can apply to Ranger Command for extradition. Until then, get you anorexic ass out of my way."
Making you crave her touch... her painful caresses...
They were turning away, moving out the lobby.
You were nothing but a pawn.
Even in the bedroom.
The simmering anger blazed into a conflagration. All reason, all caution deserted her. Rippers extended from her knuckles. An animal snarl passed her lips and she saw faint glints of fear in Aultman's brown eyes.
The sight of it thrilled her.
"Jordan." Annie's mental words were soft, gentle. The ache behind her temple faded slightly and gossamer tendrils of thought smoothed the jagged edges of her fury. "No."
The contact made El hesitate. Her steps faltered giving Aultman time to retreat.
Then something hard and metallic struck the back of her head, sending both she and her temper into a peaceful darkness.
To be continued....
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