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The Academy

The Academy

Zachary Rawlins The Academy


    The yellow moon hung above the city, fat and sick, but the wolves took no notice, at least not that Mitsuru could see. Squinting through binoculars from the rooftop across the empty street she frowned, her hand absently seeking the bag at her feet as if to reassure her that it was still there, within reach. The restricted field of view and the necessity of refocusing were unfamiliar and frustrating, but she was reluctant t o try and use a surveillance protocol. It was the day before the full moon, and the Weir would be extraordinarily sensitive to such things.
    Mitsuru shifted slightly, trying to take the pressure off her sore left knee, which had been bothering her ever since she scaled the building. Through the lenses, she could see the pack at the edge of the deserted park; a half-dozen grey shapes, tongues lolling out, sitting patiently. Mitsuru was disturbed by this behavior.
    When the moon was full, Weir hunted. They were as much slaves to the lunar cycles as the tides. Four days of the month, Weir were trapped in their bestial form, almost berserk with bloodlust. Weir were always dangerous, and became even more so during a full moon. But, they were also terribly predictable.
    They hunted in packs, roaming the land at night, tearing apart anyone foolish or unlucky enough to cross their path, in constant, lethal motion. Like all wolves, they would deliberately seek out the weakest possible prey; the old, the infirm, and the very young. Even at the height of their powers, even under the sway of the dictatorial moon, they would avoid anyone who looked like they could put up a fight, unless starvation or necessity dictated otherwise.
    What they did not do, to the best of Mitsuru’s knowledge, was lay in wait. Particularly during the monthly spells, the Weir would roam about in their long, loping stride, endlessly hunting. These particular Weir had watched five pedestrians walk past the entrance of the park in the last two hours, none of them posing even a vague threat to the pack, but they had made no move to pursue or attack. They sat patiently under the trees or nestled in the brush, barely visible even to Mitsuru. They did not stalk, or fight amongst each other, or even move to relieve themselves. They sat as patient as guard dogs, eyes reflecting the yellow of the moon back into the night, muzzles laying on forepaws.
    Weir were capable of many things, but planning an ambush was not among them.
    Mitsuru considered consulting Central; for advice, or backup, or both. She would sorely need it, if she decided to intervene. There was no way for her to deal with the six Weir she had seen so far, and there was no guarantee that there weren’t more, hidden in reserve. This wasn’t normally a consideration with Weir, but everything about the night seemed off.
    She decided to wait and watch — she was too close to the Weir to open an Etheric connection without them noticing, and she would have to retreat some distance to do it and escape detection.
    Even without the benefit of the Analytical pool, Mitsuru was certain that the Weir were being run by an outside party. Someone with the kind of power to coerce or intimidate a pack of Weir into working for them, no easy thing. And it could only be a hit — Weir weren’t good for anything much more complicated than killing. But they were, she knew, very good at that. Mitsuru wondered, not for the first time, whether there was a Witch in the vicinity, and worried.
    Mitsuru shifted her cramped leg, leaning her waist against the concrete barrier that skirted the edge of the rooftop. The jacket and Capri pants she’d worn had seemed heavy enough when she left Central, as the night was mild, but standing motionless on the rooftop for so long had chilled her, and the cool wind was beginning to worm its way inside her clothes. As a concession to the weather, she tugged the jacket hood up over her ponytail to sit awkwardly across the top of her head. While she was trying to adjust the too-short hood to accommodate her long, black hair, she saw the boy.
    There was nothing remarkable about him — teenaged, slim and rangy, dark brown hair that needed trimming. He was dressed in a scruffy hooded sweatshirt and blue jeans. Even from a distance, Mitsuru could tell that his mind was elsewhere — his eyes on his feet, his pace slow and aimless, headphones over his ears. No different from half the pedestrians that had passed the park that evening.
    No different, except to the Weir.
    Panning her binoculars, Mitsuru saw the pack stretching, yawning, and grimacing, fanning out across the brush on the eastern side of the park, near the entrance where the boy stood, oblivious. Unaware of how many eyes were on him at that moment, and how hungry some of them were.
    Mitsuru was not an analyst. But she knew that all of her options had just been exhausted — there was no way for her to remain concealed, unless she wanted to watch the boy be torn to pieces. Anyone important enough to merit corralling a pack of Weir was too important for her to let die. But, without support from Central, there wasn’t much Mitsuru could do to prevent it.
    There was nothing for it. Mitsuru sat down, leaning her aching back against the barrier, and then let her eyes roll back in her head. Under the best circumstances, Mitsuru estimated that she could handle two Weir under moonlight in close combat, certainly no more than three. And these were hardly the best circumstances. If there was no help from Central, then intervening would almost certainly be fruitless.
    Part of her mind registered the howling of the Weir, but there was no time to worry about it as she forced her way through the blue-grey currents of the Ether, following the red thread she’d left spooled behind her as a guide, back toward the pulsating core in the depths of the fog, the brilliant and distant lights of Central. The Ether was frigid, and Mitsuru felt her body reflexively shudder, the pain of the cold knifing its way through her brain, a calculated agony. She pushed along with the current, upwards, toward the light, along the red string, the subtle and oppressive weight of the Ether pulling against her. For a moment her world was nothing but the rushing grey currents. And then, at the edge of her consciousness, a light touch. Contact.
    Echoes, across a grey vastness that encompassed her being, that her being encompassed.
    The response was delayed only slightly. The voice was small, as if it came from high above her, but still perfectly clear through the roaring in her ears. It was Alistair, her mentor, and the originator of her ridiculous nickname. It was probably an American thing.
    Central, prepare for upload…
    Mitsuru sent the tendrils of her thoughts toward Central, following the red string upwards to the light, mooring, attaching her to the glow. The roaring of the Ether subsided a bit, then, within the halo of Central’s influence, the muted currents passing through her being effortlessly.
    Ready when you are, Mitzi.
    His reply was prompt, but it held the hint of a question. Normally, field reports were delivered after that fact — it took more effort for an Operator to upload directly from the field. But, Mitsuru had no time for explanations, so she simply composed her mind, reviewing the events of the last few moments until she had what she hoped was a clear narrative, and then reached for the tendril of light that had extended down out of the halo of Central, allowing it to touch her mind.
    The union was invasive, a momentary sense of the alien, and a passing shudder of revulsion. The pain was sharp and sudden, and over so quickly that she had no time to scream. Somewhere far beneath her, on a windy rooftop, her body convulsed in sympathy, in memory of pain that she had already forgotten.
    Alistair was a powerful telepath and a remarkable handler; there was virtually no lag while he processed the data through Central, queried various databases, and then hit the analytical pool up for the local probability lines. His response came down, cool and authoritative, only moments after she had completed the upload, speaking formally for the record.
    Operator Aoki, you are cleared to engage at your discretion. We have backup en route to your position, estimated time of arrival is between three and five minutes, should you choose to intervene.
    Mitsuru was surprised. There was no way that Central would attempt to open a route through the Ether, not to suppress a single pack of Weir. Operators who could perform apport protocols were in short supply, and they always seemed to be needed elsewhere. That meant that there was an Operator somewhere nearby, close enough to intervene. The chances of it happening by coincidence were miniscule.
    Clarify, Central. I need a situational analysis.
    Another brief silence on the line, while Alistair consulted the Analytical pool.
    Operator Aoki, according to our projections, if you hold the Weir back from their target for a minimum of three minutes, the chances of a successful intervention are well within operational tolerances. If you do not feel you can meet or exceed this standard, then we suggest limiting your involvement to observation.
    Mitsuru paused for a moment, taking stock of her remaining strength. She was uncertain whether she could hold off the Weir even that long, but there was a sense of urgency in Alistair’s thoughts that made her think this was something big.
    Whatever was going on here, she decided, it was important. Important enough, in the eyes of Central, to merit the risk. Important enough to the Weir that they acted in this highly abnormal manner. And whatever else was true, Mitsuru decided, she needed an important success if she was going to continue to work in the field. For her own sake, and for the sake of her mentor.
    I will engage, Central. But it’s unlikely that I can hold out for three minutes.
    His promise was immediate and reassuring, because it was Alistair.
    I’ll do what I can to expedite, Mitzi. Do you require any protocol downloads?
    Mitsuru was surprised again. Clearly, she thought, there was more going on here than she’d realized, if Central had authorized unlimited protocol downloads for a field operation.
    Negative, Control. Engaging.
    She was already falling back down, away from the halo, through the grey currents, following the red string back to her body, back to the rooftop, to the boy and the wolves.
    Good luck, Mitzi…
    Mitsuru heard the concern in Alistair’s voice, before it was obliterated by the rush of sensations as she was jolted back into her body, the sheer nausea and tactile euphoria of a physical body.


    Alex walked with his head down, his eyes on his feet, not thinking too hard about where he was going, as long as it was away from school. His headphones were deafeningly loud, and it gave the world a surreal and almost cinematic feel, somehow. He took a certain satisfaction in that. The streetlights bled yellow light, yellow like the moon, and Alex threaded a path between them, trying to stay in the puddles of dark in between the sulfur light.
    He kept walking, simply because he had nothing else to do. One more absence from afternoon class wouldn’t make a whole lot of difference — as a matter of fact, his chances of joining the rest of his class as a senior next year were kind of up in the air, due almost entirely to lack of effort on his part. Not because of his grades, of course; he’d been careful to always be an average student, no matter the subject. But his attendance had slipped from ‘barely acceptable’ last year to ‘frequently absent without reason’ this year, and he’d been placed on academic probation for it. At the very least, that meant summer school. And Alex did not want any more school than he had already.
    It wasn’t so much the classes that he wanted to avoid, he thought, glancing at the windows of a used clothing shop he passed, oddly fixated on the way they caught and reflected the jaundiced light. Mostly, he wanted to avoid the people.
    For as long as he could remember, Alex had wanted to go someplace where no one knew him; no one knew about his parents, no one knew the whole ugly story. After his grandmother had died last year, he’d almost done it, too. He’d even bought bus tickets to Los Angeles, and spent several evenings trying to figure out how to fit his meager possessions into a single duffel bag. It had been comforting, puzzling through what he would need and what he could do without, a little bit like freedom. But he’d known, even at the time that he wouldn’t go through with it.
    It was alright, Alex decided, kicking the crushed remains of an aluminum can into the gutter, to admit it — he was afraid to leave. This town — a wretched little suburb in the orbit of Bakersfield — was the only place he’d ever been, unless you counted the places where he’d been locked up. The idea of going somewhere new, where no one knew him, was something that Alex played with on the bad days, a comforting fantasy. The reality of it terrified him. Outside of being alone all the time, Alex figured, his life right now was pretty comfortable. And he’d spent the better part of the last eight years alone, which was nearly long enough for him to convince himself that he didn’t mind it.
    He was surprised to find himself at the entrance to the park. Alex figured that his body had brought him here, the park where he often slept when ditching school, on some form of auto-pilot. He’d found it while wandering around the area, cutting class one day, in an anonymous neighborhood at the end of a cul-de-sac. He didn’t even know what the park’s name was, if it even had a name. It wasn’t the worst destination he could have picked, actually, as the park was deserted and he wanted to sit down somewhere. He turned off the music, but left his ear buds in, as he headed through the park gates.
    He trudged along the muddy sidewalk bordering the lake, careful to keep his grey sneakers dry, not entirely sure why he bothered. He reached the play structure and sat down, leaned his back up against it, closed his eyes and tried not to think about anything. The important thing, he knew, was not to think about what he was going to do next, once he graduated, once school was over with.
    Because then he would panic. After all, he didn’t have a clue.
    The lake smelled awful; a marshy, rotten-egg stink that was probably the reason Alex had the park to himself. It didn’t bother him that much. He had low expectations in general, and life had been obliging in meeting those expectations. The important thing was that the park was empty, not the smell of the bird shit saturated water. Alex tried not to wonder. Tried to not think. It was a skill, one that he had honed through years of confinement and observation, when he couldn’t sleep anymore, and he’d gotten good at it. Normally it was easy for him to empty his head, but tonight it didn’t seem to be working. The more he tried to quiet his mind, the more it tried to wander.
    Alex looked out at the foul water, the few stars peaking reluctantly through the smog, the cluster of bare branches and tangled briar that edged the park, and felt sorry for himself. He spent much of his time here sleeping and feeling sorry for himself, but he wasn’t tired enough to sleep right now.
    It wasn’t a sound that startled him. It couldn’t have been, because they made no noise. But something snapped Alex out of his reverie, made him open his eyes, and then made him take a second, harder look, after the first revealed nothing.
    At the edge of the park, something was moving out of the brush; actually, Alex realized that it was a number of something’s. Large and long-limbed, too big for dogs, but moving on all fours. Silent grey shapes moving out of the scrub and across the mud and dead grass, their eyes shining in the long shadows of dusk, reflecting the yellow moon.
    He was surprised to feel no fear whatsoever, only a vague sense of ridiculousness. So this is it, world, he thought madly. Mauled by… are they wolves? Wolves in a city park, in the early evening, wearing grey sneakers that he’d bought online and still wasn’t totally sure that he liked. He could imagine the gossip the next day. Oh, Alex Warner, you know, that fucked-up kid, did you hear? Eaten by fucking wolves.
    He could not tear his gaze away from the lead grey form, with its terrible burning yellow eyes, as it moved toward him with what seemed like deliberate slowness. It crossed the distance between them with a graceful, compact stride, pink tongue lolling out of the side of its mouth, across a row of sharp white teeth.
    He stepped backward involuntarily, banging into the metal bars of the climbing structure, pain radiating out from his shoulder and elbow where they hit. He closed his eyes and waited to feel teeth, then, waited to feel hot breath on his neck and then what he imagined would be horrible suffering — and he felt a consuming panic wash over him, a raw tide of fear and resentment against the injustice of the entire situation. Eaten by wolves. Or did they just bite you to death? Did they actually eat you? Alex wasn’t sure, but it didn’t matter that much. Fucking wolves.
    Not one thing, he thought, not one thing in my entire life ever made sense. His whole body went numb and shook, waiting for an impact, waiting for sharp teeth and blinding pain. Not one thing had made sense.
    He waited for what felt long a time before cautiously opening his eyes.
    On some level, he must have been expecting an intervention — how else, Alex thought, could he explain his strange acceptance of the Japanese woman running toward him, through the center of the wolf pack, a semiautomatic in either hand. She moved fast, faster than he would have thought possible across the muddy ground, but that didn’t faze him much either. He could even accept she appeared to be shooting without looking, in two directions, with what appeared to be some accuracy — one of the wolves was crumpled and yowling in a pool of its own blood, while another crawled toward the brush on its belly, dragging its wounded back legs behind it. Alex wasn’t sure why he wasn’t more surprised. Maybe years of science fiction films had prepared him for it.
    But, Alex could swear, even at a distance, that the woman was smiling a little bit. And that, for reasons he could not understand, was what was freaking him out.
    For a second, anyway. Until Alex remembered the wolves trying to eat him.
    She crossed the final distance between them in a few bounding steps, and then stopped close enough that Alex could make out her features — long, straight black hair, sharp features, those weird pants that cut off at the mid-calf, red lips curled into what was unmistakably a smile. Probably a few years older than him, but Alex couldn’t say for sure.
    Alex cursed his lameness. Unfortunately, his second attempt was no better.
    “Hey, what the fuck?”
    She rolled her eyes at him, and Alex immediately regretted saying anything. Which he had to admit was basically par for the course.
    She came up to his shoulder, making her the shortest person he had ever found intimidating. She was lithe and compact, underneath a denim jacket heavily splattered with mud, and what Alex could only assume was werewolf blood. Despite the situation, Alex found himself wondering how old she was.
    Then he noticed her eyes. They were startling — impossibly brilliant red irises set in grotesquely bloodshot eyes.
    “That was really amazing…”
    He tried for any sort of facial expression, but didn’t feel that he accomplished much.
    She shook her head at him and sighed, ejecting the clips from both of her pistols directly on to the mud. She pulled two new clips from the side pocket of her jacket and slotted them both in place, all without seeming to pay much attention to the process. Her eyes stayed on his face for a moment, and he thought for sure he was going to get yelled at — but then she turned her back to him, and faced out into the park again.
    “The Weir aren’t dead, boy,” she said, her voice flat, lacking all inflection. “Stay close to me if you want to live.”
    Alex followed her gaze and saw she was right. The four wolves she hadn’t shot were fanned out in front of them, about fifty feet away, and advancing cautiously. Behind them, another group appeared to be descending from the scrub into the park proper, moving in their direction.
    “Oh fuck,” Alex said softly, realizing that he had assumed, with no basis whatsoever, that he was saved the moment the woman had showed up, guns blazing.
    Stupid. He had no good reason to be hopeful.
    “Um, can’t you just, you know, shoot them?”
    Alex heard the hysteria in his voice, and he hated it. Sweat poured down his back, and when the wind hit, he was abruptly very cold. He gritted his teeth, and attempted to stop shivering. When that didn’t work, all he could do was try and convince himself that he was shaking from the cold.
    “I did,” she said, over her shoulder, in the same flat voice. “Those aren’t wolves, boy. They won’t die or run away because they’ve been shot a few times. And I don’t have enough bullets or time to kill all of them.”
    Alex took a tentative step toward her back, and then, when she didn’t lash out at him, another. The part of his mind that seemed totally unconcerned with his impending death wondered how long her hair was when she didn’t have it tied back, and what it would feel like if he touched it. He shook his head, trying to clear it of the suicidal triviality.
    “Um, well, can I, that is… can I help you?” Alex said nervously, his voice squeaking when she glanced coolly over her shoulder at him. He waited a moment for her to respond, and then continued on in a panic when she didn’t.
    “I mean, I’ve never shot a gun or anything, but maybe I could…” Alex trailed off, and struggled to find a suitable way to complete the sentence. “I dunno, distract them or something? I mean, they’re here for me, right? So, if I run off that way, they’ll follow me — maybe you could get out of here and, um, go for help…”
    For a moment, he was sure that she would laugh. He almost wanted to laugh himself. She had run through the park shooting at wolves with both hands, without needing to aim. Who could possibly help her? And had he really offered himself as bait?
    Her voice was flat, and the answer came without a moment’s hesitation. Alex looked down in shame, his face burning. What had he been thinking? Obviously, he was dead weight in this scenario. He wished he had simply shut up, and let himself be rescued.
    When he looked up, he was surprised to see her glance at him over her shoulder, the pistols in her hands autonomously tracking the circling wolves. For the first time when she looked at him, she didn’t seem angry. As angry, anyway.
    “That’s more than I expected from you,” she said in a softer voice, turning back to the advancing pack. “But, we cannot hope to run, not now.”
    “Then what…”
    Alex started to speak, and then trailed off, not even sure what he was going to ask. Despite the advancing wolves, what she said hit him right in the chest, and he felt a mad urge to rush out, to put himself between this stranger and the wolves, solely to prove her right, that he had something to offer. He could only marvel at his ability to think about such things in the face of impending doom.
    “I will buy us time,” the woman said, not looking back. “Stay behind me.”
    She pointed both of her guns straight ahead, at the closest of the grey shapes, but the sound when she fired was much less dramatic than what Alex had expected, and he felt inexplicably disappointed.


    Twenty bullets. Two minutes, five seconds. At least six Weir currently visible, and more movement in the brush at the park’s edge. One trembling teenager, trying not to cry, standing right behind her.
    These numbers defined the current parameters of Mitsuru’s world.
    The firearm protocol she’d downloaded was still active, running an auto-targeting subroutine that saved her the trouble of aiming. Her vision was layered with rose-tinted boxes and text, ballistics data and distances, potential threats, angles of attack. With it activated, she knew with a steely confidence that she could fire all twenty remaining rounds, and expect to hit every time.
    Mitsuru didn’t need a protocol to know that the situation was hopeless. She had enough bullets to stop the first two Weir as they came at her, probably. She could handle one more in close combat, possibly. She had been reckless to engage the Weir alone, and she had badly underestimated their numbers. Two minutes had become an impossible number.
    If they ran, the Weir would overtake them in the mud before they even made it to the path, never mind getting out of the park. She didn’t have the firepower to kill all of them, and fighting Weir hand-to-hand was just short of suicide. They were vastly stronger than humans and inhumanly resistant to injury. She had another two or three protocols she could activate in her current state, but their combat value was negligible.
    Mitsuru’s mind had been reengineered as a logic processing engine, a web of equations and calculated assumptions, permeated with Etheric tools and machinery, capable of rapid analysis and projection based on probability measurement. She was, in many ways, an Etheric computer — not an Analyst, obviously, but rather a field strategist. She was a node on an wide-ranging and invisible Etheric network; a precision device, capable of thinking or killing her way out of almost any situation, sifting through the probability fields for the most desirable outcome, adapting to her surroundings with rapidly evolving mathematics and an overriding drive for survival.
    The only favorable outcome she could foresee to this situation was her backup arriving early, almost immediately. She gave them no more than a minute, optimistically, and in most of the scenarios she ran, less than thirty seconds.
    Mitsuru let all of it go with one long, slow exhale, and then leveled her guns at the closest Weir. She fired off a couple of rounds to slow it down, as a warning, shattering its front forepaw and sending it tumbling into the mud. The Weir didn’t know she was running out of ammunition, and while they wouldn’t be afraid even if she were wearing a half-dozen bandoliers, it might slow them down a bit while they jockeyed for the best attack position. Getting shot hurts, after all, even for a werewolf.
    Older Operators said that silver Weir were particularly cunning and long-lived. Certainly, the one who flanked them fit the description. It was powerful enough to conceal its Etheric signature until it was almost on top of them, and smart enough to use the lake as cover, bursting out of the waters and charging up the short at them. She spun to face him, and then grimly readjusted her projections negatively, diving for the boy and firing with her free hand.
    She was too late, and she knew it already.
    The silver beast was a huge, vile thing, teeth protruding from a long, blunt snout, ears shredded to nubs, and a matted and patchy coat. He was close enough that Mitsuru could smell him, the musk and embedded odors of blood and decay. He was old and fast, moving in the halfway form that some Weir could assume, a bipedal wolf-thing, knuckles dragging like an ape, fingers tipped with cruel talons. He came up out of the stinking water of the lake at a run, making no noise other than the heavy slap of his back paws against the muddy banks.
    The boy heard him and he flinched, barely enough to keep the first lunge from tearing him to pieces. The Weir struck with his claws, raking the boy down his back, along the spine. The boy fell forward with a sort of whimpering sound, the gout of blood from his back splashing Mitsuru’s face and clothes in a thin stream as he fell, and the Weir followed him down, clutching and tearing.
    Mitsuru moved, knowing that she would be too slow, that there was no chance she could get there before the boy was mauled. She felt neither hope nor despair. Her calculations were definitive and implacable.
    And, for the first time that she could remember, utterly wrong.
    She moved as fast as she could, covering the few feet between them in a split second, the Weir’s jaw clamped onto the weakly struggling boy’s forearm. It was toying with him, she knew. It could have simply torn the arm to shreds, but it liked the way he cried and screamed. The overlay of the ballistics protocol burned like rose-tinted magnesium in her vision the closer she got. She didn’t have time to wonder about it.
    Mitsuru leapt over the hulking hindquarter of the Weir, landing on the far side with bent knees, dropping into a crouch, twisting her upper body so that the muzzles of her guns were planted securely behind the Weir’s left ear. The wolf meant to turn, she could see the muscles in his neck and legs tense as he prepared to throw himself off the boy and onto her. But all he had time to do was whine and twitch, as she fired both pistols twice and felt a thick wetness coat her arms and the front of her chest. The Weir’s innards smelled awful, copper and rotten meat.
    Kicking the limp Weir aside, she bent down next to the now silent boy, one gun tracking the cautiously advancing pack, the other reaching down for his chest, an Etheric probe extending invisibly from her palm, designed to immediately relay his vitals. If the boy was dead, or certain to die, then there was a chance that she could withdraw and live.
    The Etheric probe activated as soon as it brushed the boys chest, with an intensity Mitsuru had never experienced. It immediately grew white-hot, a glowing thread between her hand and his sternum, burning with data and power. The part of Mitsuru’s mind that was still human reeled.
    Power? This couldn’t be. The probe wasn’t meant to relay energy; it should have been a purely analytic operation. And moreover, where was the power coming from in the first place? And so much of it! But the part of Mitsuru’s mind that never stopped analyzing didn’t worry about niceties like that.
    The boy would not die if he received medical attention in the next hour; the probability thread was very vivid. Whatever was happening, the boy was not a target of opportunity, he was an asset, and he represented enough potential to merit the attentions of an entire pack of Weir. And if someone else wanted him dead this badly, then Central needed this boy even more. Somewhere deep in the surgically altered spaces of her brain, tissue embedded with Etheric machinery executed instructions, determined parameters and threaded probabilities, then offered up a suggestion.
    Mitsuru called home.
    Contacting Central through the Ether wasn’t difficult, but it did take a few moments of concentration, and she briefly lost both awareness and control of her body. Normally.
    She was fully aware of herself at the park, the bleeding boy half-embedded in the mud, the howls of the wolves as they gingerly closed the distance between them. But another part of her mind raced through the currents of the Ether, normally so suffocating and oppressive, running along the red string toward the dim lights of Central so fast it took her breath away. She had never, even under ideal circumstances, even on her very best day, been able to thread the Ether like that. Part of her was terrified, but another part exulted.
    She cried his name out, her mind breaking the barrier of Central’s halo like glass.
    Mitzi?How did you -
    There’s no time for that. How long until backup arrives?
    Less than a minute. We are moving as fast as we can, Mitzi.
    She ran options, scenarios, and probabilities. One stood out.
    Barrier Protocol. Now.
    She could feel Alistair hesitate.
    Mitzi, there is no time to complete the download. It takes more than thirty seconds…
    Alistair, I don’t have time for this right now. Trust me. Start the download.
    There was another brief hesitation, perhaps Alistair consulting the analytical pool, then confirmation.
    Alright, Mitzi. Your call. Download commencing.
    She didn’t wait for the download to start. Mitsuru had already begun to return to her body, moving along the red string, so fast it felt like freefall. She crashed into her body with a sickening sensation, and then the protocol hit her, and she felt like screaming, raw logic structures descending on her mind, displacing, enlightening. It was a migraine headache, a cluster of migraines localized in her forebrain. A wave of unutterable brilliance passed through her, illuminating, making her vision warp and blur.
    She didn’t have time for that. Mitsuru dropped her guns and dug a short knife from her belt sheath. She heard the Weir howl and knew that they had started to move, even without confirmation from the acoustic analysis of the half-forgotten firearms protocol. She slashed one palm with the knife, deeper than she’d meant to, and then the other, and then dropped it. There was no pain, only blood spilling out of the wound, propelled by her frantically beating heart.
    Mitsuru slumped to her knees beside boy, and then planted both of her hands palms down into the already bloody mud on either side of his head. The pain of the rapidly downloading protocol was intense, but it flared even brighter when she forced it to activate, ripping away her vision and replacing it with a field of ruby-tinted darkness. Her palms ached, and she could barely feel her fingers, as they sank into the viscous mud. There was fantastic pressure in her sinuses, a tingling sensation throughout her body, and then her eyes rolled back in her head.
    The energy bled out of her, through the wounds in her palms, and her hands burned where they touched the mud. Every nerve sang as Mitsuru forced power through her hands, through the blood-born nanochains, through the mud and then up, into a dome she visualized, a thin red transparency that surrounded her and the boy, perfectly round and perhaps a meter across. Her head was filled only with the migraine now, as the incomplete protocol sputtered and whined. The power she forced into the protocol struggled to find an outlet, attempting to discharge to relieve the unbelievable pressure. Submerged in the cold mud, her hands burned. She held the structure of the protocol in her mind, aligning and maintaining the energies by force of will.
    The first Weir to hit the barrier crumpled, going down in a tangle of teeth and paws, bones cracking against the translucent field. Mitsuru screamed as it hit, screamed as power flared through the incomplete protocol, but she was unaware of it. The whole of her consciousness was focused on channeling power into the damaged structure of the protocol. Whatever the source, the mysterious power seemed inexhaustible, and she made herself into a conduit for it, a preferential pathway for the available energy.
    One half-human paw on the back of its damaged head, the silver Weir rose to his feet and paused, staring at Mitsuru in the mud a few yards away, her body wracked with effort and pain, sprawled across the boy, and the translucent red shield over them.
    “Little one,” it said, walking toward them, his voice a repulsive parody of human speech. “Little one, you cannot hold that barrier for long. It is tearing you apart, I can see it.”
    If it expected a response, it didn’t get one. It studied the shivers that racked Mitsuru’s body. Her nose poured blood unheeded, her face pale and her eyes screwed shut.
    “It will fail, girl, it will fail without me even touching it. And when it does,” it said, lolling its long black tongue over its tangled teeth, “we will hurt you. First we’re going to tear that boy apart. Then you…”
    It leaned down closer then, almost touching the barrier, its breath foul and hot on the back of Mitsuru’s neck.
    “We’ll take our time with you. You’ll wish you were dead long before we let you die. There isn’t anything you can do about it. Think about that, behind your dissolving barrier.”
    The thing’s tongue extended out several inches, black and viscous, caressing the barrier obscenely, leaving a trail of mucus and spittle behind.
    Mitsuru’s fingers dug into the mud. Her nosebleed had become a stream now, the blood flowing steadily onto the boy, onto the ground around him. The shield flickered, not due to lack of power, but rather because the incomplete protocol had begun to disintegrate.
    Mitsuru felt, rather than saw, the arc of blue-white flame that struck the silver Weir, igniting his fur and hurling him, bones cracking, back toward the scrub and brush. The shield around them flickered and then dissolved as Mitsuru allowed the protocol to dissipate, and then rolled herself off the boy and onto her back. Lying on the mud, she forced her eyes open and saw the Operator standing over her through the veil of the migraine.
    She didn’t recognize him. He was middle-aged, Caucasian, with a serious, plain face and dark hair. He wore an overcoat, damp and heavy for the season, and an expensive-looking brown suit beneath. In his right hand, he held something that looked very much like a metal umbrella handle, a blue-white stream of flame running out of the elongated end, dripping to the ground and pooling there, beside his immaculately polished shoes.
    The barrier protocol diminished to fragments and half-remembered images, but Mitsuru’s headache remained blinding and her nose continued to gush. She managed to force herself up to her knees, though it took both hands and a concerted effort. She put two fingers against the wrist of the fallen boy, too tired even to summon a probe.
    “Relax, Operator Aoki,” the man said crisply, his expression unreadable. “I will finish this. Do you have the strength to contact Central for retrieval? They’ve prepped an extraction for you.”
    Mitsuru stared at her wounded hand, wondering. She realized that somehow she did, and managed a nod.
    “Then go,” the man said curtly, raising the bar over his head, the liquid fire trailing behind him in a continuous wave; like a long whip, or more accurately, like the line of a fly-fisherman, extending out yards behind him in elaborate coils, a sinuous and lazy exaggeration of his movements.
    Mitsuru reached through the Ether as the line struck the first of the Weir, snapping forward with a terrifying, unavoidable momentum. Wherever it touched, the line scorched, reducing the wolves to ash and smoking meat, sending up gouts of steam from the hissing mud. He drew the line back over his head in a high, slow arc, and then brought it whipping back in a wide sweep, parallel with the ground, and whatever it touched, burned.
    Already, the park was devastated, and filled with howling, terrified Weir. It was the single most flagrant display of the Salamander Protocol that Mitsuru had ever witnessed, and even through the pain of the broken protocol, she felt a profound envy.
    Then she hit the white of Central, and a moment later, both she and the boy were gone, into concerned voices, soft light and hospital sounds.


    “What, then? Are you suggesting that we should kill him?”
    Gaul tried to be patient. Vladimir was badly arthritic, and during the colder months he was inclined to be cantankerous. He wasn’t trying to be difficult, Gaul reminded himself, he didn’t have the patience for complicated answers right now.
    Gaul pushed his wire-frame glasses up with one finger, sighed, and tried again to explain the scenario to the two other conscious men in the room.
    “I’m not saying we should kill him, Vlad, I’m saying that is one of the solutions that some of the cartels will come to. Others, the majority probably, will want to recruit him, but I’m certain that all would rather see him dead than see him join another.”
    “I thought you said he wasn’t fully activated yet?”
    Michael was incredulous, but Gaul’s nod was matter-of-fact and somber.
    “It’s true, but that makes this all the more terrifying. This child,” he said, glancing meaningfully at the mess of tubes and IVs that occupied the room with them, “isn’t more than partially activated and he’s already the most powerful catalyst we’ve ever seen.”
    “I don’t see what’s so remarkable,” Vladimir complained, stroking his trimmed white beard. “The Witches can accomplish the same things, with their circles, sharing power.”

    “Operator Aoki has never previously used this particular barrier protocol in the field, and she didn’t have time to complete the download before she activated it. She maintained it,” Gaul explained, “for the better part of a minute, despite the Weir’s attacks, and as far as we can deduce, it was because she checked that boy to see if he was alive. Witches can transfer power, yes, but it takes a number of trained participants, and even then, the cumulative effect is modest. Brief contact with this boy appears to have temporarily increased Mitsuru Aoki’s abilities by a degree of magnitude.”
    Gaul paused while the two men digested this, and then glanced at the boy, laboriously breathing in an induced coma.
    “Even so…”
    Vladimir’s voice was unsteadily. Gaul shook his head and cut him off.
    “The boy hasn’t even had time to fully assimilate to the changes that have been made in him, Vlad,” Gaul said earnestly, “we are only seeing his potential. There is an excellent chance that this catalytic effect isn’t his primary ability — I honestly can’t see what this boy might become when he matures.”
    Michael closed his eyes, and leaned over the boy’s bed, palms down. His arms crawled with black tattoo work, in a vaguely tribal style, but his skin was so dark you couldn’t even tell he had them at a distance.
    “You’re right, Gaul,” he said softly a few moments later, his eyes closed. “This kid is only beginning to activate. Even so, he’s radiating raw power, and a substantial amount of it.”
    Michael frowned.
    “I can’t access it, though. It seems to be free-floating, but it isn’t responding to me…”
    Vladimir closed his eyes, and muttered to himself briefly, then shook his head.
    “It’s based on affinity.”
    Michael lowered his hands and opened his eyes to look at Gaul.
    “You think?”
    “Yeah,” Gaul said reasonably. “Witches can’t even form a circle unless they have a very strong rapport — we aren’t talking about vampirism, here, it has to be a consensual process. The boy manufactures and multiplies power, gentlemen, but consciously or unconsciously, he’s exercising discretion about who can use it.”
    Michael sat back down next to Gaul, his brow creased with worry.
    “Gaul, what is Mitsuru’s current classification?”

    Gaul did not need to reach for the slaved Etheric tendril that trailed invisibly behind him to access the information — he’d wondered the same thing earlier that morning.
    “She was Class E, at her last evaluation, with upward potential.”
    “Operating a partial protocol,” Michael said quietly, looking at his old friend with sad eyes, “would be an M-Class operation, assuming it’s even possible, correct?”
    Gaul nodded his agreement.
    “Are you saying,” Vladimir asked incredulously, looking over at the comatose boy, “that this child is already an M-Class Operator? Impossible!”
    “No, you’re right Vlad, he isn’t an Operator at all — he’s just a boy who seems to be capable, without activation, of M-Class operations,” Gaul said gravely.
    Vladimir leaned back in his chair and whistled.
    “I would not think such a thing possible. That is bad…”

    “I’m afraid it gets worse,” Gaul said, again pushing up his glasses, a tick that Michael knew grew more pronounced when he was stressed. “I’m afraid that this boy is anything but your average, ordinary child.”
    “How so?”
    “Alexander Warner,” Gaul said, nodding to indicate the boy. “His father was an abusive drunk — a number of domestic disturbance and family complaints on record, multiple DUIs, all resolved without jail time. Some bruises were noticed at school, when Alex was twelve, and there was a visit or two from Children’s Protective Services over the years. All to no avail. Alexander’s father met his end in a fire six years ago, a fire that also took the life of Alexander’s mother and sister.”
    “So? That is bad, yes, but…”
    “Alexander set the fire,” Gaul said softly, “or at least he believes he did — I lifted the impressions from him earlier, when I did a fairly deep scan. He spent a number of years in institutions, before being released into his grandmother’s care two years ago. She died, of natural causes, last August.”
    Michael looked at the boy sympathetically, while Vladimir shook his head and muttered darkly.
    “He has been on his own, when he wasn’t institutionalized. The community he returned to blamed and ostracized him, and he was small enough to be the target of violence and abuse in the juvenile facility. Alexander withdrew, almost completely — no real incidents, no run-ins with the law, nothing like that. But, when I probed him earlier, I didn’t find a single connection, not one person he has any serious emotional commitment to. He’s never had a friend, never so much as touched a girl’s hand. I’m not sure he’s even capable of forming bonds. or caring about other people, at this point. He’s damaged goods, gentlemen, and we’ve been down this road before.”
    “Did he actually kill his family?”
    Michael seemed curious, but not particularly troubled.
    “You made it sound a bit doubtful.”
    Gaul shrugged.
    “I can’t be certain — the impressions are too vague. He thinks he did, and he thinks he’s glad he did. He remembers closing the front door behind him and walking away from a burning house. I’d say it’s fairly likely.” Gaul frowned and waved one hand dismissively. “Whatever the case, the reality of the trauma remains.”
    “You believe that he is dangerous?” Vladimir demanded, pointing one blunt finger at Gaul accusatorily. “Many of us have come from unhappy places, Gaul, and we do not all become monsters.”
    Gaul shrugged again, tiredly.
    “I don’t know anything for certain,” Gaul admitted. “But, I do know that Alexander Warner has no idea how to care for, or to be cared for, by other people. At best he’s been ignored, at worst, he’s been brutalized. And, incidentally, he has enough power locked inside of him to decimate a third of our student body, even only partially activated. If we choose full activation, there’s no telling what will happen. It’s impossible to predict.”
    Vladimir and Michael exchanged worried glances.
    “I don’t think he’s dangerous, Vladimir.” Gaul leaned forward, his eyes cold and bloodshot pink. “I know it, even without a roomful of analysts. He’s a bomb waiting to go off, and that’s without considering the political ramifications.”
    Michael spoke from behind his steepled hands; his voice was reflective, pensive.
    “Any cartel that finds out about him, they’ll want — no, they’ll need to either recruit him or eliminate him, simply to keep anyone else from getting him. They won’t have a choice. His potential value is too great to overlook.” Michael shook his head sadly. “Gaul, how many students do we have right now with the potential to reach M-Class?”
    There was a pause, and both Michael and Vladimir knew that Gaul, always exact, was consulting the Etheric network. He did not need to close his eyes; there was no obvious change in his body or demeanor. His gaze simply grew distant for a moment while he communed with the Etheric graft in his forebrain.
    “Four,” Gaul said, his voice mechanical, his eyes unfocused. “Though there are perhaps another two or three who could reach that level, under optimum conditions.”
    “So he’s the biggest unclaimed piece on the board,” Michael continued. “He could shift the balance…”
    Gaul shook his head, looking grim.
    “It’s worse than that,” he said flatly, looking at the boy. “The conflict won’t be limited to the Hegemony and the Black Sun — every individual cartel will want him for their own — and they’ll all make their own play for him. Think of the advantage, the prestige they could gain…”
    “Chaos, then,” Michael agreed. “With everyone making a play for our Alexander, here.”
    “And the easiest play,” Vladimir said frankly, “is to simply eliminate the boy.”
    Both other men looked at him, surprised.
    “What? It’s true,” Vladimir said dismissively, “you said it yourself, Gaul. The danger of him joining another faction is greater than the advantage to be gained by having him join their own, if you are playing safe.”
    “It’s true,” Gaul said, in the definitive way that both men knew meant he had just checked the probability threads. “The chances of him being killed are quite high.”
    “Some of the less conservative types will try and make a play for him,” Michael mused, “using whatever they can. Bribes, intimidation…”
    Vladimir snorted.
    “They will use girls, fool,” he scoffed. “He is a teenage boy, after all. Young love will work far more effectively than indoctrination.”
    Michael felt obscurely grateful that Gaul was not moved to confirm the probability here, at least out loud. He was extremely fond of the Director, but at times his detachment and his frankness made him uncomfortable to be around. Sometimes it was sort of like trying to be friends with a computer.
    “Then the Hegemony will probably use Emily Muir, she’s perfect for this,” Michael said thoughtfully, then grinned. “Maybe it’s not so bad to be Alexander, after all…”
    Vladimir laughed. Gaul smiled mirthlessly and then shook his head.
    “Why do we not then make him one of your Auditors, Gaul? Surely, whatever his other attributes, he has the potential. You are allowed six, yes? And last I heard, you have only four…”
    “I thought the same thing,” Gaul replied sourly. “I’ve been running numbers all morning looking for a way to just that. He certainly has the potential for it, assuming we can salvage him. And it would exempt him from the machinations of the cartels. But, it wouldn’t work.”
    “Why not?” Vladimir demanded.
    “The Hegemony and the Black Sun — they’d both regard it as poaching,” Gaul said hopelessly. “They’d claim we were recruiting at an unfair advantage, taking the best of the potential Operators before they’d been admitted to the Academy, before they’d had a chance to be introduced to any of their ideologies. They’d see it as a violation of the Agreement, and they’d be right. There’s no precedent for it.”
    “They’d use it to attack the Academy? Or us?”
    “Us, probably.” Gaul said, shrugging. “Both sides would probably prefer to see a more sympathetic administration at the Academy. It’s particularly bad timing, too. This would be far less complicated if Anastasia Martynova wasn’t currently at the Academy. That the future head of the Black Sun would be in the same class as Alexander, should we choose to admit him, is a particularly bad break for us.”
    The room was quiet then, for a moment, with only the labored breathing from the hospital bed to break the silence.
    “Then, if I understand correctly,” Vladimir began, looking cunning, “the problem is that we cannot make this boy an Auditor, unless he first attends the Academy?”
    Gaul nodded slowly, looking at the grey-haired man’s smile and trying to understand.
    “Once he is a student, he is free to choose for himself, yes?”
    “After he completes two full years, same as any other student,” Gaul allowed.
    “The solution is simple, then. We make sure that he decides to become an Auditor, and there is no problem,” Vladimir shouted, delighted.
    “I’m not sure that it would be that easy…” Michael began, with a touch of exasperation in his voice.
    “It’s a possibility,” Gaul said distantly.
    “We protect him, from the cartels, from everybody,” Vladimir insisted, leaning toward Michael to look at him directly, his pale blue eyes sparkling from within wrinkled folds of tired skin. “We make sure that they can’t get close to him, that they can’t brainwash him to see things their way.”
    “How do we know that he will choose what we want him to?”
    “You are his teachers, yes? Teach him. It should help,” Vladimir pointed out, “that we are in the right.”
    Michael smiled.
    “There is another possibility,” Gaul said reluctantly, his eyes on the floor.
    “Who rescued Mitsuru and this boy?”
    “Henry North. Of the North Cartel, affiliated with the Hegemony,” Gaul added, his voice again distant and mechanical.
    Michael shook his head. His friend’s habit of constantly accessing his network uplink to answer routine questions bothered him. He wondered if Gaul had any faith at all in his own mind, unassisted.
    “There is no other possibility,” Vladimir said, folding his arms, “if one faction is already aware of him, then the others are too, or will be shortly.”
    “They are not aware of his potential,” Gaul said quietly, still looking down.
    “You are certain?”
    Gaul paused, and then shook his head slowly.
    “Then there is no other possibility,” Vladimir said defiantly.
    “There is, though,” Gaul insisted, “and it has to be decided by vote, by the Board. And right now. We have no idea how long we can keep this kind of information under wraps.”
    “Assuming it even is under wraps,” Vladimir muttered. “You know how far little Anastasia has worked her claws into the Hegemony. If they know about Alex, then she does, too.”
    Michael gave the two empty chairs in the room a significant look.
    “What about Rebecca and Alistair? What do they think about all this?”
    “Rebecca is handling some negotiations in the Philippines. Alistair is manning the comms right now, and he’ll get in contact with her as soon as we are ready to vote. I’ll relay their decisions,” Gaul said, finally looking up, cold and impassive.
    “Very well,” Vladimir said. “Let me remind you both that you are teachers, not butchers. If all we see in these children is risk, then we, and the Academy, have wholly failed.”
    “How do you vote, Vladimir?”
    Gaul’s voice was hollow when he asked the question, obviously relaying the decision to the Etheric archive.
    “Admit him.”
    Michael hesitated for a moment and then shook his head.
    “It could undermine everything we’ve done here. But it’s not in my nature to write the kid off, no matter what his story is. Vladimir’s right, we admit him.”
    There was a brief pause, and then Gaul spoke again, robotically.
    “Rebecca also votes to admit. Alistair abstains. Majority vote for admission. For the record,” Gaul continued, “I vote for termination.”
    Michael didn’t bother to disguise the shock he felt when he looked at Gaul. Vladimir clucked and had a sour expression. Gaul looked down for a moment then, and when he spoke again, it was in his normal voice.
    “I’m sorry,” he said apologetically. “It’s very important to make sure the record is complete.”
    Michael sighed and shook his head.


    Alex knew he was in a hospital before he opened his eyes, from the soft beeping sounds, the starched white sheets against his skin, and the pervasive antiseptic smell. Given the dull, insistent pain in his back and abdomen, and the more immediate pain in his forearm, that seemed like the right place for him to be. Alex rested a bit longer, comforted by the various chimes and chirps of the hospital electronics. He wondered briefly how he would pay for all this, and then put it out of his mind with an effort. After a while, he decided to try opening his eyes.
    He was not expecting the huge dreadlocked black man next to his bed, wearing an immaculately tailored grey suit and brilliant red tie, looking at him with an expression that managed to convey concern and amusement simultaneously. Alex hadn’t figured on anybody being there, but if he’d expected anyone, it would have been the cops. And this guy, with his ridiculous grin and his beautiful suit, he was definitely not the cops.
    But wasn’t there a half-destroyed park filled with dead wolves somewhere?
    Alex was a rational person, or at least he tried to be. Life, he knew, did not always conform to that standard — in fact, it often didn’t, at least in his case. But he tried to be reasonable about things, to stay realistic. He didn’t delude himself. He wasn’t crazy.
    At least he wasn’t this crazy.
    That left only one option he knew of, namely, that the world was not as described to him. For anyone else, that might have been a troubling notion. For Alex, that idea had vaguely positive connotations. How much worse could it get, after all? He had nothing to lose, they way he saw it, or nothing he’d miss much anyway, so he was more curious than he was frightened.
    “You don’t look like a cop,” Alex said, opening his eyes and yawning. This was actually understatement — Alex was absolutely sure he wasn’t a cop. After being institutionalized for a while, it had become an instinctual thing, instantaneous recognition.
    Michael looked both surprised and delighted.
    Alex shook his head. The black dude looked tough, but he didn’t seem angry or anything. In fact, he looked as if he might to start laughing, though Alex couldn’t figure out what was so funny.
    “Nope. You don’t look much like a werewolf, either,” he added.
    “Is that so?”
    Michael appeared to be stifling laughter.
    “Well, okay, I’m not sure what a werewolf looks like when he’s not, you know, being a wolf, or a wolf-man-thing,” Alex admitted. “But you don’t seem like the type to me.”
    “You’re right. I’m definitely not a werewolf.” Michael affirmed. “This is probably a good thing for you.”
    Alex inched his way up in bed and took a long look at the man sitting confidently in a hospital chair by his bedside. He was thirty-something and built, but in a practical sort of way — like he might do physical labor, Alex thought, not like he spent a lot of time in the gym. He appeared to be heavily tattooed, black line work creeping up his neck and peeking out from his sleeves on his wrists, the spidery designs only marginally darker than his skin. He smiled broadly, and for the entire world seemed utterly benevolent.
    “Who are you?”
    “You don’t want to know where you are? That’s what people in your situation usually start with.”
    “I’ll decide what I’d like to know, thanks,” Alex said tersely. He regretted it immediately and softened his tone. No point in making unnecessary enemies, particularly when he didn’t know what was going on. “Who are you, exactly?”
    Michael laughed abruptly, and then nodded.
    “Alright, Alex, we’ll do it your way. You don’t mind if I call you Alex, do you?”
    Alex shook his head.
    “My name is Michael Lacroix; we’ll shake when you’re feeling better. I work here.”
    “You’re supposed to be a doctor?”
    “No, nothing of the sort,” Michael said with his wide, disarming smile. “This isn’t a hospital Alex; it’s the medical wing of a university. There’s nothing to worry about, though. You are getting the best medical care possible.”
    “Sounds expensive,” Alex said, looking pointedly at the pitcher and water glass on his bedside table.
    “It could be,” Michael allowed, pouring water into the plastic cup and handing it to Alex, “that is a definite possibility, what with the sorry state of the world. But there’s another possibility I’d like you to consider with me, Alex, one in which this whole experience costs you nothing at all, not one cent. Not financially, anyway.”
    “Alright,” Alex said, sipping water from the cup slowly, holding it with his good arm. His other arm was wrapped in bandages and had a cast up to the elbow. He couldn’t see much of his injuries, but the pain in his left forearm was severe, and he wiggled his fingers nervously, just to be certain he still could. “Tell me all about it, Mr. Lacroix.”
    “Well, as it I see it, there’s a few different ways this could go,” Michael said blithely. “I’m not an expert in this, mind you, but I’ve got colleagues who are. And this is how they see it.”
    Michael leaned forward and spoke confidentially.
    “One way it could go, Alex, we patch you up and send you home. The cops will hold you for a while, check out whatever story you tell them, then they’ll probably let you go. ‘Fraid we’ll have to stick you with the bill, so sorry. You keep on doing whatever it is you think you’re doing in that pathetic little town; whatever parody of life it is you think you are living, right? Your big bright future, yeah?”
    Alex let it pass without comment. He felt completely bewildered. The man’s face beamed with positivity, but he felt a bit pissed at the tone he was taking. Not that he’d said anything that wasn’t true, but it seemed rude to come right out and say it.
    “The other way we can do things is a lot more interesting.” Michael grinned again. “From my perspective, anyway.”
    “Oh?” Alex said, finally, when it became clear that the odd man not only expected a response, but seemed prepared to wait however long was necessary to get it.
    “Yes, I think so. A private institution, the very Academy that we currently occupy, as a matter of fact, has taken an interest in you, young Alex. We would like to offer you a place among our students, a stellar and far-ranging education in a number of esoteric and often-overlooked subjects, with the promise of eventual lucrative employment. This would obviously include full coverage of your medical expenses and a, shall we say, intervention in your legal affairs to preclude any further problems with the police,” Michael finished cheerfully.
    “I see,” Alex said doubtfully, not at all sure that he did. “Um, can I ask why?”
    It all felt like a hustle to Alex, an impossibly elaborate scam, but he felt too wary of Michael to make a fuss about it. Whoever this man was, he was sure that he wasn’t to be taken lightly, sunny disposition aside. The whole thing could be a con, but Alex was sure that Michael was not to be messed with.
    “Because you have potential, Alex, potential that we can help you develop,” Michael answered sincerely. “Because there is something — a number of things, really — that can only be done by people with that kind of potential, and the only place capable of fully realizing that potential is here.”
    Alexander looked at Michael’s open, honest face for a long moment, and then nodded.
    “Alright,” he said firmly.
    “Just like that? No more questions?”
    “Oh, I have lots of questions,” Alex replied, yawning. “I have questions about pretty much everything. But I’m tired, and my arm hurts, and I don’t want to deal with the cops, or the bills.”
    “Alright, then, excellent…”
    Michael stood up, and began to push the chair to the side of the room.
    “But so we understand each other,” Alex said, carefully lowering himself back down on the bed. “I don’t really want to go to your school, whatever it is. I can’t really think of anything I want to do right now.”
    Alex laid his head back on his pillow and closed his eyes, the pain in his arm beginning to bother him.
    “But, no one has ever said I’ve got potential for anything but trouble. And I don’t have anything else going on, Mr. Lacroix,” Alex said moodily. “So, I’ve got questions, and reservations. And if I don’t like what happens from here on out, I’ll walk away. If you want an answer, then that’s mine. Whatever it is you’ve got in mind, it’s probably better than my other options.”
    “I understand you, Alexander,” Michael said, nodding. “I’m okay with that.”
    “Like I give a shit,” Alex said, rolling onto his side, facing away from Michael. “Do you have nurses around this place? Could you please tell them that I am in a whole lot of pain? Is that possible?”
    Michael nodded seriously. He liked the kid already, and anyway, he had something he really needed to look at in the boy’s charts, rather urgently, before anyone else got the same idea.


    “How are you feeling, Mitsuru?”
    Gaul kept his voice mild, looking over the battered Operator on the other side of the desk. She had refused to be treated for any of the injuries she’d sustained during the operation — something that worried Gaul, even if it was mostly minor cuts and bruising. She’d changed into a loose t-shirt and black yoga pants, but she had dried blood caked on her wounded hands, and the faint remnants of her nosebleed stained her nostrils. Mitsuru’s relationship with injury disturbed Gaul.
    Mitsuru met Gaul’s stare, her crimson-tinted irises almost identical to his own. He was surprised to see tears forming in the corners of her eyes.
    “If it’s all the same with you, Director, I would prefer to discuss this with the Chief Auditor first,” she began, sounding as tired as she looked.
    “I’m sorry,” Gaul said, shaking his head curtly, “but that isn’t how it works. Alistair works for me, and so do you. I decide who does what and when. Right now, the Chief Auditor is coordinating the mop-up for today’s operations, and we are debriefing. You understand?”
    “Yes, sir,” Mitsuru said quietly, eyes on the floor. Gaul felt the frustration he’d been suppressing since the morning well up inside him.
    “I’m certain that when his tasks are completed, your mentor will come to collect you,” he said, with more venom then he’d intended.
    Mitsuru’s sob was immediate, and he looked away, guilty and confused. He didn’t care much for Alistair, or for his pet Operator, for that matter. Even Gaul had to admit that Mitsuru was a brilliant field operative — but defective, unfit. He understood the need for tame monsters; after all, he had spearheaded Alice Gallow’s ascension to Audits decades ago himself. However, he didn’t feel that Mitsuru was tame, just monstrous.
    Which made him totally unprepared for her to start crying.
    Gaul had taught Mitsuru years ago, and in his own limited way he liked her. Moreover, he respected her abilities and her potential. But if it had been up to him, he would have had her put down years ago, when it became clear that her liabilities outweighed her assets. And he resented Alistair and Rebecca for stopping him. But impoliteness was not Gaul’s style, and it irked him to have spoken so harshly to a crying woman. Clearly, he thought, the events of the day were weighing on him.
    “Operator Aoki,” he said formally, standing up and looking away from her tears, out the window, towards the grounds and the yellow moon, “let’s return to the matter at hand, shall we? Were you injured during the operation?”
    “Not in any meaningful way,” Mitsuru sniffled.
    “Excellent. Then you can explain to me,” Gaul continued, folding his hands behind his back, “how it is that you managed to activate a protocol that was only partially downloaded, yes?”
    She shook her head morosely, and Gaul felt annoyed again. Mitsuru was almost mute, she was normally so detached — this was the first significant emotion he’d seen her show in years. And she was moping? Ridiculous.
    “Come now,” Gaul scolded, “you must remember something. What made you think to try it in the first place?”
    “I’ve never been able to raise Central like that, sir,” Mitsuru said, raising her blood-red eyes to look at the Director’s back. “I don’t know how I did it, and I don’t know why I did what I did after that. I just felt…”
    She hesitated. Gaul watched her reflection in the window, as Mitsuru struggled to find the words, her hands making vague, abortive gestures. He saw tears well up in her red eyes again, and wondered what had happened.
    “I’m not certain, sir. I felt strong. I felt assurance — as if I had done it before, many times, as if I’d threaded all the probabilities and arrived at an operational certainty.”
    “It didn’t occur to you that you might fail?”
    “No.” Mitsuru said definitively, and shook her head.
    “Or that the consequences of that failure could have been catastrophic for you, personally?”
    “Central requested intervention, Director,” Mitsuru responded, in her usual flat voice. “Clearly, the analysts felt the risk was merited. I do not question my orders, sir.”
    Gaul winced at the knock on the door. Firm, insistent. Could only be Alistair.
    “Come in,” he said, sitting down behind the desk and taking off his glasses so he could rub the bridge of his nose.
    Alistair opened the door, shot Mitsuru a sympathetic look, and then took the chair next to her.
    Alistair was young-looking, in his low thirties, with blond hair and a uniform tan. He was still dressed in his worn fatigues, obviously having come directly from Central once the cleanup had been completed. He was a bit short, with a broad chest and a narrow waist, and he moved with a compact grace that reminded Gaul more of a dancer than a soldier. While Alistair had been on duty since the night before, he showed no particular sign of being tired, which annoyed Gaul all over again.
    “Hey Gaul. What’s going on?”
    Alistair had grown up some place outside of D.C., in Virginia, and there was something lazy and drawling in his speech that recalled it, though it wasn’t exactly a southern accent. Something about this also got underneath Gaul’s skin, a gift that Alistair had in abundance.
    Gaul shrugged and gestured at the file folders on the desk in front of him. He’d been trapped at the desk for hours now, and could feel it in his sore back. And unlike some other people, he was very tired.
    “I am trying to make sense of what happened tonight.”
    It came out more defensive than he would have liked. Gaul had never been clear whether his personal dislike of Alistair was reciprocated. Alistair had always treated Gaul as if he were a close friend — but, he seemed to treat everyone that way.
    “Trying to make the pieces fit a pattern.”
    “You can’t force it — you’ll start seeing patterns everywhere. Well, then,” Alistair said innocently, “why don’t I debrief Mitzi, and give you and the analytical pool something to chew on, eh?”
    Gaul nodded diplomatically, knowing he had no other options at the moment. He was the Director, and within reason, he could operate more or less how he liked. But he could not demand that she deliver her report directly to him, in violation of standard procedures; not without having a reason to pull Alistair out of the chain of command. And as little as he liked Alistair, Gaul knew he’d never give him one.
    His Chief Auditor was smart, careful, and above all, capable. Gaul wouldn’t have picked him for the job otherwise.
    “Fine. Send me your report as soon as you’ve completed it,” Gaul said, waving dismissively at them and then returning to the paperwork on his desk.

    The walk was not long, as Operations and Audits were only separated by one barren hallway. The central office of the Audits Department was mostly deserted under flickering fluorescent lights, only a few determined technicians plugging away at their workstations. The space was a mess, crammed from ceiling to floor with office partitions, file boxes, laptops and piles of paper on every surface. There were several ashtrays on the main table, all full, and paper plates stained with soy sauce, the remains of tempura shrimp, and flecks of fried rice. Alistair sighed and led Mitsuru past the disarray, into his small back office, which was immaculate by comparison.
    He sat her down in one of the wide leather chairs that faced his old walnut desk, and then walked to the cabinet behind it. A moment later he handed her a short whiskey with ice in a square-cut glass, and put another down on the desk for himself, then sat down across from her. He sipped his drink for a moment while looking at Mitsuru frankly, taking stock.
    He’d seen her look rougher, he thought. But it had been a while.
    “Mitzi, what’s eating you?”
    Mitsuru looked up at him, red eyes wide and confused.
    “Alistair, what happened to me back there?”
    Alistair hesitated for a moment, trying to remember what he was and wasn’t allowed to say, then shrugged. He’d never cared much for keeping Gaul’s secrets.
    “The kid’s a catalyst, Mitzi,” he said cheerfully, holding his drink up to the light, “a powerful one. Somehow, when you tried to probe him, I guess, he boosted your abilities.”
    “Then it wasn’t me?”
    Alistair smiled sympathetically.
    “Not all of it, Mitzi.”
    “Damn it to hell,” Mitsuru said, her drink sitting untouched in her right hand. “I thought… well, I’m not certain what I thought. But it seemed…”
    She trailed off, staring at her hand, at the mostly closed wound in her palm.
    “You’re an exceptional Operator, Mitzi. You were successful tonight, more successful than anyone had a right to ask or expect,” Alistair said reassuringly, meeting Mitsuru’s red-eyed stare with his own sincere expression. “Eventually, we’ll convince them to make you an Auditor, I promise. But you need to stop worrying about it so much. It isn’t helping anything. You can’t start jumping to conclusions — we aren’t going to change the situation in one night, at least not for the better.”
    “I know,” she replied emotionlessly. She seemed to remember her drink then, and drained it in one go, setting the empty glass down on the corner of the desk.
    “A silver Weir, huh?” Alistair mused, putting his arms behind his head and leaning back. “That’s pretty rare, you know. I haven’t seen one since that whole thing in Crimea, back in the eighties…”
    “Alistair? Who was it who finished the operation?”
    “Some Hegemony guy,” Alistair said, frowning with the effort of remembering. “North, I think.”
    “Was anyone conducting an operation in the area that I didn’t know about?” Mitsuru’s tone was chilly, her expression blank.
    Alistair nodded, unhappy. He’d already wondered the same thing, the moment the information had been relayed to Central. He knew what was bothering Mitsuru. There were only a few hundred Operators of North’s caliber altogether, and more than half of them were in Central at any given time.
    The chances that he would be operating in the same California city on the same night as Mitsuru by coincidence were minimal.
    “Central didn’t sanction any operation on the West Coast in the last twenty-four hours, other than yours. But you know how it is,” he said apologetically, “that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t one, just that the cartel didn’t register the operation with Central. What was your briefing when you were sent out tonight, anyway?”
    Mitsuru shrugged and brought her feet up onto the chair, hugging her knees to her chest.
    “Recon and field analysis. Analytics knew about the pack, that they’d been hanging around the area recently, wanted to determine the extent of the problem.” Mitsuru shook her head, looking worried. “But they were wrong about the size of the pack, and they were wrong about why they were there. The Weir were supposed to be hunting.”
    Alistair finished his whiskey, and then collected the glasses and made them disappear behind his desk.
    “The Weir were waiting for that boy, Alistair,” she said, biting her thumbnail absently. “For him specifically. And they knew he’d come to that spot, too. They sat and waited for him, like they had an appointment.”
    “Someone was running them,” he agreed. “They were probably running the kid somehow, too, if they were that confident that he’d show.”
    “North’s cartel, then? Another Hegemony cartel? Do they even have those kinds of capabilities?”
    “At this point, I’m not ruling out any possibility, Mitzi. But using a pack of Weir for a removal,” Alistair said, frowning, “that’s something that I’d expect the Witches to do. Anyway, there are quieter, more deniable ways to take out one kid, if that’s what the cartel wanted.”
    “Is it actually possible this is a coincidence?”
    Alistair shook his head.
    “I doubt it.” Alistair got a headache, just thinking about it. “The analysts say it’s highly unlikely, and I sure don’t believe it.”
    “Then what?”
    “It wasn’t a hit, Mitzi,” Alistair said with a shrug.
    “The Weir were probably hired to hit the kid, don’t get me wrong,” Alistair said with a tired smile. “They aren’t clever enough to fake something like that. But, I don’t think that is what their client intended to happen at all. I think that they arranged the whole scenario to try and jar the boy’s talents into activation, probably in the most traumatic way possible. And if you hadn’t intervened…”
    “Then they would have, whoever they are,” Mitsuru said, dully completing his sentence. “Either they anticipated my involvement, or they had someone else waiting in the wings, and hung back when they saw me.”
    “Could be.” Alistair nodded thoughtfully. “But, North being there doesn’t necessarily mean he had any direct involvement in the attack. For all we know, the whole thing was a Black Sun operation, and North was keeping an eye on it, and took the opportunity to bail Central out when it arose. We don’t have enough data to say anything for certain about that yet. Maybe Gaul will get more out of him when he conducts the Inquiry.”
    “Then, what now?”
    Alistair’s grin was more genuine this time.
    “Well, I’m going to need someone to keep an eye on the kid, for the time being. His name’s Alexander, by the way.”
    Mitsuru’s face was a mixture of slow realization and dawning horror.
    “Don’t worry,” he said comfortingly, reaching forward to pat her shoulder. “I’m sure you’ll be a great instructor.”


    If there was one thing life had repeatedly taught Alex, it was the value of avoiding unnecessary confrontation. He didn’t like uniforms. But he started putting it on, anyway, because he didn’t see any other good options.
    There were certain things in life that were going to happen — institutional life had taught him that. You would, for example, wear your uniform as directed. You would be in your cell by six. Lights would go out at nine. You would be up, dressed and bed made by eight the next morning. All of these things were going to happen, whether you felt like doing them or not. The only option that Alex had been offered was whether or not he would prefer to have his teeth kicked down his throat in the process.
    And you’d have to be stupid to make a choice like that. They said this was a school, and that was fine. But, in Alex’s experience, school wasn’t so different from any other institution — with uniforms, rules, privileges, dormitories and grounds; there would be principals imparted and edges smoothed out. He’d been the target of such manufacture before, and he knew that he’d gain nothing by getting caught up in the gears.
    Add to that, Alex thought, pulling on the button-up shirt awkwardly over the sheath of plastic that wrapped his injured forearm, the fact that Michael was one scary dude, smile or no. Alex didn’t really know that many black guys personally, but he didn’t think that made much of a difference, in this case. He’d never met anyone who looked like him, with the tattoos and the dreadlocks and then the suit, but apparently he worked as some kind of teacher.
    Alex fumbled the top button on his collar into place, and then wondered if it was actually supposed to be that tight. Maybe guys usually left the top one undone? He couldn’t remember.
    Michael seemed pretty friendly, and that was interesting on its own. Alex hadn’t met many people who didn’t despise him, and he wasn’t overly eager to make him angry. If he was going to be a part of this school, or whatever it was, then Michael seemed to be in a position to make it all go easier for Alex. No, he thought, wincing as he pulled on the tight slacks. There was no point in arguing with Michael. Alex was sure that he would lose, and he didn’t pick fights that he knew he would lose.
    He would practice patience, he thought, tucking his shirt into his pants with his off-hand. He’d treat it the same way he’d handled guards, administrators, psychologists, teachers, all that noise — he’d smile when they expected smiles and he’d stay quiet when he could. Whenever possible, he would tell the truth, because lies were more complicated — telling lies meant being meticulous, consistent, remembering who’d been told what. It was a burden, at best; at worst, it could ruin whatever opportunities he might have here. That said, when he chose to speak, he’d try and make as sure as possible it was what they wanted to hear.
    And the whole time, he’d be watching. Keeping careful track of everything they said and did. Observation was important. And he knew already that they’d misjudged him, and he’d helped it along a bit. He almost laughed then, as he tucked his feet into the leather shoes, because it was so clear that they didn’t get it — he didn’t lack social skills, not because he came from a town that openly despised him.
    Not when it took extraordinary skills just to make it through the day. But, in a lot of ways, it might be better if they thought of him as a bit lost, a bit naive. It would make them more likely to help him, and Alex wanted their help, he wanted it very badly indeed.
    Alex didn’t trust Michael, but he liked him, at least a little bit. Alex didn’t want to go to school, but the way he figured it, they’d make him go either way, at least for a few more years. And it couldn’t possibly be any worse than repeating his junior year.
    Alex looked himself over in the mirror grimly. He looked battered, skinny, and the blazer and slacks felt unfamiliar and tight. It wasn’t, he thought, the presentation he’d like to make for his big introduction. He’d have to do his best, then, to avoid making those kinds of impressions.
    Alex shrugged and walked out the door and into the hallway. He was so absorbed in trying to find his way to the downstairs lobby that he didn’t even notice when Michael started walking next to him, wearing that smile that Alex liked but didn’t trust one bit.
    “You look uncomfortable, kid,” Michael said cheerfully. “Nervous about this whole thing?”
    “Well, yeah,” Alex admitted, “who wouldn’t be? But I didn’t think that the school would have uniforms,” Alex said, gesturing at the blue blazer and slacks, “it seems kind of, I don’t know, weird. Like some prep school thing.”
    Michael laughed and clapped Alex on the back.
    “Don’t worry about it too much — you only have to wear it for lectures. The rest of the time, you can dress however you want.”
    Michael led him to a bank of elevators, and then pressed the down button. There was almost no wait, and the door chime when the elevator opened filled Alex with a strange, comforting familiarity. Elevators, at least, he understood.
    Well, okay. He didn’t understand them at all. But they were a recognizable part of his world.
    “What happened to my clothes, anyway?”
    The elevator started its descent with an unholy squealing of metal on metal, and worn gears grinding, that caused Alex to flinch, but Michael didn’t even seem to notice.
    “Sorry, but they were pretty much bloody rags by the time you got here — and anyway, I think the doctors cut them off you in order to operate,” Michael said apologetically. “We got someone to go around to your place, though, and collect your things. I’ve had them dropped off in your new room.”
    Alex nodded a bit skeptically. He wasn’t entirely sure what his ‘things’ could have possibly constituted — he’d lived in his grandmother’s tiny trailer, and most of the things in it had been hers. Only some clothes, his MP3 player, and maybe some movies could be considered his, so he was curious what was waiting for him. He had a vision of his grandmother’s absurdly large Christmas gnome cookie-jar sitting on a desk in a dorm room, and had to choke back a giggle.
    The elevator opened on to a lobby that looked to Alex’s eyes to be identical to the lobby of every hospital he’d ever been to. Only Michael, towering over the bustling crowd of nurses and patients, dreadlocks hanging down to his shoulders, looked out of place. He strode across the lobby briskly, and Alex found himself struggling to keep pace with the big man’s stride.
    The grounds outside the hospital did look to Alex like a university — concrete paths winding through grassy areas, a number of angular buildings made out of a strange, dull stone, set back discretely from each other, surrounded by old oak and birch trees. The weather was warm fall weather not unlike California — and not for the first time, Alex wondered where they were, exactly. Somewhere that the weather was pretty similar to home, anyway, if that meant anything.
    They followed a winding path through the grounds, Alex trailing a few feet behind Michael, who made no attempt to converse. Occasionally, they were passed by other students, or at least other people in uniforms similar to his own. Alex didn’t seem to attract much more than passing glances, though everyone acknowledged Michael with at least a nod, and received a cheerful greeting in return. Alex was not particularly surprised to discover that Michael appeared to know the first name of everyone that they came across.
    The building Michael led them to, a few minutes’ walk from the hospital, reminded Alex of a church, or one of the older government buildings in D.C. — made from the same grey stone he’d seen earlier, with ornate columns and a weird round overhang out in front. The windows on either side of the giant wooden door were stained glass, done in an abstract and colorful style. It was imposing, even in the mild afternoon sunlight, dark wood with dull metal inlays, formal and a bit grotesque.
    Alex wondered how they were going to enter the building, given that the door appeared to be twelve feet tall and cut from a single piece of wood, but as they got closer, he realized that the door had a secondary, standard-size entry set in it, so close to flush that it was invisible from a distance. Michael held it open, gesturing for Alex to enter.
    It was cold inside the building, and Alex shivered as he walked inside the enormous central chamber, a long expense of alternating black and white marble tile with curled stairways at intervals along the hall, climbing up to the ornate girding of the second floor. The hallway went far enough along in a straight line that Alex could not see the end of it. The building appeared sparsely populated, as he saw only a handful of people moving purposefully from office to office, dressed in typical business attire rather than the school uniform.
    “Welcome to the Administration building, Alex. We’ve got a few things to take care of here, regarding your enrollment, then we’ll see about giving you a look around the campus, and get you set up in the dorms. Right through here…”
    Michael led him down the hall, then up the third staircase on the right, through a heavy walnut door, and into an airy office with an excessive number of potted plants. There was a heavy-set woman in a purple dress there, working behind a white-painted desk, who smiled cheerfully when they walked in. Michael greeted her with a wave.
    “Mrs. Nesbit, my secretary extraordinaire. Alexander Warner, a new student. Could you prepare the paperwork?”
    She nodded and began tapping away at her keyboard, while Michael led Alex through another door to a smaller back office. He sat down behind a desk littered with books, piles of paper, and an aged desktop computer, nodding wearily toward a comfortable-looking chair in the corner of the room. Alex sat down gratefully, his back sore and his forearm aching, even after his stay in the hospital.
    “You’ve got good timing, Alex. We are between sessions right now,” Michael said, clearing an area in front of him by moving what appeared to be a partially disassembled firearm, piece by piece, into a desk drawer. “Most of the students are back at home. We’ll be able to get you installed at the dorms and enrolled in class right from the first day.”
    “What kind of classes?”
    Alex spoke in monotone, unable to hide his unhappiness at the thought.
    Michael laughed.
    “I doubt very much that you’ll find it boring, Alex, but I can’t tell you much until we figure out what you can learn, okay? We won’t try and teach you anything that you don’t want to know.”
    “I don’t get it.”
    Michael seemed terribly amused by Alex’s recalcitrance.
    “Don’t worry about it too much. At first, it will be general stuff. We’ll have you do some tests, so we can figure out the proper placement for you. It’ll probably be a bit hard, to start with, but I think you’ll find that it’s not that bad once you get the hang of how it all works.”
    “Will everyone know what’s going on but me?”
    “No, but you will be at a disadvantage,” Michael said thoughtfully. “No use pretending otherwise. Sometimes the talent runs in families, but mostly it doesn’t. Some of the students here have been raised as part of a cartel, but most of the others, like you, were discovered in the world, as children or early teens. It’s a bit unusual to be starting at your age, but it’s not unheard of. But yes,” Michael added sympathetically, “most of the students will probably have a better idea of what’s going on than you do.”
    “You’re going to have to explain it, then,” Alex said firmly. “I’m going to need to know about it all, Michael.”
    “I’ll do my best to explain,” he said, as Mrs. Nesbit entered with a quick knock and deposited a stack of folders on a recently cleared patch of desk. “Two coffees, Mrs. Nesbit. How do you take yours, Alex?”
    Alexander hesitated for a moment. He’d never cared much for coffee. It made him nervous. But then again, given the circumstances…
    “Milk and sugar,” he decided, because it sounded right to him. “Lots, please.”
    Mrs. Nesbit nodded and bustled back out to the main room, shutting the door behind her. Michael deposited the new stack of paperwork on one of the already daunting piles and then sat back in his swivel chair, folding his hands behind his head.
    “Do you mind if I start with the hard part first, Alex?”
    Michael’s smile folded up and disappeared, and his big, brown eyes got sad. Alex braced himself without knowing what was coming, and then managed a nervous nod.
    “Okay, then. Nobody ever likes hearing this part, but most of the time, people have a bit more choice in the matter. You got the short end of the stick, son,” Michael said, so sympathetically that Alex couldn’t help but wonder if he was being genuine.
    “We had no choice in the matter, you see, because of your injuries,” Michael continued. “You were dead by the time they got you to the infirmary, Alex. Your heart stopped on the elevator ride up. And even if the doctors had gotten it going again, you had spinal trauma and massive blood loss, not to mention clotting and impacted bone in your forearm. You would have died again on the operating table, you have to appreciate that.”
    Alex was not entirely convinced that he did, but he let the big man keep talking.
    “You were injected with almost two-ounces of water saturated with billions of particles of nanomachinery, Alexander, programmed for replication and recovery protocols,” Michael said, almost casually, as if it were a normal thing, regrettable perhaps, but something to be expected. “Your heart started beating about twenty seconds after the injection, and you started breathing again within a minute.”
    Alex looked at his hands, at the blue veins running just underneath the skin, and wondered.
    “Are they still inside me?”
    The question seemed somehow terribly important, his throat dry and his voice hoarse. He had to fight the urge to scratch at his skin.
    “I’m afraid so,” Michael replied, looking sadly at Alexander. “It’s not a reversible procedure, Alex.”
    “Why would you do that?” He was almost shouting, halfway out of his chair and onto his feet. “Who told you could do that?”
    “Sit down, Alex,” Michael ordered sternly. “I won’t bother to repeat the ‘you were dead already’ part, since we covered that, and move to the other half — we would have done it to you, anyway, regardless of the injuries. We would have asked your permission, but, hey, I was there, watching you bleed out, son. If you’d prefer that I explain myself fully to an unconscious kid, before deciding to try and save his life, well, I’m not sure how realistic your expectations are.”
    Alex glared at Michael, hands knotted around the arms of his chair, for a long moment. Then he sat back, sighing.
    “What exactly have you done to me?” he asked, resting his head in his hands.
    “It’s not as bad as all that, son,” Michael said, his smile back. “They did save you, after all. And those little machines, the nanites, they can do it again, too, if it becomes necessary. You’ll find dying pretty difficult from here on out, my friend.”
    Something in Michael’s tone resonated with Alex.
    “Do you have them too?” he asked, almost pleaded. “Are there machines inside you?”
    “Sure I do,” Michael said, reassuringly. “And so do all the students here, and the entire faculty. For people like us, it’s an absolute necessity.”
    “You’ve got power inside you, Alex, like everyone else at the Academy, to one extent or another. We don’t know why, but you were born that way. But power isn’t everything…”
    Alex shook his head, bewildered.
    “Look at it like this,” Michael said, leaning forward in his chair excitedly, “electricity, it isn’t much good, all by itself, right?”
    “You don’t just build a power plant and then sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labor, right? Electricity alone won’t do it. You need light bulbs, right?”
    “Light bulbs?”
    His response was nothing more than a weak echo.
    “Power isn’t everything, Alex, I already told you. Application, that’s what we’re talking about now, son. Energy alone is meaningless, unless you can make it work for you, and you need tools for that. Something inside you provides the power, sure, but those nanomachines, they’re the tools. With them, you can apply energy, and do work.”
    Alex raised his head from his hands to stare at Michael incredulously. Neither of them responded to the quick knock and rapid entry and exit of Mrs. Nesbit, and neither reached for the steaming coffee mugs she left behind.
    “So, what can I do?” Alex asked dubiously. “I have powers, now, because of these machines inside me, right? Can I fly or something?”
    Michael laughed and picked up his coffee.
    “That’s good, Alex. I’m glad you asked about flying.”
    “I can?”
    Alex almost jumped out of his seat, gaping and incredulous.
    “No, I’m afraid not,” Michael said, chuckling to himself, “but it’s good that you asked. Normal people ask about flying. Perverts ask if they can turn invisible.”
    Alex almost choked on his first sip of too-sweet coffee.
    “I’m just playing with you son, trying to lighten the mood,” Michael said, with an amiable grin. “Yes, you’ll be able to do some things, now, but we won’t know what till we do some tests. It’ll take some time. And a lot of it, like I mentioned earlier, will be up to you.”
    “I get a choice?”
    Alex set his mug down on the edge of the desk, hoping he had sipped enough to be considered polite. Apparently, being injected with some sort of mysterious nanomachinery had not changed his opinion of coffee for the better.
    “To some extent,” Michael affirmed, “you do. What you are capable of, well, that’s predetermined, but what you do with it — that’s going to be a bit of a compromise. Some of it will be about what you want. Some of it will be about what we need from you.”
    Alex didn’t bother to hide the suspicion from his voice. Normally, he would have been more diplomatic, but this whole situation had shaken his reserve.
    “Don’t make it sound so sinister,” Michael protested. “We are like any other organization, son. We’ve got operational needs, and we need the right personnel to fill them.”
    “What kind of needs?”
    Michael stood up and looked out the window at the trees, the top of the clock tower visible above the maples, the green slowly eroding from the leaves.
    “Well, this place is a lot of things, Alex. Like any school, we need teachers. Our hospital needs doctors, just like any other. Our laboratories need scientists and engineers. Our network needs programmers. But I can already tell that stuff isn’t for you, son…”
    The ‘son’ was starting to irk him a little, but he suppressed it. Alex didn’t plan on embarrassing himself any more today, not if he could help it.
    “Yes,” Michael turned away from the window to look at him benignly. “I’ve been doing this a long time, Alex, a lot longer than you probably think. And I can tell an Operator when I see one.”
    “What’s an Operator?”
    “Mitsuru is an Operator,” Michael said by way of an explanation, “And, a long time ago, I was too. An Operator is a field agent, Alex.”
    “A soldier?”
    “No, not just a soldier. Soldiers fight wars. Operators do work, war or no.”
    Michael frowned and looked back out the window for a moment.
    “The world functions within set parameters, you know that right? Physics, that’s basically a set of rules that we think everything follows. Operators can, to some extent, modify those parameters. In particular, Operators are trained to affect parameters relating to combat and intelligence work.”
    “You mean they fight those werewolf things?”
    Alex tried to push the conversation in a more prosaic direction. He wasn’t sure at all what Michael was talking about.
    “Weir, Alex. They are called Weir. And not just them — Operators fight the Witches, the Outer Dark, and the things that came before man, the named and the nameless. All the enemies of Central, the enemies of mankind.”
    “I have no idea what you just said. You want me to fight monsters?”
    Alex could barely keep from laughing aloud. He’d already met werewolves, so it wasn’t that he didn’t believe Michael, not exactly. The whole thing sounded absurd, even in the face of recent experience.
    “I think that you want to, son. I can see it in your eyes already. But Operators don’t spend all their time fighting monsters. They spend a great deal of it fighting each other, or worrying about having to.”
    Alex eyes widened.
    “We’re no better than they are,” Michael said ruefully. “Normal people, I mean. Humanity. We create families, allegiances, cartels — and then we scheme, Alex, we plot out agendas and attempt to advance them, or try to stop others from doing the very same thing. Just like in the real world, eh?”
    “That’s pretty depressing,” Alex observed. “All this power you keep talking about, and the best thing you can think of to do with it is fighting each other? Couldn’t we use it to help people instead?”
    “Seemed like Mitsuru helped you a lot the other night, you know,” Michael said dryly.
    Alex shook his head.
    “That’s not what I mean. Fighting monsters, that’s one thing, whatever they are. But why fight each other?”
    “It’s complicated, on one level. On another, it’s the same old stupid story — we aren’t enlightened, Alex. We disagree, fall in love, and hate each other, the whole spectrum of human experience. We have differences of opinion, and sometimes, we can’t resolve those differences peacefully.” Michael started to sound a lot like a teacher to Alex, in a very mundane way. “If a disagreement goes for long enough, and is important enough, people start to take sides. Once people start taking sides, conflict is inevitable. No different here than anywhere else.”
    “So what is the disagreement about?”
    “How best to protect people,” Michael sighed. “How best to apply the power we have. Like I told you earlier, it’s not a good-guy bad-guy thing — we all agree that we have a responsibility to protect humanity. We just have differing opinions on the most effective way to do that.”
    “Different enough that you’re willing to kill another?”
    “Sure,” Michael said, shrugging. “Don’t tell me you can’t think of anything worth killing over.”
    Alex wasn’t sure what to say to that, so he kept his mouth shut instead, and reached for the vile, cooling coffee.


    Blood crawled across the chain, red on black pitted metal, radiating out in coils from where Mitsuru crouched, motionless in the center. She bled freely from her palms, the wounds reopened, and the chain slid slickly through her hands, moving of its own accord. Her nosebleed was a steady trickle, and her blouse was red and wet all down the front. The floor where she had fallen was sticky, and there were two smeared red handprints on the white pine flooring.
    Mitsuru felt the blood crawl along the chain, animating it, leveraging her will against gravity, through a headache so severe that it made her feel as if she was looking at the world from a distance, from the mouth of a dark tunnel. She ground her teeth against each other and the sound was terrible, reverberating in her head, but she could not stop. Her jaw was clenched, and her body shook with effort. In her head, she raged against the Black Door, dark pitted wood damp and sticky with blood, the dull iron of the heavy fastenings spotted with rust, the whole of it wrapped and sealed in luminous threads that resisted her efforts to throw it open. She tried to force it, straining against the gossamer bindings that shut it tight, the structure of her mind buckling with the effort.
    Against the constraints that had been placed on her, against the advice of those who cared about her, and at the potential expense of her own sanity and wellbeing, Mitsuru labored to open the Black Door in her mind.
    Twining itself along the chain, her blood followed her commands, and for a moment, the coils of the chain stirred, animated by force of will. Deep inside of Mitsuru, a few of the luminous threads gave way with a high, musical sound, like a violin string snapping, and the Black Door flexed and groaned. She heard the links of the chain jingle as they rose, flowing and intertwining, moving in concert with her will and volition. In that instant, she felt the chain as an extension of herself, a cold appendage, a union of blood and steel. The chain moved like a living thing, swirling around her like a cyclone of blood-slick iron, and in that instant, Mitsuru recalled herself, before she had been diminished and restrained.
    And then suddenly there was no more, no further to reach, no reserves to tap; the Black Door was firmly shut, and Mitsuru folded at the knees, and then fell gently to the floor. She cried out, so she would not have to hear the sound of the chain as it hit the ground.
    “You’ve turned this place into the goddamn bloody chamber again, you troublesome bitch,” Rebecca said, not unkindly, from the door. “I’m gonna have to take your key away.”
    Rebecca pushed the sliding door open and dropped her bag just inside the room, kicking her sandals off next to it. She was a few inches taller than Mitsuru, a shapely brunette, somewhere nebulously between her late twenties and early thirties. Her accent and style was stereotypically Southern Californian, complete with sun-bleached bangs and designer sunglasses, but Mitsuru knew that she’d been born in Argentina, to a Jewish family that fled Buenos Aires for the United States, after a bombing, when she was a child.
    Rebecca walked across the room, picking her way disdainfully through the maze of chain and bloodstains, and stood in front of Mitsuru, folding her arms. She was dressed for the field, in muddy fatigues and a black t-shirt soaked in sweat. Mitsuru found herself unable to look her friend in the eye.
    “I’m totally serious, Mitsuru. Do you know what would happen if the Committee-at-Large or the Board found out you were trying to use your Black Protocol again? They’d put you down for real this time, instead of hobbling you. Clean this shit up later, okay? We have to meet Alistair in twenty minutes.”
    Mitsuru stirred.
    “I knew that would get a reaction from you,” Rebecca smirked. “It’s so cute it makes me kinda sick. Now go get yourself cleaned up, and meet us up in his office, okay?”
    Mitsuru nodded, and stood unsteadily.
    Rebecca grabbed her abruptly and pulled her close in a rough embrace. Mitsuru felt Rebecca’s hand briefly run through her hair, and then gently pat the back of her head. A sob escaped Mitsuru’s throat, and then she wrapped her own arms around Rebecca’s waist, and they stayed that way for a little while.
    “You’ve got to get it together,” Rebecca said firmly, holding her by her shoulders and looking into her red eyes. “If you can’t do it for yourself, then do it for Alistair and me, okay? We put our asses on the line for you — and I’m not doing you any favors, Mitsuru, don’t look at me that way. I know that you’ll make a great Auditor. But like this, sweetie? You’re inviting them to decide that what you couldn’t control then, you still can’t control. And it reflects poorly on us.”
    Mitsuru nodded, biting back tears. She knew it all already, of course, but she hadn’t stopped herself. Even when it wasn’t her who would pay the cost for her actions. She wanted so badly to use the abilities that had been forbidden to her again.
    Rebecca released her hold and turned to collect her sandals and duffle bag.
    “I’ll see you upstairs, Mitsuru,” she said, waving over her shoulder. “Try not to take things so seriously, okay? The world can’t end every day.”
    Mitsuru had enough time for a quick shower and change before heading upstairs, through the smoky chaos of the half-full Operations room to the equally smoky back office that Alistair had taken over. She’d replaced the bandages on her hands, as well, so that Alistair wouldn’t notice that she had reopened the wounds.
    Rebecca was already there, her hair damp from the shower, wearing loose jeans and a blue UCLA sweatshirt, leaning over a chart laid out in front of Alistair, across the desk. Her hair was pulled back in a simple ponytail, and Mitsuru noticed the bruises on her neck and jaw for the first time. Someone had tried to strangle Rebecca, and recently, too. She wondered where she had been, and who had been stupid enough to try something like that.
    Rebecca was Alistair’s lieutenant, and the Auditors liaison to the Committee-at-Large, as well as a Board member. Mitsuru had been her classmate, many years ago, and knew her to be resourceful, tactically brilliant, and a peerless empath, justly respected by most Operators, and perhaps less-justly feared by almost as many. She was rumored to have once Audited a rebellious cartel completely out of existence, and while Mitsuru didn’t know the whole story, she wouldn’t have been surprised were it the truth.
    She also knew Rebecca to be a cheerful drunk, a flirt, a fanatic collector of eighties hardcore punk LPs, and by far the best friend she’d ever had. Maybe the only one.
    Alistair looked up briefly as Mitsuru entered, and waved her to an empty chair. Alistair almost never looked tired, but today he looked positively exhausted.
    “There’s no way it could be anything else,” Alistair said grimly, turning back to Rebecca, who sat on one end of his desk, tapping a cigarette in the ashtray he had reluctantly provided, “this whole thing was a set up.”
    “Why do you say that?”
    Mitsuru craned her neck, to see the chart between them.
    It was one of the logic boards that they did in Analytics, a two-dimensional representation of a specific probability threading, with the most likely branches indicated by size and interval. Obviously, it lacked the malleability of the more complete digital models, but some of the older Operators liked to work things out on paper. It looked something like a bizarre architectural schematic, or a particularly convoluted electrical line diagram.
    Mitsuru could read them, but she wasn’t great at it. She’d gotten used to the Etheric network, and its gleaming, immaculate simulations. But even in this antiquated format, she could recognize the overly precise cuts and joins of manufactured probability.
    “What does this mean?”
    “It’s weird to see you so emotional, Mitsuru,” Rebecca remarked. “Something about this incident bother you?”
    Mitsuru shook her head, alarmed at the obviousness of her lack of composure.
    “They must’ve hacked it, Mitzi. Someone sorted through the probabilities, and then eliminated undesirable outcomes, one by one, channeling reality down to one specific set of extremely probable circumstances,” Alistair explained patiently.
    “So we can assume that every aspect of the scenario — Mitsuru, the Weir, the kid, North’s arrival, the whole deal — all intentional. It must have taken a lot of effort,” Rebecca mused, leaning over the chart, “but the manipulation is pretty obvious, once you take a hard look at it. This couldn’t have been arranged too far in advance, or it wouldn’t be quite so crude.”
    “Or they didn’t know how to do it very well,” Mitsuru pointed out, “maybe they did the best job they could, and it just wasn’t that great.”
    “It’s possible,” Alistair allowed, eyeing Mitsuru. “You have a hunch or something Mitsuru?”
    “Nothing that solid,” she replied, shrugging. “Nothing specific. But, it is the other option. You’ve to admit it doesn’t look very professional.”
    Alistair looked at the probability chart again and scratched his head.
    “Whatever the case,” Rebecca said, crushing out her cigarette in the ash tray, “I still think that the North Cartel is an excellent candidate for ‘they’. Have you had a chance to talk with Mister North yet?”
    “No,” said Alistair, shaking his head, “I don’t think I’ll get to any time soon, either. Gaul’s taken an interest, and he takes precedence. I think he’ll make a formal Inquiry. Maybe even call for an Audit.”
    “Really? Why?”
    “Gaul thinks that this whole thing was a trap,” he said, his eyes on the desk in front of him, “to draw out Mitsuru, to get her to violate the Agreement somehow, and thereby embarrass the Auditors.”
    Mitsuru could only look at the floor, her cheeks burning.
    “Don’t get so down, Mitzi,” Alistair said encouragingly. “If they chose you as a weak link to expose us, then they chose poorly. Unless I’m missing something important, we come out of this looking pretty good.”
    “He’s right, Mitsuru,” Rebecca said slowly. “So Audits looks good, and whoever put this together, assuming we’ve read this whole thing right, comes off pretty badly. For something that must have taken tremendous effort to orchestrate, it sure didn’t pay.”
    “Yeah. I’ve got to admit, I’m skeptical that’s the case.” Alistair leaned back in his chair, and put his sneakers up on one corner of the desk. “I think Gaul’s got it wrong. I think we have to assume that whatever happened, it all happened because the responsible party wanted it that way. I’m not seeing this whole thing as an operation gone wrong.”
    Rebecca looked at him doubtfully, but didn’t say anything.
    “Until I hear otherwise, I’m assuming that the same person was responsible for the whole thing. Mitsuru being ordered there, the Weir, the probability tampering, the kid deciding to take a walk in the park.” Alistair smiled thinly. “At this point, I’d be tempted to lay the JFK assassination at their doorstep, too.”
    “You don’t know that,” Rebecca objected, “this whole thing could have been the result of competing factions, pursuing different agendas…”
    “I don’t think that’s the case,” Alistair said, frowning and studying the chart. “I don’t see any sign of struggle or opposition, the manipulation looks blunt to me. The structure is haphazard, but it’s congruous — I think this is the work of a single party. Even if it is clumsy work.”
    “Of the major cartels, who has the resources for this kind of probability manipulation?”
    “The Black Sun,” Alistair said definitively, “Meier-Stoldt. Thule. North. Lao Xhin. I can’t think of anyone else, but there might be one or two others.”
    “Which one of them,” Rebecca asked, plowing onward while glaring at Alistair, “is it that you think is this clumsy? Which cartel has this kind of power, but uses it with all the grace of an untrained child?”
    “None,” Alistair admitted. “I don’t get it either, Becca, but it’s the only conclusion that makes any sense to me…”
    Rebecca pulled another cigarette from the pack on the desk, and lit up, apparently oblivious to Alistair’s disapproval. She drew on it with obvious satisfaction, and then blew smoke at the ceiling.
    “Maybe we’re coming at this from the wrong direction.” Rebecca said, turning to face them again, suddenly animated. “Why do you think it was that they wanted Mitsuru? What’s so special about her?”
    Mitsuru’s throat tightened, as if she’d done something to be ashamed of. It took an effort to make certain her response didn’t sound defensive.
    “What? What do you mean?”
    Alistair looked legitimately confused.
    “Well, look at the whole setup,” Rebecca said, leaning over the chart to point with her cigarette. “I see two clear points of intention — make sure the kid needs a rescue, and make sure you’re the one who does the rescuing. I heard about the catalyst thing.”
    Mitsuru looked at the bandages on her hand speculatively.
    “It was weird,” she said softly, “I’ve never felt anything like it. I don’t even know where I got the idea do to all those things, much less how I knew I could do them.”
    “Remind me to try it sometime,” Rebecca said dryly. “Anyway, we know why the kid is important, or at least we’ve got an idea why he’d be important to someone. But why was it so important that you be the one to save him, Mitsuru?”
    “Maybe his power as catalyst is limited,” Alistair speculated. “Maybe it had to be someone like Mitsuru…”
    “What?” Rebecca crowed. “You mean their plot hinged on the presence of a dangerously unbalanced lunatic, with designs on the Audits department?”
    Alistair grimaced at the sound, as the door slammed shut behind the fleeing Mitsuru.
    “You’re too hard on her, you know,” he said grumpily.
    “And you’re too easy on her — at worst, I’m hurting her feelings. What do you think you’re risking, codling Mitsuru like that?” Rebecca slapped her hand against the table angrily. “Look, I love the girl, I always have, and I died a little when they put her away, you know? But, they were right to do it. You haven’t forgotten that, have you?”
    Alistair nodded slowly, as if he were half-asleep.
    “She’s dangerous, Alistair, dangerous to everyone around her. Whatever they did to her while she was gone, it didn’t help. I caught her a few minutes ago, trying to operate her Black Protocol. It was pretty gruesome. She can’t control it, she never could — you cannot put much faith in her good nature, Alistair.”
    Rebecca leaned close to him, deadly serious. The mood was so rare on her that he had to look away.
    “What would you have me do?”
    “I support you in this rehabilitation project, Alistair, wholeheartedly. Mitsuru is my friend, whether she deserves the chances she’s getting or not. But, I have to know that you are going to make her do this. You let her fail once before, Alistair,” Rebecca said bluntly, hopping down from the desk. “I haven’t forgotten that.”
    “Neither have I,” Alistair said, his face ashen.
    “She was my best friend, Alistair. You guys were just fucking. It isn’t the same thing, so don’t act like you understand. You were her mentor, and none of this ever should’ve happened, because you should’ve put an end to it before it ever had a chance to become an issue.”
    Alistair gave her only the barest of nods, his expression grim.
    Rebecca opened his office door, and then hesitated there, silhouetted against the light streaming in from the window in the next room.
    “I should have killed you then, but you were too bright to lose.” Rebecca’s voice was soft, but deadly serious. “You promised me that you would fix this, and I’m holding you to that, Alistair. You fuck this up for Mitsuru and this time whatever happens to her, I’m gonna make damn sure happens to you, too. You should remember that.”
    She closed the door quietly behind her without looking back.


    Alex tried to discreetly wipe the palms of his hands on the sides of his jeans. He was more than nervous — he felt like an animal on display at the zoo. He was sitting on an overstuffed leather couch on one side of the crowded office, and arrayed in a rough semi-circle facing him were Michael, an attractive woman wearing an Angel’s t-shirt named Rebecca, and two men he hadn’t met before, a pleasant-looking blond man named Alistair, and an older guy named Gaul, who had Mitsuru’s strange red eyes and an even icier demeanor. It was cold in the room, since Alistair and Gaul had insisted that Rebecca open a window if she was going to smoke. All of them seemed to have nothing better to do than stare at him while Rebecca ‘prepared’.
    Whatever Rebecca’s preparations were, from where Alex sat, it looked quite a bit as if she’d gone to sleep, half-smiling, her head cocked to one side, as if she were about to say something.
    “Alex, right?” Alistair said his name oddly, as if it were in doubt. “He doesn’t look like much.”
    “Hey!” Alex objected, confused. “I’m right here, you know.”
    “Alistair,” Rebecca said warningly, eyes still closed.
    “Well, he doesn’t, anyone can see that,” Alistair said sullenly, folding his arms across his chest and ignoring Alex’s defiant glare.
    “Don’t be a brat,” Rebecca scolded, then opened her eyes and smiled at Alex. “Just ignore him, hon, okay?”
    Alex managed a nod. He was now feeling pretty resentful, on top of everything else. Who in the hell was this Alistair guy anyway? And why did he look so disappointed in him? He hadn’t even had the chance to do anything yet!
    “We should start soon,” Gaul said. “I don’t want this to become public knowledge, and the longer all of us spend in the same room, the greater the likelihood that someone will notice.”
    “Alex, stick with us for a minute longer,” Michael said, nodding at him. “Gaul, you know that these things can’t be rushed.”
    “It’s cool,” Rebecca said, kicking her sandals off. “I’m ready anyway. Alex, I bet you don’t mind if we skip the introductions, right? We already know each other.”
    “Yeah, but, why is that? Why do I feel like I know you?”
    “Empathy, Alex,” Rebecca said, walking across the office to sit down next to him on the couch. “I’m an empath. My name is Rebecca.”
    Alex flinched and shifted away from her a bit. The crushed leather cushions seemed equally uncomfortable no matter what part of the couch he sat on.
    “Are you making me trust you right now, or something?”
    Rebecca chuckled good-naturedly.
    “I don’t think you would have flinched away from me if I was making you trust me, Alex,” she said, amused. “It’s actually the other way around. As an empath, I inadvertently make my own emotional state public knowledge. So you feel like you know me,” she said, shrugging, “because on an unconscious level, you already do. Your reptile brain already knows everything it needs to know about me. You trust me because I am trustworthy, Alex. You like me because I am extremely likable.”
    Alistair snorted.
    “Keep ignoring him,” Rebecca told Alex, patting him on the knee. “I’ve already told you what you need to know about me, Alex, down where it matters. You know that, right?”
    Alex nodded slowly.
    “I do, actually,” he said, with a touch of uncertainty.
    Rebecca smiled at him approvingly, pulling her hair back into a quick ponytail and wrapping it in a rubber band. Alex couldn’t quite figure her out — her accent was definitely Southern Californian, and she looked a bit Latino, but there was something about the way she spoke, something a bit exotic about her appearance that he couldn’t place. She was right, though — he found her immediately likable, and utterly without guile in her frankness. Also, she was pretty, but she didn’t make him nervous at all, even when she sat close to him on the couch, like she was right now, even in front of the strangely intense audience that sat directly across the room, staring at them as if they expected to be entertained.
    Actually, Alex thought, that part might be the whole empath thing.
    “Okay, that’s good. I’m sure you have a whole bunch of questions, and I promise I’ll do my best to answer them later. But, if you are okay with it, I’d like to move on to our main business.” Rebecca folded her legs underneath her, Indian-style, so that she faced him on the couch, her bare toes pressing against the leg of his jeans. “Michael has told you that you are special, right?”
    Alistair made another coughing, choking noise, but neither Alex nor Rebecca acknowledged it.
    “I guess so,” Alex said reluctantly. “I’ve got some kind of power, right?”
    “More like potential, right now,” Rebecca said, nodding. “And today, I’d like to activate those abilities, Alex. I’d like to wake up that power of yours, and find out what you can do. And I’d like to help make it possible for you to use it. What do you think about that?”
    Gaul glanced irritably at his watch, but didn’t dare interrupt. To the best of his knowledge, Rebecca had never lost her temper with anyone at the Academy. But that didn’t keep Gaul, along with the rest of the campus, from treading very lightly when it came to potentially upsetting Rebecca. That was probably a side effect of her empathic abilities, he thought, and not something to actually be worried about. But he didn’t plan to find out by hurrying her.
    Not that it seemed as if it mattered, anyway. Rebecca was talking to Alex in a calm, reasonable voice, her face open and reassuring, and her hand resting casually over his own. Neither of them seemed to be aware of the staring onlookers, crowded into the small office.
    “I’m a bit scared,” Alex said, surprised and a bit embarrassed by his honesty. “But, I want to know whatever there is to know.”
    Rebecca lifted his hand up, and clutched it between her own, smiling beatifically at him.
    “I have your permission, then, right?” She asked the boy, his eyes already drooping. “I promise to take good care of you.”
    “Okay,” Alex said, his speech a bit slurred, his eyes half-closed, “okay.”
    Rebecca smiled and squeezed his hand, then set it neatly down on his thigh. She reached forward and ran one hand across his face, gently closing his eyes.
    “Would you like to lie down, Alex?” Rebecca asked, speaking so softly that Gaul had to lean forward to hear it. She patted her crossed legs cheerfully. “You can use my lap.”
    Alex obediently lay his head down in her lap, facing up toward the ceiling, his legs bent over the arm of the couch and dangling a few inches off the ground. His eyes were closed, and his face had an almost disturbing calm to it, as if he had been washed unnaturally clean of all concerns, an involuntary Buddha. Rebecca bent over him, her eyes shut, one arm draped across his chest, her other hand pressed against his forehead.
    “Okay,” she said, her voice sounding very animated. “Okay, he’s down and I’m in. And, oh my, this is very strange…”
    “Rebecca? Is something wrong? Are you alright?”
    Rebecca nodded shortly, her face flushed and red, her brow wet with sweat.
    “Yeah, I’m okay, but touching this kid, you understand,” she said, breathing heavily. “It’s incandescent, the effect he has. This is a tremendous power. We’re going to need to be very careful about who he comes in contact with, here at the Academy. I can barely manage it.”
    Gaul and Michael both shifted in their seats and leaned forward, while Alistair rolled his eyes.
    “What’s his story? What makes Alexander tick?”
    “Guilt.” Rebecca’s reply was prompt, definite. “Barely contained anger. A tremendous sense of unfairness, resentment of the most general kind. Tremendous guilt.”
    “Did he actually kill his family?”
    “She’s an empath, Michael,” Alistair said scornfully. “All she knows is how he feels about it. You want to find out something about that kid, ask me.”
    Gaul pushed his glasses back up on his brow, glancing over at Alistair disapprovingly.
    “That’s enough, Alistair,” Gaul said mildly.
    Alistair gave Gaul a challenging glare, but settled back in his chair.
    “Did he kill them?”
    Michael continued his questions with an almost placid patience.
    “Hard to say,” Rebecca admitted, biting her lower lip. “He certainly thinks so, but I can’t find any specific memory of it. Maybe Alistair’s right. Maybe you need a better telepath.”
    “Personally, I’m not so much concerned as to what he did or didn’t do,” Gaul said mildly, “but rather how he feels about it now. How likely it is that we are going to have a reoccurrence of that sort of behavior?”
    “Well, he only had one family, right?”
    “This is weird, guys. I think I’m going to need Alistair’s help after all,” Rebecca said, her brow furrowed with concern. “Because unless I’m reading this wrong, this kid has been tampered with. Extensively.”
    Alistair stopped pouting and gave Gaul an inquiring look, getting a small nod in response. Alistair closed his eyes, his hands hanging loosely between his legs, as his entire body went slack. There was a long silence, while Michael and Gaul looked from Rebecca to Alistair and then back.
    “She’s right,” Alistair affirmed muddily, his face creased with effort. “This kid’s been manipulated. Tampering doesn’t even begin to describe the extent of it. Every prominent memory has been altered — maybe even manufactured. The manipulation is so widespread, I don’t even know how to make a determination between what’s genuine and what’s been messed with.”
    Alistair shook his head and opened his eyes. Gaul looked worried, but Michael had a look of grim satisfaction on his face.
    “I thought so,” he said softly, nodding, his dreadlocks shaking with the movement, “From the first time I talked to him, I suspected as much. How could someone have such minimal feeling about such a traumatic event?”
    “There is guilt, pathos, rage, all of what you’d expect,” Rebecca allowed, “but not with the depth of feeling that I’d have anticipated. Nor do I see any kind of introspection — he doesn’t return to these memories, not even in dreams. And they are so hazy…”
    “They must’ve been damaged by the manipulation,” Alistair agreed, holding one hand to his forehead and wincing. “They are too faded for a kid his age. You’d think these memories were fifty years old. His head is a terrible mess — I already have a headache.”
    Gaul leaned forward in his chair to peer at Alex. He appeared to be asleep, his face calm and composed, his brown hair smoothed back from his forehead where Rebecca rested her hand. He didn’t appear to be dangerous, or damaged, but Gaul had worked with children long enough to know that you couldn’t tell the dangerous ones by looking at them.
    “Gaul,” Alistair said, his eyes still hidden by his hand, “that night Mitsuru found him — it wasn’t only the circumstances that were manipulated. This kid himself, he was part of the set up, too.”
    Gaul nodded, looking at Alex a bit sadly as he did so.
    “There is no doubt of it. Whatever trap has been laid for us, and whoever was responsible for it, Alex Warner is a part of that trap.” Gaul shook his head. “This makes his presence in the Academy all the more problematic.”
    “He isn’t a kid,” Alistair said gloomily, “he’s a bomb.”
    “No,” Michael said quietly, “he’s a child and a bomb.”
    “Um, hello? I’m getting a bit tired, here. Do you want me to activate this kid, or what?”
    Gaul considered for a moment, ignoring Michael and Alistair’s stares.
    “We’ve come this far,” he said, his bloodshot eyes glinting red under the lights, his smile sad and reluctant. “Let’s find out what has been left to us. Even if young Alex is as you say, well, it isn’t only about where the bomb is. It’s about when it goes off, and who’s standing next to it.”
    He shrugged dismissively, the ghost of a smile playing about his thin lips.
    “Do it, Rebecca. Activate him.”

    Alex woke up slowly, his awareness returning to him piece by piece, a little like waking up after a night of serious drinking, but without as much immediate pain. First, he felt the soft cotton sheets bunched in his hands, and realized he was in a bed. And not his own, unless someone had replaced his institutional bedding with high-thread count sheets and added a bunch of unnecessary pillows. It was warm, he realized, but not uncomfortable. He was lying on his back, his head propped up and his arms folded neatly over his stomach. Then he became aware of smells: some kind of incense, his own sweat, and then a hint of the soft, unmistakable scent of a girl’s hair coming from the pillow beneath his head.
    So, he was in a girl’s bed. Alex thought briefly about opening his eyes, but he felt too tired to manage it. It seemed pleasant, anyway, lying there, in the softness and the cozy warmth of the bed, only languidly aware of his aching body. He felt strangely calm, almost blissful, immobile and safe.
    Perhaps he fell back asleep then. He couldn’t be certain whether the sound of a lighter and then a protracted coughing fit merely jarred him from his reverie, or whether it actually woke him up again. The effect was the same, regardless — Alex was jolted from his placid contemplation into awareness of his situation, his body’s litany of aches and pains, and his presence in the strange bed. A strange girl’s bed. With a certain amount of trepidation, Alex opened his eyes.
    The room was dim, as the shades had been drawn across the room’s single window, and only a sliver of the late afternoon sun made its way across the giant four-post bed that occupied much of the room’s available space. A pair of old-looking bureaus made of dark wood and a dresser topped with a muted television displaying commercials rounded out the furnishings. On the other side of the bed, wrapped in a red Anaheim Angels-branded blanket, Rebecca hacked and coughed sheepishly, red-faced, motioning for Alex to look away.
    “Are you smoking pot?” Alex asked skeptically, sitting up against the headboard and attempting to extract his lower body from the tangle of sheets and blankets he was wrapped in. He seemed to have picked up a headache to accompany his body’s various pains at some point. “You are a seriously terrible role model.”
    “Give me a break,” Rebecca croaked. “I have a headache. Anyway, it’s your fault.”
    “What? How is that possibly my fault?”
    Rebecca shrugged and reached over to the sideboard, retrieving a heavy blown-glass pipe and a cheap plastic lighter.
    “Never mind. Do you smoke this stuff?”
    Alex shook his head.
    “Fine,” Rebecca said, putting the lighter to the bowl and taking a long hit. She held her breath for a moment, and then exhaled a stream of dense, skunky smoke at the ceiling. “Be a drag. Whatever.”
    “Why do I feel so,” Alex paused, searching for words, “um, bad?”
    “That’s your fault, too,” Rebecca said, making a face at Alex. “You started freaking out, when we activated you. First, Michael tried to hold you down, and when that didn’t work, I had to bliss you out.”
    “Yeah. So, uh, bliss?”
    “State of semi-conscious ecstasy. Nicest way I know to put somebody down. I’m an empath, remember,” Rebecca said, rolling her eyes. “You sure you don’t want any of this?”
    Alex looked warily at the bubbled blue glass pipe. He started to refuse again, and then it occurred to him that the random drug tests he’d been subjected to for so many years that they had become routine were unlikely to ever happen again. The Academy probably didn’t have any such policy, he figured, if Rebecca, who he thought was some kind of school councilor, was trying to get him stoned. And his head really was starting to hurt.
    “Fuck it. Sure. Why not?”
    Rebecca chuckled and handed him the pipe and lighter.
    “Famous last words, right?”
    Alex barely managed to get the bowl lit before he started coughing, his throat raw and his mouth filled with spit. Rebecca prized the pipe from his limp hands while he coughed, then grinned and pounded him on the back approvingly.
    “You are such a baby,” Rebecca said cheerfully.
    Alex managed to stop coughing, caught his breath, and then gave her his best sheepish, glassy-eyed smile. She laughed and tousled his hair. He didn’t feel stoned at all, and he thought for a moment about asking for another hit, but then decided to let it go. He figured he’d already embarrassed himself enough as it was.
    “So, uh, why I am in your room, Rebecca?”
    Rebecca turned to glare at him, the pipe still at her lips, the bowl burning cherry red.
    “You owe me a new couch, you little shit,” she said, blowing smoke at him. “I’d had that thing for years, too. It was like a friend of mine. So many memories.”
    “And you made me lie down on it? That’s gross.”
    Rebecca smacked at his head playfully.
    “It was clean, asshole. And leather couches last forever… oh, shit,” she said, panicked, patting down the bedding around her. “Where is that fucking remote?”
    Rebecca pulled the remote from underneath the pillow next to her. She hit a button and the TV’s speakers squawked to life.
    Alex squinted at the television, and then looked over at Rebecca in surprise.
    “Are you serious — ” he began, only to be cut off by Rebecca waving at him to shut up.
    “Hush,” she commanded, glazed eyes glued to the television. “’Survivor’ is on,” she said, helpfully pointing at the TV with the remote. “You ever watch this show, Alex? They make them do some pretty messed up stuff, eat bugs and shit, you know?”
    “I can’t believe that you watch this crap,” Alex grumbled, settling back against the pillows behind him.
    “Well, I do, and we are in my room, so, you’ll just have to deal. Give it a chance. You should like it — half these girls spend the show making a concerted effort to show America their tits, anyway.”
    Alex considered pressing her for answers, and then gave up on the idea almost immediately. After all, he figured, why take on a fight he was guaranteed to lose? Anyway, he had to admit that she was right about the boobs on display, even if they did appear to be mostly on the fake side. He waited patiently for the commercial break, wondering if the dialogue on this show had always been so vapid, or if he was just stoned and tired.
    “Okay,” Rebecca said breezily, hitting the mute button and silencing a detergent ad, “you have until the commercials end. Knock yourself out.”
    Alex felt a bit groggy, if not exactly wasted, but his headache had receded a bit. In balance, then, he figured he was no worse off than when he had woken, but it was still hard for him to formulate the questions he wanted to ask. Or perhaps it was simply that he had too many.
    “So, what happened when you activated me? I mean, except for being tired and a little sore, I don’t feel any different.”
    “Besides destroying my couch? Well, we didn’t have much trouble activating you, but I guess we did a little bit too good of a job. Normally, it’s a pretty simple procedure, even for one of you rare types. Technically, a telepath would work almost as well as an empath, but Gaul likes to have an empath on hand, in case things go wrong. As it turns out, that was a very good idea.”
    Rebecca cleared her throat, and then reached for the glass of water on the bedside table beside her and drank deeply, making Alex acutely aware of how thirsty he was. He didn’t want to interrupt Rebecca’s explanation, though, so he decided to deal with it for now.
    “That catalyst effect of yours is a pretty unpredictable thing, Alex. The moment I put you under, it started to affect me.” Rebecca looked a bit uncomfortable to Alex as she spoke, and he wondered what about the situation bothered her. “I thought I had it under control, but it’s… intoxicating, you know? It’s all this power, right? And the further down I pushed, the closer I came to activating you, the more intense the effect became.”
    Rebecca shrugged and gave him a goofy grin, her eyes bloodshot and glazed.
    “By the time I’d completed all the preparations, Gaul said I was glowing.”
    “What? What does that mean?”
    “Just that. We’d formed a closed loop, Alex. I was using my power to improve your access to your own. You were providing me with power to do so. Every step I took accelerated this process.” Rebecca turned to face him, putting one hand on his shoulder, her expression serious, maybe even concerned. “Alex, can you feel the Black Door?”
    Alex intended to tell her no, that he didn’t know what she was talking about. He had even opened his mouth to do so. But then, it was like his perspective changed somehow, as if he was observing himself as a third-party, from a discrete distance but with greater clarity than he had ever imagined possible. He could see the boy propped up against the pillows on the bed, still half underneath the blankets, his long hair hanging down in his eyes. He could see his vague, almost dull-witted expression. On the face of the woman sitting beside him in the bed, he could see concern mixed with resignation, and knew that she was afraid that something bad might happen. Inside of her, pulsating out from underneath her t-shirt and flannel pajama bottoms, from inside of her lithe body, he saw a multifaceted light, burning like sunlight refracted in the heart of a gemstone. But when he looked inside of himself, all he could see was darkness; a darkness he knew was absolutely frigid. And within it, encompassed by it, he could see a great Black Door, heavy lacquered wood and tarnished silver hinges and door handle, the whole thing coated with a generous layer of white frost.
    When Alex became aware of himself again, he was lying on his back. His eyes were open, and he wondered how long he’d been staring at the ceiling. Rebecca’s hand rested on his forehead, cool and soft. He sat up gingerly, wanting to ask what happened, and then noticed that the show was back on TV. Wisely, he decided to wait for commercial.
    “Sorry ‘bout that,” Rebecca said, punching mute and turning to face him again, “but you kinda lost your shit there for a minute. I don’t need you destroying my bed and my couch in the same day. You disintegrated that thing on a molecular level, you little bastard.”
    “Sorry,” Alex muttered, obscurely embarrassed. “Guess I’ve been kind of a headache today, huh?”
    “Don’t worry about it. It’s my job.” Rebecca smirked at him. “Though I guess I should warn you that if you make a habit of destroying girl’s beds, then you’re going to have trouble scoring invites in the future.”
    Alex rolled his eyes.
    “So, what’s that,” Alex paused, shuddering slightly at the memory, “that thing inside me, Rebecca? The Black Door, or whatever you called it?”
    “Not whatever. That’s what it is, Alex. It’s a big fucking Black Door in your head. I suggest that you try not to think about it too much. Sometime when I’m feeling better, I can do a better job of explaining your situation.”
    She looked at Alex with something that looked suspiciously like pity, and for some reason, it bothered him.
    “Okay, so, what does that — ?”
    Rebecca put one finger up to his lips without even looking, her eyes already glued to the television, her other hand hunting for the mute button on the remote.
    “Shh. Survivor.”
    Alex tried to watch in resentful silence, but he was too comfortable, Rebecca was too easy to be around, or maybe he was a little stoned, after all. He found himself raptly watching a bunch of strangers plot, scheme and preen for the cameras, and wondered how long it had been since he’d last watched television.
    “Alex,” Rebecca said quietly, still staring at the TV, “it’s probably going to be hard on you, you know? Up until now people have treated you like you didn’t exist, or like they wished you didn’t. Now everyone will know who you are before they meet you, and they’ll probably be extra nice to you, but you’ll always have to wonder about their intentions. How does that make you feel?”
    “As long as I can get a date out of it,” Alex said with a sheepish smile, “I’m cool.”
    Rebecca gave him an amused looked, and then rolled her eyes.
    “Boys. Hush,” she said. “TV show.”


    “Director, I must object. An Inquiry? Is all of this truly necessary? As I recall, my only crime was rescuing a boy who is now a student here, along with one of your Operators.”
    “The Inquiry was deemed necessary because your answers, on the face of it, appear evasive, Mr. North. You must understand that though your motivations may be pure, the explanation you’ve provided for your proximity to the incident strains credulity.”
    Mr. North crossed his legs and looked thoughtfully at Gaul.
    “And yet here we are. Director, you should know by my reputation that if I wanted to deceive you, I would have at least concocted a believable story,” North offered reasonably. Gaul had only met him a few times before, at various Hegemony events where his attendance was expected; he’d thought him to be reserved and observant, but Rebecca told him that if you actually got him to talk that he was a bore. After an hour talking in circles with the somberly dressed man, he was inclined to agree. “That I simply happened to be in the area on personal business may be a wildly unlikely coincidence, but it is a coincidence that saved one of your people’s lives. What more can I offer you?”
    “And the nature of the business?” Gaul asked doggedly.
    “Personal, and private, and, as judged by the Committee-at-Large, nothing that I must disclose to you, having already done so to a panel of my peers.”
    “You are putting me in a position, Mr. North,” Gaul said carefully, “where my only option to compel your cooperation would be to expand the scope of a potential Audit of the matter to include your private business.”
    “If you feel that you must do so, then by all means Director, by all means. That I refuse to disclose private matters does not mean that I have something to hide. If you instigate an Audit into this matter, then I will be forced to lodge a complaint, and you will be called before the Committee to explain your rationale. Tell me, sir,” North said pointedly, “which part of my actions in this affair do you feel jeopardized the safety of Central, or violated a tenant of the Agreement?”
    Gaul tried a cold, long silence, but Mr. North seemed unperturbed. Eventually, Gaul sighed, shuffled his papers, and moved on. Even the mention of the Committee-at-Large, Central’s own representative body and the theoretical counterweight to his own authority as Director, irked him to no end. Gaul approved of democracy, at least in theory, but only when it cooperated with him, something the Committee had never been willing to do.
    “Tell me about the Weir, then.”
    “Had no idea they would be there,” Mr. North said, brushing his dark brown hair back from his forehead and looking huffy. “Never would have suspected such a thing, and in such a pitiful backwater, no less.”
    “And the silver Weir, Mr. North?”
    “Terrifying creature,” North said sincerely, leaning forward as he spoke, “absolutely terrifying. I had thought it dead, of course, after your Operator, Aoki wasn’t it? After she shot the thing in the head, I assumed that it had been killed. I had dealt with most of the rest of the pack when the thing pulled itself up out of the mud, howled and then ran off to who-knows-where, before I could stop it.” North paused and looked contemplative. “Pity,” he said, after a brief hesitation, “the beast had a magnificent pelt. It would have made quite the trophy.”
    Gaul fixed the man with his best unsettling stare. He’d actually practiced it, after reading a book on human psychology that discussed conversational gambits, and had found it quite effective on the Academy staff. It failed, however, to invoke a reaction of any kind in Mr. North’s regular, placid face.
    “Have you ever encountered one previously?” Gaul asked, hoping that he didn’t sound as tired as he felt. “A silver Weir, I mean?”
    Mr. North scratched his head and then offered Gaul the faintest ghost of a smile.
    “Odd that you should mention it, Director,” he said, looking vaguely interested for the first time since Gaul had met him, “but you are the second person to ask me that question recently. The first, since you are certain to ask, was Mr. Cruces, head of the Terrie Cartel’s operations in Asia. He asked me at the last Hegemony Executive Committee meeting,” North said, squinting with the effort of remembering. “I believe it was as an aside to anecdotes being shared regarding the Weir hill tribes. He felt strongly, as I recall, that the silver breed were not as rare as was generally thought, and that in some regions, particularly Cambodia and Vietnam, that they could still be found if you looked hard enough. I thought it odd, at the time, when he asked me if I had seen one. I got the distinct impression that he had seen one, and recently, from the way he talked about it.”
    Gaul tried to digest the information, and then decided that he couldn’t stomach it. He felt like he was being fed something, and he’d never liked handouts. Still, he didn’t think that he would get any more out of North, even if he decided to push him again, so he elected against trying. He changed subjects.
    “Mr. North, investigating these incidents would proceed more smoothly and, I might add, impede on your time and liberty less, were the Committee-at-Large to approve the candidates the Board submitted for the vacant Auditor positions over the last two years,” Gaul said carefully, shuffling the papers on his desk into completed and incomplete piles. “I would hope that this experience would color your thinking on the subject.”
    Mr. North smiled his faint replica of a smile and folded his hands before he spoke. Gaul knew what he was going to say before he started. Rebecca was right, he thought, exasperated, the man was simply boring.
    “I believe that I speak for the Committee-at-Large when I say that we would be happy to expedite approval of the candidates for the vacancies in Audits if you would be willing to review our proposal to expand the selection process for Audits personnel, Director,” North offered mildly.
    “You are referring to the proposal in which we add two more Auditors, selected by the Committee-at-Large rather than the Board?”
    “The very same. Surely it would be a mutually beneficial arrangement, yes? You said yourself you need more Auditors, Director.”
    “An Auditor a piece for the Hegemony and the Black Sun, then?” Gaul said darkly, pausing in his paperwork to fix North with another practiced glare that was wasted on him. “That defeats the purpose of the Auditors in the first place. They are meant to be impartial, Mr. North.”
    “I resent the implication that the Committee-at-Large is not capable of making an impartial selection,” Mr. North said, not looking like he resented much of anything. “On the contrary, some might be moved to call the Board less than impartial when it comes to approving your own recommendations. After all,” Mr. North continued blithely, as if he were reading the weather report, ignoring Gaul’s stormy expression, “you have managed to get two of your Auditors onto the Board itself, sir! Certainly, that is a violation of the spirit of the Agreement, if not the letter.”
    Gaul held on to the glare a moment longer, and then gave up on it, helpless in the face of total apathy.
    “I must say, Mr. North, that you are either an exceptionally dangerous bureaucrat or a surprisingly genteel Operator,” Gaul admitted reluctantly, returning to his paperwork.
    Mr. North gave him a short, ambiguous nod, then stood up part way.
    “A compliment, surely. I take it, then, that you won’t need anything further from me?”
    Gaul glanced up, pen poised above the document laid out in front of him.
    “Not at the moment, no,” Gaul said, looking back down at the paperwork. “You may inform the rest of the Committee-at-Large that I will consider their proposal. Please keep yourself available for potential future inquiries in this matter, Mr. North.”
    Mr. North nodded again and turned for the door.
    “Certainly,” he said, pausing with his hand on the door knob. “But if I may ask, Director — I was wondering about the boy. He is named Alexander Warner, if my sources are correct. I have heard that he shows some promise, and a rather unique protocol. You never told me, sir, if he turned out to be worth all the trouble.”
    Gaul didn’t even look up from the document he was annotating.
    “No, Mr. North. No, I did not.”

    Traffic was light on Market Street for a weekday; the last time Mitsuru had been in San Francisco, there had been talk about banning cars on Market, and until she was passed by a battered white Dodge van turning onto Spear Street, she suspected they might have done it.
    The sidewalks were moderately crowded; it was late enough in the afternoon that the luckiest of the office workers had managed to sneak out early, and they plowed eagerly through groups of tourists and teenagers on summer break on their way to the train station. The sun was bright above the Embarcadero, the clock tower of the gleaming white Port Building also considerably changed since the last time Mitsuru had seen it.
    Mitsuru moved with the crowd, along Market and then across the wide pavilion that adjoined the Embarcadero, picking her way through crowds of shoppers from the nearby farmer’s market and clusters of shirtless skateboarders. It was warm, and it felt good to her to be out in the sunlight — something she had taken for granted, once. She had new priorities, these days.
    At the edge of the municipal railroad tracks she reversed herself, heading back toward Justin Herman Plaza, with the strange, dry fountain at the far end, which Alistair claimed had been built by a donation from Enron. Mitsuru doubted it, but Alistair often knew strange things like that. For a moment, she considered reaching through the uplink for the answer, but then she remembered that she was on mission, and therefore rigged for monitoring. Not a good idea to let her mind drift, then, given how hard a look Central had been giving her operational logs, in light of her application to Audits.
    Today felt good, though — working her way through the crowd, elbowed aside by a tiny Chinese woman clutching a bag of what looked to be lemon grass, noticing a brash smile from a handsome Mexican teenager on a skateboard, and after a moment’s consideration, smiling back. The black static that had been eating at her thoughts since the whole thing in the park had lifted some, this morning, and she felt calm and in control.
    She couldn’t understand how she’d ended up on the kill team — Alistair wasn’t one to indulge in revenge. In fact, he considered it a vice, and a foolish one. Debts had to be paid, reputations maintained, and that was it, as far as Alistair was concerned. The important thing to him was that someone had attacked a member of the Audit staff, even if she was only a provisional Operator, and that the rest of the world would be watching, and learning from their response. Mitsuru saw where he was coming from, even though she didn’t subscribe to that philosophy personally.
    Alistair had no choice, the way Mitsuru saw it. He preferred negotiation to violence, but in this case, he needed to make it very apparent to anyone thinking about trying the same thing that it would be a very, very bad idea. To be effective, the consequences of such an attack had to be so dire that they would outweigh any potential gains. Alistair had avoided requesting many sanctions since he had become Head Auditor, but he had been up late last night, drawing up the paperwork for the sanctioning of the Terrie Cartel.
    Mitsuru had not, by her own admission, been a very good girl. But there she was, nonetheless, a sanction order for an entire cartel falling right into her lap. Maybe, she thought brightly, her luck was finally changing.
    It had to be Gaul, she mused, pausing to look at the chalk drawings of the Golden Gate and Marin Headlands displayed by one of the vendor’s stalls at the plaza. Alistair was her friend and mentor, two very good reasons he would not have brought Mitsuru along for this job. She didn’t know what had gotten into Gaul, but she could have kissed him. That Alistair had decided to manage the operation himself, clearly to keep an eye on her, didn’t bother Mitsuru in the slightest. She appreciated his concern, and found his presence reassuring, though she would have never admitted it.
    She hadn’t been assigned any wetwork since they’d reinstated her, not since the thing in Bangkok had gone so very wrong. She’d been authorized to use force, on occasion, but she’d only had a few opportunities to do so. Mitsuru wasn’t one to lie to herself. Breaking heads was her favorite part of being an Operator, and until she’d gotten this job, she hadn’t half-realized how much she’d missed it.
    She rode the escalator up one level, into the semi-enclosed mall of One Embarcadero, a modern glass combination of condos and retail space. She wanted a cup of coffee, but she was in San Francisco, so she figured she could do better than the Starbucks franchises that she had seen on virtually every block.
    The crowd was thinner, on the second level. Outside of a few groups clustered around some round metal tables, the area was moderately clear. She saw the target almost immediately.
    She thought of Alistair, then, as loudly as possible, while moving casually across the walkway, ambling in the same general direction as the target.
    Even after all these years, hearing Alistair’s voice in her head creeped Mitsuru out. There was something about telepathy that was so intrusive, even when it was consensual. And the idea of Alistair knowing what she thought about him made her feel very vulnerable.
    I’ve got him. I’m behind him now, on the second level of Embarcadero One, heading toward Spear Street.
    She slowed her breathing. She forced herself not to look at the mark.
    Good job. I’m a couple blocks over. Let me know where you hit street level, and I’ll meet up with you there.
    Okay, boss.
    Mitsuru hung back, pretending to examine the display of truffles in the shop window in front of her. Behind the window, a bored salesgirl talked loudly into her cell phone. The target, a grey-haired man in his late fifties, wrapped in a dark coat, seemed not to notice her. He was a slow walker, and she found herself struggling to hang far enough behind him to not stand out.
    Her disguise was purely Etheric, installed by Gaul before the start of the job. He’d wrapped her in obfuscation and deception protocols, and as far as she could tell, eyes just slid off her. She’d started a subroutine when she’d seen the target, and now, discreetly and at intervals, her appearance shifted. The target was only an E-Class Operator, so he shouldn’t be able to pay much attention to her, not with Gaul’s protocols around her. But it was still best to be careful.
    At Spear Street the target descended to street level, and Mitsuru informed Alistair. She waited until he had turned a corner, counted to five, and then went down the same stairwell herself. She hit the street, blinking at the sun, and Alistair caught up behind her after a dozen steps, clearly hot and sweating underneath his heavy black coat.
    Alistair had made it clear during the briefing that the Terrie Cartel were probably only the front for the whole scheme — North hadn’t left much behind, when he’d eliminated the Weir, but it hadn’t taken Alistair long to run down who had put out the contract in the first place, there were too many people who owed him favors.
    The Terrie Cartel was a relative newcomer to the Hegemony, with a reputation for unsavory human experimentation, though all of their previous misbehaviors had been deemed minor. They were small-time, localized primarily in Geneva for the last thirty years, with affiliated commercial firms in Paris, Macau, Jakarta and San Francisco. In recent years, they had made significant inroads into Southeast Asia, working primarily in transportation, mostly of the extralegal variety. Mitsuru wondered what Terrie could have possibly been offered that would have made conflict with Central seem worthwhile, and couldn’t come up with anything. Everyone had heard stories about the Al-Hajra, the last cartel to be proscribed by Central, and how Rebecca and Alice Gallow had Audited them into extinction. What could have made the Terrie Cartel think it would go any differently for them?
    By the time they reached the corner, the target had made it most of the way down the block, and was in the process of jaywalking to the other side of the street. Observation on previous days made his most probable destination the little park a few blocks up — he often had his lunches there, according to the workup she’d gotten from Analytics. Mitsuru slid her arm through Alistair’s, their disguises morphing to become complementary — suddenly, they looked like a college-age couple, casually dressed, strolling in the sun. She acted like it was an operational necessity. They stayed as close to the target as was possible on the lightly crowded street.
    Mitsuru got a bit nervous, all of a sudden. She thought for a moment, and then nudged Alistair.
    This is wrong.
    Alistair looked over at her and raised his eyebrow inquisitively.
    Why isn’t he worried, Alistair? Why aren’t they preparing for some kind of retribution — the cartel has to know its coming.
    Alistair shrugged half-heartedly.
    Are you suggesting we abort?
    Mitsuru shook her head. She wasn’t about to take the chance that this job would be reassigned to someone else.
    Mitsuru had a number of talents. She was a skilled field tactician, a living node on the Etheric network, capable of making strategic decisions on the fly. She was a trained intelligence operative, skilled in counterintelligence and espionage, and a competent field medic. Also, when the mood struck her, she could make an acceptable curry.
    But her strength, her heart, had always been here — in the field, with a combat team. She hadn’t felt this good in years, and she hadn’t even had a chance to kill anyone yet. She wasn’t just giving up on the operation, not when her chances at becoming an Auditor could well ride on a positive outcome.
    No. I still say we engage at the park. But we should be careful.
    Alistair chuckled and hurried her along, around another corner, in time to watch the target walk into a Thai takeout place across the street from the park. A quick check with the network confirmed that this restaurant was one that he normally frequented. She and Alistair paused to admire the dresses on display at a nearby boutique, discreetly altering their appearance again to avoid suspicion. In the shop window, Mitsuru and Alistair now appeared to be an elderly Asian couple, grey-haired and dressed like tourists.
    Mitsuru still felt a bit edgy, but the adrenal rush of a combat operation about to execute had hit her, and washed away most of her nervousness. While they waited for the target to finish buying his lunch, Mitsuru activated her uplink to the network, and accessed the latest probability projections from Analytics, as well as the target’s dossier. She’d read it before the operation, of course, but a quick refresh before things got heavy couldn’t hurt.
    His name was Luke Estelle, age unknown, naturalized U.S. citizen, originally from France. An orphan, he’d been activated at puberty and trained at the Academy in operations and intelligence, specializing in an energy manipulation protocol. He’d affiliated with the Hegemony before graduation, and had been recruited by the Terrie cartel as an Operator almost immediately after. He’d acted first as an enforcer, gradually working his way up the ranks to become the Chief Security Officer for the cartel, as well as becoming their top field agent. With his experience, Mitsuru knew it would be a mistake to underestimate him. Still, given that the kill team had three Operators and one Auditor, she didn’t see many probable outcomes that left him alive.
    Wait, Mitsuru thought, the last part catching up with her. Not many outcomes?
    There hadn’t been any, just hours ago, during operation prep. She accessed her uplink again, and took a good look at the analytical projections and the tangle of probabilities surrounding the event.
    Alistair looked at her reflection in the window, obviously irritated by her pestering.
    Yes, Mitzi?
    According to the projections, there is a now almost a six-percent chance that the target survives this encounter and escapes capture.
    Alistair looked at her for a moment, and then his eyes went distant. Mitsuru knew that he was in telepathic contact with Central, demanding answers. While she was waiting, Mitsuru noticed the target leaving the restaurant, a plastic bag in one hand, headed for the park.
    She felt the Isolation Protocol cut them off from the city around them, heavy and definitive, a chill running down her spine. She looked over at Alistair, but his face told her that he had not invoked the field. It was a powerful, suffocating in its intensity. Anyone outside the field suddenly found compelling reasons to walk around it, or to skip their business inside it. Those trapped inside the field simply fell into a sort of trance, eyes open but unseeing.
    It was clear that the target hadn’t been expecting the Isolation Protocol, either — he was scanning the streets around him cautiously, his lunch thrown to the sidewalk, a puddle of chili sauce and rice noodles in the gutter next to him. One hand hovered near his coat pocket, which Mitsuru’s observation protocol advised her indicated a firearm, as if she didn’t know from experience that it was unlikely that he kept a bastard sword in his coat pocket.
    Alistair was already moving, away from the target, back toward Market Street. He was excited, or nervous; his mental communication was shouted, and it startled her a bit. Alistair was usually unshakable during field ops. Something, Mitsuru knew, had gone very wrong.
    Take him, Mitzi! Forget about questions — I’ll interrogate the corpse, if I have to.
    Mitsuru quelled her impulse to ask why. She did not need to know. Nor did she bother to respond — Alistair knew she’d understood, or he wouldn’t have gone running off in the direction they came.
    For a moment, she wondered what had happened to the rest of team, what was happening behind them that had Alistair so worried. And then, before she took her first step toward the target, she put it all out of her mind.
    It took no effort. There was no difficulty. The world became smaller — there was only the environment around her, her target, and her own capabilities, outlined in the luminescent rose lettering of a ballistics protocol. Her hands drifted back of their own accord, and found what they were looking for, nestled in the small of her back.
    She moved for the target, who appeared to not yet be able see her. She was running by the third step, trying to close the distance between them. She didn’t bother with two Sig 9mm pistols that were strapped to the small of her back. Her hands closed around the handle of the knife that was sheathed beside them instead.
    She’d intended to shoot him originally, of course. But, now that he knew that something was wrong, that plan had gone out the window. Her uplink was active, and through it Analytics relayed information, warning her that subtle atmospheric distortions around the target indicated the presence of a barrier protocol, one more than capable of stopping her handgun rounds long enough for the target to escape.
    Auditors did not take unnecessary chances. They eliminated the risks that they could, and then minimized the impact of the risks they deemed unavoidable. And, in this particular scenario, Mitsuru needed to be certain that she could finish the target before he struck, or he might well finish her, or worse, escape. That meant doing it close, close and ugly. The barrier had been designed to absorb the high-energy, low-mass impact of a bullet, so it would be useless against a physical assault.
    The knife she clutched was as long as her forearm and broad, with a tapered point and a razor edge. The hasp was wrapped in worn leather, and it fit her hand like it belonged there. She’d been picky, rejecting a number of other knives before settling on this one, the product of a small smithy in rural Arkansas that had produced only a handful of knives before shutting down sometime in the Seventies. It wasn’t much to look at, having lost its sheen decades ago, but the weight and balance were perfect, and Mitsuru had fallen in love with it the first time she’d picked it up.
    Mitsuru dispensed with caution, charging across the crowded street, relying on the concealment protocol to hide her from the target. Analytics guessed that she could close to within three meters before the target became aware of her. They were a little off. At five meters, the man started and turned in her direction, pulling a gun from inside his coat pocket.
    At four meters, Mitsuru took a wrong step, and her ankle turned.
    His pistol was a large, high-caliber chrome plated affair, probably loaded with hollow-point rounds, designed to inflict massive tissue damage. The barrier protocol Gaul had sheathed her in was tough, but it was not up to the task of blocking a bullet that large and fast at such close range. When he spun to face her and pointed it, the barrel of the silver pistol seemed enormous.
    Mitsuru almost tumbled into the gutter in front of him, next to his discarded Thai food. For a moment it seemed certain that she would, the pain in her ankle sharp and dismaying, her balance badly skewed and her leg giving way beneath her. For Mitsuru, time slowed, almost froze, while her Etheric implants worked, querying the network’s servers, then processing the downloaded probability matrix, feeding her numbers, likelihoods, odds. She would be too slow, now, even if she didn’t fall. Her calculations were grim and infallible.
    The gun discharged, and she could see the bloom of hot gases as they escaped the pistol, fire and vapor. The slug seemed huge as it wound its way through the air toward her, and she adjusted her stance slightly, still in midair, to avoid it hitting her in the chest. She couldn’t dodge a bullet, no one that she knew of could, but she could try and control where it hit her.
    The bullet passed cleanly through the bicep of her right arm, a burning line drawn through the muscle. For a brief, brilliant moment, Mitsuru hung in the air, ruined arm trailing behind her, captivated by the twined agony and euphoria that flooded her body. She caught her breath, a rush of pain and pleasure running up her spine, as her arm blossomed into a crimson flower, the shockwave destroying the tissue all around the wound.
    Mitsuru almost laughed then. The fool had saved her by using metal-jacketed rounds. They were perfect for tearing through barrier protocols, but tended to pass right through tissue.
    The blood from Mitsuru’s arm swelled and warped in a mass, but it did not go flying with the chunks of skin and bone — Mitsuru reached for it, leaning against the Black Door in her mind, and with a sound like violin strings snapping, a few more of the luminous threads that bound the blood-soaked wood gave way. The door slid open with a strange, moaning sound, and the trail that it left behind was wet and thick. For a moment, her arm was held in flux, partially disintegrated, caught between inertia and Mitsuru’s will, and then finally bowing to the superior force.
    Moving against prevailing motion, her blood flowed backwards, coating her arm with a slick layer of fluid. It wrapped around her arm like a cocoon, warm and gelatinous; Mitsuru could feel it crawl across her skin, hardening, becoming an exoskeleton. Her body twisted under the pressure of the outside forces, fighting momentum. As she passed by the target in a barely controlled dive, she twisted and lashed out with her knife hand, her damaged arm guided by the stiffened strands of blood like puppet strings. Her heart sang as the blade passed his guard, cutting smoothly through the target’s gun arm, severing it just below the elbow.
    Mitsuru forced more power through her body, then, wincing at pain comingled with a base ecstasy, as she forced herself to land on her feet. Her right shoulder complained for a moment, then gave way to momentum, dislocating at a troubling angle. Her right arm hung useless at her side as she found her balance again. She tumbled into the man, her left arm and her legs wrapping around him, dragging him down to the ground with her, pulling his chin up and away from his throat.
    And then, reflected in the glass of the shop windows, there was the look. The thing she lived for. His eyes went wide for a moment, with shock, when he realized that he had failed to kill Mitsuru, to defend himself. That he would die. That there was nothing he could do, by force or by pleading, to change the outcome. Mitsuru could see it in his eyes — surprise, fear, outrage, and buried somewhere beneath, a profound regret.
    She wondered, in the second before she dragged the knife across his throat, which the regret was for — a lover, a child? It didn’t matter.
    The knife was truly a marvelous blade. His throat offered no resistance, a single thread of blood trailing behind the tip, his jugular exploding in a warm spray, drenching Mitsuru’s face and chest in cloying stickiness.
    She shook the blood from the blade with a flick of her wrist, and then turned to look behind her. The Isolation Protocol was still active. In the last few seconds, she realized belatedly, she had lost her link to Alistair. Worse, she seemed to have company.
    There were at least half a dozen of them, wrapped in concealment protocols so powerful that she had not noticed them until they were within a block of her. They were nothing but grey blurs to her visually, but their Etheric signatures were massive. Her implant crunched numbers, and informed her helpfully that they were very probably hostiles, and that she could do little to defend herself from them.
    Blood was pouring from her arm, mangled at the bicep and separated at the shoulder, hanging useless. She’d had reserves of power, but her Black Protocol had cost her more than she had anticipated.
    Laughing, Mitsuru assumed the most fundamental of the one-handed fighting stances that Michael had taught her, the tip of the knife pointed toward the rapidly advancing figures, her back foot planted sideways, prepared not to give an inch before dying. Her uplink churned out numbers, scenarios, strategies, but she rejected them all.
    There was no way for her to survive. But as she prepared her final protocol, Mitsuru promised herself that they would not, either. After the carnal exultation of the wound and the killing, she felt a strange calm. She reached toward the Black Door in her mind, still warped and complaining from her earlier endeavors. She threw herself at the threads that held the door closed, drawing up power from within, a tidal force, up from her blood, up from inside her. She felt the familiar pinpricks of pain and pleasure as her mind tried to disintegrate under the pressure.
    The command was delivered so powerfully that she could only obey in shock, her vision blurred and her head filled with cotton. For a moment, she thought the world had gone off kilter, the ground beneath her feet collapsing from the force of the broken protocol.
    Then she realized that Alistair had somehow stepped behind her, without her noticing. He swept her up in his arms and ran on. He’d telepathically erased himself from the minds of everyone in the area, doubtless, even her. He held her effortlessly in his arms, his eyes sad and angry and relieved all at the same time as he looked down at her.
    “Mitzi,” he said, breathing hard. “We are out.”
    It was only then that noticed that not all of the blood was hers, and how drained Alistair actually was. She wondered what had happened.
    Alistair dropped to his knees, cradling Mitsuru with one arm, his other hand palm down on the head of the target’s corpse. Then Mitsuru felt the terrible dislocation of an apport, but she had no time to wonder where Alistair found the strength, as they hit the Ether like a wall, and her consciousness disintegrated against it.


    Alex lay on his bed, exhausted, and tried to wrap his mind around the idea — his bed, his room, his school. That wasn’t really sinking in.
    Michael had led him around the campus for hours, but he hadn’t seen anything like the whole campus. He didn’t understand how the Academy could be so big, and yet he’d never heard of it — but then again, why would he? Up until a few days ago, he had only been dimly aware that there was more to the world than rural California.
    He’d seen a handful of students — most were home, Michael had explained, finishing out a break that would end tomorrow. He’d been surprised by the range of ages — apparently the Academy taught everything from kindergarten through college, or some approximation of it. Alex still didn’t have a clear idea what was going on.
    Only part of what he’d seen looked like a school, and that bothered Alex. Parts of it looked more like a boot camp. There was even a firing range in the basement of the science building, which Michael had proudly described as state of the art, as if to reassure him.
    The clothes, too; that had been weird. Michael had taken him by the commissary, and after a few private words with the staff, a flustered young woman had come out to take his measurements. She was both hurried and excessively polite, and that had made Alex tremendously nervous. He’d left the building with a couple new uniforms in his actual size, some workout clothes, and several pairs of fatigues. He was too tired to ask questions by that point, something that Michael must have noticed, as he had led him directly to his dorm.
    It was a mixed dorm, Michael explained, with alternating floors of girls and boys. The building was one of the older ones, and therefore close to the center of campus, which would allow him to get to class more easily, while he was still learning his way around the grounds. Michael had led him to the fourth floor, down a silent, brightly lit hallway, and then to his door.
    Alex was surprised that he had merited a single room — it was small, but he’d lived in smaller spaces. The room was nice enough, and Alex was surprised to find that the wardrobe had already been filled — someone had apparently returned to the trailer, and collected his clothes and few belongings. When he saw his MP3 player sitting on the old writing desk in the corner, he was so overwhelmed he almost cried. Michael showed him where the bathrooms were, gave him the password for the wireless network, handed him a plastic swipe key for the door, and then left, bidding Alex a good night.
    He’d expected to fall asleep immediately, given all that had happened that day, but the moment he lay down he felt restless, unnerved somehow. The dorms were nicer than any he’d ever seen — wood paneled walls, clean beige carpeting, and lots of windows — but it was, in the end, institutional living, and that didn’t have positive associations for Alex.
    He tossed aside the covers of his newly acquired double bed, and walked over to the laptop that had been thoughtfully provided. He wasn’t sure what had happened to his old one, back at the trailer, but he wasn’t actually worried — he hadn’t kept anything important on it, because he didn’t have anything important to keep. Anyway this one was obviously quite a bit better than his ancient machine, a silver Sony with an LED lit keyboard. He plugged in the password Michael had given him, and accessed the Internet.
    For a few minutes he surfed at random, plowing through news and video-sharing sites without paying much attention to their contents. It was comforting in of itself, to be able to connect. It made him feel a bit like he was in the real world. He closed the laptop and reached for his headphones, turning the player on at random. To his surprise, it was still on the same song from the other night, when he’d been attacked. He hit skip, and in the interval of silence, realized that someone was knocking at his door. Pulling out his headphones, he got up and answered it.
    “Um, hello.”
    If he had to guess, Alex would have guessed that the kid standing there was roughly the same age he was. He was a few inches taller than Alex, with dark brown skin and bulky, plastic-framed glasses. He wore some kind of black turban on his head, which made Alex wondered if he was a Muslim, but he decided it would be impolite to ask.
    “You are Alex, right? My name is Vivik,” he said in perfect, American-accented English, offering his hand. “I’m in the next room over. Michael asked me to check in on you.”
    Alex shook his hand and then stepped aside to allow him to enter, doing his best to mask his confusion. Alex sat down on his bed, while Vivik pulled out his desk chair and sat down backwards on it, facing Alex.
    Vivik looked at him knowingly, and then smiled.
    “It’s pretty strange, huh?”
    “Yeah. Yeah it is,” Alex admitted. “Up until a few days ago, I had no idea any of this even existed, hadn’t a clue. And now they tell me that I start class tomorrow.”
    “Same here,” Vivik nodded.
    “Really? You’re new here, too?”
    Vivik waved his hand, obviously embarrassed.
    “Well, actually, this is the beginning of my second session. But, I showed up a week after the first session started, earlier this year, so I was just as clueless as you are. Don’t let it worry you, Alex, most of the people here found themselves in your shoes at one point or another.”
    “I figured that all these people were, you know, raised knowing about this stuff,” he said hesitantly, running a hand through his disheveled hair, and wishing in a vague way that he was not in his pajamas. Not that the t-shirt and sweats he had on were particularly ratty or anything, but still, it was a bit uncomfortable, meeting someone while dressed that way.
    “Nope,” Vivik said, shaking his head. “It’s fairly unusual for a family to pass the affinity down like that. Most of the students here had normal parents, came from normal families, that sort of thing. Up until whatever point they were activated, and then, like you, they ended up here.”
    “Weird.” Alex wasn’t sure what else to say, though he felt a little bit better knowing he wouldn’t be quite as out of place as he’d imagined. After a moment of awkward silence, he asked, “So, were you attacked by monsters, too?”
    Vivik laughed jovially.
    “Thank God, no. Nothing of the kind. They do screenings, apparently, at public schools and institutions, when they do all those hearing and vision tests. They flagged me right at the start of the school year, pulled me aside, and explained it all to me.” Vivik looked around the empty dorm room cheerfully, seemingly nonplussed. “About a week later, I was enrolled here.”
    “So you have a family back at home? Aren’t they worried? About all this?” Alex gestured toward the window and the school outside.
    “Sure, I’ve got a big family,” Vivik said, nodding. “But to them, when I received an offer to attend a prestigious private boarding school, all expenses paid, they were so delighted that I didn’t even have to come up with an explanation. I heard that they have the telepaths smooth things over with some parents, but in my case, it wasn’t even necessary.” Vivik shrugged, and looked a little embarrassed. “My parents are kind of fixated on the whole college thing, you see.”
    Alex looked at Vivik for a moment, and then burst out laughing. Vivik looked at him, a little puzzled, and then joined in.
    “Actually,” he admitted, removing his glasses to wipe his eyes, “my parents probably wouldn’t even care if they knew what this place actually was. I mean, they wouldn’t like the guns and the fighting and all that stuff, but it is a very demanding school.”
    “That’s not good,” Alex said grimly.
    “School isn’t your favorite thing, huh?”
    Alex nodded. He had a long list of things he didn’t care for, and school was on it, but not at the top. It had been his home, at first, and then the Youth Institution, for a while, but lately ‘being eaten by werewolves’ had taken the top spot.
    He wasn’t stupid. He knew he was at a school. Alex had figured that with all the talk about monsters and fighting, that the classes wouldn’t be, well, hard. Not academically, anyway.
    “Who do you have for homeroom?”
    Alex grabbed his schedule from where he had tossed it on the desk, and then unfolded it.
    “Mr. Windsor?” He read aloud uncertainly, as if he were afraid to mispronounce the name.
    “Thought so,” said Vivik, nodding. “Me too. Don’t worry, you’ll like him. It’s a pretty nice class, too. Not too many fanatics.”
    Vivik looked embarrassed.
    “Right, I keep forgetting you are so new,” Vivik muttered. “Well, you’ll find out for yourself eventually anyway, so I may as well tell you — do you know anything about the cartels?”
    Alex shook his head, staring at Vivik.
    “They’re the factions, here in Central. And almost everyone at the Academy will, at some point, commit to joining one of them. It’s against the rules to declare for a cartel until you complete your second year, unless you were born into it, but a lot of the students voluntarily associate themselves with one long before that,” Vivik explained, looking uncomfortable. “A lot of what goes on here revolves around the politics between them.”
    “Hmm…” Alex said, mulling it over. “Do you belong to one of them, Vivik?”
    “Me?” Vivik asked, amused. “Not a chance. I’m doing the science track, and I’m going to join the staff here at the Academy as a researcher, after I graduate. I’m not interested in picking sides, or eventually having to fight the people I go to school with. It’s just too petty.”
    Alex nodded.
    “It does seem that way. Is it really such a big deal?”
    “Can I see your schedule?”
    Vivik held out his hand. Alex felt some reluctance, but decided to hand it over anyway. Vivik read it carefully, and looked thoughtful as he folded it and handed it back.
    “I’m afraid it’s going to be a matter of life and death, for you, Alex,” he said sadly.
    “Why?” Alex looked at Vivik suspiciously, wondering if there was some kind of implied threat in his statement.
    “Well, for one thing, the classes that they’ve picked for you — you’re doing basic, Alex. You’re going to be an Operator. The Academy shares most of its research pretty freely, so it’s not a big deal to the cartels when some scientist decides not to join up, and stays on with the faculty here instead. But an Operator? No way they’d let that slide,” Vivik said reluctantly. “And then there’s another thing…”
    “What’s that?”
    “Forgive me, Alex,” Vivik hung his head. “I can’t help it. I’m going into Analytics, specifically remote viewing. I didn’t mean to pry, but no one’s taught you to mask your Etheric signature, yet. I scanned it before you even opened the door, Alex, to make sure you were awake.”
    “And you found out what?”
    Alex had to suppress a yawn, not because he was bored, but genuinely exhausted.
    “Alex, did they explain the classification system to you?
    “No,” Alex said shortly. “Michael mentioned it…”
    “Classes A through F, Alex,” Vivik said matter-of-factly. “Class-A’s are so weak that they don’t even activate them. For all intents and purposes they’re still regular people, who have dreams that come true occasionally, or a talent for dealing with other people. F-Class, that’s at the other under end of the spectrum. They’re very powerful. I’m a B-Class, Alex, with C–Class potential, if I work hard and I’m lucky.”
    “And I am?” Alex motioned impatiently, stifling another yawn.
    “M-Class, Alex. Not potentially. Already.”
    Alex was unnerved by the frank sympathy he could see on his face. Was it really such a bad thing?
    “That doesn’t fit in the alphabetical order,” Alex objected.
    “Because it doesn’t relate directly,” Vivik sighed. “I guess that’s why they skipped all those letters. The thing is, no matter how powerful the ability, A-Class or F-Class, Operators are limited by the amount of power their bodies can generate. It’s like, it doesn’t matter how fast you are, if you’re already very tired, you could lose a race to a much slower runner, right? Even the most powerful F-Class Operators will wear out if they use too much power in a short period of time. And that’s the thing, Alex.” Vivik tapped his feet nervously against the chair leg as he spoke. “Being M-Class doesn’t necessarily make you more powerful — usually, not necessarily — but whatever degree of power you have, you can use it almost endlessly.”
    “I have no idea what you just said,” Alex complained, clearly frustrated.
    “You can’t use up your power, Alex, no matter how much you use, there will always be more,” Vivik explained curtly. “Because you aren’t drawing it from yourself. Somehow, you can pull power from outside, from the Ether. No limitations. That’s what M-Class means.”
    “And that’s rare?”
    “Extremely,” Vivik said, nodding. “None of the other students at the Academy right now are M-Class, to the best of my knowledge.”
    “But that’s stupid,” Alex said, staring at his hands. “I don’t even know how to do anything.”
    “Alex, you’re in a different world now. Central isn’t concerned with what you don’t know at the moment — there are people here who can read probability threads, Alex, and make determinations about the future. They already know exactly how powerful you’ll become. They don’t have to guess. They know.”
    Alex and Vivik sat in silence. After a few minutes, Vivik cleared his throat and pushed in his chair.
    “Well, you are probably tired,” he said, smiling. “I’ll let you rest. Nice meeting you, Alex. Goodnight.”
    “G’night,” Alex muttered. He walked Vivik out of the dorm room, and then lay back down on the bed.
    His bed. His room. His school.
    Alex rolled over and closed his eyes. It would take some getting used to.


    The more Gaul looked at it, the less he liked it.
    He was still fuming from his interview with North, whom he had found to be insufferably arrogant, and far from forthcoming regarding the reasons for his presence in the area. He’d invoked the Committee-at-Large, however, and that meant Gaul couldn’t demand anything more until he either got the approval of the Committee, or opened an Audit. Beyond that, he was still angry that someone, anyone, would have the temerity to attack one of his Operators, even if it was Mitsuru. Most of all, though, he was furious with his Chief Auditor, who was currently sitting in front of him and smiling politely.
    It seemed like everything that day had conspired to infuriate him. And, Gaul thought soberly, that was an actual possibility that had to be taken into account. He had walked a razor’s edge since he’d wrested control of the Academy away almost forty years ago, and a single mistake on his part could still ruin everything.
    This did seem like a long way to go just to ruin his day, though, he had to admit.
    “We have a leak. A leak inside Audits. How is that possible?” he wondered aloud, his tone indicating that an answer from Alistair was expected.
    Alistair rolled his eyes.
    “I’ve handpicked every single member of the Audits department, Gaul,” he said, his voice profoundly tired. “You know that. If there is someone on the inside, they got past all our screenings, the background checks, everything. You know how powerful an Operator they would have to be to lie to my face?”
    “Nonetheless,” Gaul said, shuffling paperwork on his desk, “unless you are suggesting that I am leaking operational information to outside agencies, there is no other way to account for two such debacles in such a short period of time.”
    “That’s a bit unfair,” Alistair objected. “It’s not like we failed, in either case. Mitsuru saved that kid, and she killed that target, what’s-his-name…”
    “Estelle,” Gaul said coldly. “Have you reviewed the recordings, yet?”
    Alistair lowered his head.
    “I have,” he said, reluctantly.
    “Then I’m certain that you noticed, near the start of the encounter, that Mitsuru allows herself to receive a very serious gunshot wound?”
    “I’ve double-checked the probabilities lines,” Alistair said guiltily. “It is as she said. She had no time to take other action.”
    “We are talking about a few seconds difference,” Gaul complained. “What exactly did she expect to happen in that time?”
    “Perhaps she intuited exactly what did happen, Gaul. You know, if Mitzi hadn’t done what she did, this operation would have failed.”
    “I do know that, and I agree with you, actually. Mitsuru’s actions saved the operation. It’s her reasons that bother me.” Gaul came as close to shouting as he ever did — he raised his voice. “She is clearly still using Black Protocols. Her obsession with suffering has cost us all in the past, Alistair.”
    Alistair let it pass. He simply smiled and waited. After a few moments silence, Gaul sighed.
    “Moving on, then.” He shuffled more papers on his desk. “The other two Operators, Walsh and Young, what about them?”
    “They never had a chance,” said Alistair, shaking his head regretfully. “They were too close to the center of the temporal warp when those Witches hit us. I turned around as soon as I felt them porting in, knew they had to be flanking us, knew they’d hit our backup first. Walsh was dead before I could get there — I assume they used balefire, with the sulfur and the charring.”
    To Gaul’s eyes, Alistair looked strange. Tired, yes, and battered, but given the circumstances, it was to be expected. Still, something about this operation seemed to have taken something out of Alistair. Gaul wondered what could have thrown his usually unflappable Chief Auditor. After all, it wasn’t as if this was the first time Alistair had lost men under his command.
    “But Young, that was the weird part.” Alistair hesitated before continuing, appearing to steel himself. “I saw him get hit, right when I turned the corner. He was cut into a million pieces. It had to have been the Shining Cloud Protocol. I could still see the traces of it, lingering in the Ether.”
    Gaul paused for a moment, his head cocked to the side. Alistair stared at his shoes while Gaul consulted the Ether.
    “Leaving aside the more important issue, then,” Gaul said, adjusting his glasses, “finish off the encounter for me.”
    “I knew at that point that my chances of getting out of there were slim,” Alistair sighed. “And I had to get back to Mitzi, before they got to her. I didn’t have any time for subtlety.”
    “You turned their minds off,” Gaul said, with a trace of sympathy.
    “No other choice,” Alistair said, shaking his head. “Believe me; I had questions I wanted to ask them, maybe even more than you. But anything that only incapacitated them would have taken more finesse, and more power, than I had to spare at that point. I still had to activate an apport protocol, and that always takes it out of me.”
    The two men were silent for a moment while Gaul consulted his uplink.
    “You’re right,” Gaul said, robotically. “Preliminary analysis confirms it. Shining Cloud. I will have to inform Young’s wife, later. I see no records of Walsh having any close family.”
    Alistair continued to stare at the ground. Gaul wondered how long it had been since his Chief last slept, but couldn’t summon much pity. Gaul’s own sleep cycle had been modified when the uplink was installed, and now he slept for an hour or two every night, at most. When he dreamed, he could feel the vast currents of the Ether, flowing through him, from everywhere and through everywhere. It was not restful.
    “In any case,” Gaul asked, in his normal voice, “which is it? Have the Witches learned to operate protocols, or have a group of Operators allied themselves with the Witches?”
    Alistair shrugged.
    “I don’t even know how to guess. Both are impossible, right?”
    There were many qualities that made Gaul such an exemplary Director — and he was almost universally held to be the finest in memory, even by those who opposed him — but his tendency to worry was perhaps the paramount quality.
    Thanks to the Etheric computer attached to his forebrain, Gaul could truly multitask, carrying on multiple lines of thought simultaneously. Twenty-two hours a day, on the average. And Gaul spent much of that time worrying.
    Not the usual silly stuff — Gaul wasn’t afraid of plane crashes, or serial killers, or being naked in public. Gaul could read probability lines better than almost any Operator that he knew of, and he read them as often as possible, following them from branching to branching, threading his way through alternatives, solutions, dilemmas.
    Gaul had a virtually perfect operational and administrative record, because anything that went wrong, he had already worried over that possibility and planned a contingency. Every pitfall, every personal failing, every operational difficulty and unforeseen event was accounted for with mathematical precision and a fetishistic desire for organization. And then, once solved, the solution was shelved for the day when it was needed. It was a tribute to his pessimistic nature that he fully expected to use all of his schemes and fallback plans eventually, were he lucky enough to live that long.
    Witches were at the top of a number of his ‘Things to Worry About’ lists. That was only natural. Witches were smart, for one thing, not like the ravening packs of Weir or the mindless Horrors. They made long-range plans, and they had inhuman patience when carrying them out, spinning their webs over centuries. To some extent, and Gaul didn’t know exactly how much, they had a kind of precognitive ability, and they could manipulate energy and mass in a crude but effective manner totally distinct from an Operator’s protocols. Witches could also manipulate people, and they seemed to take a certain perverse satisfaction in doing so.
    They were impossible to negotiate with, because they had never bothered to tell anyone what it was they wanted in the first place. After centuries of war, Central wasn’t even sure if forcing the Witches to surrender was possible, or if only extermination would end the conflict.
    So, yes, Gaul had done a great deal of worrying about the Witches.
    What he had not worried about was the possibility of Witches learning to use protocols, given that it was thought to be completely impossible. Activation, performed by a skilled telepath or preferably an empath, was required, in addition to the initial infusion of nanomachinery. Since he controlled the only source for said nanites, Gaul was almost certain that it was an Operator who had used the Shining Cloud Protocol.
    Which meant that, however unlikely, only the second scenario could be true. Operators in league with Witches.
    “This might interest you.”
    Gaul handed a folder over to Alistair, who opened it and scanned the contents, looked up briefly in surprise, and then gave them a second, more thorough reading.
    “This means…”
    Gaul nodded.
    “Multiple parties pursuing different agendas. It has to be.”
    “So our reality hackers didn’t intervene in today’s incident,” Alistair mused. “I was almost certain that they would. The circumstances even seem similar — I’ve been thinking about it, Gaul. Mitzi said that the silver Weir she bumped into hid its Etheric signature until it was close. I didn’t put too much stock in it when she first told me, but the same thing happened here today. Doesn’t it seem like someone is changing the rules?”
    “That’s been bothering me, too. If the Witches have learned to hide their Etheric signatures, every Operator is put at risk. But if they have learned something this critical, why reveal it to us in such a minor skirmish? Why not wait until they could use it to do some real damage?” Gaul looked moodily at Alistair. “There was no tampering in today’s incident, and the meddling in the earlier incident was apparently to our benefit. So someone tried to help us that night, but not today.”
    “Who? And why?” Alistair demanded.
    “I don’t know,” Gaul admitted. “And it bothers me very much to say that, but I can’t even guess as to who would benefit from all this. But I will tell you this much.”
    Gaul stood abruptly and walked to the window. He spoke softly, watching the reflection of the trees waving in the wind.
    “There’s no way we’re dealing with only one party. Too much of this conflicts to have a single motivation behind it. So it’s not that someone has decided to start attacking my Operators,” he said venomously, surprising Alistair, “but that someone is using Central itself as a pawn in their game. More than anything, I hate,” Gaul snarled, turning his furious red eyes on Alistair, “being a pawn for anyone. There is one game, Alistair, and we are the players, not the pieces. And someone needs to be reminded of that.”
    “What are you going to do?” Alistair asked quietly, a bit taken aback by Gaul’s sudden display of emotion.
    “We will find out exactly who is responsible, and exactly how they have done these things — and yes, it may take some time, but that will only give them more time to think that they’ve made an impact, that they’ve rattled us. We’ll let them think they have a greater advantage than they actually do, until we can mitigate the real one. If we play our cards right,” Gaul grinned evilly, a ghastly expression that Alistair had not, in the decades he had known him, ever seen, “they may even decide to make a move here in Central, where we are strong.”
    Gaul folded up the smile and his face reverted to its normal dour expression, much to Alistair’s relief.
    “We will draw them out, Alistair. We will draw them out and then we will destroy them utterly. We will make an example of them, whoever they are, and any cartel or faction that objects, well, they will also become part of the example. There is no other way forward,” Gaul said, calmly.
    “What are your orders, Director?”
    Gaul raised an eyebrow at the formality, but made no immediate reply. He pushed another file folder forward on his desk with a pencil. Alistair took it without looking at it.
    “You will conduct an Audit into this matter,” Gaul said crisply. “You will settle all outstanding accounts, in full. You will act in this matter under my authority, and will use whatever personnel or resources you deem fit in order to bring a close to this matter, within certain constraints.”
    “Those being?” Alistair asked, flipping through the file.
    “You will continue to use Mitsuru. At the end of this matter, she will be evaluated as a candidate for Audits, or she will be officially declined and reassigned.” Gaul’s voice was light, dismissive. “And you can’t use the rest of the Auditors.”
    Alistair snapped his head up.
    “What’s that?” he snarled, his lip quivering. “You’ve got to be kidding me, Gaul. All that big talk and then you’re going to send me out with Mitzi to take care of it? Be reasonable, Gaul.”
    “I am being reasonable.” Gaul took his glasses off and began polishing the lenses with a rag. “I need Rebecca here, and the other two will be off making enough trouble to keep everyone from noticing that you’re not out there, Alistair. Get your head on right, Chief Auditor. You know full well what would happen if the cartels found out that all the Auditors were occupied.”
    “You ask the impossible,” Alistair complained. “And then you say you need Rebecca to babysit the new kid? This is bullshit, Gaul.”
    “I will explain myself once more, Alistair,” Gaul said, putting his glasses down on the desk and rubbing the bridge of his nose. “I am not repeating the mistakes we made with Mitsuru. If Rebecca has to hold this kid’s hand and wipe his nose in order for this to work, then that’s what she’ll do. She understands that. For the life of me, given that you pretend to be Mitsuru’s best friend, I can’t see how you don’t understand.”
    “Enough,” Alistair snapped.
    “Listen to me,” Gaul said patiently. “You are right, I am asking the impossible. And I’m going to make it more impossible. Because I need this done properly, Alistair. It has to be perfect. Everything needs to be airtight on this Audit, to justify the outcome. If it takes time, then it takes time, Alistair. But you cannot be wrong.”
    Alistair nodded slowly.
    “And the consequences?” Alistair asked softly.
    Gaul slid a red folder across his desk.
    “That’s a signed sanction on the entirety of the Terrie Cartel and any allies that they might have, Alistair. They are transferred to your jurisdiction, effective immediately. Invoke it at your discretion.”
    Alistair’s eyes widened. Gaul felt a small pleasure in having surprised his normally unflappable Chief Auditor so many times in one conversation. He handed him one final red folder.
    “This is signed documentation from me, absolving you of all responsibility for any action you may take in the course of pursuing this matter.” Gaul straightened the remaining papers on his desk compulsively. “I take full responsibility. Do whatever you see fit, Alistair. Just make it perfect.”
    “You’re putting a lot on the line, here,” Alistair said, touched. “I didn’t know you had this kind of faith in me.”
    “If you mistake reasonable oversight for lack of faith, then that’s your problem,” Gaul objected. “I can’t have my Operators looking over their shoulders all the time, not if they’re going to do the kind of job I need them to. They need to know that they are protected. They need to see it.”
    Gaul looked moodily out the window for a moment, and then continued in a quieter voice.
    “And despite all expectations,” he continued, “it appears that there are still people out there who need to be reminded there is no profit in taking us on. So use Mitsuru, and whoever else you need from Operations. Go camp out at Analytics, run the forensic boys into the ground, requisition labs and materials, shake down informants, call in favors. And in the meantime, I will have the remaining Auditors try and cause enough trouble to keep anyone from realizing that you aren’t minding the shop.”
    “And that Rebecca is busy babysitting,” Alistair reminded him, standing up to leave.
    “She’s not babysitting, you fool,” Gaul said tiredly, motioning toward the door. “She’s making Alexander Warner into a weapon. Do a good job on this Audit and I might let you pull the trigger when the time comes.”


    Michael appeared to be upside down, because Alex was standing on his hands. This was a newly acquired skill. His whole body shook as he attempted to straighten his legs and abdomen, trying to force himself into one firm vertical line. This was a skill he was still attempting to acquire, and as his arms trembled and his stomach cramped, Alex wondered how Yoga could possibly be so difficult.
    He had spent the last three weeks almost solely in Michael’s care. Though his schedule listed four courses aside from homeroom, Alex couldn’t tell the difference between ‘Unarmed Combat’ and ‘Physical Conditioning’ and ‘Fundamentals of Self-Defense’. Michael was the instructor for all three of them, and they blended into a seamless flow of exhaustion, struggle and pain. The first day, when Michael had explained that he would be allowed to skip the first few weeks of homeroom, to give him time to get oriented and also to allow for his private tutoring, Alex had been happy. The less school, he figured, the better, and it wasn’t like he was in horrible shape. How bad could it possibly be?
    When Michael arrived at six a.m. the next morning, dressed in running clothes and carrying a bag of the same in Alex’s size, and cheerfully battered his door until he was forced to acknowledge it, Alex had begun to reassess the situation. Four miles later, when Alex got his first leg cramp, he was bitter. After another three miles, Alex contemplated murdering Michael in between bouts of vomiting into a ditch on the side of the road. Michael appeared to be unshakable; he smiled throughout the run, and never appeared to be out of breath or tired. He wore a tight nylon top that made it very obvious that Michael was ridiculously built, with thick limbs wrapped in corded muscle and a barrel chest.
    Their route that morning took them around the back of the Academy grounds, past some buildings Alex had never seen before (but he was too out of breath to ask about), and then through a series of low, grassy hills that eventually gave way to steeper elevations and evergreens. It was sunny but Alex suspected that if he hadn’t been running he would have found it cold. The path they ran along started out as sidewalk, but petered out gradually into an asphalt track, then loose gravel, and finally nothing more than a dirt rut running through the surrounding countryside. It was beautiful, in a late-fall way, but Alex had no eyes for it.
    He was too busy trying to breathe.
    Alex had been surprised to find himself still standing at the end of that first eight-mile run. He’d even felt pretty good, a bit proud of himself, and when he glanced over at Michael and saw the grin on his face, figured that he was too. Later, he would realize that the man was simply a sadist.
    They ran two or three times a week, never less than five miles. At least twice a week, they visited the indoor pool at the fitness complex not far from Alex’s dorm, and swam for an hour or two. Michael set the pace and Alex struggled to keep up; more than once, Michael had to stop to teach Alex the stroke that he wanted him to use. Alex liked the way the sound of the water echoed in the tiled expanse of the gym, but he always found the water to be too cold. He’d enjoyed his occasional opportunities to swim when he’d been younger, but with Michael calling the shots, he came to hate the sight of his school-issued swimsuit much more than the sight of his school-issued running shoes.
    After the first week, they didn’t start with cardio anymore; instead, Michael had begun to teach him yoga. Alex had always thought of it as something hippies did, some kind of pseudo spiritual meditative practice or something, but what he learned was profoundly different. If there were philosophical components to it, then Michael ignored them, instead focusing on body awareness, strengthening, flexibility, and breathe control. Michael was a patient teacher who never raised his voice, and seemed capable of all the various positions with a casual flair that made them look easy, though Alex rarely found them to be so. Nonetheless, after two weeks of daily practice, Alex found that he could support the weight of his body on his hands and bend over far enough to put his head flat on the ground while touching his toes.
    That was his morning, for three weeks, six days a week. Five days a week, Alex came back to the fitness center in the afternoons. They never did the same thing two days in a row, except for the yoga, and he never had a day where he didn’t do either morning or afternoon training.
    When it came to combat training, Michael never bothered to explain what discipline a technique came from. He never taught Alex any katas or forms, they did not wear a gi or a belt, and none of the techniques Alex learned seemed to have names or formal designations. But Alex found Michael to be a genuinely remarkable teacher, and himself to be a more receptive student than he had ever imagined possible.
    He learned a variety of things in those few weeks; a dozen different ways to put his opponent on the ground without winding up there himself, a variety of techniques for controlling wrists and arms up close, how to strike with the elbow and forearm. But it went deeper than techniques, as the education Alex received from Michael was more a process of refinement than revelation.
    Alex learned that the looping punches he favored he threw because they were powerful — but as Michael demonstrated by cheerfully jabbing Alex in the face until his nose bled, were also inaccurate, slow and left him wide open to anyone with a little bit of boxing ability. Along with a straightened punch, he learned that a few simple changes in his footwork could provide him with the same power that the looping punches had, without any of the disadvantages.
    Michael taught Alex enough of the fundamentals of ju-jitsu that he could defend himself on the ground, but he also explained that weight and inexperience would work against him there, and spent much more time teaching him to sprawl, to drop his chest and splay his legs back to avoid being taken down in the first place. He learned a handful of trips and throws for dealing with running tackles and rushes, and a number of other ways to keep fights where Michael judged Alex to be most capable — standing and striking.
    The first few afternoons were largely spent with Alex punching a heavy bag filled with water to mimic a human body, his hands taped and in lightweight half-gloves, while Michael watched and made adjustments. He seemed more concerned at first with Alex’s feet than anything he was doing with his hands, and after scolding Alex for making a less-than-tight fist and teaching him to square his shoulder and tuck his jaw, he turned his attention almost totally to stance and footwork. After a few days, he convinced Alex to stop punching off his back foot, and Alex noticed the bag reacting more dramatically to his strikes.
    The second week was more freeform; much of it spent sparring with Michael in a boxing ring, with a mouthpiece and head guard. Some of the time he spent working a pair of pads that Michael held, shouting instructions, occasionally batting him about the head and body to remind him to guard. It started to feel more natural to use his forearms and elbows when he was close, and it got easier to use his long arms to jab and keep Michael at a somewhat more comfortable distance.
    He learned not to throw kicks higher than the knee, because they were too risky to be effective. His own knees, he learned, were capable of delivering truly powerful blows, more than he could ever manage with his hands; like kicks, however, knees had drawbacks, namely that they tended to leave him off-balance and exposed. After Michael dumped him on his head a dozen times, Alex was effectively cured of the Hollywood-implanted urge to throw kicks to the head.
    His wrists, shoulders and back all hurt constantly, and he spent a considerable amount of time every day in the fitness center’s gigantic spa, hoping that in the hot water eventually some of his cramped muscles might unknot. Three afternoons a week, they ended with weight training, done in rapid and exhausting cycles that left Alex broken down and shaking. He got so used to vomiting in the plastic bucket that he kept nearby that he didn’t even feel self-conscious about it.
    All of which, at the moment, wasn’t helping him match Michael’s handstand. With a tremendous effort, Alex straightened out the length of his body, his abdomen shaking with the strain, his legs wobbling but fundamentally straight. Then it all fell apart, his balance shifted forward, putting the strain on his fingers, his legs bent, and he allowed himself to crumple to the ground, which turned out to be much more comfortable than he had anticipated. He decided to stay there.
    “I don’t get it,” he said, lying on his back while Michael unfolded himself neatly.
    “You don’t get what?” Michael asked, sitting down beside him.
    “What the point of all this is. I mean, am I going to go punch a werewolf? Is that the idea, I’m going to go beat these things up?”
    Michael looked at him oddly for a moment, and then laughed. Alex had a sneaking suspicion that the laugh might have come at his expense, but he smiled anyway.
    “That would be cool, but I doubt you’d survive it,” Michael said, grinning and producing two bottles of Gatorade from the kit bag he brought everywhere. It was impossible, Alex found, to keep himself hydrated, though he drank constantly. “Your body is your most fundamental tool, Alex, the only one you always have at your disposal. Everything starts from there. If you don’t know how to use your body, then you’re never going to understand how to use any other kind of weapon. The idea is this — we will teach you to use anything at hand to fight, and yes, we’re going to spend a lot of time teaching you to use guns and bombs and protocols because that’s what we expect you’ll be using. But just because that’s what we expect,” Michael said, shrugging, “doesn’t mean that’s what it is going to be like. The field has this tendency to surprise you.”
    Michael paused for a moment, kneading out a cramp in his calf, and looked almost sad.
    “Anyway, we start with what we know you’ll have with you. Once I’m confident you can use that, then we move on to the more likely suspects.” Michael grinned at Alex. “That okay with you, Mr. Warner?”
    “You ask me like you care,” Alex said, finishing his bottle and putting it aside.
    The pace of the workouts was exhausting, but somehow never quite past what Alex was capable of. Michael offered constant instruction, critiquing his form and movement at all times, tweaking and refining, patient and infuriatingly calm. Alex’s own frustration was muted by sheer exhaustion, and by a growing suspicion that something was not quite right. In the course of a few weeks, Alex gained a few pounds of muscle and a much more prodigious strength. He was somehow, faster, stronger and more capable than he had any right to be.
    One day, after a particularly grueling set of wind sprints, Alex asked Michael about it.
    “It’s the machines, son,” Michael said with his trademark toothy grin, panting beside Alex on the grass next to the track. “All those little machines inside you, they’re latched on to your nervous system, and they take instruction from your brain, as if they were part of you. So they know what you’re doing, and they’re facilitating the process, helping your body manufacture new tissue, augmenting your reflexes, repairing all the damage that gets done to that sad little body of yours, my friend.”
    Michael lay down near where Alex had collapsed, hands behind his head, looking up at the sky and seeming, to Alex, to be genuinely happy.
    “For me, it’s the best part of the deal. I played football, you understand, and I wrestled and ran track. I always liked this stuff,” Michael said, sounding almost bashful. “And then when I came here, they taught me how to fight, and it all came together for me. I can push myself so much harder now, and those little machines clean it all up for me. Our ligaments don’t tear, Alex, our tendons don’t snap, and if they did, why, you’d be better in a couple of weeks. As long as you remember to give your body raw materials, you won’t ever overheat or have glucose problems. Plus, those machines enhance performance — they can carry oxygen, or remove dead cells, or form seals around injuries and subcutaneous bleeding. They can tailor nutrients and deliver them. They can even process lactic acid and reduce muscle cramping.”
    “Wow,” Alex said, looking dreamily at the hand he held up between his eyes and the weak afternoon sun.
    “Yes,” Michael agreed, standing up. “But they can’t do the work for you, Alex. Up and at them. We aren’t done here.”
    “I start class tomorrow,” Alex said.
    Michael looked surprised, then nodded.
    “Was it like this, for you?” Alex asked, looking stricken, his fingers knotting with anxiety. “Were you this nervous when you started, Michael? Did it all feel this weird?”
    “Yes,” Michael said seriously. “I think everyone feels that way.”

    It took so much effort to get up off the bed, to walk across the room on his aching legs, that Alex gave serious consideration to the idea of ignoring the soft, insistent knock. He only didn’t because he was fairly sure that Vivik would stand there, knocking gently in patient intervals, until the door fell down. Because Michael had told him to keep an eye on Alex, no doubt.
    Alex opened the door and then limped back to the bed, leaving the door behind him open and Vivik to make his own way in. He barely had the energy to keep his eyes open.
    “You look terrible,” Vivik said, taking the chair at Alex’s writing desk. “They must be pushing you real hard.”
    Alex nodded wearily.
    “I’m almost happy that class is starting,” Alex said, “because that means only three days a week with Michael, instead of six. I think any more of this might actually kill me.”
    “I doubt it,” Vivik said, grinning, “if you’re important enough for them to pull a Board member and department head away from his classes for three weeks so he can personally tutor you, I doubt very much that they would kill you and waste the investment. Or allow you to die at all, for that matter.”
    “Well, that’s a comfort. Not to be a dick or anything, but,” Alex nodded painfully at his sprawled body, “since I’m in a lot of pain here, and was thinking pretty hard about bed, did you have anything you needed, Vivik?”
    “What? Oh, no, nothing big,” Vivik hedged, toying nervously with a pen from Alex’s desk. “Are you worried at all, about tomorrow? I was pretty scared, my first day. And nobody knew who I was, or anything.”
    “Wait a minute,” Alex said, attempting to sit up, and then abandoning the effort partway, when he realized that inclining his head was the most he was currently capable of. “Why would that be any different for me?”
    “Well, as a matter of fact,” Vivik said, smiling nervously, “it seems that pretty much everyone knows that you are starting class tomorrow, Alex. Most of them heard about it a couple weeks ago, after you were evaluated and graded. That you spent the last three weeks in seclusion, training one-on-one with Michael just added to the mystique, I think.”
    Alex groaned.
    “It’s not so bad, Alex. A bunch of the girls want to meet you,” Vivik offered helpfully.
    “Yeah?” Alex tried to make sure his voice sounded nonchalant, but he wasn’t sure how successful he was, based on Vivik’s sly smile. “Why would that be?”
    “Please. You can’t be serious.” Vivik did a double-take. “Wait. Are you serious?”
    “Yeah,” Alex said, nodding as best he could. “I don’t get it. Whatever it is.”
    Vivik sat back in the chair and crossed his legs, looking very much like he was planning on staying. Alex was a little annoyed at this, but he’d realized a few days before that knowing Vivik meant putting up with his somewhat deficient respect for personal space, so he let it go.
    “I heard about you the first time while you were still in the infirmary,” Vivik said, clearly relishing the opportunity to tell the story. Alex got the distinct feeling that Vivik didn’t get the chance to talk to people much. “Some guys were saying that they’d found you in L.A. somewhere, that Mitsuru brought you back after a big fight with the Weir. They also said that you were some sort of anomaly, an M-class, and that you were capable of some kind of unique protocol, something that no one had been able to do before — and that all the cartels were interested in you. And that you were going to be in our class.”
    Alex perked up a bit, despite himself. It couldn’t hurt to know a bit more about what he was getting into.
    “Of course, they also said you were big and tough and cool-looking,” Vivik said, smirking. “So they got that part wrong. But things had been quiet around here for a while, and when things get quiet, people start to tell stories. I figured that this was more of the same, and that you’d show up in class eventually and turn out to be just like everyone else here. But when I walked into the cafeteria that morning, Alex, half the empaths and Anastasia had rushed back home!”
    Vivik paused for reaction, and then shook his head when Alex continued to stare blankly.
    “God, you still don’t know anything? What is Michael teaching you, anyway?”
    “How to hit stuff.”
    “Great. That should come in handy when you run out of things to say,” Vivik said, rolling his eyes. “They were the important people, Alex, the whole future leadership of the various cartels. They’d been brought back home in a hurry, to get instructions — instructions about you.”
    “Am I in some kind of danger?” Alex asked, puzzled.
    Vivik gave Alex a pitying look.
    “Only of being wined and dined,” Vivik said with a hint of scorn. “They don’t want to hurt you, Alex, they want to recruit you. They brought back all those kids because they knew they would be your classmates, and therefore the people who would have the most contact with you, and the most likely to be your friends.”
    “That’s kind of creepy,” Alex observed, stretching out a yawn in the hopes it would serve as a polite suggestion.
    “You should get used to it,” Vivik said sternly. “Because it’s going to be that way until you give in and join one of them. Then everything is reversed.”
    “Wait, what?”
    Vivik sighed and stood up.
    “Everyone will love you as long as you are a free agent. As long as you stay undecided, everyone in Central will fall all over themselves to help you out. So you had better be prepared for that,” Vivik admonished. “But you need to be ready for what happens after you commit. Because as desperate as the cartels are to get their hands on you, Alex, they will be even more desperate to make sure that no one else does. You need to be ready for it, because it’s going to be weird. At first everyone will be your ally, your confidant, your friend and potential lover, but you won’t be able to trust any of them. And then one day, inevitably, the tables will turn on you, and then suddenly all of these people who have cared for you and been close to you, well, they will turn on you. I see things, Alex. I’m a remote viewer. Does that make any sense?”
    Vivik waited for a response, but Alex said nothing, his eyes hidden behind his folded hands. After a moment, Vivik stood up, pushed the chair in quietly, shook his head at the sleeping boy, and left the room, closing the door silently behind him.


    “You seem disappointed,” Vivik observed, leading him along a cement path through spindly birch trees, a small creek gurgling beside the walkway.
    Alex blinked uncomfortably as the sun broke the through the leaves. It was bright out, and no one had thought to grab his sunglasses from the trailer. Alex walked with his hands balled up in his pockets, shoulders hunched in the unfamiliar blazer. The uniform still felt weird to him, even if everyone around him was wearing a variation on it.
    “I was hoping the skirts would be shorter,” Alex mumbled, staring at a group of teenage girls sitting by the creek side. The wind carried the muffled sounds of their conversation and fragments of their laughter.
    “You watch too much anime,” Vivik grinned at him. “I think all uniform skirts are around the knee, no matter where you go. I did the British boarding school thing for a while, you know. Much worse. All guys.”
    Despite the sun, Alex was enjoying the walk. The campus was beautiful, and the Indian kid was friendly, something that Alex was still trying to adjust to. Michael had told him that his record had been wiped completely when he was admitted to the Academy — a fresh start, as he had put it. He’d even offered Alex the opportunity to change his name, and he entertained the thought briefly, but couldn’t see learning to respond to something else. Michael had warned him that the wipe wasn’t absolute, that if someone had the time, inclination and resources that they could dig it up — but he’d also assured him that no one would care.
    That had seemed to be true, at least so far. Vivik hadn’t asked him any questions at all about his past. Rebecca had asked a few questions here and there, but she was the school councilor or something, so that was only natural. Anyway, Alex had to admit that Rebecca was almost impossible not to trust by her very nature, empathy be damned. Alex even felt like maybe Michael was someone he could trust a bit, that he was probably even learning to like. Alex smiled to himself. So that was three, already. Three potential friends. Three times the number that he’d had before… or, wait, did that make sense? If he’d had no friends before, then…
    Alex was so caught up thinking about this that he didn’t notice Vivik’s friendly chatter, pointing out interesting sites along their walk, and he didn’t notice when it stopped, either. Or that he was abruptly walking alone, Vivik having stopped in his tracks several feet back, with the rest of the people who were paying attention to what was going on around them. He didn’t even see Mitsuru until he’d practically walked into her.
    He managed to stop in time, a step away from colliding with her. She stood in the sidewalk, arms folded in front of her. The uniform she wore was superficially similar to his, but with a black blazer, rather than blue, and with a completely different patch on her breast pocket. The last time he’d seen her, her hair had been tied back, and now that it was down, he was surprised at how long it was, hanging almost to her waist, silken black and utterly straight. She looked at him emotionlessly with her unnerving red eyes.
    “Boy,” she said softly, “you should learn to watch where you are going. It seems to be a reoccurring problem.”
    Alex recognized her immediately, of course — the list of people who’d saved his life recently was pretty short, and there weren’t too many attractive ladies with crimson eyes on it.
    “Oh,” he managed, trying to collect himself, “I think that, um, I think I owe you a thank you, for, well, you know.”
    Panicked at her blank expression, his stuck his hand out.
    “My name is Alex,” he said, his voice suddenly ridiculously small and squeaky. “Thank you for helping me.”
    If Mitsuru had any opinions on the matter, her face gave Alex no clue of it. She continued to stare placidly at him. Eventually, he let his hand drop to his side. As Alex tried desperately to think of something to say, his cheeks reddened under Mitsuru’s impassive eyes. When he heard Vivik hurry up next to him, he felt profound gratitude for the intervention.
    “Miss Aoki,” Vivik said apologetically, “good morning. Have you met Alex already? Today is his first day.”
    Mitsuru gave Vivik a small nod, her eyes never leaving Alex.
    “I’ll see you on the seventeenth, boy,” she said, abruptly striding past them, heading back the way they’d come. Alex couldn’t help but watch her walk away. She looked better in a skirt.
    “What the hell was that?” Vivik wondered. “You already know her, Alex?”
    “Sort of,” Alex admitted, shakily resuming his walk to class, trying not to notice that people were staring and whispering.
    “And what’s with seventeenth?” Vivik asked with a huge, mischievous grin. “You haven’t even been to class yet and you already have faculty asking you out?”
    Alex felt a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. He dragged the repeatedly folded class schedule from his jacket pocket, and looked at it grimly.
    “Oh man,” he said softly. “Fuck me. The seventeenth is the first day of the ‘Applied Combat Fundamentals’ workshop, seven in the A.M. I am so dead.”
    Vivik nodded, and slapped Alex companionably on the shoulder.
    “’Fraid so,” he said cheerfully. “Miss Aoki has quite the reputation…”
    “For what?”
    Vivik lowered his voice, and looked seriously at Alex.
    “I heard she’s a psycho,” Vivik confided, glancing around suspiciously to make sure no one was walking near enough to them to hear. “I heard that she killed another Operator, a while ago, and so they kept her locked up or something for a long time. She’s supposed to be like a hundred years old…”
    Alex looked at Vivik skeptically.
    “She’s supposed to be what?” he scoffed. “There is no way she’s a hundred years old.”
    “You can’t rely on looks to make that kind of determination here, Alex. Lots of Operators can control their appearance, or slow down their aging process,” Vivik explained patiently. “It’s probably a bit much to try and absorb all at once.”
    Alex just shook his head.
    “Man, she’s not a hundred years old…”
    “Yeah, okay,” Vivik admitted. “You’re probably right about that.”
    “Here we are,” Vivik said, pointing to a four story building made from the same monotonous slate grey stone is everything else, set back in a stand of middle-aged oak trees. The creek burbled nearby, detailing a gentle curve around one side of the building, and then disappeared into an underground channel. On the other side of the building there was a large grassy field, vivid green under the bright sun.
    “This is much nicer than Bakersfield,” Alex said to Vivik, grinning.
    “I’d hope so. I’ve been to Bakersfield once,” Vivik said, with a laugh. “Come on, let’s get moving, we’re gonna be late.”
    Vivik used his swipe card to open the door, and then led Alex up a flight of stairs to the second story. The interior of the building was cool and airy, with polarized glass in the windows and buff-colored tile flooring. There seemed to be four classrooms on the floor, but Alex only saw students crowded at the doors of two of them. Inside the nearer one, it was a typical lecture hall — three rows of seats with attached writing desks in a half-circle around a raised dais and podium, with muted grey carpeting and a bank of fluorescent lights overhead. Behind the podium, there was a chalkboard and white board, flanked by a table with a laptop, projector and a tangled mass of cables.
    Most of the class had already arrived, and Alex seemed to feel every eye in the room migrate to him as he and Vivik entered. The students were lounging around the room in small groups, talking in low voices — clearly cliques had already been formed and social rankings established. Alex knew with an iron-clad certainty that he was going to be a very-odd man out.
    As Vivik led him to a seat near the center of the room, Alex’s anxiety worsened. Vivik had greeted a couple of students with nods on the way in, but no one had spoken to either of them, and Vivik clearly intended for them to sit by themselves. It dawned on Alex that it was very likely that the person Michael had picked to help Alex assimilate had not, in fact, made any friends himself. Alex resolved to have a serious discussion with Michael on this issue, as soon as he got enough nerve to.
    Alex was so gloomy over his social prospects, sitting beside the now silent Vivik in the padded plastic seats, that he almost didn’t notice the blond girl until she was standing directly in front of them.
    She was slender and tall, almost as tall as Alex, with long blond hair teased into curls and brilliant green eyes. She wore the same uniform as everyone else, but she it looked nicer on her, Alex thought. Quite a bit better.
    “Are you going to introduce me to your friend, Vivik, or are you planning on keeping him all to yourself?” She leaned down as she talked, looking at Alex with a playful smile. “So unfair.”
    “Not at all,” Vivik sputtered. “I simply haven’t had an opportunity to introduce you, yet.”
    “You have one now,” she said sweetly, still looking at Alex.
    “Alex, this is Emily Muir. Emily, this is Alex Warner.”
    “Pleased to meet you, Alex,” Emily said, holding out one hand to him.
    “Pleased to meet you, Miss Muir,” Alex said, wincing. He hadn’t ever, in his memory, referred to a girl his own age as ‘Miss’, and couldn’t imagine why he’d picked now to start. The hand he shook was smooth-skinned, soft, and recently manicured. Alex wondered if she was wealthy or just very concerned with appearances.
    “Emily,” she corrected, her smile revealing perfect teeth. “I have to admit that I’d heard you were joining our class today. I think most people here have already heard some version of the story.”
    “What story is that?” Alex asked.
    Emily’s grin widened, and she sat down next to Alex.
    “Well, one version I’ve heard is that you helped Mitsuru fight a whole pack of Weir,” she offered cheerfully, twirling a lock of her hair around her finger.
    “W-What?” Alex gasped. “You’ve got to be kidding me! That definitely did not happen.”
    “I didn’t think it was very likely,” she said, winking at him from beneath immaculately styled bangs. “You don’t look the type. Another version I heard was that Mitsuru saved you from being eaten by the Weir.”
    “I think that’s probably closer to the truth,” Vivik offered.
    “Whose side are you on, here?” Alex complained. “Seriously, though, she did save me. It was a one-woman show. I didn’t do anything except fall down and bleed.”
    “Oh, you poor thing!” Emily laughed. “So, what was scarier — the Weir, or Mitsuru?”
    “Well…” Alex began doubtfully, only to be cut off by the arrival at the podium of what could only be the professor.
    He was older, grey haired and slightly disheveled, with several days’ worth of stubble on his chin and a somewhat outdated wool jacket, the same insignia on his breast pocket that Alex had seen on Mitsuru’s blazer. He had a gigantic stack of books that he carried piled precariously on his outstretched arms, while the corners of even more jutted out from the leather messenger’s bag he had slung over one shoulder. As he passed by Alex, he left a wake of pipe tobacco.
    “Come to order, people,” he said in a crisp British accent, piling the books on a table to one side of the podium. “Let’s find seats. We have much to do today…”
    Emily put down her shoulder bag and started digging through it.
    “You don’t mind if I sit here?” She asked innocently.
    Alex shook his head more emphatically than he had intended.
    “Please, by all means…” he said, ignoring Vivik’s amused snort.
    “Alright, alright,” said the teacher, motioning for the class to be quiet. “That’s enough people. We have a new student, today — Alex Warner, could you stand up please?”
    Alex stood up hurriedly, bashing his shin against the seatback in front of him in the process. He did his best to act like it didn’t hurt.
    “Thank you,” the teacher nodded at him. “I am Mr. Windsor. These sixteen fine young men and women will be your classmates for the duration of this lecture course. Duration defined, of course, by your own individual performance.”
    Windsor motioned for Alex to sit down.
    “Very well,” he continued on, “we have much to cover this session, in order to keep this class on pace, and we must find some way to accommodate our newest member as well. Mr. Warner is some weeks behind, and will need assistance to get caught up. I believe, ah, yes… Ms. Muir?”
    “Yes, Mr. Windsor?” Emily asked demurely, still looking down at the notebook in front of her.
    “Would you mind helping our new student for today?” Mr. Windsor powered up the projector next to him. “If you could introduce him to his classmates, during break, and help him through the material, that would be very helpful. I would imagine he would need to share your textbook…”
    “Of course, Mr. Windsor,” Emily said cheerfully, sliding her textbook over so that Alex could see it, too.
    A general muttering spread through the class, but it was quieted by a glance from Mr. Windsor. Alex noticed a black-haired girl looking back at them, one row down and several seats over, glowering at Emily, and looking a bit too young to be in the same class as him. When she noticed Alex looking at her, she shook her head solemnly, and then turned her attention to the notebook in front of her.

    “Well, I am totally fucking screwed,” Alex said glumly, piling lettuce from the salad bar into a bowl. “What the hell was Windsor talking about, anyway?”
    “Yeah, I felt that way at first too,” Vivik agreed cheerfully, using tongs to pull hot rolls from a basket. “Just be glad you didn’t join mid-session. I hear Windsor made some kid take a midterm last year a week after he enrolled.”
    “Vivik!” Emily protested. “That did not happen.”
    “This cafeteria is alright, though,” Alex allowed, puzzling over a variety of pasta.
    He wasn’t kidding. The cafeteria was actually nicer than most of the restaurants Alex had been to. The dining hall itself was huge, easily capable of seating a couple hundred, though there were only thirty or forty students eating at the moment. One whole wall was nothing but windows, and the afternoon sun filtered pleasantly through the trees.
    Alex had been eating with Michael at the staff canteen for the last few weeks, which they’d generally had more-or-less to themselves, and he’d developed a fair amount of respect for the food, which he’d eaten in quantities that astounded him. But, he had to admit that the student facilities were no worse. It was still institutional fare, with the same over-reliance on casseroles, pasta and salad that had been consistent at every cafeteria he’d been to, but the quality was considerably better than anything he’d encountered before. The lasagna that he’d heaped on his plate looked positively edible, and the lettuce for the salad was neither wilted nor ancient.
    “Don’t worry about it,” Emily said, taking a carton of milk from a refrigerator, “you just need a little grounding and you’ll be fine. It’s not actually harder than any other class you’ve ever taken, you just aren’t familiar with the subject matter.”
    “It is much easier when you are raised into it, isn’t it, Emily?” The owner of the grave voice was the black-haired girl from class, who was standing behind them, holding a lunch tray of her own. Up close, Alex was surprised at how young and small she was — she looked like a very serious middle-schooler. She was flanked on either side by one young man who Alex remembered from class, and another, much older one that he didn’t think he’d ever seen before. She was not smiling, but she wasn’t scowling this time, either. Alex couldn’t think of a better way to describe her than severe, her hair parted neatly down the middle and worn straight and spilling over the shoulders of her ornate black dress. “You were planning on telling him, right?”
    Emily sighed theatrically.
    “Well, I was going to introduce you anyway — Alex, this is Anastasia Martynova, the scion of the Black Sun cartel, along with her comrades-in-arms, Renton Vidor, and Edward Krylov.” Emily picked up her tray and started to walk away. “Now, can we eat our lunch in peace?”
    Anastasia looked at Alex thoughtfully. Her lace-fringed black dress looked too hot for the weather to him, in an overly gothic sort of way. He wondered how much younger than him she was, and why she was in the same class with him. She didn’t look more than thirteen or fourteen. Maybe she was a gifted student? Did they even have such things, here?
    “Choose your company carefully, Alexander. You spend enough time associating with Emily, and people might start making assumptions,” she warned.
    Alex nodded diplomatically, totally unsure of what to make of her advice. Anastasia shrugged and then turned away, motioning for the two boys to follow her. Renton — the older, blond kid — grinned at Alex in a troubling way, while the younger Edward gave him a friendly nod before departing.
    Alex stared after them for a moment, then gave up trying to figure things out, and followed Emily and Vivik over to an empty table to eat his lunch. He got in maybe five bites.
    He heard the goon walk up behind him, heard him snickering. And Alex knew there couldn’t be any good reason for anyone to be standing right behind him. But he wasn’t there to start shit, either.
    “Hey new kid.” Alex turned to face him, sighing. He was a big guy, with deep set, mean eyes and the cauliflower ears of a wrestler. “Seems like you’re already pretty popular around here.”
    Alex stared evenly back at the sneering boy. He couldn’t see any benefit in responding, so he didn’t.
    “You got something to say to me, fag?”
    He leaned close, and Alex winced at his breath, and wondered if he ever brushed his teeth. Alex tried to look away without seeming bothered.
    “No? You scared or something, huh?”
    “What is your problem, Steve?” Emily asked sharply, impaling lettuce with a plastic fork. “Don’t you have anything better to do?”
    Steve’s eyes narrowed.
    “He one of yours, Emily?”
    Alex noticed a hint of caution in the idiot’s voice. Alex was starting to understand why orphans were so much more vulnerable at the Academy. It was a lot like how things had worked back at the Youth Facility, where the only thing more dangerous than being in one of the gangs was not belonging at all.
    Emily shook her head.
    “He just got here, Steve. Why don’t you try not to make us all look like assholes this time, huh?”
    “Why don’t you stay the fuck out of my business, Emily? If he isn’t one of yours, then it isn’t any of your concern.”
    “This is boring,” Alex said, turning back to his lasagna. “You don’t have shit to say to me, anyway.”
    He set his teeth when Steve flicked his ear with the tip of his index finger, determined not to make a noise. It was painful, but controlling his temper was more difficult. Alex was tempted to settle things right then, but he reminded himself that it would be better to pick his time.
    “You’re lucky, fag. But one of these days, your girlfriend won’t be around, and then you and me are gonna have a little talk.”
    Steve’s grin was dumb, obscene.
    “I think we probably will,” Alex said, trying to sound more confident than he felt, struggling to cut the crust of the lasagna with a frustratingly dull plastic knife. “Watch your back, asshole.”
    “Whatever.” Steve stood for a moment, leering, and then he sauntered off to bother someone else.
    For a long moment, the table was silent, as Emily and Vivik stared at Alex. Alex shoveled food in his mouth without paying it any attention, forcing his shoulders to relax, his jaw to unclench.
    “So, Emily, was what Anastasia said about you true?” He kept his voice casual, trying to cut a roll in half with the questionable plastic knife.
    “Sure,” Emily replied, opening her milk, still looking at him with obvious concern. “I was going to tell you. There’s nothing sinister about it. I was born into the Raleigh Cartel, on the opposite side of the fence as Anastasia. But since I’m still a student here at the Academy, I’m unaffiliated.”
    “Emily,” Vivik said around a mouthful of salad, “you aren’t being entirely honest with Alex.”
    Emily set her milk back down on the table and then glared at Vivik.
    “How so? I still haven’t made any decisions, yet. I’m not like Anastasia — my family isn’t particularly important.” Emily looked pleadingly at Alex. “I’m not trying to recruit you, Alex, I promise.”
    “Not yet anyway,” Vivik muttered, pulling the foil cap off a container of yogurt. “Weren’t you going to do some introductions, anyway?”
    “Well, I’d hoped to finish lunch first,” Emily complained, glaring at Vivik. “But since you’re getting all pushy about it.”
    Emily looked around the room briefly, and then pointed to a nearby table where two boys and a girl sat, talking quietly and seriously.
    “So that table over there are the other Hegemony cartel kids from our class — the girl is Louise and the guys are Manual and Gary.” Emily turned around in her chair, and pointed to a set of two tables in the center of the room, each with several students eating lunch at them. The conversations here seemed to Alex to be a bit more natural, more appropriate to the age of the speakers, if not the setting. “Those are mostly orphans, over there, Rise, Sujan, and Chris at the near table, and that’s William, Choi, and Marko at the far table. You already met Anastasia and the Black Sun contingent…”
    “And what about them?” Alex asked, pointing at the far corner of the room.
    “Who?” Emily asked, turning around to look. “Oh, bad scene.”
    “How so?” Alex asked, feeling his gut tighten. Even from here, he could hear the big guy’s tone of voice, and he didn’t like it at all. He couldn’t hear what he was saying, but he’d been around enough to read between the lines.
    “The bastard from earlier, his name is Steve, and his hanger-on is Charles,” Emily said grimly, “and they are bad news for the girl sitting at that table.”
    “The weird one with blue hair, we call her Eerie, she’s half-Fey.” Vivik looked down at his food and shrugged. “The one they aren’t bothering, the redhead, Margot, is a vampire.”
    “Wait, what?” Alex stared at Vivik, his fork frozen halfway to his mouth.
    “It’s… complicated.”
    “We don’t kill them?” Alex asked incredulously.
    “Ha, uh, no,” Vivik sputtered. “Not since blood banks were invented, anyway.”
    “But they eat at the cafeteria? I mean, like, food?”
    “Well, yes,” Vivik said, brightening up at the change of topic. “Just because they can’t produce hemoglobin on the own doesn’t preclude them from varied nutritional requirements.”
    Alex glared, and Vivik sighed.
    “Yes,” he confirmed tiredly. “Yes, they eat food.”
    “There is an understanding,” Emily interjected, shaking her head. “The vampires have a sort of embassy, here in Central. The younger ones usually come to the Academy for a while. The only Fey I know about is Eerie, so I don’t know what her deal is, but she’s been at the Academy forever. They’re both students here.”
    “Except that they’re treated a bit different then everyone else, right?”
    Vivik looked up at Alex’s strange tone of voice, and tried to look him in the eyes, but Alex refused to meet his gaze.
    “Mostly, yeah,” Vivik admitted sheepishly. “Some people give Eerie a pretty hard time. Nobody bothers a vampire, particularly not Margot, but…”
    As if on cue, there was a crash and then a brief cry from the corner table. Alex didn’t even bother to look up.
    “And Steve, he’s a tough guy, right?”
    Alex stood up, still looking at the ground in front of him.
    “He’s the biggest and the strongest kid here, right?”
    “I guess so,” Emily said, worried. “At the moment. I think Anastasia left already, or he wouldn’t have pulled this.”
    “Alex, what are you thinking of?” Vivik asked, looking up with obvious concern. “The staff here won’t let anything too bad happen.”
    “Right,” Alex said, turning away abruptly and walking from the table. “That’s good, then.”
    “Alex?” Emily called after him, but Alex was already halfway to the lunch line.
    It was the same everywhere. Alex could have written a book about it.
    School. Mental hospital. Juvenile Hall. Work camp. Halfway house. Alex had been to them all, and he’d seen the same thing in every one of them. After the first few years, he’d pretty much gotten used to it.
    There was always someone who threw their weight around, someone who intimidated everyone else. It didn’t even matter that Steve hadn’t started on him yet — he would eventually. It was inevitable, Alex being the new kid, lacking the obvious security that came with the cartels. Even if Alex hadn’t had a giant bull’s-eye hanging on his chest, he’d be targeted for being new, different, and friendless. This was yet another price that Alex would pay for staying unaffiliated.
    He ran his eyes along the cafeteria counter, now half-disassembled by a host of white-clad staffers. Alex settled on a solid-looking metal tray.
    “I’m going to borrow this for a second, ‘kay?”
    Alex didn’t wait for an answer from the puzzled worker, heading rapidly off toward the corner table before his nerve gave out.
    Alex had spent some of the time after his trial in a State Hospital. Two weeks after he’d arrived, he’d been attacked by a couple Dominican kids in the kitchen where he mopped the floors. He’d ended up half-killing one of them with a metal cooking pot, and then spent two weeks in the infirmary with a hole in his gut from where the other kid had stabbed him. No one had bothered him again, after that. He’d even played cards with one of the Dominicans, a few times, while they were both the infirmary.
    It only lasted until he’d been transferred to a different institution, of course. The next time it had been a peckerwood cellmate, who’d probably grown up ten minutes down the road from Alex in some other white-trash hole, who had tried to bash his head in with a plastic chair.
    Alex wasn’t thinking very clearly, and his head was buzzing. Some of it might have had to do with the training, too — in all honesty, he’d been all jacked up for days, just looking for an excuse to try it out on somebody. And the Academy, in Alex’s eyes, was simply another institution.
    The redhead, Margot, was staring down at the plate in front of her, ignored and seemingly oblivious to what was going on around her. Even in the heat of the moment, he couldn’t help but notice that vampires ate a lot of salad, or at least this one did. Near the end of the table, Steve and Charles leaned over a girl sprawled out in spilled food and dishes. She was still sitting where she’d fallen, looking confused, and her eyes wide and blank. Her sweatshirt was splattered with red sauce, and the majority of a bowl of pasta sat on her skirt.
    “Aw, poor thing,” Steve said, crouching down beside the girl with an oafish grin. The other boy cackled. “It looks like you had another accident. You have terrible balance, freak.”
    Steve winked at Charles, who laughed even harder. Alex was very sure the toady wouldn’t be a problem.
    “Let me help you with that,” Steve said, reaching toward the pasta, and then, casually, flipping the girl’s skirt up, exposing her panties. Charles howled with laughter, and the girl gasped.
    “Hey, Steve…” Charles said nervously, much too late for a warning to help.
    Alex would have liked to have said something cool. He was so angry his hands were white where he gripped the tray, and he would have shared his opinion of Steve, Charles, and his tittering classmates who were watching, but words wouldn’t convey the message the way a metal tray upside Steve’s head would.
    He held the tray in both hands and swung it as hard as he could, catching Steve solidly behind his left ear with a meaty thud. Steve cried out in pain and surprise, and tried to turn around, but Alex had already pulled back for another swing. The second blow hit even harder than the first, connecting with the boy’s temple, and the tray warping with the force of the impact. Steve cried out again and fell to the floor, eyes closed, clutching his head.
    Alex stepped over him, smiled, and raised the tray above his head. Steve opened his eyes just in time for the tray to catch him in the mouth. Steve shrieked again, and then rolled onto his side, spitting blood and a tooth on to the cafeteria floor. Alex dropped the tray to the floor with a crash, thought for a moment, and then kicked Steve in the side of the head for good measure. He shot a warning glance at Charles, but he’d apparently decided to let Steve fight his own battles, or at least the losing ones, and was standing nervously several feet away, trying his best to look uninvolved.
    Alex walked over to the girl, who was staring at him in frank astonishment. He was surprised and pleased to see that her face was dry, that she was tougher than she’d looked. Or maybe she was used to it. Then Alex noticed that the girl’s striped panties were still visible, and he turned bright red.
    He held out a hand to her, struggling to simultaneously stare and avert his eyes.
    For a moment, he thought the blue-haired girl would just stare at him, and got apprehensive and embarrassed. Then he felt a small, warm hand in his own, and he pulled her gently to her feet, the remaining pasta splashing to the floor.
    Alex wondered why she wasn’t required to observe the dress code — the black skirt was part of the uniform, and maybe the black knee socks as well, but she also wore a loose grey sweater that hung off her shoulders that was clearly not.
    “Are you okay? Can you walk? Do you need help?”
    The words tumbled out, one after the other, faster than he could think. They just spilled straight out of his mouth and into the air, surprising and unfamiliar. His body felt very warm, for some reason, and all the lights had halos around them.
    “You aren’t hurt, are you?”
    “No,” she said, shaking her head, looking puzzled and releasing his hand. “Who are you?”
    “The fuck are you thinking? You’re the one who gets hurt, dumbass,” Steve snarled, one giant hand clutching the side of his head, his face snarling and bloody.
    He’d propped himself up on the table with one arm, glaring unsteadily and swaying. Alex realized that the room had gone silent, and everyone, except the purported vampire at the other end of the table, was watching the scene develop. His anger flared again, and he turned around to face Steve.
    “I couldn’t understand you there, Steve. You develop a speech impediment all of a sudden?”
    Alex tried for a cocksure smile, but his voice squeaked as he walked forward, sure that he was about to get his ass kicked.
    “That’s it!” Steve howled. “You are fucking dead!”
    Alex didn’t see a transition, if there was one. One moment, there was a jerk that looked like a linebacker standing in front of him, and then the next, there was a living statue. Where there had once been skin, there was now something that looked like rock, stony grey protrusions jutting out of his torn uniform. When Steve took a step forward, the linoleum cracked under his weight.
    “Any other funny shit you’d like to say?”
    Steve’s voice had become a roar, and the enormous hand wrapped around his forearm felt like granite, the surface cold and abrasive. The pressure was immediately intolerable, and it was all Alex could do to avoid falling to his knees.
    He watched the other stone fist pull back with resignation. No way to dodge with the grip Steve had on him, and no point in even trying to block the punch. What a strange way to die, Alex thought, his head spinning, his eyes watering with pain at the intense pressure on his arm. Beaten to death by a statue.
    Alex wondered if that was any better than being eaten by wolves.
    “Steve? Alex? Any possibility of a word with you two gentlemen?”
    Michael came striding across the cafeteria purposefully, his smile sad and knowing. In his wake, all of the whispering and gossiping students who had crowded around during the altercation rapidly found other things to do. Steve released Alex’s arm, and Alex immediately hugged it to his chest, both of them trying to act like nothing had happening. His arm even more after Steve let go, and Alex wondered if he’d broken anything. When Alex looked over at Steve, he’d returned to normal, minus the torn clothing. He was breathing hard, and was obviously enraged, but he didn’t look, well, rocky.
    “Steve? Please tell me that you weren’t about to use a combat protocol on another student.”
    Michael towered over Steve disapprovingly. Alex was reminded again that, despite the smile, that Michael was a pretty scary dude, and wondered exactly how much trouble he was about to be in.
    “Mr. Lacroix, sir, he hit me first!” Steve shouted, red-faced, pointing at Alex. “He knocked my tooth out, sir! He hit me from behind!”
    “Terrible,” Michael said grimly. “Is that true, Alex?”
    “Well, yes,” Alex admitted. There was no point in lying about it. “He left out the part where I kicked him in the head, though.”
    Michael looked down at the broken dishes and spilled food, and then at the blue-haired girl, the remains of her lunch still dripping off her sweatshirt.
    “And, how did all this happen, Steve? Anything you’d like to tell me about?”
    Steve looked at the ground and clenched his fists, unable to meet Michael’s gentle eyes, but he said nothing.
    “I thought that might be the case,” Michael said, with a tired laugh. “Alright, Steve, let’s take a walk over to the Administrative building. Alex, I was going to have a chat with you after homeroom already — I suppose we’ll have more to talk about. You can wait in my office after class. Eerie, you can go back to your room and change. If you hurry, you won’t be late. Margot, would you go with her?”
    The pigtailed vampire-girl nodded without looking at any of them, stood up, grabbed Eerie rather roughly by the wrist, and half-dragged her from the cafeteria, still blank-eyed and silent. Alex suppressed an urge to wave at her receding back, and wondered what had gotten into him.
    Michael sighed loudly and stretched, raising his tattooed arms above his head.
    “As if I didn’t have enough tying me to that desk,” he complained loudly, to no one in particular. “Students are definitely the worst part of this teaching gig.”


    She had people call her Evelyn. No special reason — she’d seen a movie, so long ago that she’d forgotten the title, and that had been the name of the main character. It hadn’t been particularly good, but it was the first thing that hopped to mind the next day when someone asked for her name.
    Evelyn, then. She’d called herself that for almost five years now, which was the longest she’d ever kept a name. She wondered if that meant she was becoming sentimental in her old age.
    Still. It beat admitting that she didn’t have a name of her own.
    Witches aren’t human — although they look very much the same. But, like humans, Witches need to sleep, and Evelyn hadn’t gotten any in almost two days. Also, she’d had to kill a number of people in that time, and that always left her feeling a bit ill.
    The safe house’s popcorn ceiling crawled, shifting with the gentle afternoon light that snuck through the blinds. She could hear a television faintly, from the adjacent room, and the hiss of water running through the pipes. Her sisters, watching TV and showering, respectively. The air conditioner hummed, occasionally breaking into fits of coughing and struggling, only to kick over again and resume its work. Evelyn could not close her eyes without becoming nauseous, and she could not sleep with her eyes open. As a result, she lay on her back and watched the ceiling crawl.
    Evelyn was not suffering from pangs of conscience — far from it. Witches maintain their existence with power drawn from human suffering, so in order to survive, Evelyn had spent decades sowing misfortune and grief in the people she encountered, and then harvesting the resulting sorrow and pain. She didn’t feel bad about it — her nature was parasitic, and she had no more choice in the matter than any of the other parasites that preyed on humanity. Her only alternative, after all, was to starve.
    Cruelty wasn’t part of her nature, and she took no special pleasure in causing pain. Evelyn preyed on strangers almost exclusively, which had allowed her to enjoy her relationships with the humans around her over the years — she’d had friends, in a fashion, and lovers whom she’d been genuinely fond of. And she’d done her best, as far as it was possible, to do well by them. This, however, was not always possible.
    She felt no guilt, and she had shown no mercy. Her species was not capable of either.
    Tired of the ceiling, Evelyn rolled onto her side and stared out the window, through a crack in the blinds. She knew the ocean was close, but she couldn’t see it from here. All she could see were tall pines, close to the building, waving in the wind, and beyond that an expanse of green hills.
    Her last assignment had been no different from any other — she, and her sisters, had been ordered to Los Angeles, where they worked their way into predetermined social circles, romances, and jobs. All of their lives had a relationship in some way to a specific import-export firm owned by one of the Operator’s cartels, and they’d wormed their way well inside it. They’d taken on the local color, become invisible, part of the herd.
    Evelyn genuinely did think of humans as a herd — and why not? She meant nothing unkind by it. Cows were benign by nature, patient and useful. She did not consider the comparison to be unflattering.
    She and her sisters had collected information, made reports on the mundane activities of their day-to-day lives, and waited for orders. Evelyn had taken a husband, an executive in the company that she was surveying, and had rapidly charmed and won over his two daughters from a previous marriage. She’d spoiled them; Evelyn was too old for children of her own, and she was surprised to find how much she enjoyed it.
    It might have been different had they been younger. Evelyn wasn’t much for holding babies and PTA meetings. But both girls were already teenagers, and while they’d been wary and hostile at first, it hadn’t taken Evelyn long to win them over. She hadn’t even used her powers — Evelyn was pretty, fun, and fond of spending money and stylish clothes. She acted more like a friend and less like a mother, taking them for manicures, spa treatments and shopping expeditions in Beverly Hills, and within a few months, she could sense the adoration and hero-worship from the two girls.
    Evelyn didn’t feel bad for them, she wasn’t capable of empathy. But she did feel bad for herself, because she’d enjoyed her time with them, their laughter, their whispered confidences, and their shy adoration. She felt bad for herself because she’d been happy, for a little while.
    Orders were orders, and even as she poisoned her family’s dinner, Evelyn was philosophic. She planned on living for a long, long time, after all. There would be many more such opportunities, stretched out over as many years as she could manage. And some Witches grew very old indeed.
    Still, she was angry with her sister Yolanda. The poison she’d provided was meant to be quick and painless, but had instead induced cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, and then, finally, death. It had taken hours, and it had been disgusting. The girls had been able to beg her to call for help almost up until the end. She was still feeling ill, so maybe that was why she didn’t notice the shadow until it was almost too late.
    Or, it could have been the other way — it could have been that since Evelyn was an old and cunning Witch, because she took precautions and slept fully clothed, that her senses were sharp from the misery she’d consumed earlier. Or maybe the Auditors were simply terrifyingly capable, bypassing both the building’s defenses and her own considerable additions effortlessly, but not quite good enough to overcome her instinctual drive to live.
    Evelyn stared blankly at the shadow on the wall, cast by her bed and her prone form on top of it, as it seemed to thicken and writhe. She blinked her eyes to dispel the illusion, holding them closed as long as she could manage the nausea, and then opening them again.
    The woman stepped neatly out of the shadow on the wall, one foot on the safe house floor, the other still somewhere in the dark behind her, disappearing at mid-calf. Her black hair hung in braids and was knotted with trinkets and coils of wire, almost like a Witch herself. She was tall, taller than Evelyn, and wore something black and heavy that was probably armor, stretching from her ankles to her neck, and heavy, blunt-toed black boots. She waved cheerfully at Evelyn, an automatic shotgun with a conical silencer and nylon grips held meaningfully in the crook of her other arm.
    “Good evening, you miserable cunt,” the woman said with a cheerful smile. “My name is Alice Gallow, and I am here in regards to an open Audit, under the authority of Central. Please do resist, as I am in one hell of a terrible mood.”
    Evelyn didn’t respond. She was already too busy with a working, or rather, a series of workings.
    First, she threw fire in the direction of the Auditor — it was a minor working, and she had no illusions about its chancing of doing anything other than distracting the Auditor — but the illumination and the smoke gave her the opening to activate a second, major working, one that she’d kept almost complete for years, for exactly such a situation.
    Evelyn dove backwards, through the wall, into her sister’s room. An outside observer would have been forgiven for thinking that she found a duplicate of herself watching TV in bed in the adjacent room — both she and her sister shared identical features, blond hair, and ice-blue eyes. Even the loose blue dresses they wore were similar.
    “Light,” Evelyn screamed at her sister, the one who sometimes called herself Nadia.
    Nadia looked up from the television, clearly shocked at her sister’s sudden arrival.
    “What do you mean? What’s happening?”
    She reached into a pocket and pulled a small, rose quartz sphere from it.
    “A transporter, an Operator. She uses the shadows to port,” Evelyn said hurriedly. She removed a length of braided red silk from her pocket, and began tearing it at intervals. “As much light as you can, right now. No shadows.”
    Nadia shook her head, swallowing questions, and closed her eyes. Her hand whitened as it clenched tightly around the crystal, squeezing until a fine stream of dust emerged, a small pile of ground crystal on the shag carpet.
    The room lit up bizarrely, every surface burning from within; the walls, the bedding, the carpet all shown with an internal radiance. It was brilliant, and hurt Evelyn’s eyes, but it left only the faintest shadows. Evelyn finished tearing the scarf, and red smoke began rising from it, coalescing in a halo that rotated lazily around her head, describing a circle a meter-wide in gently swirling crimson embers.
    “Is she an Auditor?” Nadia asked, inclining her head in the direction of Evelyn’s room.
    She could only manage a nod, out of breath from the effort of the rapid series of workings. The woman had to be an Auditor; Evelyn had even heard rumors of one who could walk from shadow to shadow. And it was unlikely that the Auditor would have come alone. There was, she knew, no fighting them, not even if they outnumbered her three to one. But, where to run, and how to make it there?
    “What about our sister?”
    Nadia asked the question softly, as if they were hiding from the Auditor. They both knew she was referring to their other sister, the one whom, just lately, had started calling herself Yolanda.
    Evelyn shook her head.
    “If she could have, she would have made it here by now.” Evelyn’s glance kept darting to the door and the window, and she wondered what to do. “But, if she were dead, we would know. So we have to assume they already taken her.”
    Evelyn felt the ebb and flow of power, as Nadia started another working, probably some kind of attack. Apparently, her sister had finally grasped the seriousness of the situation.
    “Don’t think that I don’t appreciate your position.” Evelyn recognized the mocking voice of Alice Gallow, coming from somewhere in the hall, outside the room. “You’ve got to be wondering ‘How did we attract all this attention? What did we do to merit an Audit?’ Am I right?”
    Evelyn had, in fact, been wondering exactly that. She’d been prepared for potential interference from Operators, and she’d anticipated trouble ever since the orders had come down to break up the job before it was completed. But the Auditors? What she had been working on shouldn’t have been big enough to merit their involvement.
    Well, to be totally accurate, Evelyn had been wondering that, until she heard the Auditor’s voice, still glib and cheerful. Since that time, however, she’d mainly wondered if the working she’d held in reserve would be enough to stop her, or any working that she was capable of for, that matter.
    “Plus, you have to be wondering what happened to your sister, right?”
    Evelyn shuddered at the implication.
    “Well, personally, I hate suspense. So, I’m going to do you bitches a favor, and answer that question right now. Xia, do you mind?”
    The window shattered inward, spraying glass as something heavy came crashing through it. Yolanda collided with the bed like a rag doll, and then crumpled on to the floor, limp and motionless. She was naked, mostly, with her clothes reduced to patches and her hair to a smoldering ruin. Her skin was brilliant red over much of her body, the color of lobster, and her hands and face were charred black.
    Evelyn heard Nadia scream, and felt her release the working she’d been holding in the direction of the window, a blue-white electric current searing the hallway in a brilliant flash. Evelyn screamed for her to stop, but it was too late. Nadia’s light working flickered, and then collapsed from inattention, and the room fell back into the natural half-shadow cast by the lamps.
    Alice Gallow stepped from the shadows in front of Evelyn, grinning, her face shining and unhealthily pale. Evelyn released her working, and the red halo above her head became a burning serpent, a crescent of fire that coursed through the air, simmering and howling as it charged the Auditor. Alice waved one outstretched hand dismissively, and the working disappeared, swallowed up by the shadow her arm cast. Evelyn was tossed to her feet by the impact when the working reemerged from the shadows behind her, sputtering and disintegrating.
    Evelyn knew then with a grim certainty that they had lost. The working she’d thrown was the most powerful she knew, and the serpent should have reduced even a capable Operator to ashes. Instead it failed to even touch her. Evelyn clutched her pounding head, still reeling from the blowback of the destroyed working, and wondered why they were here, and why this horrible thing was happening to her.
    Alice Gallow was holding someone’s hand, pulling a man into the room through the shadow behind her. He was taller than her by a few inches with neatly trimmed black hair, his face almost entirely obscured by blue-tinted goggles and a blue surgical mask. Evelyn thought that he might have been Chinese. He wore a heavy black coat that ran almost to his ankles, and Evelyn guessed that this was armor as well.
    “Alright, bitches,” Alice said amiably, holding up a large pair of silver scissors with a grin. “One chance. Your clothes, in a pile, right here in front of Xia. Then we do the hair.”
    Evelyn heard Nadia making a choking sound. Alice looked at their reaction, and her smile got even bigger.
    “Otherwise, we do it the way we did your sister, right? And I don’t think you want that.” Alice giggled and sat down on the edge of the bed, rolling the charred, stinking body of the Witch away with her foot. “Come on, give Xia a little show. Who knows when he last saw any tits besides mine.”
    Evelyn looked over at Nadia, who was still crouched in the far corner of the room, staring wide-eyed at the Auditor and hyperventilating. She fingered the glass idol in her left hand — the Auditor must know she was holding it, there was no point in making a pretense. Witches can feel fear, and Evelyn felt a great deal at the moment. They can also understand pain, and humiliation — perhaps more than a human could, given that they are the currency of the world that a Witch lives in.
    Evelyn did not understand the Operators ‘Protocols’, but she knew the functional differences between them and the Witches own workings. Witches did not draw power from the Ether, but rather, from the humans around them. This harvested power was stored, in charms and in amulets, in a Witches clothes and her hair. Evelyn had spent years weaving workings into the fabric of the dress she wore, and had been doing the same to her hair her whole life. It was the work, literally, of a lifetime.
    Without her clothes, without her hair, Evelyn would be all but helpless.
    “Auditor,” Evelyn began, trying to keep her voice steady. “What guarantees do you offer us in return for our surrender?”
    Alice leaned her elbows on her knees and looked delighted.
    “Witch, if you do what I say, just like I tell you to, I promise that you will arrive, alive and uncooked, at Central. Whatever they decide to do to you, it’ll be less painful that what I have in mind. Although,” Alice said, her eyes shining wickedly, “you are going to have to cry a bit for me, first.”
    Alice’s laughter was cruel and abrupt, and then suddenly she was behind Evelyn, somehow, clutching her, one hand holding her face tightly while the other caressed her throat.
    “I saw your little family,” Alice cooed, her smile frozen and grotesque. “Those were some nice little girls you had there. It’s too bad that they had to shit themselves before they died. It’s too bad it had to be like that. Now I’m not that nice of a person myself, right Xia? But everybody has limits, even in this business. Everybody has stuff that gets to them. No helping it.”
    She knotted her fingers in Evelyn’s hair and pulled mercilessly, forcing her head back so that she could run her black fingernails delicately across her jugular vein. Evelyn’s breath came in ragged gasps, and she moaned involuntarily.
    “It looked like they hurt,” Alice said softly. “They must’ve cried, because it took them a long time to die. And you ate it up, didn’t you, bitch? That thing you threw at me, that was some of it, their pain, wasn’t it? Did they beg you for help? Did they call you mommy?”
    Evelyn didn’t see any point in denying or confirming it. Alice sighed and tossed her to the floor, leaving her sprawled out next to the twitching body of her burned sister. Alice sat down heavily on the edge of the bed, and rested her chin in her hands, looking glum.
    “Enough of this.” Alice shook her head and then smiled again. “I can see that amulet you’ve got in your hand, creature. Is it a combat working? Go ahead, try it out.”
    Evelyn drew her legs up underneath her, but didn’t stand up, frozen by the smiling Auditor’s stare. She was so frightened that she almost didn’t notice when Yolanda’s consciousness disintegrated, choking on her own burned lungs. It was horrible — the presence that had been in her mind since she was born, her sister and companion for decades, snuffed out like a candle. Evelyn let out another low moan, and her hand tightened around the amulet.
    “You don’t stand a chance, you pathetic shit.” Alice laughed. “I’ve killed more Witches than you’ve met in your whole life, honey. I know all your moves, all the workings, all your little tricks. I could eat you up and spit you out, if I wanted to. You could use up every ounce of power you’ve got, you and your sister, and you wouldn’t even touch me.”
    “Why not do it now, and be finished with us?” Evelyn demanded, seeing a glimmer of hope, her voice firming. “If you could have, wouldn’t you already have done it?”
    Alice shrugged happily.
    “Obviously, you can’t,” Evelyn said triumphantly, smiling up through her tears at the Auditors. “You need us for something, right? You need to know something?”
    “Nah,” Alice chuckled, turning to the masked man and exchanging a knowing glance. “We’re just sending a message. Don’t get delusions of grandeur because we’re here. You aren’t anything special. Any Witch will do, as long as your corpses are ugly enough to make the rest of you think twice after they see them.”
    Evelyn gaped at the Auditor in dismay.
    “Why, then? Why bother keeping us alive?”
    “Because it’s good practice for the kids in the science labs at Central to have a real live Witch to tear apart, so they know how to do it when we catch one that knows something worthwhile.” Alice’s smile was crooked, and her eyes fixed on Nadia. “And because of those little girls, Witch. That’s a score I want to even.”
    Evelyn’s let the idol tumble from her hands on to the carpet next to her.
    “Enough with the bullshit. I’m getting bored, and we don’t need two, anyway. Burn the little one, Xia,” Alice said, nodding at Nadia. “Make it hurt. We’ve got time.”
    Behind his mask, Xia gave Alice a short nod, and then his eyes narrowed, and he stared at Nadia, hard.
    It took a long time before Nadia stopped screaming, her face reduced to charcoal and cinders. And then, when Nadia finally went, Evelyn felt that too, like balloon popping inside her, and then the tears came, when she realized that she was alone inside her head, for the first time in her life.
    She felt bad for herself. She’d liked having sisters.
    “Fucking hell, but that stinks. Well, it’s a start,” Alice said, leaning forward and crooking a finger at Evelyn. “Now crawl on over here, bitch. All fours.”
    Evelyn did as she was told, tears dropping from her cheeks to the scorched carpet. The room reeked of burnt plastic and cooked skin, and she felt sick.
    “Okay, now strip,” Alice said smugly, crossing her legs. “Clothes in a pile, along with anything else you might have on you.”
    Evelyn numbly began to unbutton her dress. Her head ached horribly, where her sisters had always been.
    “Xia, you are watching this shit, right?” Alice asked, bright-eyed and cheerful. “Don’t say I never did you any favors…”


    “Do you want to talk about what happened this afternoon?”
    Rebecca was perched on the front of Michael’s desk, a cigarette dangling from her left hand. She was wearing a pale yellow sweater and a loose cotton skirt, her hair tied casually back, and she didn’t seem mad at Alex at all.
    “Not really. I mean, you already know what happened, right?”
    Alex shifted uncomfortably on the crushed-down cushions of the aging couch in Michael’s office. It was so eerily similar to the one he had destroyed in Rebecca’s office that he half-wondered if it had been moved here instead.
    Rebecca smiled at him benevolently, drawing on her cigarette.
    “I wouldn’t be very good at my job if I didn’t. But I’m interested in what you think about what happened. Don’t get me wrong, Steve’s a piece of work — if the kid didn’t have such combat potential, we probably would have bounced him out a while ago — but your reaction seems a little…”
    “Disproportionate?” Alex smiled ruefully. “You’re probably right. I’m not totally sure what got into me. But when I hit people, I try to make it so they don’t get right back up again, you know?”
    “You learn that in Juvenile Hall?”
    He wasn’t surprised she knew. Honestly, he was surprised how many people couldn’t tell.
    “Sure,” Alex responded earnestly. “Look, I don’t want you to think I’m some sort of psycho who goes around beating people up for no reason. I’d prefer not to fight with anybody. This was, you know,” Alex paused, searching for the words, “preemptive. I would’ve had trouble with Steve, eventually. That’s really all there is to it.”
    “And Eerie?” Rebecca’s eyebrows arched. “What about her?”
    “It’s true that I don’t like watching that kind of thing,” Alex admitted. “But, this was all about taking care of myself.”
    Rebecca looked at him for a long time, and then laughed.
    “You’re the kind of kid who keeps psychologists in business, you know?” She ground out her cigarette in the ash tray, and then hopped off the desk. “I can’t fault you completely, either. Steve did provoke you, and he was tormenting that poor Changeling girl. Not the first time he’s done that, either.”
    “Changeling? Is she like those werewolves? What does she change into?”
    Alex looked confused.
    “No, that’s just an old name for the children that the Fey leave behind,” Rebecca said, as if that explained anything, sitting down next to him on the couch. “Eerie’s had a tough time. There isn’t much of a place for her, here or with the Fey.”
    “I don’t get it,” Alex said miserably. “I’m really trying, Rebecca, but I don’t understand what is going on here.”
    “I do want to help you, Alex…”
    Rebecca looked at the clock and sighed. She was clearly not making her afternoon appointments today.
    “You say that, and I think it’s probably true,” Alex responded, running one hand through his uncombed hair. “But I’m not stupid, Rebecca. You’re helping me because you want something from me. Everyone here wants something from me.”
    “Does that bother you, Alex? That we want something from you?”
    “Actually,” Alex said, smiling shyly, “I’m fine with it. It’s nice to be wanted — that’s all there is to it.”
    Rebecca put a hand on his shoulder, and sighed again.
    “I’m sorry, Alex, but I don’t have a lot of time today. Do you mind if we move on?”
    “Sure,” Alex said agreeably. “I was wondering why you were here, and where Michael was. I thought I was going to get lectured.”
    Rebecca frowned.
    “I think you’ll find the consequences for today to be bit more severe than a lecture.” She leaned back against the cracked leather couch, clearly very tired. “But I’ll leave that for Michael. We have something we need to do.”
    “What’s that?”
    “It’s nothing bad,” she said, waving her hand dismissively. “Do you remember last time? When I built those shields in your head?”
    “Yeah. I can still feel them,” Alex gestured vaguely around his head. “It’s a little weird.”
    “You get used to it after a while,” Rebecca said, nodding. “Has anyone explained protocols to you, Alex?”
    He shook his head.
    “Have you ever heard of a hypnotic trigger?”
    “Sure, I think so,” Alex said uncertainly. “It’s like, once a person has been hypnotized, if they here a certain word or something, it makes them do stuff, right?”
    “Sort of. Close enough,” Rebecca shrugged. “That’s basically what protocols are, Alex. Implanted behaviors and routines, just like on TV where they make people think they’re a chicken or dance around or whatever. Except we teach our students to trigger the behaviors themselves, consciously. You follow?”
    Alex nodded.
    “I think so.”
    “Good. Well, Michael plans on showing you how to use the Absolute Protocol. We already know from your activation that you have the affinity for it. So, he asked me to set up the routine to help you operate it. We call the process implanting,” Rebecca explained patiently.
    Alex thought about it for a while, and then nodded.
    “Okay, Rebecca. I trust you. Let’s do it.”
    Alex smiled at her, and was rewarded by an even bigger smile in return. Rebecca leaned next to him on the couch, resting her head on his shoulder.
    “That’s good, Alex. And I know that it’s the truth, too, I can tell,” she softly, her shoulder pressing against his own, her hair in his face. Alex felt almost as if he were melting. “It feels good. There’s nothing an empath values more than genuine trust and affection. May I use your power, Alex?”
    Alex nodded, his eyes fluttering and his breathing growing deep, regular. Rebecca put the palm of her hand on his chest and pressed lightly.
    “Oh my…” she said, after a moment, sounding surprised. “Alright. I’m going to implant the protocol now. It’ll sting a little bit, and you might get dizzy for a minute, but that will pass quickly, and I’ll be right here with you. Is that okay?”
    Alex nodded slightly, his eyes fully closed.
    “Okay, Alex. This is the Absolute Protocol. In three, two…”
    Perhaps there was a ‘one’, but Alex never heard it. He was only aware of where Rebecca’s palm met his chest, and the copper-toned light that emanated from there. It shown so brightly that he could see it through his eyelids, through Rebecca’s hand. The radiance grew slowly, gradually encompassing his whole body, then both of their bodies, illuminating the room with a dazzling array of sparks and metallic light. Alex shook and writhed and moaned like a child in the throes of a nightmare. Rebecca increased the pressure on his chest, and for a moment the light flared and became entirely white, with only a hint of crimson in the blinding, all-encompassing luminescence. Alex could see nothing else, could feel nothing else but the searing radiance.
    And then it was over. Alex’s head hurt a bit, and he felt a little dizzy, but not bad. He took several deep breaths, and then opened his eyes.
    Rebecca smiled at him, patted him on the leg, and then walked back to the desk. When she tapped a cigarette from the pack, Alex noticed her hands shook slightly.
    “Damn, kiddo…” she said after a moment, blowing smoke at the ceiling. “Okay, the protocol is implanted. I also reinforced those shields we built the other day — you should be good ‘til next week. Come back and see me on Sunday, and I’ll fix them back up for you.”
    Alex rubbed the back of his head and sat up.
    “How long till I can build them myself?” he asked, blinking his eyes and trying to regain his equilibrium.
    “Not long. We’ll teach you that soon. A couple of weeks, on the outside,” Rebecca said dismissively. “Don’t worry about it right now. You need to start with the fundamentals, and then learn the applications, you know? That’s what Michael is waiting out on the practice ground to show you.”
    Alex looked down at himself oddly, then back up at Rebecca.
    “So this is it, huh? I’m actually going to do this. Be an Operator, I mean.” Alex’s voice was filled with wonder and doubt. “I’m a little bit scared.”
    “Don’t be.” Rebecca beamed at him, her brown eyes warm. “Trust me, Alex. You’re going to be more than fine. You’re going to be amazing. You are going to be better at this than you’ve ever been at anything.”
    Alex stood up. Despite himself, he found that he was smiling.
    “Thanks, Rebecca. I guess I’m ready. Where do I go?”

    Alex was again awed by how huge the Academy was — he followed the map Rebecca had drawn through a number of green practice fields, a handful of low stone buildings, and one long stretch of what appeared to be rolling, forested hills. It took him a quarter hour to find Michael.
    The gap cut crudely into the side of a hill had obviously been a quarry at some point in the past, though it looked to have been abandoned years before. Alex walked along the ridge on one side and then down a hand-carved path into a deep depression that narrowed by long, circular steps, with one narrow, uncut ridge rising in the center of the quarry, about half the height of the depression. Michael stood on the edge of that ridge.
    The path so narrow that Alex didn’t feel comfortable walking up it. He didn’t think he’d actually fall off of it, but he felt as if he might, and it was a long way down to the still water at the bottom of the quarry. The rough-hewn walls of rock all around blocked out the sun, and it was quite cool. The pebbles that rolled away from Alex’s feet rang musically against the limestone ridge, falling eventually into the dark water below.
    Michael stood at the edge of the ridge, his arms crossed, smiling companionably. Alex was grateful to find that the path widened out in front of him, and sat down with obvious relief on a large rock next to Michael.
    “How’s it going, Alex?” Michael’s voice was hushed, but the sound still echoed within the old quarry. “How was your first day?”
    “It isn’t over yet, so it’s too early to say,” Alex shrugged. “I’ve had worse.”
    “Fair enough,” Michael agreed. “Let’s talk a bit about that altercation at the cafeteria. Did that work out the way you wanted?”
    “What do you think? I mean, I knew something like that would happen eventually, with all the stories everyone has apparently heard about me. But, I didn’t want it to happen before I had a chance to talk with most of my classmates.”
    “Uh huh.” Michael nodded and waited for him to continue.
    “And yes, alright.” Alex waved his hands agitatedly. “I didn’t expect him to turn to stone. And that’s obviously going to be a problem, since he’s probably thinking about ways to kill me, right now. Unless,” he said hopefully, looking up at Michael, “you were planning on teach me how to fight a living statue today?”
    Michael looked at Alex oddly for a moment, and then laughed.
    “Not exactly what I had planned today, no. You have anything else you’d like to say about it?”
    “Well, actually, I do,” Alex said softly. “Why did you pick Vivik to introduce me to everyone?”
    “You don’t like Vivik?” Michael looked surprised.
    “He’s a nice enough guy,” Alex allowed. “But that isn’t the point. He’s clearly the least popular kid in the class, not counting the two who apparently aren’t even human. So why pick someone that everybody already hates to introduce me to everyone? Are you trying to set me up for this shit? Or is this some kind of test?”
    Michael looked at Alex for a long moment, and then had another laughing fit.
    “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Michael wiped his eyes and composed himself. “It’s good that you’re thinking that way, Alex. A little paranoia will take you a long way at the Academy. But that’s a bit petty, for me. I like to think my plots are a bit more elegant.”
    “So why Vivik, then?” Alex demanded.
    “I thought you’d like Vivik.” Michael spread his hands innocently. “He’s a smart kid. He has some ideas you might find interesting. Plus, it had to be an orphan, right? Otherwise I really would have been setting you up.”
    “Emily seems nice enough…” Alex said resentfully.
    “I warned you about this, Alex.” Michael’s voice turned grim. “Emily is nice enough. I’ve been her teacher since she came to the Academy, and she’s a wonderful student and delightful person. She’s also an empath, Alex, and she was born into the Raleigh Cartel. They are one of the Hegemony’s oldest and most important cartels, as I’m sure you are aware. Did Rebecca tell you much about empaths?”
    “She said that they tend to be in charge of things.” Alex kicked at the ground nervously. “Because people can’t help but like them.”
    “That’s right. Even a moderately powerful empath is pretty much guaranteed to end up in leadership role in their cartel — empaths are rare, so there are more openings than empaths to fill them. Moreover, they’re inspirational and charming by nature, and like you said, pretty much impossible not to like. Born leaders, most of them.”
    Michael reached absently for a pebble, and then tossed it out into the quarry, bouncing it off the rock face and down, into the water.
    “Yes, empaths tend to rise to the top. Except for when they’re class-B empaths, that is. Like, say,” Michael rolled his eyes, “your new friend, Emily.”
    “So? Doesn’t that make her even less of a threat?” Alex brushed his bangs nervously back from his eyes. He’d needed a haircut before he’d come to the Academy, and he hadn’t had time to ask about getting one, yet. “If she’s so weak, then I don’t see what the problem is.”
    “Emily’s future, as a class-B empath in the Hegemony, is to be a housekeeper and plaything for some middling-important cartel functionary. Most empaths don’t have much in the way of combat potential, and she’s no good with the sciences — though she is an accomplished humanities student,” Michael added positively, “and she has excellent taste in literature. But good qualities aside, Emily has a long, mundane lifetime to look forward to. Keep in mind, too, that her father is an important man in the Raleigh cartel, and she’s been raised as part of the upper crust — a position, as an adult, that she cannot maintain without consenting to an arranged marriage.”
    “That is,” Michael added slyly, tapping his forehead, “unless she figures out a way to become a much more powerful empath. The kind of empath who can’t help but rise to the top. What do you figure the best way to do that might be, Alex?”
    Alex felt ill in the pit of his stomach. His interactions with Emily flashed before him in rapid sequence, as he reinterpreted them all, with newly suspicious eyes. She had seemed, in a vaguely haughty way, quite friendly. Could he really have misread her so badly?
    “Keep in mind that doesn’t make her bad person, Alex,” Michael said gently, “or that she doesn’t have your interests in mind, too. Actually,” Michael added speculatively, “an empath might make a very good partner for you, down the road. Their abilities would be complementary…”
    “I don’t want to talk about this stuff,” Alex said, troubled. He didn’t accept Michael’s interpretation — not wholeheartedly. But he didn’t like it, or the implications.
    “Fair enough. Can I remind you to be careful, then, Alex? You’ve got to exercise restraint if you want to make it here. You have tremendous potential, son, but right now you can’t even defend yourself,” Michael said, straightening up and yawning. “Try and only pick the fights you can win, if you must pick fights.”
    “That’s it? That’s the whole lecture?”
    Michael grinned at him evilly.
    “I already arranged for the consequences,” he said, shaking out his dreadlocks and then tying them back again. “You’ll know them when you see them. I guarantee you won’t be so cavalier about knocking people’s teeth out in the future. Particularly not when the Academy’s kindergarten class could probably take you in a fight.”
    “Maybe we should do something about that,” Alex suggested. “Why are we in a quarry, anyway?”
    “To limit damage to the surroundings. I think,” Michael said, his face lighting up, “that you’re going to like this part, Alex.”

    Edward knocked politely before entering her office. Anastasia looked very small behind her mammoth desk, a laptop sitting open in front of her.
    “The in the quarry is online,” he said quietly.
    “Just in time,” she said, with obvious satisfaction. “This should be interesting. Edward, please tell the cook that I am ready for lunch.”
    He closed the door so quietly on his way out that she didn’t even look up.

    Alex stared at the crater in the quarry wall blankly. He opened his mouth as if to speak, then glanced over at Michael’s outstretched hand, blue smoke trailing from the palm, his fingers blackened from volatized carbon, and then looked back at the smoldering indent in the rock.
    “Holy fucking shit,” Alex said breathlessly, turning back to face Michael with the biggest grin he’d ever seen on the kids face. “I mean, like, fuck! Man, just… wait. Wait, wait,” Alex said, rubbing his forehead, “so if you can do that, then…”
    Michael let him trail off helplessly before he took pity on the obviously overwhelmed boy.
    “Why am I not in the field?”
    His expression was gentle, rather than was sad.
    “Right,” Alex said, nodding. “I mean, can’t you just go blow those fucking werewolf things up or something?”
    Michael laughed, but he tried to make sure that it didn’t sound unkind. He didn’t want Alex thinking that he was laughing at him — the kid had already proved to be sensitive, and Michael didn’t want to deal with him moping around for the next week because he’d taken an offhand comment personally.
    “Good question, actually. Until you got to the ‘werewolf thing’ part, anyway. I can only do that once every so often, Alex,” Michael said, smiling and attempting to shrug off the ghost of past embarrassment at the fact. “Whether I knock over a matchstick or level a mountain, it takes me a long while to build it back up.”
    “What,” Alex asked suspiciously, reaching down to finger one of the quartz fragments that had been scattered all around them by the force of explosion, “you mean like once a day or something?”
    “I wish. It’ll be two or three days before I’ll be doing anything like that again,” Michael said, rubbing his hands against his pants to remove the soot. “So now do you understand what makes being M-Class so significant? You might not necessarily be able to wield as much raw power as me in a single instance, but you can do it over and over again.”
    Alex tossed the sparkling piece of gravel in the air a couple of times, catching it midway down and then tossing it up again. He looked like he was thinking about things as he did so, so Michael let it be.
    “That was telekinesis, huh?” Alex asked.
    “I prefer psychokinesis,” Michael said, “but sure. Same thing. Moving things by force of will alone.”
    “I still don’t understand how that’s related to, well,” Alex tossed the rock away and frowned, searching for words, “whatever it is that I can do.”
    Michael had to think about it for a minute before he started, trying to couch it all in a way that Alex would be able to follow.
    “I’m not going to ask you to understand it all. I don’t actually understand some of it all that well myself. But you don’t have to understand it all to make it work for you. There’s this guy, an Auditor here, his name’s Xia. He’s a pyrokine — basically, he can start fires by thinking about it, right? Well, for a long time, they thought that a telekine and pyrokine were two completely different things, so when we were going through the Academy, Xia and I barely even saw each other. These days, we’d be in all the same classes. Turns out what I do in my head, pushing against things, basically, isn’t so different from what Xia is doing when he starts fires. He’s just exciting the molecules within a flammable object until he gets them so energetic that they burst into flames. Same root concept applies to the protocol I just showed you.”
    Alex frowned, and Michael could see he wasn’t buying it, at least, not yet. But he was thinking about it, so that was a start.
    “Okay, but every time we talk about my protocol, you start talking about the Ether…”
    “Right,” Michael said, nodding, “but it isn’t actually the Ether that you manipulate. You punch holes in reality, Alex, in whatever separates our universe from the Ether itself. Depending on how you do it, that creates a vacuum on one side or the other. When the vacuum is on our side, Etheric energy comes rushing over into our world to fill it, thus, the catalytic effect. When you create the vacuum on the Etheric side, matter and energy from our universe is pulled into the Ether, like water down a drain, or a hole in the side of spaceship. If the hole you punch is small, only energy can escape, and that creates extreme cold, and eventually kinetic stasis, on our side. A bigger hole and matter will be pulled through it. A big enough hole…”
    “And the whole universe goes down the drain?” Alex asked, trying to sound contemptuous, but looking a little worried at the possibility.
    “I don’t think so, but let’s not tempt fate, okay?” Michael said mildly. He had to give Alex time to wrap his head around it, he reminded himself, even if it meant going slower than he would’ve normally liked to. This wasn’t like teaching the kid to square his shoulders when he threw a punch, after all. “Besides, I think that a small hole, a little pinprick, might actually be more useful than a big one. I think even a tiny breach will be enough to pull most of the radiant energy, all of the heat and motion, out of the surrounding area. Do you know what happens when absolute zero is reached, Alex?”
    “It’s impossible,” Alex said, with surprising firmness. “Anastasia told me so. You can only get so close, and then you’re always a fraction short. You can reduce the fraction, but you can’t make it go away.”
    Michael covered his alarm with an indulgent smile. Why, he wondered, was Anastasia talking to Alex about absolute zero?
    “True. But, if it was possible, do you know what would happen?”
    While Alex considered it, Michael’s mind was elsewhere. Could Anastasia somehow already be aware of Alex’s affinity for the Absolute Protocol? Was that even possible? Rebecca’s notes, circulated only through the upper levels of the Academy’s staff, should have been the only source for such information. But, how could Anastasia have gotten access to those kind of documents?
    From a staff member. That was the only way.
    “Um. Everything would freeze…?”
    Alex guessed more than he stated, not willing to fully commit to his answer, frowning and wrinkling his brow.
    “Well, yes,” Michael said hastily, putting aside his suspicions. “More importantly, however, everything would stop. Alex, absolute zero is a completely non-energetic state — no motion, even on a molecular level. So, potentially, you could freeze things in more ways than one.”
    Alex nodded slowly, but looked doubtful at best. That was alright with Michael, though. Everyone had to start somewhere.
    “Okay, so, what do I do?”
    Michael smiled encouragingly, doing his best to put aside his concerns about Anastasia.
    “Rebecca already implanted the Absolute Protocol in your mind. Do you remember how to activate it? The routine?”
    Alex nodded slowly, clearly going over something in his head.
    “Okay, then let’s try it. Go ahead and focus on that end of the quarry,” Michael instructed patiently, pointing at the opposite side of the depression, close enough to see, far enough to be safe. “You don’t need to do anything fancy. Let’s see how far you can reduce the ambient temperature.”
    Michael wasn’t sure what the activation routine Rebecca implanted was — they varied, after all, depending on the protocol and the Operator involved. His own routine was loosely based on some Tai Chi movements that he found helpful when he was trying to focus. Whatever it was that Alex did, it was subtle. All that happened outwardly was that Alex sighed, shook out his hands, and closed his eyes for a moment. Then he opened them again, took a couple deep breaths, and squinted at the rock face on the far side of the quarry as if it were very far away.
    He was prepared to wait. Protocols were tricky to use, and even with the hypnotic routine implanted to make them easier, students often struggled for weeks before they got the hang of doing it on command. Alex apparently did not have that problem. Michael was considering saying something encouraging, maybe suggesting a second try, when he noticed the frost sparkling in the sun; a light, uniform coating, glistening across the dull face of the rock.
    “Excellent, Alex!”
    Michael almost shouted, he was so excited, but Alex didn’t even appear to notice. He just continued trying to bore a hole in the rock with his eyes, and all around where he stared, the rock creaked and moaned while the air filled with a sound like tiny bells ringing. It took Michael a moment to realize that he was hearing the water in the air spontaneously freezing and then falling to the ground in crystals that shattered on impact.
    “Okay, Alex, that’s good. Shut it down.”
    Michael waited for a moment, but the kid seemed to be unaware of him, locked into his bizarre staring contest with the wall of the quarry. Amazingly, Alex seemed to be gaining ground, as the scree slope made ominous settling noises, and then parts of it started to give way, small rivulets of gravel and sand running down channels in the stone as the wall itself shifted to accommodate ice crystals forming where water had been trapped inside the stone.
    “Alex, stop. Stop now.” Michael hoped that his voice sounded firm, not worried. But whatever it sounded like, he was fairly certain that Alex didn’t hear it. Michael reached for the boy’s shoulder, meaning to shake him, but his hand stopped of its own accord halfway. He looked closely at the wall, trying to confirm what he thought he’d seen.
    The rivulets of sand and pebbles, the streams of earth that had threatened only moments before to become a small avalanche had halted in mid-air, halfway to the ground, hovering uncertainly, each fragment slowly rotating in midair as it was caught in the impasse between two opposing forces. Even though he knew immediately what was happening, it took a moment for Michael to process it.
    Something inside the rock face, something Alex was doing, had created a force powerful enough to counteract gravity, and the forces were balanced perfectly enough that the dirt dislodged from the rock face was held in suspension between them, waiting for the situation to resolve itself, equally pushed and pulled. And then, almost as soon as he put a name to what he was seeing, the equation unbalanced, in favor of the force Alex was generating, and the dust began to drift upward, back toward where it had fallen from. The complaints of the rock face itself grew louder and more urgent.
    “Alex, stop this right now!”
    Hoping to break the visual contact and disrupt his protocol, Michael turned Alex around forcefully, grabbing him by the shoulder. But the boy almost fell over when he put pressure on him, and the eyes that he turned on Michael were blank and unseeing, rolled so far back in his head that only the whites were visible. Michael lowered Alex carefully to the ground, then turned back to the slope, in time to see it draw in on itself, the rock fracturing like glass and then disintegrating into sand. It was drawn to an invisible core somewhere within the rock, draining down into itself, and then disappearing. All around the collapsing quarry wall, frost had taken hold, expanding out to cover half of the quarry with a furry white blanket. Michael realized with a certain inevitable horror that he could see his breath, despite the warmth of the day.
    Michael grabbed the boy by his shoulders, shaking him violently, and shouting at him. Alex’s head rolled back and forth like a rag doll, but he didn’t seem to notice. Michael wasn’t even sure what it was he was shouting. Michael thought desperately, weighing his limited options. He was seriously considering knocking the boy unconscious, but he was afraid that might not stop the reaction, but rather make it even more out of control than it already was. The protocol had gone Black when Alex operated it, Michael was certain, though he didn’t understand how that had happened. Rebecca would never have deliberately implanted a Black Protocol, but some protocols, including Michael’s own, could turn black in the right (or wrong) Operator’s hands.
    The dilemma was interrupted by the rock face. It didn’t explode, though he felt the ground shake beneath him and there was tremendous noise. Rather, the whole slope imploded with a whooshing sound, all of a sudden, folding impossibly in on itself and then disappearing, trails of dust falling towards nothing. All around the expanding cavity, the frozen rock bent and crackled, clearly planning on following suit. The air was so cold that it was painful to breathe, and Michael’s hands were red and numb.
    Michael said a small, silent prayer, and hit Alex above his jaw on the right side, below his ear. For a moment, Michael was afraid that nothing had happened, and that he would die feeling weirdly guilty for having struck a student who was already lying on the ground. Then, distantly, through the partially-frozen clothing on his back, he felt the heat of the sun, and he collapsed gratefully by Alex’s side. He lay there in the afternoon sun, his head buzzing with frightening thoughts, while his body slowly warmed.


    Tung Do shifted nervously in his Aeron chair. It was the most expensive office chair available five years ago, and something of a status symbol at the time he bought it, even if it was second-hand. They didn’t tend to open up direct retail outlets for things like high-end office furniture in obscure Philippine port towns. But Tung had bought it solely for the mesh back, as it was supposed to reduce back sweat, a source of great embarrassment for him. Generally, Tung liked to blame his nameless American G.I. father and the godforsaken, roasting hot Philippine climate for his tendency to sweat like a pig.
    Today, however, he blamed the spreading dampness that had glued his chino shirt to his back on the three people opposite his modern, blond-wood desk.
    The Chinese guy hadn’t spoken and refused to take a seat, instead standing behind the two women, wearing what appeared to be a ‘clean-room’ style mask, goggles and gloves. Then there was the Japanese woman with livid red eyes, who didn’t talk much either, but stared at him constantly, with an unnerving intensity. But the woman in black, who did all the talking through an obscenely smug grin, she was the worst.
    She’d been the only one to accept his offer of coffee — and despite the fact that it was Vietnamese-style iced coffee, sweetened with condensed milk, she’d insisted on adding several more spoonfuls of sugar to it. Just watching her drink the stuff made him slightly ill.
    Tung had heard of Alice Gallow, which meant the other two must be Auditors. And what he had heard about Gallow, well, that was making him very nervous indeed.
    “How is business, Mr. Do? It seems like you are doing alright for yourself,” Alice observed, gesturing at the plush office around her.
    Tung attempted a modest smile. The Auditors must have activated a translation protocol; whenever Alice spoke, he heard perfect Vietnamese with a slight northern accent, exactly like his own.
    “This has not been our best year, I’m afraid.” Tung wanted desperately to shift in his chair, to fidget and fiddle with his hands, and fought to suppress the urge while keeping a calm, unworried expression on his face. “Exports to North America are down, what with the bad financial climate, and it has had a negative impact on overall revenue.”
    “Huh,” Alice said, sounding genuinely surprised. “I’d have figured people would be more interested in smack during a recession.”
    “Nguyen Exports handles a broad range of products for an array of reputable clients,” Tung sputtered defensively. “I do not appreciate the implication that we would deal in anything untoward. Our firm has operated for decades and enjoys an excellent reputation, here and in Central.”
    The woman nodded and crossed her legs. She was attractive, if a bit too pale; even Tung, who wasn’t the biggest fan of Caucasians, had to give her that, with her long legs and lithe figure. Or she would have been pretty, rather, if she hadn’t had that ludicrous smirk plastered on her face.
    “You have no need to be concerned about that, Mr. Do. The Audits Department is well-aware of everything that your company transports, even when it somehow doesn’t make it on the manifest,” Alice observed dryly. “If we had a problem with it, we would have gotten involved some time ago. Moreover, the quality of the services you provide is universally recognized. At several points, we have contracted work to your organization, as a matter of fact.”
    “I hope the services were rendered to your satisfaction?” Tung inquired politely. He was impatient to get the Auditors out of his office, but he couldn’t think of any way to do so. The right of an Auditor to compel cooperation was absolute, when conducting an Audit, and he’d already inspected the paperwork. Tung shifted in his expensive chair, and wished he could go change his shirt.
    “Yes.” Alice waved her hand dismissively. “Enough of these trivial matters. You are a busy man, and I do not wish to waste your time. I wonder if I might show you something, Mr. Do.”
    Alice dug through the duffel bag she brought in with her, and Tung panicked briefly. He hadn’t had the right to demand a search of the bag — he could not interfere with an Audit — and he tensed up, aware that he was being ridiculous and unable to stop himself. After a moment’s search, Alice produced a stack of printouts, each page a photo headshot of a Vietnamese or Cambodian man.
    “Do you know any of these men, Mr. Do?”
    Tung made a show of putting his glasses on, and then looking closely at each of the photos in turn. Alice’s smile broadened a notch, and he felt slightly queasy, like the whole affair was turning into a farce.
    “I have never seen any of these men before,” Tung said honestly. “I am sorry I cannot be of more assistance.”
    “The first part is true,” Mitsuru said, her voice devoid of emotion. Her entire contribution to the conversation up until this point had been limited to occasional confirmations of what he’d said — she was obviously running an Audit protocol, some kind of lie-detector. “But he isn’t actually sorry.”
    “Good for you, Mr. Do!” Alice said enthusiastically. “But if I’d asked if any of these men had been clients of yours, it would have been a different answer, right?”
    “Nguyen Exports does business with many different clients each year. Only a fraction of them ever deal with me personally. And even then, many of our clients employ another agency as a buffer, to ensure confidentiality,” Mr. Do explained patiently. “There is no way for me to be totally certain that my firm has not contracted with these men, indirectly, at some point.”
    “It was a trick question, Mr. Do.” Alice’s expression was smug. “These men are all members of a Hmong Weir tribe, one that has done contracting work for your little operation before. Surely you remember that little deal-gone-bad in Myanmar that they helped you resolve? We know that your cartel recently arranged transportation for them to the United States, on one of your vessels. That was a big mistake, Mr. Do.”
    “Please. Do you have any proof to support these outrageous claims?” Tung said indignantly, waving his finger as he spoke. “Auditors or no, speculation of this kind is meaningless.”
    “Tung, shut the fuck up, before you piss me off,” Alice said coldly, her smile bright and cruel. “Mitsuru isn’t here to determine whether or not you are telling the truth. I don’t need her help to figure that out. She’s been acting as a conduit for one of the best telepaths in Central, who has been quietly ransacking your brain during our little chat, while I kept you nervous enough not to notice.”
    Alice stood up and slammed her hand down on Tung’s desk, causing him to flinch backwards.
    “Guess what we found, asshole? Any ideas? Mitzi?” Alice glared down at Tung, eyes hard and brilliant.
    “Don’t call me that,” Mitsuru said coldly, her eyes focused and aware. Clearly, whatever protocol she’d been running had been allowed to dissipate, and for the first time, Tung felt the red eyes studying him. It was not a good feeling.
    “We have indisputable proof, Mr. Do, of the Terrie Cartel’s involvement in the smuggling of Weir to California, and additionally of your own personal involvement in said transaction,” Alice said cheerily. “These Weir were used in the commission of an attempted assassination of an Operator, which you have kindly confirmed was also contracted by the Terrie Cartel.”
    “This is outrageous!” Tung protested, his eyes bugging out of his head, turning red in the face. “You cannot simply invade my mind at your discretion! I have rights under the Agreement!”
    “Wrong,” Alice gloated, slamming a document down on the desk in front of Tung. “This writ is signed by the Director. As far as the purposes of this Audit go, your rights have been suspended until such a time as we decide to return them to you. Do you think I’m the kind of woman who would return them, Tung?”
    Tung looked at the woman, and her terrible smile, his mind gone blank with panic. He hadn’t wanted in on the deal the cartel had brokered in the first place — he had no love lost for Central, but the whole affair seemed destined for trouble from the start. Still, he hadn’t expected Auditors, with a mandate for the dissolution of his cartel from the Director no less, to be staring at him like he was a gift they were dying to unwrap.
    He hadn’t expected them to be so damn unnerving, either. Beneath his desk, he started to slowly shift his foot.
    “Let me make our position clear, Tung.” Alice leaned over the desk, her face inches away from his, her grin a mile wide. “Your whole damn cartel is dirty. We’ve already got enough on you to make it stick — which means that somebody set you up for a fall, right? Because as stupid as you are, there’s no way the whole Terrie Cartel decided to commit mass suicide like this. Whoever hired you for the job, well, now they’re trying to feed you to us. And the bitch of the situation,” Alice continued gleefully, “for you, anyway, is that we are very hungry. We could just eat you and your whole operation up right now. You see, Mitzi over here…”
    “Mitsuru,” the red-eyed woman said, her voice icy. “Please.”
    “Right, Mitsuru,” Alice said dismissively. “Anyway, my very good friend here, she got caught up in your little scheme. She had to bust up your trap, over in California, and she’s real fucking pissed about it. And I’m sure you heard about those two Operators in San Francisco — that was a real fucking shame, wasn’t it, Tung? We are none too happy about that, either. Do you appreciate how precarious this makes your position?”
    Tung nodded, sweat pouring down his face. With one foot, he gradually eased the thing he needed into place. It was good that he’d prepared for all eventualities, even one as unlikely as this, and a good thing that this Alice Gallow person liked to talk so much. If the mirror wasn’t in exactly the right spot, it wouldn’t work, and then he wouldn’t have a way out of this terrible situation.
    “Please — there must be some way we can resolve this,” he implored, nudging the mirror into place. “I am willing to cooperate with your Audit. I will assist your investigation, if only you would…”
    “You will do exactly what I want you to, Tung,” Alice advised, folding her arms. “What happens after that, nothing you do can change.”
    “You stupid bitch,” Tung spat, red-faced. “That doesn’t give me much incentive to cooperate, does it?”
    He inched the mirror into place, and then dove underneath his desk. He saw understanding flash in Mitsuru’s eyes, right before he dropped, and knew that she would be too late, even as she stepped forward. He slipped underneath his desk, and then kept falling, through the mirror he had hidden there, like breaking the surface of cold water. The destination had been prepared in advance, so that he could operate the protocol without thought; he passed through the rigid surface of the mirror, and then beyond that, the stifling fog of the Ether. The apport was as efficient as he could manage; he hung in the cold grey for only a moment, and then he was out, standing up on the other side on shaky legs and brushing the dust from his pants.
    Tung hated the jungle, the humidity even more than temperature. Not to mention the bugs that found him upon arrival, and immediately set about making his life miserable. The camp was a miserable collection of shacks and Quonset huts, populated by a large number of shabbily-dressed, heavily-armed Philippine men, most of whom were shocked to see Tung emerge from the mirror that he had hung, suspended five feet above the dusty ground, on the outside of one of the storerooms several months ago, as an insurance policy.
    “Get ready,” Tung hissed in mediocre Tagalong at the nearest of the men, his coat and skin still steaming with the vapors of his transit through the Ether, his chest laboring with the effort. “We will have company shortly.”

    After Tung disappeared Alice paused briefly, then giggled and walked casually around the desk. Mitsuru stood in the middle of the room, halfway to where Tung had disappeared from, and looked at Alice in confusion. Xia stood impassively in the corner of the room, aloof and unconcerned.
    With the worn toe of her heavy boots, Alice pushed the mirror out from under the desk. It was a cheap bathroom mirror, just wide enough to accommodate Tung’s plump frame. The glass was uniformly smeared with grease, as if someone had run their hand across the whole of the surface, and it was warped in the middle. At the very center, the glass had already begun steaming and running, rapidly becoming a hissing pool of silvery liquid on the office carpet.
    “Amateur,” Alice laughed to herself. “Calls himself a transporter, but still needs a mirror to do a port.”
    The remains of the mirror continued to boil and steam, gradually eating away at the floor beneath. The room filled with the stench of melting plastic and burned carpet.
    “Cooperate?” Alice spat, sounding genuinely angry. “I didn’t want you to cooperate, asshole,” Alice said to the vaporizing mass at her feet, “I wanted you to run. Are you really so stupid as to think you could close the way behind you? This won’t even slow us down.”
    Alice walked over to the desk, nudging out several of the larger fragments of the mirror in front of Mitsuru.
    “There should still be traces,” she said firmly. “Tell me where he went.”
    Mitsuru was as good as Alistair had described. The time it took her to determine what protocol was needed, and to download it from the Etheric network was barely noticeable. The actual download itself took bit longer, and looked alarmingly like a brief seizure. Mitsuru bent down to her knees, her eyes furiously red, and peered into the broken mirror.
    “Okay,” she said, after a few moments, her eyes twitching rapidly. “I can see him. They broke the mirror on the other end, after he came through, but one of the pieces is still big enough… I think it’s the camp, the one Alistair was talking about.”
    Alice nodded thoughtfully.
    “Tell me again, Mitsuru, what was the briefing on this place?”
    Mitsuru looked up from the fragments of mirror.
    “The Philippine Army and the CIA both believe it to be an Abu Sayyaf camp,” Mitsuru said, voice dead as she consulted her Etheric uplink. “It isn’t, of course. Its run by the Witches, the terrorist angle is just to keep the curious away. Satellite shows fifteen structures, arrayed in a rough semi-circle, on the bank of the river. The terrain around it is primarily jungle; the only road access is a dirt track. They’ve got a crude airfield, too, big enough for private planes.”
    Alice nodded again, and Mitsuru went back to surveying the mirror shards, which were beginning to melt into the carpet.
    “The strip is empty right now,” Mitsuru said distantly. “Barbwire around the perimeter. The angle is terrible, so I can’t see much else.”
    Alice inspected her chipped nail polish critically.
    “What kind of nonconventional assets can we expect, Mitzi?”
    The glare Mitsuru gave her went way past insubordination.
    “I told you already. My name is Mitsuru. Alistair tried to scan it a couple times already — he says it’s shielded, by someone who knows what they’re doing. They definitely have some fairly capable Operators, to keep a telepathic barrier like that up twenty-four hours a day. I can’t see anyone at all.”
    “Could be a Witch,” Alice suggested. “They make artifacts that do stuff like that. It could have been set up in advance, or there could even be one there now, maintaining it.”
    “That is entirely speculative,” Mitsuru said woodenly, still connected to Etheric network. “During attempts to scan the site, Alistair reported a number of Etheric signatures in the nearby wilderness, very probably Weir.”
    Alice gave Xia a look. He gave her a very small nod in return.
    “So, we’ll assume they have Operators and Weir, at the very least. Witches are a possibility too — though they tend to bail before things get heavy, unless they think they have all the cards. Plus probably a handful of normal humans.” Alice though for a moment, glancing over at Xia, then nodding in agreement, as if he had said something. “We’ll wait until twilight. They’re probably running around in a panic right now, waiting for us to come busting in. Let’s give them some time to start thinking that they got away. They’ll be more lax in a few hours.”
    “Can we clear the camp on our own?” Mitsuru asked, her voice normal, disconnected from the uplink.
    “Xia could clean that place out by himself,” Alice snorted. “I probably won’t even have to take my hands out of my pockets. I brought you along,” Alice leered at Mitsuru, “’cause I like watching you cut people up, baby. It makes me feel all funny.”
    Alice winked at Mitsuru, who stared at her, mouth half-open.
    “Don’t be dense,” Alice said sympathetically, “this is a big job. We’re not just going to take care of it — we’re going to make sure that you’re there, helping out, every step of the way, Mitzi. And once we wrap up a successful Audit, no one’s going to be able to argue with Gaul making you an Auditor, right? So, be a good girl for a little while longer.”
    Alice giggled at her shocked expression.
    “Oh, dear me, I said it again, didn’t I?” Alice gave her arm an affectionate pinch. “I swear, I meant to say Mitsuru…”

    As the sun hid itself behind the low hills beyond the river, the camp fell into shadow.
    The air was so humid it felt dense, and Alice felt the sweat bead on her neck the moment she stepped out of the shadow of a storehouse on the eastern edge of the compound, near the fence. She crouched and then surveyed her surroundings, her finger tight on the trigger of her shotgun. She needn’t have bothered. Aside from the sounds of the insects and the ever-shifting wall of vegetation, the area was deserted.
    Even the best trained guard will fall into routines when patrolling the same ground every night — inevitably, given the boredom inherent in the job, and the limited number of routes available. The camp was protected by guards with sufficient professionalism to shift their patrol routes, but they’d been stationed there long enough to fall into a routine anyway. The jeep that they were using to patrol was on the other side of camp; Alice could see the mounted spotlight on the back from where she crouched. She reached one hand into her own shadow.
    She pulled Mitsuru from the shadow first, but she emerged stumbling. Mitsuru shook her head several times, before crouching beside Alice, disoriented. Alice reached down and rested her hand on Mitsuru’s cheek, gently pressing the dizzy Operator’s head against her leg, reaching back into the shadows with her other hand.
    Xia stepped out a moment later, in his heavy black coat and surgical mask, clutching Alice’s hand with his own latex gloved one. He glanced at the still dazed Mitsuru, and then looked questioningly at Alice. She nodded curtly.
    At that moment, the night was rent by the sound of gunfire, followed by panicked yelling in a cacophony of Tagalong, French and English. There were two groups of guards approaching, and in the distance a gunman had climbed to the flat roof of one of the temporary structures and was taking potshots with his AK-47. At that distance, there wasn’t much chance of him finding a mark, particularly as they were only partially exposed to his aim, but Alice tugged the befuddled Mitsuru back behind the protection of the outbuilding, just to be safe.
    “Alright, Xia. No point in subtlety now. Let ‘em know we’re here.”
    Alice helped Mitsuru to her feet. She shook her head again, cautiously, and then nodded at Alice, apparently steadied.
    Xia walked casually out into the open, rounding the storehouse corner and exposing himself to fire from both of the patrols, as well as the rooftop sniper. The 7.62mm rounds made a strange hissing sound as they hit the field of intense heat that surrounded Xia, visible only by the distortion in the air around him, then flattened and melted like solder into hissing pools on the muddy ground.
    Xia closed his eyes, and then slowly raised both of his arms until they were above his head, palms to the sky. Though there was little wind, his heavy coat rippled and swayed, and the grass around him wilted and charred. A white luminescence appeared at the ends of his hands, and then slowly expanded, covering his entire body in a translucent shell. Xia spoke then, just once, but what he said could not be described as a word.
    One of the Jeeps caught flame, burning from beneath its undercarriage. There were angry voices yelling in Tagalong, as some of the guards attempted to douse the flames with an extinguisher, while others milled about in confusion. The first explosion was dramatic, a terrific bang that sent chunks of metal flying in all directions as the jeep tore itself apart. The gas tanks on the other vehicles followed shortly, all three detonating in rapid succession, each sending a ball of black smoke and flame skyward. Looking through the filter of a combat protocol, Mitsuru watched the guard’s Etheric signatures snuff out, torn apart by shrapnel, their bodies left to turn to charcoal in the flames.
    The jungle around the camp smoldered angrily, and then burst into a conflagration, the lush vegetation withering and charring in the sudden blaze. In an instant, they were surrounded on three sides by a towering wall of flame, bathing the camp in a flickering orange light, the barbwire fence protesting and warping in the heat, sparks carrying the flames gradually across the whole of the camp.
    “You’re up, Mitzi,” Alice said softly, watching the flames with a rapt expression. “They have to come this way to get away from the fire. Put on a show for me.”
    Mitsuru nodded, shifting her grip on the wrapped handle of her sheathed knife, and then disappeared into the shadows, moving in the direction of the nearest patrol.
    Alice smiled to herself as she watched Mitsuru’s Etheric signature flit from building to building, her movements accelerated to a blur by a downloaded alacrity protocol, almost invisible in the flickering firelight.
    The closer patrol had stopped to have a panicked conversation — one was talking rapidly in Tagalong into a walkie-talkie, while the other stared at the inferno, open-mouthed. Mitsuru rounded an outhouse, then crossed the open space between them in a half-dozen bounding steps, the only sound her cheap Thai sandals slapping against the soles of her feet. She was behind them before either of the guards had time to react, the knife reflecting the ghastly orange glow of the flame.
    She slid the point of the knife into side of one of the guards, aiming for a breach between the Kevlar pads on his vest, the tip sliding smoothly past the ribs. With a flick of her wrist she turned the knife in the shape of a ‘C’, the blade emerging red and glistening from his side, slightly above his hip. The guard fell to his knees and made awful, wet sounds, too stunned to scream, his arms wrapped protectively around his ravaged and leaking torso.
    The other guard yelled and spun around, leveling his rifle at Mitsuru and pulling the trigger. The rifle was firing at full auto, but the acceleration of Mitsuru’s protocol was such that she heard each individual shot, and saw the flare of hot gas that punctuated each shell’s ignition. She fell forward, under the arc of the bullets that plodded toward her, and then rolled, her perception so agonizingly acute she could see the wake of distorted air the bullets left behind. She let the momentum of the roll carry her close to the gunman, and before he could lower his rifle and aim, her knife darted out and in, cutting his ankles out from beneath him. He cried out as he fell backward, but that was the last noise that he made, as Mitsuru wrenched his arm aside and drove the point of her blade into his throat. The gunman’s scream cut off, his hands clasping Mitsuru’s blade, his eyes bugging out of his head. Blood trickled from his throat, splashing weakly into the dirt beside him. Then the light went out in his eyes, all at once, and his face went slack.
    Mitsuru pulled the knife from his throat and wiped the blade against the dead man’s shirt before sheathing it. Her vision was permeated with information from a combat protocol; translucent text and data boxes informed her of the positions of the six remaining guards. Four of them had abandoned their gear and were moving in inhumanly low crouches, their spines contorted and bent, their skulls elongated and feral. The two in the rear moved to supporting positions, taking cover behind the nearby buildings and scrambling to maintain a clear field of fire.
    Weir hated humans, so Mitsuru felt safe in assuming that the two rear guards were Weir maintaining a human appearance. That was unusual, as they preferred to fight in their swifter lupine form, or the monstrous hybrid shape the other four guards had already assumed.
    They had Egyptian-manufactured AK-47s, the same as the other guards and common to insurgencies the world over, but even through the smoke and the flimsy Quonset hut walls, Mitsuru could see the yellow glow of the bullets, radiating from the working that a Witch had laid on each of them. There was no alternative source — only Witches were capable of creating such artifacts — though to lavish such power on bullets was unprecedented. The workings Witches created took time. Mitsuru had no idea how long it would take to place one on each bullet in a clip, but it hardly seemed worth the effort.
    Mitsuru walked calmly into the open, right in the middle of the burning camp, exposing herself to the six guards that remained. The four in the front came roaring around the corner of the main building, their paws kicking up mud and pebbles, hundreds of pounds of rage and sinew and yellow teeth. They charged immediately, fluid as shadows, smelling of the jungle and death, their fur matted with clumps of dried blood. One howled as it ran, a loathsome, high whining that set her teeth on edge.
    The two in human form were more cautious, but only somewhat. They rounded the far corner of the building they were using as cover, rifles at the ready, staying low to avoid fire.
    Mitsuru smiled at all of them, and held out her hands.
    “I’d hoped that the silver one would be here, but still, I’m grateful to you,” she said, in the face of the charging beasts, calm and unhurried. “I can’t normally do this, you understand.”
    There was a slight glow at her fingertips, a silvery aura, and the wind picked up from behind her.
    “Compliments of Alistair,” Mitsuru said, her eyes rolling back in her head with effort, the borrowed protocol flooded through her mind in a wave of information and pain, the silvery protocol writ large against the field of black that consumed her vision. “A souvenir, from San Francisco.”
    Mitsuru dropped her hands like a conductor, and her whole body was encompassed by the strange silvery light radiating from her chest. The wind tore at her clothing, and a fine spray of water from the river behind drenched her.
    “Shining Cloud,” she whispered, but her words were carried away by the sudden gale that whipped past her.
    A dense silver fog swirled around, and then burst forth in all directions, the main part of it making a rapid, twisting path toward the charging Weir. It passed through the two in front before they had time to react, and they disappeared into the metallic fog, little more than a few brief howls, and then a rapidly dissipating red mist. The two Weir behind them had time to try and stop, talons scrambling for purchase in the mud, before the fog encompassed them as well.
    They had more than enough time to howl and cough wetly, trying in vain to expel the millions of tiny sharp particles they had inhaled. One even tried to transform as he was cut to pieces, spitting his insides onto the mud as he died, not quite human, not wholly wolf.
    One of the remaining guards abandoned his position, dropping his rifle and running, struggling to free himself from his bulky bulletproof vest so he could transform. The other was either braver or more foolish, and opened fire at Mitsuru with his rifle, or at least in the last place he’d seen her before she’d been obscured by the mist of nanometer blades.
    It didn’t make any difference.
    The bullets were shredded by the rapidly advancing silver cloud, and a moment later the gunman himself was reduced to a pile of horribly uniform small pieces of meat. The runner made it the furthest, all the way to the edge of the camp before he came up short, faced with the wall of flames. He stood frozen there, torn between the fire in front of him and the glimmering silver cloud that pursued him.
    The first tendrils of the fog licked his back, and where they touched him, they left deep voids in the flesh, gouging through bone and muscle. The Weir screamed and leapt into the fire, caught somewhere between his human and lupine forms. Mitsuru dispelled the protocol with a sigh of relief, and listened to the screams of the Weir as Xia’s inferno finished it.
    Alice walked up next to Mitsuru, dripping river water and smeared with someone else’s blood, and smiled at her approvingly. After a brief hesitation, Mitsuru gave her a small smile back.
    “You’re a nightmare, Mitzi,” Alice enthused, her kohl-lined eyes shining. “I got all excited just watching.”
    Mitsuru blushed.
    “The Shining Cloud belonged to Alistair,” she admitted. “He implanted it directly before we left. I can’t manage something like that yet.”
    Alice patted Mitsuru affectionately on the shoulder.
    “Don’t worry about it, Mitzi.” Alice’s grin was wolfish. “We have time. We’ll make an Auditor out of you yet.”
    Mitsuru winced, opened her mouth to correct her.
    Tung dropped the camouflage protocol that he had activated the moment the Auditors had arrived. One moment, there was a 50-gallon black metal drum standing next to Alice, and then next, Tung stood there, wheezing and gasping, a 12-guage double-barrel shotgun leveled at her head.
    “You bitches are all out of time,” Tung snarled, still struggling to catch his breath. He’d had to hold it ever since they’d stopped next to him. The camouflage protocol was powerful enough that they probably won’t have been able to hear him — but he couldn’t risk it. “And truly fucking weird, I might add.”
    “Don’t act like such a big shot,” Alice said casually, her body language totally non-plussed. “You aren’t capable of concealing yourself from me. Who set that up for you?”
    “Miss Gallow, you aren’t in any position to be asking questions. So how ‘bout you get that freak in the mask to turn the fire off, and then me and your little Japanese friend, we’re going to take a little walk in the woods, alright? I know that you’re an Auditor and all, but there’s no way you’re going to be able to do anything before I pull the trigger on this thing, and at this range, no barrier is gonna save you.”
    Tung fished something out of his right pocket and held it, clenched in his fist.
    “It was nice of you to leave me one, Mitzi,” Alice said gratefully. “I like to feel useful, after all.”
    “I am a kind-hearted woman,” Mitsuru agreed. “Now, please stop calling me that.”
    “What the fuck is it with you people?” Tung pushed the muzzle of the shotgun up against the side of Alice’s head. “One last chance here, Miss Gallow. Call off your dogs, and we can both walk away from this.”
    “Did you actually think,” Alice said coldly, closing her eyes, “that you could get the drop on me, with power that you borrowed? Do you know my reputation, Tung? Do you know how I got it?”
    Tung tried to pull the trigger, but it was already too late. Tung looked down at the weapon and saw something, something a bit like a crude hand that had reached up from the weapon’s shadow and wrapped around the firing mechanism. Other hands were forming, from somewhere deep inside his own shadow, and reaching for him.
    Alice turned around to face the gun with her ghastly smile. She folded her hands in front of her like an obedient school girl.
    “Oh, my dear Mr. Do,” she said sweetly, patting him on the forehead. The many dark hands clutched him tightly, now, and he could not move away. Everywhere the little hands had attached, do felt a strange aching sensation, and then nothing at all. He struggled against them, but his efforts came to nothing more than straining and grunting. “Thank you so much for showing us your little camp, your doggy-friends and your Witch’s toys. You’ve answered all sorts of questions for us.”
    Alice giggled, and then swayed coquettishly up to the frozen, horrified man.
    “It was kind of you to cooperate with our Audit, Mr. Do.” Alice smirked. “In regards to your own personal circumstances, I’m happy to report that our investigation is at an end. You didn’t know much of anything, so I’m happy to say we’ve got no reason to hold on to you.”
    Tung tried to desperately to crush the egg-shell thin ceramic idol in his other hand, to activate the dormant working inside that the Witches had left with him, the one he’d been warned to only use in desperation, but his hand would not close. When he looked down, most of his hand was gone, neatly disassembled. The little hands had been working him over, tearing away small pieces from his hands, his feet and his chest, and then withdrawing into the shadow. It caused almost no pain, and left behind nothing at all — the skin at the edge of the void was smooth, featureless. There was no bleeding. It was as if what had been taken from him had never been there at all.
    Tung screamed, but it was hard to tell, because so much of his mouth was gone.
    Alice leaned over what remained of the man’s face, her black-rimmed eyes staring directly into his, her expression rapt and hungry.
    “My name is Alice Gallow, Mr. Do,” she whispered. “And I’d like to show you something special. To be entirely honest,” she added, batting her eyelashes, “I’ve developed quite a thing for you. Would you like to see?”
    Tung wanted to scream, he really did, but there wasn’t enough of him left to manage it.


    “Imagine the universe as something extreme large, with definite boundaries, okay? Something really big, but finite. You understand the distinction?”
    “Imagine a big universe, but not an endless one, I got it,” Alex muttered. “Just answer the question, Vivik.”
    “I am answering it,” Vivik countered happily. “So, our universe is actually in a stack of universes, layer upon layer. The farther down you go, the older they get, and therefore colder and less energetic. Further up, it’s the opposite, newer and faster, okay? With me so far?”
    “Big pile of universes,” Alex said, nodding tiredly.
    “The best part is listening to Alex summarize Vivik’s lessons,” Anastasia said quietly, nudging and startling Emily. “Sometimes, I feel like I’m actually losing my ability to comprehend things I already know.”
    Vivik glared at Anastasia, but Alex refused to acknowledge it. Anything else he did only encouraged her.
    “These universes are discrete, right? There can’t be any overlap, because every particle, the very nature of matter, is fundamentally different in each of these universes, and any kind of contact would be mutually destructive, so there has to be a mechanism to hold them apart, right?” Vivik continued on without waiting for any input from Alex, his face flushed with excitement at the subject. “Well, the ideal boundary mechanism would be some kind of superfluid. Something dynamic, something that could expand and contract to deal with vast volumes and massive thermodynamic variations. But whatever serves as a barrier, it would have to be energetic in nature, because matter, any kind of matter, couldn’t possibly survive the conditions involved.”
    Alex put his head down on his desk in despair.
    “Not only did you lose me,” he said, his voice muffled by the book his face was planted in, “you actually made me hate the idea of knowing the answer. Thanks to you, I now despise this subject, which I still know nothing about.”
    “The Ether, Alex,” Vivik said, gripping Alex’s desk, “that’s what the Ether is. It’s what holds the universes apart. It’s the barrier that keeps the colder subverse below and the more energetic superverse above separate from our own.”
    “Or so he says,” Anastasia offered primly from where she sat, one seat over from Emily. “Vivik is very persuasive, but he can’t prove any of this. Besides, subverse is a made-up word.”
    “True,” Vivik allowed reluctantly. “But, the majority of the theoreticians at the Academy subscribe to this notion.”
    “And before that, they were always talking about entropic energy and waste heat accumulation and alternating frequency vibration,” Anastasia said, rolling her eyes. “Go ahead and tell Alex the truth. Nobody knows what the Ether is. We live right next to it, but we understand it about as well as you understand, say, geometry. That is to say, we know it exists, and that is about it.”
    Alex nodded slowly, and when he spoke again, he sounded almost hopeful.
    “Then it’s like everything else with science. Lots of rules, but nobody understands it. Right?”
    “Exactly,” Anastasia said, grinning.
    “Not at all,” Vivik protested, flustered.
    “I don’t think either of you is helping Alex catch up very much,” Emily said disapprovingly. “I’m not even sure if you’re trying, or if you just like arguing with each other.”
    “Our universe is like a drop of water suspended in oil,” Eerie said quietly, surprising Alex, who had not noticed that the girl was still there in the classroom. She wilted when everyone turned toward her, looking down at her desk and clearly regretting saying anything. When she spoke again, Alex could barely hear her. “You know what I mean, don’t you? The universes are the drops of water, and the Ether is like, well, the oil? Does that make sense?”
    Eerie looked over at him hopefully, while Anastasia appeared to laugh quietly behind the hand that discretely covered her mouth.
    “Is this going to be on a test of some kind?” Alex asked despairingly, clutching his head in his hands.
    Emily laughed and patted him on the back comfortingly.
    “Don’t worry,” she said reassuringly. “It’s not like you can fail homeroom, no matter how bad you do.”
    “What’s the point, then?”
    “Evaluation,” Anastasia said, working her nails over with an emery board. “To gauge our interests, our aptitude, and most importantly, our sanity and durability. They throw everything at us, not because we need to know it, but because knowing it might help us not turn into lunatics. Where do you think Eerie learned about knitting, anyway? They do it for the same reason that everyone has to go see Rebecca once a month — because as badly as Central needs us, they are even more frightened of us.”
    “Because of people like you,” Anastasia said, shrugging. “Unpredictable students with combat-grade protocols that exceed their own ability to control or understand them. At best, you are a wild card. At worse, you’re a threat to everybody around you.”
    “Some days I really hate you,” Alex said, putting his head back down on the desk. “Does everybody go to see Rebecca?”
    “Everyone except for her,” Emily said, pointing at Anastasia. “But, nobody goes as often as you do, Alex.”
    “Why don’t you have to go?”
    Alex seemed more impressed by this than by anything else he had learned about Anastasia. She held up her nails to the light, inspecting them critically.
    “Because they are even more afraid of me than they are of you,” Anastasia said, without a trace of modesty or sarcasm. “Furthermore, I simply don’t want to.”

    Mitsuru was battering a heavy bag when Rebecca came into the staff gym. There was no way for anyone to mistake what was going on for a workout. Mitsuru had left bloody knuckle marks all over the leather of the bag.
    Rebecca suppressed a sigh at her friend’s self-centered display of melodrama, and went to go pay her the attention she obviously needed. It was why she’d come to the gym, after all.
    Like hell she was doing the stupid cardio-kickboxing class.
    “Hey, Mitsuru, sweetie, what’s wrong?” Rebecca was careful, putting her hand on Mitsuru’s shoulder, slick with sweat. Even a tame dog can be dangerous. “What’s got you so worked up? Did something happen in the field?”
    Mitsuru stopped her assault, her shoulders heaving as she caught her breath.
    “You saw the report?”
    The question was rhetorical. Rebecca saw every report, even the ones that were marked for Gaul’s eyes only. That was her job. Everyone knew that.
    “Sure. It went well. Alice even gave you a few compliments, and that means something, coming from her. What do you have to be so upset over?”
    Mitsuru finally turned around, her red eyes wet with intermingled sweat and tears. Rebecca was taken back despite herself.
    “I saw Alice’s protocol.”
    “So? She ports. She’s an apport technician, M-Class, the very best. What’s the problem?”
    Of course, Rebecca already knew what the problem was. She’d known from the moment she’d read Mitsuru’s field report, before she’d had a chance to edit it. After all, she had to make sure that everyone who came saw Alice’s Black Protocol firsthand received her personal attention. Otherwise, they would notice it didn’t make any sense.
    They had nothing to talk about, at least, nothing that Rebecca hadn’t heard a dozen times before. Everyone knew what a protocol looked like, after all. And Alice’s little displays looked nothing at all like one.
    “What did she do to Tung? What was that?”
    Mitsuru’s voice shook, but Rebecca was already inside her head, soothing, reinforcing. Creating little spaces for doubt to erode away.
    “I’m not sure, hon,” Rebecca said with a tired smile. She was actually glad to have the opportunity to tell the truth, for once, since Mitsuru wouldn’t remember a thing. “Nobody knows. Alice Gallow has been here longer than we have. Whatever Alice Gallow does is a secret, even to her. Even to me.”
    “I don’t understand.”
    “No one does.”
    “I don’t like it. It makes me nervous.”
    “It made you nervous,” Rebecca corrected cheerfully. “It doesn’t anymore.”
    “But, it could be dangerous…”
    Mitsuru barely managed that, in a dreamy, half-removed voice. Rebecca pushed a little harder.
    “That’s what everyone thinks. But, it’s not. Not while I’m here. You see, I know something about Alice Gallow that no one else does.”
    Mitsuru’s eyes fluttered closed. She barely moved her lips when she spoke.
    “It’s our secret, silly. I can’t even tell you. She’s my best friend, after all. Now,” Rebecca encouraged, patting Mitsuru on the arm, “you go wash up, and go back to feeling good about the operation, okay?”
    She stood there in silence, her eyes fluttering, before she was animated by a sudden internal signal. Mitsuru stretched like she was waking up, and smiled at Rebecca as if she hadn’t seen her in some time.
    “Hey ‘Becca,” she said fondly. “Are you here for cardio-kickboxing?”

    “I never understand the point of his lectures,” Alex complained. “I tried to take notes today, but how the hell can I take notes when I’m hearing all of this stuff for first time? I don’t even know what the important parts are. This is the dumbest class I’ve ever taken.”
    Vivik laughed, peeling his orange in the shade of one of the massive HVAC units that had been crudely grafted onto the stone building. It was warm today, up on the grey slate of the roof, and Alex was glad to be outside. The three-hour long class had felt endless.
    “It’s only been a few days, Alex. Did you take a look at the study guide I made you?” Vivik squinted up at Alex, half-blinded by the afternoon sun. “And do you have to keep pacing like that?”
    Alex stopped, and realized that Vivik was right. He had been pacing since they’d come up to the roof for lunch. He sighed, and then sat down next to Vivik in the shade.
    “Sorry — and no, I, um, haven’t had time yet,” Alex said guiltily. He’d tried looking over the guide the night before last, and he’d ended up falling asleep before he finished the first page. It wasn’t that Vivik’s study guide was bad, or even that the subject matter was boring. Rather, since arriving at the Academy, Alex had been extraordinarily tired, falling asleep not long after sunset most evenings.
    “It’s not a big thing.” Vivik popped a section of orange into his mouth. “I think it might help you get up to speed…”
    “Ha. You are worried about homeroom, when you should be worried about next Friday,” Anastasia smirked at him, around her the straw from her juice box. She was flanked, as always, by Edward and Renton, who were not eating. “Mitsuru is going to make hamburger out of you.”
    “That isn’t helpful, Anastasia.” Alex grimaced at the reminder of ‘Applied Combat Fundamentals’. “I’m not exactly overflowing with confidence right now.”
    “Well, you seem like a nice enough guy, Alex, so I’m sorry to see you go.” Renton gave him a toothy grin. “But, you had a good run.”
    “What was good about it? I must have missed that part.”
    Emily produced a number of sealed plastic containers from her purse, divvying them up between her and Alex.
    “What did he ever do,” Vivik complained, looking enviously at Emily’s cloth lunch sack, “to deserve you making him lunch? I’ve been helping you with your biology homework since I got here, Emily.”
    “And I fixed it so that Steve and Charles can’t seem to remember that you are in our class,” Emily said cheerfully, peeling a hard-boiled egg. “We are square. Alex is new here, and anyway, the poor thing is an orphan. It would be irresponsible of me not to look after him a bit.”
    “There is a cafeteria, you know. He doesn’t need you to make him lunch.”
    Anastasia scowled, looking angrily at her own lunch, which as far as Alex could see was made up entirely of raw vegetable slices.
    “I was at my sister’s last night, so I had a kitchen available. And you brought your own cook to the Academy with you. When did you start eating up here with us, anyway, Anastasia?”
    Emily smiled sweetly. Anastasia made a face in return. Renton laughed quietly to himself. And Edward didn’t react at all, which was par for the course, as far as Alex’s experience with him went.
    “Well, I do appreciate the lunches,” Alex said quickly, trying to prevent the daily fight between the two. “But, how’d you make Steve forget about Vivik, Emily? I thought you were an empath.”
    “Most empaths have some telepathic ability as well,” Emily shrugged. “I have a little bit myself.”
    “Emphasis on the little,” Anastasia said acidly. She pointed at Emily with her nibbled baby carrot. “It’s a good thing that you can cook, Emily.”
    “That’s mean, Anastasia,” Emily complained, unwrapping the plastic around her sandwich. “I’m doing the best I can with what I have. We can’t all be child prodigies.”
    “You are only one year older than me,” Anastasia protested, waving her carrot in outrage. “I am hardly a child. As for being a prodigy — well, it would be foolish to deny it.”
    Alex decided to focus on the turkey sandwich Emily had given him, which turned out to be unreasonably delicious, despite the fact that he’d never like turkey much.
    “I have to get going to the Science building,” Anastasia announced, standing up and gathering her things. “I have lab to finish. Are you coming, Vivik?”
    Vivik nodded and stood up, collecting the trash from his lunch in a paper sack for disposal. He’d told Alex the night before that he was a Sikh, from someplace in India, where his parents owned land. Alex wasn’t sure exactly what a Sikh was, though he thought it was a religion, sort of. Vivik’s explanation had been unclear. But, it did explain the turban he wore all of the time.
    “Yeah, I’ll walk with you.”
    Vivik looked over at Alex, who realized he was staring openly, and found something else to do.
    “You want me to help you go over the homeroom lecture, later on?”
    “Maybe,” Alex shrugged, staring off into the woods that bordered the building, for lack of a better option. “I was thinking about talking a walk or something. I’ve been feeling really cooped up today.”
    “That’s perfect,” Emily said, looking at Alex hopefully. “Do you feel like taking a trip into town with me? I have something I want to show you.”
    “And what would that be?” Anastasia demanded, suddenly face-to-face with Emily, glaring up at her. Alex had to stifle a laugh — Anastasia never looked younger or shorter to him than when she was near Emily. “Don’t you ever have to go to class?”
    Emily glared right back, tossing her head indignantly.
    “It’s nothing you need to concern yourself with. It’s none of your business what I do. You’re always going on about how clever you are, so figure it out for yourself.”
    Emily turned to Alex, and put one hand lightly on his shoulder.
    “Is it okay, Alex? I’d really like you to come, if you’re not too busy,” she said sincerely, her expression anxious.
    Alex was stunned by the realization that she expected him to reject her. This girl, who was obviously nice, smart, and beautiful, had gotten so used to rejection that she anticipated it even from a brand new student. It must be a very bad thing, he thought solemnly, to be B-class.
    “Sure,” he said, trying not to sound resigned. “I didn’t really have any specific plans, anyway.”
    Anastasia shrugged, exasperated, and then stomped off down the stairs, followed by a smiling Renton and an expressionless Edward.
    “Be careful, Alex,” Vivik whispered as he walked by. “Think about what you’re doing.”
    Alex nodded amiably. But he didn’t really feel like it was any of Vivik or Anastasia’s business. Particularly since he wasn’t entirely sure what it was he was doing.

    “Do you want me to — ”
    “Hush,” Anastasia commanded, hustling down the stairs. “When I want you to do something, Renton, I will tell you as much.”
    Ten steps. He was quiet for ten steps. She counted them. An old habit.
    “But, don’t you think that Emily is going to try and, well… seduce him?”
    Her laughter echoed back up the stairwell, no doubt confusing Vivik, somewhere above her. But, it wasn’t often she managed to make Renton feel uncomfortable.
    “Is that what the kids are calling it these days?”
    She laughed again, quietly, this time. She couldn’t help it. The idea was just too funny. It was easy to forget that Renton was much older than he looked, most of the time. But it would occasionally shine through in his speech.
    “I wish her the best of luck, then,” she said honestly. “And I do think that she will need it.”
    She hurried ahead, so that Renton had to rush; and poor Edward, as well.
    Anastasia liked to make them run after her, occasionally. It was a good reminder of place and role, she felt. For everyone involved.

    It wasn’t far to the front gate, where Emily wanted to meet him, though Alex had never made the walk previously. She’d wanted to change out of her uniform, before they left for Central, so she’d given him directions to the front gate, and headed back to her room, telling him to meet her in about half an hour.
    The Academy’s grounds were enormous, it was true, but most of the classrooms, faculty offices and student dorms were clustered near the front gate. It only took a few minutes for Alex to get there with the meticulous directions that Emily had given him, on a piece of off-white stationary, each step written out in lovely flowing cursive. It was so elegant that Alex found himself reluctant to fold it or throw it out, and he was still trying to figure out what to do with it when he rounded the last of the staff buildings and saw the Commons, and beyond that the front gate.
    The Commons were like a bigger version of the quad between the student dorms; a large open space with carefully maintained green grass, a handful of stately old oaks and willows, a few strategically placed benches and tables, and a motley collection of students and faculty enjoying the weak afternoon sun. It was a nice scene, bordering on idyllic.
    The gate behind it was impressive, an ornate piece of stonework that looked to Alex to be ancient, and though he wasn’t sure he could tell decades old from hundreds of years old. Like all of the major structures on the campus, it was made of tightly fit angular blocks with no obvious mortar, the same dull grey stone as the Academy walls, which stretched off in either direction for miles, perhaps twice as tall as Alex and thick, but in poor repair. In many places the wall had partially collapsed, and in numerous other places the wall was bowed and bent. The gate, however, had either aged more gracefully or seen more consistent maintenance. Some of the carvings appeared to have fallen off or been worn away, and a few of the capstones were gone, but as a whole the great stone arch was intact. Alex could not decide if the inscription on the gate arch was a language he didn’t recognize or simply a collection of abstract scribbles, but he found the whole thing a touch foreboding.
    All of this paled in importance for Alex, next to seeing Emily in her street clothes for the first time.
    Emily was pretty in the uniform, Alex wasn’t about to deny that. But in a simple white dress that looked a bit light for the weather she looked amazing, even with a sweater pulled over it, her blond hair curled and radiant in the late-afternoon sun. Then she smiled at him, maybe a little bit shyly, and he got very nervous indeed.
    “Did you make it okay?”
    She was anxious, leading him out of the gate and to the road outside, as if she wasn’t beautiful. As if she had anything to worry about.
    “Were the directions alright?”
    “They were very, um, accurate,” Alex said lamely, realizing he was still clutching the scrap of paper, and shoved it in his pocket. The dark grey hoodie he’d worn seemed a bit incongruous with Emily’s dress, but it wasn’t like he had any clothes that would have been appropriate.
    The road itself appeared to be one uniform piece of worked stone, but when Alex got closer, he realized that it was made of the same tightly interlocking blocks as the walls of the Academy, worn smooth with age and traffic. In many places the stones had begun to buckle slightly, and the road’s surface was not nearly as even as it appeared to be from a distance.
    “Who built all this?”
    “No one knows,” Emily said, shrugging and leading him toward what appeared to be a totally conventional bus stop, with a colorful route sign, and a glass and metal enclosure complete with system map. Alex felt a profound sense of dislocation as they walked toward it. “Supposedly, it was all like this when the Founder discovered Central, empty and waiting. The road and the wall, the Academy Main Hall, Analysis and Operations, all the major structures, they were all here already. At least, that’s what they tell us in class.”
    “There is a bus?”
    Alex ran his fingers across the plastic covering a small system map, showing three separate lines, each with half a dozen stops.
    “Well, yes. It’s pretty hard to get anything big through the Ether, and it’s not like we have a factory here or anything. We’ve got a few diesel buses. I hear they had to disassemble them, and bring them over piece-by-piece.”
    He knew that Central was located somewhere in the Ether; Alex had gotten that much from Windsor’s lectures, and had somehow been found, rather than built. He couldn’t tell if it’s location was a secret or a genuine mystery, but without an apport protocol, he knew there was no getting in or out, something that caused him a certain amount of late-night anxiety akin to claustrophobia. But, even if he knew that, it was jarring to hear it said out loud, the casual practicalities of an abnormal way of life that he barely even noticed he was living, most of the time.
    Alex studied the map. The area depicted was not really large enough to be called a city, more like a town, in a rough half-moon. The built-up neighborhoods were clustered in an area just to the east of the Academy. Alex was surprised to see that the Academy and its grounds constituted a full third of Central, and that a good portion of the remaining space appeared to be open.
    “There aren’t that many of us,” Alex guessed.
    Emily shook her head sadly.
    “No, and there seem to be less every year. Only a few people live in Central full-time. But yes, there just aren’t that many of us. We could all move to Central, if we wanted to, and there would still be space to spare. I would swear there were more people here when I was a kid…”
    Emily seemed sad, so Alex hunted for something else to talk about.
    “What’s here?”
    Alex tapped at the grayed out area that surrounded the town on the map.
    “Wait and see,” Emily said, smiling playfully.
    The bus arrived a few minutes later, a green-painted diesel that reminded Alex vaguely of pictures he’d seen of Europe. Emily refused to say anything about where they were going, responding with a smile and a ‘wait and see’ every time he asked. Alex eventually gave up, but it didn’t turn out to matter much — he had his eyes glued to the window the entire trip, while Emily amused herself by playing tour guide.
    It took a few minutes of winding through the hills around the Academy before they entered Central proper, while Alex tried to remember the last time he had been in a motor vehicle of any kind. Only a matter of weeks, but it felt l
    The Academy was set two-thirds of the way up the peak of a massive hill, and Central sat in a partial ring around it, about halfway down the slope. Below the city, at the base of the hill, there was only a great grey space, the vastness of the Ether stretching out like an endless lake in all directions, Central rising out of it like an island. After a few minutes of descending down the windy road, they crossed an invisible line and the sun disappeared behind the pea soup-thick fog that covered the town. Emily told him that the skies here never cleared, unlike the Academy, which was set high enough on the hill that the fog broke. Central itself started as a series of low grey buildings, no more than two stories tall, each set slightly apart and surrounded by small, neat yards and clusters of elm and oak trees.
    “We think they were probably houses to begin with, though the proportions are a little strange,” Emily commented, leaning over his shoulder. “Some people still like to live in them for the privacy, but they get wretchedly cold in the winter.”
    The road curved to follow along the bank of a moderately large, fast-moving creek, both sides of the road surrounded by the individual stone homes. Electric lines and various utility cables had been added to the structures, he realized, rather haphazardly in some cases, and he wondered again at the difficulty and logistics of transporting materials here. For that matter, he wondered, where did the electricity come from? He hadn’t seen anything that looked like a power plant.
    After a while, the structures gradually got larger, and then started to fuse together. At first they grew closer to each other, but they rapidly started to include points of interconnection, and by the time they descended into the city proper, the buildings began to meld into gigantic structures. They grew taller as well, some five or six stories tall, though Alex was starting to notice the proportions issue that Emily had mentioned — the stories appear to be a bit too tall, as did the windows and the stairs.
    “People live here in apartments they carved out for themselves,” Emily explained. “They knock out walls and put in dividers and create some sort of congruent living space, then build in kitchens and bathrooms. Even though the walls are old, it takes some effort to bore through them so you can install chimneys, plumbing, and the like. But the advantage of the big buildings is that they have central heating and a sewer system to plug into. If you live in the outlying areas, you’re on your own, so to speak.”
    The buildings they passed continued to grow larger and denser, with more ornate detail work and filigree appearing on the buildings as they drew closer to the city center. The road was no longer singular; a number of different roadways, all paved in the same ubiquitous grey stone, intersected and then separated again in what Alex could only describe as a downtown. Their own route was circuitous, passing by buildings which were now almost level with each other at around ten stories, forming solid urban walls that the road wound around and through, sometimes in the form of brief mossy tunnels, at other times using crude breaches in the structures that clearly had been created with explosives.
    Alex found the whole scene oppressive — the monotony of the stone, the lack of sun in between the walls of buildings, damp and cold under the weak light that filtered through the fog. If he hadn’t had Emily with him to point out the sights, Alex wasn’t sure he would have known that there were any, every structure appeared so monolithically uniform. They passed the main business offices for Central, set on a rare open plaza, each great building surrounded by an interconnected warren of smaller sub-buildings. It was bleak, under the perpetual fog, and Alex found himself unsure of this strange city and of his own place in it, amongst the great grey stone buildings that seemed so foreign to anything human. It appeared to have been built to hold hundreds of thousands, maybe more, but he barely saw anyone at all.
    But then, as they passed through the center of town and on to the western tip of the crescent that Central described, he discovered that people did in fact live there. It started with a few lone pedestrians, and gradually expanded until there were crowds of people, and even rudimentary traffic made up of bicycles and motorcycles. The area had been selected for inhabitation by the first cartels to arrive in Central, and as Emily explained, it remained the choicest and most exclusive area. Only those connected to the larger and more powerful cartels could afford to keep offices and accommodations in this neighborhood, locally referred to as the Ring, for the circular edifice that towered over the rest of the neighborhood, almost a third higher than any other structure in the area.
    The bus ground to a halt just outside the Ring, and Emily led him out on to the street besides the giant round building. Up close, it was almost impossible to tell how large it was, as it simply appeared to be a gradually curving exterior wall, encompassing whole blocks in its bulk. It’s most striking feature was not its size, however, but rather that it had been painted — a white lacquer had been applied to the surface of the stone in a thick, moderately uniform coat, and in contrast to the grey buildings that they had passed, it practically gleamed. The buildings that surrounded the Ring on the three sides that Alex could see were similarly coated in varying shades of cream and brown, as well as a scattering of more brilliant blues and greens. The scene was practically cheerful in contrast to the depressing monotone vastness of the rest of Central, and Alex had little trouble understanding why anyone who could afford to lived here.
    “This way,” Emily said, taking his hand gently in her own and leading him along, around part of the Ring and then a few blocks further west, down a side street where the buildings had been subdivided into smaller living quarters, each painted a different Easter egg pastel.
    “I know,” Emily said, seeing his look, “it isn’t exactly the most tasteful street. But, we are — I mean to say, that the Raleigh cartel — well, it’s just that,” Emily gestured haphazardly, and blushed furiously, paused on the lower steps of a baby-blue staircase, “we aren’t exactly wealthy. Not anymore.”
    “Seems like you’re doing okay.”
    “Well, I suppose it’s all relative. Never mind. Why don’t you come up?”
    Alex followed her up the stairs, which seemed unreasonably steep and high to Alex. The ironwork that bordered the stairs was a later addition and clearly handmade. The apartment door was made from a red wood that Alex did not recognize, with tarnished brass fixtures and knobs that looked ancient to him. Emily fished in her purse briefly, then used a bulky set of keys to open the door, ushering Alex through and then closing it behind him. This left them almost face-to-face in the cramped quarters of the entry, under a flickering light, surrounded by a jumble of coats and umbrellas. For an instant, looking at her freckled cheeks and small, coy smile, he was certain that their faces did not actually need to be so close together, that the space was not as small as that. Then she stood up on her tiptoes to tap the light bulb, fixing the lighting and ending the moment. She hung up her sweater and he found a hook for his hoodie, full of regret and confusion.
    Following her up the stairs into the apartment, Alex couldn’t help but watch her perfectly shaped calves flex underneath the fringe of her white dress — and then, for some reason, he remembered what Rebecca had told him about how he would be received here. He somehow managed to be simultaneously hopeful and embarrassed.
    “So, you live here?” he asked, as they emerged into what was clearly the living room, a fairly large space with white stucco walls and an unusually high ceiling. The room was crowded with a table and a number of wooden chairs, a couple of couches, a large entertainment center, and a number of bookshelves. It looked homey and oddly approachable to Alex, like he hadn’t really expected for Cartel families to have books lying all over the kitchen table, or half-dead houseplants, or a sink filled with unwashed dishes. “I mean, I know you live at the Academy right now, but this is where you grew up, right?”
    “Mostly,” Emily said, as if she was admitting to something, her eyes narrowing as she looked at the disarray. “Right now, only my sister lives here full-time. Which explains the mess, I suppose.”
    Emily sighed and marched toward the kitchen.
    “Go ahead and grab a seat, Alex. I just want to straighten up a bit. It won’t take a minute.”
    Alex glanced around skeptically, thinking that it might take quite a bit longer than a minute, then looked around for some place to sit, eventually settling on an uncomfortably high chair, set on the other side of the long kitchen counter, opposite the sink. On the other side, Emily made a face at the accumulated dishes, then turned on the hot water and reached for the dish soap. It took Alex a moment to realize that she was furious.
    “I’m sorry,” she said, a few minutes later, after she’d managed to clear enough room to get to work. “My sister can be quite… inconsiderate. She’s lived here a long time now while the rest of us haven’t been around quite as much as she’s made herself very much,” Emily grimaced, “at home. As you can see.”
    “Don’t worry about it,” Alex reassured. “I lived in a damn trailer, my standards aren’t that high. Um, so, I was wondering… not to be rude or anything, but why did you invite me here?”
    Emily glanced up at him momentarily. Alex wasn’t certain, but he thought she might have been annoyed with him.
    “Well, you hadn’t seen anything of Central outside of the Academy for one, and clearly no one was going to make time to take you,” Emily said over the clatter of washing dishes. Alex had to admit that what she said was true — they had been so busy trying to get him into fighting shape that they had pretty much neglected to cover any of the fundamentals. He’d had to hit Vivik up for help finding the laundry room, earlier in the day, and he still hadn’t figured out who to talk to about getting his hair cut. “And, I thought I might make you dinner, since you’ve eaten at the cafeteria pretty much every meal since you got here. I cook, you know.”
    “I didn’t know that. Well, I mean, I did, because of the lunches, you know, but…”
    Emily laughed.
    “Well, I do. Actually, I was raised with the full suite of domestic skills — something my parents seem to have neglected when it came to my sister,” Emily said, her arms elbow deep in soapy water. “Different children have different functions, I suppose.”
    “What do you mean?”
    Alex folded his arms on the counter and then leaned his chin on them, staring over at the girl washing dishes, totally puzzled.
    “Why would they treat you differently from her?”
    “They would have told you about me, I’m certain,” Emily said plainly, her smile rueful, her eyes vague and faraway. “The Academy staff, I mean. Someone would have, before we ever met.”
    “Yeah.” Alex nodded, feeling slightly guilty. “They warned me about everyone.”
    “Of course. Still, because of my… circumstances,” Emily said, blushing, “they would have warned you about me, specifically. Because it was so obvious I that I would have to approach you. Because I’m an empath, but an exceptionally weak one, and because my family is part of the Hegemony. It’s a bit embarrassing, honestly, to have it be public knowledge.”
    Alex didn’t know what to say. Fortunately, Emily didn’t seem to require a response from him. As a matter of fact, she didn’t even seem like she was talking to him specifically. She continued to dry the plates with a hand towel, and then set them carefully in the drying rack.
    “My father is a powerful man, and my family has been among the elite in the Raleigh Cartel since it was founded, though the cartel itself has seen better days. My mother is a diplomat and a powerful empath. My older sister graduated from the Academy with honors, and now handles the cartel’s representation in Central. Which is why she’s always here, not cleaning.”
    Emily spoke without a trace of bitterness, her smile fixed and brittle.
    “The old families — and the Muir family is very old — still use marriages to establish alliances. It’s very feudal, like medieval Europe,” she joked mirthlessly. “To a man like my father, there’s only one possible use for a daughter who is such a weak empath — my talents aren’t good for much, Alex, but I’d make some important man a very satisfying wife, wouldn’t I? Don’t you think I’m pretty, Alex?”
    Alex nodded slowly, his mind reeling. He’d assumed, when he met her, that Emily would be one of the popular girls at the Academy. She was obviously upper crust, and yes, pretty — but this…
    “That’s good, because that’s what I was raised to be. I talked my mother into letting me come to the Academy,” Emily continued sadly. “I told her I wanted the chance to develop my abilities, to learn useful skills that could aid me in my marriage later on. I think that she felt sorry for me more than anything, but she talked my father into it anyway.”
    Emily smiled at Alex, but the smile was painful.
    “Do you know why I wanted to come to the Academy, Alex?” she asked, continuing on before Alex could have even attempted an answer, had he any. “I wanted some time, before I had to become a bargaining chip for my father, before I got bartered off to someone. A few years before that happened, to be myself.”
    She was so accustomed to counterfeiting it that her smile hardly even looked false.
    “I actually got to the point where I thought I’d accepted it,” she said lightly. “It didn’t bother me that much anymore. And then, a few days before the start of second session, I get a message from my father, and I have to go rushing back home to learn all about you.”
    Alex could only stare at her in shock.
    “Do you know how weird it is, Alex, when you’ve only seen your father at family events, to have him suddenly pulling you into his office for little chats with the cartel advisors? When they act like you’ve always been there with them, as if you’ve always been important?” Emily paused, and brushed her hair back from her eyes. When she spoke again, her voice was more composed. “But, I’m not saying it was all bad.”
    She put the dish down in the rack with more force than she intended, and the clattering made Alex jump.
    “All of a sudden, for the first time in my life, my father is taking an interest in me.” Emily laughed as if it were funny, sponging off the water on the countertop. “Now I have my mother doing my hair, and confiding with me about whether to seduce you, or to try and make you feel sorry for me, or both.”
    Alex felt numb. He couldn’t think of anything to say.
    “It doesn’t really matter how I feel about you, or how I’d feel about doing something like that, or how you’d feel about it. Not to my parents. That’s the world I was raised in.” Emily shook her head sadly. “None of that really bothers me. But, because you showed up Alex, now everything is different for me. I thought I had at least a few years, here at the Academy.”
    The bottom fell out of Alex’s stomach. He hadn’t realized until now, but it was obvious — Emily had come to the Academy to put off her inevitable arranged marriage. But, she hadn’t even gotten a full year of school before he’d arrived, and…
    “I’m really sorry, Emily,” Alex said quietly, ashamed.
    “That’s sweet,” Emily said brightly. “But, what do you have to be sorry about? It’s not like you had any choice in the matter. You’re like me, Alex, do you realize that? We’re both pieces in a game that someone else is playing. Maybe I’m only a pawn, and maybe you’re something more useful. But we won’t ever get to make our own moves.”
    Alex looked around at the living room around him, not sure what to say. Emily looked up at him expectantly a few times, but after he failed to meet her eyes or respond, she went back to finishing up the kitchen. After a moment, she leaned across the counter and handed Alex a half-full watering can.
    “Can you water the plants for me, Alex?
    He nodded and took the can gratefully, heading across the living room to the first bunch of very dry houseplants. In the cluster, he was fairly certain that the two nearer unidentifiable brown plants had given up the ghost, but he watered them anyway, gratefully to be doing something. The rubber plant and the ferns behind them appeared to be in somewhat better shape, and he gave them a more generous drink to reward their tenacity. He was still leaning over the last plant, tugging off some of the dead leaves, when he heard the front door open, and saw Emily go stiff as a board, her hands full of trash, hovering just over the garbage can.
    “Emily?” The voice that drifted up from the entry way was unmistakably similar to Emily’s, but there was an edge to it that Emily’s voice never had. “Did you come home today?”
    “I’m in the kitchen,” Emily called out to her, “and we have a guest, Therese.”
    “Who’s that?”
    The woman who emerged from the entryway stairwell was a bit older than he expected, probably somewhere in her late twenties. She had the same blonde hair as Emily, but she cut it short and had it tied back in a rather severe pony tail. She wore glasses and a well-tailored pant suit, and looked very much as if she might have just come from working in an office somewhere. Alex couldn’t help but find her appearance incongruous with their surroundings.
    “This is Alex Warner, from my class. I told you about him. Alex, this is my sister, Therese,” Emily said, standing beside Alex and drying her hands with a kitchen towel. “Who, I might add, has abandoned all pretenses of housekeeping.”
    “Nice to meet you,” Alex said, offering his hand and getting a polite handshake and a terse smile in return.
    “And you too. You haven’t been at the Academy long, right? How do you like it?” Therese wandered into the kitchen, ignoring Emily’s work, and started digging through the refrigerator.
    “I’m sorry,” Alex said reluctantly, “but do you know who I am already?”
    “Sure,” Therese said, “didn’t Emily tell you? I’m the cartel liaison. I work in Operations. We’ve all heard about it, that incident with Aoki. Must have been a rough introduction. I’ve heard stories. People say she’s nuts.”
    Therese emerged from the refrigerator with a can of coffee.
    “What’s for dinner?”
    “You can starve for all I care,” Emily said cheerfully, gathering the papers that covered much of the open space in the living room into one giant pile. “I’m definitely not making you dinner.”
    “Don’t let her attitude fool you. She’s really an excellent cook,” Therese said to Alex conversationally. “You should try and get her to make us dinner.”
    “I am making him dinner, Therese, not you,” Emily said huffily. “You’re on your own.”
    “That’s mean,” Therese complained. “You’ve always been a mean sister.”
    Finding no sympathy, she turned to Alex.
    “Hey, Alex, you smoke?”
    Alex shook his head.
    “Well, I do,” Therese said, looking around for the purse she had dropped on her way in, “but when Emily is here, I have to go out on the balcony. So, come keep me company.”
    Therese found her purse and started up the stairs, with Alex following, a bit reluctantly.
    Emily trailed off questioningly, the papers she had collected held bunched to her chest. She looked to Alex like she expected to be disappointed.
    The look Therese shot Emily was disapproving.
    “Don’t you worry about your big sister.” Therese’s tone was curt, dismissive. “I’m just going to have a quick smoke and a little chat with your friend here, and then I’ll get out of your hair.”
    Alex was sure Emily would protest. He was certain that the fight that he’d felt coming since Therese had arrived was about to start. But Emily just watched, looking more frightened than anything, and then hurried back into the kitchen. Therese headed up the stairs, totally nonplussed. Alex looked after Emily, wondering about the fear he’d seen in her eyes, and then shrugged and followed Therese. He hadn’t known her very long, but she didn’t seem like the kind of person it was a good idea to argue with.
    There were four rooms upstairs, but only Therese’s had the door open — or Alex guessed that it was hers, by the pile of clothes that covered the floor and spilled out into the hall. Alex followed the hall between the rooms, surprised at how small it all was, though the ceilings were abnormally tall. Despite the size of the buildings in Central, he was coming to realize, livable space was still at something of a premium.
    He found Therese at the end of the hall, through a set of ornate glass doors and out on a wrought iron balcony that overhung the street below. She had shed her jacket, purse, watch and belt, all left in small piles that marked the route she had taken through the hall. Alex stepped around them carefully, but Therese didn’t seem concerned, seemingly enthralled by the view below her, her unlit cigarette dangling from one hand.
    “Come on out here,” Therese ordered, her face composed and serious. Alex decided that heading out to the balcony was the diplomatic thing to do. “Let me get a good look at you, Mr. Alexander Warner.”
    The way she lowered her glasses to look at him made him wonder if she needed them in the first place. Another thing that he’d noticed during the handshake — Therese was strong. Oddly strong for someone who dressed like they worked a desk. Unless, of course, they didn’t always work at one.
    “Do you work for that Alistair guy? Is that how you know about me?”
    Therese’s jaw dropped, and then she laughed, hard, but not exactly unkind.
    “That’s actually not too bad of a guess,” she said, patting him on the shoulder as she ushered him out next to her, leaning on the balcony railing. There wasn’t much view to speak of — the Easter egg colored street stretched out before them, and beyond it, just the tip of the Ring and then the monotonous bulk of Central beyond. “But you’re exaggerating your own importance, and you’re mixed up on who my boss is.”
    Alex did his best to sound nonchalant.
    “Yeah,” Therese said, smirking. “Everything I told you was true. I heard about you as an anecdote to the Mitsuru Aoki situation.”
    “There’s a Mitsuru situation?”
    “Mind your own business,” Therese said, staring out at Central moodily. “I don’t work for Central, Alex; I work for the Raleigh Cartel. I most definitely do not work for the Chief Auditor, thank you very much.”
    Alex shrugged and then nodded.
    “Okay, I got it, you work for the cartel. Can you please tell me why we are having this conversation?”
    Therese glanced over at him, her expression unreadable, and then went back to staring off at the city.
    “Do you like her?”
    Alex was puzzled by her timing, not the subject. He was pretty sure he knew who she was talking about.
    “They brought my sister back home for coaching, because the precognitives said that you would probably like her.” Therese’s tone was dull, and she spoke so quietly Alex had to lean forward to hear her over the wind that whistled through the channel between the great stone buildings. “They gave her a sixty-six percent chance, depending on circumstances. So, do you?”
    Alex tried to formulate a response, while she finally remembered her cigarette and lit it.
    “She seems cool,” he managed, after several moments of thinking. “We met pretty recently, and everything, so it’s not like I know her that well…”
    “It took you a very long time to come up with ‘she seems cool’.”
    “Sure, okay,” Alex said, running his hands through his hair. “So, are we all done here? Because I don’t really need to have one of these weird conversations right now.”
    “What weird conversations? Who are you having weird conversations with?”
    Therese looked at him sincerely. He couldn’t make heads or tails of it.
    “Did you have something you wanted to talk to me about?”
    Alex wasn’t sure whether he was demanding or begging. Therese tilted her head to look at him over the top of her glasses again, and then smiled, and she didn’t seem all that different from Emily after all, for a moment, and Alex wondered why in the world she kept her golden hair tied back that way.
    “It probably seems like I give her a pretty hard time, right? And I do,” Therese said, her elbows resting on the iron railing, her smile a little sad. “I do give her a hard time, because the world is always going to be hard on my poor little sister. She got a bad hand, right from the start, and there’s never been anything I could do about that. I’ve tried to make her as tough as possible, because I can’t make her life any easier.”
    Therese paused for a while, and Alex let the silence be, not only because he couldn’t think of anything worth saying.
    “Did you ever date a girl with a big brother, Alex?” Therese asked, not waiting for a response, sparing Alex the embarrassment of admitting that he hadn’t dated anyone, ever. “Emily doesn’t have a big brother. All she has is me. And normally, I would be doing the big brother thing right now to the boy she brought home from school. Do you know why I’m not doing that, Alex?”
    Alex shook his head, too confused to try and guess.
    “Because I got a call a few weeks ago from my father, who was extremely excited at his tremendous luck regarding his most disappointing daughter.” Alex was starting to realize that though Therese seemed calm, that she was actually quite possibly angry, something he didn’t particularly want to experience firsthand. “Never mind that it’s my baby sister, because I work for the cartel and it’s all about what the cartel wants. So I can’t be the big brother, and tell you to keep your hands off her.”
    “Because it’s in the cartel’s best interest?”
    “For all I know it might be in Emily’s best interest. Lord knows that nothing I’ve done or will ever do has made things much easier on her.” Therese looked gloomy. “So father says that I have to be nice to you, and stay out of Emily’s way. Actually, when he finds out that I came home anyway tonight, he’s going to be furious.”
    “I kinda wondered if you did that on purpose,” Alex admitted. “Did you leave stuff all over the place to upset her?”
    Therese laughed unexpectedly. When she laughed, Alex noted, she looked even more like Emily, but not nearly as reserved. Therese was prim and serious, Alex realized, but also much less timid than her younger sister.
    “No, I’m just a slob,” Therese said, wiping her eyes and then replacing her glasses. “But you’re a funny guy. Let me say this,” she said, flicking the remainder of her cigarette onto the slate grey road below. “I hope that you can help my sister, and I hope that you join the Raleigh Cartel, I really do. And I promise that if you decide to do that, you will find yourself enthusiastically welcomed by everyone, myself included. But until that point, Alex, you had better be nice to my sister. And, if you decide you don’t like her, then you better make that very clear. Because if you string her along, well, I can and will make your life miserable. Do you believe me?”
    Alex stuck with nodding. It seemed like the fastest way to put an end to the conversation.
    “Okay, then,” she said, brushing past him on her way back into the house. “Let’s find out what we’re eating.”
    Sure enough, Therese stayed and ate, ignoring the icy stares that Emily aimed in her direction, chatting away casually and not seeming to particularly care that neither Alex nor Emily had much to say in return. The meal was excellent, and Alex was particularly surprised at the pan-fried fish, not something he normally ate, which was moist and delicious and not at all, well, fishy, but the atmosphere left something to be desired. When Therese put her napkin on the table and made to leave, Alex practically wanted to embrace her in gratitude, but to his surprise, Emily grabbed her arm and pulled her toward the kitchen.
    “Therese, help me with the dishes before you go,” Emily said, her grip on her sister’s forearm tightening.
    “Aw,” Therese moaned, collecting the plates and then shuffling half-heartedly after Emily into the kitchen, shutting the door behind her. Alex wasn’t certain what was said in the moments that followed, because someone had turned the kitchen sink on full blast before the conversation started, but from the tone of the voice, he guessed that there was some disagreement. He stared into his empty wine glass as heated voices turned to shouting, and then eventually escalated to what sounded like dishes breaking on the tiled floor. Alex thought about getting up and going to check on the girls, maybe try and broker some kind of peace, but then his sense of self-preservation kicked in, and he decided to remain where he was.
    Alex jumped in his seat when the kitchen door swung opened and Therese stalked out.
    “Why do you have to ruin everything?”
    Emily’s shriek came from somewhere inside the kitchen, her voice full of tears.
    Therese winced and quickly shut the door behind her, then leaned against it, taking a deep breath and then giving Alex a shaky smile.
    “Alright, I’m off for the evening. It was nice meeting you, Alex. I’m sure that I will be seeing you around Central.”
    “Right,” Alex said, half-standing up from the table. “Uh, do you think I should…?”
    Therese waved him off, wedging her feet into the shoes she’d discarded by the front door and collecting her purse.
    “Don’t worry about it. She’ll feel better as soon as I’m gone,” Therese said curtly, as she reached for the door. “You think about what I said.”
    She shot him a warning glare as she closed the door behind her. Alex decided not to notice that she was crying. He sat quietly at the table for a while, and then when nothing happened, he decided to clear the rest of the table. Alex entered the kitchen cautiously, his hands filled with glasses and silverware.
    “Emily, are you okay?”
    He eyed Emily carefully as he entered the kitchen, ready to turn around if she was still a mess. She was crouching down with a broom and tray, sweeping up the remains of what looked to be a broken plate, her face streaked with tears and her makeup smudged. She smiled thinly at Alex and nodded, then returned to sweeping. He suppressed an urge to give her a hug, and headed to the sink instead.
    He rinsed off the dishes methodically, trying to give her time to compose herself. It felt a bit strange to him, being back in a kitchen. Even though it had only been a few weeks, he had gotten used to having access the cafeteria. Of course, he’d never cooked for himself as much as he had warmed food in a microwave, and there was a certain familiarity with the institutional feeding scheme.
    “Dinner was good,” Alex said, keeping his attention on the dishes in the sink. “Those little potato things…”
    “Fingerling?” Emily offered, sniffling.
    “Right, the fingerling potatoes were great, and the fish was, um, very… great. Also.”
    Alex heard Emily’s muffled laughter from behind him and felt a little bit better about the situation. Watching her cry made him feel weirdly helpless.
    “Did she tell you things about me? Was she at least nice to you?”
    “Who’s that? Your sister?”
    Alex glanced over his shoulder at Emily, who appeared to be more in control, though he had a feeling that the wrong answer could well prompt another crying binge, if he wasn’t careful.
    “She was pretty nice, yeah, in a weird sort of way. She was way harder on you than she was on me. We didn’t talk about anything in particular — I think she’s just being protective of you.”
    Emily smiled half-heartedly, picking up a drying cloth and starting work on the dishes that Alex had finished cleaning.
    “She seems to think I’m in imminent danger of having my virtue compromised,” Emily said, a tad bitterly, “if I’m left alone with you. That is a bit unexpected.”
    Alex tried not to get his hopes up.
    “She’s always known,” Emily said, blushing and looking down, “what would be expected of me. My father has been very clear on what role I would eventually play in helping rebuild the Raleigh Cartel’s fortunes. I don’t know why she’s acting like she would bite your head off if you touched me.”
    After a moment’s consideration, he decided that probably wasn’t a veiled invitation.
    “I’m not sure,” he said hesitantly. “Therese seems… capable.”
    Emily giggled.
    “That’s one way to put it,” she said more cheerfully, shelving dishes. “And you’re right. Therese is one of the top Operators in the Hegemony, and certainly the most, how should I say… capable in our cartel. But, if you were to compromise my virtue, I wouldn’t be that concerned with Therese’s reaction.”
    Alex braced himself, wondering how much worse it could get.
    “No, I’d be more worried about my father,” Emily said, her smile unhappy. “He might collapse in sheer joy and disbelief.”
    Alex didn’t know what to say to that, so he didn’t say anything. They finished up the kitchen in silence, and then moved to the living room. Alex was careful to sit down first, on one end of the couch, so that when Emily decided to sit down next to him, rather than leaving a buffer between them, it wasn’t awkward. He took a sip from his wine glass and hoped that it looked like he’d done that before, and ransacked his mind for something to say.
    “You must think I’m a mess,” Emily said, sighing and leaning back into the overstuffed leather cushions. “My plan was so much cooler than this.”
    “Really? Because this has been pretty cool. I’ve never really been over to anyone’s house before.”
    Emily was openly skeptical.
    Alex shook his head. On the balance, he figured it could be worse — he didn’t really want to talk about himself, but even more than that, he didn’t want them to sit in silence.
    “Well, I mean, I’ve been inside other people’s houses, obviously,” Alex explained, frowning as he tried to remember. “But, I don’t think I’ve ever really been invited over to hang out like this. I’m sure that no one except my grandmother ever cooked me dinner.”
    “That sounds sort of lonely,” Emily said, looking at him with what he desperately hoped wasn’t pity. “Though maybe things haven’t gone too well tonight because I’m sort of in uncharted territory myself. I don’t normally do this sort of thing.”
    “Can I ask what your plan was?” Alex asked, looking away, cheeks burning.
    “Oh. Uh, well, I thought you’d be all over me as soon as we were alone, so I didn’t think I would have to do that much,” Emily said nervously, her cheeks tomato-red. “I guess I didn’t realize how weird this would feel. I’ve known it was coming for years, since I was little. And I worried about it, all sorts of things, really, but now that it’s happening, I can’t even tell if you like me or not.”
    “Do you like me at all?”
    Alex evaded the question, still unable to look at Emily directly.
    “I don’t really know you,” Emily admitted, after a short delay.
    “Well, same here.” Alex shrugged in relief. “It isn’t that I don’t like you. I just don’t really get what’s going on, yet, and it seems really important that I figure things out. That, and,” Alex said, instantly regretting having continued on, “I’ve never, that is to say, well, this is all new to me. All of it.”
    Emily looked stunned. Alex was fairly certain that she reached for her wine glass to buy herself time, rather than out of thirst.
    “Are you being serious?”
    She leaned forward when she asked, trying to look him in the eyes. Alex blushed, and wished he’d been able to turn invisible after all.
    “Yes,” Alex said, hanging his head.
    “All of it?”
    Emily’s expression was somewhere between incredulous and pitying.
    “My upbringing was not exactly conventional,” Alex said morosely, “and I was not quite as popular at my last school as I appear to be at this one.”
    “Can I ask why?”
    “Shit,” Alex said softly, rubbing his palms against his jeans, “this is exactly what I didn’t want to talk about out.”
    Emily reached over and patted his hand, her expression pained.
    “Don’t worry about it,” she urged. “We can talk about something…”
    “My family died in a fire,” Alex said quietly, staring at the floor. “The general consensus was that I set it, though I can’t say that I remember doing anything like that. I guess I can’t say that I’m sure I didn’t, either. Anyway, I spent a long time in various institutions, because of that. The overall opinion of me back at home was, well, understandably low.”
    Alex waited for a moment, and then when nothing happened, he snuck a look over at Emily. She was lost in thought, absently brushing her hair back behind her ears.
    “Should I go?”
    He didn’t want to. That had to be obvious in his voice, to say nothing of empathy.
    “You knew, right?” Emily asked, speaking slowly, her eyes unfocused. “About me and my situation, I mean? And you came anyway.”
    “Sure,” Alex said with a shrug. “I was hungry.”
    Emily laughed and slapped his arm playfully.
    “It doesn’t really matter to me, what you did or didn’t do before you got here,” Emily said, with what appeared to be sincerity, or a perfect facsimile thereof. “And I’m not planning on asking any more questions that you don’t want to answer. But, I do want something from you, Alex.”
    The wariness must have been obvious, because she flinched.
    “Don’t look at me like that. It’s nothing bad. I wondered if you’d consider coming to an arrangement with me. Maybe we could help each other.”


    “The quarry seems a bit different than the last time I saw it.”
    “Different how?”
    “Well, there’s a lot… more of it, for one thing. I mean, that whole area over there, since when is that nothing but gravel and sand?”
    “Since this afternoon, roughly three-ish?”
    “And then there’s the frost. It’s just like my poor couch.” Rebecca pinched her lower lip and looked at Michael disapprovingly. “Did you freeze the quarry? Why did you freeze the quarry, Michael?”
    “I didn’t do it,” Michael protested. “Alex did. Or rather, that was a side effect of what Alex did.”
    “Alex blew up that whole rock face?”
    Rebecca pointed incredulously at the ruined slope, at a deep crater that exposed the bedrock, covered with a fine layer of gravel and chipped stone.
    “No, that was me,” Michael admitted, shoulders slumped. “I showed him the Vacuum Bomb Protocol, to give him an idea of what was possible, given the right control…”
    “You were showing off,” Rebecca said, staring grumpily at the quarry wall. “And then what happened?”
    “He activated the Absolute Protocol that you implanted. And then he started dumping all the local energy directly out into the Ether. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
    “What does that mean? What ‘local energy’?”
    “Everything. First thermal, then radiant and electromagnetic as well.”
    Michael picked up a pebble and threw it toward the quarry wall, but it came up short, diving down early toward the black water at the bottom of the quarry and colliding with the ice on the surface with a crunching sound.
    “I tried to get him to stop there, but he seemed like he was in a trance or something. Next thing I know, the rock where he was staring starts to disappear into the Ether.”
    Michael gestured at the frost around him, as if it had just arrived, to his shock.
    “I think all the cold is only a side-effect, you know?”
    “You mean he was creating a vacuum? You are kidding, right?”
    “I think so,” Michael said. “I think all the time, without even realizing it, Alex creates a localized void in our world, and Etheric energy leaks through to fill it. I think that’s where all that catalytic power comes from. When he activated the protocol, he created a much larger void in the Ether, so energy went rushing out of the world to fill it.”
    “You could use that, maybe,” Rebecca said slowly, lost in thought. “The cold might be easier to control than an actual energy or mass transfer. Less dangerous for Alex, probably more effective.”
    “No,” Michael said, almost sadly, shaking his head.
    “Why not?”
    “He can’t control the protocol, and he can’t stop it, once it starts.”
    Rebecca frowned doubtfully.
    “Okay, what then?”
    Michael looked moodily at the frost covered hole in the quarry wall and sighed.
    “It’s like Mitsuru all over again,” he said, turning to face her, with an expression that was filled with grief and frustration. “We can’t let Alex operate that protocol. He’ll kill everyone around him.”

    Alex lay on his back, on top of the comforter, still wearing his shoes and uniform, and wondered why someone enrolled in the combat program had to study any math at all, much less the exact same math that had been kicking his ass back in the real world.
    He looked idly over at the stack of books on his desk, the study guides that Vivik and Emily had made for him sitting on top. Vivik’s notes were typed, bullet-pointed, and exhaustive to the point of being incomprehensible. Alex often found the text book’s explanations to be shorter. Emily’s notes were handwritten, concise, and easy to understand — but equally as useless to Alex. They only made him worry about her, and their little ‘arrangement’.
    The ceiling proved more interesting that the books. He wasn’t, he realized drowsily, going to be doing any studying tonight. He fished his headphones out of his pocket and hit play on his MP3 player, finding himself mid-song, halfway through a Portishead album.
    Alex turned the volume up earlier when he’d gone for a jog on the Academy’s surprisingly modern synthetic-surface track. Alex hadn’t really felt like getting lost going running on the grounds, but he’d wanted the exercise, even if it was an off-day. The music was too loud now, in the quiet of the dorms, but he didn’t bother to reach for the volume, letting the lushness of the sound obliterate his thoughts, his skull reverberating with the slow, looping beats.
    He couldn’t have fallen asleep. Not like that. Alex was a light sleeper, a very desirable trait for those who planned on surviving incarceration. He had trouble falling asleep almost every night, and even small noises tended to wake him up. He couldn’t possibly have fallen asleep with his headphones on.
    But, Alex could have sworn that for a moment somewhere in the album’s final tracks, his head heavy and swimming with worry, that he felt the warmth of another body besides his own in the tiny dorm bed, a small hand resting on the pillow above his head. The illusion was so complete that he was aware of the smell of her hair, the weight of her head from where it rested on the hollow of his shoulder. He felt a tremendous sense of comfort and gentleness, and he lost himself in it.
    He did not wake then. He could not have woken, because he had not slept. He opened his eyes. Nothing had changed. He was alone, and the place beside him on the bed was cold. The MP3 player had moved along to Massive Attack, but he felt too agitated to listen anymore. He pulled the headphones out of his ears as he sat up, puzzled and angry for reasons he couldn’t articulate.
    There was no way for him to know how long they had been knocking on the door. He hadn’t slept, he didn’t even feel that sleepy. But, he hadn’t heard them until now.
    Alex got up with a sigh and opened the door, expecting Vivik. He liked the Sikh kid quite a bit; actually, he was really good-natured and upbeat. But Vivik liked studying, as in he seemed to do it for fun, and sometimes he wanted to tutor Alex a bit more than Alex wanted to be tutored.
    It wasn’t Vivik. It was Renton, and a Chinese kid who Alex recognized from class, but he couldn’t remember the name of.
    “Hey, Alex,” Renton asked, smiling mischievously, “why are you still in your uniform?”
    Alex looked down at himself, and wondered the same thing. He had he slept, then? Had he dreamed?
    “I’m not really sure,” he admitted, rubbing his head. “I guess I was asleep. What time is it, anyway?”
    “A bit after eleven. I’m Li,” the Chinese kid said, extending his hand to Alex. He had a firm hand shake and a smile that seemed friendly enough. “We have homeroom together.”
    “Right,” Alex said. “You’re a friend of Renton’s?”
    “Don’t think badly of me for it, though,” Li said, grinning. “It sort of worked out that way.”
    Alex laughed, and then stifled a yawn, wondering how anyone could tolerate Renton on a consistent enough basis to be friends with him. Frankly, he wasn’t totally sure how Anastasia put up with Renton, as an employee or whatever he was.
    “Get yourself changed, Alex. Put something warm on,” Renton suggested, leaning against the wall. “We’ll wait out here while you change.”
    “Where are we going?”
    Alex was wary. He wondered if the Academy had hazing rituals that he was unaware of.
    “The roof, Alex. Believe me, you want to come with us to the roof,” Renton said, his voice dripping with sincerity.

    “I will not notice,” Rebecca said, up to her chin in rose-scented bathwater.
    The room was so thick with steam that she couldn’t see the shower curtain. Pink-tinged bubbles floated across the water’s surface. Her hair was securely wrapped in a red towel, a mask stuffed with lavender pressed across her eyes.
    “I will not notice.”
    Rebecca thanked whatever God that there might be that the founder of the Academy had been Japanese, and had a fondness for his native country’s baths. She’d made certain that everyone in Central had forgotten the bathhouse except herself and the staff that cleaned it. The wood was carved cedar, darkened with age and moisture, and the bath itself was big enough that she could stretch her legs out. The only sound was the branches scraping across with the outside wall with the wind.
    “I’m not going to notice anything. I don’t care what they do. I’m not going to feel any of it.”
    The worst was the flirting, the falling in lust or in love. She could feel it from a mile away.
    She’d always planned to bring a lover here, Rebecca remembered bitterly. Back when she’d had them. When she found someone special, someone worth rewarding, she intended bring them here. She’d had it all planned out.
    How many years ago had that been? Three? Four?
    “I will not notice. I will not.”
    Rebecca let herself sink down, into the steaming water up to her eyeballs, letting the hot water massage her brain.
    It helped a little bit.

    There were around thirty people up on the roof. Most of them were strangers to Alex. Since Renton and Li were caught up in conversation as soon as they walked out on to the roof, Alex shyly migrated back to where a cooler sat, perched on top of one of the old chimneys the dotted the roof. A beer, he figured, might help relax him a little, make talking to people a bit easier.
    Alex stared into the cooler in dismay.
    Renton looked over at him from where he was hitting on some curly-haired first year student, confused.
    “All this power and technology; a secret school in another world,” Alex recited numbly. “Plus, some of the people here are really rich! So, how could this be?”
    Renton looked him with a puzzled expression. Alex reached into the cooler that he held open.
    “Keystone,” Alex said sadly. “Still warm.”
    Renton laughed like he’d heard the funniest joke ever. It was obscene, unpleasant, and probably designed to be exactly that. Alex was starting to realize that Renton had mastered that art of being friendly and despicable at the same time.
    “It’s like fucking Bakersfield in a can, you realize,” Alex said to no one in particular. Then a nasty idea occurred to him, and he turned to confront Renton. “Is this some kind of joke, Renton? Should I take offense?”
    “Do you have any idea how hard it is to get beer when you’re stuck in the Ether, you ungrateful little shit?”
    Renton extracted a can from the cooler for himself, smacking his lips with satisfaction.
    “We can’t even bring it in the dorms, you know. They have a protocol on all the student buildings, it puts you to sleep if you try and bring this sort of thing in.”
    “Same thing if you try and get it on with a girl in the dorms.”
    Alex looked over at the speaker, a chubby upperclassman named Todd that he had just been introduced to. Seemed like a nice enough guy, although he had a bit too much of the white-boy hip-hop act going for Alex, but maybe that was an East Coast thing.
    “You try some shit, you both wake up to find the staff member on duty standing over you.”
    “Really? Even if she was only there to study or something?”
    “Study, right,” Li said with a grin. “That’s a good one. In that truly unlikely scenario, nothing would happen. Not until one of you tried to take your clothes off, I guess.”
    Alex laughed nervously while he considered the implications. He hadn’t really realized what an opportunity he’d blown at Emily’s place.
    “It happened to a girl in my hall, last year. She was so embarrassed when the teacher came to get her in the morning.”
    Alex turned to look at the new voice. Anastasia, wrapped in a surprisingly cutesy winter coat and fringed scarf, was glancing at the contents of the cooler with obvious contempt. Behind her was Emily in a tailored coat, heavy woolen skirt and felt boots, laughing cheerfully and walking with a plump, dreadlocked blond girl he didn’t recognize.
    “You do realize that you’re staring, don’t you?”
    Anastasia hissed at him as she walked near, stopping a discrete distance away.
    “Sorry,” he mumbled into his beer. “I was surprised to see you here, that’s all.”
    Anastasia made a sour face at him.
    “Aren’t you going to introduce us, Ana?”
    The dreadlocked girl interposed herself between Alex and Anastasia, looking indignant.
    “Alex, meet Serafina Ricci,” Anastasia said, sounding as bored as she looked. “Serafina, meet Alex Warner.”
    “Call me Sarah, everyone does. How do you do?”
    Sarah greeted Alex with a smile. Alex nodded back, and took a sip of his wretched beer to cover his discomfort. He was never sure, meeting a new girl, whether he supposed to shake her hand or what. It seemed so inappropriately masculine, somehow.
    “I have, of course, heard all about you.”
    She said it as if he would find that reassuring.
    “Seems like everyone has,” Alex agreed. “Saves time on introductions, I guess.”
    “Serafina is a second-year student,” Anastasia explained. “And her cartel, I might add, has the bad taste to associate itself with the Hegemony. Despite that, and her awful, she is my second cousin, and therefore my responsibility.”
    Sarah looked scandalized.
    “And your friend, too, I would hope. And I’ve told you a million times to call me Sarah. After all I’ve done for you…”
    “Please,” Anastasia said, her voice deathly bored. “I only came because you made me promise to introduce you to Alex. That done, I am afraid that I have better things to do with my time. Do enjoy yourselves…”
    Anastasia breezed off, brushing by a puzzled looking Emily on her way to the door. Alex sipped from his can as sparingly as possible and felt tremendously out-of-place. How could beer be warm when it was this cold outside? It defied logic.
    Alex grabbed Renton by the arm as he walked by. Renton met Alex’s look with slightly glassy eyes. Alex realized the boy was probably a touch drunk already.
    “Okay, then, so why the party?”
    “We are sort of the welcoming committee,” Vivik admitted, emerging from the group of people behind the tangle of pipes on the center of the roof. “We would have done it sooner, but you keep falling asleep at eight o’clock, so it’s been a little tricky.”
    “Vivik!” Alex exclaimed. “I didn’t realize you were here.”
    “Don’t look so surprised,” Vivik said, obviously hurt. “I’m not that big of nerd, you know.”
    Renton winked at Alex.
    Emily walked up and tried to say something, only to be cut off by Renton shouting a greeting and then pushing his way through the group, running over to the far wall. Alex watched in astonishment as Margot, the vampire from the day before, floated up from the side of the building and over the retaining wall, coming smoothly down in front of the cheering Renton.
    “Shush.” Margot’s voice was prim and cold, but not unfriendly. “One of the staff has to be doing rounds, Renton.”
    She held out a brown paper bag, which Renton promptly snatched.
    “It’s Rebecca tonight, so we’re cool. And you’re great, Margot. I appreciate this.”
    Renton was looking at the contents of the heavy paper bag with obvious satisfaction. Given the clinking noise it made when he moved it, Alex was pretty sure he’d just seen how the beer had made it to the roof in the first place, without tripping any of the Academy’s security measures.
    As Alex approached them, he realized that he’d been wrong — Margot hadn’t actually landed. She was still floating, her bare feet dangling lazily, centimeters above the concrete and rebar, her long brown skirt around her calves, teased by the cold wind.
    “Am I done?” Margot said, looking vaguely annoyed. “I have Eerie waiting down there…”
    Renton chuckled to himself, and then looked at Alex evilly.
    “Why don’t you bring her up, then, and hang out for a while. I’ll introduce you guys to Alex. You can have a beer with us or something.”
    Margot looked at him, clearly taken aback.
    “I can’t drink alcohol, because of my metabolism, and Eerie’s pathologically shy, because she’s a nutcase.” Her intonation made it obvious that she wasn’t making excuses; rather, Margot was just stating the facts as she saw them. “What kind of party are you having, exactly?”
    “That was a pretty big favor that I did you, right?” Renton said softly, his smile wide and mean. “And while I do appreciate you bringing up all this stuff up to the roof for me, maybe you should consider if things between us are really squared. What do you think, Margot?”
    Margot’s eyes narrowed, and for a moment, Alex wondered if she was going to attack him. She was, after all, a vampire, right? He had been planning on introducing himself, but found himself standing by nervously, not sure what to make of the conversation. The mood didn’t seem right for him to interrupt.
    “Very well.” Margot bowed her head for a moment, and then continued on evenly. “I can’t speak for Eerie, though. She will probably just go home by herself.”
    “I really don’t think you should let that happen, Margot,” Renton said reasonably. “Besides, you can tell Eerie that I have a bunch of candy up here for her.”
    Again, Margot paused and appeared to try and compose herself. Alex looked at the serious, pigtailed vampire, and wondered why Renton was being so hard on her. He’d already known him long enough not to like him, but he didn’t think he was stupid or fond of wasting time. Alex sipped his awful beer, and wondered what Renton’s angle was, with Margot, with Eerie, with himself.
    “It was a mistake to fall into your debt, Renton.” Margot turned and began to float away. “And you’d better be serious about the candy. You don’t want to disappoint Eerie.”
    Alex looked at Renton and wondered. Renton had gone out of his way to be friendly, in his own weird way, since Alex had arrived, but unlike Emily and Vivik, his motives were far more obscure.
    “He’s been like that since I met him,” Emily observed, looking over Alex’s shoulder. “He can be kind of a dick, and still confuses picking on girls with flirting, but he’s not really as bad as he’d like you to believe.”
    Alex spun around, startled, and found himself face-to-face with her. Her cheeks were rosy from the cold, and she held her beer gingerly in sparkly blue gloves.
    “Are you sure?” Alex said, only half-joking. “Sometimes I wonder if Renton’s really such an okay guy.”
    “Well, he did throw you a party,” Renton pointed out from behind his beer.
    “I guess. But are you seriously blackmailing that vampire just to get beer on to the roof? That seems like a bad idea.”
    “Don’t worry about it,” Margot said dismissively, floating neatly over the retaining wall, Eerie held casually in her arms, as if she weighed nothing. “I don’t bite. I’m the nice kind of vampire.”
    She actually came all the way down to the ground, this time, and Alex wondered if her bare feet were cold against the stone, and shivered in his jacket. She set Eerie down carefully next to her.
    Eerie wore a red and white sweater with a pleated black skirt and black knee socks. Her exposed shoulders were perfectly round and bone-white, and the edges of her hair brushed against them, haphazard and uneven. Her outfit, like Margot’s, didn’t seem to really take temperature into account, but neither of them looked particularly bothered by the cold, either. She had a basket filled with yarn and carefully wrapped knitting needles tucked under one arm.
    Alex made a mental note to ask someone where he could get a haircut before the party ended. It seemed like the Academy really needed an orientation or a tour, or something. Maybe it was held at the start of the year, and he’d missed it.
    “That’s pretty rare,” Sarah observed. “Margot has come to these things once or twice, but I’ve never seen Eerie come to anything. You have to admit that Renton has a remarkable way with people.”
    Ways which included blackmail and bribery. Something worth knowing, Alex thought. Eerie ran over to Renton, and held out her hand expectantly.
    “Where is the candy?” Eerie’s voice was strange, with a musical, sing-song quality. The way she spoke gave him the impression that English was not her first, or best, language.
    “Here,” Renton said, pulling a different paper sack from one of his coat’s inner pockets, and handing it to Eerie. Alex was astounded to see Eerie pull a package of Skittles from it and tear it open.
    “It never even occurred to me that it would actually be bag of candy.” Alex shook his head and Emily laughed. “I figured that was slang for some kind of drug.”
    “Do you want me to introduce you?” Emily offered. “I know both of them pretty well.”
    “You’re an empath,” Sarah said, laughing. “You know everybody pretty well.”
    Alex finished the last of his beer, and then collected Sarah and Emily’s empties as well. He made a trip to the cooler and got three new cans, depositing the empty ones in an already half-full paper sack. There were more people on the roof now, and a lot of them, maybe even most of them, were girls. Alex stood there for a moment, before realized that much of the party, subtly or not, had started watching him, and hurried back over to where Emily and Sarah were chatting.
    “Alright. What the hell. Introduce me to your friends.”
    Sarah laughed and patted him on the shoulder.
    “Try not to look so nervous, Alex,” Emily admonished, leading him over. “This way… Hey Margot? Eerie?”
    Emily walked to where the two girls stood, skirting the periphery of the party, up against the edge of the roof, and Alex tagged along behind her. He was going to feel bad about what had happened with Steve until he got Eerie to talk to him, no matter how much of weirdo she might turn out to be. He still felt kind of like an ass, for having tried so hard to look cool in front of her. He wondered if she hated him already, and was surprised that he cared.
    “Emily,” Margot acknowledged with a nod, from where she leaned against the wall, arms folded across her chest, her face blank but not unfriendly. “Alex. Renton was supposed to introduce us, but he wandered off, chasing after that redhead from Herzog’s class.”
    Alex was a bit taken aback, but it wasn’t an altogether bad reception, he reasoned. Eerie was staring at him, he realized, her hand frozen halfway to her mouth, a number of multicolored candies in her palm.
    “Hi! I’m Alex,” he said, raising one hand stiffly in greeting and wondering what in the hell it was that he was doing. His voice sounded odd to him, forced and artificial. “Nice to finally get to talk to both of you.”
    Margot said nothing. Eerie held absolutely still for a moment, and then, slowly, lifted the remaining candy to her mouth.
    “He’s being nice to you guys,” Emily admonished, shaking her finger and glaring at them. “I thought Rebecca had made you two promise to try and be more social this year.”
    “Don’t worry,” Sarah offered encouragingly. “No one ever knows what to say to either of them, Alex. Keep trying. You’re already doing better than most guys.”
    Eerie’s eyes widened, and then she shook her head, and looked as if she was going to speak. After a brief struggle, her expression went slack again, and then she simply looked back down to the ground. Margot glanced over at her, and then shook her head.
    “I think we should go somewhere else,” Margot said as she walked past, Emily feebly protesting as she was dragged along. “She has been talking about this boy since the other day in the cafeteria.”
    Emily went silent, and then gave Alex a panicked look as she was pulled off towards the party by the vampire. Sarah followed them, laughing at the whole scene. Despite the cold, Alex felt himself break out in sweat. Had he really been left alone with a girl who hadn’t managed to say anything coherent to him, one who wasn’t even human? In front of Emily? Alex was having serious doubts about the soundness of the whole situation.
    “I don’t get it.”
    Eerie’s voice was oddly musical, but vaguely inhuman, like a reproduction of a human voice made by a beautiful, but wholly alien, device.
    “Um, yeah… you don’t get what?”
    Alex scratched the back of his head nervously, and shifted from one foot to the other.
    “Margot says that you are an idiot. She says that you fought with Steve the other day because you are stupid…”
    She trailed off shyly, one hand toying with the edge of her skirt.
    Alex shook his head slowly.
    “That is a very real possibility,” Alex admitted. He finally got her to meet his eyes — and was stunned to discover that they were dilated to such an extent that her irises were nothing more than millimeter-thin colored rings around a reflective black space. He wasn’t certain that he’d ever seen anyone’s eyes look that way, and wondered what kind of drugs did that to you. “But, I prefer to think of myself as impulsive.”
    Eerie crumpled and discarded the Skittles wrapper, and then started digging through the bag again, seemingly oblivious to Alex’s presence.
    “So, it seems like you and Margot are pretty good friends, huh?”
    Eerie didn’t look up, she just continued rummaging.
    “Friends? I don’t really get stuff like that,” she said quietly, pulling a handful of red liquorices twists from the paper bag, “but we live in the same place.”
    Alex took a sip from his beer, and rapidly considered his options. Renton and Vivik had disappeared, as had Margot, Sarah and Emily. As a matter of fact, the entire party was conspicuously distant from them. He was obviously on his own, and he’d need a pretty good excuse to walk away. That meant he’d have to finish the beer, as rapidly as politeness allowed, since going to get another was the only reason to walk away that he could come up with. This still left him needing something, anything to say to the girl standing next to him.
    “You seem to really… like candy,” Alex observed, lamely casting about for a topic, any topic.
    Eerie seemed to give the question serious consideration, nibbling on a Red Vine, before nodding gravely.
    “But, I have been practicing eating other food. Actually,” she added, looking thoughtful, “that’s why I was in the cafeteria the other day. I don’t usually go there.”
    Alex felt mildly encouraged. He was starting to get the hang of her bizarre intonation, and her last statement had even referenced what he had wanted to talk about. This, Alex thought proudly, was communication.
    All of a sudden, then, Eerie was standing very, very close to him, on her tip toes so that her eyes would be level with his. Her pupils were black and glittering and huge, and he could see a ghost image of himself reflected in them, looking far more nervous and less cool than he would have liked.
    “You’ve only just been activated. But it’s already started, hasn’t it?”
    Alex backed away a step, and then shook his head.
    “I don’t know what you mean.”
    Eerie took another step forward, dropping the paper bag into her knitting basket and then clutching the basket handle in both hands.
    “Don’t you remember, Alex? Hasn’t this happened already?” Eerie voice was distant, her eyes wet and unfocused. “Are you dreaming now, Alex? Isn’t it hard to tell?”
    Alex shook his head, utterly dumbfounded. He had no idea what the girl was talking about, but at the same time, it made him terribly nervous. Something he had dreamed, maybe, a strange sense of deja vu… he wasn’t certain. He was, however, certain that Eerie was standing too close to him, and he half-stumbled a few steps away.
    “I don’t understand.” Alex felt hot, almost feverish. There was a strange buzzing sound that seemed to emanate from the back of his neck, like static from the base of his skull. “Why are you asking me all these questions?”
    “Can you feel it already?” Eerie asked softly. “The slippage. Dislocation. Oh, so very lonely. Haven’t I already told you my secret?”
    Eerie’s eyes were half-closed now, and her arms were wrapped around herself tightly. She stumbled forward, dazed, almost colliding with Alex in the process. He caught her awkwardly, trying to push her away and stand her upright at the same time, without much success in either endeavor.
    “The Church of Sleep, Alex.” Her melodic voice was barely a whisper, and he had to strain to hear it. “Surely you’ve noticed. Don’t you fall asleep earlier and earlier, since you came here? Can you remember going to bed when you wake up?”
    “Yes,” Alex replied, his throat hoarse, “and no.”
    Eerie clutched herself even tighter, the folds of sweater pulled tight across her chest in a way that he found quite distracting. Her skin was flushed, and icy cold where Alex’s fingers brushed against her shoulder. She pressed her forehead against his chest, and he was afraid that she really would fall over, she seemed so out of it.
    “And when you wake up, sometimes, and you feel like someone is there with you.” Eerie’s voice had lost all of its interrogative qualities, replaced with something that sounded more like a bald statement of fact. “And sometimes, when you wake up, you know things that you didn’t know before. But you’ll never remember another dream, now that you’ve come here.”
    “H-How,” Alex stammered, “how is it that you know these things?”
    “The Church of Sleep, Alex.” Eerie looked at him as if she had answered his question in full. “When we sleep, we are programmed. What else could sleep be? But who does the programming, and to what end? To where do they drive us?”
    Li put his hand on Alex’s shoulder, and the strange atmosphere immediately deflated, Eerie retreating back from him hurriedly, as if she’d only now realized how close they were. Alex felt confusion as well as a profound sense of relief.
    “Try not to overwhelm Alex,” Li said to Eerie, patting her on the head affectionately. “You can’t try and tell him everything all at once.”
    Eerie’s shoulders slumped and she looked distraught, and for some reason, Alex immediately felt guilty. What was it with this girl? He didn’t understand anything. But his head was starting to clear, and whatever strange effect the girl’s words had on him was already fading.
    “I’m sorry, Alex.” Eerie looked at him, unaccountably sad. “I didn’t mean to do anything wrong.”
    “Everything is fine, Eerie,” Alex insisted. “Nothing bad happened.”
    Eerie looked one way, then the other, and then leaned in close so that Alex could hear her whisper.
    “I’ll help you out with something, then, to make up for it.” Alex felt a bit nervous with her standing this close, but this time he didn’t pull away. Whatever it was Eerie had to say, he was sure he wanted to hear it. “Walking in the snow, under a grey sky, you will wonder if it is okay. I won’t be able to say it, then, because I’m shy. Alex,” Eerie whispered, her lips so close to his ear that he could feel her breathe. “It’s okay with me.”
    Eerie straightened back up, and then smiled at him. Her oval face lit up when she smiled, and he was struck by how familiar she looked, how nostalgic, in a way he couldn’t put his finger on. Alex could only stare at her and wonder what any of what she said had meant.
    Alex found himself shaking his head, trying to clear it. Had this all happened before? Why was it that he kept thinking about a cloud of golden butterflies, wheeling and diving in rough unison under the brilliant afternoon sunlight near Half Moon Bay? Had he ever actually seen that? Whose memory was it?
    “Something bad is coming, Alex. Right now. It’ll hurt a bit,” Eerie said sadly, kicking at the ground absently, “but you’ll have to make it through without my help. Don’t worry, though,” she said reassuringly. “I know you will.”
    Where Eerie had stood, there was only a cloud of golden smoke, dissipating in the wind, smelling delicately of sandalwood. Alex turned back toward the rest of the party, wanting to ask someone what had happened.
    The party had become a still-life portrait. Sarah was frozen in midsentence, caught up in conversation with Renton and a black girl he didn’t recognize. Li was right behind them, along with Vivik, Todd, and two other guys that Alex vaguely remembered from class. All of them were rigid, silent, flesh-colored statues arrayed across the jumbled surface of the roof. Alex took a step closer, and realized that even the beer in the bottle Renton was drinking from was inert, held in perfect suspension in the neck of the bottle.
    He heard a strange, metallic sound from behind him and spun around. Hovering in front of him, perhaps twenty feet above the roof of the building, a thing that he could not stand to look at directly loomed over him with its many terrible eyes, and screamed.
    The scream was not like anything Alex had heard before. It was barely even a sound. He felt revulsion from the very depths of his being, and was immediately sick, coughing up bile as his stomach contracted and heaved. The sound the creature made was like a terrible reverberating siren, endless and punishing, battering his mind and thoughts into fragments. His chest and abdomen were racked with spasms, and his legs twisted and collapsed underneath him. He spilled onto his contorted back, unable to move, pinned down by the sheer horror of the thing, the noise, the horrible piercing shriek.
    There was a sudden wetness on his face, and then he realized that his nose was bleeding. His vision blurred, and an impression of the thing seemed to be burned into his retina, so that every time he blinked he saw an afterimage of its horrible shape. The light refracted around it bizarrely, disorienting Alex, filling him with a formless and intolerable anxiety. The scream drilled into him, it ate away at everything around him, corroding reality. The world would not tolerate an existence like the one above him and in its desperate attempt to shed the abomination, the world itself was unraveling around him.
    Alex felt it in the stone crumbling beneath his hands, in the crawling of his skin, everything rejecting the monster’s existence on a molecular level, like a cancer afflicting the world. The air hissed and smoked where it met the distended grey appendages and the building beneath began to shudder and fracture. It was translucent, but even the moonlight that eked through the glutinous mass was corrupted and ruined. The monster was so fundamentally abominable that Alex could not help but understand: the world around him was dying rather than accepting the existence of this thing, and if he stayed there too much longer, he would as well.
    It took hold immediately, flashing through the front part of his skull like a migraine, the strange vertigo as his mind executed the implanted instructions, out of his control. He reached back without his hands, somewhere in the recesses of his mind, hidden in a place in his head that he had never thought to look before Rebecca had shown him how. Alex reached for the Black Door. It did not matter that he couldn’t move his body, that he couldn’t even blink. Even as the unrelenting horror beat down on him, peeling his soul away layer-by-layer, like an onion, he felt the Black Door creak open, frost crunching and tinkling as it slid wide.
    The cold light burned as he breathed it in like smoke. It filled him, and then worked its way up out from the core of him, rigid and strong, a luminescent sheen that extended a few millimeters beyond his skin, sheathing him in frigid incandescence. Around him, the air hissed and steamed, agitated by the heat above and the utter absence below. He managed to get one knee underneath him, still aware of the tremendous pressure from above, the tension as his whole body tried to tear itself apart. But he forced the door inside open wider, and the flood of cold light supported him, pressure flowing outwards from within.
    He made it to his feet, heedless of the blood the trickled down from his nose and the corners of his eyes. All along his skin, as the air passed through his lips, he soothed and slowed the air molecules, bleeding the heat off into the Ether. He pushed further, and reached outwards, stripping the surrounding atmosphere of its kinetic energy, siphoning it directly into the Ether, where it dissipated like steam. Alex couldn’t remember anyone teaching him how to do this, but he found it was surprisingly easy.
    Alex raised his arms to either side of him, surrounded by a bubble of cool, still air, the stone frozen solid beneath him; a glimmering, blue-white light radiating from his chest. Frost crawled across the roof, radiating out from where Alex stood, beneath the horror of the thing in the sky. There was a strange, tinkling sound as the water molecules in the air coalesced and froze, and then fell to the ground, shattering musically on the stained concrete.
    Alex was unaware of all this, as the horrible pressure from the thing above him beat down on his unprotected mind. Even though he was bleeding the heat and motion out of the surrounding area, he could not do anything about the crushing gravity the thing exuded, and Alex could feel his bones disintegrating under the strain with a sickening surety. His breath was a dense fog now, and it was impossible to see through the layer of superheated mist roiling at the edge of the bubble.
    Alex pushed even harder, then, until his mind was filled with a cold radiance.
    Then there was no more, or no further, and for a moment, he faltered. It was enough. The bubble collapsed around him and for a moment, he felt the full force of the thing’s scream again. He felt his legs crumple beneath him, and Alex collapsed backwards into Rebecca’s arms, who gathered him up like a child. The moment she touched him, the terrible pressure was gone, and the scream silenced, without as much as an echo, and he wanted to kiss her. Alex could see the illuminated script of the barrier protocol that Rebecca activated clearly, a copper dome of beautiful but unreadable words that arced over the both of them.
    “Shh… Alex, it’s okay…” Alex realized he was screaming, and stopped. Rebecca hugged him tightly to her chest, her arms hooked underneath his own, supporting him. “I’ve got you, now.”
    Her next words were louder, and clearly not directed at him.
    “I’ve collected Alex, whenever you less sociable types want to earn your pay,” Rebecca shouted. She then grinned down at Alex, who was still trying to get his legs to hold him up again. “I hope you had a nice party, anyway.”
    Alex discovered that, in Rebecca’s arms, he could look at the thing. It hovered in midair, writhing and amorphous, like a gigantic amoeba, extending tentacles and formless limbs in all directions. Some of them were elongated and ended in things that looked like mouths, if flowers had mouths — brilliant red and wet and on the inside, cellulose ridged with teeth hooked like thorns. Other limbs ended in strange, flower-like blooms, and at the center of each, there were a cluster of black eyes, like an insect. Around the periphery of the monster the air burnt and smoldered, disintegrating rather than come into contact with the horror. The entire world recoiled, Alex realized, and had he not activated the protocol, his body would have done the same.
    A cluster of arms drooped down from the thing’s misshapen bulk, stretching in a way that made Alex nauseous. He felt panic as the flower heads bloomed at the end of the tentacles, exposing terrible black eyes and toothy, gaping maws. Where it touched the building it left behind a viscous trail of yellow-tinted slime, and the stone crumbled and sizzled where it dripped. Alex wanted to scream, but then he felt Rebecca in his mind, her hand on his chest, and the fear began to dissipate. He watched the arms descend down toward the barrier with an odd feeling of curiosity, nothing like the fear of impending death.
    The limb was disintegrated before it made contact, dissipating into a mist of disconnected tissue, less like it hit a wall and more like it was hit with a wall.
    “What is this thing?”
    Michael asked the old man casually, as if he didn’t notice the tendril of smoke drifting lazily from the palm of his outstretched hand. Alex blinked his eyes, trying to clear his vision, which insisted that Michael’s strange tattoos were now radiating a deep blue light from underneath the skin, his whole upper body wrapped in mass of fluctuating indigo light.
    “It’s a Horror,” the old man standing next to him said conversationally, without looking up from the heavy leather bound book he carried open in front of him. To Alex’s eyes, he was orbited by several rings of words in a strange script that he could not identify, but seemed somehow familiar. The words spun around the old man, each ring moving at a different speed, their color one Alex could not recognize, though later he would remember it as similar to violet. “Or it was one, at any rate. This one is imminently near death. We are fortunate, in that sense, as the effective radius of the creature’s scream has been considerably reduced. While the other students appear to be caught in a stasis field, they have not been subjected to the brunt of its assault. I’m not sure about the nature of the stasis field, because it isn’t mentioned in the literature” Vladimir said, frowning, “but, it’s probably some sort of defense mechanism. Horrors are so rarely encountered…”
    “A defense mechanism besides the screaming, you mean? Thanks for the natural history lesson, Vladimir,” Michael said, shoving his fingers in his ears and shouting. “But, since we aren’t in class, can we skip to the part where you tell me how to kill it?”
    The thing’s mouths all opened simultaneously, gaping red, and Alex felt his headache began to return. Rebecca closed her eyes, and the barrier flared briefly. From Michael and Vladimir’s expressions, Alex figured the screaming had gotten louder again. Alex saw that the roof was starting to buckle, and realized that he was lying in a shallow pool of sand, as the building beneath him fractured and disintegrated into its base components.
    Vladimir waved one hand lazily at the thing, and for a moment, the rings of letters around him flashed and increased the speed of their rotation. Above them, the monster shrieked and wailed, and the sky burned. Vladimir looked disappointed, and then waved his hand at the creature once more.
    As far as Alex could tell, nothing happened.
    “Fuck,” Rebecca said quietly, slumping down against the retaining wall behind them, Alex sprawled in her arms, almost sitting in her lap. He felt languid and weak; he could barely even move his fingers, and worse, he was hearing the scream more and more clearly, despite the barrier. “That didn’t work at all. Vlad is getting feeble.”
    “Okay, asking nicely doesn’t do the trick,” Vladimir observed. “And Rebecca’s got her hands full. Guess it’s down to you, Michael.”
    “I hate doing this stuff, you see,” Michael said to no one in particular. “But, since I’m already up, I might as well put this to rest.”
    Michael raised his hand again, the light around him gathering and pulsating up from inside, the air around him charged with static and rippling, his skin dark in contrast to the vivid lines that ran across it.
    At first nothing happened, and the Horror managed the first few dissonant notes of a new shriek. Then it’s body rippled, first expanding outward as the pressure swelled within warped the flesh, followed by a massive contraction that pulled everything back toward the center. For a moment, the amorphous body flexed and struggled, racked and twisted by the contrary momentum that pushed and pulled at it. Then it detonated, with a wet sound and a muffled but powerful explosion, one that rattled the roof of the building and resonated with Alex’s chest, the wind whipping around the barrier that surrounded him, held close to Rebecca’s chest. He could hear damp thuds as chunks of the monster battered the wall of golden light around them.
    “This is really fucking gross,” Rebecca observed, watching the amorphous pieces of undifferentiated tissue splash against the barrier. “You alright, Alex?”
    She smiled down at him, but the boy was fast asleep, his head curled up in her lap, his breathing slow and shallow. Rebecca looked worried for a moment, and then shook her head. She reached down to brush the hair away from his eyes, looking at Alex with a mixture of affection and pity.
    “Sleepyhead,” she said softly, as if it were a warning.


    “We’ve only had a couple sessions together,” Renton said, “because Michael keeps teaching him solo, or having one of the student instructors work with him one-on-one. I think he’s only been with the general class a couple of times. I don’t get it. Why are you asking me? You and Ed are in homeroom with him. Don’t you see him in class?”
    Anastasia and Edward shared a look, then Edward gave the smallest possible shake of his head and Anastasia shrugged helplessly.
    “It’s no good,” she said despairingly, “he hates the class, and he’s so far behind that no one can really do anything about it. He stares off into space during lectures, on the days where he doesn’t accidentally nod off. In breakout groups, he doesn’t say anything or he asks inane questions, over and over, and then complains that he doesn’t understand the answers. Trying to talk to him in homeroom is pointless.”
    Edward nodded, and then returned to attempting to feed scraps from his lunch to one of the tamed Weir that lay around Anastasia’s feet underneath the dining room table. Great black monsters wearing tooled metal collars designed to prevent transformation, she’d tamed them in Norway when she was twelve, back when she’d been more concerned with appearances. Capturing and taming a wild Weir had been something of a tradition a century or so earlier in the Black Sun’s history, and Anastasia had very concerned with tradition and symbolism when she was younger. She didn’t bother with such things anymore, but she’d since become devoted to the two wolves, respectively named Donner and Blitzen by her younger sister, and had insisted on bringing them to the Academy with her.
    As the future head of the Black Sun, Anastasia had her own small cottage reserved for her on campus, large enough to house the servants and the security staff that such a position entailed. The Weir were confined by Director’s orders to the cottage, or else Anastasia would have brought them everywhere with her. Edward seemed to love them, whereas Renton appeared to hold them in slightly greater distaste than he did everything else around him.
    “I’m not sure what to say,” Renton said, his forehead creased with effort, trying to recall anything of use, “he’s not too terrible, for someone who hasn’t done any of this stuff before. He has long arms, so he’s got decent reach, but he doesn’t hit very hard. Wrestles for crap. Gets tired quickly, takes lots of breaks.”
    Anastasia shook her head, motioning for the hovering maid to clear the table of the remains of lunch. Renton and Edward had eaten roast chicken and potatoes with salad, while Anastasia had picked at an appealing looking but ultimately disappointing vegan ratatouille that she vowed to later discuss with the chef. She was certain that it didn’t have to be so boring.
    “This isn’t what I’m after, Renton,” she said crossly. “I’m trying to get to know him, not trying to figure out how to beat him up.”
    “One day in class he had some trouble with sparring with a girl,” Renton said, after some thought. “There was kind of a scene, till Collette, that Algerian chick, she planted his ass a couple of times. He seemed to warm up to the idea after that.”
    “So he’s a boy who doesn’t like to hit girls,” Anastasia said softly, “what a revelation, Renton. That helps a great deal.”
    “I’m sorry, Ana, I said that I don’t know,” Renton objected, his face reddening, “what do you want me to say? It’s a combat class, for Christ’s sake! It’s not like we sit around chatting about our childhoods or something. Look, Ana, you want somebody to figure the kind out”
    For a moment, Anastasia and Renton glared at each other, like two children holding a staring contest. They were still that way when Edward unexpectedly broke in.
    “You should try Vivik or Emily,” he offered in his quiet, high-pitched voice that Anastasia still hadn’t gotten used to, since he’d spoken so rarely in the two years he’d worked for her, “they talk with him the most.”
    As Anastasia paused to consider. The Weir who wasn’t refusing to eat from Edward’s hand shoved its snout into her lap, whining, and she petted it absently while she thought out the various ramifications of the situation.
    “Okay,” she said slowly, as the wheels in her head turned, “I think I’ve got an idea. Edward, could you find Margot and bring her back here? She and Vivik have a class together this session, I’m fairly certain. Vivik might not be inclined to share with me, but I doubt he’ll be so reticent with Margot.”
    Edward nodded, dropped the scraps on the floor, gave Anastasia a quick bow and then was on his way.
    “What about Emily?” Renton asked, looking at her expectantly. “If you want, I could see…”
    Anastasia shook her head, staring into the eyes of the black wolf whose head lay in her lap.
    “No need. I have other errands for you to take care of. I’ll handle Emily myself.”

    “Is it really so complicated?” Margot shook her head. “Okay, one more time — the Academy controls the source of the nanomachines, so if the cartels want to activate new Operators, then they have to abide by the Academy’s rules, hence, the Agreement. For any activation that doesn’t result in death, one student at the Academy.”
    “What is the source, anyway?”
    “Shit, Alex,” Margot said through gritted teeth, “do you really think they go around telling everyone their most closely held secret?”
    “Okay, I guess,” Alex allowed, “but then why all the infighting? Couldn’t the Academy just, you know, tell everybody to stop?”
    “It’s a two-way agreement. In return for almost total control of the students while they attend the Academy, the cartels have free reign over their own internal affairs. There’s only so much to go around, in terms of space, money and people. It’s usually easier to fight another cartel than the Witches, and often more rewarding. Plus,” Margot said, shrugging, “people sometimes disagree. Violently.”
    “Alright, but why don’t the cartels attack the Academy and take whatever it is they need? I mean, aren’t there a lot more Operators in the cartels than employed by the Academy?”
    “Sure, but look around you. How many cartels do you think would cooperate long enough to complete such an undertaking? And what do you think would happen after? They can’t trust each other, and as long as they are divided, the Academy holds the majority of the power.”
    “For now,” Anastasia added brightly. “Besides, the Black Sun would never condone an attack on the Academy.”
    “I don’t get it,” Alex said lazily, staring up into the sky.
    Sitting cross-legged in a pool of afternoon sunlight, Margot looked over at Emily despairingly.
    “I will never understand. What do you see in him, Emily?”
    “Hey!” Alex objected, lying on his back in the grass. “I can hear you, you know.”
    “She sees the same thing everybody else does,” Anastasia said absently from where she sat in the shade of the nearby tree, reading. “A great deal of power attached to not so much brain.”
    “Hey!” Alex said again, weakly. He had been lying in the sun for a while now, and it had lulled him into a state of complacence. He wasn’t about to rise to the bait and mess up his potential afternoon nap, no matter what the girls said.
    “Power,” Emily agreed, smiling, but not looking up from the notes she was bent over. “That’s part of it. But Alex does have some good qualities, once you get to know him. Besides,” Emily said cheerfully, “he’s just so pathetic, who wouldn't feel moved to help him?”
    Anastasia laughed but didn’t say anything. Alex reddened, and wondered how the conversation had gone in this unfortunate direction. As if homeroom hadn’t been enough of a nightmare today, with the lecture going right over his head, then Emily’s suggestion that they go sit out on the grass in the quad and relax had turned into this. Alex wasn’t even sure how Anastasia and her cohorts had gotten invited to join them. Anastasia and Emily, despite their frequent tiffs, seemed to get along awfully well for two people destined for opposite sides in a conflict, to Alex’s eyes.
    “She has a point,” Anastasia acknowledged, removing a Tupperware container from her bag, and carefully selecting a carrot stick from it. “He does have this lost puppy feel to him.”
    Alex opened his eyes and turned his head, so he could glare at Anastasia. This meant she’d won their little game, as usual. But this really was unprecedented, Alex had to admit — when had Anastasia taken Emily’s side in anything?
    “Why always carrots?” he demanded, a bit more testily than he intended to. “Are you a vegetarian or something?”
    Anastasia looked back at him with cold eyes, taking a bite from her carrot and then chewing it slowly, deliberately, before answering him.
    “My lunch did not work out. Neither did my last cook, for that matter. Or, maybe I just like carrots,” she said finally, her expression blank and ominous. “What is it to you, exactly?”
    Vivik looked up at the two of them, and smiled tiredly, and then looked back down at his book.
    “She’s a vegan, Alex,” Vivik said. “A vegan who is going to have serious trouble on the test this week if she keeps skipping study session to focus on her evil plots and schemes.”
    “My plots aren’t evil,” Anastasia corrected, “Mostly. They are mostly not evil plots. And I’ve got that test under control, thank you very much, Vivik. It’s not like you’re working on it either,” she added accusatorially. “That’s Alex’s textbook you’re annotating, right?”
    Vivik sighed and put down the highlighter.
    “It’s not really the time I’d pick to do this,” Vivik allowed. “But whenever I come by his dorm room he’s asleep, or so he says. He won’t answer his door, anyway.”
    “Very suspicious,” Emily said gleefully. “What is that you get up to in the evenings, anyway?”
    Alex wasn’t entirely sure how to answer her question. He had been falling asleep early most nights, ever since he’d come to the Academy, often waking in the morning without have changed out of his clothes, without any memory of going to bed in the first place. Alex had always been a light sleeper, and he found this change worrisome, more so since the strange conversation with Eerie that he couldn’t fully remember.
    “I wish it was something cool,” Alex said, sitting up reluctantly. “But there’s nothing to it. I keep crashing out early, that’s all. It’s not like a deliberate thing, it just kind of happens.”
    Emily look at him pityingly, her golden hair curled into tight, perfect ringlets. She wore a plain grey sweater with a maroon skirt, her legs folded beneath her, effortlessly beautiful. Alex remembered their ‘arrangement’, and then tried to find something else to pay attention to.
    “That’s sad, Alex,” Emily teased. “You should find better things to do with your evenings.”
    Anastasia’s expression was poisonous.
    “I think I’m going to pass on commenting on that,” she said, gathering her books and shoving them into her backpack. “I have class soon, and I have some things I need to take care of before that.”
    Renton and Edward began gathering their things, Renton grumbling all the while, Edward silent and efficient. Alex wondered how Edward could look so neat in his uniform after sitting in the grass for an hour, and how it was that the exact same uniform could look so bad on Renton. Vivik sighed and handed Alex the text he’d been highlighting.
    “That means I’ve got to get going too,” Vivik said, standing and stretching, “which is too bad. Since I stayed up and studied last night,” and here he shot Alex a significant glance, “I could really use a nap out here in the sun.”
    “That’s what you get for being smart,” Alex said sleepily.
    Margot stood up with Vivik, startling him with her proximity.
    “Actually, I came here to talk with you, Vivik,” she said, collecting her bag. “Do you mind if I walk with you to the Science building?”
    Alex gave Vivik a questioning glance, but if Vivik had any idea what was going on, he didn’t show it. He agreed readily enough, but the confusion was obvious enough on his face. Anastasia nodded at Alex, opened her black parasol, and walked purposefully off in the direction of the Science building, flanked by Renton and Edward, Vivik and Margot lagging behind.
    “Empath-girl. Make yourself useful. Explain what just happened for me,” Alex commanded, looking at Emily expectantly.
    “You are so bossy,” Emily complained, still engrossed in her notes. “Remember, they’re all pretty decent at hiding stuff like that because they’ve already been through the training. You’re getting better at it yourself, by the way.”
    “Rebecca’s been teaching me.”
    Alex was secretly pleased with the praise. He had been practicing shielding his thoughts and emotions, but so far no one had commented on it, except for Rebecca gently making fun of his efforts, during the lessons.
    “Anyway, if you want my guess, I think Vivik has no idea what Margot wants to talk to him about.”
    “Okay,” Alex said, drawing his knees to his chest and looking at Emily curiously. “So, what about Margot? What was that all about?”
    Emily put her pen down and frowned.
    “That was pretty weird, wasn’t it?”
    She twisted a lock of hair absently between her fingers, her nails painted mother-of-pearl. Her hair caught the afternoon light, golden and red.
    “Margot’s emotions are muted, so I never get much from her. I do know she wanted to talk about you, though.”
    Alex started.
    “What? Why? I barely even know Margot…”
    “I’m not sure why,” Emily said, shrugging. “Common sense, really. Vivik seems to know you best of anyone, so if she had something about you she wanted to know and she didn’t want to ask you directly, then Vivik’s probably the one to ask, right?” Emily returned to her paperwork. “Besides, Vivik’s easy for girls to push around. Even Margot has to have noticed that. And this is creepy, by the way.”
    Alex shook his head.
    “Wait, what? What’s creepy?”
    Emily smiled but didn’t look up.
    “Getting me to spy on people like this. It isn’t exactly what I had in mind when I suggested our arrangement.” Emily tapped the eraser on her pencil absently against the textbook while she read. “It’s not like I’m helping you out, or something. It’s more like I’m spying on your friends.”
    “I’m not sure that I’d call them my friends,” Alex said crossly. She was probably right, he supposed, but at the same time, he’d felt constantly at a loss since he’d arrived here. Emily had laid it all out very simply, that night in her living room — if he would spend time with her, she would help him out, dealing with people at the Academy. Just hanging around Emily was enough to show her superiors that she was doing her job somewhat successfully, or that’s what she thought. Alex wasn’t sure himself how long the cartel would be content with that, but he acceded to Emily’s request. He couldn’t figure out a way not to.
    And, of course, he was hoping for things between them to go further. At least a little further.
    At the time, he’d been fairly sure that she was going to ask him to spend the night, but instead she’d taken the bus back to the Academy with him, saying she wasn’t in the mood to be there when Therese came home. There’d been a moment after the ride home, at the Academy gates, before they headed back to their respective dorms, when Alex was certain that he could have kissed her. Should have kissed her. But he’d chickened out, and he’d been feeling dumb since then.
    “Does your arm hurt?”
    Alex looked up in surprise, shaken from his ruminations by Emily’s voice. The concern in her eyes was obvious.
    “Ah, well,” Alex muttered, realizing that he had been cradling his left elbow and jerking his hand away, “it might have gotten tweaked in class yesterday.”
    Emily scooted over until she was sitting next to Alex, and then grabbed his elbow and inspected it, causing Alex to yelp and try and pull away.
    “It looks a bit swollen,” she said sympathetically. “I thought Michael was your instructor? He did this to you?”
    Alex shook his head. He had class with Michael three times a week, not counting the morning workouts. Alex couldn’t imagine him injuring someone. Not accidentally, anyway.
    Michael had decades of discipline, training, and combat experience. Beyond that, he was a patient and genuinely gifted teacher. But he had twelve students in his Wednesday afternoon class, and though Alex suspected he got more than his fair share of personal instruction, he still spent half of every Wednesday in the less-capable hands of various student instructors.
    He was certain that Margot hadn’t intended to hyperextend his elbow — in fact, he probably should have tapped the moment he felt her lock in an arm bar. But he hadn’t figured on her being so strong, and for a moment, he’d thought he might still be able to tear his arm back out of her grip. That hadn’t happened, and for the first time since he’d met her, Margot had looked pleased, tending delicately to his injured arm, until one of the instructors came over with ice.
    “No, it was some student instructor,” Alex said, bending the sore elbow experimentally. “I got it checked out; they said it would get better on its own. It’s never really been totally right, since that thing with the Weir, actually.”
    Emily frowned at him, and then poked at his elbow experimentally.
    “Have you been icing it?”
    “Sure,” Alex lied. “Just last night.”
    “Really?” Emily looked at him skeptically. “How long are you going to keep lying to me, Alex? I’m an empath, after all.”
    Alex sighed, and Emily smiled good-naturedly.
    “You’re no good at keeping secrets,” she observed, continuing to poke at him.
    “That makes me pretty unique around here,” Alex said darkly, looking up at the blue sky and the clouds passing overhead, and wishing that any of it made him feel even slightly more at ease.

Twenty One

    Alex really tried to stick with homeroom. At first.
    It wasn’t so bad, most days, because they spent much of the three-hour class in breakout groups or with student instructors and guest lecturers, which were usually fairly interesting. They passed the time, if nothing else.
    A Punjabi researcher from Analytics came and taught the class to read a very simple probability matrix, potential futures radiating out from a baseline of functional certainty, branching and growing more unlikely the further they spread out on the page, implying other dimensions. Alex found himself reminded of a cable show he’d seen on the mandalas that he’d seen saffron-robed monks making with colored sand. He didn’t understand it in the slightest, but he found himself captivated by the evolving beauty of the model.
    On a different day, Alex and the rest of the combat-track students were pulled to spend the period on the grass outside, while Rebecca (who had refused to teach if she was forced to remain in the nonsmoking class room) lectured them on the basics of psychic self-defense. That was the idea, according to the syllabus anyway, but what actually happened was Rebecca showed up hung over and grumpy, and talked about the topic at hand for less than half an hour. The rest of the time she spent making them sit in contented silence while she slept on the grass.
    One entire morning was devoted to a short Mongolian professor, whose name Alex never did catch, lecturing semi-coherently on relaying coded field information via Internet message boards and social networking sites. Another afternoon consisted of tiny Mr. Huang demonstrating in rapid order how to open a dozen different models of locks with improvised tools, while the class watched in astonishment and envy. An alarming number of people stayed after.
    And that was only the practical stuff — unlike, say, the two-hours they spent with a cheery empath named Mrs. Lovett who encouraged them to hurl paint at a roomful of blank canvases, or Mr. Brosnik’s interminable lecture on chess and a Japanese game called Go, or the various other sessions on gardening, ceramics, or the recreation of the American Civil War.
    As far as Alex could tell, there was no particular pressure on the students to learn any of things guest lecturers taught, but for anyone who showed interest or aptitude, further instruction was made available. Accordingly, Alex was careful never to show either, particularly for the history teacher who showed up in full Union regalia.
    The core course, and Mr. Windsor along with it, was another matter entirely. For one thing, the lectures were frustratingly broad and vague, the kind of topics that Alex associated with the questions that novels sometimes included in the back for book club discussions. Mr. Windsor was always encouraging them to ‘consider’ — to consider, for example, the nature of the Ether itself, or the oddity of Central being located inside of it, or what effects repeated transit through it might have on the human body. Alex played along for a while, until he realized that Windsor didn’t have any real answers — he seemed to think that any sort of discussion was a desirable thing in and of itself. And Alex resented being asked questions that there were no answers for.
    Then Anastasia informed him that he didn’t even have to pass the class in order to clear the Academy. Apparently, Mr. Windsor’s role was more advisory than anything, and homeroom designed more as a yardstick to measure the student’s progress and interest level than to teach any one thing. That was still buzzing around in his head when Mr. Windsor asked him to stay late after class one Friday. Alex had an afternoon training session with Michael looming, and precious little time before it began.
    “Can I ask what the problem is?” Alex demanded, as soon as the rest of the class had filed out, Emily glancing over her shoulder sympathetically at him before she left.
    If Mr. Windsor was surprised by Alex’s tone, he didn’t show it. He simply carried on stowing his laptop away in the brown leather messenger bag he carried with him everywhere, the same defocused smile plastered on his face that seemed to be an almost permanent feature.
    “I wanted to discuss your progress and your comfort level with the material, Alex,” Mr. Windsor said reasonably. “Our most recent test was not your finest effort to date, particularly on the subject of classification of protocols. Moreover, your essay on the founding of Central, a topic which you selected, I might add, is now quite overdue. Can I ask why?”
    Alex was a bit thrown off by the diplomatic approach, having anticipated a lecture, but he refused to be mollified.
    “I guess I have too much other stuff going on that seems more important than this class,” Alex said curtly. “No one is going to shoot me in the head for not knowing how the Black Sun rose to prominence, or when the Agreement was expanded to include vampires, or whatever random topic we’re working on right now.”
    Mr. Windsor, against all expectations, laughed and gave Alex a knowing nod.
    “It’s true, and I do understand, the Operations track is an intensive and difficult one,” Mr. Windsor said sincerely. “But, it is important for you to understand that you are not attending the Academy solely for the benefit of Central. The Academy exists to help you become a more complete person, Alex, and no amount of physical training or combat experience can create a whole, rational, functional being. Operators are asked to function under tremendous stresses, and some of what we discuss here is designed to give you tools to understand and deal with that stress. The topics of the class may seem haphazard, I admit, but I am trying to provide you with a gloss, an overview of the principals by which the world you live in functions, and the alternatives available to you. The rest of the Academy teaches you to obey and to execute, and they do an admirable job of it. I am allowed a few hours every week to try and teach you to think critically. Do you see why this is so important?”
    Alex sighed and shook his head.
    “Look, I don’t understand how a car works, or an ATM, okay? But I can use both of them just fine.”
    This was actually untrue. Alex had never driven in his life.
    “I’m not here to teach you how things work, Alex, I am here to help you understand why they work. Don’t you want to know why things are the way they are?”
    Alex had to stop to consider it for a moment.
    “I guess,” Alex admitted reluctantly. “It isn’t like you have any real answers, though — no disrespect, Mr. Windsor.”
    “Ah, but that’s just it!” Mr. Windsor cried out, as if he were thrilled by Alex’s answer. “Are the only questions you are interested in those that have already been answered?”
    Alex snorted and turned to gather his things.
    “You’re talking in circles, Mr. Windsor,” he said impatiently. “Any chance I can go? I might still have time for a shower and a meal before I have to go back to the gym.”
    Mr. Windsor looked at him and smiled, the look on his face sad enough that Alex almost relented, until he remembered that this man was trying to teach him.
    “What are you interested in, Alex?”
    “What?” Alex snapped, exasperated by his persistence.
    “It’s a simple question,” Mr. Windsor said expansively. “And any answer at all will do. In thirty years of teaching, I have yet to meet a student who wasn’t interested in something, Mr. Warner.”
    Alex thought about it. He thought about it for a while, and then he got a bit worried. Eventually, he was forced to confess.
    “I can’t… um. I can’t really think of anything, Mr. Windsor.”
    Mr. Windsor shook his head.
    “Come now. There must be something… I notice that you wear headphones every day when you come into class. You must like music?”
    “I guess,” Alex shrugged. “I mostly like not having to talk, or listen to people, you know?”
    “How about games, Alex? What kind of games do you play?”
    Again, he had to stop to consider. It didn’t take long, though. There isn’t much to see in a blank sheet of paper.
    “What do you mean? Like, video games, or something? Nah. I don’t really play games. I mean, I’ve played cards and stuff, and I could probably remember dominoes or checkers if you gave me a board and a few minutes. But, I can’t say that I’ve ever really been into them much…”
    “Alex, I don’t mean to pry, but you’ve been institutionalized, haven’t you?”
    Mr. Windsor’s voice was soft and kindly, but to Alex, it sounded treacherous. He couldn’t help but look longing at the exit.
    “Now, now, don’t be angry,” Mr. Windsor said soothingly. “I have no idea what happened to you, and I don’t need to know. I’m familiar enough with the signs to recognize them when I see them. You aren’t the first student we’ve had that had a difficult background, you know. But, that is beside the point. You must have had a great deal of time to kill, then, in the institution. What did you do with it, Alex?”
    Alex thought about it for a while, resenting Mr. Windsor the entire time. Why should he bother trying to please a teacher who couldn’t fail him? One who taught a class about nothing?
    Especially, Alex thought, especially when he had such a terrible headache. Why did he have to get one now, of all times? He had to go to the gym in a little while, and now he felt like crap…
    “Well, I, I mean it wasn’t like there was nothing to do, but…”
    Alex’s mouth was dry, his hands were numb and his fingertips tingled. The area behind his eyes ached like a tooth gone bad, an ice-cold spike driven through his cerebrum. His mouth seemed to be working by itself, in the absence of any sign of his mental faculties returning.
    “There wasn’t any one thing that I did especially…”
    Alex had to go lie down. He was suddenly certain of it, and the very thought of putting his head on a pillow sounded so good then he actually felt better, just thinking about it. He had to go lie down, he knew it, the way he knew that the sky outside was blue.
    “I have to go lie down,” he mumbled, waving one hand in a vague sort of acknowledgment, or dismissal. Mr. Windsor watched him go stumbling out the door with a pained smile.
    Alex shambled right past Rebecca, who sat with her eyes screwed closed in the front row of the lecture hall, without even a shred of recognition on his face. He almost tripped over her outstretched foot without acknowledging her existence. She didn’t open her eyes until after the classroom door slammed shut behind him.
    “That was much worse than I was led to believe,” Mr. Windsor said plainly, taking off his glasses and rubbing the lenses against his shirt. “Did you send him away?”
    “That was fucking dangerous, is what it was,” Rebecca grumbled, standing up. “You were told not to engage him unnecessarily. You’ve been warned about bringing up Alex’s past, or pushing him too hard.” She shook her head irritably. “Why did you bring me here today?”
    “Why did you choose to hide your presence from him?” Windsor countered. “When did you learn how to do that? I am a bit impressed, actually. I thought it outside your capabilities.”
    “I don’t answer your questions, Gerald,” Rebecca snapped. “You answer mine. Don’t forget who you are talking to. What did you want me to see here?”
    “We are failing him,” Mr. Windsor said, hanging his head with the admission. “Surely it is obvious to you? Alexander Warner isn’t even a fraction of a person, not yet. He’s hardly even a beginning. And we aren’t giving him the kind of opportunities he needs in order to become whole. He isn’t capable of developing on his own, his disconnect goes too deep for that. Alex needs to be led out into the world gently, with patience and compassion. And we aren’t doing anything like that. We’re just teaching him how to kill people. Something he is almost certain to do, I might add, unless we give him the opportunity to do anything else with his prodigious talents.”
    Rebecca tapped her foot impatiently.
    “So, that’s it, huh? Remorse for Alex’s lost childhood? Or do you have some sort of rational reason for staging this little scene?”
    “I thought you should know,” Mr. Windsor said plaintively. “Alex trusts you more than anyone else he’s ever met, you realize that? Rhetorical question, of course you are already aware. But, do you take the responsibility that comes with that trust seriously? I’ve never been sure with you, Rebecca.”
    “Everyone trusts me because I am trustworthy, Alex included. You know, this was my favorite class when I was at the Academy,” Rebecca said fondly, sitting back down in the front row chair, “and you were my favorite teacher.”
    “Then help me teach him, Rebecca,” Windsor pleaded. “At least give me the opportunity.”
    Rebecca pursed her lips and looked away. After a little while, she shrugged uncomfortably, as if she wished she were somewhere else.
    “Don’t waste your time,” she said curtly. “Worry about the ones that can be helped. Make Alex’s homeroom experience as easy as possible, you understand? Nothing challenging, no difficult questions.”
    Mr. Windsor shook his head sadly, moving again to wipe his fogged-up glasses.
    “Say,” he asked curiously, “did it get cold in here a minute ago?”

    “Do you want to sleep for a little while, now, Alex?”
    Alex’s face slowly contorted with the effort of thought. Speech was an even more involved process, and he managed little more than a grunt.
    “Okay,” Rebecca nodded from where she sat, eyes closed, her knees pressed against Alex’s, holding both of his limp hands tightly. “You rest now, Alex. You don’t have to go to sleep if you don’t want to, and if you do decide to sleep, you can wake up whenever you feel ready. And when you wake up,” Rebecca added, opening her eyes and smiling at the boy affectionately, “do me a favor and feel better, okay?”
    Alex may have nodded. Michael wasn’t sure, he couldn’t really see from where he sat, his chair tucked away in a corner of Rebecca’s cluttered and homey office. It might have simply been that she responded as if he had nodded.
    Rebecca shook her head, and stood up, unsteadily. Michael fought back an urge to help her — he knew from long experience that was the last thing Rebecca wanted. She took a few deep breaths, then walked the short distance between the new couch Alex was sprawled on and the desk where her cigarettes were, one hand running along the wall for support. Michael waited in polite silence until she was sitting with a lit cigarette in her hand.
    “Well? Anything?”
    Rebecca blew smoke at the ceiling and shook her head curtly.
    “You know it didn’t work,” she said crossly. “We’ve been at this for three fucking weeks, Michael, and you know perfectly well that I would be freaking out right now if I had managed to implant even one working protocol in that poor boy’s head. For fuck’s sake, Michael,” she snarled, “how much further are you planning on taking this?”
    Michael smiled thinly and crossed his legs.
    “Maybe if we tried a stronger imprinting…”
    “We can’t,” Rebecca said tiredly. “I’m already using Alex’s as a catalyst to try and implant through his innate resistance — I push any harder, we run the risk that he doesn’t know anything but the protocol afterwards.”
    Michael rubbed his smooth chin thoughtfully.
    “What does that catalyst effect feel like?” Michael asked, changing subjects. “I’ve read about it in theory, the feedback loop and all, but watching you…”
    Rebecca was quiet for a moment, her arm hanging in the air in front of her, frozen in the act of bringing the cigarette to her mouth.
    “It’s as intense as it looks, probably more,” she admitted, eyes averted. “The longer I hold on, the more difficult it is to break the connection.”
    “That must be frightening,” Michael observed.
    Rebecca glared at him.
    “The frightening part is that every time I do it I’m a little bit less inclined to try and break it at all.” Rebecca brooded, hugging one arm around her waist, looking absently in Alex’s direction. “My sanity is on the line, here, Michael, and you would do well to appreciate that fact when I ask you again, how much longer do you plan on pursuing this?”
    “The boy must be trained,” Michael said flatly, his face determined and his eyes serious. “He has powerful enemies, and that’s not likely to change. He needs to be able to protect himself. He needs to be able to operate protocols. Conventional protocols.”
    Rebecca flicked ash into the crowded tray on her desk. She looked at the day’s worth of paperwork, neatly piled in its manila folders in two parallel stacks, pristine, totally untouched, and sighed.
    “There’s no precedent for this, Michael. This kind of resistance has never been overcome, not even once. The only protocol I’ve been able to implant is Absolute, and when Alex operates it, it’s black,” Rebecca’s voice was surprisingly gentle when she said this, looking thoughtfully at Michael. He stirred in his chair uncomfortably. “Before they augmented Mitsuru, it was the same deal with her.”
    “Someone broached the Academy Barrier last night,” Michael said flatly. “They did… whatever they did to that Horror, and then sent it here dying, so close to dead that it didn’t even register as living. That Barrier has never been broken, Rebecca, not in fifty years, and they did this just to get at that boy.” Michael leaned forward and met Rebecca’s eyes. “That boy has enemies,” Michael insisted, “and he needs to know how to use protocols in order to defend himself.”
    “If only there was more than one way to skin a cat, eh, Mikey?” Alice said playfully, sticking her head in through a gap in the door. “How long are you going to hold on to him, anyway?”
    Rebecca sighed and waved Alice into the office.
    “Are you guys planning on having another fight?” Rebecca asked, stubbing out her cigarette and then reaching for the pack. “Because I am so very not interested in that.”
    “I’m being serious,” Alice said insistently. “When are you going to start teaching him something, Michael?”
    Michael’s expression was stormy. He glared up at Alice, who took no apparent notice, settling behind the desk in Rebecca’s chair, putting her combat boots up in the two shallow grooves that Rebecca had worn in the desk’s surface, doing the same thing. Rebecca looked over at Alice as she slouched in her chair, sighed again, and then moved to the window sill, lighting another cigarette and pointedly looking out at the evening.
    “I am teaching him,” Michael said curtly. “And in affairs involving the students, I don’t have to answer to you.”
    Alice smiled and leaned forward in her chair.
    “I know, I know. This is professional curiosity here, Mikey, one colleague to another, looking for a little information,” Alice said, throwing her hands up innocently. “Wanted to figure out how long you plan on dicking around, using up Rebecca and the kid’s time, implementing standard protocols that you know perfectly well aren’t going to work.”
    Michael gritted his teeth, his hands tightening around the knobs on the arms of his chair, while Alice settled back in her chair and smiled. Rebecca sighed theatrically from across the room, but neither of them appeared to pay her any attention, they were so focused on each other. The staring match continued for a while, but Alice’s smirk was unflappable.
    “Why would Alex’s training be part of your concerns, Auditor?” Michael asked acidly.
    Alice hooted.
    “Oh, you want to make it formal?” Alice asked. “That’s fine. I’m within my rights. The boy’s an obvious candidate for Audits, you must have noticed.”
    To Rebecca, Michael’s disbelief seemed forced.
    “Sure, come on,” Alice said, laughing, “power like that, and with unconventional protocols? He’s a natural.”
    “Unconventional?” Michael almost spat, standing up and pointing at Alice. “You want him to use Black Protocols?”
    “Are the conventional ones working, then?” Alice asked innocently. Michael glowered at her, his face contorted with anger.
    “The boy is a powerful catalyst already,” Michael said, gesturing defiantly. “In his own right, he is already a considerable asset. Until we have exhausted all other options, even discussion of Black Protocols is premature.”
    “Rebecca?” Alice asked over her shoulder. “Have all the other options been exhausted?”
    They both turned and stared at the petite brunette, sitting on the window sill smoking and looking unhappy, one leg dangling out in the evening air.
    “Alice, you’re such a bitch,” Rebecca said, tired but not malicious. “I told you not to drag me into your bullshit.”
    “But I’m asking for your professional opinion, here, Rebecca,” Alice objected, feigning innocence.
    Rebecca looked over at them briefly, her eyes lingering sadly over the both of them in turn, and then returned her attention to world outside her window.
    “I don’t think that Alex can use conventional protocols,” Rebecca said grudgingly. “The imprint with the Absolute Protocol was successful, but it isn’t conventional when he operates it. Don’t hate me, Michael.”
    Alice turned back to Michael and smirked.
    “Just like Mitsuru, remember? You know the documentation as well as I do, Mikey. He’s a text book case. Just like I was.”
    Michael stood up angrily, his body shaking and his hands clenched.
    “Do you even remember that, Alice?” Michael’s voice was tight and cold, his face angry and miserable at the same time. Rebecca winced and put her head between her knees as if she were dizzy. “Or did you have to look it up in your diary?”
    Alice frowned briefly, and then shrugged.
    “You don’t have to be a dick about it.” A troubled look crossed Alice’s face, briefly, before her normal confidence reasserted itself. “Since you clearly think that you’ve got the moral high ground, why don’t you tell me what your grand plan is for training a student who can’t use conventional protocols? Will he be beating Weir to death with his bare hands?”
    Michael sat down heavily, as if he were angry at the chair.
    “I’ve had enough of your shit, Alice,” Michael said, rubbing his forehead. “This conversation is over.”
    Alice stood up slowly, pushing the chair in behind her, and walked up close to where Michael sat, bending down to look in his eyes, her face grave.
    “This is the last time I will ask you, Michael,” she said softly, almost sadly. “If you still don’t give me an answer, then I will have to address the matter as an Auditor. And,” she added thoughtfully, “then I won’t be asking at all.”
    Michael looked up at her, his face contorted, and then turned away.
    “Guys,” Rebecca said, breaking the tense silence, “you are aware that both of you have your own offices, right?”
    She looked over at them hopefully, but neither of them acknowledged her presence. Rebecca swore to herself quietly, first in English, and then when she ran out of curses, switched over to Spanish.
    “As I said earlier,” Michael began, his face composed and his voice calm, if tinged with a certain regret, “the boy’s abilities as a catalyst are already unprecedented. With the right partner, or even group of partners, he could be a formidable…”
    “Battery,” Alice cut in grimly, sitting down on the edge of Rebecca’s desk. “You want to use Warner as a battery, because you’re afraid of what might happen if you actually let him develop those powers, right?”
    “That’s not it!” Michael sputtered. “You know what kind of potential the boy has! And you should know better than anyone what the consequences of that boy using Black Protocols will be. We had this conversation about Mitsuru, once, and look how that turned out. Or have you,” Michael added pointedly, “forgotten about that too?”
    Alice winced, and then, after a moment, gave Michael a bitter smile.
    “You are afraid, in other words, and because you’re afraid, you want to deny him the opportunity to choose for himself. Pathetic.” Alice looked down at him coldly, her smile wider. “And he’s not ‘the boy’. His name is Alexander.”
    Rebecca started, giving Alice an appraising look.
    Alex made a show of yawning and stretching, sitting up slowly, well aware that all the eyes in the room had immediately shifted over to him the moment he stirred.
    “Alex. And he’s awake,” Alex said disinterestedly. “Been awake for a while now.” He looked up at Alice, and grinned at her sleepily. “You must be Miss Gallow, right?”
    Rebecca’s eyes narrowed.
    “Alex,” she asked softly, in a tone that could not be ignored, “how do you know about Alice?”
    Alex laughed and ran his fingers through his hair, brushing his bangs out of his eyes.
    “Because everyone talks about an Auditor named Alice Gallow who they are all afraid of, who wears black all the time,” Alex said, a bit sheepishly. “And she’s arguing with Michael like that’s no big deal, so…”
    Alice shook her head, stifling a laugh.
    “This kid isn’t half dumb,” Alice observed. “I might be able to like you, Alex Warner.”
    Alex nodded solemnly.
    “I am difficult not to like, Miss Gallow,” he agreed. “Actually, I’m hopeless. There’s no teaching me anything.”
    “I told you,” Alice said, looking over at Michael with a mischievous grin, “Alex and I are like two peas in a pod.”
    “And that’s exactly what worries me.” Michael said flatly, arms folded.
    Rebecca pitched her cigarette butt out the window and then hurriedly occupied the chair behind her desk that Alice had vacated.
    “Actually, that worries me some too,” Rebecca said thoughtfully. “What do you think about all this, Alex?”
    Alex’s expression went suddenly blank, and he shot quick looks at both Alice and Michael before answering, his face clearly showing strain.
    “Well,” he said cautiously, choosing his words carefully, “I mean, Michael has been training me since I got here, and I’ve learned a lot from him, so I don’t really think it’s for me to say.”
    Alice guffawed, and then shot him a look of utter disappointment.
    “That what you think, Alex? Then maybe I was wrong about you after all. Maybe you aren’t in the right place, if you’re that eager to play good soldier.”
    Alex’s jaw hung open in frank astonishment.
    “Michael isn’t going to fight for you, or even with you, Alex,” Alice said bluntly. “Michael is going to teach you what he can, and he’ll do the best possible job of it. But once you are in the field, Michael will be back here at the Academy with the next generation of promising youngsters. Nobody can make that kind of decision for you,” Alice warned him, “no matter how good their intentions. Or your own. You have to take ownership of your life, eventually.”
    Rebecca nodded, looking sadly back at her cigarettes, sitting back on the window sill, where she’d left them.
    “Alice is right, Alex,” Rebecca said. “This is something you have to decide for yourself.”
    Michael looked helplessly from one woman to the other, eyes blazing, but neither one would meet his eyes. Alex shook his head and looked glum.
    “Well, then I don’t know enough about it to make the decision,” he snapped. “It’s not even a fair question. But, I do know that if you smoke another cigarette in here, Rebecca, that I am leaving,” he added crossly.
    Rebecca froze, her expression wounded.
    “Why is it that no one respects my office?” Rebecca slumped into her chair in resignation. “First people start coming here to have arguments, now students are telling me I’m not allowed to smoke. What’s next? Enforced nap time?”
    Michael stood up.
    “Well, I think this is settled for now…” he began, turning towards the door.
    “What’s settled, exactly?”
    Alice’s tone was jovial, but Alex was starting to notice something about the tall woman’s smile. It was off, somehow. Whatever a smile was supposed to be — warm, bright, inviting, comforting, whatever — Alice’s expression was the polar opposite of that. The last thing you wanted to see.
    The last thing, Alex reminded himself, that any number of people had seen, if even half the stories were true.
    Michael paused on his way to the door, but didn’t look back at Alice.
    “Alex said he doesn’t understand what we’re talking about,” Michael said calmly. “Until he does, this discussion is pointless.”
    Alice sat down next to Alex on the couch, and gave him a friendly pat on the knee.
    “Here, I’ll make it simple,” Alice suggested. “Alex, you remember the Weir who attacked you and Mitzi in the park?”
    Rebecca’s jaw almost hit the floor, though again, no one seemed to notice. After a moment, she decided the expression was wasted without an audience, and quietly closed her mouth.
    “Did you call Mitsuru…?”
    Again, no one paid her any attention. Rebecca had to fight the impulse to go and check to see if her name was still on the office door.
    “Did you like that?” Alice asked Alex, inspecting his face like she actually expected him to look happy. “Did you like lying there while Mitsuru did all the work?”
    Alex stared at her, eyes wide.
    “Um…” he muttered, shaking his head. “I don’t really…”
    “Damn it, Alice.”
    Michael glared at Alice, but she paid him no mind.
    “Or did you like being saved, Alex?”
    Alice pushed one finger against his chest playfully.
    “It makes things a whole lot easier, when you are the victim. Everything is black and white, and nobody ever expects anything else from you.”
    Alex pushed her hand away, clearly annoyed.
    “Of course not,” Alex said, his voice trembling. “I didn’t want any of that stuff to happen. But it isn’t like I had any options.”
    Alice stood up and smiled at Michael triumphantly.
    “And if he gets his way,” Alice said ominously, pointing at Michael, “that’s exactly how things will stay. You’ll never have any options. You’ll never be able to protect anyone, Alex, not even yourself. Instead, you’ll get to watch your friends die protecting you.”
    Michael’s fist slammed into the door frame, causing everyone but Alice to jump.
    “No need to get pissy,” Alice said lightly, rummaging briefly through her coat pocket before coming up with a folded piece of paper. “I already talked to Alistair and got permission. You keep training him however you like, Michael,” she said, eyes sparkling. “I’m going to have Mitzi put him through the Program. Out of your jurisdiction.”
    “Not a chance,” Michael said firmly. “I’ll go over your head, straight to the Director if I have to.”
    “Then go talk to Gaul,” Alice said, shrugging. “He’ll back me on this. We all know that this is too personal for you to make an impartial decision.”
    “Uh, what Program?” Alex asked softly, afraid to actually interrupt. “Is that bad? Am I in trouble?”
    “Alice, you’re insane,” Michael growled. “Rebecca, say something.”
    Rebecca smiled ruefully.
    “Actually, I’ve been talking pretty much the entire time…”
    Rebecca trailed off when she realized that no one was listening to her. Alice dropped the paper on the floor in front of Michael, shrugged, and started for the door.
    “It’s quite simple, Alex,” Alice said over her shoulder. “You can do things Michael’s way. You don’t have to make a choice. But, if you want out of the Program — and you will — then I suggest you find a way to impress me with your personal development. Because it doesn’t end until I say. And I won’t say, until you’ve learned to take care of yourself, at the very least.”
    Alice turned back towards the door, and motioned for Michael, still frozen, one fist pressed up against the door jam, to stand aside.
    “Move it, Mikey,” Alice said, jerking her thumb to the side. “I’ve got things to take care of.”
    “Thanks for stopping by, you guys,” Rebecca hinted.
    Michael’s arm didn’t move, but his hand reddened where it pressed against the old wood of the door frame.
    “Have to go practice being a cunt?”
    Michael spoke through gritted teeth, his arm falling reluctantly to his side.
    “You think I still need practice?” Alice asked, smiling as she squeezed past him and out into the hall.

Twenty Two

    Emily had her hair up in curlers, and was about halfway done with her eyebrows, when Margot came into the otherwise empty dorm bathroom, wrapped in a bathrobe and looking like she had just woken, and wasn’t too pleased about it, a yellow plastic basket with her toiletries hanging from one hand. She walked over to the long faux-marble counter and set her stuff down on the sink and mirror combo next to Emily’s, giving her a nod. Emily smiled at her and then went back to tweezing her eyebrow. She waited until Margot had started taking the top off a bottle of facial cleanser before she snuck a look at her halo.
    There were all sorts of ways, as Emily understood it, for empaths to realize their talent. Some of them saw emotions as colored auras surrounding people, others heard music associated with a specific emotional state, while some particularly unlucky empaths even experienced a mirror-image of the emotions that they sensed around them. Emily, being only moderately unlucky, saw what she called halos — a roughly circular hollow ring of colored smoke that floated above people’s heads. She couldn’t see them all the time; she’d had to learn how to look them, and the halos were even more difficult to see here at the Academy, where almost everyone had been taught to resist such things. But, if Emily tried hard, most the time, she could see it, at least a little bit.
    Margot’s halo was thin and reedy, almost broken in places, but that was normal for her. Her halo was a uniform grey-blue, which in Emily’s own personal interpretation, indicated either apathy or a tremendous ability to control her emotions. For Margot, this too was normal.
    Then Sarah came breezing in, greeting both of them cheerfully and then walking over to the sink on Emily’s opposite side, the tiled space echoing with the sound of her sandals. Emily didn’t even have to check Sarah’s halo; as always, it was a ring of pulsating rose-pink light, which for Emily indicated optimism, good will and excitement, which was Sarah’s default emotional state. But there was something a bit unusual about it, in that it was shot through with the silvery metallic tone that Emily associated with curiosity, curiosity she was certain was directed at her, when she noticed Sarah glancing over while she got her hairbrush out.
    “So,” Sarah said, her eyes locked on the hair she was brushing as if it required her full attention, “when were you going to tell me about your little date with Alex?”
    Emily did her best to look composed. She’d guessed at the source of her curiosity, of course, and she kind of did want to brag about it. Only kind of, though, because it hadn’t gone exactly how she’d hoped. Then she saw herself in the mirror and realized she was blushing, and that made it all worse.
    “We didn’t go on a date. I made him dinner, that’s all.”
    “At your house,” Sarah offered, smiling eagerly.
    “At my parent’s house,” Emily corrected.
    “But, they weren’t there, right?”
    “How did you know that?”
    Sarah waved her hairbrush dismissively.
    “I didn’t think you’d invite Alex over to meet your mom on a first date. Come on, tell me, how was it?”
    Emily put away her tweezers, and then started to carefully remove the curlers from her hair, one at a time. She hoped her hair came out looking alright, because sleeping with the curlers in had been a pain. The Raleigh Cartel’s precognitives had told her that Alex would like her hair better this way, so she’d been dutifully curling her hair since the session had started. She thought it looked good, but she was getting a little tired of all the work entailed.
    “It was pretty good. I mean, Therese showed up, even though she wasn’t supposed to be there, and she made a scene, as usual. But, it could have been a lot worse.”
    Sarah glanced over sympathetically.
    “Therese still does that, huh? Doesn’t she ever get tired of scaring your boyfriends off?”
    “Did she?”
    Emily turned to Margot, who was filling the sink while watching her in the mirror, surprised that she asked anything at all. She thought that she and Margot got along fine, for two people who barely ever spoke to each other, but she didn’t think she’d ever actually shown any interest in her personal life before. Margot was looking at her expectantly, so Emily couldn’t risk peaking at her halo to try and figure out her motivation.
    “Did she what?”
    “Did she scare off Alex?” Margot asked, putting one hand in the water briefly to check the temperature. “Or is he your boyfriend now?”
    The curler in Emily’s fingers at that moment slipped from her hand and clattered off the counter and onto the ground. Sarah picked it up for her, and then set it down next to the rest of Emily’s toiletries on the counter.
    “Well,” Emily stalled, trying to reason out some kind of answer, “not exactly. She didn’t seem to scare Alex off, though it was a little bit weird after she left. And no, Alex isn’t my boyfriend. We don’t even know each other that well, yet. But,” Emily said slowly, enjoying saying it out loud, even if it wasn’t exactly the whole truth, “well, we are kind of seeing each other.”
    And it wasn’t a lie, not completely. Alex had agreed, after all, to see her again, and to spend more time with her. It didn’t matter that she’d told him that it would help her convince the Hegemony that she was doing her job, and therefore make them leave both of them alone. That was a detail, and if it was an unpleasant detail, it was also a minor one. The important thing, she reminded herself, was that she had made progress.
    “Really? That’s awesome,” Sarah enthused, grabbing Emily’s shoulder and squealing. “I was worried for you. He seems a little, uh, shy. Spacey, too.”
    “He is,” Emily agreed cheerfully. “I mean, I don’t know that much about him, but given how he got here, and what it must be like, with everyone knowing who is and all, I don’t think it’s too surprising that he’s a little nervous. It’s okay. It’s even cute, sort of.”
    Margot looked up from the towel she was using to dry her face.
    “Do you like him?”
    The vampire’s voice was flat and devoid of interest. Emily wanted badly to take a quick look at her halo, to look for the reassuring silver flash of curiosity, but she was a little intimidated by Margot, and decided not to, afraid that she might notice.
    “Maybe. I think that I might,” Emily answered, being as upbeat as possible while still telling the truth.
    “Did he spend the night?”
    Sarah nudged Emily, her eyes sparkling.
    Emily’s pride and pleasure at being the center of attention wavered.
    “No,” she admitted reluctantly, trying very hard to put Alex’s confession of inexperience and the bizarre story about his family out of her mind, as thinking about it made her feel weirdly sweaty and nervous. “I was kind of upset. Therese and I got into a fight, and I didn’t want to be there when she came back, so we came back up to campus.”
    Sarah looked puzzled.
    “But, I thought that your plan was…”
    “It was,” Emily acknowledged, freeing her hair from the last of the curlers, and then frowning at her reflection in the mirror like it had done something to her. “But, the mood was all wrong, and anyway, I don’t want him to think that I’m… oh, I don’t know. Desperate or something. I wanted it to be, you know, good.”
    Sarah’s hair brushing became more agitated.
    “Are you sure about that? Don’t get me wrong, but you need this to work, right?”
    “Well, yes,” Emily said, feeling her cheeks burn, unable to look up from her lap. “But… well, I’m not… not like that.”
    “Come on. I know perfectly well what you’re like,” Sarah said, sounding a bit exasperated. “Remember that boy at the start of last session, what was his name? Kurt something? He followed you around for like two months before he finally gave up on you because he thought you weren’t interested, and I know you liked him. You have a lot of good points, Emily, but being assertive isn’t exactly one of them. Did you even let Alex kiss you?”
    “He didn’t, uh, he didn’t try,” Emily said, trying not to sound discouraged or pathetic. “Actually. I thought he would. I was standing right there. I would have let him.”
    “He is shy,” Margot observed, carefully squeezing toothpaste onto her toothbrush.
    “Look, don’t take this the wrong way,” Sarah said carefully. “I know that this is a weird situation. And I know that you like to take these things slow. But, you have factor the rest of the world into your thinking, Emily. This isn’t just some boy you’re crushing on; he’s a strategic asset for the cartels to fight over. Anastasia and the rest of them are serious about recruiting this kid, you know?”
    “I know,” Emily acknowledged quietly.
    “And just because you want to wait for the right time and make sure that you have feelings for each other and everything is special, that doesn’t mean that some other girl won’t hop right into bed with him, you know? It’s probably not going to be roses and candlelight dinners.”
    Sarah looked at her with what Emily pretended wasn’t a trace of pity. Sarah was her friend, Emily reminded herself firmly, and she was trying to help.
    “He’s a guy, Emily. You know how guys are.”
    “I know,” Emily acknowledged, in a steadily meeker voice.
    “I’m not saying you have to throw yourself at him, but if he thinks you're never going to put out, some bitch is going to steal him from you. I’m not trying to be hard on you,” Sarah said firmly. “That's how it is, hon. You do know that, right?”
    “Yes,” Emily said, fighting off a looming wave of self-pity.
    “There are a bunch of other Hegemony girls who are waiting for you to fail so they can take your place. And there is nothing that Anastasia will not do to get what she wants,” Sarah said urgently, putting one hand on Emily’s shoulder. “She will have no trouble whatsoever finding someone who will do whatever it takes to get Alex to join the Black Sun, if Anastasia decides that’s the way she wants to handle it.”
    “Why do you think Anastasia hasn’t done that?” Margot asked, only somewhat intelligible through the toothpaste.
    It was always weird to watch Margot brush her teeth, because it was the only time Emily could actually see her oversized, pointed canines. Not that she was scared of Margot or vampires in general; well, not very afraid. But her teeth were the starkest reminder of how very different Margot was.
    “No idea,” Sarah admitted. “You’d know better than I would — you still work for her sometimes, right, Margot? I don’t try and out-think cousin Ana, I’m just glad my branch of the family stayed with the Hegemony. She probably has some other plan for Alex. But that doesn’t change what I’m saying. Even if Anastasia doesn’t interfere, somebody else will. You know how many power-hungry bitches there are here at the Academy? You do your usual good-girl routine, Emily, and you’re going to get lost in the shuffle.”
    “I know. I know you’re right,” Emily said, doing her best not to sound miserable and failing. “But, I already screwed up my chance. I don’t know when I can get the house to myself again, and I don’t know if he’d even come over again…”
    Sarah looked stricken, and patted her on the shoulder sympathetically. For a moment, she said nothing, and then she suddenly cried out excitedly.
    “Of course!” She grabbed hold of Emily’s shoulders as if she was going to shake her. “I’ve got it. A perfect opportunity!”
    “Hey, Margot, when does Alex start that class with Mitsuru? You know, the bad one?” Sarah asked, nodding excitedly as she spoke. “Combat-whatever-it’s-called?”
    Margot’s response was made unintelligible by toothpaste, and they had to wait until she had a chance to rinse out her mouth before they could hear the answer.
    “You mean the Program,” she said curtly, looking, to Emily’s eyes, unhappy about something. “And he starts this week.”
    “Perfect!” Sarah enthused. “So what you do is, on his first day, you get the proctor to let you into his room while he’s in class, right? So you are waiting for him when he gets out. Say you were worried about him, Alex will like that. His proctor is Li, so it won’t be any big deal getting him to let you in. Anyway, I hear that class is pretty fucked up, especially at first. Don’t you think he might want some company after, Margot?”
    “Yes,” Margot admitted, speaking a little too loudly, her flat voice echoing throughout the tiled bathroom. “It would be a good idea for someone to be there for him. It is difficult for many people at first, emotionally.”
    “But if it’s in the dorms,” Emily said slowly, “and we…”
    “Right!” Sarah crowed. “So you can’t, so you don’t have to, but you don’t come off like a prude either. He’ll know about the dorm rules, so he won’t expect you to do anything. It’s perfect, right?”
    “I guess so,” Emily said, thinking it through, and wondering if Sarah might be right. “I mean, it’s not like I’d get in trouble just for kissing him or something, right? And even Margot said he shouldn’t be left alone…”
    “No, he shouldn’t,” Margot said, again speaking more loudly than was necessary, gathering her things and heading for the door. Emily was too occupied with Sarah’s scheme to wonder much why she didn’t shower, even though it seemed like she’d planned on it. “Someone should definitely be there.”
    It was cold in the bathroom, and Eerie had started trembling long before Sarah and Emily finished chatting and gossiping and finally left. She’d been standing in one of the shower enclosures, naked except for the bath towel she was partially wrapped in, shivering in silence since Emily arrived, somehow unable to face the girl that Alex had gone home with. Eerie stayed completely motionless until they left, except for her chattering teeth. She didn’t even dare reach for her bathrobe, afraid that they would hear her open the shower door to reach for it. Eerie waited until she was certain that they were gone, and then she turned on the water as hot as she could stand. She was grateful for the warmth pouring down her back, but it was a while longer before she stopped trembling.

    “I’m not trying to force you into making up your mind. I understand that this is a difficult decision.”
    “I don’t want you to feel like we are talking you into anything.”
    “You aren’t.”
    “Good.” The kid composed himself and looked as if he was about to continue on, then the other kid, the quiet one nudged him. “Ah, right. Then, if it is alright with you, can I move on to the substance of our visit?”
    Alex wanted to laugh, but he couldn’t. Alex toyed with idea of throwing a punch at the kid, what’s-his-name, Nathan something. But, he knew that even if he didn’t hurt him, that Michael would never let him get away with it.
    “You mean you didn’t come down here to hold the bag for me?” Alex asked, gesturing with one gloved hand at the water-filled punching bag that Nathan was holding cautiously, almost fearfully.
    “Err, no. Well, not wholly,” Nathan said seriously. Alex had thus far seen no evidence that Nathan had even a shred of a sense of humor. “I am here as a representative of the Drava Cartel, and Frederick is here as a representative of the Gehrig-Moore Cartel. Our cartels are members of an alliance known as the…”
    Alex threw a left-right-left combination at the bag, making as much noise as possible when his gloves smacked the leather bag, startling Nathan and rocking him backward a bit as he struggled to hold it in place.
    “The Hegemony, I know. That’s a stupid name, by the way.” Alex shuffled his feet, trying to change stances the way he’d seen Michael do it yesterday. It didn’t work. “I thought the cartels were forbidden to conduct business at the Academy?”
    “We are here in an unofficial capacity, of course!” Frederick shrieked, his brow shining with perspiration. Alex was guessing, but he didn’t think the moderately rotund German saw the inside of a gym too often. Not that Alex had ever made a habit of it before he’d come to the Academy, himself. But Michael and the machines in his blood had conspired to make some serious changes in him over the last several weeks.
    “Right, and?” Alex said, trying a couple more straight right hands, more for the way the noise made them jump than anything.
    “Well, we wish to discuss,” Nathan said, and then frowned, and leaned close to whisper conspiratorially. “We wish to discuss your plans for your future.”
    Alex laughed, and Nathan paused, looking indignant.
    “I’m sorry,” Alex said cheerfully. “But, I have to know — what exactly is it you want me to do? I mean, which cartel do you want me to join? Yours,” he said, pointing at Nathan with his gloved hand, “or his?”
    He nodded amiably in the direction of Frederick, who continued to watch in open-mouthed dismay.
    “Well, that is to say that I — ”
    “You brought him for moral support, right, Nathan? I get that. It’s always easier to face rejection if you’ve got more people to spread it around. That makes sense. But, if I understand all of this correctly,” Alex said, sitting down on the mat in a heap, dripping in sweat and not in the mood, “then your boss won’t be too happy with you unless I sign on with your outfit. I mean, it’s not like I can just join the Hegemony, you know? Did they even tell you anything about me at all?”
    “What’s that?” Nathan looked panicked, but Frederick looked positively green.
    “Your cartel didn’t send you, did they?” Alex laughed, and then shook his head. “You aren’t the first to approach me on your own, you know. I guess a bunch of the half-bright but all-the-way ambitious types thought that might be a good idea. But you are the first to bring a wingman along, my friend.”
    “Can I ask a question?”
    Alex looked over at the girl who’d walked into the gym, and his good mood evaporated instantly.
    “Yes,” Alex said reluctantly.
    “Were all those ambitious types who approached you so far from the Hegemony?”
    Anastasia put her hand to her mouth in parody of shock.
    “Oh my. Well, then I guess that makes it my turn, doesn’t it?”

    Alex tried not to stare across the mat at Anastasia, focusing instead on stretching his calves. He’d never seen her in anything that didn’t fit her Gothic Lolita aesthetics, usually corseted dresses in black, with elaborate bows and ribbons and lace. On a couple of different occasions, he’d even seen her carrying a parasol on sunny days. Her shoes were always shiny leather with precarious heels, and her black hair was always elaborately coiffed.
    But the girl stretching on the worn gym mat across from him was dressed casually, in a t-shirt and yoga pants that cut off at the knee, her hair in two tight braids that poked out on either side of her neck. She looked like any girl that you might see in the facility. But she was Anastasia, and the little Alex knew about Anastasia made this whole situation run contrary to Alex’s expectations.
    “Are you sure about this?”
    He eyed her warily, trying to gauge exactly how bad the situation he found himself in was.
    “You have been doing this for how long, now? A few weeks?”
    “More than a month,” Alex said defensively.
    “Right,” Anastasia said, smirking. “I’ve only been doing ju-jitsu since I was five. You truly do not stand a chance.”
    Alex looked at Anastasia doubtfully. It wasn’t that she was a girl; even if he’d had notions about that sort of thing, Collette, one of the student instructors in his ju-jitsu class had disabused him of any such thoughts by throwing him around like a ragdoll. And that didn’t even factor in the damage that Margot had done to him. Rather, it was that Anastasia was at least a foot shorter than him, and built like a girl who might be in junior high.
    It didn’t help that this particular girl was apparently the future head of what was reputed to be the most terrifying cartel of all, and he had a feeling that if he managed to hurt her, that the consequences would be grim. When she’d gone to change into her gym outfit in the locker room, Edward had appeared from somewhere, given Alex a polite nod, and then cleared out Nathan and Frederick, who were too petrified by Anastasia’s arrival to even protest. Edward had taken up a position at the gym door, his arms folded, seemingly staring off into space. Alex didn’t see him sending people away, but no one came into the heavily-used gym during the entire time Anastasia was there. Later, he would come to realize that things always worked like that, whenever Anastasia was involved.
    “Let me make sure you are clear,” Anastasia said, standing up and twisting from side to side, “I throw you three times, and you listen to whatever I have to say, for as long as it takes me to say it. But we are only doing tachi-waza. I don’t feel like rolling around on the ground with you. Yes?”
    “Standing only, I get it. And I only have to throw you once to get you to go away?” Alex asked doubtfully. “That doesn’t seem fair.”
    “Nothing is ever fair, not if I have any say in it.”
    “Whatever,” Alex said, shrugging and taking his position. “When you’re ready.”
    Anastasia grabbed Alex’s shoulder and behind his neck, and he adopted a similar grip on her. When they were this close, he was very aware of how much bigger he was than her and he felt reluctance. Then she smiled at him, and the casual contempt in the face she made erased that reluctance. Cautiously, he attempted to exert force on her shoulder, trying to shift her balance on to her back foot, where he would have all the leverage. For a moment, he even thought he was succeeding, before he felt a tug and his center of gravity shifted, out of his control. He struggled to right himself, to redistribute his weight and counter the momentum, but he knew it was already hopeless. She shifted direction effortlessly, moving along with his momentum, executing a perfect shoulder throw, flipping him over her back and then planting him solidly on the mat, shoulder first, with an impact that drove the air from his lungs.
    “Ippon!” Anastasia said, smiling down at him and offering her hand. “Two more?”
    Alex ignored the hand, sitting up and rubbing his shoulder. He attempted to look nonplussed, and then abandoned the effort. He was fairly certain he looked as embarrassed as he felt.
    “Actually, I think you made your point,” Alex panted, looking pained. It wasn’t that Anastasia was stronger than him, he thought, but the difference in their skills was so great that any further attempt would only yield him more humiliation. “Why don’t we skip to the talking part?”
    “You big baby,” Anastasia scolded. “And after I warmed up, too.” She sat down cross-legged a few feet away from him on the mat. “It seems to me that you have been a popular boy, since you arrived at the Academy.”
    “I guess so,” Alex said, giving up on massaging out the kink is his shoulder. “It’s mostly been stuff like this afternoon. Some idiot approaches me and tries to get me to have a private talk, which always ends up being a half-assed recruitment speech.”
    “And your suitors. Are they always from the Hegemony?”
    “I told you already. Always. Why is that, anyway?”
    “I would be upset, were it was any other way,” Anastasia said. “The Black Sun has a centralized leadership structure. When we make a recruitment approach, we do it as an organization. Whereas the Hegemony is at best a loose affiliation, and any cartel that gets the idea will try and approach you, independently. But, don’t think too badly of them, as it is primarily an issue of timing. With Eckhart and Tuesday out on Field Study until winter session, there is a leadership void for the Hegemony at the Academy. After the New Year, I am certain they will make a formal attempt.”
    “And that doesn’t bother you? I thought that they were your enemies.”
    “I don’t give the Hegemony enough credit to let them worry me,” Anastasia sniffed. “And the Black Sun has no enemies. At worst, there are other cartels that we have philosophical disagreements with.”
    “You sure about that? Because they seemed to be very afraid of you.”
    Anastasia smiled at him. It wasn’t a pretty thing, severe and a little malicious, but at least it made her seem a touch more human.
    “As they should be,” she said, sounding satisfied. “Would you like to know what makes me different from everyone else who has approached you thus far?”
    Alex nodded wearily.
    “I am the only one who doesn’t need you, Alex.” Anastasia leaned forward, and spoke with sincerity, her manner composed and serious. “Neither I, nor the Black Sun, need you in order to fulfill our ambitions and goals. My cartel’s dominance and my own position within it are assured. We would hardly turn you away, should you desire a further association with the Black Sun — to the contrary, we would welcome you, as you have the potential to become quite useful. But, wanting and needing is not the same thing. Do you see the distinction?”
    “Yes,” Alex replied sullenly. “Very flattering. Are you really so confident in the Black Sun?”
    “Of course,” Anastasia said, blinking and looking a touch surprised at the question. “You needn’t take it from me, though. Ask Emily what she thinks the next time she tries to take you home — oh, she may couch the language a bit more, but I promise you that she sees what I see.”
    “Which is?”
    “The Black Sun Cartel is roughly the same size as the entirety of the Hegemony. With our affiliate cartels, we are somewhat larger. And we have no internal divisions or disputes; unlike the Hegemony, we do not waste our energy fighting each other.” Anastasia glanced briefly up at the clock on the wall, and then back to Alex. “If you factor in the Academy, there are an average of nearly two students affiliated with Black Sun for every one affiliated with Hegemony. Time and circumstances are on our side, Alex, and we are patient. We have been waiting for generations for the time to be right, and we won’t move until it is. And everyone can see the tide changing.”
    “That all sounds great. I’m happy for you, really. But, if you don’t need me, then why are we having this conversation?”
    Anastasia gave him another, more predatory smile, and he liked this one even less.
    “We are, of course, not overlooking your considerable potential.” Anastasia paused and cocked her head to the side. “And then, there is the fact that I cannot simply allow you to join the Hegemony.”
    “Oh?” Alex said, grimacing. “And how would you stop me, assuming I even wanted to do that?”
    “I won’t try and persuade you the way Emily would, if that’s what you are thinking,” Anastasia laughed. “No offense. I was going to try reason, actually. I don’t think you would want to join the losing side in a fight if you had other options. The more you learn about the Hegemony, the less, I think, that you will find yourself sympathetic toward them. Don’t think that because Emily is a nice person that the Hegemony itself is benign.”
    “And if reason doesn’t work? What’s after that? Vaguely worded threats, maybe?”
    “No,” Anastasia said emphatically. “I don’t make threats. I have never seen the point. The next step would be bribery, to be frank. If you have no interest in doing the right thing, then perhaps you would be interested in doing right by yourself. So, if a number were to pop into that busy head of yours, well, you come speak to me directly, and I will be happy to make it happen.”
    “You mean, like, money?” Alex asked, wide-eyed.
    “Yes, Alex.” Anastasia said, amused. “I mean money. In virtually any amount that you care to name. Or, any other kind of material possession. Cars, houses, those blinking black boxes that boys love so much, whatever you like.”
    “Wow,” Alex said faintly, his head swimming. “I have to at least give you points for honesty and forwardness, if nothing else.”
    “Go ahead,” Anastasia said encouragingly, “pick a number. Surprise me.”
    “Not right now,” Alex said, then caught Anastasia’s superior look and hurriedly added, “maybe never.”
    “In my experience, the only things in this world that don’t have a price are those without value. And despite all appearances, you certainly do have value. Let us assume,” Anastasia said reasonably, “that I am simply offering to pay you with the wrong currency. Shall we talk for a moment about your little friend Emily? She’s certainly found a receptive audience in you.”
    “Surely you have noticed that, lovely though she is, Emily is hardly the only girl on campus, yes?” Anastasia’s eyes were full of laughter, her face a bit cruel. “I mentioned that the majority of the students are destined for the Black Sun, after graduation, which means they are going to find themselves under my jurisdiction, eventually. I am certain that I could make any introductions that you might need. Similarly, I can assure you that they any advances you make will be well-received.”
    Alex looked at her with obvious shock and distaste.
    “That’s going a bit too far.”
    “Would you prefer that I invite you home? Make moon eyes at you during class?” Anastasia said mockingly. “I am trying to make a point, Alex. I don’t want you on my side as much as you want to be on my side. I can make things very easy for you.”
    “And I’m guessing,” Alex said warily, “that on the flip side, you could make it very hard for me, right?”
    Anastasia appeared to consider a moment before responding, and in the interval, Alex noticed her eyes dart back up to the clock. If she had someplace else to be, he wondered irritably, why didn’t she just go?
    “I suppose I could,” Anastasia allowed, looking displeased. “But I don’t care much for that sort of thing. I am not here to try and make you do anything. Particularly not something that I have the utmost confidence that you will do of your own free will, eventually.”
    “How can you be so sure?” Alex wondered aloud. He found Anastasia’s tremendous confidence unnerving — her demeanor was so self-assured and authoritative that he had to stop himself from nodding along in agreement as she spoke. He’d underestimated Anastasia, in more ways than one, he realized. “Are you one of those people who can see the future or something?”
    “No one that I’m aware of can ‘see the future’. If you are referring to precognition, then no, I am not a precognitive.” She smiled almost wistfully, much to Alex’s surprise. “It would be much more convenient if I were, though. Have you ever read a report written by a group of precognitives, who are collectively trying to out-think other groups of competing precognitives?” Anastasia clucked disapprovingly. “It borders on utter gibberish, let me tell you.”
    “Fascinating,” Alex muttered.
    “Oh, don’t be sullen,” Anastasia scolded. “I offered all the money, power and girls that you could desire. How can that possibly be such a bad thing? Or, is it that you prefer Emily’s recruitment tactics?”
    “You seriously need to stop bringing that up,” Alex said petulantly. “I barely even know her. And, no one is recruiting me into anything.”
    “Certainly. I assume that it is normal for you, then, arriving at a new school, to have the prettiest girl in class fascinated by you from day one, yes? Does that sort of thing happen to you often, Alex?”
    Alex looked concerned for a moment, and then his gaze hardened.
    “Wait,” he said slowly. “Are you threatening Emily?”
    “Honestly!” Anastasia scoffed, looking scandalized. “How often do I have to say it? I don’t make threats, Alex, and I am certainly not threatening poor Emily. Even if you want to see her, what is it to me? You won’t necessarily fall in love. And even if you were to get married, that still wouldn’t change a thing.”
    “What?” Alex said, putting his head in his hands, frustrated. “I thought — I mean, Michael said that she was part of the Hegemony, and…”
    “Michael is a great teacher, but he lacks political savvy,” Anastasia said with conviction. “If you feel like taking Emily up on her rather obvious offer, then go right ahead. I have heard good things. It isn’t as if you automatically join the Hegemony, because the girl you are dating happens to be a member. Anyway, do you plan on spending the rest of your life with the first girl who is willing to sleep with you? And, who is to say that she will remain in the Raleigh Cartel, for that matter?”
    Alex wanted to smack his hands down on the mat, to push her away from him, to stand up and yell until he was hoarse. Alex did none of these things, because he was not stupid, and this was not the first time this had happened to him.
    He couldn’t even remember the guy’s name. Nothing in the faculty, which was a sort of cross between a mental institution and a prison, had seemed to happen without the deeply tanned Mexican’s hands getting involved. Alex had the bad fortune to meet the man in person, something that rarely happened to anonymous white convicts, but the whole ‘killing your entire family’ thing seemed to resonate with him on a level that Alex found profoundly disturbing. He did not want to talk to him about that, didn’t like the man’s warm smile and dead eyes, and in any other situation, Alex would have simply left. He’d taken a number of beatings for doing exactly that, and he was not afraid of another.
    But he was afraid of that man. Not because of anything he did or said, in fact, he’d been cordial. He had not threatened Alex or even spoken to him harshly, even when Alex admitted that he remembered little about his life up until the point of the fire, and virtually nothing of the actual event. The Mexican had been polite on the two occasions following that they had encountered each other, and Alex had passed his time peacefully in that particular institution.
    He’d been afraid of the man because of the way he looked at Alex, like he saw what was going on his head, and felt a little bit sorry for him. There was something in his disconcertingly perfect smile that implied an absolute assurance, such a complete and total advantage that it didn’t even merit contesting. He’d seen it in the faces and actions of the people that surrounded and fawned all over the Mexican, inmates and guards alike.
    And he could see it again in Anastasia’s eyes, and in the eyes of people who looked at her. Picking a fight with her would be worse than pointless, it might even be impossible. Alex understood now why people were afraid of the Black Sun — and it wasn’t the cartel, powerful though it might have been.
    It was the girl sitting in front of him, glancing at the clock impatiently.
    “I figured that the cartel thing was for life,” Alex said, shrugging, fighting down the urge to ask why she kept looking at the clock, if there wasn’t some place she would rather be. “She said she was born into it.”
    “Certainly, as I was into the Black Sun,” Anastasia acknowledged coolly. “But, nothing obligates us to die where we were born, Alex. We make a choice when we leave the Academy, the same choice any orphan makes. Sometimes there are surprises, defections even. Don’t you think it reflects poorly on the Hegemony that all they see in Emily is a future homemaker? I’m certain that I could find her something more meaningful to do, in the Black Sun.”
    “Wait, I get it,” Alex said, shaking his head. “But, I don’t think she would turn on her family.”
    “What is to stop me from recruiting the entire cartel?” Anastasia glanced at her fingernails, looking vaguely disappointed. “I don’t have to worry about problems of scale. Therese Muir is much more practical than Emily, and she would most likely be receptive to the right offer. I am certain she would want to bring her beloved baby sister along.”
    “You’d go that far,” Alex asked, wonderingly, “to get me to join your cartel?”
    “It’s not all about you, Alex,” Anastasia said dismissively, standing up and walking to the door to open it for a very puzzled looking Emily, a water bottle in one hand, her iPod in the other. She looked blankly from Anastasia to Alex and then back to Anastasia.
    “Hello Emily,” Anastasia said casually, smiling at the stunned girl. “Care to join me for the three o’clock Yoga session?”

    “If you are ever going to pay attention,” Mr. Windsor said patiently, “then today is the day. This is the single most important piece of work that we will do this session, though I realize that for some of you this will be a lecture that you have had before…”
    “Several times,” Anastasia said quietly, sounding bored.
    “…but this does not in any way reduce the value of a return to the topic! Please pass this around, thank you, should be enough for everyone? Good, then.”
    Alex took one from the stack of documents that Emily handed him and then passed it on to Vivik. Emily looked terribly disinterested, and even Vivik seemed less than thrilled. Alex took a closer look at the stapled document he’d been given.
    It was seven pages long, with nearly twenty numbered articles, followed by a block of text, composed of a single run-on sentence that used the word ‘whereas’ at least four times. Alex immediately gave up on reading it. He tossed it on the desk in front of him distastefully, then looked up at Mr. Windsor and was surprised to see him smiling at the unhappy class.
    “It is a formidable document, yes? It was not designed, I’m afraid, for a casual readership. But don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you to read it — though I would add that anyone too lazy to read the document that lays out their fundamental rights cannot claim to be too surprised when said rights are taken from them — but, I do want you to at least have a concept of the intent of the Agreement. Now, those of you who’ve been with us through grade school, I want you to go ahead and share what you’ve learned with newcomers in our class. The Agreement, you see, has four main functions. Miss Martynova, could you tell the class one of them?”
    Anastasia rolled her eyes and answered in monotone.
    “The Agreement established a universal code of conduct and applied it to all Operators and cartels equitably. Now, I am going to sleep until this session is over. Please don’t call on me again.”
    Alex was only a little surprised that Mr. Windsor let it go with a smile. He was getting used to the way people treated Anastasia.
    “Very good. Miss Martynova is better than a textbook, class. There is little that I can add, except that this code of conduct will be utterly critical to your life, going forward. Ignorance will not be considered an excuse if you take action outside of the Agreement, and the punishment for violating it is dire. But, do what you will. Now, Eerie,” Mr. Windsor said, turning to and clearly startling the changeling, “can you tell me another function of the Agreement?”
    Eerie nodded hopefully, and then her face gradually fell when it became clear that more of a response was required. Eventually, Windsor took pity on her and repeated the question, followed by another long pause while she considered. Alex found the way her forehead wrinkled and her eyebrows scrunched while she thought to be unaccountably endearing.
    “Um,” she said, so quietly that Alex could barely hear her, as if she was humming to herself, “well, you know, the government and stuff. The Committee and the Board. All of that.”
    “Very good!” Mr. Windsor enthused. “The Agreement does indeed set up the foundation for a formal government in Central, providing centralized rule over the cartels, as well as a mechanism to impart that universal code of conduct Miss Martynova mentioned earlier. And for those of you who subscribe to the notion that this was a bad idea, allow me to remind you that cartel feuds would have killed off the majority of you before you were eighteen, were it not in place. Now, Margot, a third, if you please?”
    “The Agreement set out the terms and conditions under which Central could intervene and regulate the affairs of the cartels, and established the Auditors to enforce the Agreement,” Margot responded, sounding no more or less disinterested than she always did.
    “Yes,” Mr. Windsor affirmed, nodding in agreement. “This was perhaps the most contentious part of the Agreement, as previously, cartel politics had held precedence over everything else in Central. Before the Agreement…”
    Alex tuned out. He couldn’t help it. He just couldn’t see the relevance — other than agreeing to join the Academy, and allowing his Activation, Alex hadn’t been offered too much in the way of options, and he didn’t expect that to change much. After all, no one had bothered to ask him if he wanted nanomachinery injected into his blood in the first place.
    Alex was busy stewing over it, when he was jarred from his ruminations by Emily, who pushed her notebook up and sideways on her desk until it was in the field of his vision. He ignored it for a moment, until he realized that the note on the top corner of the page was intended for him.
    “If Windsor had told the class in advance,” Emily’s immaculate cursive read, “everyone would have ditched today. Most of us have the Agreement memorized by now.”
    Alex pushed his own notebook into place, and then thought about it for a moment, chewing on his pen cap without realizing he had started. He stopped in mute embarrassment when he realized what he was doing.
    “Can we still ditch?” Alex wrote hopefully, his own writing a pitiful scrawl next to Emily’s very feminine penmanship.
    Emily’s eyes widened, and then she frowned at Alex, who decided to hurriedly return to the notes on Mr. Windsor’s projector. He was blushing furiously, he knew, and he sort of wished he hadn’t asked, even while part of him was still hoping she would agree.
    “…that’s right, Choi.” Mr. Windsor continued on cheerfully, unaware or unconcerned with the class’s complete disinterest. “The final intent of the Agreement is to define Central’s relationship with the outside world, establishing the parameters of a unified foreign policy. Please pay special attention to the various amendments here that concern the Society, the Anathema, the Fey, and other associated…”
    Emily shrugged, and then smiled weakly at him. Alex felt uncomfortable, as if he had suggested something inappropriate, and he regretted it, a little. He was sure that she would refuse, and why wouldn’t she? Emily actually wanted to go to the Academy, after all. Who was he to interfere, because he was bored? But, he had to admit that he was so very, very tired of homeroom.
    “Wait a couple minutes, and then meet me outside by the drinking fountain.”
    He hadn’t even noticed her write the note, but it was unmistakably hers, purple pen and a little circle instead of a dot over the lower-case ‘I’. He tried to catch her eyes, but she had already stood up and quietly excused herself, as if she was headed to the bathroom. Alex sincerely hoped that no one but him noticed her blushing as she did so, but the combination of an amused look from Anastasia and an elbow digging into his side from an indignant Vivik disabused him of any such notion.
    “Dude, what the hell?” Vivik hissed at him. “What are you doing?”
    Alex gave him a lame smile and then went back to staring blankly at Mr. Windsor, doing his best to ignore Vivik’s fuming and Anastasia’s smirk. It was a long four minutes, but that was as much as he could give it. He excused himself as quietly as possible, stepping over Vivik’s legs, ignoring the way the Indian kid looked at him. Vivik’s crush on Emily, Alex told himself firmly, was not his problem.
    Emily, he reminded himself on his way out of the classroom, was his problem.
    She was waiting for him by the drinking fountain, her smile fragile and uncertain. She looked nervous, and kept sneaking furtive glances back toward the classroom, as if she was worried that Mr. Windsor would come out after them.
    “I’m sorry,” he said, walking up to her with his hands buried in his pockets. “I don’t know why I made you do that. All our stuff is still in the classroom, too, so Windsor is bound to notice.”
    Emily shook her head, and Alex was fascinated by the motion of her blond ringlets as they bobbed along with the gesture.
    “He won’t say anything,” she said, reassuringly, putting her hand on his arm, “and Vivik will collect our stuff at the end of class.”
    “I’m not so sure about that,” Alex said glumly. “I think he’s probably mad. He likes you a lot, you know?”
    Emily sighed and frowned.
    “I know, silly. Of course I know.”
    She said it gently, but Alex felt like an idiot. Somehow, he couldn’t remember that Emily was empath, she seemed so normal. Of all the people he had met in the Academy, he thought, she was the most like a real person — not that he was entirely sure what he meant by a ‘real person’ in the first place.
    “He’s been like that since he showed up, last session. Maybe I shouldn’t have been as friendly with him, but, well,” she fluttered her hands helplessly, “everyone was being so mean to him, what else could I do?”
    Emily sighed again, looking unhappy, and Alex racked his brain futilely for a change of subject.
    “Anyway, what’s done is done,” Emily said, tightening her grip on his arm and guiding him gently away from the classroom. “We should make the best of it. Let’s go somewhere, okay?”
    Alex let himself be led along by her, obliging when she linked their arms. He was very aware that the side of her chest was pressed against his arm as they walked, and he found it difficult to think about anything else. That was probably why he missed it, the first time she asked.
    “What?” Alex said, shaking his head and trying to focus on the girl next to him. Or, rather, on her face, and the words she was saying.
    “I asked if there was anything you wanted to do,” Emily said, obviously repeating herself.
    “Uh, not really,” Alex admitted, “I hadn’t actually thought about it. I’m sorry; this is lame, isn’t it? I just wanted out of there.”
    “Don’t worry about it,” Emily said, clutching his arm and snuggling closer. “I don’t mind. I was going to say, that if you don’t have anything in particular that you wanted to do,” she added shyly, “we could go back to my place and hang out. I know it was weird last time, but Therese will be working all day, and she won’t get back till late. I could make us lunch or something…”
    Alex might have been slow, he was prepared to admit that, but he wasn’t stupid; at least, he didn’t think that he was stupid. He’d already opened his mouth to agree when he noticed a tall figure in black walking the opposite way on the sidewalk, close enough to them that he could see the toothy grin, and his heart sank, and he didn’t bother to say anything at all. Emily waited for a moment, then nudged him when no response was forthcoming, then finally looked over at him in annoyance, in time to see Alice standing in the path in front of them, arms crossed across the scrawled ‘Emperor’ logo emblazed across her t-shirt, her eyes hidden behind sunglasses, a broad smile affixed to her face.
    “Well, well,” Alice chuckled. “And here I thought I would have to go all the way to Mr. Windsor’s class to find you, Alex Warner. You must have gotten out of class early, huh? And Emily Muir, you must have been helping him find the Administrative building, right?”
    “Oh dear,” Emily said, one hand coming up to cover her mouth. “I wasn’t expecting to see you here, Miss Gallow.”
    “Yeah,” Alice agreed tolerantly. “I get that a lot. Thanks for bringing him this far, Emily. If you hurry back, you should have plenty of time to make it back to class before lecture is over.”
    “Right,” Emily said, nodding helplessly, then slowly backing away, giving Alex a sad look before she turned away. “Maybe I could bring your books by, later, okay, Alex?”
    “Sure,” Alex said, licking his lips nervously, somehow afraid to take his eyes off of Alice Gallow even to say goodbye.
    Alice stood there, until Emily was out of sight. Then she slapped Alex’s shoulder and laughed uproariously.
    “I’m sorry,” she managed, a minute later, still out of breath. “I couldn’t help myself.”
    “That sucked, Miss Gallow,” Alex said, trying like hell not to sound like he was whining. She looked cheerful enough this morning, but Alex couldn’t totally put all the stories he’d heard about Alice Gallow out of his head when he spoke to her, and it made him cautious. “I hope you actually have something you needed to talk to me about.”
    Alice laughed again quietly, then walked over to a nearby low wall, and sat down on the sun-warmed stone, patting a space nearby to indicate Alex should also sit. After a moment of ineffectual and half-hearted glaring, he joined her.
    “Pretty self-righteous for someone ditching class to get all cozy with Emily,” Alice observed. “But, yes, not to worry, I am not here to waste your valuable time. Have you thought about what we talked about the other day?”
    Alex was about to say ‘no’ when he realized that wasn’t strictly true. He had actually given it a great deal of thought, he just hadn’t come to any firm decisions. He didn’t understand Black Protocols, or anything of the kind, so it had been a bit difficult to formulate an opinion. But, he figured that when it came to Alice Gallow, honesty was definitely the best policy.
    “Yeah, I did,” he admitted slowly, considering. “But, I’m not really sure that I have an answer for you.”
    Alice looked at him with something that was either amusement or contempt. Either way, it made Alex feel profoundly uncomfortable.
    “Emily’s a pretty girl, isn’t she?”
    Alice asked the question quietly, from behind her inappropriate smile, kicking the heels of her boots against the stone wall as if they were chatting about the weather.
    The confusion is his voice had already started to change into worry.
    “The girl you were just snuggling with. The blond,” Alice reminded him helpfully. “Pretty, right?”
    Alex nodded. It seemed like the safest bet, since he didn’t know what he would have said.
    “Pretty helpless, too,” Alice continued on blithely. “I truly hate that, you know. So, what would you do if I decided that I hated her so much that I was going to do something about it, Alex?”
    “Is this hypothetical,” Alex asked carefully, “or do you actually hate Emily?”
    “Does it matter?” Alice’s voice was like ice-water, sending shivers up his back. “What if I wanted to hurt Emily? Would you try and stop me?”
    Alex shook his head and inched away from Alice on the wall. He wasn’t sure what was going on, but he was sure he didn’t like it.
    “Could I?”
    “It doesn’t matter,” Alice said firmly. “Either you would try or you wouldn’t. Nobody’s asking you to succeed.”
    “Sure,” Alex said, shrugging and doing his best to look unconcerned. “I mean, if I could, and if you were actually going to do that, then sure, I’d want to stop you.”
    Alice patted him on the leg approvingly and stood back up. Just like that, the threatening atmosphere dissipated.
    “Good enough for me. We were going to put you through the Program no matter what, truthfully, but I’m glad to hear you’re willing. You should probably go back to class, now. Still plenty of time.”
    “That isn’t what I meant when I said…”
    Alice put a finger up to her lips.
    “Shh. How else you gonna stop me, Alex? A strongly worded letter? Make a call to your member of Congress?”
    “Wait,” Alex said, scratching his head, “you said something about putting me in a program, right? What are you talking about?”
    “Not a program. The Program. You’ll find out tomorrow in your Applied Combat Fundamentals class,” Alice said, walking off, waving without looking back. “Say hi to Mitzi for me.”
    Alex watched her walk away, dumbfounded. It was a minute or so before it all clicked into place for him. He was, of course, doomed. But, Alex found that he was still confused on at least one significant point.
    “Wait, Miss Gallow,” he called out after her. “Who is Mitzi?”

Twenty Three

    Mitsuru sat in the middle of a long, wood paneled room, cross-legged on the floor. Behind her, there were inactive shooting lanes, their battered targets hanging forlornly. In the distance, time was punctuated by the distant pops of rifle training occurring on the range outside. In front of her, on a green cloth, was a matte-black.45 caliber Glock 36 semiautomatic pistol, and Alex bent over it, wiping sweat from his brow and wishing that he had ditched class, or, failing that, could find the damn firing pin that he had set aside only a moment ago.
    He didn’t bother to look up when the door opened behind him. He only hoped that it would be something that would interrupt firearms drills.
    “Gustav, thank you for coming,” Mitsuru said. “You’re early, but we can go ahead and start. This one’s fairly hopeless when it comes to guns.”
    Even Alex wasn’t totally sure what it was that he muttered. So, when he found himself suddenly sprawled on his back, Mitsuru crouching over him with a handful of his hair knotted around her fist, demanding to know what he’d said, it was rather awkward. She’d hit him, he realized belatedly, from the way his jaw ached, but he’d never even seen it. It had been almost like he’d fallen over by himself.
    Alex attempted a variety of sullen apologies, and then, after her grip tightened on his hair and brought tears to his eyes, a much more sincere one that seemed to satisfy Mitsuru. She released her hold and stepped off of him, resuming her former position, sitting on the floor.
    “I am not Michael. This is not Michael’s class. Michael coddles you and cares for you. I will not. Whatever it is that he has taught you, it isn’t enough,” Mitsuru said flatly, her red eyes cold and disinterested. “You will ask questions whenever you need too, here, and when you do so, you will do so respectfully. Otherwise, I do not wish to hear you speak unless you are spoken to. Do you understand all this?”
    “Yeah,” Alex said, rubbing his head resentfully. “I guess I do.”
    “Very well. Then let me introduce Gustav Esteban, who will assist in your instruction,” Mitsuru said, pointing at the wizened old man who was currently setting up a folding chair beside them. Alex nodded at him, but the white-haired man didn’t give any indication that he’d noticed. “He’s a telepath, a very special kind of telepath, and the Academy values him far more than we value you. So, you will kindly ignore the fact that he is a horrible bastard.”
    “I see,” Alex said, staring at the smiling man in his pressed suit, grinning from ear to ear with a face so wrinkled that it was difficult to tell if his eyes were open or not. “A telepath, huh?”
    “It’s fun, isn’t it? Michael’s class? Yes, I know its hard work, but it’s a rewarding kind of work, don’t you agree?”
    “I guess,” Alex allowed, figuring that resenting all classes on principal was still more or less a responsibility of his as a student.
    “That’s because Michael’s class isn’t about fighting, Alex, its only training. And training is important, Alex, don’t get me wrong. But, it isn’t combat. Combat is scary, scary and painful and bad. Most people like some aspect of training, whether it’s the yoga or the swimming or the judo, part of it appeals to most Operators. But nobody likes combat, Alex, not really, except for Alice Gallow. And she doesn’t count,” Mitsuru added thoughtfully, “because she is a total psychopath.”
    “Right,” Alex said uncertain. “That is the most I’ve heard you say so far.”
    “Ask a question or shut up and listen,” Mitsuru said, eyeing him.
    Alex elected to shut up and not get hit again.
    “Now, onto the business at hand. Do you know what the problem with beating you to death is, Alex?”
    “Well, I can think of several, actually,” Alex said, smiling tightly and shifting uncomfortably against the floor. He wished that someone had told him about the folding chairs in the corner when he came in, like the one Gustavo had. He’d been waiting for a good opportunity to get one for himself, but it hadn’t happened yet — he really didn’t want to interrupt Mitsuru while she was talking. Particularly not if she was serious about the beating thing.
    “You wouldn’t learn anything from it,” Mitsuru said ruefully, “unfortunately. Because trying to explain is so much more difficult. As far as learning incentives go, there’s nothing like having your life on the line.”
    Alex finished reassembling the pistol, snapping the slide into place, working the action, and then slotting the clip and checking the safety. He set it down in the center of the green cloth, and looked up at Mitsuru for a reaction. He didn’t get one — she was looking at someone behind him disapprovingly.
    “You’re late,” she said icily. “Do I need to remind you how much I disapprove of tardiness?”
    “Sorry, Miss Aoki,” Steve grumbled, making a face at Alex as he walked by him. “It won’t happen again.”
    “It had better not,” Mitsuru agreed grimly.
    Alex glared furiously at Steve, who offered him the finger in return, then glared more sullenly at Mitsuru. He was about to speak when he realized that Gustav had somehow disappeared from the room, complete with his chair.
    “What the hell is going on?” Alex demanded, looking around him. “Why the hell is he here?”
    Mitsuru stood up, and then picked up the Glock from where it lay on the oil cloth. She inspected the action, and then sighted down the barrel. After a moment, she grunted her approval.
    “It is a bit abnormal,” she admitted, nodding. “Usually we start with a stranger, someone neutral and anonymous. It’s easier on the students, or so the theory goes. But, if they’d wanted you to have an easy time, then they wouldn’t have made me your teacher.” Mitsuru reached down, and set the pistol down delicately on the floor, right in front of Alex’s hands. He took it without meaning to. “I needed someone you wouldn’t mind shooting, Alex, and before I even had a chance to look, Miss Gallow showed up with a volunteer.”
    Mitsuru motioned at Steve, and he sauntered roughly ten meters away, and then turned to face Alex. Even at a distance, Alex could see his mocking face, screwed up and contemptuous.
    “I been thinking about this, fag,” Steve sneered. “Ever since the first day I met you.”
    “And you’re calling me a fag? Because that’s pretty much the gayest shit anyone has ever said to me,” Alex said, looking nervously at the pistol in his hand. “Just saying.”
    Steve started forward, and then halted when Mitsuru cleared her throat. Alex wasn’t sure, but he thought that he might have seen her smile, for an instant.
    “Enough, boys.” Mitsuru looked at Alex, her bloodshot eyes serious and disconcerting. “This isn’t too complicated, Alex, but for some reason, many people find it to be very difficult. All I need you to do is to take the gun, chamber a round, release the safety, and then shoot Steve in the head.”
    Alex blinked and stared blankly for a moment.
    “You want me to shoot Steve?”
    He was incredulous, gesturing wildly in panic and outrage.
    “Could you stop waving that thing around?” Mitsuru said, looking warily at the Glock in his hand that Alex had almost forgotten. “It doesn’t count unless you shoot him on purpose, and if I get shot today, I will be very, very cross.”
    Alex looked down at the gun in his hand, not comprehending, and then blushed and set it carefully back down on the patch of green cloth.
    “No way,” he said defiantly, folding his arms. “He may be an asshole, but I’m not shooting anybody because you told me to. Wait, fuck that — I’m not shooting anybody who isn’t one of those monsters, okay? This is bullshit.”
    Mitsuru didn’t even look at him. Instead, she shrugged indifferently, and sat back down on the floor.
    “Steve, he doesn’t seem to want to shoot you,” Mitsuru said, sounding confused and disappointed. “I can’t imagine why.”
    “I was counting on it,” Steve said, cracking his knuckles and grinning.
    “Persuade him otherwise, would you?”
    Steve’s grin widened as he walked toward Alex.
    “I say this one’s fag the whole way through, Miss Aoki,” Steve snarled, advancing on Alex. “But, I’ll do my best.”
    Alex turned to stare at Mitsuru pleadingly, too shocked to even formulate an objection.
    That turned out to be a mistake.
    If Steve hadn’t been such a big guy, Alex probably wouldn’t have even seen him lunge, he moved so fast. As it was, Alex barely had time to duck under Steve’s outstretched hand. He still managed to catch onto a clump of Alex’ hair, tearing it out with an awful ripping noise, like a Velcro strap detaching from his head. Alex gasped and reeled backwards, grabbing at his head, only to eat a straight jab that hit him square in the nose, bringing tears to his eyes and blurring his vision. He couldn’t see well enough to tell what the next few punches were, but the one that knocked him down had to have been a right hook; it came from the side and caught him below the ear, with an impact that rattled the teeth in his jaw and made his knees fold underneath him. He fell to the ground and moaned, having just enough presence of mind to cover his face with his arms, to ward off any further blows.
    Steve laughed and kicked playfully at his chest and stomach a few times, then dropped down and grabbed a hold of one of Alex’s flailing arms. Alex realized that he was putting him in a wrist lock a moment before it happened and he struggled against him, but in his panic he forgot everything that Michael had taught him about escaping holds, and only managed to wriggle fruitlessly. Steven bent his wrist backwards far enough for it to hurt, leered at Alex, and then bent it further.
    Alex howled, and somewhere during the howl, he heard something snap. Steve maintained pressure on the hold, and Alex was certain that nothing had ever hurt quite so bad. It sapped any strength he might have had to fight him off; frankly, he couldn’t even bear to look at it. His legs kicked and jerked as he struggled blindly. He was aware of the noise he was making, a kind of whimper, and he was ashamed of it, but he could not seem to stop.
    “Enough,” Mitsuru said, from somewhere above them. The pressure on his wrist ceased, and Alex immediately clutched it to his chest. He couldn’t breathe out of his nose very well, and his breath came in ragged gasps. “Open your eyes, Alex.”
    After a moment, Alex did so. Steve stood a few meters away, pacing and shadowboxing, looking happy with himself. Mitsuru crouched over him, her face blank, her eyes bloodshot and serene, the gun stretched out to him, still on its bed of green cloth.
    “How do you feel, Alex?”
    “Fucking bad!” Alex shouted, voice quivering. “What the fuck is going on here?”
    Mitsuru’s calm was impenetrable.
    “Do you feel like shooting someone?”
    “No,” Alex said, shaking his head. “Fuck that. And fuck you, Miss Aoki. No way.”
    Mitsuru shrugged and walked away, setting the gun down and the sitting down beside it.
    “Let’s try it again,” she said, to no one in particular. “Reset.”
    The transition was so abrupt that it made him nauseous. To Alex, it seemed as if he was lying in a heap on the floor one moment, bleeding from the face and clutching his broken wrist, and then the next, he was standing where he’d started, facing Steve with the gun in his hand. He looked down at the Glock, black, compact and menacing, and at the hand that held it. His wrist seemed miraculously whole, though it was an angry red hue, and quite sore. Alex touched it with one finger, marveling at the bruised but intact flesh, contrasted with the mess a moment ago. He put his hand to his face, and his hand came away bloody, but not as bloody.
    “This isn’t real,” he said uncertainly.
    “This is very real,” Mitsuru corrected sternly. “If you get killed, you will be very dead, make no mistake about it. The pain and the consequences here are all real. The only difference is that I have more discretion about when I let you die. That’s all.”
    “This is Gustav doing this, right? Some kind of telepathic illusion or something?”
    Mitsuru sighed.
    “This isn’t some kind of show or trick, Alex. Don’t seek comfort in deluding yourself. It isn’t a good thing. This means is that I can have Steve hurt you forever,” Mitsuru said, nodding at the goon. “You won’t die until I let you. If I let you. Which I probably won’t. Now pick up the gun.”
    “So, if I shoot Steve, that won’t be real, either?” Alex asked, staring at the pistol in his hand. It felt very real.
    “Steve, Alex thinks this is an illusion. Disabuse him of the notion.”
    Mitsuru sounded disgusted, like Alex had failed her on a personal level.
    “Sure, Miss Aoki,” Steve said with his monkey grin, walking lazily toward Alex.
    “Wait!” Alex cried. “Why are you doing this?”
    “Are you ready to shoot him?” Mitsuru asked evenly, holding up a hand to stop Steve, who suddenly looked nervous.
    “Will he die?”
    Alex was unable to look away from the gun in his hand.
    “That’s generally what happens when you shoot someone,” Mitsuru replied gravely.
    “No,” Alex said shakily, letting the gun clatter to the floor. “No way. That’s not me.”
    “Christ,” Mitsuru started, wincing. “You need to be more careful with loaded guns, kid. I’m teaching you an important lesson about being a soldier. You and me, Alex, we are both the same in this — we don’t ask why when we’re told to pull the trigger. You’ll get yourself killed, worrying about that. Let the bosses be concerned with who and why. It will take everything you’ve got just to do what needs to be done, and survive the process. Understand?”
    “No,” Alex said miserably.
    Mitsuru sighed and rubbed her head.
    “The lesson is simple — there’s no point in teaching you to shoot, Alex, if you aren’t going to pull the trigger when you are told to,” Mitsuru explained, clearly frustrated. “No point in sharpening a blade you aren’t going to use. We aren’t going to wait until you’re in the field, until your life and the lives of other Operators are on the line, to see you pussy out. Suck it up, pull the trigger, and then we both can go home.”
    Alex looked down at the ground. His nose still ached a great deal, and it was bleeding consistently enough to make him sniffle.
    “I guess I’m not cut out for this,” Alex said a moment later, sounding reluctant. “If that’s what this all means, then I don’t want any part of it. I quit, alright? I don’t want to do this anymore. I’m done.”
    “Alex, Alex,” Mitsuru chided. “We already know that you are cut out for this. That’s what precognitives are for. What you want is irrelevant. We’re concerned with what you can do, not what you want do,” she said, shaking her head. “There would never be enough soldiers if we asked for volunteers. I told you, none of this will be fun, or easy. Most Operators would rather not do what they do. But they can, and the need is there, so they do what they have to. We do what we have to, Alex. We are weapons, both of us. The purpose of a weapon is to kill. Don’t you want to have a purpose, Alex?”
    “This is fucked up, right here,” Alex said slowly, staring at the pistol in his hand as if it would speak to him. “Do Rebecca and Michael know that you are doing this shit to me?”
    Mitsuru tittered, and Steve burst into laughter.
    “I would think so,” Mitsuru said, smiling. “They’ve both completed the Program themselves, after all. Rebecca helped design the Program.” Mitsuru shook her head. “Okay, question time is over. Are you ready to do what you have to do?”
    She looked at Alex, hard, for several moments, but he refused to look up at her, transfixed by the weight, the sheer reality of the gun in his hand.
    “No,” he said, softly. “Why should I? Why should I do anything?”
    “Because you have to,” Mitsuru said, looking mildly disinterested. “Again.”
    “Right,” Steve said, from immediately behind Alex.
    Alex jabbed an elbow back, digging it into Steve’s midsection, but he just grunted, his arms wrapping around Alex, one forearm reaching across his neck. Alex tried to lower his head, to put his chin between Steve’s arm and his throat, but he was too late for that. He stomped on Steve’s foot, several times, with all the force he could muster, grinding his heel against the boy’s instep. He drove a few more elbows into his body, but he couldn’t put much power behind them. Steve’s forearm crushed steadily into his larynx, and soon all he could hear was himself making ghastly strangling noises.
    Alex woke on the floor, with his face in a shallow pool of vomit, unable to swallow and struggling to breathe. Mitsuru crouched above him, holding out the gun. He brushed her away with one arm, and then everything reset again.
    This time he didn’t bother with conversation. When Mitsuru asked him if he was ready to use the gun, he ignored her. He put the echoes of the pain and the fear out of his mind, as best he could. He focused solely on Steve, standing a few meters away, looking like he hadn’t even broken a sweat, grinning like it was his birthday. Alex was ready when he came forward this time.
    He was ready for Steve’s jab, too. He had gorilla-like arms that gave him a reach advantage, but Alex kept his hands up and his head moving, and Steve couldn’t do anything more than clip him. Alex was patient, protecting his head, absorbing the occasional shot to the side or the arms, waiting for his chance to close.
    Steve threw a combination that ended in a right hook that was a little off, and Alex saw his footwork was bad, that he was punching while he backpedaled. Alex blocked the punch with his left arm, and then stepped inside, putting everything he had into a hard right that sank into Steve’s kidney.
    Again, there was no apparent transition. Steve was simply one thing, and then he was the other. Alex didn’t even see it before he made contact. His hand crumpled against Steve’s rocky skin, folding and tearing like paper where it collided with the stone, and then he fell to the ground, while Steve kicked him with his heavy stone foot and laughed his booming laugh. Alex closed his eyes, protected his face as best as he could, and waited it out. He didn’t want to open them, because he might have seen what he had done to his hand.
    When he finally did, he saw Mitsuru crouched over him, holding out the gun.
    Alex refused three more times, and it ended horribly, three more times. Then he gave in.
    The pistol was somehow louder with that shot than it had been when he shot at the range, the trigger much more difficult to pull. And when Alex stood and stared at the intact remainder of Steve’s head, most of his brain dripping off the far wall, Mitsuru put her hand on his shoulder like a friend.
    “Combat isn’t fun, Alex,” she said, with surprising gentleness. “It hurts, and it is frightening. There are no good choices, only a series of compromises and things that you will regret later. This isn’t training, Alex, and it isn’t theory or philosophy. This is fighting and surviving, or it is fighting and dying. Nothing more. And it is the only thing that matters.”
    She gently prized the Glock from his fingers, and then activated the safety.
    “Welcome to the Program. When we are done with you,” she said, her bloodshot eyes full of sincerity, “you won’t even recognize yourself. Reset.”

    Alex heard the door close behind him, and congratulated himself on not running. Mitsuru’s ‘class’ had turned out to be an eight-hour nightmare; Alex hadn’t seen Gustav again until right before Mitsuru dismissed him. Alex still wasn’t sure exactly what had happened, but he was fairly certain that much of it had been due to the old man’s purported telepathy.
    Whatever they had done, though, it had consequences — Alex had bruises forming along his chest and above one eye and across the bridge of his nose, and he felt a strange lingering pain everywhere he’d been injured. Steve had left looking totally untouched, and Alex was fairly sure that the mess at the end of the session had been solely for his benefit. Mitsuru had bemoaned his performance, but Alex didn’t feel like he’d done too badly.
    After all, it was his first time killing anybody. That he could actually remember.
    Steve wasn’t about to let himself get shot, of course. He’d been grimmer, after the reset, but he seemed angry more than traumatized, which gave Alex the feeling that this was not an entirely new experience for Steve. After that, Alex was faced with an enraged, moving target, and he only managed to tag Steve once in the entire rest of the day, meaning that he was forced to go hand-to-hand with someone who was bigger, stronger and more experienced.
    Given the circumstances, it could have gone worse. Mostly, things had ended with Steve bashing in his head, either with his elbows or against the floor, and Steve’s obvious wrestling background made this kind of close-quarters ground fighting particularly hopeless for Alex. But near the end of the day, Steve had gotten sloppy while setting up a choke, and Alex had managed to get a thumb up into Steve’s eye socket, and forced it in as far as he possibly could. Steve howled and reeled away from him, clutching his face, and Alex had time to pull himself to his feet, wipe the blood from his eyes, and find the Glock that Steve had knocked to the ground when he tackled him.
    He hadn’t shot him. He’d intended to, of course, but instead he’d walked up behind the blinded kid and struck him in the base of the skull with the butt of it. He didn’t stop hitting him when Steve fell down, or when he stopped moving.
    He’d only stopped when he heard Mitsuru laughing.
    Alex stepped out of the hallway, and into the chill of the evening and the setting sun, never quite so grateful to be out of a classroom.
    She sat on the low fence that bordered the walkway outside the building, striped tights and shiny black shoes dangling, her nails painted to match her hair. Her face was impassive, her eyes wet and shining. She put aside her knitting and looked at him expectantly.
    “Hi, Eerie.” Alex’s hand froze in the process of putting his headphones in his ears, and then they hung there, apparently determined to linger, useless and in-the-way. “What are you doing here?”
    “I am waiting for you,” Eerie explained, hopping down to stand beside him. “Vivik said you weren’t in homeroom today because you had Mitsuru’s class, and Margot said you’d be messed up afterwards and that someone should keep you company. I am company.”
    Alex starting walking slowly down the path, and Eerie fell in beside him.
    “Wow. I’m surprised.”
    “Surprised that we knew? Surprised that Margot said that?” Eerie was staring up at the changing leaves of the ancient trees that bordered the path, walking just out of reach. Every word had a ringing, musical quality to it. “Or surprised that it was me, and not Emily?”
    Alex thought for a moment, trying to give an honest answer.
    “No offense, but all three. I figured if anybody is going to be waiting for me outside of class like some kind of…”
    “Stalker?” Eerie offered.
    “Right,” Alex said uncertainly. “Well, that seems like Emily’s thing, you know?” He hesitated for a moment, then winced. “Hey, don’t tell her I said that, okay?”
    Eerie walked along beside him quietly, and Alex started to worry that he handled the whole conversation very clumsily. She was short enough that when he looked down at her, he could see a quarter-inch of blond where she parted her hair, and he wondered absently whether she was changing colors, or was lazy about dyeing it.
    “I will tell you a secret,” Eerie said finally. “Emily is waiting for you, back at your room. She has been planning this for days. She was very,” Eerie frowned, “loud about it. So, I decided to meet you here.”
    “I see. Okay.”
    Alex realized that his hands were trembling, an after-effect of the class, and buried them in his pockets. There was something about Eerie’s silence that seemed to imply to him that she was about to speak at any moment, and the anticipation stretched on for minutes. Alex stared out at the diminishing blaze of the autumn leaves, gradually being washed away by increasingly frequent rain, and tried to calm down.
    “You went to Emily’s house, Alex. She talked about it,” Eerie said, her frown deepening. “She talks a lot, that girl.”
    Alex shrugged, too surprised to formulate a clever response.
    “She doesn’t seem like the type.”
    “Not to you,” Eerie said, shaking her head sadly. “Because Alex is stupid.”
    Eerie glanced at him, her pupils massively dilated even in full daylight, her expression innocent and detached. He couldn’t help but wonder why she he was here, what she saw with her strange eyes when she looked at him.
    “She wants you to feel sorry for her, I can tell. She doesn’t say it, but it’s obvious, even to me. And you have to be stupid,” Eerie said angrily, “to pity a pretty girl.”
    “Huh?” Alex said, puzzled. “Are you mad at me, Eerie?”
    She appeared to think about it for a while.
    “Not really,” she said, shaking her head. “You are just a boy, after all. But…I do want to know. Why did you go home with her, Alex?”
    “I don’t know,” he said, as truthfully as possible. “Because she asked me to, I guess.”
    “You don’t like her?” Eerie asked, clutching her knitting basket in front of her with both hands, her fingers tight around the handle. “You aren’t seeing each other? Or kind of seeing each other?”
    “What? What are you talking about? No. It’s not like that,” Alex said guiltily, his eyes on the concrete path in front of them. “I don’t even know her that well.”
    “You went just because she asked you?”
    “I guess,” Alex admitted, shrugging. “What can I say?”
    “So, you’d go somewhere with me, if I asked you to?”
    Eerie spoke casually, refusing to meet Alex’s eyes when he looked over at her, one hand picking absently at the hem of her skirt. Alex kept looking at her with a shocked expression for a little while, hoping for a reaction, then gave up.
    “For real?”
    Eerie glanced up at him shyly, like he’d promised her something she was hesitant to believe.
    “Sure,” Alex repeated, feeling surprised and a little embarrassed.
    “Will you go somewhere with me?”
    “Um, sure,” Alex said, laughing. “When did you have in mind?”
    Eerie smiled at him, and grabbed his arm, fortunately not picking the one that still ached from class.
    “Now,” she said, pulling him along behind her, away from the dorms, back toward the center of campus. “Right now.”

    “I’d really like to go and change my clothes first,” Alex complained to Eerie, who dragged him along determinedly by his sleeve. “I didn’t think that I’d be going anywhere, you know?”
    Eerie glanced back at him icily.
    “Emily is in your room, remember?”
    “Oh,” Alex said, blushing. “Right. That would be. Um. Yes.”
    Alex felt, quite frankly, like an asshole. He didn’t know what either Emily or Eerie had planned, and he hadn’t had enough time to think about either to know what he would have picked, given the choice. His first day in Mitsuru’s ‘Program’ had been enough to leave his brain violated and muddled, and his body tired and battered. When he closed his eyes, he kept seeing Steve’s broken head, the vile mess against the wall behind him, the gun in his shaking hands. He didn’t feel like going somewhere with Eerie, he felt like going somewhere and being sick.
    But he didn’t want to go back to his room, and not only because Emily might be there.
    Alex wanted out of the Academy, for the first time since he had arrived. He had thought that any world would be better than the one he had left behind, but after Mitsuru’s class, he wasn’t so sure. Despite what had happened to his family, and the role he had played in it, Alex had never thought of himself as a killer. After all, he had no memories of doing what the cops claimed that he had done, no hatred toward his family, no memory of the abuse that the cops claimed his father had visited upon him. If he was pressed, Alex would have had to admit that he often couldn’t even remember his parent’s faces without looking at the photograph his grandmother had kept on her bureau back in the trailer. How could he feel like a killer? He didn’t remember killing anyone. Most of the time, he didn’t even remember the people that he was supposed to have killed.
    He’d seen Steve walk away, after the class was over, sneering at Alex as he left the classroom. He knew he hadn’t killed him, the same way he knew that he had killed his family — because other people told him so. But Steve didn’t feel any more alive than his parents felt dead, and in the back of his mind, all he could see was the contents of Steve’s skull spreading slowly across the blond wood of the floor.
    Alex followed Eerie numbly through the campus, into one of the cavernous Administrative Buildings, then through a series of corridors and hallways, doing his best to think about nothing, haunted by the afternoon. He was glad that she didn’t want to talk, because he wasn’t sure if he wanted to say any of the things he was thinking out loud. He didn’t notice when they had walked out the back of the building, until they were halfway across a dark, secluded courtyard, overhung with the grey branches of ancient willow trees. Alex remained heartsick and oblivious to his surroundings, to the extent that he almost tripped over a tombstone.
    “Holy shit!” Alex exclaimed, attempting not to fall over the mossy, fractured limestone that his foot was caught on.
    “Quiet,” Eerie shushed. “We aren’t supposed to be here.”
    “I sort of guessed that.”
    Alex brushed the moss from the tombstone without thinking about what he was doing. The carving on the stone was in kanji, and unreadable to him, but it looked like someone important.
    Eerie led them on a winding path through the headstones. It was chilly and dim beneath the leaves and the high walls that surrounded the courtyard, the path overgrown and dotted with white marble benches that looked cold and uninviting. Alex shivered and hurried along behind Eerie, who continued to ignore his questions. The courtyard wound on and on, passing by glass-enclosed terrariums and rooms that, through leaded glass windows, appeared to hold endless shelves of books in varying states of decay. Above them the uniform slate-grey stone stretched up to shut out most of the sky, with only the silhouette of the occasional stovepipe to break the uniformity. Eventually, they came to a rounded platform lined with broken columns, limestone bas reliefs, and the faint remains of white marble inlays. The columns were thin, fluted, and utterly unlike anything else Alex had seen in the Academy, fragile and almost alien in their design, in their strange lack of symmetry.
    Renton leaned against one of them, a dour girl in a blue dress standing discreetly behind him.
    “Welcome, welcome,” Renton said, grinning expansively and motioning Alex and Eerie over. “Sorry for making you come all this way, but this is, well, profoundly against the rules. Now then,” he said conspiratorially, putting his hand on Eerie’s shoulder in a familiar way that Alex did not like, “who wants to go to San Francisco?”

Twenty Four

    “You did not have to do that crap with Alex and Steve. I had intended for them to spar with each other to work out their differences, not this fiasco. You know better,” Michael said firmly, “and I want an explanation.”
    Mitsuru looked up from her soup, annoyed.
    “How did you hear about that already?” She sighed and dropped her spoon back in the bowl. “Never mind, I already know. Rebecca and her bleeding heart, right?”
    Michael pulled out a chair and sat down across from Mitsuru at the staff cafeteria table, arms folded across his broad chest. The faculty occupying the adjoining tables universally decided that now was a good time to visit the cafeteria line, and disappeared in a rustle of whispers and the clatter of hastily gathered dishes.
    “I’m serious, Mitsuru. It wasn’t so long ago that I was your teacher. And I don’t recall doing anything like this to you.”
    “What did you think happened,” Mitsuru asked, eyes downcast, “when I went down to see Alice Gallow for ‘Applied Combat Fundamentals’? It’s the Program, Michael, and they run it on all the prospective Auditors. You know that. They’re just getting an early start with Alex.”
    “I know what happened when you were with Alice,” Michael said sadly. “I remember the Program myself. It isn’t right. And I don’t like watching you do it to someone else, Mitsuru. Alex isn’t a candidate for Audits or anything else, not yet. I haven’t even had a chance to get him into shape. I’m doing you the courtesy of asking before I go to Gaul and lodge a complaint. Why are you doing this?”
    Mitsuru flipped through the binder next to her lunch tray, and pulled out three plastic sheathed documents. She passed them across the table to Michael, who inspected them.
    “No point in going to Gaul,” Mitsuru said, shrugging and picking her spoon back up. “My orders came direct from Alistair, and his got carte blanche from the Director. It’s all above board. The plan is to make Alex an Auditor, remember? Gaul doesn’t want to wait; it creates too many opportunities for the Hegemony and the Black Sun. We don’t have the luxury of letting him make the wrong decision.”
    “This will force him make the wrong decision; no, worse, it will make him useless. The Program ruins people, Mitsuru, you should know that.”
    “I do,” Mitsuru acknowledged, unblinking. “No one knows it better, except mad old Alice. But that changes nothing. Alex Warner will be an Auditor, and a Black Protocol user. He will complete the Program as the rest of us of did, Michael. Gaul wants another tame monster, and I intend to hand him one, gift-wrapped and ready to go to work. I’ve heard about your reputation for squeamishness. Don’t expect the same from me. I need to know that you’ll do your part,” she said, recollecting her documents and looking at him seriously. “I need to know that he’s being properly trained, so that I don’t have to worry about that aspect of the situation.”
    “So you can make him into a monster?”
    “You said it. The useful kind. Like me.” Mitsuru nodded and then spooned some of the noodles from her soup into her mouth. “Can I count on you to make him ready? Duly noting your objections, of course.”
    “I wouldn’t want to disappoint you all,” Michael said sourly. “Of course. I’ll try and make him ready. And you, my dear, you should know — you sound more like Alice every day.”
    “Good,” Mitsuru said tersely, returning her attention to her soup.

    “Where are we?”
    Alex glanced around at the neighborhood they’d emerged in. He’d spent a shaky few minutes in an alley behind some dumpsters after the apport, jarred by the abrupt transition and mildly nauseous, but it had passed quickly, and he felt alright now. He wondered if it had been that bad the other time, when Mitsuru had brought him back to Central, but he couldn’t remember anything about it. Maybe Svetlana simply wasn’t very good.
    “The Mission,” Eerie answered, grabbing Alex by the arm and pulling him along. “There are some places I like around here. We’ll be able to find clothes and stuff.”
    The Mission was an older neighborhood, grimy and dignified, poor and yet overflowing with optimistic entrepreneurs and vividly colored street art. The majority of the people on the street seemed to be Latino men, but there was fair representation of hipsters and young families on the busy street as well. They passed a flower stand staffed by a Vietnamese family, and Alex returned a smile from a cherub-faced little boy, who stood on top of the counter his grandmother worked. Outside, on the sidewalk, a half-dozen enterprising homeless had laid out blankets, and were selling second-hand books and knickknacks. The neighborhood was bustling and vibrant, the air thick with exhaust and the smells of a dozen different cuisines. After his time in Central, it seemed fantastically crowded and loud to Alex.
    Eerie dragged him a couple of blocks up Sixteenth, turning at Valencia Street. She released Alex’s hand in front of a skate shop, explaining that she wanted to visit the boutique next door, which only did women’s clothing. Alex dug through the stock at the skate shop for a while, coming up with a couple black t-shirts, a pair of baggy drab green pants, and a heavy, dark grey sweatshirt for the evening. The sullen, heavily tattooed man at the counter took the money Eerie had given him with an air of bored resentment, slowly counting out change and then haphazardly shoving his purchases into plastic grocery bags. Alex stepped out of the skate shop, glanced at the boutique and didn’t see Eerie, and figured she was trying stuff on.
    He wandered down the block and then across the street to a discount clothing store, where he bought a package of generic tube socks and a couple pairs of boxer shorts. By the time he returned the boutique, Eerie was waiting for him, a bag shoved underneath one of her arms.
    “What now?” Alex asked, scratching his neck. He wanted to go somewhere and change, as he was tired of wearing dirty clothes, and it was too windy for pants with a hole in the knee. The breeze coming off the San Francisco Bay appeared to be every bit as cold as he’d been led to believe.
    “I still need to go to some more places,” Eerie said with a frown. “Are you finished already?”
    Alex shrugged.
    “Sorry, I guess I didn’t think too much about it,” Alex said, feeling a touch embarrassed. “I bought the first things that fit, and looked alright, you know?”
    Eerie bounced from one foot to the other, hopping around oblivious pedestrians in the pursuit of some private game, while a disturbing thought occurred to him.
    “Hey, do you think I need to buy anything special for tonight? I mean, like, clothes? Do they have a dress code or anything, wherever it is you want to go?”
    Eerie smiled at him, clearly amused.
    “Alex will be fine in whatever, because he is a boy, and no one cares what boys are wearing. But, I still have to do some shopping.” Eerie pondered for a moment. “I don’t come to San Francisco often…”
    Alex sighed inwardly, but fixed a smile on his face.
    “Well, lead on, then,” he said with forced cheerfulness. “I’ll carry your bag for you.”
    To his surprise, Eerie turned away and tucked her bag further under her arm.
    “Well, no,” Eerie mumbled, her back to Alex. “That wouldn’t be good. If you are done, then, would you like to wait somewhere for me?”
    Alex found himself abruptly abandoned at a small, green Formica table, in front of a cafe, waiting for a cappuccino to cool. Eerie had deposited him there rather firmly, leaving him money and instructions to stay until she got back. Alex leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes, stretching out his legs and trying to convince himself that the weak sunlight was somehow warm. He dug his headphones out of his pocket and put them in, letting it play at random. The song that came on was ambient, electronics simulating the distant rumble of thunder and the chattering of insects over a textured, looping washes of static. By the time the vocals kicked in, Alex was half-asleep.
    Alex drifted, letting the world pass him by, his head resting against the cool brickwork of the building, his legs stretched out underneath the table. The battery in his mp3 player must have died at some point, and he must have nodded off, because when Alex woke, Eerie was talking to him.
    “You have a bad habit of falling asleep whenever you’re left alone,” she scolded. She wore a new t-shirt, a white jersey with three-quarters-sleeves in red. Her black skirt hung in folds a bit above her knees, and her black socks cut off a little below. Alex rubbed his eyes and tried to compose himself, hoping he hadn’t drooled while he slept, or anything. Eerie twirled in front of him, her skirt flaring. “What do you think, Alex?”
    “It’s… you look very cute.” Alex stammered. “Um, yes. You look good.”
    Eerie nodded seriously, and Alex was relieved that he had apparently said the right thing.
    “Okay,” she said cheerfully. “And I have flyers, also.”
    “Alright,” Alex said, nodding uncertainly. “You have flyers?”
    “For tonight,” Eerie clarified. “Also, this is for you,” she said, tossing him a disposable Korean cell phone. “My number is already programmed in. Just in case.”
    “Good idea,” Alex said approvingly. “Glad you thought of that.”
    Eerie mumbled something and appropriated his coffee, sipping at it and then making a face.
    “Bitter. Cold. How long were you asleep, anyway?”
    Alex shrugged.
    “I don’t know,” he said, yawning. “How long were you gone?”
    Eerie looked embarrassed, and then laughed self-consciously.
    “I don’t know either. Hours, I guess.”
    Alex nodded uncertainly, wondering again about the girl. She was so dreamy, most of the time, tempered with strange periods when she could be alarmingly perceptive. He didn’t know what to make of it; she was nothing like anyone he’d ever known before, in one sense, but, when she’d shown off her new clothes, she could have been any girl he’d ever met. With one important difference, he reminded himself — this girl seemed eager to have him pay attention to her.
    “Did you get everything you needed?”
    He tried not to sound hopeful, putting the phone in his pants pocket and gathering his bags from underneath the chair, pleased to find they had been left alone during his nap.
    “Pretty close,” Eerie affirmed, glancing through the bags she was holding. “Let’s go get a room at a hotel, Alex. We’ll need some place to shower and change, anyway, before we go out. Don’t worry,” she said reassuringly, misreading his expression. “I can afford it. Money’s not a problem for me.”
    Alex spent so long contemplating the amazing ramifications of her suggestion that, by the time he got moving again, he had to hurry after Eerie, who was already halfway down the block.

    Alex woke to the ringing of an alarm, and he came up fighting, struggling with a mess of sheets and blankets that he’d wrapped around himself in his sleep in a protective cocoon. It took him a minute or two to remember where he was, to find a clock to inform him that it was a little after seven in the evening, and then another to be grateful that Eerie had apparently woken up before the alarm, and headed off to the shower, thereby missing the spectacle of his awakening.
    Stumbling and cursing, he made his way to the room’s secondary bathroom, itself an impossibly immaculate expanse of faux marble countertop and chrome fixtures, and inspected himself in the acres of mirror there, deciding that he didn’t look a whole lot different than he had on arrival. His chest was still mottled with bruises, but it didn’t hurt as much when he took a deep breath, and his arm had settled into a periodic dull throb. He felt a sense of profound disappointment, and a great deal of embarrassment, every time he thought about the girl in the other bathroom.
    He took a hot shower, more to help stretch out his sore muscles than anything else, washing his hair and cursing his failure to find a barber while Eerie had shopped, resolving to get it taken care of tomorrow. Alex stayed under the hot water for an extra few minutes, letting it beat down on the back of his head, thinking about Eerie. He wondered where she fit in the whole power struggle in Central, if she had a side, or allegiances of her own.
    It didn’t seem possible to Alex that she managed to stay completely uninvolved, as the conflict seemed to consume the whole of Central, where Eerie had lived since she was a child. Even so, it was hard to imagine her as one of Anastasia’s lot, and though he hadn’t met too many people from the Hegemony yet, he had even more trouble with the idea of Eerie fitting in with them.
    They had taken a BART train to the Hilton that afternoon, after she’d finished shopping, a glass tower embedded in an otherwise commercial neighborhood. Alex had requested a room with two queen beds, to be on the safe side, paying with the stack of bills that Eerie had given him earlier. The guy at the counter had found that amusing, and Eerie had laughed when she opened the room door, causing immediate and total regret in Alex. He had no intention of spending his time at the Academy rebuffing the advances of cute girls, whether or not they were weird. Or insane. Or not human. He had, after all, been forced to spend a good portion of his life in strictly all-male institutions. Clearly, he thought, his understanding was lacking.
    Napping on their respective beds, Alex was acutely aware of Eerie sleeping a few meager feet away. If he held his breath, he discovered that he could hear her breathing. He tossed and turned, wondering what would have happened had he requested one bed, wondering what would happen if he got up and went over to her. Helpless, he cursed the stupidity and fear that kept him from finding out.
    He hadn’t slept all that well, Alex thought, feeling profoundly sorry for himself.

    “Have a seat, Miss Martynova,” Gaul said mildly, gesturing at the plush office chair in front of his desk. His hands were steepled in front of his face, his expression unreadable. Behind him, Rebecca scowled from her perch on the windowsill, circles underneath her eyes, dangling a cigarette out the open window.
    Anastasia took the offered seat without comment, smoothing her silk dress carefully across her lap as she sat. Then she waited in polite silence, her hands folded neatly, resting on her knees.
    “I’m certain you know why we’ve called you here today, Anastasia,” Gaul said from behind his hands, the glare from his glasses hiding his eyes.
    “I’m not so certain,” Anastasia said dismissively, inspecting her immaculate black nails. “Are you going to tell me?”
    “Where’s Alex?” Rebecca demanded, her voice tight and her frustration obvious. “Where’s Eerie?”
    “I don’t know,” Anastasia said, sounding bored. “Are we finished, then, or do you have more?”
    Gaul turned briefly in his seat to glance at Rebecca, who gave him a curt, angry nod.
    “The students in question appear to have departed the Academy sometime this afternoon,” Gaul said mildly. “We have reason to believe that members of the Black Sun Cartel assisted them in this endeavor.”
    “Is that so?” Anastasia shrugged and gave them a wan smile. “Well, I am afraid that I don’t know about it. If this was done by members of my cartel, as you suggest, then it was done without my knowledge.”
    “You expect me to believe that your cartel members acted on their own?” Rebecca made a face. “Not likely. You run too tight a ship, Anastasia.”
    “Believe me or don’t, Rebecca. I’m telling the truth. I am not sure what else I could offer you…”
    “Help us to understand,” Gaul suggested. “If you didn’t approve it, how could this happen?”
    “Well, I am not certain about Eerie, but I told Alex that the resources of the Black Sun were at his disposal,” Anastasia explained matter-of-factly. “I had instructed my staff to provide him with anything that he might ask for, no questions asked. Perhaps, then, he requested transportation? My people would not have sought my approval, because I had already given it in advance.”
    “Why would you do that?” Rebecca asked, surprised. “What did Alex promise you in return for that?”
    “Nothing,” Anastasia said, shaking her head. “I didn’t ask him for anything, and he didn’t promise me anything. Maybe I like to help people. Maybe I felt sorry for him. Maybe I’m that confident. You’re the empath, Rebecca, you tell me.”
    “You little witch!” Rebecca exploded, flicking her cigarette out the window. “How is that you keep me out of your head?”
    “I have my ways,” Anastasia said lightly. “You can question my staff, if you like. All of them will corroborate my statement. Is there something else I can do for you?”
    “Can you find Alex for us?” Gaul asked patiently.
    Anastasia stood up, her smile compact and mocking.
    “Is that all?” She asked cheerfully. “Ask me directly next time. You know how eager I am to do favors for the Administration, after all. But, as crass as it is to mention, if you want me to do you a favor, then…”
    “You little brat,” Rebecca snarled, only to be cut off again by Gaul’s arm. “You’re still a student here, Anastasia.”
    “I haven’t forgotten,” Anastasia said, nodding.
    “What will it cost us to get Alex back?” Gaul asked, pushing his glasses back up on his nose. “And Eerie too, of course.”
    “Of course,” Anastasia deadpanned. “My terms are simple, and I hope, not too objectionable. If you want me to find Alex and Eerie, I will. But it will be the Black Sun that collects them, not Central.”
    Anastasia waited while Gaul calmed Rebecca down, who was fuming and swearing behind him. She managed not to laugh out loud, not right then, but as a reward for her self control, she promised herself that she would laugh later.
    Last, to be specific.

    It wasn’t a club, but it wasn’t what Alex would have called a rave, either, from his vague understanding of what a rave constituted.
    This was a couple hundred kids packed into what might have been an indoor basketball court, judging from the painted wooden floor that Alex could see peeking out from underneath the black foam mat that had been put down over it. The DJ was in the far corner of the room, spinning tribal-infused trance at a deafening volume, the sound system massively oversized for the space. A few long cloth curtains and a handful of black lights seemed to constitute the whole of the decor for the otherwise naked building.
    The promoters had seemed leery of police attention, given the number of hoops they’d had to jump through to get here — a phone number on the back of a flier that Eerie had selected from the stack of them she had collected while shopping which rang endlessly until after nine, when a voicemail message appeared and gave directions to what turned out to be an alley in the Tenderloin. Alex found the whole thing sketchy, walking between two dark brick buildings and past overflowing dumpsters, the whole narrow alley reeking of urine and rotting food, up a set of stairs and into a small enclosed parking lot. There they bought tickets, and got a sheet of photocopied directions from a Mexican guy in a wife beater, and a blond girl with at least a dozen piercings in her face.
    The party wasn’t anywhere close to the ticket location, and they’d ended up taking a bus back to Soma, Eerie leaning her forehead against the window, staring out into the intermittent darkness on Market Street. Alex stood next to her, clutching an overhead pole, wondering how long it would take them to get to the party, wondering if the bus driver planned to let them live long enough to get there in the first place. He was a little bit sick to his stomach. Alex stopped counting, but it was at least a dozen stops before Eerie abruptly stood up, grabbed his arm, and dragged him wordlessly from the bus and down a side street. There was a short line in front of the building, which looked like an old, anonymous commercial property. While waiting, Alex noticed that SF police impound lot was directly next-door, a couple of uniformed officers lounging by the closed gates, laughing at the party-goers attire. He swore to himself and wondered what the purpose of all that had been.
    Eerie seemed pleased, however, and started bouncing up and down almost as soon as they were admitted into the flyer-strewn lobby, her eyes sparkling and her pale skin flushed.
    “Uh,” Alex said, hands shoved deep in his pockets, casting about desperately for something to say. “Do you want a drink or something?”
    Eerie laughed, pulling the lollipop out of her mouth so she could talk.
    “Alex, they don’t sell alcohol here,” she chided him, amused. “Those big guys by the door, they sell drugs.” Eerie gestured around them. “Pretty much everyone here takes them. That’s why we came.”
    Alex looked around apprehensively. The crowd was a strange blend of club kids and hippies, most of them covered in glitter and shining with sweat, dancing with abandon on the makeshift dance floor, despite the oppressive heat. They looked a bit loopy, Alex decided, but pleasant enough, and they did seem be to having a good time.
    “Okay, so, do you want me to go buy some of… those?” Alex asked, unable to keep the nervousness out of his voice. Thanks to years of court-ordered supervision and unscheduled drug testing, he hadn’t gotten high much. Outside of smoking pot a few times while he was in the Youth Facility, and once with Rebecca, he hadn’t taken any drugs at all. He wasn’t even sure what kind of drugs they would sell here, or if the money Eerie had given him would be enough.
    Eerie looked at him thoughtfully.
    “You could do that,” she said mischievously. “Or, if you wanted, you could try something else.”
    Eerie held out her lollipop expectantly, holding it in front of Alex’s face, near his mouth. Alex recoiled, and looked aversely at the wet, rounded piece of red candy.
    “W-why exactly would I…” Alex looked at Eerie desperately, but she continued to stare blankly, while offering the lollipop. “What is it?”
    “It’s a Blow Pop.”
    “No, I mean, you know,” Alex protested. “What is it?”
    “It’s cherry,” Eerie said flatly. “Do you want it, or what?”
    Alex looked at Eerie, and then hesitantly took the proffered candy from the smiling, sparkling girl, trying not to make a face as he stuck it in his mouth. He sucked on it cautiously, but it tasted like any other cherry-flavored candy he’d ever had. He wanted to ask her again what it was, what it was she had given him, but she was already pulling him toward the dance floor, closer to the giant stacks of speakers and the devastating pulse of the bass, her hands wrapped around his own.
    Alex shook his head, confused, and tried haplessly to pull away. To him, somehow, it appeared that Eerie was sheathed in a soft golden light, a gentle luminescence that pervaded her, radiating out from a core that smoldered somewhere within her. She stepped backwards through the crowd thoughtlessly, somehow never touching anyone in the press of bodies, pulling him along through the haze of golden dust that trailed behind her. He gave a worried glance at the people around them, but none of them seemed to find anything unusual in the glowing girl trailing luminescent dust in their midst.
    Alex wondered again about the candy. For some reason, he found himself thinking about the cloud of monarch butterflies from his dream, orange wings against a blue sky, somewhere he couldn’t remember visiting, somewhere he could hear the ocean. There was sadness in the memory, a sweet kind of sadness that he wasn’t exactly adverse to.
    He managed to extricate himself when they reached the dance floor, batting her away gently and making excuses, eventually making his way alone to one arm of the speaker array, sitting down on top of the vibrating pile of speakers, next to an intertwined couple and a passed-out teenager in drag. They all seemed very young, somehow, Alex thought, though he wasn’t sure that he was actually older than they were. He wasn’t certain, but he thought he might have actually been more embarrassed sitting there then he would have been staying on the dance floor.
    Eerie pouted briefly, tapping her foot and glaring at him. Then she shrugged, and turned away from him, gliding to the center of the humid floor, and then spinning around in a slow circle, her eyes closed. Alex sat with his legs dangling off a column of stacked woofers, the surface beneath him pulsating with the music, his skull reverberating with the bass beat, and he watched Eerie dance.
    Later, he would not be able to describe it, although he would remember it clearly. She was not, he would say haltingly, an amazing dancer, not exactly. Not that he would know, having never danced in his life. But, he didn’t think it was entirely whatever she had given him, though he felt an exhilarating combination of calm and elation that he could only attribute to drugs. No, he would try and explain, there was something special about Eerie dancing.
    Margot would tell him much later about other nights the same thing had happened; at retro-styled swing clubs in Los Angeles or hip-hop clubs in Baltimore, in the parking lot of a Phish show outside Phoenix, minutes before closing at a basement club in London, where a small crowd of puzzled transvestites had watched her dance to electro. Eerie, she would tell him, simply liked to dance.
    Also, Margot would add, frowning, she has a thing for fucked up people.
    But he found out those things later, after he had watched her dance, after he had fallen for her a little bit, in that intense and irrevocably irrational way that even he knew was a hallmark of total naivety. Still, that knowledge didn’t change anything for Alex. Watching Eerie dance, knowing that eventually she would come back to sit next to him, that was the first truly good thing that had happened to him since his home had burned to the ground. Maybe before that, too. He couldn’t remember that well.
    She spun and twirled and the light around her had the quality of honey, warm and amber-toned, ambient and soothing. She was not athletic, not flashy, and not dramatic. Her hair hung down in front of her eyes, her sweatshirt slipped down to expose the gentle slope of shoulders, the rise of her collarbone above her tight black top. She moved with a self-assurance and grace he had never seen in her, not in any previous circumstance, but he found himself wondering how it was that he hadn’t always seen it.
    People should have stared. They must have seen the sparkling girl, making slow revolutions through the dance floor like she was alone on it, in the midst of the press of bodies but never actually touching anyone. She was vibrant, gleaming with an inner radiance, a honey light. They must have seen her.
    Alex couldn’t see anyone or anything else. He stared, his head pleasantly spinning, his heart filled with a benign euphoria, a mild intoxication. The world around him softened, became universally warm and gentle. The light around Eerie seemed to pass right through him, like a current of warm water, or the sound of a summer wind brushing over long brown grass. He tried to hold up his hands to the light, and he could not, or he did not want to. There was no way to be certain. He sat and watched Eerie dance.
    And eventually, she came back to him, smiling and breathing hard, her face flushed, soaked with sweat. Alex reached for her without thinking, watching it happen without a trace of panic or anxiety, and she took his hand and squeezed it with her own for a moment, before letting go with a smile.
    “What…” Alex croaked, pausing to drink greedily from the bottle of water that she offered him. “What was in the candy you gave me?”
    Eerie laughed and patted him on the head. Her smile was benign, tolerant and amused. She beamed at him indulgently, like a favored child.
    “Bubble gum, Alex.” She paused, then her expression turned suspicious. “You didn’t swallow it, did you?”
    “What? No,” Alex shook his head, confused. He found himself wondering what he had done with the gum, anyway. All he had in his mouth was a soggy paper stick. “I didn’t mean that. What made me all fucked up?”
    “Oh,” Eerie said with concern, sitting down next to him on the speaker. “Is it bad?”
    She peered into his eyes, concerned, and Alex couldn’t help but grin at her until she smiled back.
    “No, not at all,” he said earnestly. “I was wondering, you know, because I don’t really have a lot of experience with this sort of thing.”
    Eerie looked at her hands shyly.
    “It’s just me, Alex.” She smiled at him hesitantly. “Because I… because it was in my mouth, you see? Because my whole body is like a drug, Alex.”
    “No shit?”
    At the time, anyway, it sounded reasonable enough.
    “Uh-huh,” Eerie said, nodding. “For normal people, anyway. That’s how the Fey communicate with each other, chemically. Pheromones and particular compounds in… you know,” she said, clearly embarrassed. “Sweat. Saliva. That sort of thing.”
    Eerie blushed, and Alex wished he could think of something cool to say to change the mood. Alex snuck a look at her out of the corner of his eye. Her small round face was earnest, and it was easy to see how nervous she was. His eyes drifted down to her lap, to the strip of thigh that showed between the hem of her skirt and the top of her black knee socks, and for a moment, his train of thought disintegrated. Then he caught himself, and quickly looked back up at Eerie’s face, but she did not appear to have noticed anything. She was staring off at the still-packed dance floor, the crowd increasingly disheveled, energetic and sweaty.
    “Is this like empathy?” Alex asked doubtfully. It didn’t feel anything like what Rebecca did — he had no special awareness of Eerie, her thoughts, or her feelings; rather, a general sense of well-being, a fading physical high, and a strange, benign fuzziness.
    Eerie shook her head emphatically.
    “No, not at all. It’s all chemistry. I like being around parties. They make me happy. When I’m happy, the people who, you know, come into contact with me, they are too.”
    Alex sat next to her, and wondered why he couldn’t think of anything at all to talk about. Eerie sat restlessly beside him, kicking her legs against the speaker they hung off of, watching the people dance with obvious desire to rejoin them. He wished he could have thought of a good reason to make her stay there, beside him.
    Eventually, she climbed back up to her feet, brushing off the back of her black skirt where she’d sat down, and smiled coyly at Alex.
    “I’m going to go dance now. Will you come this time?”
    She held out one hand, offering him help up.
    Alex shook his head, smiling weakly.
    “You’ll regret it, you know,” Eerie admonished him, obviously disappointed. “You will wish you had, Alex.”
    She walked off to the dance floor without looking back at him.
    I already do, Alex thought bitterly, brushing his hair away from his eyes and feeling bitter. I already do.

Twenty Five

    “I haven’t seen you in some time, Alice. How have you been?”
    Alice’s smile reminded Chris of the Cheshire Cat. Except much more frightening.
    “A busy girl is a happy girl. But I’m certain that you’ve heard,” Alice cooed, sitting down across from him at the cafe table. “Unless you’ve lost your touch for these things?”
    “Hardly,” Chris said, smiling back at her tiredly. “I’m afraid that there is still very little that goes on in our sordid underworld that I am not eventually made aware of. Word is that you’ve been working quite a bit these last few weeks. Saigon, Los Angeles, Manila, Paris… all operations targeting the Terrie Cartel, if I’m not mistaken.”
    The waiter was clearly unnerved by Alice, and delivered the coffees Chris had already ordered in a hurried manner that made it abundantly clear that they would not be seeing the boy again. Alice seemed vaguely amused by this.
    Chris had to admire their waiter’s keen sense of self preservation. Not everyone was so quick to spot Alice for what she was.
    He’d first met Alice in Berlin, during the strange and exciting years after the First World War, not long before she’d started working as an Auditor. She didn’t appear to have changed much since — her hair was dyed black, now, and a faint white scar was etched along one cheekbone, but she didn’t seem to have aged at all. Even her clothes weren’t much different from the first time he’d met her, at a friend’s party in a flat in Fredericksburg, in a slinky black dress and high-laced shoes with pointed toes, though she’d ditched the dress and shoes in favor of tight black jeans and motorcycle boots. The coat she hung over the seatback was too heavy and long for the weather, so it had to be armor.
    Chris liked to flatter himself by thinking that he looked much the same himself, except that his hair had faded to white a few decades ago. He dyed it for several years, before he’d lost interest in the pretense. Otherwise, like Alice, the body he inhabited appeared to be somewhere in its early thirties. Even the fantastically expensive cream-colored suit that he wore was fundamentally similar to the things he’d worn in the heady days of the Weimar Republic, though tailors had been better back then. One of the tragedies of the modern world.
    “You aren’t mistaken, Chris.” Alice blew on her coffee, then set the cup back down, apparently deciding it was too hot. “But it’s more than the Terrie Cartel that I am dealing with. Witches, and Weir, and who knows what else.”
    “I heard about some of that,” Chris said, idly stirring the coffee he’d ordered out of politeness. “Even for me, that’s a bit hard to swallow — Operators working with Witches. I thought your people were conditioned to make that kind of thing impossible?”
    “We thought so, too.” Alice shrugged. “Not the first time Analytics has been wrong, you know.”
    Chris nodded uncertainly, brushing an imaginary crumb from the front of his immaculate white blazer.
    “Quite. Still, such a thing has never happened before. I would not have believed it to be possible, under normal circumstances.”
    Alice shot Chris an inquisitive look.
    “What, exactly, makes the current circumstances abnormal?” The question sounded innocent enough, but Chris knew better than to think that Alice would ask for anything. Alice took. It was what she did. “We’ve had rogue cartels before, after all. The Terrie Cartel is probably the biggest we’ve ever had to sanction, but it’s hardly a unique situation.”
    Chris spread his hands innocently and put on the face that had sold more stories than he could count.
    “I’m afraid that we’ll need to come to some sort of accommodation before we can discuss that any further,” he said, as if he regretted the necessity. “Of course, if it were up to me, I’d tell you gratis, but that would be bad for business, you understand.”
    “I do, actually.” Alice blew on her coffee and sipped at it cautiously, then set the cup carefully back down in the chipped white saucer. “I appreciate your position. But, I wonder if you appreciate the significance of mine.”
    Chris looked at Alice thoughtfully for a moment, and then gave her a tired smile.
    “Believe me, I know that if you want to, you can force the information out of me,” Chris admitted. “I’m something of a coward when it comes to pain, after all, and I do intend on living a long, long time. While you do have a certain amount of leverage, give some thought to this, Alice — won’t you have questions you need answered, in the future? Who will you turn to, once you’ve used me up? Who else would talk to an Auditor?”
    Alice sipped her coffee again, and then grinned at him over the cup.
    “Don’t worry about it, Chris. For reasons I don’t understand, I have a certain misplaced affection for you. What is it going to cost me?”
    “Well,” Chris hedged, “what do you need to know, exactly?”
    “Everything,” Alice answered flatly. “I need to know everything that the Terrie Cartel has been doing for the past several years, what the Witches have to do with it, the Weir, everything. Gaul says that the store is open on this one.”
    “He wants it that bad?” Chris asked, too stunned to hide his surprise. Gaul was notorious for his cheapness.
    “He has a hard on for this like you wouldn’t believe,” Alice said glumly, setting her coffee aside. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him so worked up. I need to know anything I might need to know, alright? So, tell me what it is that you want.”
    “Two things.” Chris considered his coffee, and then decided against it. It wasn’t that he couldn’t drink the stuff, but the last time he had, it had given him heartburn for days. “I want a favor from Central, and I want a favor from you.”
    “Oh, Chris,” Alice said, putting one hand on her chest, and fluttering her eyelashes. “I’m here in a professional capacity…”
    Chris did his best to look appalled, rather than hurt and saddened. He didn’t like to make Alice aware of the times when her memory failed her, even if it wounded him that she had forgotten the nights they’d been together; at the Russian embassy in Prague, on the porch outside a tiny cottage near Hamburg they had rented one balmy weekend in June, in a hotel in Copenhagen so expensive that they never even saw the employees — fresh towels and meals simply appeared, as if by some kind of domestic magic. Chris couldn’t imagine forgetting all of it, but that had always been the score with Alice.
    “I’d never try and blackmail you into it, my dear,” he said with a pained grin. “I’m certain that eventually you’ll succumb to my charms. No, I think you’ll find that what I want you to do is more along your usual line.”
    Alice shook her head in mock resignation.
    “Your loss. But I can’t offer anything, until I know the particulars.”
    “I want Central to assume total responsibility for Margot’s education and upbringing,” Chris said abruptly, moodily pushing his coffee away. “I did make promises to provide her with mentorship and financial support, but it has become quite a burden.”
    Alice smiled at him.
    “Times are hard all around then, Christopher?” Alice pursed her lips briefly. Chris knew from experience that meant she’d agree — reluctantly, of course. He’d seen that face during that bad business in Moscow in the ‘53, and then again, decades later in Serbia. Alice was extremely concerned about something, and he had a pretty good idea about what. “You’re gonna break that little vampire’s heart, if she finds out you are shifting the responsibility. And what do you want from me?”
    Chris folded his hands in front of his face as if in prayer, and tried his best to look beneficent and thoughtful. Not that he could hope to fool Alice, who knew him well enough to spot an act, even without using the Inquisition Protocol she had access to as an Auditor. It was a habit that helped him feel more confident in his presentation.
    “It will probably get heavy,” he admitted. “But, you know I wouldn’t bother you for anything that wasn’t.”
    “I’d probably get bored with anything else,” Alice said, gradually shredding a discarded sugar packet into dull pink ribbons. “Get to the point, please, Chris.”
    “I need you to watch my back on a job,” Chris said plainly. “It’s something personal, it isn’t Society business. I can’t use my normal channels to handle this thing.”
    Alice leaned back in her chair and looked at him with the most open confusion he’d ever seen her express, already starting to morph into anger.
    “And now I am supposed to say ‘Just like old times’, or something, right? I’m an Auditor, Chris, not a hired dog. I don’t do favors. I certainly don’t help you deal with your ‘personal business’.”
    Chris held up his hands pleadingly.
    “Credit me with a bit more intelligence than that, Alice. I know perfectly well who I’m talking to. I wouldn’t have bothered to make the request, but the fact is…”
    Chris hesitated for a moment, then. It was like looking down off of a height, right before he jumped. It didn’t change anything, other than reminding him to be terrified. He still had no options other than a leap of faith.
    “The fact is that this job pertains to your Audit, Alice, and I think you’ll be very interested in it.”
    “I already am,” Alice said grimly, her smile suddenly gone. Chris wondered how he’d forgotten how much scarier she was without it. “Have you done something ill-advised, Chris?”
    Chris shook his head and sighed.
    “I wasn’t planning on trying to hide it,” he said guiltily. “We don’t have nice jobs, Alice, and they aren’t easy, either. I’ve made a mistake.”
    Alice leaned forward even further, taking his ice-cold hand in her own. It was a friendly gesture, but with an underlying firmness. He knew better than to flinch from her touch.
    “What did you do for the Terrie Cartel, Chris?”
    He heard the edge in her voice, and knew that it could go either way, but Chris faced it down with the nerves of a life-long gambler.
    “Remember, when I took the job, they were still a cartel in good standing!” Chris protested. “The suspension only came down a few weeks ago. This all started almost three years ago.”
    When he realized that no reaction from Alice was forthcoming, Chris sighed again, more out of habit than anything.
    “The Terrie Cartel approached us, the Society, wanting to buy all kinds of intelligence — anything at all on the Witch cults, those Anathema freaks in the Outer Dark, the movements of the Weir tribes and population estimates, that sort of thing.” Chris shook his head, and wished that he could take his hand out from under Alice’s. “It’s obvious to me, now, they were interested in how much we knew, and by extension, how much Central was likely to know, rather than the information itself.”
    Alice nodded grimly, but she released his hand, much to Chris’s relief.
    “You provided this information?”
    Alice tapped her fingers on the table expectantly.
    “Of course,” Chris acknowledged, feeling a bit foolish. “There was nothing proscribed, nothing outside the boundaries of the Agreement. We continued to provide intelligence for them up until we heard about the attacks. The arrangement was terminated before Central proscribed the Terrie cartel.”
    Alice’s grin returned. Apparently she had caught the emphasis on the last part of the statement, the proactive termination of the relationship. Weeks could mean everything. Nothing was trivial when Alice Gallow was sitting across the table, and Chris wasn’t about to assume any more guilt than he had to.
    “What happened once you heard about the proscription?”
    Alice finished the better part of her coffee in one swallow. Chris found himself wondering idly what his chances were of surviving the encounter, and then put it aside. There was no point in worrying about what couldn’t be changed.
    “I told them the arrangement was dead, of course,” Chris said, immediately regretting his choice of words. “They told me that ending the arrangement would be a very serious error on my part, that it could have consequences for the Society. I walked away, never even looked back.”
    Chris wondered if Alice had activated the Inquisition Protocol. She was a skilled enough Operator that he couldn’t read anything from her Etheric signature, but it was certainly possible. He hoped that she had. He desperately needed her to know he wasn’t lying.
    “Why are you so cold, Chris? Why are you starving?”
    Alice put down her empty cup on the table, ignoring the saucer, and the porcelain clattered against the glass tabletop.
    “The entire London branch of the society is gone for certain,” Chris said, hanging his head. “They moved on us two days after they were proscribed. There was a bombing, at our central office. It did a lot of structural damage, but no serious losses. We followed the standard evacuation procedures, split up into small groups and headed for the safe houses, to wait for the all clear. They were waiting at the safe house when we arrived, I assume it was the same for the others,” Chris continued, his voice tired, wooden. “They looked like they had been there for a while. They’d killed the human servants… unkindly. There were Witches with them, and Weir, and there were only four of us. It wasn’t even a fight.”
    Chris’s hand shook as he remembered Evelyn screaming while Paul and Miguel died, devoured by the maws of horrible, malformed wolves.
    “Evelyn and I both activated emergency apport protocols, with randomized destinations to elude telepathic tracking. There was nothing else we could do.” Chris couldn’t look at Alice. He couldn’t stand the thought of what his face might show. With an effort, he recalled fifty years of professional composure. “I woke up in Amsterdam, near the docks, with a half-dozen bullets still lodged in me.”
    “What about the Amsterdam lodge?” Alice asked, fruitlessly searching for their waiter, who had fled long ago.
    “Nothing more than a burning building, surrounded by things in police uniforms that weren’t human,” Chris said sadly. “I got myself patched up by my own means, and then I went underground. I’ve kept moving since then, trying to find a safe place to retreat to. Everywhere I’ve gone, it’s been the same thing. Brussels, Paris, Madrid, Barcelona.”
    “Barcelona is the largest lodge in Europe, right?” Alice looked skeptical.
    “It was. All I found there was more rubble, and a package sitting in front of it with my name on it.” Chris felt an absurd urge to laugh. He wasn’t at all sure why. “Nobody watching, this time. Pretty clear that they wanted me to have it.”
    Alice looked sadly at her empty coffee cup. Chris wondered if maybe she was mellowing slightly with age. Perhaps, after all this time, Alice was finally capable of dealing with small disappointments without resorting to homicide. Perhaps.
    Otherwise, Chris sincerely hoped their waiter never came back.
    “I didn’t open it, at first. I tried peeking at it a number of different ways, but no matter how I looked at it, it came up clean. Eventually I cut the thing open in my hotel room. There was a cell phone.” Chris looked around them nervously, checking the faces at the surrounding tables, and then continued. “There were videos, the things they had done to the others. I saw members of a dozen different lodges — Alice, I think that they’ve destroyed most of the lodges in Europe!”
    Alice stared at him patiently, clearly aware that he was still skirting the main point.
    “They have Evelyn, Alice. They have her. My wife.”
    He dug a cheap Korean cell phone out of his pocket and slid it across the table to her, hoping she would overlook his wet eyes.
    “There are photos of her on the camera. They want me to give myself up, the bastards, and they don’t even bother to make any assurances that she’ll be alright.”
    “You aren’t worried about paying for Margot’s education,” Alice said, slipping the phone into one of the side pockets of her long black coat. “You’re making arrangements for her to be cared for in your absence. Taking care of your obligations.”
    “I’m her sponsor, so I’m responsible. My obligation is to the Society, not to Margot. It’s nothing personal,” Chris said darkly. “I’m not so naive as to hold out hope for finding Evelyn alive. And I understand that even if I survive, that I will have to face an Audit of my actions. And I’m prepared for that. But, Alice, please… I know where they are. The people holding her have to be the same people who are attacking Central. I can’t let her disappear down some Weir’s den. She deserves a clean death, at the very least. And, you couldn’t help but learn something about your enemy, right?”
    Alice looked at him for a long time then, considering. Chris sat and waited, making no attempt to sway her. If he hadn’t already, then there was no point in trying further. Alice could not be reasoned or bargained with.
    She didn’t say anything to him, but after a long hesitation, she dug her own cell phone out of her pocket.
    “Xia,” she said into the phone, a moment later, her voice cross and efficient. “I’m going to need to use the closest London safe house to where I am now. King’s Cross? Alright, I remember where it is. Have them send my usual things.”
    Alice met Chris’s eyes for a moment, and then gave him a toothy smile.
    “I’m going to be plus one for the time being, Xia. Christopher Feld. You can find his info on the network, go ahead and request it from Central. He’ll need a full kit, clothes, the works. Also, we’ll need some IV equipment, and several pints of O negative. Can you make it happen this afternoon?”
    As far as Chris could hear, and Chris’s hearing was nothing short of remarkable, even in his half-starved state, there was no response. In the time that he had known Xia, he had never heard him speak. But Alice certainly acted as if she had received a response.
    “You’re a life-saver, Xia. We’ll have to take the tube for a while, to make sure Chris hasn’t picked up any new friends. Let them know we’ll be there in a couple hours, okay? Everything going well in Saigon? Pat Mitzi on the head for me, won’t you? Okay, then.”
    Alice hung up, and then folded up her cell. Her eyes wandered down to her still empty cup, and she looked disappointed.
    “I guess we can stop somewhere on the way,” she said, standing up from the table and motioning for Chris to do the same. “Since they finally have fucking Starbucks in this town. If I don’t get another cup of coffee, I’ll get a headache and be bitchy all day.”
    And I certainly don’t want that, Chris thought, following Alice out the door and into the chilly London afternoon.

Twenty Six

    “Do not tell me that your entire plan consists of waiting for that little bitch to produce Alex and Eerie, Gaul. Tell me you’ve got something better than that.”
    “I have something better than that.”
    “Then what is it?” Rebecca demanded, throwing her hands in the air in frustration. “Tell me, dammit! I’m freaking out over here.”
    Gaul sighed and shook his head, trying unsuccessfully to walk fast enough to avoid Rebecca’s pestering. It was always like this when she caught him in the hall — he was a half-foot taller than her, with long legs, and he still couldn’t manage to outdistance her when she’d decided that they were going to talk.
    “Could this possibly wait until we’re in my office, Rebecca?”
    Rebecca muttered something unintelligible, but she shut up, so Gaul decided that would have to be good enough. She managed to wait until they were in his office, door bolted behind them, and Gaul installed behind his desk before she starting badgering again. He felt better about it here, though — it was always easier, somehow, when he was behind the desk.
    “That fucking little monster! She gets right under your skin, doesn’t she? I can’t believe the Black Sun saddled us with her. Such a fucking princess, you know? And she looks at you with those,” Rebecca threw her hands up and gestured vaguely, “eyes of hers, like she knows things. Given half a chance, I would make her feel like Ophelia, rather than just dressing the part. She is so fucking lucky that she is exempted from counseling sessions.”
    “Apparently,” Gaul said dryly, reaching for his pen and opening the folder nearest to him. He wrote two words, and then his pen was jarred across the page by Rebecca hopping up onto the corner of his desk.
    “How is it that we know nothing about what protocols the most dangerous student at the Academy operates, anyway?” Rebecca demanded, lighting a cigarette despite Gaul’s frown. “Even the precogs can’t seem to get a handle on her, you know. That’s bad news right there, if you ask me. Never happened before.”
    “You are still referring to Martynova, I assume, and not Alex?”
    “For fuck’s sake, Gaul,” Rebecca said, nudging his trashcan into place with her boot and then knocking the ash from her cigarette into it. “You know I’m talking about the ice queen that ran us around in circles. Alex might be a wild card, but he’s hardly the calculated menace that Anastasia Martynova represents. The Black Sun was already dangerous without her. With her?”
    Rebecca blew a stream of smoke at the ceiling while he resignedly pushed the ashtray her way.
    “With her, it gets dangerous for everybody, not only the Hegemony. Anastasia plays for keeps, I can tell that much, even if I’m not allowed to peak around in her head. She will put the whole detente at risk, it’s a fucking certainty. And I know you’ve heard — everybody says she operates a Deviant Protocol, and nobody knows what kind. She could be a precognitive, Gaul, for all we know. She worries me.”
    “You honestly think that girl has one up on me?” Gaul asked, finishing the document with his compact, economical signature. “Is that your professional opinion?”
    Rebecca’s eyes lit up, and she propped her chin up on her elbows, facing Gaul.
    “I don’t know,” she said, obviously interested. “You gonna tell me I’m wrong?”
    “Anastasia is no precognitive.”
    “We don’t know anything about her!” Rebecca objected. “She could operate all sorts of protocols and we wouldn’t know a thing.”
    “One precognitive recognizes another,” Gaul said dismissively. “Whatever Miss Martynova is, she isn’t a precognitive. She’s incredibly devious, no doubt, but I promise you she is not running a game on me. Whatever it is she thinks that she’s doing, you need to understand that it is all in our best interests, or I would have prevented it.”
    “Eerie and Alex are gone, and we don’t know where,” Rebecca said irritably, in the grating voice that she always used when she wanted to complain. “The only way we can get them back is by letting Anastasia do it for us, letting her protect the Black Sun from any potential consequences while putting us in her debt. And all this is assuming that she actually does know where they are, that they are still alive, and that she decides to bring them back. Where are our best interests in all this?”
    Gaul sighed and set his pen down.
    “We need to get Alex into the field, sooner rather than later. If we are responsible for everything that must be done to him, in order to make him an Operator, there is an excellent chance that he will end up blaming us, blaming the Academy. If we’re lucky, he’ll end up blaming Anastasia or Eerie for this,” Gaul said, flicking his red eyes up at Rebecca, and then back down to the paperwork in front of him. “Anyway, Alex and Eerie are somewhere in San Francisco right now.”
    Rebecca jumped off the desk and started pacing excitedly. Gaul sighed more deeply.
    “But, how? It takes weeks of analysis to read probability threads that broad and vague, and that’s assuming you even know where to look, and there was no time to track every apport,” Rebecca said accusatorily. “Did you know about this in advance, Gaul?”
    “I am a precognitive,” Gaul said, mildly offended, scratching away at the next document. “I had the analytical pool on this possibility two days after Alex got here, along with a dozen other likely ways things could go wrong. Over the last two weeks, I’ve arranged circumstances that have removed all of Anastasia’s transporters from Central, except for Svetlana Rostoff. We knew that she wouldn’t do anything herself, not directly, in order to have deniability. Edward is still too new, so that meant she would have her lieutenant, Renton Hall set it up. Svetlana and Renton only cross paths rarely, so it was easy enough to alert Alistair and have him monitor for when that happened.”
    “Wow,” Rebecca said, sitting back down on the corner of the desk.
    “While I’m being frank, I should mention that Mitsuru has been in San Francisco since this morning, arranging a new exit, should that become necessary,” Gaul said, frowning. “I would have preferred it to be Alice, but she and Xia are needed elsewhere right now, keeping the Witches off-balance and settling matters with the remnants of the Terrie cartel. Mitsuru was the best I could do without anyone noticing.”
    “Okay, I feel stupid,” Rebecca acknowledged, pinching out her cigarette and tossing it into the trash can. “So, why didn’t you stop all this from happening?”
    Gaul stopped again and for a moment, Rebecca could have sworn she saw the slightest indications of embarrassment.
    “Putting aside the disturbing implications from his past, Alex Warner has been alone his entire life, and that degree of isolation worries me. I don’t need another dysfunctional Operator on my staff. Therefore, if he had found someone he felt socially comfortable with, it didn’t seem advisable for me to interfere. I will admit, however, that I wish it wasn’t Eerie.”
    “Are you saying in the most obtuse possible manner,” Rebecca said, eyebrows raised, “that you thought it might be a good idea if Alex got laid?”
    Rebecca continued to stare at Gaul for a moment, then started laughing, her face turning red, till she doubled over at the waist.
    “I’m sorry, it’s just that,” she said, her body shaking uncontrollably as she laughed, “I keep underestimating you…”
    “Please get out of my office,” he said, shaking his head sadly, and reaching for the next document in the stack.

    Maybe there were signs, and Alex didn’t notice them. He was tired, after the party, still buzzing, but very much into a tired afterglow, a long gentle come down. Beyond that, Eerie leaned against Alex on the taxi ride home and then feel asleep, her head nestled in the hollow of his shoulder, her hand resting lightly next to his thigh, and he hadn’t been able to focus on much of anything else from then on. He was too busy building up his courage for when they got back to the room.
    It could have been that there were scratches on the lock. Maybe his key didn’t swipe quite right the first time, perhaps the door was already ajar when they got there. He couldn’t say for certain.
    Alex took two steps into the darkened room, still chattering nervously at the silent girl behind him, when he heard breathing. He paused briefly, listening, straining at a noise that he wasn’t entirely sure he had heard, and in that moment, something rushed at him from inside the room, grabbing him by the throat and propelling him backwards. The hand was huge and powerful, and when Alex tore at it to try and free himself, one of his hands was cut open by a talon fixed to the index finger. He almost had time to say it before his head and neck collided with the room’s far wall, hard enough to leave a noticeable indent.
    When Alex could breathe again enough to open his eyes, one of them must have turned the lights on, and another shut the door behind them. There were five in all, all wearing identical, badly tailored suits. Changing to human form had done nothing for the smell — they all emitted the scents of mud and decay like a perfume. Four of the Weir had identical red ties, but one of them had a silk blue tie, the one who had planted Alex’s head in the wall. He looked vaguely familiar to Alex, with his silver hair, and he had a pretty good idea as to why. He was fairly certain that he’d met Mr. Blue-Tie before.
    But, all of these were things that he noticed after he realized that, somehow, Eerie was not in the room with them.
    Then Mr. Blue-Tie leaned in close, all weathered skin, halitosis, and nose hair, his yellow teeth gritted and his hands balled into fists, and grabbed Alex by the shirt, hauling him partway to his feet.
    “Where is the girl?”
    He shook Alex like a rag-doll, as if he weighed nothing at all, his head whipping back and forth painfully.
    Alex gasped for air, trying futilely to free himself from the elongated, bestial hands.
    “The girl,” Mr. Blue-Tie hissed, picking Alex up by his hair and throat, so that is his toes dangled on the ground. “The one you came in the building with. She didn’t get off the elevator with you. Where is she?”
    Alex belatedly realized that Eerie had indeed been very quiet on the way to the room, and to think ‘Good for you, Eerie’. Then the Weir released his hold on Alex’s throat and hair, and grabbed him instead by the ears. Alex pounded futilely on his wrists and forearms, but it stung his hands like he was striking wood. Mr. Blue-Tie grinned, and then shook Alex head violently back and forth, until blood gushed from his nose, until he was thoroughly disoriented and crumpled, gasping on the floor. He curled into a ball and lay there, unable to stop the world from spinning or cope with the rushing sound in his head, while the Weir muttered incoherently somewhere above him. Improbably, he heard the sound of someone running a bath. Alex had little time to wonder what was going to happen to him.
    At that point, he felt no fear whatsoever.
    Mr. Blue-Tie came back from wherever he had gone, and kicked Alex savagely in the midsection, leaving Alex wheezing and cursing. The other Weir must have come up behind him while he was still blind with pain, because they managed to get a canvas bag over Alex’s head before he even realized what was going on. The burlap wrapped around his head stunk of fear and old vomit. He tried to struggle free, to pull the bag from his head, but this also turned out to be futile. Without much trouble, they wrench his arms behind his back, and then handcuffed his wrists together.
    “I’m sure you remember me, right? You know what I’m capable of. I’m going to ask once more, nicely,” Mr. Blue-Tie said, delivering another devastating kick to Alex’s stomach. It was only through an act of tremendous self control that he avoided throwing up inside the bag his head was trapped in. Instead, he wretched involuntarily and tried to curl up tighter, half-crazy with claustrophobia and panic. “Then things are going to get ugly real fast. Where is the girl?”
    Alex was glad, very glad that he didn’t know. Because he couldn’t be sure about himself in this situation. He was very afraid; on a fundamental level he was absolutely terrified about what he knew was going to happen to him. It made him physically ill he was so frightened. But at least he didn’t have to worry that he would betray Eerie under whatever torture they had planned for him, because he didn’t know. That made things a bit easier.
    “I have no idea,” Alex said honestly, pressing his knees as tight to his chin as he could manage. Even thinking the word ‘torture’ had started him shivering uncontrollably.
    “Okay then,” Mr. Blue-Tie said with obvious relish. “But, don’t say I didn’t warn you, shithead.”
    Two of the Weir grabbed Alex and carried him forcibly into the bathroom, banging his head into what seemed like every available surface on the way. In the suffocating confines of the bag, Alex couldn’t anticipate the impacts, which made the whole experience that much worse. Eventually, they got him wrapped around one side of the bathtub, one Weir standing on either side of him, with their feet on the backs of his knees, his thighs pressed up against the cold of the tub wall.
    “Now, to refresh your memory,” said Mr. Blue-Tie, his voice made resonant by the small bathroom’s acoustics. “The question of the moment is: where is that little bitch we saw you with, earlier? No need to answer right away, I’ll give you a minute to think about it.”
    When Alex felt the hand on the back of his head, he stiffened his neck against the pressure, but it was hopeless. Whichever of the Weir crowded into the hotel bathroom it was that pushed him under, he had all the leverage he needed. The water was ice-cold, and the shock of hitting it almost made Alex gasp involuntarily as he his head went under. The fabric of the bag soaked through immediately, and the rough burlap clung to his face, increasing the feeling of suffocation. Alex could see nothing at all, even when he opened his eyes, and he could feel nothing except the water around his head, the unyielding force of the hand on the back of his head, and the dull sound of his own legs pounding desperately against the side of the bathtub. He wondered how long they would hold him under, and the question repeated itself in his mind, became obsessive, and made him acutely aware of the agonizing passage of time.
    Inside the bag, under the water, Alex’s existence was defined by a consuming panic, an increasingly urgent need to breathe, and his eroding self-control. As Alex tried to count the seconds ticking by in his head, the dull pain in his chest grew sharper, more intense, his lungs seeming to contract, to collapse in on themselves. More than he could remember wanting anything, ever, more even then he wanted to breathe, Alex wanted the bag off of his head. Drowning didn’t seem as bad, without the stifling confines of the sack.
    The seconds crept along imperceptibly, and Alex started to wonder if they were going to kill him, after all. His chest was on fire, and his throat had started to make convulsive motions. He held his mouth closed, unsure if he could stop himself from breathing in if it were open. It was impossible, he decided. Maybe Eerie had shown up at the door, maybe she’d stopped by reception or the ice machine or something, and now they had her, and they didn’t need Alex anymore, so he would die here, drowned in a stinking bag in some hotel bathroom.
    Then they pulled his head back out of the water, and his chest convulsed, trying to force air through the water-logged fabric that had worked its way inside of his mouth and clung to his eyes and nostrils. The pain in his chest was soon matched by one radiating out from somewhere behind his eyes, and through the bag, the lights of the bathroom were dim and strange. He spat and coughed and squirmed helplessly on the hotel tile, frantic to pull the wet, suffocating fabric from his face.
    “We aren’t too good at counting, Alex,” said the snarling voice of Mr. Blue-Tie, his breath tickling Alex’s ear like that of a lover. He could barely hear him over the sound of his own labored gasping. “We almost lost you there. You feel like telling us anything, yet, or do you want to try testing our math again?”
    Alex wondered, even as he twitched against the bathroom floor like a fish out of water, his chest so tight that he couldn’t seem to breathe any better now than when he had been underwater, how it was that Mr. Blue-Tie knew his name. He finally drew in a long, shuddering breath, gagging as the bag worked its way still more deeply into his mouth.
    “Nothing, huh? Well, that’s great, as far as I’m concerned. You see,” Mr. Blue-Tie confided, pulling Alex up by his shoulders, and leaning him against the side of the bath tub, “we don’t actually need you to tell us anything. We’ve got this area locked down, and your girlfriend isn’t going anywhere, not without running into us. And when we do,” he hissed, grinding his crotch against Alex obscenely, “well, maybe we’ll start with you, so you don’t have wonder what we are going to do to her.”
    Alex felt the stiffness pressing against him and felt a horrible sickness, a level of panic and dread that had somehow opened beneath him, impossibly worse than the prospect of being drowned in an anonymous hotel bathtub. He wanted to say something, anything; Alex knew in his heart that, if he had someone to sell out, he very well might have, that he wouldn’t have been able to help himself, and it hurt him to know that. But he had nothing to say, and no breathe to say it with.
    Abruptly, his head was underwater again, and it happened so fast that he was still gasping when he hit, water flooding his mouth and nose, burning his sinuses. Without thinking, he panicked and blew out the little air in his lungs. The heavy fabric and the cold water beyond it pressed in on him again. Then, with an almost surreal horror, he felt fingers hooking inside his belt, tearing his pants down and away from his waist. He tried to buck, to shake the Weir from his back, but the feet on his knees and the hand on the back of his head remained intractable.
    Alex decided to breathe in. He decided that, if this was one of those things that someone could live through, that he didn’t want to. He gave up, relaxing his chest and throat and opening his mouth. For a moment, he felt no fear at all, just disgust, regret and profound disappointment.
    With a quickly dawning horror, Alex realized that he could not make himself breathe in, his body would not obey him, he could not fill his lungs with water. Despite the horror and shame, despite the pain in his chest that defied description, Alex could not make himself drown. He struggled against the hand on his neck, and then finding his legs suddenly free, he kicked out frantically at the Weir behind him, struggling like an animal in a trap. He knew with a clarity that surprised him that he was dying. Alex decided to die fighting.
    Slowly, he realized that the person behind him was altogether too small to be Mr. Blue-Tie, or any of the other men he’d seen in the hotel room. Then Alex noticed that the other Weir who’d been holding him down on other side seemed to have disappeared. And, finally, that the hand on his neck was attempting to pull him up and out of the water, not pushing him into it, something made more difficult by his struggling and kicking.
    Alex tried to cooperate with the effort, then, and found that he could do little to influence affairs. The whole thing seemed rather impersonal, as if he were observing the struggle.
    Then he was out into the light and the air again, and that was ridiculously good, even if his chest rattled and wheezed as he gasped, even if the air burned his mouth and throat. A moment later, the bag came off his head, and that was even better. Lying on the floor, with the bathroom tile cool against the side of his face was like heaven.
    Alex looked up at Eerie, her face streaked with tears and her mouth moving, and smiled adoringly at her, like she was an angel.
    Then his expression froze, and his face twisted as he struggled for breath, clutching at his throat and writhing. The air was wrong, somehow, unless it was a trick of his vision — it was dense and faintly discolored, and it burned his eyes and mouth, and the inside of his nose. It was even worse in his lungs, and he found that he could not hold the air in. Every breath he took was expelled instantly with a series of choking coughs.
    It took a little while for Eerie to pin his head down, her knees on his shoulders, and longer to force his mouth open and wedge something inside it. It was sweet, too sweet, sickeningly so, and Alex thought at first that he might be ill, the candy floating syrupy and huge in the dry confines of his mouth. And then, slowly, he felt his chest and throat relax, and the burning in his sinuses died down.
    “Sorry, Alex,” Eerie apologized, blushing for reasons he could not understand. “I know it’s gross, but please keep this inside of your mouth until I tell you, okay?”
    He lay on the bathroom floor for a few minutes, caring only about breathing, about the simple luxury that he had never appreciated fully before, while the candy disintegrated in his mouth. It was almost gone before he realized that it was a toffee. Then, almost reluctantly, he opened his eyes.
    “Do you feel better, Alex? I’m sorry I had to poison you, too, but I couldn’t figure out any other way to help.” Eerie leaned him against the side of the bathtub, then reached over his head to empty the water from it. Alex shuddered when he heard the splash. “You can spit out the candy now, if you want,” she added shyly.
    Alex didn’t really want to, not anymore. In fact, it was pretty much gone, and Alex was surprised at how much better he felt, how amazing it felt to be able to breathe freely, free of the awful weight of the Weir, and the terrible confines of the bag. Maybe it was shock, but Alex felt surprisingly okay with the situation, despite his physical distress.
    “Oh, you poor thing,” Eerie said, patting his back and fretting over him. “I’m so sorry that I couldn’t stop them. It took a long time for me to poison the entire room with something that would kill the Weir, but not you.”
    Alex shook his head, his mouth terribly dry. He couldn’t imagine Eerie feeling bad for anything. In his book, she was a candidate for sainthood.
    Eerie walked over and bent down next to Mr. Blue-Tie and dug through his pockets. He was totally unresponsive, and judging from the trouble she had moving his arm, Alex figured he was probably dead. A moment later, Eerie produced a key ring from his pants pocket, and then used it to free Alex’s aching wrists from the handcuffs.
    “Are you starting to feel better?”
    Alex nodded, still unable to speak. Eerie ducked back to the room and rummaged for a moment, then returned, twisting the cap off a bottle of mineral water that she gave to Alex.
    “Eerie,” he managed, after a few sips of water. “Eerie, what did you do?”
    She flinched, and then looked away.
    “I did not want you to see that. I have never,” Eerie stopped and then turned back to face him, face streaked with tears, “Alex, I have never done anything like this before. I’ve never even thought about doing something like this. It’s not, it’s not me.” Eerie shook her head despondently. “This is not the kind of thing that I do.”
    “So, this was like the other night?” Alex asked groggily. “Like at the party? Except…”
    “Except that I was how I felt then,” Eerie said, hanging her head, “and this is how I felt today, watching them hurt you. And now,” Eerie said sadly, “now Alex will be afraid of me, because of what I am, right? Do you hate me?”
    “Hate you?” Alex said, coughing. “Fuck, Eerie, as far as I’m concerned, you’re Mother Teresa. I’m not afraid or angry, I’m grateful, grateful as all hell, really. That was,” he added thoughtfully, inclining his head in the direction of the dead Weir, “quite possibly the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. You saved me, Eerie.”
    Alex tried to get Eerie to smile, but she just stared over his shoulder, transfixed by something behind him. It took Alex a while to manage turning around, as his back and neck seemed to have seized up.
    Renton was peering in through the doorway, a nickel-plated H amp;K semiautomatic pistol in his left hand. Behind him, barely visible, Margot peaked around the corner. In front of both of them, Anastasia stood, arms folded across her chest, immaculate in a black dress. She seemed terribly amused by the situation.
    “Well, I can see why you’d want to stay here,” she said seriously, after deliberation. “It is a very nice room. Perhaps you would consider staying the night at my suite, instead? The hotel is better, for one, and there are also significantly fewer dead people in the bathroom.”

Twenty Seven

    “I heard that you and Eerie went on a date.”
    “I’m not sure that it was a date. Exactly.”
    “But you did go dancing with her.”
    “Did Eerie tell you all this stuff? It was more like she went dancing, and I sat there and watched.”
    “Huh. Very smooth. Quite the lady-killer.”
    “Shut up, Margot. Why do we have to walk halfway across town to make a phone call, anyway?” Alex complained, hurrying after the vampire, who set a rapid pace. “There were phones back at the hotel. Cars, too, if we absolutely had to leave the room.”
    “I need a pay phone, and it has to be far enough away from where we are staying that they won’t find us if they trace it. Besides, these days, it’s pretty hard to find one in the first place.” Margot threaded through the crowded street, talking without looking back at Alex, sounding bored with the whole thing. “I figured you could use the walk, to clear your head.”
    “Really? Pardon me for doubting your concern for my well-being, but…”
    Margot stopped at closed-down strip mall, glanced around for cameras, and then strolled over to a bank of phones so deep in the shadow cast by the flickering streetlight that Alex hadn’t even seen them. She inspected the phones from a distance with obvious distaste, and then pulled a set of latex gloves from her pocket and began sliding them on.
    “Okay, okay,” Margot said, looking at the phones reluctantly. “Renton had an errand to run, and procedure demands that none of us be alone, until we are out of the field. Edward went with him, and Anastasia hates to walk, so I got you. Lucky me, right?”
    “I don’t understand why this is such a big deal,” Alex complained. “I mean, Eerie already killed those Weir,” he said, immediately regretting having brought it up. “We are good, right?”
    “Are you kidding me?” Margot stared at him in disbelief, and Alex felt very small indeed. “There have to be more. And anyway, I doubt that the silver one was dead.”
    Margot shook her head, as if he had saddened her.
    “I knew that was him,” Alex said with conviction. “I knew I had seen that bastard somewhere before. But, he sure looked dead…”
    “Bet he did after Mitsuru was done with him, too,” Margot said, “and look how that worked out. I’ve never actually seen a silver one before, Alex, but they are supposedly very hard to kill.”
    “Do we need, like, silver bullets, or something?”
    Margot shook her head dismissively.
    “More like a train to hit him with,” she said grimly, “or a cruise missile. Or,” she added, reaching for the handset, “Mitsuru, assuming you plan on letting me make this phone call.”

    “Where did Renton go? And the cute one who never talks?”
    “Right. Him. Where did they go?”
    Anastasia continued to stare at the television, the evening news turned on, with the volume turned off. The information was so dated already, she could hardly believe anyone watched the news channels.
    “I sent them on an errand,” Anastasia said, glancing over at the changeling lying on the plush, queen-sized bed opposite her own, and then flipping the TV off. “There was something I wanted to talk to you about, anyway.”
    Anastasia sat up and turned to face Eerie, smoothing the wrinkles from her black silk dress. Eerie looked over at Anastasia, propping her head up on her elbow, appearing genuinely surprised.
    “Really? Because if this is about the cartel thing, then it’s very nice of you to offer, but…”
    Anastasia waved her off, looking a bit distracted.
    “No, Eerie, nothing like that,” Anastasia said, “I am not trying to recruit you.” Anastasia paused, then smiled at her. “At least not at the moment.”
    Eerie stared at her blankly. Anastasia sighed, and shook her head.
    “I will be direct, then,” Anastasia said unhappily, her hands folded in her lap in front of her, her posture rigid, her eyes boring into Eerie. “What is there between you and Alex?”
    Eerie turned an immediate bright red, and hurriedly looked away. Anastasia had to stifle a laugh. They were two easy, Alex and Eerie both. She almost couldn’t help herself.
    “N-nothing,” Eerie sputtered, still looking conspicuously away from Anastasia with all the guile of a guilty child. “Well, just friends. I mean, we only met recently, and…”
    “Why did you ask Svetlana to send the two of you to San Francisco, then?” Anastasia asked patiently. “That is out of the ordinary, even for you, Eerie.”
    Anastasia waited, her eyes fixed on Eerie. The impasse was not long. Eerie hung her head in resignation.
    “You’re scary, Anastasia,” Eerie hummed quietly. “I am helping Alex. I didn’t do anything bad.”
    Anastasia sat up, and reached over to pat Eerie on the knee. She noticed that Eerie had found time to buy cute patterned pajamas. She wondered what kind of underwear she had bought, with an internal smirk.
    “Why Alex, though? Why are you interested in helping him?”
    Eerie got flustered again, but this time, she didn’t look away.
    “Well, he helped me,” Eerie said reluctantly. “And he is… interesting. Don’t you think so, Anastasia?”
    “And also,” Eerie continued, quietly, almost as if she were talking to herself, “he seems nice, don’t you think?”
    Anastasia felt pity for Eerie, momentarily, and then squashed it. Now was not the time to be sentimental, she reminded herself. She decided to risk pushing a little harder.
    “No, Eriu, I don’t think so,” Anastasia said casually. “But, if you do, then shouldn’t you consider what getting close to you could do to that ‘nice’ boy? It doesn’t end well for humans who get involved with changelings, you know. Or have you forgotten your family history?”
    Anastasia waited for a response, and when she didn’t get one, looked over at Eerie. Later, she would applaud her own composure, masking the surprise she’d felt, keeping her face impassive. In the moment, however, she was too stunned for self-congratulation.
    Eerie was staring at her, sitting up at the edge of the bed, her posture rigid and her expression stormy, her eyes as clear and cold as the stream near Anastasia’s childhood home. And also, Anastasia realized, Eerie was emitting a subtle, shifting radiance; as she watched, Eerie’s irises ran the gamut between bright blue and murky hazel, one shade blending into the next. Around her, tiny motes of light spun and danced, making periodic lazy half-revolutions about her, leaving behind brilliant, multi-colored trails, each particle part of a golden cloud, a shifting, fluid expanse of light that radiated out from where Eerie sat.
    Anastasia thought that maybe her ploy had worked a little too well.
    “Mistress of the Black Sun or no, be careful what you call me,” Eerie warned, her voice cool and subtly menacing. The musical quality her voice normally had was entirely absent, replaced with a composed iciness. “I cooperated with you because our interests in this matter aligned. That does not make us allies, Anastasia.”
    Anastasia smiled, her suspicions confirmed.
    “Finally, you come out to play, Eriu.” Anastasia looked impressed. “I had an inkling, of course, but it was too hard to be sure. Tell me, then, what do you have planned for little Eerie? And what about Alex? I never would have imagined you were the romantic type.”
    Eerie’s eyes narrowed, her irises changing color like an oil slick in the sun, her skin translucent and permeated with an amber luminescence.
    “I will not answer your questions. I am not one of your servants, and I do not care how long your shadow has grown.”
    The changeling’s face contorted into an inhumanly rigid sneer, so different from Eerie’s normal expression that Anastasia could barely see the resemblance. Anastasia felt a little bit bad for Alex, despite himself.
    “Take my warning to heart, whelp. You have been compensated in full for your part in this. I am under no obligation to share my designs with you, regardless of our previous collaboration. I advise you not to interfere in my affairs, with the boy, or anything else. We will not speak again.”
    “Fine,” Anastasia said airily. “You don’t have to be a bitch about it.”
    After a moment, the light around Eerie dissipated and her eyes slowly refocused. She sat back on the bed, looking self-conscious, and then turned her attention back to the mute TV screen and the crawl of numbers that represented an abstraction of the world economy. After a little while, Anastasia also resumed watching the silent television.
    “So, you do like him,” Anastasia remarked cheerfully a few moments later.
    She managed to keep the smile off her face until she heard Eerie stomp off to the bathroom, slamming the door behind her. Like children, she thought. All too easy.

    Alex looked at the streets around him, confused, and then over at Margot.
    “Hey, Margot? Is this the way back to the hotel?”
    Margot seemed to find something in the buildings across the street that required her urgent attention.
    “Round about,” Margot said finally, still avoiding eye-contact. “Wanted to check and see if we picked up any company, before we took it back with us. And,” Margot added, reluctantly, “there was something I wanted to talk to you about, anyway. She isn’t what you think she is, you know. Eerie, I mean.”
    Alex sighed, and looked over at Margot. The bar behind her made heavy use of blue and pink neon, and she was weirdly illuminated by it as she walked underneath the signs, almost otherworldly. Literally otherworldly, Alex corrected himself.
    “Are we still talking about this? Did Anastasia put you up to it?”
    Margot looked perturbed, stepping neatly around the blankets and cardboard boxes of a homeless encampment, which extended out from the alcove of a gated electronics store to encompass the inner half of the sidewalk. Alex looked away from the eyes he saw there, shining in the darkness, feeling an obscure and fleeting shame.
    “I’ve known Eerie since she was little. We’ve been neighbors, since we arrived at the Academy, and because no one else would talk to us, we ended up spending a lot of time together.” Margot frowned, momentarily, and then continued on. “I am working for the Black Sun right now, Alex. But, it is a temporary arrangement. I’m not one of Anastasia’s creatures. I’m somebody who helps out, in return for an appropriate fee.”
    “I’ve always wanted to ask,” Alex said, with more malice than he’d intended, “why didn’t you do something about Steve, that day in the cafeteria? You were right next to her, after all.”
    Margot was silent for a while after that, and Alex started to wonder if he’d gone too far with his last comment. Somewhere in the city around them, not too far, a woman or a child screamed, the sound starting high and piercing, like a siren, and then slowly modulating down, and then trailing away to nothing. The silence that followed was more disturbing than the scream.
    “We aren’t friends Alex, she’s just someone I’ve known for a long time,” Margot said curtly. “My profession doesn’t allow for much in the way of personal relationships. And I’m not about to start compensating for Eerie’s social inadequacies. If Steve was a real threat, I would have stopped him. He is a petty bully. Not my concern.”
    Alex laughed and looked up at the moon, jaundiced and huge, like that first night, with the Weir, the night that the world opened up to reveal another world inside of it, like one of those little Russian dolls. It seemed wrong that the moon should still look the same, when everything else felt so different to him.
    “Are you sure? Because it doesn’t really look that way, to me.”
    Margot shook her head. Alex had gotten used to her pigtails, and she looked a bit strange to him with her hair down.
    “Are you any different, Alex? We are all mercenaries, if you think about it. The lucky ones get to negotiate their own terms of sale. That’s all there is to it. Don’t think they won’t find a way to buy you. You’re lucky they are even interested.”
    Alex shrugged and gave her a half-hearted smile to cover his confusion. They walked along in silence for a short time, passing through a block crowded with small restaurants and bars, each spilling patrons and cooking smells out onto the sidewalk.
    “Alex, do you know what vampires are?”
    Margot’s eyes were cold as she looked at him. Alex laughed, the sound carried away by a rush of passing traffic. He’d been in Central so long, it felt strange and crowded here.
    “Oh, what my life has become,” he said, smirking. “Please, go ahead and tell me.”
    Margot eyed him coldly.
    “Remember the nanomachines that they injected you with, when you first got to the Academy? The ones that saved your life?” Margot’s eyes narrowed as she spoke, but her tone remained cold and flat. “Well, they ended mine.”
    Alex looked at Margot blankly.
    “Oh, didn’t they tell you? Those nanites kill a third of the people they introduce them into.”
    Alex shook his head, feeling a bit ill. Michael had mentioned that there was a mortality rate, of course, and he’d even said that it was high — but Alex had never suspected anything along those lines. He fought a bizarre desire to scratch at the now invisible spot on his upper arm where the IV had plugged in.
    “That’s why the Hegemony objects so much to the Black Sun’s philosophy of mass-introduction to the populace at large,” Margot said with a shrug. “They are imagining a few billion corpses.”
    Alex failed to keep the horror off his face, and Margot seemed amused by it.
    “Obviously, to Anastasia’s crowd, that kind of thing goes with the territory,” Margot said, shrugging. “Anyway, if your body rejects the nanomachines, cardiac and respiratory arrest starts almost immediately, followed by total brain death. Fast and irreversible. But they can’t just bag the body and call the morgue, at least, not right away.”
    Pausing for effect, Margot seemed to soak up the curiosity and repulsion she could see on Alex’s face.
    “They trundle the bodies on down to the basement of the medical building, where the only vampire on staff works, an old guy named Jorge, who’s had the job for decades now. I don’t blame him for not giving it up; after all, it seems pretty damn easy, as long as you aren’t squeamish, and don’t mind the hours.”
    She deftly maneuvered her way through a crowd of smokers outside of a packed, faux Irish-themed pub, carving a path through the drunks and the underdressed girls who lined the sidewalk, raising her voice so that Alex could hear her while they walked.
    “Jorge keeps an eye on the bodies, Alex. Weird guy. For three days, twenty-four hours a day, for everyone who rejects the nanites. And most of the time, that’s his whole job — staring at corpses.”
    Margot turned back and looked over her shoulder, giving Alex an almost feral grin. For the first time, he noticed that she did in fact have fangs — or rather, a pair of subtly elongated canine teeth, the points of which peaked out from underneath her pale lips when she smiled.
    “He gets a lot of reading done. Except, of course, when one of them sits up and starts screaming.”
    “How often does that happen?” Alex asked, morbidly curious.
    “Not that often,” Margot said, slowing her pace as the sidewalk cleared, so that Alex could walk more easily alongside her. “In the time I’ve been at the Academy, it’s only happened twice.”
    “You woke up needing to drink blood after a three day coma? That seems a little unlikely.”
    Margot laughed dismissively.
    “Hardly. There was no coma. I died, Alex. I died, and then three days later, the nanites woke me up. They’d repaired the damage to my body, and made a few other small changes while they were at it.”
    Margot took obvious satisfaction from the horror she saw in his face.
    “Are you… you know,” Alex asked hesitantly, looking at her with a certain amount of trepidation, “dead? You don’t seem like it.”
    “It’s hard to say,” Margot admitted. “I don’t feel dead. My heart beats, I need to breathe, I get hungry — I even have hay fever in the spring. But that isn’t everything. Something is… wrong.”
    Margot shook her head and looked up at the night sky. Maybe her eyes were different from Alex’s, but he couldn’t see anything besides a dull humidity that reflected the city’s ambient light back, a moist grey blanket hovering over the bay, and the fat yellow moon behind it.
    “The last thing I remember is agreeing to the introduction,” Margot said, quiet enough that Alex had to walk closer to her to hear. “I remember that it burned, in my arm, where they put the IV in. I could tell from the look on the doctor’s face that was something was wrong, I remember Michael yelling something. Then there was a terrible pain in my chest, and then after that, nothing at all…”
    Margot trailed off for a moment, frowning.
    “When I woke up, my chest didn’t hurt anymore,” Margot said, shrugging. “And nothing else has much, since then.”
    “Wow. That’s all kinds of fucked up. I mean, I tend to think that they shit that’s happened to me is pretty damn bad, but that’s really a whole lot worse…”
    “Thanks. I think.”
    “I still don’t really understand…”
    Margot sighed, as she stepped deftly around an assortment of broken glass and sleeping transients. The sidewalk here was stained brownish-red, for reasons Alex preferred not to think about.
    “The nanites inside you,” Margot said, pointing at Alex. “Help repair and maintain your body, right? If you get hurt, they help you heal, if you get sick, they help fight the disease. Did you know that you’re more-or-less immune to cancer? I think the administration started playing that part down, lately, to try and discourage smoking.”
    Margot smiled slightly at this, then hooked a thumb at herself.
    “Those same nanites malfunction inside me, Alex. And not only when they killed me. When they brought me back, too. Your body is permeated with nanites, true, but mine is contaminated with them,” Margot said grimly. “Among other little changes they made, the nanites purged all the marrow from my bones and replaced them with a mass of nanoassemblers. No bone marrow, no hemoglobin.”
    “But why can’t the nanites make hemoglobin for you? Michael said they can manufacture tissue and stuff, even bone.”
    “Yours can,” Margot said, bitterly. “Mine can’t. Mine can’t produce any kind of living tissue. Nothing biological.”
    Alex had a whole series of alarming thoughts.
    “So what happens when you get hurt? If your body can’t heal, and the nanomachines can’t repair damage, then…”
    “Synthetic replacements.”
    The vampire held up one arm in the sickly yellow light of a flickering street light, looking at it wistfully, the way people look at childhood photos.
    “Two years ago, I was working a field op in Tbilisi, clearing out a Witch coven. One night, while we were purging the old cemetery, a Ghoul managed to take a big chunk out of my arm.”
    “What the hell is a Ghoul?”
    Margot paused to glare at him for the interruption, then continued.
    “I probably would have bled to death, without the nanites. When I woke up the next morning, my arm was already rebuilt — entirely from synthetic materials, doped with nanites. I can’t feel anything with it, anymore. The lab says it’s mostly silicon.”
    They walked in silence for a moment, then Alex shrugged.
    “Okay, so all of that sucks,” Alex said, more callously than he meant to, “but why are you telling me all this?”
    Margot spun around so fast Alex didn’t even have time to get his hands up between them, her long black coat flaring out as she spun, poking one finger firmly into the center of his chest, her face contorted with barely suppressed anger.
    “What I am trying to tell you,” Margot said, with a quiet intensity, “is that I am a reanimated corpse, one filled with tiny machines that are gradually displacing everything organic in my body. And as strange and frightening as that makes me, Alex, that is nothing compared to how strange Eerie is. At least I was human being, at one point.”
    Margot stood that way for a moment more, glaring at him, the point of her fingernail digging into his sternum. Then she shook her head, brushed her hands absently against her coat like she had touched something dirty, and started to walk again.
    “You might want to do a little reading on the subject,” Margot suggested evilly. “Find out what happens to people who get involved with a changeling, before it happens to you, too.”
    Margot moved fast, leaving Alex standing by the side of the road, his mouth hanging open. She was a considerable way down the street when he finally caught back up to her.
    “I thought you might want to think about that, before you try and get too cozy to something that isn’t even human,” Margot said, her voice casual, her pace steady and unhurried. “So, are you coming, or what?”

    “I have never seen so many hipsters in one place.”
    Anastasia snorted contemptuously.
    “You should go to Brooklyn sometime,” she said, smirking. “It’s like this, but the size of an entire city.”
    Alex looked at her to see if she was kidding.
    “Sounds a little bit scary,” he said. Anastasia looked up from the office window for a moment, solemnly nodded her agreement, and then went back to observing the park spread out below them. The space they occupied was probably intended to be offices for the store below it, though it was being gutted at the moment, part of what seemed to be ongoing renovations throughout the building.
    “Hey Anastasia,” Alex blurted. “Can I ask you something?”
    Anastasia looked up from the window again, and arched one eyebrow curiously.
    “So, the Black Sun thing, the ideology — you want to introduce nanites into everyone, right?”
    Alex blurted it all out at once, without totally thinking it through, and was immediately worried that he should not have. But Anastasia nodded civilly and waited for him to continue.
    “Well,” Alex said nervously, “what about all the people who would be killed? I heard that, like, a third of the people who get injected with them die.”
    Anastasia appeared to consider this for a moment.
    “Do you know what a cartel is, Alex?”
    “Don’t ask me,” Alex complained, rubbing the back of his neck and looking petulant. “You’re in one, right?”
    “A cartel is an agreement, between competing parties to control or manipulate a specific concern, for mutual benefit,” Anastasia said, ignoring Alex’s eye-roll. “An open conspiracy, if you like. We are all inherently competitors in the same business, all of the cartels. We have simply agreed to try and limit competition from the outside. Flowery rhetoric aside, the Hegemony is no different from any other cartel. Did Margot tell you what the Hegemony’s alternative to mass nanite introduction is?”
    Alex shook his head, not at all surprised that she knew the details of his conversation with Margot from the night before. He was starting to adjust to the idea that Anastasia always seemed to know what was going on, even the things she wasn’t there for.
    “The Hegemony wants to come to an accommodation with the Witches,” Anastasia said acidly, her voice dripping with contempt. “They are willing to consign a percentage of humanity — that would be the majority, if you are curious — to serve as livestock for the Witches, in perpetuity, as long as they agree to Hegemony rule in Central and the cartel-controlled areas.”
    Anastasia saw the disgust in Alex’s face, and seemed satisfied by it.
    “What price for peace, no?”
    Alex rubbed his jaw absently, staring off at a point above Anastasia’s shoulder, trying to digest it all. The Hegemony seemed more benign than the Black Sun on the face of it, and to be truthful, Anastasia’s demeanor didn’t help matters. At the same time, it would be mistake, he knew, to confuse the messenger and the message, no matter how pretty Emily was.
    “That makes more sense,” Alex allowed, reluctantly. “But, still…”
    Anastasia waved him off, pressing her face close to the glass, reminding him of a child entranced by the view. Alex looked down as well, but saw nothing other than the same mass of picnickers, dogs, umbrellas and coolers that had crowded the hilly green patch, since they had taken their perch in the disused office space, more than an hour before. On the table beside Anastasia, her cell phone buzzed discretely. She punched the speaker button.
    “Hey boss?”
    The connection was bad, tinny sounding, and it was hard to make out the voice. But the wording made it obvious that it was Renton. No one else addressed Anastasia so informally.
    “You see what I see?”
    Anastasia continued peering through the window at something Alex couldn’t find for himself, much to his frustration.
    “Yes. What do you want me to do?”
    Anastasia seemed to Alex to hesitate for a moment before she responded.
    “Stay where you are. I’m going to go collect Mitsuru.”
    Alex continued to look out the window for whatever had attracted their attention, seeing nothing but a crowded city park in the late afternoon.
    Whatever had been planned had been planned without him — Anastasia, Margot, Renton, and Edward had left him and Eerie to watch TV, while they held a hushed conference in the hall outside the room. Alex had resented it; actually, he was still resenting it. But, on another level, he did kind of understand. He was virtually defenseless, after all, and Eerie was bat-shit crazy. It had irked him a bit, though.
    Eerie hadn’t seemed slighted by being left out, but she’d been weirdly reticent all morning, hardly speaking at all, and going out of her way to avoid him. Admittedly, lodging in Anastasia’s suite for the afternoon had been awkward despite its spaciousness, but that still didn’t explain it.
    On the cab ride here, Eerie had made it obvious that she was trying not to sit near him, practically insisting that Renton take the back seat instead, resulting in near-constant knowing glances from him for the whole drive. Even now, she wandered around on the other side of the vacant office, walking aimlessly from room to room, occasionally pausing to examine where the walls had been crudely torn open to allow wire stripping, or to rummage half-heartedly through the personal effects and scraps of paper that remained, abandoned in the ruins of the office furniture deemed too worthless to sell. She’d hadn’t spoken since they’d arrived, the hood of her sweatshirt pulled up, and Alex was pretty sure that it wasn’t Anastasia that she was avoiding — or, rather, that it wasn’t just Anastasia that Eerie wanted to avoid.
    Alex tried to follow her stare through the glass, hoping to pick out which part of the park she was looking at. He didn’t like that Anastasia had sent him out with Margot to make that phone call last night; he hadn’t given it any thought at the time, but when he’d come back, he’d found Renton and Edward bringing a bunch of heavy duffel bags up to the room, so he knew that Anastasia had worked things out to be alone with Eerie. Whatever had happened between them, Eerie didn’t seem to want to talk to him anymore.
    He snuck a look at Anastasia out of the corner of his eye — she was sort of pretty, he had to admit, in a rigid sort of way, her hair pulled tightly back in a bun, her black dress excessively formal for the occasion, frilly and fringed with ribbon. Her sober demeanor and her childish appearance were constantly at odds. When she was focused on something else, like she was now, the cell phone in the palm of her hand as she waited for a response, her gaze fixed on something below, he could pretend she was a regular teenager — a bit spoiled, maybe, and probably awkward around people, the kind of bookish girl that he usually felt a little sorry for.
    Something about the idea of pitying Anastasia struck him as amusing, and he found himself grinning. Anastasia caught it in the reflection, and shot him a look that combined curiosity with annoyance, but Alex didn’t care. Lately, he’d been feeling that he was spending too much time worrying about what Anastasia thought.
    It was funny, in a way. He’d always thought of himself as independent, maybe even a bit headstrong, but then things got scary. And then, all of a sudden, it became very easy to take orders, when the person giving them sounded like they knew what to do. If they were good at it, like Anastasia was, Alex worried that he might not even notice himself obeying.
    “Alright.” Renton’s voice crackled through the hiss of static. “She’s parked herself. As far as I can see, we’re all clear.”
    Anastasia pursed her lips for a moment, looking out the window. This time, Alex was able to follow her gaze, to a figure shaking out a red picnic blanket, not far from the near edge of the park. Mitsuru, in trainers and a white t-shirt, her eyes hidden behind overly-large sunglasses, the kind they sell in the drugstore, looking uncomfortable amidst the sun and crowds.
    “Boss? You sure you want to be the one to meet her? Ed says that he’s closer…”
    “No,” Anastasia said curtly into the radio. “No, I’m going.”
    “But, what if this is…”
    Anastasia looked angrily at the radio, as if it could convey her glare.
    “If it is,” she said firmly, “then we already discussed how to deal with that. Follow the plan, Renton. Everything will be fine.”
    Anastasia put the radio down on the desk top, and then sat up, brushing off her dress and looking mildly perturbed.
    “Very well,” she said, gathering herself with an effort, and dispelling any trace of nervousness. “I shouldn’t be long. If things go poorly, take her,” she said, pointing at Eerie, who was still sulking at the far end of the office, “and run. Get out of the state, to a city, somewhere big. Check into a hotel, and call Alistair. He’ll bail you out.”
    “Right,” Alex said, nodding.
    “No, ‘What about you guys?’ No worrying over your friends, or wanting to play the hero? We are here to rescue you, after all.”
    “Friends? No,” Alex said firmly. “I can’t imagine there’s anything out there more dangerous than you, Anastasia. And if there is, you can be sure that I’m not going to try and fight it.”
    Anastasia shook her head, as if she had tired of tolerating his foolishness.
    “What, haven’t you met Mitsuru? Don’t be so dramatic, Alex. They come worse than me, I assure you.”
    Alex waited until the door shut behind her before he went back to looking out the window. Despite the big talk, he did feel nervous, and yes, a tad bit guilty. It wasn’t that he had some particular desire to risk his life, in fact, he was still scared after his last encounter with the Weir. But, the idea of watching people that he knew fighting and dying in front of him, even if he couldn’t exactly call them his friends, well, that made him very uncomfortable.
    Not that he wouldn’t run, though, if things looked bad. He’d worry about feeling guilty over it later.
    Alex turned his attention back to the window. He knew that Renton was on the roof with some sort of scoped rifle. Edward had gone up with him initially, probably to help with the bags, and then had come down a bit later, alone and empty handed. He wasn’t sure where Edward had gone after that, but it couldn’t have been far. Alex got the impression that it was rare for Anastasia to not be under the watchful eye of at least one of her guards. There was no way, he knew, that they were letting her walk out alone and unprotected, no matter how it looked to him.
    Alex had to admit, however, that was exactly how it appeared, at the moment.
    Anastasia seemed a bit tentative when she stepped outside, before squaring her shoulders and crossing the street, marching firmly through the throng on the sidewalk at the edge of the park, ignoring comments from a group of teenagers clustered near a fire hydrant. Alex couldn’t decide whether she was actually worried, or whether it was an act, for the benefit of their unseen observers.
    “Anastasia looks jumpy,” Eerie observed, causing Alex to start and glare at her resentfully. She was standing next to him with her fingers pressed up against the glass, staring down below them. “She’s not into being out in public.”
    “Go figure. I thought you weren’t talking to me?”
    Eerie looked surprised, and then a bit sad.
    “Not talking to Alex? No,” she said, shaking her head emphatically, “I talked to you this morning at breakfast.”
    Alex turned to her and stared in frustration.
    “You asked me for the salt,” Alex objected. “That doesn’t count as talking to me, damn it!”
    Eerie glanced over at him and raised an eyebrow.
    “Picky. Alex is so sensitive.”
    Alex winced without meaning too. He wanted to yell, but he bit his tongue, and forced himself to calm down. He’d been getting angry too easily lately, and he had the feeling that he was being played every time he did. At a certain point, it became difficult to say who was doing the manipulating, but Alex couldn’t discount the notion that there was someone who preferred him angry and impulsive.
    “Whatever,” he said, shaking his head irritably. “What did Anastasia say to you last night, anyway?”
    Eerie pointed at something outside the window.
    “Anastasia and Mitsuru are coming back this way,” she said, nodding at the window. “Aren’t you supposed to be watching this?”
    Alex shrugged.
    “My only job was to run away with you, assuming everything went south,” Alex said wryly, sitting back down on the desk, his back to the window. “Given the lack of screaming and dying, I think it’s safe to say it won’t come to that.”
    Eerie stared at him, her expression unreadable. After a moment, Alex looked away, feeling unaccountably embarrassed.
    “Run away with me?” Eerie said, wonderingly. “Alex gets all the good jobs.”
    Alex stared for a moment, until Eerie finally cracked a smile, and then started giggling. Alex had to laugh himself, partly out of relief, and partly out of shock that Eerie had made something resembling a joke.
    “What’s so funny?” Anastasia demanded crossly, leading Mitsuru into the vacant office, Edward trailing a few feet behind them, smiling affably.
    “Nothing,” Alex said, waving her off. “It’s good to see you, Miss Aoki.”
    Mitsuru looked up from where she had dumped her bags on a vacant, dangerously listing desk, clearly a bit surprised.
    “Right,” she said, shrugging and opening a bag that, to Alex’s eyes, appeared to be filled entirely with guns. “Let’s talk about how we get you kids home.”

Twenty Eight

    “Where is this place, anyway? What’s up with all the trees? Are we even in the city?”
    Anastasia shook her head, trying to ignore Alex’s complaints, trying to match Mitsuru’s relentless pace through the brush and hilly ground. She held the edges of her skirt primly, determined to avoid snagging it on the bushes, sprinklers and debris that littered their path. She was sympathetic to the boy’s point, at least to an extent. Her dress, after all, was an expensive, one-of-a-kind piece, custom-made at a little shop in the Shibuya neighborhood of Tokyo that specialized in such things, and therefore delicate and irreplaceable. Certainly, Mitsuru had said nothing about traipsing through the woods on their way back to Central.
    But the endless stream of questions and complaints that he had produced over the last hour were beginning to strain Anastasia’s composure, something for which Alex seemed to have a particular gift.
    “This is the Presidio. It used to be an army base, I think, years ago. Now it’s a park," Margot said, from somewhere behind her. She didn’t sound thrilled at the situation, either, but then again, Margot never did. “Now would you please shut up?”
    “I don’t think so,” Alex responded, a touch out of breath. “I want someone to tell me what the hell is going on! I’m tired of going along with whatever I’m told without knowing why. This is all a bunch of crap, as far as I’m concerned.”
    Anastasia ignored the commotion behind her. Margot had seemed more than usually edgy with Alex all day, and from the sounds, had resorted to violence to get him to shut up. Not that Anastasia had any problem with the vampire slapping Alex around a bit. Still, Anastasia was surprised to see Margot so worked up, and couldn’t help but wonder how much Eerie’s obvious fascination with the boy played into it.
    She stepped gingerly over a half-rotten log, and then threaded her way carefully through a series of muddy puddles, wincing when one of her patent leather shoes sunk into the marshy soil. Anastasia was so distraught by her ruined shoe that she didn’t notice Renton behind her, not until he had swept her up in one effortless gesture, one arm hooked underneath her bunched skirts, the other behind her shoulders.
    “Renton!” she hissed, trying to keep her voice down. “What are you doing?”
    Renton smiled and shook his head, plodding through the mud indifferently.
    “Your dress will get ruined,” he said lightly. “I would not have the Mistress of the Black Sun embarrassed or discomfited by such a small thing.”
    He smiled at her, in a way that was both indiscrete and completely inappropriate.
    “Particularly when she is so easy to carry.”
    Anastasia grimaced, but relaxed in his arms. She knew from experience that there was no point in arguing — he would agree, of course, and do whatever she told him to, but she would have to make a scene in order to make that happen. And he was right — appearances were part of her responsibility, after all, even if Renton’s motivations were a bit less than proper.
    “At least make sure they don’t see us,” Anastasia grumbled.
    Renton had done this for her often, growing up, but that was when she was a child. He hadn’t changed much at all, she thought, her head leaning against his chest, overcome by a wave of memories going back almost as far as she could remember.
    Joseph Martynova, her father, had called her into his office, the first time she’d ever been there without her mother, or a nanny, to look after her. It was a vast, book-lined room with deep red carpet, an imposing walnut desk placed in front of a giant bay window facing east, oriented so that the sun rose directly behind it much of the year. Her father was a man who appreciated the value of symbolism, something that was not lost on his daughter.
    He’d barely looked at her, speaking in his low voice while writing something with a beautiful antique pen, sounding tired and distracted. He’d explained to the four-year old that she lived in a dangerous world, and even though she was not the heir to the Black Sun, she was expected to hold a position of prominence one day. This would, he explained indifferently, make her the target of all sorts of potential violence, blackmail, intimidation, and kidnapping attempts, something her father could attest to, since he was an expert at using those very same techniques to subdue rivals. Anastasia hadn’t fully known what to make of it, at the time, but she was already smart enough to know when not to speak.
    Then he’d called Renton into his office. Renton walked in and stood nervously in front of her, obviously uncomfortable in his formal attire, his posture stiff, and his bow deep and clumsy. Renton Vidor, her father explained, would be her bodyguard for the next few years. The second-eldest son of one of the minor cartels in the Black Sun’s orbit, he had been pledged into their service as a sign of his cartel’s loyalty, and therefore Anastasia’s father was obligated to find a function for him. If she was satisfied with his performance, he said, she could elect to continue his employment in this capacity when she left for the Academy. Then her father had motioned for them to leave, and Renton had offered her his hand, his smiling face then exactly the same as the one that she saw now.
    It was like that, sometimes, after activation. The nanites affected the aging process in inconsistent and unpredictable ways — some Operators appeared to age normally, while others aged only until a certain point, and then simply stopped, seemingly not aging a day until they died. Some Operators had lived for more than a hundred years, according to the Black Sun’s archives, while others had died in their teens of what appeared to be old age. Renton had been a young-looking twenty when he had been assigned to guard her, and only his hairstyle had changed since then.
    The subject worried Anastasia more than she would have cared to admit. As far as she could tell, she hadn’t grown at all since she was thirteen, more than three years ago. She knew that happened to girls, sometimes, and that it didn’t necessarily mean anything — she could have been a late bloomer, after all. But Anastasia didn’t find the thought of going through life appearing to be a flat-chested teenager to be an attractive one. It was a horrible thought, actually, the only one that ever kept her up at night. And though nothing was certain yet, she knew that it was a very real possibility. Alice Gallow appeared to be in her late twenties, after all, but the archives said that she was much, much older. Maybe even the oldest Operator on record, having first come to the Black Sun’s notice during the Spanish Civil War.
    Then again, there was a big difference, Anastasia thought grimly, between being young forever, and being in puberty forever.
    “Ana, what’s our next move?”
    Renton looked worried, but his question broke the cycle of her own worries. He was good for that, at least. He might have been insolent and disrespectful, perverted and low minded, but Renton knew her better than anybody else did, and he when it mattered, he always seemed to do the right thing, without even thinking about it.
    It was that quality, above all others, even loyalty, that had made Renton rise in rank, to become her lieutenant. It was his effectiveness, however, that kept him there.
    “Wait and see,” Anastasia said, leaning back to look at the starless sky. “I have some ideas, but the picture as a whole is still unclear. Something about this situation is very wrong, and I will not make any dramatic moves, not until I know for certain who is responsible.”
    “Are you sure? We have resources in this area. I can call O’Brien at the Marin compound, and arrange an exit. For all of us, if necessary. Even Alex.”
    “Not yet. Not until the trap is sprung.”
    Renton ploughed through the rest of the marshy area in a straight line, making no attempt to avoid the puddles, his feet squelching and sinking into the mud with every step. It did not appear to bother him, though it was hell on the suit she’d had tailored.
    “You think this was all a setup?”
    “Yes. Only gross incompetence or deliberate planning could have put us in this mess, and I am not inclined to think that Central is incompetent.”
    Anastasia frowned.
    “At least, not this incompetent.”
    “Then, who do you think…”
    Anastasia cut him off with a look.
    “Shush, Renton,” she scolded. “This isn’t the time or the place.”
    She looked around them significantly.
    “And you can put me down, now. It is much drier, here.”
    Renton grinned, and set her down delicately on her feet. The ground was indeed much drier, and the brush had started to open up to pine trees surrounded by patches of brown grass.
    “There is going to be a fight,” she said moodily, walking beside Renton. “Central would not bring us this whole way, so Mitsuru could sneak us out the back door. The Weir will find us first.”
    Renton looked over at her, his eyes sharp and worried.
    “Who is their target? All of us? You? The new kid?”
    “I’m not sure,” Anastasia said, shrugging. “But, I think we will find out soon. Don’t worry so much, Renton — that is my job. You focus on getting us back to Central, safely.”
    “Milady,” he said, nodding.
    “And try not to be so forward in the future. Even when we are alone.”
    “As you say.”
    His face was absolutely, utterly somber. She was genuinely tempted to smack him.
    “Up here,” Mitsuru’s voice rang out in the dark, from somewhere in the clearing up ahead. “This is where we’ll do it.”

    Anastasia was fretting over the damaged hem of her dress, her skirt spread out across her legs in front of her, when Alex sat down heavily beside her. She was a bit surprised, as he had lapsed into sullen silence after Margot had smacked him around earlier, and hadn’t said a word during the hour or so of preparations that followed their arrival.
    “Uh, Anastasia?”
    He spoke quietly, leaning forward and trying to catch her eye.
    “Can I ask you something?”
    Anastasia carefully threaded a needle with black silk, not bothering to look over at him. She wasn’t too good at this sort of thing, but not because she wasn’t interested. Having too many servants and lacking in basic domestic skills was a kind of occupational hazard.
    “Ask away,” she said, a touch crossly.
    “Okay,” Alex said, sounding a bit puzzled. “What exactly are we doing here?”
    Anastasia made a first few clumsy stitches, then held the hem of the skirt up to examine the torn fringe critically.
    “We are going home, Alex, back to Central.” Anastasia glared at the offending lace. “Mitsuru brought a beacon with her, a piece of stone from Central, so that they can lock on to us. Once she activates it, Central can start opening a way between here and there, through the Ether. It takes a little while, though, and the minute that beacon activates, every Witch and Weir within a hundred miles is going to know where we are, and what we are doing.”
    “And you think that they’ll get here in time to try and stop us? It seems like we are kinda out of the way, here.”
    Anastasia resumed her repairs, trying to reaffix the fringe to the hem of her skirt.
    “I’m certain at least some of them will be nearby,” she said firmly, still engrossed her work. “They have a sort of precognition, as well. They must have anticipated this.”
    Anastasia felt a sharp pain in her index finger, and dropped the needle and thread, immediately losing them in the grass beneath her in the dark. She stuck her wounded finger in her mouth, fuming.
    “So… couldn’t we go somewhere further away? I mean, we could rent a car or something, and drive out to the middle of nowhere, right? Then they couldn’t possibly get to us, not in time to stop us from going home.”
    Anastasia looked moodily at Alex. She was mainly annoyed about the dress, but she still had to curb the urge to bite his head off. Even when he was trying, and he was clearly trying right now, the boy aggravated her to no end.
    “Alex, the protocol Mitsuru used to hide our Etheric signatures will dissipate in a few hours,” she explained, sighing. “That aside, it is only a matter of time until they track us down. We don’t have any resources here, any allies, or a real chance of defending ourselves against a determined attack. And if we were to try and run, don’t you think their precognitives might anticipate that as well? We would step out of the car, and walk straight into a Weir’s mouth. Understand?”
    Alex nodded slowly.
    “I guess so,” he said, his brow furrowed. “But, why here?”
    He gestured at their surroundings: a low place in between two small hills, surrounded by brush and blackberry bushes and a handful of eucalyptus trees, a half-fallen chain link fence, and a crumbling concrete building frame. It was little more than a bare concrete pad and three walls, perforated where there had once been windows and doors, wrapped in a blanket of multicolored, indecipherable graffiti.
    “Because I’ve been setting this place up all day. I have mines and shaped charges strung along the only approach. We’ll have some options, here,” Mitsuru said, sitting down next to him them, and taking a long drink from a bottle of mineral water. She looked tired, and Anastasia was a little surprised that she would show, and wondered exactly how exhausted she was. In all probability, Mitsuru had been working another assignment when she had been called here. Anastasia could only hope that she had enough left in her to bring them all home.
    Well, she amended, she could hope, and make contingency plans.
    “Once the beacon is activated, Central will need about thirty minutes to lock on to us and prepare the transfer. I’m not certain how long it will take before the Witches find us — the precognitive pool says that most of their forces are arrayed in the urban core, or along the periphery, to keep us from leaving the city,” Mitsuru paused to drink again, and then frowned. “Assuming they know what they’re talking about, then they shouldn’t have time to come down heavy on us before we’re out of here.”
    “I still don’t see why they didn’t just send Alice Gallow to retrieve us all…”
    Mitsuru glared at Anastasia bitterly.
    “Think she might have something better to do?”
    Anastasia shook her head.
    “I doubt it very much.”
    For a long moment, Mitsuru looked like she might lose her temper, and Anastasia wondered if her needling had been a little too effective. Then she shook her head, and the tension dissipated.
    “It is what it is,” Mitsuru said levelly. “No other way for all of us to get home.”
    Anastasia looked at her dress unhappily.
    “Well, this is fucked,” she said quietly. Mitsuru and Alex both gave her looks, clearly uncertain whether she meant the plan or her dress. Anastasia decided to let them wonder.
    “That place has a basement,” Mitsuru said, inclining her head in the direction of the ramshackle structure. “The noncombatants can stay inside there, up until the transfer is ready.”
    Anastasia saw Alex stiffen, and then sit up straight, and she had to suppress a smile.
    “Who, exactly, are you talking about?”
    Alex faced Mitsuru as defiantly as he could manage. She met his stare with her impassive red eyes.
    “Eerie and you,” Mitsuru said, with a hint of a shrug. “Anastasia can take care of herself, whatever she decides to do.”
    Anastasia turned and smiled at Alex, who was staring at Mitsuru in shock at her totally understandable disregard.
    “Maybe you could hide underneath Eerie’s skirt,” Anastasia suggested helpfully. “Kill two birds with one stone.”
    Alex barely acknowledged Anastasia, or her jibe. He just lowered his head, balled his fists, and stood there, his eyes still locked on Mitsuru as if they were locked in epic combat.
    “I am not hiding,” he said quietly, with a determined voice that made it very difficult for Anastasia not to laugh. “I’m going to stay up here and fight.”
    “You don’t know how to fight, Alex. Renton, Margot, Edward and I are all combat veterans,” Mitsuru reminded, looking a bit annoyed. “If you want to help, then stay out of the way, and let us do our jobs.”
    Alex shook his head slowly, glaring definitely at Mitsuru.
    “I am not hiding in that hole,” he said firmly, pointing at the dilapidated ruins.
    Mitsuru stood up, brushing the dead grass from her jeans, and then walked over to stand close to Alex. Though she had to look up at him, she wasn’t any less intimidating for it.
    “It is my job to bring all of you home. All of you. And you and Eerie can’t even defend yourselves, Alex, much less help the rest of us. So the two of you are going in the basement,” she insisted, raising her voice slightly, “and that is final.”
    Mitsuru stopped and then shook her head in disbelief when Eerie cleared her throat politely, from right behind her. She had been curled, asleep or pretending to be asleep, underneath a nearby tree since they had arrived in the valley. Anastasia couldn’t understand how she managed to cross the clearing and walk up behind Mitsuru without her noticing — frankly, she hadn’t even seen her get up from under the tree — and Anastasia felt a trace of annoyance over it.
    Then she went back to being just a touch amused. It always made her feel upbeat, watching a plan come together, even if it didn’t all go exactly the way that she had expected.
    “I am not going in the basement if Alex isn’t,” Eerie said shyly, her hands clenched in front of her, her eyes downcast.
    Mitsuru turned around, looking more surprised than angry.
    “You too, Eerie? Look, both of you, this isn’t up for debate. I’m not asking you to do it, understand? I’m telling you.”
    Renton and Edward entered the valley from the south, moving briskly over the damp ground, looking unhappy. Renton ran over to Anastasia and whispered his report to her. Anastasia listened for a moment, then nodded and turned back to Mitsuru, who was moving quickly from impatient to infuriated.
    “We may not have time for discussion, Miss Aoki,” Anastasia said brightly. “Renton says that he discovered a number of large, feral Etheric signatures nearby, approaching rapidly.”
    Mitsuru turned from Eerie to Anastasia, and then threw up her hands, looking exasperated.
    “How could they have found us so quickly? We haven’t activated the beacon, yet.”
    Anastasia shrugged half-heartedly. What could she have said? It wouldn’t have helped anything, to have answered Mitsuru’s question.
    “Okay, no choice. Eerie, do you know how to activate a beacon?”
    Eerie got all tongue-tied, but eventually she managed to nod at Mitsuru.
    “Then do it, there’s one over there,” Mitsuru ordered, pointing to the pile of mostly empty bags leaning against one wall of the concrete building. “And keep your head down. Renton, you and Edward know what to do. Where is Margot?”
    “She’s already in place,” Renton said, a little out of breath, “and waiting.”
    Mitsuru nodded gravely, pulling the belt that held her guns from the bag at her feet. She clicked the buckle into place, one hand absently confirming the presence of the twin pistols, strapped to the small of her back.
    “Alright, then you do the same,” she said, nodding at Renton and Edward, as she added a sheathed knife to her belt. “Let me know as soon as you know which way they are going to come, especially the big one.”
    Alex grabbed Mitsuru’s arm, and everyone froze in shock, midway through their preparations, Renton holding a forgotten assault rifle only partially removed his bag, even Anastasia standing wide-eyed and staring.
    “That’s the silver one, right? That Weir?”
    Everyone was surprised. Mitsuru simply nodded, instead of exploding. After a moment, she brushed his hand distastefully off her arm. Anastasia was disappointed by her restraint.
    “Yes, I would imagine so,” Mitsuru said grimly, turning away from Alex and walking toward the edge of the valley. “But, if this works, you won’t ever see him.”
    “So, what do I do?”
    Mitsuru shrugged and kept walking.
    “I don’t know,” she said, without looking back. “What can you do?”

    Alex wasn’t even totally sure how to operate the gun he’d been handed; the snub-nosed submachine gun was a deceptively heavy mass of black carbon fiber stock and tooled metal, and with the clip in, very difficult to aim, as the front end was too heavy for the grip, and tended to pull down. Renton had showed him how to fire short bursts from the thing, and that was pretty much the best he could manage, firing at the nearby brush when it moved suspiciously.
    It had taken him an embarrassingly long time after the shooting had started to find and deactivate the safety. Alex wasn’t too sure that it made much difference — he was fairly certain that he hadn’t shot anything other than the surrounding flora.
    From where he crouched, behind a chunk of discarded concrete from some ancient foundation, Alex could see Renton and Edward, further out towards the edge of the clearing, exchanging fire with targets that remain stubbornly invisible to Alex. Not for the first time, he wondered how many bullets he had, and how many he had fired already, and exactly what he was supposed to do when they were all gone. Run and hide, probably.
    Alex already heartily wished that he had done just that. Eerie was crouched somewhere behind the remains of the concrete structure, with Anastasia keeping an eye on her. Mitsuru and Margot had disappeared as soon as the shooting started, and he hadn’t seen either since then, though during the occasional breaks in the gunfire, he could sometimes hear distant screams and howls. He was suspicious that Mitsuru or the vampire-girl might have something to do with that. Not for the first time, Alex wondered how long the fight had been going, and how long it would continue.
    It never occurred to him that he could be killed here, not in a real sense, until a group of Weir came pouring out of the tree cover like a feral tide, all teeth and claws and knotted muscle under matted fur, with a sound that was something between a scream and a howl. Alex didn’t even bother to aim, he just pointed the gun in the direction of the Weir and held down the trigger until it bucked in his hand.
    Alex noticed an odd thing, then, his mind operating with a strange clarity despite the sheer horror of his surroundings. As the mass of Weir advanced, moving as far as the withering fire from Renton and Edward would allow, they streamed past Renton’s position as if he wasn’t there.
    Alex watched as Renton calmly lifted the rifle to his shoulder, and then fired a quick burst, three rounds hitting one of the Weir in the chest, the hollow point shells mushrooming when they impacted the skin, creating great bleeding craters. The remaining Weir turned and spun in place, trying to locate the sound, to pinpoint their attacker’s position, apparently oblivious to the fact that he stood among them. After a few moments of half-hearted searching, the Weir seemed to forget and lose interest, returning to their forward push, only to have another of their number picked off by Renton.
    And so it went for what seemed to Alex to be a very long time — the Weir pushed forward into the clearing, where they were exposed to fire from all angles, and were eventually driven back. Meanwhile, Renton continued to quietly pick off the beasts, secure in what Alex could only assume was some kind of telepathic protocol. Occasionally, Alex manage to get a few clean shots off, and he thought that one or two might actually have hit, which somehow made him sick and proud at the same time.
    Then, without warning, the Weir pressed forward, and this time, the fire against them wavered. Edward was the closest, and therefore the first to go under. He kept firing even as the Weir pounced on him, with no perceptible effect. He tossed aside the assault rifle at the last moment, and Alex clearly felt the Etheric ripple that meant he had attempted to activate some sort of protocol, but whatever he had attempted, it was too late. Edward’s screaming was mercifully brief, his mauled body dragged back to disappear in brush and darkness.
    Alex watching in numb horror, as a surging wave of beasts crossed the empty ground between them, his empty submachine gun hanging useless from one hand, paralyzed by a feeling that had not quite had time to coalesce into fear. The part of his mind that was still capable of thinking was consumed with the hope that he would not wet himself before he was devoured. For some reason, this seemed very important.
    He assumed that he was dead when Renton grabbed him, pulling him forcibly back toward the ruined building by the collar of his shirt. It took a little while before his brain processed what he was seeing, before he stopped struggling against Renton and started running himself, away from the howling, away from the teeth and hot breath he imagined was on his heels.
    Alex was thrown to the ground by the force of an explosion, and then there was a lost interval, dead time.
    He opened his eyes, when he remembered how to do that, and his vision slowly returned to him, in the form of crudely defined silhouettes, then a semblance of the world he remembered before the concussive wave. If there were multiple explosions, as he had been led to believe there would be, then Alex could not tell — there was simply a terrific force that knocked him and everything around him to the ground, the trees nearby bending and cracking, and one huge noise, a sound for which he could find no comparison. It must have echoed, in the valley between those hills, but Alex couldn’t hear anything at that point. When he recovered enough to find his way to his feet, he did so, wondering if the nanites inside him would be able to repair his hearing, or whether he would stay deaf forever. The silent, smoky world that confronted him was so different from what he remembered that he was tempted to dismiss it as some sort of violently surreal dream. Then he saw Mitsuru.
    Though he would have been too embarrassed to admit it, Alex had in fact had a few dreams about Mitsuru. But, they had never involved her bleeding so much, or fighting a great silver wolf-monster.
    Something in Alex’s brain tripped, and finally started working again, and the scene came into focus. Mitsuru moved oddly, jumping out of the way as the Weir charged, firing the pistol she held at its back as it passed, and Alex wondered about the extent of her injuries. The Weir spun to face her again, apparently unhurt, while Mitsuru regarded it calmly, and bled. Alex felt his feet start moving before his brain became aware of the plan, which was probably for the best — had he been thinking clearly, he probably never would have done what needed to be done.
    She had not dodged the Weir’s strike, Alex realized, not wholly, and the resulting wound on her chest was deep and ugly. He wondered how long she had been fighting the thing, and if it was going as badly as it looked. He could see other, more minor wounds on her left arm and the back of her head, and he realized that her left leg was stiff and the foot was dragging on the ground. She looked as collected as ever, her blazing red eyes fixed on the monster, a 9mm in one hand, a long knife in the other, but Alex saw something he didn’t like in her stance, and ran even harder toward them, tossing aside the useless submachine gun as he did so.
    Anastasia’s arm smacked into his chest, bringing him to a stumbling halt ten meters away from Mitsuru and the Weir. She was covered in a layer of fine dust, and her dress was in shreds, but she looked otherwise unhurt. She looked over at Alex, and he was surprised to see pity in the look. She put one hand to the side of his head, and when she pulled it back, it was bloody. Alex reached up himself, and realized that he was bleeding from both ears.
    Anastasia tried to say something to him, but all Alex could hear was a painfully insistent ringing sound. She looked frustrated, and then tried yelling, with no more effect. Alex shrugged helplessly, distracted by the blood leaking from the side of his head. Anastasia stomped her foot, then grabbed Alex by the back of his head, and yelled directly in his ear. Alex couldn’t be sure, but he thought he heard the phrase ‘Black Protocol’. For a moment, this made no sense to him, then he looked over at the fight, and realized what Anastasia had in mind.
    Mitsuru was slowing down, there was no doubt about it now. The Weir leapt at her, crossing the distance between them in an instant, arms spread wide, savage talons stained red. Mitsuru rolled clumsily to the side, barely avoiding being torn to pieces by the monster’s claws. She didn’t even bother to try and counterattack this time, either because she lacked the energy or the opportunity, Alex couldn’t tell. He was already busy, tearing frantically at the Black Door in the recesses of his mind.
    For a panicked moment, he scrabbled against the dark, frosty wood of the door helplessly, the surface cold and unyielding. Then he remembered the protocol, and the instructions Rebecca had left for invoking it. Alex exhaled, not even aware that he had dropped to his knees, or that Anastasia was crouched beside him, holding him up. With a tremendous effort, Alex activated the Absolute Protocol.
    At first there were no obvious changes. Then Alex went stiff, his limbs and back rigid, his eyes rolled back in his head, and his body temperature began to drop dramatically. As Anastasia watched, his lips and eyelids started to turn blue, and she had to hold a hand up to confirm that he was still breathing. Then she felt the Ether seethe and roil, and she knew that a Black Protocol had been activated.
    The Weir didn’t appear any the worse for wear, not at first, but when he charged Mitsuru again, he was not nearly as fast, and even in her debilitated state, she managed to dodge the attack by dropping beneath it, almost crumpling. The Weir landed in a heap, striking the ground with surprising force and then whining. Mitsuru wobbled her way back to her feet, and looked at the huddled Weir curiously.
    The Weir snarled through a jumbled mass of teeth and tongue, holding its frost covered paws out accusatorially.
    “What is this? What is it that you’ve done?”
    Mitsuru said nothing, standing on the balls of her feet, waiting and ready.
    The Weir lumbered forward, moving much slower than it had earlier. As it moved, the sheen of frost that extended across the majority of its arms and torso cracked and bits of ice fell to the ground around it. One paw clutched at its chest while it attempted a sort of shambling run in Mitsuru’s direction, howling in outrage and pain.
    Mitsuru stepped to the side almost casually, her wounded leg dragging behind her. She tucked and rolled, then came up firing, emptying her pistol into the side of the Weir as it passed. In some places, the bullets impacted normally, but in other places, the flesh seemed to shatter on impact, leaving behind great cavities that sparkled with pinkish-red ice crystals.
    The Weir dropped to its knees, clutching at its wounded side and moaning, its other arm still clutching at its chest.
    “Trickery,” it hissed at the advancing Mitsuru, even the slobber at the edges of its jowls frozen and sparkling, “this fight was mine, whore.”
    “Was,” Mitsuru said lightly, limping toward the Weir, “maybe. Sure isn’t now.”
    The Weir fell forward, catching itself with one paw, and coughing slushy, partially frozen blood onto the ground in front of it. It blinked and tried to look up at Mitsuru as she stood over it, its eyes blinded by a rime of frost that stretched across the tissue, one of the eyelids sticking to the surface of the retina. It hissed something, perhaps it tried to speak, but all it managed to do was expel more of the thick reddish slush from inside its mouth. Mitsuru stood above the Weir, its silver pelt now thoroughly covered with a thick coating of frost.
    Anastasia watched as Mitsuru brought down the knife, Alex already fast asleep on the lap of her ruined dress.

Twenty Nine

    Alex woke with a start, not sure where he was, not sure how long he’d been asleep, but seized with a formless anxiety, a sense that he’d missed something important. He reached to wipe the sleep from his eyes, and heard the rattle of the IV stand and felt the tug of the tape and tubes that were strapped to his arm.
    Even in the dim confines of what he now recognized as a hospital room, Alex could barely keep his eyes open, the light spilling underneath the door seemed impossibly bright. Alex tried to sit up, and managed it after a certain amount of coaxing and waiting out his cramped muscles. His back was impossibly stiff and sore and his whole body ached, and he was alarmingly thinner than he remembered being.
    How long had it been, then?
    His hand brushed against his face in the darkness, and he was surprised to find that he had the better part of a beard. For a moment, Alex panicked completely, not sure what was happening, not sure whether he was awake or not. He leaned forward in the bed, and the movement inadvertently tore the tape stretched across his forearm, ripping the hair from his arm and bringing tears to his eyes. He winced and rubbed it, now thoroughly convinced that he was, in fact, awake.
    And as his eyes adjusted, he realized he was not alone. He could hear gentle, rhythmic breathing from somewhere near the bed, from a jumble of shapes and objects it took him a few minutes to identify.
    Eerie had pushed two chairs together next to his bed and was sleeping there, her legs curled in a ball in her heavy black tights, her sneakers tucked neatly underneath the chair, next to a basket that contained her knitting supplies. She’d looked as if she’d been there for a while.
    Alex tried to speak, and managed only a croak, his throat cracked and terribly painful. He looked around him for one of those call buttons he’d seen on TV shows, but he couldn’t find anything of the kind. He’d half-resolved himself to try standing up and make his way out to the hallway, maybe finding a nurse or something, when there was a soft knock on the door.
    “Alex?” He heard Rebecca’s voice from the other side of the door. “Close your eyes, okay? I’m going to come in…”
    Alex obediently screwed his eyes shut. The room lit up, and it was brilliant even behind his eyelids. It took some time before he managed to open first one eye and then the other, Rebecca standing over the bed and beaming down at him, surrounded by blazing white light like the portrait of a saint, looking a bit teary eyed.

    “Oh, you stupid fucking idiot,” she said sweetly, putting one hand on his forehead, “I knew you’d wake up, hon. I knew you would.”
    Alex attempted to smile back at her, tried to form words. She put a finger to his lips.
    “Don’t try and talk yet,” she said, heading toward the sink, “I’ll get you some water. I’m reading your thoughts, so don’t worry about trying to talk to me, just think clearly and slowly.”
    She brought Alex back a glass of water, which he managed to take from her with a certain amount of difficulty, holding the plastic cup in both hands. He raised it clumsily to his lips, and managed a single noisy sip, and then spent the better part of a minute coughing it back up while Rebecca patted him on the back. After that, he managed a bit more of the water, keeping it down this time.
    He tried to compose his thoughts, looking at Eerie significantly.
    “Oh dear,” Rebecca laughed, “generally, you don’t have to use your eyebrows so much to communicate telepathically.”
    She sat down on the chair next to the sleeping girl, running her hand through her faded blue hair, and smiling at her with an almost maternal affection.
    “She’s been here almost every night, Alex. Emily has been here a lot too, but mostly during the evenings and mornings.” Rebecca patted Eerie on the head affectionately. “I think they have some kind of system worked out so they are never here at the same time, which is funny, because they aren’t speaking to each other, last I heard. Emily is going to be pretty upset when she finds out that you woke up when she wasn’t around.”
    Alex finished the water, and then looked pleadingly at Rebecca and shook the empty cup in her direction.
    “You really suck at telepathy, you know that, right?”
    Rebecca took the cup patiently, then smacked him on the forehead, before she went to go refill it.
    “Good thing you’re better at surviving, huh?”
    Alex drank most of the water in the cup, and then set it down on the table beside the bed. He was already starting to feel better, and had to suppress his urge to start removing the IV gear from his arms.
    “What…” Alex croaked, and then stopped and cleared his throat, before trying again. “What day is it?”
    Rebecca suddenly looked worried, and sat back down next to Eerie, who continued to sleep, totally unaffected.
    “Uh, well, Wednesday.” Rebecca said, looking at the floor.
    “Oh,” Alex said, puzzled, trying to remember what day it had been when they fought with the Weir.
    “The Wednesday before Christmas, that is.”
    Alex glared at Rebecca, but when she met his stare, she seemed sad. It was very clear that she was not joking with him, and Alex found it very difficult to breathe, all of a sudden. It had to be a joke, didn’t it? But then again, if it wasn’t, if Rebecca was serious, then…
    Then he had been asleep for weeks. More than a month.
    Alex lurched forward in the bed, tearing the tape from one arm, the IV tube stretching and pulling against his skin. His eyes were bloodshot and wide with panic, his skin flushed and covered in cold sweat.
    “No way,” he said, gritting his teeth, forcing himself up with his arms, “No, this can’t…”
    Rebecca sighed softly, and then patted him gently on his knee. Alex’s expression froze, for a moment, in a rectus of fear and mania, and then he quietly folded back into the pillows behind him, his face gone placid and serene, his eyes wet but unworried. He felt a tremendous sense of calm, of assurance, like being wrapped in blankets on a cold day, like a memory he didn’t have of his mother’s hand resting on his forehead when he was very young.
    “Sorry about that,” Rebecca apologized, “but if you freak out right now, you’re going to do yourself some harm. Plus, you’re going to bring down the whole of Central on our heads, and you definitely don’t want that.”
    Alex put his head in his hands, feeling oddly empty, drained of the panic that he could only vaguely remember.
    “Oh shit,” he said, his voice strained. “Edward. What happened to…?”
    Rebecca shook her head slowly.
    “He didn’t make it. The rest of them are fine, more or less. Mitsuru stayed down the hall for a week or so.”
    “How could this happen?” He mumbled, from behind his hands.
    Rebecca shook her head, and then reached reflexively for her cigarettes. She had the pack halfway out of her pocket before she remembered where she was, looked around her sadly, and then slid the pack back into her jeans with a sigh.
    “You used a Black Protocol, Alex. You helped Mitsuru to kill that Weir, from what I hear, you basically froze the bastard somehow. I already told you this, but any time you use a Black Protocol, there is a price to pay. I hope that it seems worth it.”
    Alex looked up at her sad expression incredulously.
    “So I slept for a month? That seems…”
    Rebecca looked downcast.
    “I know,” she agreed, grimly. “That’s why Michael didn’t want you to use this ability at all. The price for a Black Protocol is always greater than what you get from using it, if you ask me. You know you aren’t the only one here in Central who uses them, right?”
    “Well, Alice…” Alex said, nodding.
    “Right,” Rebecca nodded. “Well, Alice forgets things every time she uses her protocol, Alex. The more she uses it, the more she does with it, the more of her memory is gone forever.” The stare Rebecca fixed him with was hard. “Do you know what she does when she’s not out being an Auditor, Alex?”
    Alex shook his head. The calm that Rebecca had flooded him with earlier had started to ebb a bit, and he was having trouble following what she was saying, even with only the edges of the panic he’d felt nudging him.
    “She has a room full of diaries, Alex, hundreds of them. And she spends most of her time reading them, or recording the day’s events.” Rebecca smiled unhappily. “So it’s not like she doesn’t know anything about her life, because she’s read about some of it. But she doesn’t remember much of it at all.”
    “I don’t get it,” Alex said, closing his eyes and leaning his head back onto the pillow, still slightly damp with his sweat. “Why? Why did this happen?”
    “We don’t know,” Rebecca said darkly. “We still don’t have any idea. But every M-class on record has the same problem. Unlimited power, a Black Protocol, and an exorbitant cost for using it.”
    “Christ,” Alex said. “Who in the hell makes up all these rules?”
    Rebecca smiled and patted him on the leg.
    “Alice is an extreme example,” Rebecca said. “Not every M-class has problems on that scale, okay? She insists on using her protocol all the time, maybe more than any other Operator I’ve met, despite the consequences. Other people handle it better.”
    Alex thought for a moment.
    “Um, so, Mitsuru’s scars, then?”
    “You little shit,” Rebecca said approvingly. “How did you figure that out?”
    “Well, she cut herself when she saved me, that first night,” he said, smiling. “Before she used the barrier protocol. And then with what you just said… It doesn’t seem like you’d let someone that, uh, unstable work in the field, unless they had some truly exceptional abilities, right?”
    “Yeah, more or less,” Rebecca admitted grudgingly, “Mitsuru’s kind of unique, though. A long time ago, there was a plan to help her avoid having to use her Black Protocol. The surgery, right? The implant. The whole idea had, you know,” Rebecca paused and looked briefly angry, “mixed results. It won’t be repeated, that’s for sure.”
    “Wait, what?”
    “Another time,” Rebecca said, shaking her head. “We don’t have all night, and I came here to talk to you about some important things. I can’t be the only one in Central who knows you woke up, so it will be common knowledge, soon.”
    “What’s up with Eerie? Why isn’t she waking up?”
    Rebecca smiled and stroked Eerie’s cheek gently with the back of her hand.
    “I fixed it so she won’t wake up until we are finished. She’s fast asleep, dreaming about something that makes her happy,” she said, her eyes sparkling. “This is, actually, one of the things I wanted to talk to you about.”
    “Making Eerie happy is one of the things you wanted to talk about?”
    Alex fought off the urge to pinch himself, just to be sure this wasn’t an extremely odd dream.
    “Sort of. You see, I’ve known Eerie since she could walk without falling over, and I’ve never seen her latch on to someone the way she has with you. I think this is probably a new experience for her, and I’m not sure what to make of it — she’s not human, after all, not really.” Rebecca frowned, pulling her feet up onto the seat, clutching her knees to her chest. “I don’t know what it means, that Eerie is acting this way. I mean, she’s not totally abnormal, I know she’s gone out with boys before. But she didn’t seem to particularly care about them, one way or the other. You didn’t,” she asked, her voice tolerant and frank, “you know, do anything with her, while you were in San Francisco, did you?”
    “N-no,” Alex stammered. “Nothing like that. I’m not even sure that she likes me, you know. She doesn’t always act like it.”
    Rebecca nodded sympathetically.
    “I bet. I’m not sure that she even knows what she likes, some of the time. But, that’s beside the point,” Rebecca said, leaning closer. “My point is this — Eerie has put a lot of effort into being the first thing you see when you wake up, right? And her reaction to this, when it happens, is likely to be, well, intense.”
    “And I’m wondering if you want that.”
    “Huh?” Alex said, puzzled.
    “Alex, I can put you back to sleep for a few more hours,” Rebecca said glumly. “So that you’ll wake up when only the nurses are here. Or, if you prefer, a bit later, when Emily is around.”
    “Wait, what? What does it matter?”
    Rebecca shrugged.
    “If you don’t care, then I don’t care,” she said. “Just wanted to give you fair warning. Girls take this sort of thing seriously.”
    Alex scratched at his arm, where the tape had been torn away, leaving behind red, irritated skin.
    “Consider me warned, then. I’m not going back to sleep, anyway, not for any reason,” Alex said firmly. “Besides, I thought I was supposed to be staying away from the cartel girls.”
    “Eerie presents her own set of complications. But I’m not interested in keeping you away from anyone, Alex, and I’m sorry I gave you that impression,” Rebecca said, looking upset. “I’m trying to give you options, okay? Eerie seems to be kind of fascinated by you, and that’s already kind of a dangerous thing. If she decides that she likes you, well, then we are in unexplored territory.”
    Alex held his hands up in surrender.
    “Okay, sorry, I didn’t mean to be a jerk,” he said apologetically. “I’m still out of it and in shock, you know? Don’t take me too seriously.”
    “I never do,” Rebecca cut in, cheerfully, folding her arms across her chest and sitting back in the chair.
    “What’s so scary about Eerie?”
    “Well,” Rebecca said, looking at him doubtfully. “She isn’t fully human, for one thing.”
    “Yeah, and? I don’t mean to be rude or anything, but compared to my daily life lately, that doesn’t seem all that odd.”
    “Being part of the same species is kind of a minimum standard that most people apply in dating,” Rebecca said, resting her forehead on her hand tiredly. “Beyond that, you have noticed that she has some little biological quirks, right?”
    Alex nodded.
    “Sure, the whole ‘my body is a drug factory’ thing, right?”
    Alex paused while he recalled the room of dead Weir, and then his own somewhat fuzzy recollections of the night he’d spent with Eerie. Both seemed a touch surreal now, for different reasons.
    “Yeah, that thing,” Rebecca said, smirking. “What do you think happens, Alex, when you act as a catalyst for her abilities?”
    “I don’t know,” Alex said, scratching his head. “What?”
    “I don’t know,” Rebecca admitted, spreading her hands. “And that’s the whole problem.”
    Alex yawned and sat up in his hospital bed.
    “This is all kind of a moot point, because I’m not going back to sleep.” Alex shook his head. “I still can’t believe I’ve been asleep that long.”
    Alex felt just a bit of the panic he’d felt earlier, then, like he could feel the shape of the thing out there, emotionally, but it was still somehow distant, something to be objectively observed, but not necessarily something to be concerned over. He couldn’t help but wonder how long this particular perspective would last.
    “Yeah, it has to be disconcerting,” Rebecca said, putting her hand against Alex’s forehead. “You seem totally healthy, though, if a bit undernourished. Are you feeling any better?”
    “Thanks to you,” Alex said. “But, it isn’t a brand new experience for me. You lose a lot of time, being locked up. It’s weird, actually — every day seems to stretch on endlessly, but when you look at a calendar, you realize you’ve lost weeks or months, with no specific memory of the time passing.”
    Rebecca smiled at him.