“I would prefer to do this without resorting to force,” Richter says. “I have no desire or need to kill you. It is wasteful.”
Jenny says nothing. She keeps staring at the gun.
“Do not, however, mistake reluctance for unwillingness.” Richter’s voice is calm, almost soothing. “I will do what I must. I will reflect, very briefly, on the unfortunate waste of your life, and then I will continue living mine.”
She doesn’t believe for a second that he’s going to let her live. As soon as she no longer serves any useful purpose, he will kill her without a second thought. There’s no chance of her doing anything to stop him, either; he and her great-grandfather were about as evenly matched as they come. She doesn’t have a chance. That said, she isn’t going to just shrug her shoulders and surrender.
She forces herself to look at Richter, pushing back the anger she feels when she sees his face. She keeps her expression neutral, and when she speaks her voice is calm and even-toned.
“What do you want?”
“I want very little,” Richter says. “Your cooperation, for a time. I represent certain parties who desire information. Give us that information and all will be well.”
He’s lying, of course.
Richter’s expression doesn’t change. “You have a coarse tongue.”
Jenny crosses her arms stubbornly. “You murdered my great-grandfather. I’m pretty sure I know what’s going to happen to me, whether I cooperate or not. Since I’m not going to get what I want, I don’t see why I should cooperate.”
Richter’s expression hardens. “Don’t try my patience, girl. You are not worth the effort it would take to subdue.”
“Do what you have to do,” Jenny’s voice is tight with barely-contained anger. “Pull the trigger. Quit wasting my time.”
Richter shrugs slightly and raises the pistol so the barrel is pointed at her head. “Goodbye, Fraulein Forrest.”
Jenny stares down the barrel of the pistol and sways slightly. She feels dizzy and lightheaded, her heart is racing, and all of a sudden she is hyper-aware of everything around her: where she’s standing, where Richter is standing, every piece of rubble on the floor, every disturbed patch of dirt. She notices, for the first time, that the wall on the other side of the warehouse has collapsed inward, as if a wrecking ball had smashed into it. She notices how far away Richter is standing from her. Her instincts scream move! Run! Fight!
It’s useless, she thinks. Richter outclasses her, physically, in every possible way. He’s faster, he’s stronger… but what the hell.
She sees his finger tighten on the trigger. She drops to the floor. The gun roars, the sound amplified by the echo of the empty building, but the shot goes over her as she rolls toward him.
He is surprised by her response, but not overcome by it. He’s seen enough desperate people performing desperate acts that he knows how to adjust to them. He steps back, calmly adjusts his aim, and prepares to fire.
Jenny twists on to her left side and throws something—a handful of loose change taken out of her jacket pocket. Quarters and nickels and dimes fly into Richter’s face. He swears in German, his free hand involuntarily rising up to shield his eyes. Jenny rolls to her left and springs forward, launching at Richter’s legs.
The change scatters harmlessly across Richter’s face. Richter’s hand drops. Cold fury shines in his eyes. He kicks at Jenny the way he might kick a dog. His boot races to her face; Jenny intercepts it and manages to deflect it just enough so that it hits her shoulder. Pain lances down her side, but she keeps her grip on the leg. A moment later she twists, wraps her legs around his, and pulls, toppling him to the ground.
It’s hard to say, at that moment, which of them is more surprised.
Richter grunts as he hits the concrete floor. His pistol slides across the floor, disappearing beneath a mound of trash and rubble near the loading dock entrance. He rolls to his feet, apparently unfazed by the fall. His expression—in fact, his entire stance—has changed. He’s cautious, now. Calculating.
Jenny isn’t sure what happened. She expected to be dead by now, and she isn’t, so she decides to make the most of it and save her questions for later. She gets to her feet and crouches low, a stance she remembers from one of her great-grandfather’s lessons.
Richter kicks again. Immediately Jenny brings up her arms to block. The kick is weak; it was a feint. Jenny almost doesn’t notice the left hand striking at her unprotected side. She half-turns, lets the blow glance off her ribs, then jabs at a spot just under Richter left arm. His right blocks, his left pushes her away, and Jenny feels herself flying across the room.
She flips in mid-air and lands on her feet.
…I did what?
“You keep secrets, Fraulein.” Richter circles around to the side, measuring her up. “Even from yourself, I think.”
Jenny’s heart is pounding so hard it feels like it will burst out of her chest. The air tastes sharp. She feels giddy. She grins fiercely and clenches her fists.
The ferocity of her attack forces him back, step by step. Blow after blow, each blocked, but each time a blow comes closer to landing home. Finally one strikes home—a sharp jab to his side. He grunts, takes another step back, and her foot connects with the side of his knee. He staggers, but manages to block the next three blows.
And then Richter relaxes.
Jenny presses her attack, but each blow is countered immediately, completely, almost without effort on his part. And each blow he delivers in return requires more effort to block. Finally she stumbles, and his fist smashes into the side of her head, sending her spinning. He kicks her in the stomach, hard, and she flies back, hitting the floor, hard, gasping for breath.
Jenny scrambles to her feet, trying to breathe, willing her eyes to focus. By the time they do—by the time she can do anything at all—Richter has retrieved his gun.
“You surprise me, Fraulein Forrest,” Richter says. “I did not expect you to be one of us.”
She tries, and fails, to think of something to say.
“I feel enormous sympathy for you, Fraulein. I do.” Richter’s voice has returned to its calm, almost soothing tone. “To taste so briefly of that nectar. Had you the time to hone your skill, you might have beaten me. But now… now you have become a liability.”
She’s not going to be able to close the gap again. Richter is too far away.
“Shut up,” she says. “Just do it, and be done.”
She stares at him defiantly. Richter pulls the trigger. The gun echoes like a cannon. Jenny sees a streak of red.
Wind whips through the warehouse, dirt and debris fly in every direction. Jenny covers her ears as she hears a loud boom and the sound of glass shattering. She hears Richter shout in alarm, then hears the crackle of energy as the smell of ozone mixes with the dirt, dust, and rain. The wind dies down immediately, and Jenny hears someone else—someone American—swearing.
“He got away,” she hears the voice say. “Teleport. Have I mentioned I hate teleporters? Uh, maybe don’t tell Blink I said that.”
Jenny wipes her sleeve across her face and coughs again. She can see a little—the dust isn’t thick, it’s just everywhere. The silhouette of a man stands framed in the loading bay door.
“Who the hell are you?” She coughs once more and tenses, preparing for the worst.
The silhouette turns to her. “Jennifer Forrest? You can call me ‘Red Shift.’ Agent Travers sent me.”
Jenny frowns. “Red Shift? Crossfire? He sent Crossfire?”
The air clears enough to see him. He’s dressed in a black uniform—a body suit with armored plates stitched into it. A yellow, stylized crosshair sits over his left breast. A harness that looks like a plated web belt is strapped over his chest, whirring softly. A visor that looks like a solid sheet of mirrored glass covers most of his face. Except for his mouth, which is smiling slightly. He holds out his hand—sitting in the palm is a twisted lump of metal.
He caught the bullet. He actually caught the bullet.
“He was a bit pressed for time,” Red Shift says.
Jenny picks the deformed bullet out of his hand and turns it over in her own. “So was I. Thanks.”
The smile warms a bit, then turns into a frown. “Where’s Curveball?”
Jenny’s relief disappears. “He’s back at his apartment. On the Boardwalk. I don’t know what’s going on over there, he just said it was magic and told me to run.”
Red Shift nods. “Right. Where’s the Boardwalk?”
“It’s a little more complicated than that,” Jenny says. “I’ll take you. Or… you take me. I’ll point.”
Red Shift hesitates. “It’s not a very dignified way to travel,” he says.
“Just watch your hands,” Jenny says, “and we’ll get along fine.”
* * *
CB isn’t throwing up any more—his stomach is too empty for that—but the dry heaves won’t stop. He’s completely incapacitated at this point. He hasn’t been able to do anything meaningful for minutes, and Plague is content to lean against a wall and watch him suffer.
“I’ll admit it,” Plague says. “I was worried at first. It never worked on you before. Everyone else in the room would be two steps from the grave, and you’d just stand there, laughing at me.”
The satisfaction in his voice is unmistakable. The resentment doubly so.
“But things changed. Somebody made me an offer I couldn’t refuse…” Plague’s voice trails off. “So I didn’t. And they made me better.”
“They… rebuilt you…” CB’s throat burns with bile. “Made you… stronger. Faster…”
Plague walks over to CB, staring down at him calmly.
He drives the heel of his boot into the small of CB’s back. CB yells, voice breaking and falling off into a high-pitched squeak.
“But I cost a lot more than six million dollars, asshole.”
“You’re… just… a pawn…” CB gasps.
“No shit.” The boot comes down again, this time into his side. “Of course I’m a pawn. You think I don’t already know that? Power comes with strings. It always comes with strings. They made me better. There were conditions. That’s life. I’m a pawn and I’ll play my part. I either make it to the other end of the board, or someone tips me over…”
Plague kneels down, grabs CB’s hair, and pulls up sharply. He looks at CB’s face: eyes unfocused, jaws slack, sweat and mucus covering his face. “I don’t think you’re going to be the one, though. You don’t have a lot of time left.”
“You can’t… kill… everyone…” CB can barely speak.
Plague laughs. “We can. We really can.”
Plague lets go of CB’s hair. CB’s forehead smashes into the floor with a thunk. He doesn’t cry out.
“Not long now.” Plague walks back to the wall and leans against it, looking bored. “A few minutes, I think. After that, I don’t know. I’m hungry, maybe I’ll get some—”
The wall explodes inward as something tears through it in the blink of an eye. The building rocks from the impact—bits of cinderblock bigger than a fist go flying everywhere. Plague starts to turn to the noise, surprised, when a shimmering red blur streaks directly toward him. A second later the blur stumbles, falls, and slides across the floor. Red Shift curls up into a ball, holds his stomach, and starts to retch.
Plague’s initial shock wears off. He turns to look at Red Shift and smirks. “Your backup didn’t last as long as you did. Nice trick with the wall, but…”
That’s when Jenny punches him right in the face.
The force of the blow knocks him clear off his feet. He falls on his back, grunting in surprise from the impact. The runes on his chest and arms flare up for a moment, and he sits up.
That’s when Jenny knees him in the jaw.
His head snaps back, his jaw shattering on impact. He screams in pain, and scurries away from her crabwise. When he’s far enough away, his eyes narrow and he starts to concentrate. The runes in his torso flare again, and the room fills with oily, sickening power.
Nothing happens. Plague, his face covered in blood, screams in frustration and pain through his shattered jaw. He closes his eyes, balls his fists, and the runes on his chest and arms flare so brightly he looks like he’s on fire.
Again nothing happens. When Plague opens his eyes, the only thing in them is fear.
He runs. He’s not nearly as fast as Red Shift, but he’s fast. He runs through the shattered wall and he runs down the boardwalk, shouting in pain and terror as he does. Almost immediately the oily power fades. In a second, Red Shift pushes himself off the floor and moans quietly.
Jenny kneels down next to CB. He’s a mess, but he’s breathing regularly. She presses her hand against his forehead. He doesn’t have a fever.
CB’s eyes flutter open, focus on Jenny, and he frowns slightly. “Did you…?” His voice is dry and cracked. He coughs once, tries to clear his throat, chokes, and coughs again.
“Don’t try to talk,” Jenny says. “We need to get you to a doctor.”
CB shakes his head. “It’ll be OK.” He can talk now, though not more than a whisper. “If he doesn’t hang around long enough to kill you, you bounce back pretty fast. Help me sit.”
Jenny grabs his shoulders and hauls him upright. CB looks around the lobby and sees Red Shift climbing to his feet.
“You’re a little out of your usual stomping grounds,” CB says. His voice is much stronger now. He almost sounds conversational.
“I’m slumming,” Red Shift says. “Are you in your uniform?”
“I thought it would help,” CB says.
“Not as much as I’d have liked.” CB tries to get to his feet. Jenny slings one of his arms over her shoulders. He leans against her and gets his bearings.
“Travers contacted us,” Red Shift says. “Said you were in trouble. Gave us the location of the phone Miss Forrest used to call him.”
“Looks like I owe Pete again,” CB says. “Jenny.”
Jenny looks up at him. “Yeah?”
“Did you just kick Plague’s ass?”
“Yeah,” Jenny says.
“Well. Thank God somebody did.” CB can stand on his own feet now, and walks over to the hole in the side of the building. He looks at Red Shift, looks at the door next to the hole, and shakes his head. “Let’s get out of here. There are still some soldiers around, and I think this is one of those rare instances when the police are actually going to show up on the boardwalk. Red, we have a safehouse in the city. Coming?”
“Sure,” Red Shift says. “But I’m going to need to stop for breakfast first.”
* * *
Street Ronin sips his coffee, waiting impatiently for his computer to finish its work.
Red Shift’s trip to Albany had not gone well. The only thing they learned was that the mysterious computer in the mysterious secret room had been booby-trapped. That suggested there had probably been something in it worth learning, but that door had shut. And then blown up, rather spectacularly.
Red Shift’s trip to Farraday City went much better. Miss Forrest and Curveball were both alive, and they were all rendezvousing at a safe house Curveball set up somewhere in the city.
That left them with one success and one failure—the scales were balanced. Street Ronin was hoping to add a little more weight on the success side.
Red Shift’s visor recorded everything in the Albany mission. Just before the bomb went off, it had recorded a brief flash of information from the computer monitor—the self-test the computer performed during a cold boot to make sure all its basic components were working properly. The image was only there for a moment, and it’s not very clear, so Street Ronin is running a few filters to make the text on the screen easier to read.
He looks at the image again. It’s getting close to legible. He can almost make out a few of the words and numbers.
A shadow falls across the monitor. Street Ronin turns to see David Bernard standing in the door.
“No IV today,” Street Ronin says.
David nods, walks over to the empty chair to his left, and sits. “Red Shift said I could take it out this morning.”
“Yeah,” David says. “It’s a little scary how much better I feel. I won’t be boxing any time soon, but… this is amazing.”
“Better living through biochemistry,” Street Ronin says. “It’s pretty much the only reason I’m still in the fight.”
His computer beeps, and an image of the Senator’s monitor appears on the screen.
“There we go,” Street Ronin says. “Let’s see if we can find anything interesting.”
David and Street Ronin both lean forward, looking at the image carefully.
“There,” David says, and points.
“What?” Street Ronin squints. “What are you looking at?”
“Not sure,” David says. “That’s usually where the computer reports what kind of BIOS it’s running, and the company that created it. I don’t recognize the company, though.”
They stare at the name for a minute.
“Haruspex Analytics,” Street Ronin says. “Who the hell are they?”