Friday, 02 December 2005 10:22

The Wicked Flee

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The First Erinyes Adventure

The Wicked Flee

by Bek D. Corbin

The Smithsonian Institute had seen better days. When the waters rose, people had to make some hard decisions as to what parcels of land they would save by diking them off and which they would abandon to the sea. Washington had been built on a drained swamp, so most of it had completely submerged in 30 feet of water. The Mall was one of the most scenic ‘venices’ in the North American Federation, but the Smithsonian complex had been diked off into a ‘bowl’.

Preston Wyecross had also seen better days. When he’d come to the Smithsonian with his high school class on a field trip, he had expected to be mildly bored as he was moved along with the rest of the sheep past all the relics in the Old Museum of American History. He hadn’t expected a team of very expert appearing terrorists to take advantage of the Smithsonian’s ‘bowled in’ placement, and take his class, along with two other schools and the other visitors, hostage.

Pres had snuck away from his group in order to answer the call of nature. He’d hit the jackpot, and found a small toilet that was probably used by the cleaning staff or something, instead of the larger visitor’s loo. He hoped that it wasn’t an exhibit. He’d just finished up when he heard the sound of gunfire. From his perch in the small, antique toilet, he watched as men in what appeared to be monk’s robes herded groups of people along. He barely managed to miss what appeared to be a team of five men sweeping the building for stragglers as he ducked out of the toilet and into the halls.

Pres found his mind falling into a strange, coldly lucid state. He knew that allowing himself to be taken hostage was a very bad idea. Hostages get shot by their captors, just to make a point. Hostages get shot by the people who are supposed to be rescuing them, because accidents happen. Hostages are forced to sit around in cramped, uncomfortable positions as their captors play mind-games with them, and the ‘rescuers’ play political games for their release.

Being a hostage sopped.

Also, Pres knew that he was way down on the long list of priorities for rescue. His parents weren’t important enough to squeeze for anything, he wasn’t young enough for the ‘poor little child’ angle, and as scrawny as he was, he couldn’t play the Pity Card, either. If he were taken hostage, he’d probably be one of the last ones released.

On the other hand, if he managed to stay free, and maybe helped out the rescue effort somehow, well that was a completely different kettle of fish!

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This is Ilena Reyes, live on the roof of the Old National Gallery, over-looking the Smithsonian Institute, which has been taken by a group of as yet unidentified terrorists. Twenty minutes ago, according to what sources as we’ve been able to access, no less then ten apparently separate groups of men broke into caches of weapons and armor that had somehow been smuggled past Institute Security and began to take Institute visitors and staff hostage. For reasons not completely understood, they seem to be concentrating on the Old Museum of American History, and are evacuating visitors and staff from the other buildings. Witnesses report that the terrorists used a false flood alarm to clear out most of the rest of the complex.

“At this point in time, the hostages have been separated into five groups, with hostages being held in four tourist sledges, and a group in an open huddle near the Main Landing Entrance. So far, there are reports of at least four deaths. From what we can see of the group that’s visible, the Terrorists are wearing Combat Grade Reflex Armor with integral gas masks, and are carrying Personal Assault Systems. The hostages in the open are being covered by three interlocking mounts of what looks to be Heavy Gauss Guns.

“At this point in this crisis, all that the Washington Police Department will say, is that a Crisis Intervention Service Provider HAS been sub-contracted.”

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Several groups of figures moved through the murky water of the flooded Mall on skips. The skips were in ‘silent running’ mode, using rotary hydro-jets instead of their suspensor field crawl. They had to navigate by dead reckoning, since the skips’ sonar was tied up broadcasting a subtle ‘white noise’ just in case the perps had anyone watching the Institute’s Security system. And from the moves that they were making, it would be a minor miracle if they weren’t. The groups separated into five-man teams, and each went off to their own goal. Some of these teams, when they reached their destinations, stopped, and angled their skips up so that they were pointing nearly straight up. When each team was in its proper position, the team leader led out a single loud *clack!*, and then went silent.

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The terrorists were making sweeps of the Museum, just in case they missed anyone on the first clean out. Pres managed to avoid being spotted by them, but he couldn’t trust his luck to hold. He sprinted from one hiding place to another. Hiding in the lower levels was stupid, since they were designed to prevent people from hiding, and each time he broke cover, he risked being spotted by the security cameras. If he could get into the Staff Offices, he figured he would be reducing his exposure to when he passed through the ‘Authorized Personnel’ door. And he figured that hiding in the offices would be a lot easier. Besides, using his PCS to call the Police from where he was at the moment was impossible. They were jamming the PCS carriers in the building, so his best bet was to find a landline in one of the offices.

Pres managed to duck past the sweeps and through the Staff Offices door without being spotted. The Old Museum of American History was, indeed, an old building, dating from the late 19th Century, and the offices were warrens of small cubicles that were packed with an agglomeration of office equipment in various stages of obsolescence. Pres darted about for a bit, and finally found a cubicle with a phone link that he could easily hide in, if another sweep came through.

He started to punch in the code for an outside line, when it occurred to him that if the Terrorists were watching the security monitors, then they probably had some way of watching outgoing calls as well. He paused, slumped down on the floor and huddled into the leg space under the workstation to think. Was there some way of figuring out if they were watching the landlines? Even if he could figure it out, could he do that without sending up a big ‘here I am’ flare? And even if he could do that without getting spotted, would he be able to sneak past them?

There was a shadow, as something flew between the office window and the sun.


Of course. He was over-thinking it. When uncertain, keep it simple. All that he really needed to do was get to a window, find one of the probably hundreds of Police Service Provider observers (and snipers) watching the windows, and get them to notice him.


Without the terrorists spotting him.

Or getting shot by an over-eager sniper.

Maybe he’d have a better chance with one of the News services. He tried to switch his PCS to one of the Newsfeeds, but the Terrs were jamming those, as well.

Well, it looks like I’m gonna havta do this the hard way, Pres thought to himself. As he carefully made his way to the window, he spotted a woman’s purse by one of the workstations. Seeing an opportunity, he rifled through the handbag, and found a makeup compact, no doubt with a mirror in it. This makes things easier, he thought, I guess pressure brings out the best in me.

He carefully approached the window and scanned the skyline of the buildings across the water. It occurred to him that if the Newsfeeds caught on that he was at large, they’d air it, and the Terrs would also immediately know it, seeing as how the Newsfeeds got paid for having ratings, and teenagers getting shot live on the air was a guaranteed ratings booster.

Okay, let’s see if the snipers are any safer...

Pres spotted what appeared to be several people intently looking through some sort of surveillance rig. He caught the sun in the hand-mirror and angled it at the side of the building. When he had it located, he maneuvered it over to where they were. There was a reaction, and when he was sure that they were looking at where he was, he waved a hand, and started flashing an SOS.

Then he waited for them to do something intelligent and professional. Well, they were the professionals, right? They dealt with this sort of thing all the time, right? Damn, he wished he knew Morse code or something...

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The man in the command chair at the Tac-Ops center snapped into his mike,

“Well, are you in position NOW? Everyone ELSE-”

“Yo, Skipper!”


“The Observation Team on the Old FBI building says they have a loose cannon on the third floor.”

“Loose Cannon? Security Guard or what?”

“No, they say it appears to be an unidentified civilian minor, probably one of the school kids, who managed to avoid getting rounded up with the rest.”

“Just him?”

“Sorry, Skip, but Best Guess Thermographics say that there are at least three groups of Bogies - probably between 5 and 10 in number in each group - at large inside the building.”

“Shit. Just what I don’t need. Okay, the first set of hands that are free, we’ll send them in to get the little fucker out before it gets itself shot up on our watch.” He shifted his attention again. “Are you in position NOW? It’s about fucking TIME!”

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Pres was still waiting for the professionals to DO something, when he heard the door. He scooted away from the window, and got well hidden in one of the cubicles. SHIT! How could he have been so STUPID? Of Course, they’re sending patrols around to double, maybe triple check these offices! The offices were such an obvious place for stragglers to try and hide in! They probably left these offices unchecked, just to sucker in stupid kids like him, as a matter of SOP!

But, instead of beginning a methodical sweep of the cubicles, Pres heard a voice with a crisp British accent saying, “Very well, we have exactly Three Minutes to get everything collected and verified, starting--- NOW!”

From where he was scrunched up hiding, Pres could just barely see through the chair and office equipment. He saw three figures in ‘monks robes’ walk up to one of the old-fashioned doors and open it. The hoods were pulled back and the gas masks were off, so he could see that they were two men and a woman. The woman was the dark, sleek sort of attractive that tended to put you in the mind of some sort of hunting cat, who could either purr or claw your face off. She was definitely on the prowl now.

The first man was definitely her counterpart, with a long, narrow, rather European face and well trimmed, short, blonde hair. He oozed a sort of relaxed focus, like a martial artist waiting for the first blow of a set to begin. The other man was the odd one out. He had a soft face that was set in a counter-productive tension, the sort that made people snap if it wasn’t relieved.

The soft-faced man opened the door, and the woman and the first man went in, then Pres heard the sound of lockers being opened. One of them handed the soft-faced man a beige plastic case the size of a hard-bound book. "Well, is that it?” the woman’s voice said, with a clipped British accent.

“Yes, I think so.”

“Well, Idiot, don’t THINK so - Make Sure! We can’t very well come back and get the right one, now can we?”

“Oh, of course not, of course not...” He opened the case and took out an odd metallic device that was the size and shape of a paperback book. There were cogs set along the sides - two each on the top and bottom, and three along either side - and Pres could see an ‘E’ and and ‘F’ in large letters at the corners.

“Well, IS it?”

“Just a second, making absolutely sure...” the soft-faced man replied as he took a fold of paper from the case. He read something intently, his lips moving silently. Pres could see the man’s fingers moving, touching the thumb to various fingers. It was a common mnemonic device for remembering long figures or statements that you didn’t have any context for remembering otherwise. He was memorizing something.

He ran through his mnemonic device five times, and then placed the strange object back in its case without the paper. “Yes, I’m absolutely sure, this is the proper unit.” As he spoke, he quietly tore up the paper.

Pres pulled back and held his breath as the soft faced one came toward the cubicle that he was in and leaned down.

But he didn’t spot Pres - he was just looking for a paper recycling bin. He casually tossed the scraps in, and returned to the door, as if he’d done nothing. “Well? We ARE on a schedule, as you keep telling me!” There was a sound of a drawer shutting, and the man and woman came out, carrying four long cardboard tubes and a folder.

“Of, you noticed, did you,” the blonde man said dryly, in a soft polished British accent. He handed the soft faced man the folder.

The soft faced man hurried through the dossier. “Yes, yes, yes, wait... yes. It’s all here.” He checked the writing on the bands on the ends of the tubes. “Yes, Yes, Yes... and... Yes.”

The blonde man hit the button on a stopwatch. “Two Minutes, 36 Seconds. Adequate.”

As one, they turned, pulled up their masks and hoods, and went out the door. Well, what was all THAT about?, Pres asked himself. He waited a few seconds for the footsteps to disappear down the hall, and went rummaging in the recyke bin. He couldn’t find all the bits of paper, but he did find one that he knew was important. It was a set of numbers headed by a large capitol ‘C’, on a strip of Foto-Proof© finish. The Foto-Proof© refraction finish was a security treatment to prevent what was printed on it from being scanned, photographed, or copied in any way. Highly secure information, like Combinations and stuff like that were printed on Foto-Proof©.

Pres thought that, as bad as it would be for him to get caught in this office at all, it would be a thousand times worse if he were caught with this on him. He memorized the combination, using mnemonics similar to what the soft faced man had used. Then he shredded the Foto-Proof© finish with his pocketknife and tucked the shreds in his shoe. Then he went and poked his head over the bottom of the window and tried to see if anything was happening.

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In the Tac-Ops center, the Media Monitor said, “Skipper, they’re broadcasting their message. They say that they’re Tribulation Saints.”

“Is it a live cast, or are they showing a re-run?”

“Just a sec. Yep. Cloud patterns match what we have flying today.”

“Are they saying anything interesting?”

“Not really. The usual Fire and Brimstone crappola.”

“Are they showing the hostages?”

“Yep, right behind the Spokes-head.”

“Well, it’s about damn time.” The Tac-Ops skipper lifted a cover and hit a red button.

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All the figures waiting underwater on the skips heard a single *Clack!* As one, they all leaned to and hit a button on their skip handlebars. Matched sets of Ionic Thrusters mounted on the Jet-Ski like vehicles thrust them up, out of the water and high into the air, well over the top of the dikes that rose twenty feet above Sea Level. Or at least, where Sea Level was this year.

As the skips crested over the tops of the dikes, their drivers widened the repulsion fields to their widest dispersal, and all the riders let out an ear-splitting, nerve-rattling ululating shriek. The Erinyes War Shriek is a Ki technique that was designed to cut past the rational mind’s defenses and kick in a primordial fear response. The Erinyes War Shriek could reduce the average man to incontinence. Of course, the Erinyes were not, as a rule, deployed against average men, so soiled underwear was rarely an issue. But even hardened veterans were usually startled by it, and as anyone who’s ever been in a firefight knows, that moment of hesitation and distraction can spell the difference between victory and defeat.

As the skips began a minimally reduced descent, each skip’s pilot fired a pistol-launched grenade, and the Erinys riding behind kicked off into the air.

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On TV, the viewers were watching a man dressed as a rather sinister Inquisitor, right down to the large silver crucifix that he wore on his chest, harangue the North American Federation for ‘betraying the Holy Nation of Gideon’, and proclaiming that the End Times were here. He was only getting the airtime because the networks had agreed, as a term for the safety of the hostages. Most of the people watching were only doing so in hopes that it would be over soon, and their regularly scheduled programming would continue. Suddenly, the diatribe was cut short by a loud shrieking that was disorienting, even over the TV.

There was an explosion near each of the Gauss Guns. But instead of a hail of shrapnel, the grenades erupted in a shower of Scatterballs©. Scatterballs are pea-sized pellets of memory plastic used as a non-lethal anti-riot measure. When they are fired, the pellets store the kinetic energy inside the plastic, priming a change of form. The second impact triggers the shift into a rigid hollow sphere about the size of a grapefruit. The resulting strike is painful, disorienting and often bruising, but not lethal.

And, more to the point, as the Scatterballs hit the ‘Tribulation Saints’, they hit Reflex Armor’s big flaw. Reflex Armor diffuses impact by becoming rigid and spreading the impact over an entire region. But, in protecting the wearer, the armor also becomes a form fitting prison, until the impact has dispersed and the memory plastic becomes flexible again. The Tribulation Saints’ Reflex armor was cut along its ‘monks habit’ lines, down to the Capuchine-esque capelet, to minimize that restriction. But the barrage of Scatterballs hit almost every part of the armor, trapping the ‘Saints’ in their own armor and scattering them like ten-pins. And, most importantly, the Saints couldn’t start firing into the body of hostages.

Then gloriously female figures dropped to the ground. They looked as if they’d been dipped in liquid latex. Their only feature that wasn’t covered by the glossy black bodysuits where their faces, which were concealed by tac-helmets. They touched down lightly and immediately began firing assault pistols at the Saints. The assault pistols were loaded with sabot rounds containing more Scatterballs, so though the terrorists scrambled among the hostages, all the hostages received were some bruises. Then the skips came down, bowling over the Gauss Guns with their suspensor fields.

A few teams of Saints who had been on open patrol began to run in the direction of the battle. There was another ululating yell, and figures in more conventional Hardsuit armor came over the wall. Some were carrying personal assault systems, but some where carrying what looked to be oversized scrolls. The pairs carrying scrolls pulled them apart, stretching a length of fabric between them. One pair held their screen between the on-coming Saints and the hostages, while the others erected their screens around the huddled body of hostages. The screens were more mono-flex memory plastic, and while they weren’t bullet-proof, they provided as much protection from small arms fire as the Myrmidon hardsuit squads could offer under the circumstances.

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The teams of Erinyes assigned to the hostage sledges used a different tactic. The lead skip pilots for Team B fired grenades at the base of ‘Sledge B’, but the grenades weren’t Scatterball rounds. They were EMP grenades, and they heterodyned with the nascent repulsion fields on one side of the sledge, tipping it over, and sending everyone inside sprawling. One of the skip pilots shot down, shed her two passengers, and wedged the suspensor field of her skip between the ground the sledge, keeping it from flipping back right, as it was designed to.

The other skip pilot shed her passenger high up and came down slowly. The jumper landed directly on the side of the sledge near the door. She instantly slapped a small demolition packet on a hatch near the door and vaulted back off the sledge. The explosion knocked the Erinys in mid-vault, but she used the force to carry her further, and was ready with a large caliber LMG ready when she landed on her feet.

As soon as the explosion cleared, the two Erinyes that had come down with the skip jumped up to the sledge door. The one with the smart-rigged .45 Colt 1911A at ready kicked in the door, and the smaller one with the Mono-Edge© glass-edged ‘katana’ dived in the door on top of the Saint who had been assigned to watch the front end. His Reflex Armor was great for stopping high velocity rounds, but the near mono-molecular edge of the sword cut through it like it was soft leather. The swords-woman cut his throat and then positioned her blade over his heart. She pushed in, and made a ‘coring’ motion that made hamburger of his heart.

As the front guard gave a gurgling scream, the Erinys with the Colt .45 ducked upside down through the sledge door and waited, her cybernetic eyes already painting a tactical targeting overlay on the scene. Sure enough, the guard in the middle managed to struggle up from where he’d fallen into the seat cavity and looked toward the sound of his comrade. The gunwoman let fly with two shots, very close apart, that sounded like thunder in the cramped and piled up sledge. The two rounds hit him squarely in the faceplate, and threw him back.

At the sound of the gun, the skip pilot who had come down slowly and landed at the rear of the sledge opened the Emergency Door, let the hostages there pour out and grabbed the struggling Rear Door guard by the head. She pulled him halfway out, pushed back his hood and gave his head a quick vicious twist that did not snap his neck, but did render him instantly unconscious.

As soon as the middle guard went back, the gunwoman snapped, “Chai! Confirm!”

Chai, the swords-woman, hauled her lithe form up onto handgrips on the empty seats above and spider-climbed over the hostages who were still reeling from the dumping and the small explosion. She was halfway there, when the Erinys at the rear door yelled, “Down!”

The gunwoman looked at one of the hostages who was recovered enough to look afraid. The gunwoman said in a calm, level voice that was pitched in just the right way to be comforting while still conveying authority, “How many guards are there on this sledge?”

“aahhh... Three...” the hostage answered, still groggy.

“Good. Then you’re safe.”

Chai got to the middle guard and pulled his faceplate off. It was thick and supposed to be protective, but when you’re talking about a Colt .45, ‘bulletproof’ is more wishful thinking than truth in advertising. “Woof! Vangie, you punched his lights out! One in each eye! You’re getting extravagant! You used up two whole bullets!”

Vangie checked the ‘stopwatch’ readout in her Tac helmet. “Forty-eight seconds, from Launch to Last Kill Confirm.” Then she said in a firm, carrying voice, “People, listen up! You are safe now! We are from THEMIS© Investigation and Enforcement Services, a division of INFAX™. We were contracted to get all of you out of here safely. We are going to right the sledge now.” She hit the comm button. “Ayumi, set this thing right-side up again.” She addressed the hostages again. “Now, please, while your guards have been taken care of, the situation has not been declared SAFE yet. I know, you want to get off this sledge right now, but please stay in here! We have our Rescue and Evacuation corps en route, even as we speak. But, if you leave before they get here, you could be vulnerable to a stray shot or a revenge sniper. When Ajax, that’s our Rescue & Evac guys, gets here, you will be taken out in bulletproof vans. But until then, stay in the sledge!”

The hostages seemed to be listening and were busy coping as the sledge began to right itself, so Vangie shifted her comm-link to the Tac-Ops center. “Ops, this is Team B leader. Last Kill Confirmed, no hostage casualties.”

The Ops Skipper called back, “Team B leader, we have a situation in the Museum. We have an unknown civilian minor at large on the third floor, last seen west side - your side. Passive Thermographics suggest three groups of roving patrols inside. Get the kid out before he gets himself shot.”

Vangie opened her link to helmet-to-helmet. “Okay, kids, you heard him, we have overtime. Ayu-” Then Chai was out the door even before the sledge was leveled back, and Vangie could see the lanky Erinys who had blown the hatch moving toward the building at top speed. “Kait! Chai! No! oh, shiiiiitttt... Okay, Ayumi, Margo, you stay with the hostages until Ajax gets here, then come in to reinforce. I’m going after them. I am NOT gonna let those two loose in the Smithsonian without a leash!”

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The Tac-Ops Skipper paused as he heard this. “Marco? Who’s on Team B?”

“Just a sec. Ah, yeah, Ariyanundataka, Chaimaia; Blake, Evangeline; Lane, Margaret; Marksbury, Kaitlyn; Matsu-”

“Ariyanuntaka?” A chill ran down his normally temperate spine. “Chai Ariyanuntaka? And Kait Marksbury? You mean, I just sent the Apocalypse Twins into the Smithsonian Institute?” He tried to raise them, but they were already outside of the effective range of the ultrasonic link. “Oh, Christ...” he whimpered.

“ah, Yeah. Well, at least Blake is going in to ride herd on them.”

“Oh, wonderful. She’ll be able to keep the collateral damage down to a billion. DAMN! There goes our profit margin, straight down the tubes!”

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Vangie managed to catch up with them with a springboard jump off a parked sled up to a ledge on the third floor. Chai had just unlatched the window from outside, and Kait was raising the sash. “Damn nice of you to wait for my order,” Vangie snarled.

You could tell Chai’s dismissive smirk, even through the featureless Tac-helmet. “Ayah, give the round-eye a Team Leader slot, and she thinks she’s in charge of everybody!”

Vangie went in first, her Colt at the ready. Despite her lip, Chai waited for Vangie’s go-ahead before slipping through the window, followed by Kait.

When Kait was all the way in, Vangie stopped her with a hand on her chest. “Hold it. Gimme your ammo.”

“WHAT?” Kait clutched the gun to her breast like a newborn baby.

“This is the SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTE, the Old Museum of American History! There are pieces of paper and gimcracks in there more valuable than all three of us put together! If you destroy ANYTHING, we’re ALL in Debt for the rest of our lives! If we run into anything where that thing’s needed, I’ll hand you the ammo. But, dammit, if there’s any damage, I want it to be THEIR fault!”

Kaitlyn was a good six inches taller than Vangie, and had an impressively valkyriene build to go with it, but she looked for all the world like an overgrown eight-year-old being forced to hand over her doll. She removed the magazine from the LMG and slung the now empty gun over her shoulder.

“Good girl. Now, your backup ammo.” With hunched shoulders, Kait handed over her backup ammo. And her reserve ammo. And her reserve backup ammo. And her backup reserve ammo. And her emergency ammo. And her backup emergency ammo. And --- well, you get the idea.

“Okay, melee weapons only, unless we really NEED firepower.” Vangie reached into her boot sheath, pulled out a Jin Ren Sho™ OmniStaff© combat system, and extended it into a full length staff with an expert flick of her wrist. Chai didn’t bother with her sword (too clumsy in tight places), but settled for a matched pair of long knives, with similar glassy edges. Kait produced a set of grenades, which she pinned to her harness.

Vangie gave Kait a look that practically melted both of their tac-helmets. She tapped in impatient foot.

“These are Scatterball grenades,” Kait said exasperatedly. “Do you honestly think that I’d set off high explosives in the Smithsonian Institute?”

Vangie kept tapping her foot. Kait handed her the two frag grenades that she’d been keeping, Just In Case.

Vangie tucked away the grenades and pulled her tac-helmet off. “Helmets off. Our brief is to find this kid and get her out, not shoot it out with the perps. I figure that the kid is either grade school age here with her parents, or a teener here with one of those high school field trips. Either way, she’s gonna want to see a human face, not a scary helmet. We’re gonna have a hard enough time finding her, if she’s actively hiding, we don’t want her getting freaked out and running. So, standard quick search formation - Chai down low, Kait on high in case she bolts, and I keep an eye out for hostiles. Keep your helmets with you.”

“And what do we do if they already bagged her, Gramma?” Chai asked over-sweetly.

“We get her from them, as quickly and quietly as possible. Let’s go.”

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When the SWAT teams started to attack, Pres figured that the upper floors of the museum were safe. No matter what the terrorists were really here for, they’d either head down to the lower levels to fight off the SWAT teams or up to the roof to take out any Skopter based units. Maybe if he looked around, he might find something to give him an idea of what this was all about.

He concentrated, trying to tell which sounds were coming from down the marble lined hallways, and which were coming from outside. He was able to pick out the sound of heavy-duty linear motors working, through the sound of gunfire from outside. Cautiously moving, he followed the sound from the office area to the mail area. Even in an era where electronic data transfer was the norm, there were still messages that, for reasons of need of confirmation or security or simple formality, had to be delivered on hard text. The Smithsonian mail room was large and full of packages, bundles of letters, and a man inside was using an odd-looking linear motor power frame that looked kludged together from chrome pipes to bring in a large reinforced cardboard crate. The fox-faced blonde man was looking irritably at a stopwatch. “Is that the last one? We ARE on a schedule here, you know!”

He was talking to a group of six men, who had peeled out of their ‘monks robes’ (which lay in a pile beside the table), and were furiously taking bundles of paper out of paper crates. One was taking the bundles out and handing them to the man next to him. He was giving them a hurried but practiced once-over and either putting them into a box in from of him or handing them on to the next man. That man was packing those bundles into another box, and the final three where busily sealing, labeling, metering and putting other crates on the Outgoing pile of mail. They all looked like they’d been in a firefight; their clothes were full of holes and looked like they were soaked with blood. Pres checked, and he saw the fox-faced man and the woman, but where was the soft-faced man?

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The soft-faced man was back in the offices, furiously checking the recyke bins. How could he forget the sequence? Goddamn twenty digit sequences! He could remember the orienting letter, but he couldn’t remember the last three digits! And he couldn’t let those two know it! Hell, he couldn’t make his real move until they’d got rid of the fanatics, and he had his hired men in place. At the moment, the only reason they didn’t just shoot him where he stood was that they couldn’t afford to do anything like that in front of the Saints. As it was, his only real protection was being the only person who knew the sequence. But for that he needed the goddamn piece of paper with those last three digits!

At last! He found the recyke bin with the pieces of paper. But no piece with the Foto-proof© strip. Then he spotted a few pieces of paper on the carpet next to the bin. Someone had taken the Foto-proof© strip out of the bin! He got to his feet and ran to the door. Damn! Why was this happening to him?

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Vangie, Chai and Kait watched as the man in Reflex Armor bustle out of the office without even bothering to pull his mask back up. He ran down the corridor without looking back. Vangie held Kait back, and shook her head. She mimed walking stealthily along with two fingers, and then jerked her head in the direction of where the soft-faced man had run.

The three Erinyes silently went down the hall in a staccato staggered formation, each covering the others.

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Pres watched closely from his place of concealment as they finished up the last packages, and started shredding the original crates. The fox-faced man and the feline woman where doing something to the power frame. Pres pulled back just in time as the woman turned to look at the corner. Pres heard her mutter, “Where IS that fat fool?”

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The soft faced man raced down the hall, and spotted someone lurking further down. It was a small, frail-looking boy with straw colored hair, wearing what the man took to be a Private School uniform. With the clarity of desperation, it struck him that the boy had been hiding. He must have been hiding in the office, and those two fools who were SUPPOSED to be such Professionals, didn’t think to search it first! The boy must have seen him tear up the paper, picked the Foto-proof© strip out of the recyke bin, and had it on him! Of course, that was more desperation and wishful thinking than reason and objective logic, but even a blind toss hits the bulls-eye occasionally.

In a desperate panic, he tackled the boy and yelled in his face, “I know that you have it! You’re the only one who could have it! Where IS it?”

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Sheee-iiiittt…” Vangie muttered to herself as she pulled her helmet back on. They had the kid. Time to stop being quiet.

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“What ARE you doing?” the fox-faced man said as he and his partner walked out into the hall. He saw the boy. “Oh, this is NOT good.”

“Tell me!” the soft faced man yelled as he furiously rummaged through Pres’ pockets. The woman began to say something, but was cut short when a thick, blunt disk landed near them.

The Scatterball© grenade went off, sending the woman and the fox-faced man sprawling. But the soft-faced man pulled his protective mask down, grabbed Pres and used the force to spin Pres on top of him as he pulled a gun. “BACK! Back, or I’ll...”

The Erinyes’ Fury armor didn’t have that glossy sheen just for the jazzy effect (though it certainly didn’t hurt); except for the palms of the gloves, some of the anchoring points for utility belts and the soles of the traction slippers, the armor was covered with a frictionless surface. This slick surface prevents opponents from getting a good handle on them, or for various entangling weapons to work. It also allows for some rather unorthodox maneuvers. As Vangie covered them, Kait grabbed Chai’s hand and slid her like a curling iron at the two.

Chai didn’t plow into them. Instead, she used one hand to cut at the captor’s gun arm, the other hand to grab the boy and her foot to kick them all free. As soon as the kid was free, Vangie took out the soft-faced man with a single shot through the faceplate.

Kait and Vangie rushed up to cover Chai and the boy, just as the packing men recovered in time to get to their guns. Kait thrust out a hand at Vangie. “Ammo!”

“No! Top Priority: Get the hostage to safety!”

aaawww... Maaaannn...

Kait chucked her last Scatterball grenade at the Saints. While it didn’t lock them up, as they weren’t wearing reflex armor, since they had NO form of protection, there was a very satisfying amount of them being knocked around.

As the two figures that were in reflex armor got to their feet, Vangie whipped out her Omni-Staff©, flicked it into full staff configuration, and used it to sweep them back off their feet in one smooth motion. Kait swept Pres up in her arms, and the four of them hustled down the hall.

Vangie checked the secure radio link. The hypersonic link that they’d been using while the Saints were jamming all EM frequencies was useless indoors, but maybe the Myms finally got around to taking out the area jammer... “Ops! Ops, this is Team B!”

She got a firm, if rather stressed reply, “Team B? Blake, report!”

“We have the hostage, but encountered armed resistance-”

“Oh, Christ, what did you trash?”

Vangie scowled into the pickup. “No collateral damage. YET. We have to get the hostage out. What venues are secure?”

“Oh, right. The hostage. Venues. The way you went in is currently invalid - the Saints brought BFADs [Bipedal Firefight Assistance Drones] in from somewhere, and the Power Frames are dealing with them. But you should be able to get out through a fire escape on the southern face, second floor. That area is secure. Now, Blake, this is important - DO NOT SHOOT-”

“Yeah, yeah, I know, I KNOW! I’ll try and keep Vesuvius and Krakatoa from doing anything too devastating.”

“HEY!” Chai complained, “Kait’s the trigger-happy one!”

“You’re an enabler,” Vangie muttered back. “Ops, are there any other hostages in here?”

“No, passive thermographics show heat clusters, but they’re all moving in groups that suggest roving groups of opposition.” That makes no sense, Vangie thought to herself; the interior of the Smithsonian makes for ideal hostage taking conditions. The walk-through conditions make keeping an eye on your hostages easy, while exhibits make most rapid forced entry methods nearly impossible. They should have broken up the hostages into mixed groups, kept them hustling from place to place, and set a few anti-entry bombs.

Vangie killed the link (who wants the ossifer joggling their elbow while you’re in a situation?), and brought up the Smithsonian schematic. “Okay, we have a stairwell in this direction. Chai, take point. Kait, you cover the kid. I’ll cover the rear.”

When they were halfway down the stairwell, Vangie called a brief breather. She took her helmet off and looked at Pres. “Kid, while you were running around in here, did you see those men herding bunches of people around, like they were keeping them busy?”

No, but I did see something weird.”

“Something that looked like a bomb or a nanite disperser?”

“No, they broke into one of the locker rooms and they took some files and some tubes and this weird looking gadget.”

“Files? How many cards worth of files did you see?”

“No, not that kind of files - hard text folders, like you see in old movies. And, now that I think about it, the tubes looked like the kind they kept blueprints in, in old movies, too.”

Vangie blinked. Hard Text? The only reason to keep files on hard text anymore was if it was too sensitive to keep on a computer, even an isolated system, so... Vangie hit her comm link. “Ops? Blake. Patch me out to the main office, Erinyes division, Case Manager Wendy Hookes.” There was some clicking and Vangie got her connection.

“Erinyes Division, Case Manager Hookes speaking, how may I help you?”

“Wendy, this is Vangie Blake-”

“Vangie? I thought you were busy on that kafuffle down at the Smithsonian.”

“I am. Taking five. Anyway, Wendy, I wanna put an option down on an investigation for the Smithsonian, regarding the theft of files and an unidentified object from the Smithsonian offices.”

“Sorry, Vange, but Burgess & Whitehead have the Smithsonian contract. You’re only there because B&W’s Crisis Intervention division opted out, ‘cause they couldn’t reliably deploy in the half-hour required in their contract.”

“I know, but I think it’s connected with this bogus terrorist strike, so we have a claim to the investigation.”

“Aaahhh... Vangie, I don’t see anything listed for any theft from Smithsonian offices.”

“It hasn’t been discovered yet. That’s why I’m taking out this option.”

“That’s cutting it pretty thin, Vange.”

“Blake’s Law: Carpe Diem, before the diem carps back.”

“Well, okay, the Smithsonian’s carrier has posted your offer and verified your option on the next such case that arises, recompensation commensurate with the value of what’s recovered. Better hope it ain’t missing office supplies.”

“I have a good feeling about this. By the way, Wendy - what’re the odds on Kait’s Mayhem Pool for this operation?”

“Pretty low - no real time to set up a line, and from what I heard, they made damn sure that they stuck her on one of the outside lines of attack.”

“Well, I have an inside line that she’s INSIDE the Smithsonian right now, AND she has ‘Sarah Jane’ with her.”

“YOU’RE KIDDING! They let her inside the Smithsonian?”

“Yeah, and I wanna put a hundred on her keeping her overhead to less than $50,000.”

“Vangie, we’re talking KAIT - inside the SMITHSONIAN - with ‘Sara Jane’!”

“Hey, I have a good feeling about this one!” Vangie silently hefted the ammo clips in her carryall sack.

“Okay, you’re down for a hundred, but what makes you think-”

There was a sound at the bottom of the stairwell. “Sorry! Back to work!” She crammed her helmet back onto her head.

Pushing Pres flat against the wall, the three Erinyes prepared. When the sound of the cautiously approaching feet was right, Vangie sprang out, cart-wheeled over to where she had a blank section of reinforced wall behind her and drew a bead with her pistol. As she expected, she was immediately hit by a hail of gunfire. While the bullets weren’t enough to penetrate her Fury armor, it was still like being pummeled by an equal number of fists, and it was NOT pleasant. Vangie covered her facemask - the only vulnerable part of the armor - and leaned into the storm. Chai emptied her hands of the knives by putting them into the gun hands of two of the Saints.

As Chai drew her sword, Kait came roaring in, picked up one of the Saints, and hefted him over her head. With a hearty shriek of the patented Erinyes War Cry, Kait hefted him into a pair of his fellows, knocking all three to the ground.

With the relief from her backup, Vangie brought her staff into play again, and vaulted over the heads of the Saints, effectively containing that cell. Dealing with men in reflex armor can be a hassle, especially if you don’t particularly want to kill them. But Vangie had a remedy for that. She tapped the back of her off hand and deployed a GladiCorpa™ Retarius© capture system. The monofilament ‘net’ not only entangled the man she threw it on, but it worked on a ‘cinch-up’ principle, using the prisoner’s own movements to tighten itself more closely around him. Not only did his reflex armor not do anything against it, since the Retarius used his own movement and reflex armor only guards against external force, but the constant pressure of the Retarius turned his own armor into a form fitting prison.

However, the Retarius© is a single shot device, so she unclipped a MnemoPlast™ DermaDhesive© restraint system from her belt and started ‘taping’ the Saints into submission as Chai and Kait put them down.

When the last of the seven ‘Saints’ was down, Vangie hissed, “Kid! Any sound of the guys up on the Third Floor?”

Pres shook his head ‘no’. “I think they’re finishing up with the packages.”

“Packages?” Vangie started at the non sequitur.

“Yeah, they were taking a bunch of hard text documents from one set of crates and puttin’ ‘em into mailing crates.”

Things began to click - at least some of them did - in Vangie’s head. “Later. First, we get you out.”

Chai and Kait stripped one of the Saints, who was unconscious and not restrained, of his reflex armor and pulled it on Pres, as Vangie wrapped the Saint up like a mummy.

Once their charge was reasonably safe from stray rounds, they set off down the museum corridor.

“Damn!” Vangie muttered, “We’re in an exhibition area! Do-” Before she could finish her order, a group of ‘Saints’ came charging around, guns at ready.

Kait opened up a full-auto volley, knocking the Saints back into a glass-faced display, and shredding a display of elegant ladies’ gowns on dummies. Then she shifted over to shotgun, sending more of them sprawling, and then the grenade launcher, which splatted them with compressed adhesive ‘globs’.

“WHERE DID YOU GET THAT?” Vangie screeched at Kait.

“I took them off the Terrs.” Kait held up one of the Personal Assault Systems that the Saints had been using, as if explaining to a rather slow child.

Vangie wiped the metaphorical egg off her face through her Tac-helmet and let out a long, slow breath. She looked at the display plaques. It was a display of the Inaugural Gowns of American First Ladies. One elegant gown was almost completely shredded. The plaque said that it had belonged to Jacqueline Kennedy.

Jackie Kennedy. It couldn’t belong to Hilary Clinton or Pat Nixon; no, it HAD to be Jackie Kennedy.

Vangie took another deep breath, took the PAS from Kait and threw it next to the Saints. Then she took two of the other PASes, and plastered the exhibit with fire, to confuse the ballistics. “Okay, this never happened. When we write our reports, WE were going along THIS side of the corridor, and the Saints shot at us from that angle. THEY shot at US, destroying the display _IS _THAT _UNDERSTOOD_?”

Chai and Kait snapped to, saluted, and as one responded, “Yessir! We were coming along that side, and they shot at us from that angle, GOT IT!” Never mess with Vangie when she’s cooking reports.

“Okay - now, drag them over there, so this will fly.”

As they were busily straightening Vangie’s frame-up, another squad of Saints came along and decided to help them by confusing things more with a cross-fire of Gauss-gun fire. They managed to bracket the four and prevent them from reaching the fire escape.

The Gauss-guns were chewing up the ‘bullet-proof’ display that Pres and the Erinyes were using as cover, when the nerve rattling Erinyes War Shriek sounded from the outside. Ayumi and Margo came crashing in through the fire escape window and sent the Gauss-gun crews flying. As the Saints collected themselves enough to try and handle Ayumi and Margo, Chai and Kait peppered them with adhesive globs from the PASes they’d liberated.

When the Saints finally fell, Ayumi brightly chirped, “Did anyone call for a cab?”

Vangie gave a loud, martyred sigh. “No, we wait for an armored Ajax van. You just added at least $15,000 to our overhead, so we can’t afford any ‘reckless endangerment’ fines.”

The Ajax van powered up to what was left of the fire escape, and Vangie and Pres stepped into the van. Vangie assigned the other four to help the Myrmidion hard suit squads sweep the buildings for any lone suicide shooters or spoilsport bombs. Kait visibly brightened at the mention of bombs. *High Explosives! YEAH!*

Vangie pulled her helmet off again and watched as the Ajax EMT/PTS counselor fussed over the kid.

Pres, no longer in immediate threat of being shot, gave the woman his full attention. She was a trim, athletic woman, and her skin-tight outfit left no question as to her curves or endowments. She had the rectangular, regular features of a Hollywood beauty, with killer cheekbones, a full lower lip and a nose that turned up ever so slightly. There was something slightly off about her dark blue eyes, but he couldn’t peg it. Her dark hair was pulled back in a French braid for the helmet. Then he saw the emblem on her shoulder. It was a logo done in the art nouveau style of Aubrey Beardsley, with the face of a scowling woman with hair of writhing snakes, framed by a pair of wings. Two ribbons above and below the face declared, ‘The Wicked Flee/Where No Man Pursueth’. He flickered his gaze back to her face. “You’re an Erinyes?”

Vangie quirked a smile. “No, I run around in a skin-tight outfit, shooting guns as Performance Art.” But she relented. “Yeah, I’m an Erinys. By the way, ErinYS is the singular, ErinYES is the plural. You’ve heard of us?”

Pres blushed. “uhm, Yeah. I’ve been to a few of your web-shrines.”

“Oh, one of THOSE.” Vangie smirked. “Well, if you wanna, when you’re declared fit to live your own life again, I’m sure that I can talk a few of the girls into joining me in a few snapshots with you. Oughta make your rep on the combat-porn sites.”

“Don’t tease him!” the Ajax EMT/PTS snapped. “Hasn’t he been through enough as it IS, without you making fun of him?”

“Oh, his day isn’t over, not by a long shot,” Vangie blandly assured her. “He’s a material witness. After you’re through with him, there are going to be a LOT of questions.”

The van didn’t go very far. SOP required that all Minors involved in a hostage situation be accounted for by the Adults responsible for them, face to face. The van touched down at the landing dock, and the Erinys went looking for Mr. Vasquez, Pres’ teacher at Milken Academy. Pres glossed over the EMT/PTS’ soothing blither. He was too jazzed by the experience to listen to what she was saying. Needing something interesting to focus on, that wasn’t about ‘deep rooted fears’ or ‘shattered paradigms’, Pres took in every part of the scene at the landing.

They were stacking up what was left of a bunch of combat robots, with CSI types swarming over them for some reason. There were media types all over the place. A few of them tried to get a look inside the van, but one of the utterly humorless guards stopped them. There were a few ambulance sledges, loading seriously wounded victims. But there was something about one of the gurneys - it didn’t look right...

Then Pres spotted one of the female EMTs as she secured a rather dead looking man with a facial wound. Then it clicked! She was the woman from the office, with the fox-faced man and the soft-faced man! And there! The other EMT was the fox-faced man!

Pres tried to tell the Ajax EMT/PTS, but she just soothed him, telling him that it was perfectly normal to start seeing terrorists in every corner. Finally, when the ambulance only had three more gurneys to load, the Erinys team leader came back with Mr. Vasquez. “LOOK! See that ambulance? The EMTs! They’re part of the terrorist team! I saw them without their gas masks in the office!” Pres furiously gestured at the ambulance.

As the EMT/PTS started to say something, Vangie paused, considered and turned. “You! In the ambulance! Hold on!”

The two ‘EMTs’ gave Vangie a hard look, and chucked the gurney that they were loading. Vangie immediately started loading eye shots from her optics into her RAM implant, drew her gun and advanced through the crowd.

TROJAN HEARSE!” she shouted at the top of her lungs, “STOP THAT SLEDGE!”

The female ‘EMT’ threw a few Flash/Bang grenades to confuse the already jittery crowd, and the sledge leaped out of its cradle. A pair of non-regulation and totally illegal ‘afterburner’ pods popped out of the sides, and the sledge went soaring over the traffic control barrier. It screamed down the Mall for a block or so, and then there was another explosion. When the spray cleared, there were two bubbling wakes, one going straight forward, and one veering off to the left.

Vangie snarled at the wake of the escaping sledge, pistol drawn but useless. Pursuit Skopters were already in the air, but Vangie knew that the foxes were already out of the hen house, and no doubt halfway to their hole. She pushed through the throng and touched her headset. “Ops? Blake. Get me Legal.” A few seconds later, “Legal? Erinys Field Agent Blake, Evangeline, X., on-site at the Smithsonian sub-contract. I have a rush order for you; I need restraining orders on one Vasquez, Arnold Schwartzeneggar, a teacher at Michael Milken Academy Private High School, and the Field Trip List for that school to the Smithsonian. I also need a Material Witness Holding Warrant for one Wyecross, Preston Giles, age 15, a freshman at that school, a student of afore-mentioned Mr. Vasquez, and should be on that Field Trip List. I need to be able to hold the kid for 48 hours at least, 96 would be better, in Protective Custody. It’s possible that our perps don’t know who the kid is, and I’d like to keep it that way. Also, I don’t want the media getting to the kid’s parents and turning them into 15-minute celebrities, so do whatever it takes to keep the wolves from their door. Get that stuff signed and sealed ASAP. SOP says that they gotta do a stint of PTS therapy, but after that, I need to ask the kid a LOT of questions.”

That done, Vangie walked back to the van. She told the guard, “You, stay with the kid. I don’t want ANYONE except the PTSes and me to talk to him. He’s a material witness in MY case, capise?” The guard nodded. She pointed at Vasquez. “I have a restraining order for him in the works, ordering him to keep shut about what just happened here until my investigation is complete. Until the ink is dry, nobody talks to him, either.” Then Vangie gave the van pilot the go-ahead, and the van lifted off with an armed skip escort.

Vangie let out a cleansing breath and looked at the Smithsonian. If she got there soon enough, she might be able to do something before anyone mucked things up too badly.

Nobody stopped her as she walked through the main door of the Old Museum of American History. ‘Spoilsport’ squads were swarming over the place, but they weren’t fool enough to challenge an Erinys. Or at least not one still carrying a gun in her hand. Vangie noticed their looks at her hand, realized that she was still carrying her .45 in the open and holstered it.

Using the Ops report on the first sighting of the kid as a guide, Vangie checked the office that he must have been in, in violation of CSI SOP. She checked the ‘No Admittance Confidential Files’ room door. Unlocked. Sloppy. Someone was in a screaming hurry.

Well, no sense contaminating the scene any further, at least until Smithsonian Security got here, so she could nail this gig. She strolled down the corridor, to the mailroom. If the kid was right, then...

In the mailroom, Vangie looked over the packages stacked for mailing. She discarded most of them, but still had a rich selection to choose from. But then...she started checking the time/date stamps. Yes. She snapped a few more internal shots, and paused. She looked at the postage meter, and quirked a pussycat smile to herself. If she had enough time...

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The Burgess & Whitehead team came in with all the officious disdain that they were famous for in the Police Service Provider industry. B&W fancied themselves as heirs to the tradition of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, and they never let you forget that. The two B&W agents, who looked like they’d been stamped out by a machine, glowered at Vangie in her clinging Fury armor as she lounged against a marble clad wall, with puritanical disapproval. But then, they’d have glowered at her in disapproval if she’d been wearing an all-concealing burkha; it was part of their act. “What are you still doing here? This is a Burgess & Whitehead investigation. We don’t need any more showboating.”

‘Showboating’ is a B&W term for anything that isn’t covered in the famous B&W 3,450 page Manual of Procedures.

Vangie smiled at them. “Oh, don’t mind me, I have to hang around for Smithsonian Security to get here and confirm a case for me.”

The B&W men stiffened. “Case? This is OUR case. We have the Smithsonian contract.”

“Which you defaulted on, by not being able to deploy in time.”

“We already have the contract to investigate the Tribulation Saints attack.”

“That’s not what I’m here about. My team was sent in to retrieve a loose minor who was in harm’s way. While in here the aforementioned minor saw what appeared to be an opportunistic grab of several hard text files from office lockers.”

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It took some doing, but the Smithsonian Security Chief confirmed that something had been stolen from the Confidential Files, and that INFAX (by way of Vangie) had the option on the case. Morgan and Webb, the B&W ramrods, didn’t like it. Burgess & Whitehead had a rather stringent corporate culture, and ‘losing’ a contract, even a single case contract, was regarded as an abject failure. Morgan and Webb ‘allowed’, in their ‘stay out of our hair, you bumbling amateur, WE areProfessionals’ way, Vangie her ‘trivial matter’, as long as it didn’t get in the way of B&W bringing the terrorists to justice.

And yes, they really did use the term ‘bring the terrorists to justice’.

The Burgess & Whitehead forces had ‘secured’ the Smithsonian and told the Themis forces that ‘their services were no longer needed, the First Line Team was there’. So, none of the Themis vehicles were available, not even the Skip that she’d arrived on. So, Vangie had to take a taxi back to the Themis Washington Office. Which was a pain, because that meant that instead of being ‘pinged’ through the Georgetown dyke-gate and being allowed directly into the Themis garage, she had to slog through the regular security measures. In her skin-tight, latex-appearing Fury suit. Carrying a gun.

All of which meant that by the time that she got out of that skin-tight, latex-appearing Fury suit and had a much needed shower, the post-mission de-briefing was almost over. The Myrmidons were grousing again about the fact that the Erinyes got more On-Air time than they had. “Hey, we’re just more fun to watch,” Chai summed up.

“Damn nice of you to join us, Blake,” Velikovski, the Mission Honcho, drawled, as Vangie found a chair beside the rest of Team B.

“I needed take care of a few last minute details,” Vangie returned, “I hadda nail down my option on a case for the Smithsonian.”

“I thought that was B&W’s gig.”

“Side job that I wrangled.”

The Honcho gave her a respectful look. “You wrangled a contract right out from under B&W’s noses?”

“Blake’s Law: The earlier the bird, the juicier the worm.”

Velikovski shrugged. “Okay, to sum up, this mission was a qualified success. First, we deployed in under Ten Minutes, from First Alarm to Last Man In Place, on a Default Option Call. That’s an automatic $500 bonus for everyone.”

There was a general ‘all right!’ all around on that.

“Next, all known hostages were recovered. There were four injuries and two fatalities, but that happened before we hit the button. We have been cleared for $1,000 ‘clean slate’ bonuses all around.” There was a heartier ‘Yeah!’ for that one.

“Team B, you finished first. There were two broken arms, and a raft of bruises and such, but nothing actionable. $1,000 bonus for you girls.” There were high-fives all around.

“Also, Team B, you went in and recovered an endangered minor, in the face of repeated attack. There’s a $5,000 bonus in it for you, IF it can be proven that a certain exhibit worth $12 million and change was destroyed by the opposition.”

“It’s in the bag,” Vangie breezed. “Ballistics will prove that the damage was done by the Saints’ PAS.”

“Assault Systems that YOUR team appropriated for use,” Velikovski pointed out.

“From two guns that we set aside as evidence, after we took them away from the thugs who shredded the exhibit. The guns that my girls used were promptly turned over for examination against any damage done, as per SOP.” Vangie, Kait and Chai all smiled, the very image of virtuous innocence.

The Honcho raised one eyebrow. “Yeah, right. At least there’s nothing that can conclusively be tracked back to Themis™.”

“Oh, ah, just for the record,” Vangie asked innocently, “how badly DID we chew into our overhead?”

“Well, for a change, you actually managed to keep the carnage to a minimum. $18,000, and most of that was the window which Matsuyama crashed through.”

“YES!” Vangie gave out a victorious yelp.

“By the way, exactly how DID you keep Marksbury from wreaking her usual havoc?”

Vangie grinned and cocked a thumb at Kait. “First thing in, I ordered ‘Boom-boom’ to hand over all of her ammo.”

“Anyway, the Determination Board is on your side on that one. The Smithsonian’s insurance is kicking about it, but it’s up to them to prove that you did the damage.”

Velikovski reviewed Kait’s performance with the bomb squad, and then gave the kicker. “So far, an excellent job. But then, we let the Bad Guys GET AWAY! This is a MAJOR disgrace, people! Yes, only a handful of them got away, but Themis was on the job, so exactly ZERO of them should have gotten away! Yes, it was a pure fluke that we even know about it at all, but that makes it even worse! So, no ‘Perfect Performance’ bonuses, and a unilateral $1,000 ‘boy, did YOU screw up’ penalty will be levied.” He let out a heavy sigh. Then he gave the assembled hoard a sly look. “Of course, if we found these bad boys and dragged them in by the heels, that would go a LONG way toward perking our stock up. Both the Company’s - and yours. Now, technically the Saints are Bozos & Wussoid’s contract, but, hey, that’s just the Smithsonian contract.

“There are multiple bounties out for the Tribulation Saints, both as an organization and for many specific individuals.” He grinned evilly, his trademark stainless steel teeth glinting in the light. “Which makes them fair game. Still, we’ll have to be careful on this one. B&W will be cracking heads left and right, so the Saints will be laying low.”

“I don’t think so, Boss,” Vangie said.

“Oh? You know something, Blake?”

“The Smithsonian job wasn’t the Saint’s usual gig. Usually, they try to set it up so that they can play up the ‘decadence of modern society’ angle and make their ‘the Last Days are here’ noise. The Smithsonian was a straight up grab, with the hostages as window dressing. They went in for something, and whatever it was that they got, is the key to whatever it is they’re gonna do.”

“So, any ideas, Sherlock?”

“Not just yet. But I’ll get more information, when B&W does.”

“Oh, you’re dating a B&W goon?”

“Better. My contract with the Smithsonian specifically states that they give me access to all information that they have dealing with the case. B&W SOP requires that they give their clients regular, detailed information on what they’ve learned. The case involves the Saint’s raid, so any information the Smithsonian security goons have will be shared, as a matter of course, with us. Hell, I’ll probably be the only one actually reading the damn reports.”

Velikovski arched an eyebrow. “Any way to keep the data-bleed one-way, if B&W starts asking things?”

“Only if you allow me to alter our client update schedule. To, like, when we feel like it.”

“Consider yourself allowed. So, since there’s nothing else...” The Honcho started handing out Bonus Chits.

“Suh-weeet!” Chai breezed. “$7,500 for an afternoon’s work! I love picking up Butt & Wipe’s fumbles!”

Kait blinked her large green eyes at the chit. “Oh, so THAT’S what a bonus looks like!”

“Yeah,” Ayumi grinned, "maybe now you’ll be able to dig yourself out of the coffins, and into a REAL dorm room.”

“Why?” Kait asked, “I never sleep in them, anyway.”

“Yeah, well, ask for a bigger space anyway,” Chai said snippishly, “I getting tired of cluttering up MY space with all your toys.”

“Hey, where you goin’, Snake-eyes?” Ayumi asked.

“I have a case hanging fire, remember?” Vangie returned. “And I have to clean up a few details, before that kid gets out of PTS and I can get started on it.”

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Back at the Erinyes’ Office, Vangie looked up at the Offering Board. Shit, the Trans-Atlantic fish poaching case was still flapping in the breeze. Please, please, pleeeeze don’t let Diana dump it in my lap, Vangie prayed.

She walked over to Wendy Hookes’ Case Manager’s desk. “So, Wendy --- how did the betting run on the Kait pool today?”

Wendy attacked her keyboard with a passion and called up a screen, then swiveled it around so that Vangie could see. *<Pfew!>* “SOMEBODY was busy! We were in there, what, Ten, Twenty minutes tops?”

“I, ah, called around, as soon as you told me that Marksbury was inside. The betting got pretty stiff, at between 10 and 25 Mil.”

“Well, that explains why the Bomb Squad was so keen on having Kait help them out.”

Hookes gave Vangie a calculating look. “Aaannddd...exactly HOW MUCH damage did they ding her for?”

Vangie gave her a feline grin. “18K, for the entire team.”

WHAT? And you expect me to pay off on that? Everyone KNOWS that you cooked the results!”

Vangie’s grin went steely. “Yeah, you go and prove that. I’ll bet that the company would be REAL grateful that you proved that we’re liable for 12 million.”

The office bookie grumped, pulled out a Chit book, and wrote out a Chit for five thousand dollars, on her personal account. She gave the chit a disgusted look and handed it to Vangie as if she were turning over her only child.

“Oh, Puh-leeze!” Vangie said as she took the chit. “It’s not like you’re not making out like a bandit on this one, anyway.”

“Please, just --- just --- go away. I need time to mourn.” Wendy struck a pose of melodramatic grief.

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Pres was barely able to keep from dancing with relief as the guard escorted him from Post-Traumatic Stress therapy. There is nothing surer to bring you down from an adrenaline rush than someone babying you and telling that it’s okay to be afraid. The sheer relief at getting away from the tender concern was enough to make him feel good. And then they walked into the Erinyes Office Area.

The office area itself wasn’t that remarkable. It was your basic cubicle warren, with a ring of offices around the edge. It was a rather nice warren, as warrens go. It had nice low partitions of dark wood, the kind that allowed you to look over them at your neighbors, instead of the claustrophobic kind that most cubicle warrens had. There were plants and such, and the cubicles themselves were well stocked with individual touches. But what made the Erinyes Office Area remarkable, was the women.

Everywhere, there were absolutely gorgeous women. It was like being backstage at a fashion shoot. Only the ‘models’ were all carrying guns. Everywhere he looked, were exquisite beauties, the kind who would be the center of attention anywhere else. But they just part of the scene, here. The guard led him past utterly gorgeous women, who seemed to take a special pride in dressing each in their own fabulous way.

Rubbernecking all the way, Pres was led to one of the cubicles. The guard ‘knocked’ on the partition. “The witness, safe and sound - or, at least as sound as you can get, after a session with the shrinks.”

“Thanks, Rajhid.” Seated at the desk, staring at an array of hologram computer screens as they popped up, flickered, merged with other screens, budded off a few other screens and then winked out, was the woman who’d been with him in the van. Her black hair was loose, combed back from her face and falling to her shoulders in waves. She was wearing a simple long sleeved dress with a high collar that opened up into a nice décolletage. The dress, while not as revealing as the ‘latex’ number, was close fitting, and was of a dark blue solid that brought out her eyes. She turned those eyes, which were behind a large pair of frameless ‘fashion’ glasses that suited her face, on Pres as she pulled a plug from a socket just behind her right ear. “So, Preston,” she began in a voice that had a slight lilting accent that he couldn’t place.

“Pres. Everyone calls me Pres.”

“Okay, Pres; so, are you up to answering a few questions?”

“You’re not ask me how I feel, and try and herd me into admitting that I'm gonna wet my bed, are you?”

Vangie smiled. “No, my questions will be a lot more objective. Pres, you're a material witness to the theft of materials from the Smithsonian. Since those thefts are linked to the terrorist assault on the Institute, which resulted in two deaths, you're also a Material Witness to a Capital Felony. We have a warrant, which allows us to hold you as a Material Witness, no matter what your parents say, for up to 72 hours. We’d infinitely prefer to have your active cooperation in this, and it IS in your best interests. We’d rather not go all strongarm on you, but we can. So, Pres, how is this all gonna snap together?”

Pres looked around the office. “Why are all the women here so good looking?”

“Excuse me?”

“Look at this place! It looks like the set for one of those utterly plastic ‘super-spy’ shows, where all the girls are jaw-dropping mega-femmes! I look around, and I don’t see anyone who rates less than an ‘8’ - oh, my mistake, now that I’m looking, I do see a few average looking women and even a few guys. But those are wearing what looks like office uniforms while the others…” Pres trailed off, watching one Mediterranean beauty walk by. She was wearing a one-shouldered ‘toga’ shift dress, and was as telling an argument for his point as anything he could say.

He turned to Vangie, his eyebrows raised.

“We are Erinyes-”

“Which means?”

“The Erinyes Corps is Themis’ Utility/Special Operations division. As the Special Ops division, we are expected to go into some very... extreme... situations, and not only survive, but perform very complex, very demanding tasks while doing it. So, each field agent is treated with what’s called the ‘Dragon’s Blood Process’. The Dragon’s Blood process-”

“Like the dragon’s blood that gives Siegfried the ability to talk to birds, in the Ring of the Neibelung?”

Vangie smiled and cocked an eyebrow at him. “I take it that they’re big on the Classics, at that school you go to? Yes, the blood of dragons confers great power in many mythologies. Anyway, the Dragon’s Blood process is a suite of nanites that reinforce the skeleton, ligaments and musculature, retro-gene therapy virii, and a technique that augments the Ki, so that we’re stronger, faster, tougher and so on. Where I’m going with this is, that part of the reinforcement process causes our bones to become cartilaginous, go soft and pliable, before they firm up again. During this period, Osteo-scultping, or adjusting the formation of bone and muscle tissue, is so easy that they literally allow us to pick and choose what we’re going to look like beforehand. In other words, we look this good, because we CAN,” Vangie finished with a smile.

“Okay, I can see that,” Pres nodded, “but howcum there aren’t any GUYS like that around?”

<ahem!> “Well, you see, while there are a number of Ki-augmentation and other, ah, ‘super-soldier’ processes in use, the Dragon’s Blood process is hands down the most effective, in terms of conferring strength, speed, durability and endurance-”

“Then why are you guys working for a Private Company, instead of some government or Bloc?”

“I was getting to that.” Vangie lowered her glasses down her nose and gave Pres a glare. “As I said, the Dragon’s Blood process is arguably the most effective Combat Performance Upgrade method yet created. But it has an essential flaw that they just couldn’t get around. You see, the primary retro-gene virus - ah, no, that’s too technical. The problem with it was that, in plain speaking, it killed 87.3% of the women that it was used on and it turned the men that it was used on into women. The British developed it for the SAS, which is their contribution to the EU’s Special Forces, but they couldn’t get any volunteers. Dying for Crown and Country is one thing, but giving up your manhood? Nobody was fool enough to ask a macho Special Forces type to do that. So, after they gave up trying to resolve that essential flaw, they sold it to INFAX, Themis’ parent company, which is an Information Management Syndicate. INFAX tinkered with it for a while, and then someone got the bright idea of offering it to Male-to-Female transsexuals, who WANTED the sex change effect. So, INFAX, by way of Themis, their Police Services Provider division, offers the Dragon’s Blood process in exchange for working for them as Erinyes.”

“You mean that you just went to INFAX, asked them for it, and they let you have it?”

“It’s a LOT more involved than that. The Erinyes Corps is rather famous in MtF TS circles. There are literally millions of applicants every year, and Themis can only afford to field a few thousand Erinyes in our offices worldwide. Openings are pretty much ‘dead man’s boots’. The Screening Process is excruciating, and it’s not like they tell you what they’re looking for, so you can’t study for it. Not that it stops us.” Vangie gave a rueful laugh. “Themis likes to brag that the Erinyes are responsible for a quantum shift in High School performance among diagnosed TSes. Once you get through the screening, you have to go through a three-year training course that makes West Point look like a party college. And even then, when you graduate, you have to sign a $250,000 Indentured Service Contract.”

Pres goggled. “Two hundred and fifty THOUSAND dollars? In NuBucks?” While $250,000 in old American dollars may not have been that much in 2030, there had been the spiraling deflation of the 2030s and 2040s. That was followed by the depression of 2045-53, and the merging of the United States with Canada and Mexico into the North American Federation. All this had strengthened the Federal Dollar, or ‘NuBuck’, to the buying power that the American Dollar had enjoyed in roughly 1955. In other words, $250,000 in NuBucks, while not an actual fortune, was more than most people expected to earn in twenty years. To sign an Indentured Service Contract for $250,000, which meant that you had to pay off your debt with a percentage of your wages, and you couldn’t leave your job until the debt was paid, was the equivalent of becoming a virtual slave for life.

“Yep,” Vangie nodded, "in NuBucks. It’s not that bad - they only charge a 1% interest rate, and we get bonuses that we can put against our Process Debt if we choose, and, well, it’s not like they've got us picking cotton.”

Pres looked at Vangie skeptically. “One percent? Compounded annually? I thought the companies that used Indentured Service Contracts charged as much as 20%, compounded quarterly, to keep their workers under their thumb as long as possible.”

“You’re right, most companies with Indentured Service Contracts do that, and worse. But WE are nanite-enhanced, Ki-augmented, covert ops-trained shock troops with very big guns. And what sort of pinhead squeezes super-soldiers? The Brass would SHOOT any accountant daft enough to suggest upping our interest rate by even one percent!”

The look on Pres’ face altered slightly. “And do YOU feel that you did the right thing?”

Vangie smiled and leaned back in her chair. She tucked her hands behind her head, thrusting out her full, but not top-heavy, chest. “What do YOU think?”

Then she leaned forward, and typed out a command on her desktop computer. The printer coughed and whined, and produced a glossy brochure, folded and bonded with adhesive. Vangie handed the brochure to Pres. The cover of the eight-page brochure read, ‘Erinyes Corps: Be More Than Just A Woman’. “This IS what you’ve been angling for, isn’t it?”

Pres turned beet red. “W-what do you mean?”

Vangie started ticking things off on one hand. “First, back in the van, you knew that I was an Erinys, without being told. This, despite the fact that just now, you were all ‘what’s an Erinys’? That means that you know who we are, and you’ve done some research, probably on-line. Second, you knew me from my shoulder patch. The combat-porn sites that run all of those clips of us, don’t bother with the patch. But, the TS resource sites that mention us - in nauseating detail - do. Third, while you were obviously interested in the female beauty around you, you haven't been giving yourself whiplash, the way that the average horn-dog does when they first come in. Fourth, you were steering the discussion as to find out as much about the basic situation as you could. You’re not particularly worried about the terrorists, so you’re obviously more interested in the potential benefits that this situation offers than the risks. And last,” she finished ticking off her fingers, “I was wearing a skintight outfit that showed off every curve, but despite being a healthy 15-year-old boy, you were looking at my face, not my boobs.”

Pres looked down, clearly abashed. Vangie softened, and reached over to lay a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “Pres, honey, if there is any place on this planet where you won’t be slammed for being TS, it’s here. Lighten up, sweetie.”

Vangie started to ask a few questions, when a pair of Erinyes walked up to the cubicle. One of them was a sleek blonde wearing a mutton chop-sleeved shirtwaist blouse in the ‘Neo-Victorian’ style that was all the rage. Just behind her, the other was a stoic faced brunette with her hair arranged in a high-set ponytail, wearing a close fitting sleeveless minidress. The blonde rested an arm on the frame of the cubicle and leaned in with a smile. “So! Is this your witness for the Smithsonian case?”

Vangie gave them a tense not-really-a-smile. “I’m sorry, but that’s restricted information. Need to know, pertinent to the case, kill you if I had to tell you and all that sort of thing.”

“Oh? Have you chosen a partner for this case? You can’t work a case like this without one, you know.”

“Partner. Yeah, she’s getting a file.” Vangie got up and looked around the office area for anyone available who wasn’t Val or Darcy.

She searched for someone that Val couldn’t push around. But Val was very good at pushing people around. Then Vangie spotted Chai turning in the paperwork for the case that she’d had to leave hanging that morning, to her case manager. A ‘Completed’ icon appeared over Chai’s case screen on the Status board. Perfect. Chai and Val hated each other’s guts, and since she’d helped get Pres out of the Smithsonian, she could reasonably be considered already ‘in the loop’. “Hey, Chai!” she shouted, “you got that file yet?”

When Chai looked over, Vangie dropped her hand to where Val couldn’t see it and flashed Chai a hand signal. The signal meant ‘under fire’ and then another one that meant ‘play it by ear’. Chai saw Val and Darcy standing by Vangie’s cubicle, and gave a nod of understanding. She walked over, making a production of slinking along in her emerald green chiamsong. She must not have gotten enough raw meat at the Smithsonian, Vangie thought to herself, she usually wears that outfit when she’s in one of her ‘Dragon Lady’ moods.

Chai walked up to the cubicle, and Pres got a distinct impression of two cats folding their ears back, arching their backs, bristling up their tails and just holding back from spitting at each other. Chai gave Val a broad not-smile and said, “Oh, you came over to see what we’d have to drink? Lovely! I’ll have lapsang suchong tea, no sugar, no milk, and just a squeeze of lemon.”

Val held back a spit and turned to leave. Chai called after her, ‘Remember, no milk this time!” Then she muttered, “Ayah, that woman needs to get a man.”

“She did,” Vangie returned, “you can see little bits of him in her teeth.”

“What was all THAT about?” Pres asked.

“Oh, just office politics. Nothing to worry about, Sweetie,” Vangie reassured him. “Val, the blonde, is the office scavenger. She has a habit of ‘poaching’ on cases, and none-too-gently edging you out of the picture. All strictly within Company Ethical Guidelines, you understand. And Darcy, the brunette, isn’t quite Val’s yes-woman; she’s way too tough in a stand-up fight for that.”

“Oh, I dunno about that,” Chai countered with a feral smile. “I wouldn’t mind running into her in a dark alley.”

“DOWN, Killa,” Vangie said warningly. Then she relented. “So, you free to second me on this case?”

“Well, it will be a nice change from the lost dog cases they've had me on lately.”

“Lost dog?” Pres asked. “But I thought you were some sort of Elite Combat Unit! And they have you working lost dog cases?”

Vangie leaned over. “Well, y’see, a few months back, she and her buddy - y’know, the big amazon with the guns? - sort of demolished a warehouse down in Watertown on a Contraband Control case. So, as punishment, they’ve been sticking them with the small fry cases that the other divisions send over to get them off of their boards.”

“But why would they waste your time on little things like that? You told me that it takes a quarter of a million dollars to get you converted, I’d think that they’d want to save you for the important stuff!”

Chai cocked an inquiring eyebrow at Vangie. “Pres here is very interested in what we do here,” Vangie explained.

Chai spotted the Erinyes Corps brochure in Pres’ hand, and gave a knowing smile. “So, did ‘Snake-eyes’ here fill you in on the Dragon’s Blood process, and our hyoooj Process Debt?” Pres nodded. “Well, you have to remember, the Dragon’s Blood upgrade is only really useful for combat monsters like us. But it’s an Iron Rule of Combat that, no matter how well trained, equipped, or conditioned they are, Soldiers Die. Period. That means that a significant number of Erinyes are going to die before they pay off their Process Debts. So, the bean counters jacked the initial Process Debut up to a quarter-mil, and they try to get us to generate profits in ways other than getting our oh-so-expensive asses shot at. So, besides being a Special Operations division, we are a Utility division as well.”

“‘Utility Division’ being a bureaucratic euphemism for sort of a stone bucket,” Vangie explained. “We get jobs and cases from practically all the other divisions, usually the piddling little stuff that they don’t want cluttering up their boards, or the messy stuff that they don’t wanna deal with and like that.”

Chai pulled a spare chair from the cubicle across the way and sat. “So, now that we have the info-dump taken care of, why don’t we do a little actual investigation?”

“I was just getting to that, when the Vulture Queen showed up,” Vangie responded. Then she turned to Pres. “Okay, Sweetie, start from the time that you entered the Smithsonian, and give me the basics. We will go over various parts - repeatedly - so don’t bog yourself up by trying to remember too many details at this part.”

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After Pres gave them his basic story, Vangie reached into a drawer, pulled out a TlS crown, unwrapped it from its cellophane packing and settled it on his head. She said soothingly, “Okay, you probably recognize this as a Total Immersion Sensorium headset, the kind they use in TIS arcades. You do go the arcade, right?”


“What’s your favorite milieu?”

Pres blushed. “‘Riverdale High©’.“

“Ah, the old idealized High School setting. Well, you’re only a freshman, so I guess that you can be excused on that one. Besides,” Vangie leaned in confidentially, “I’ve ‘gone to the dance with Archie’ a few times m’self. Who’s your favorite character to play?”

Pres blushed again. “Betty.”

“Okay, now, as you know, the headset detects specific responses in your brain and interprets them through a pre-set matrix of recorded and verified responses. By the way, do you have your Arcade Card on you?”

Pres dug into his wallet and fished out a blue-gold-and-white Elysium Arcades™ interface card. Vangie took it. “This will make things a lot quicker.” She connected the crown up to her computer and inserted the card into a reader. “Okay, now the headset won’t ‘read your mind’ or anything, but it can tell when you’re using the parts of your brain that store memories, or the ones that you use when you are being ‘creative’. And, for our purposes, ‘creative’ means either lying, or coming up with things that you think that we want to hear. Now, I want you to go to a level 2 meditative state, like you would at the arcade.”

Pres settled back and tried to relax. But in the arcades, they had really comfortable reclining chairs, each in their own booths, so you didn’t have to worry about other people seeing what you were doing. Still, he allowed himself to relax as best he could.

“All right, now slowly open your eyes, Sweetie, and hold that mindset.”

Pres opened his eyes. Vangie had set the computer hologram projector to erect a screen about two feet in front of him. On the ‘screen’ was a face shot of a balding, square faced man. “Okay, Sweetie, I know that this doesn’t look much like the ‘soft-faced’ man that you saw in the museum. Think about what the soft-faced man DID look like, as opposed to what you see here.”

Pres though about it, and as he did, the face on screen began to warp. It slowly moved closer and closer to what he remembered. Then it moved in twitches and lurches, and it jerked into becoming the very image of the man that Pres had seen.

“That’s HIM! But I don’t have that good a memory!”

“Actually, we all do, Sweetie,” Chai assured him. “Besides telling when you’re being *ahem!* ‘creative’, the headset can also tell when your memory is being jogged, and to what degree. That last bit with the sudden jerks was to get it as accurate as possible. Now that we’ve got his face, let’s go to work on his voice.”

The face on the screen began reciting a poem. Pres recognized it as Whitman’s I Sing The Body Electric. The voice fluctuated a bit, and by the third repetition, the synthesized voice had every nuance of his delivery. Then they repeated the whole process for the fox-faced man and the woman. But when the time came for the book shaped gadget, for some reason, Pres just kept sliding over into ‘creative’, and no definitive image could be captured.

Vangie saved the three mug shots and shut down the Identify Program. She leaned back in her chair and gave Pres a raking look of scrutiny. “Y’know, this shouldn’t be that hard. From your description, it’s a simple mechanical device, with a few intricacies that are probably some Byzantine security measure. It should be easier for you to ID this than it was for the three faces and voices.” She raised an eyebrow. “Of course, you realize that your identification of that dingus is crucial to this case. It’s probably what this whole shebang is about. Indeed, we’d probably have to involve you directly into the case, taking you along, just in case you spot anything that you glossed over. And of course, to positively ID the dingus when we actually see it.”

Vangie shifted her gaze to one of the computer hologram ‘screens’ and the flickering readout. Her face went hard, her voice stern, and her eyes glittered like steel. “But then, that was the whole idea, wasn’t it? You figure that maybe you’ll get a nice ‘In’ with Themis if you are listed as a material asset in a concluded case, don’t you? You figure that maybe it will grease your way past the Admissions Exams, right? That’s why you deliberately fudged the ID scans! So that you’d have to be in the field, a direct part of the investigation, instead of locked away, just a footnote in the case record!”

Vangie’s expression melted into bemused appreciation. “Good Plan, Kid! It works! We have you for another 68 hours, until we have to ask your parents their permission. And, having you close at hand would be better than risking a video link.” Vangie’s expression firmed up again. “BUT, you ARE a witness. AND a minor, to boot. While you’re in our custody, you're our responsibility. And even it you weren’t, we don’t like it when ‘little sisters’ get hurt.” Vangie patted Pres’ hand. “So, that means, you only come in at a scene when we need an ID, when we TELL you to come in. When we tell you to stay in the sled or any other safe location, you'd better bloody well STAY there! When we tell you to duck for cover, you duck! We tell you to run, you run like the devil was after you! Is that understood?”

Pres nodded vigorously.

Vangie turned and looked at Chai. “And what about you?”

“Oh, I’m perfectly willing to stay back where it’s nice and safe!”

Vangie glowered at her. “I meant, are you willing to have a witness tagging along on this investigation?”

Chai gave Pres a long, measuring look. “Yeah, with one proviso - we bring along a bodyguard for the kid. I suggest Kait.”

Vangie’s eyes popped wide open. “Boom-boom? You want to put this child-”

“HEY!” Pres bridled.

“-under the care of a trigger-happy Gun Nut like BOOM-BOOM?”

“Hey, do NOT dump on Kait!”

“So, who’s dumping? She’s a brick! But she’s also a walking disaster area, whenever she has a gun in her hand! Her first reaction in a firefight is to put as much lead in the air as physically possible! This is the first time in months that she’s seen an actual profit on an operation! She’d be more of a threat to the kid than a safeguard!” Vangie glared at Chai, her eyes unblinking.

“Hey, do NOT give me the Snake Eye!” Chai retaliated. “Besides, she’s only a danger to anyone in front of her. As long as he stays out of Kait’s arc of fire, he’s safe as houses.” Chai arched an eyebrow. “Admit it, you’re just too damn cheap to risk the possible damage charges that might accrue if Kait was along for the ride. You’d rather let the kid get dead than cut into your overhead!”

“Hey, I admit that having an extra hand along to make sure that the kid stays safe is a good idea, but WHY does it have to be Kait? Don’t get me wrong, I like Kait, she’s a great girl, but she LIVES to blow things up!”

“And this will be a liability exactly how?” Chai said in the Voice of Extreme Reason.

Vangie settle back in her chair and tapped a finger on her desktop. “How about Kitten? They’re the same height, and with a little help, we could confuse the opposition.”

Chai looked at the Status Board. “Nope. Kitten and Julia are both still working that Black Bag job for Finson & Nalley.”

“How about-”

Chai shook her head. “Kait. If we’re going up against the Tribulation Saints, I want someone I can rely on backing me up.”

Vangie glared at her. “Oh, thank you so very much for the vote of confidence.”

“Vangie, she needs the money.”

Vangie continued glowering at her.

“Vange, this is a Smithsonian job! Anything having to do with the Smithsonian, that would involve a break-in like this morning, has to be up in the hundreds of Millions in value, if not Billions! Even KAIT would have a hard time putting a dent in the overhead allowance for that much!”

Vangie let out a long, martyred sigh. “Okay, okay, but I expect you to keep her on a leash for a change. Go ahead, get your partner in catastrophe, before I come to my senses.” Chai scurried off as fast as her tight dress would allow. Vangie looked up at the ceiling and said to the universe, “I just KNOW that I’m gonna regret this...”

A few moments later, Kait followed Chai into the getting even more crowded cubicle. She towered a good foot over her friend, even thought Chai was wearing 4-inch heels. She was wearing traction slippers, embroidered blue jeans, a red leatherette blazer, and a black singlet with a licensed character of an anthropomorphic (and quite buxom) tigress in a tight slinky dress, sprawling on a bearskin rug in front of a fireplace. The tigress was toying with a martini glass while gazing at the viewer with a ‘come-hither’ look. Under the picture was written ‘Sexual Predator’. Kait’s long, flaming red hair was pulled back in a flirty ponytail. “So,” she said cheerfully, “I hear that you’re looking for a lost dog. We have a special today on Airedales!”

Vangie let it slide. “Pres, this is Kaitlyn Marksbury. She was one of the team members that got you out this morning. You know, the one that-” Vangie shot a glare at Kait, “-*DIDN’T* trash that exhibit with a gun that she wasn’t supposed to have?” Kait flashed a wide apologetic smile and bounced on the balls of her feet. “Kait, this is Preston Wyecross, the kid we pulled out of the Smithsonian this morning. She saw a few things going down while she was sneaking around, trying not to get caught. So, we’re going to have her tagging along, just in case she spots something.”

Kait raised an eyebrow at the use of ‘she’, and spotted the Erinyes brochure in Pres’ hand. Pres quickly stuffed the brochure away. Even so, Kait have Pres a reassuring smile.

Vangie went on to explain the need for a bodyguard. Then there was a spirited round of negotiation, which they settled with a 35-35-30 split, with Kait getting the 30%. As Kait grumbled about getting stiffed, Vangie was giving Pres a measuring look. “Hmmm...the real problem here isn’t so much keeping Pres safe - we just keep her at one of the dorms, no biggie - it’s gonna be keeping her identity a secret. They didn’t get much of a chance to look at Pres in the Smithsonian, she was all bundled up in that Reflex Armor when she spotted their ambulance getaway, and we’ve got a restraining order on the student list for the Field Trip, so that’s no biggie. BUT, if we drag her along, there’s no way that we can stop them from getting a good shot of her and doing a brute force comparison of the students at the schools. If they do that, we’d have to take your parents into protective custody as well. And, if we do that, we gotta recompense them for Hours Lost. And that could be REAL expensive. I think it would be safer all around-”

“And a LOT cheaper,” Chai piped in.

“-if we just disguise you while you’re with us.” Vangie favored Pres with a conspiratorial smile. “So, Sweetie, how would you feel about going around in a holo-mask, a wig, and maybe --- a dress?”

Pres’ face lit up.

“No, not a holo-mask,” Chai insisted.

Pres crashed. “Why nawwwttt????”

“Because holo-masks are obvious. There’s that white plastic frame all around your face, and everyone knows that you’re wearing a holo-mask. So, as soon as she’s seen with us in a holo-mask, everyone’s gonna KNOW that she’s our witness!”

“And this is bad?” Vangie asked, hands wide. “As soon as a high school kid is seen with us, they're gonna know that she’s our witness. BUT, they’re gonna assume that a real girl is the witness, and direct any research that they do toward finding her parents in the wrong direction.”

Chai folded her arms. “Blake, they SAW her in the museum. They KNOW that the kid who saw them is a boy. Her only protection is in having no one think that she’s a witness!”

“Oh?” Vangie challenged, “And what do you suggest?”

“A flesh mask. It will register as the real thing, even under UV, IR or radar scrutiny.”

“A FLESH MASK?” Vangie sputtered, “Are you NUTS? Do you know how much those things cost?”

Chai turned to Pres and jerked a thumb at Vangie. “She’s such a cheapskate, you’d think that she was five years behind on her Process Debt, instead of five ahead.”

“Hey, it’s GOOD to be a little ahead!” Vangie snarled. “And you don’t pile up that breathing room you've got by maxing out your Expense Account on every case!”

“What’s a ‘flesh mask’?” Pres asked.

Chai ignored Vangie as she fumed. “It’s a sort of ‘living mask’ of pseudo-flesh. They lay a nano-fine sensor mesh over your face, and then overlay that with a responder mesh. The responder mesh is shaped to the form of the new features that you want. Then Stemiderm© pseudo-flesh is poured into the responder mesh and integrates with your own skin. The whole thing is less than half a millimeter thick, so the mask isn’t obvious. The sensor mesh detects the nuances of things like blushing, twitches and such, and sends them to the responder mesh, so you get lifelike expression, and the responder mesh also sends back input, so it feels like your own skin. They are very convincing, and very comfortable.”

“Yeah,” Vangie said, crossing her arms defensively, “and what she ISN’T telling you is that if the damn things aren’t devitalized with 36 hours of setting, they start to become extra levels of dermis, levels of mesh and all. You’re STUCK like that.”

Pres shrugged. “It doesn’t seem like that big a problem.” It was obvious that she was digging on the flesh mask idea.

“Oh?” Vangie hooted, eyebrows up high. “You wanna go to back to your parents with a new face?”

Pres wilted. “_No._”

Vangie sat forward. She hadn’t expected the kid to take it that badly. “What’s the matter? Don’t your parents at least have a clue about your TS?”

Pres squirmed in her seat. “ah, No. Y’see, they’re kind’a stiff, y’know?”

Vangie screwed up her face in sympathy. “So, ah, your parents kinda put the ‘despair’ in ‘desperately respectable’?

Pres nodded.

Vangie let out a long breath. “Okay, okay, okay, we’ll spring for the flesh mask. BUT, you gotta take it off either just before you go to bed, or when you get up in the morning. We don’t want have to explain to your parents about your ‘new look’. They’re gonna be pissed off enough as it is, that we’re keeping you as a material witness.”

Vangie got up and looked around. When she saw the woman in the ‘toga’, she caught her eye and waved the woman over. “Hey, Julia, this is Pres, she’s a material witness in the Smithsonian case that we’re working on. We’re gonna need her in the field, so we have to come up with a disguise. We’re taking her down to Covert Ops, to have Disguises do a flesh mask for her, but we’re gonna need something for her to wear; d’you think that you could talk Kitten into lending us a couple of her ‘little darling’ outfits?”

Julia looked at Pres and favored her with a wide smile, the kind that warms up a room. “Of course,” she purred, “anything for a little sister.” She tousled Pres’ hair and walked away.

“Okay, let’s get you fit for the street,” Vangie said as she shut down her computer.

“Who’s Kitten?” Pres asked.

“Oh, The Kitten’s one of the Erinyes in the office. She’s about your size, and her specialty is passing herself off as a kid.”

“And Julia’s her partner?”

“No, they’re just working together on a case. We don’t have regular partners, the way that Cops do.” Vangie shot off a glare at Chai and Kait. “Of course, SOP requires that we have partners on a case, but it’s nothing permanent.”

Pres looked puzzled. “Then why would Julia be the one to ask Kitten if she’d lend me an outfit?”

Vangie steered Pres out of the office. “Because people have a very hard time refusing Julia anything.”

“She’s that persuasive?”

“More to the point, she’s one of those people who loves doing things for other people, so everyone owes her at least one favor, and even it they didn’t, no one - well, maybe Val - has the heart to say ‘No’ to Julia.”

With that, Vangie sent Pres off with Kait. When Pres was well out of earshot, Vangie used one of the secure landlines at Wendy’s desk. “Hello, Domestic Intelligence? This is Evangeline Blake, Erinyes Division. Would you give me Roger Park?” There was a wait. “Roger! Vangie. Lissen up, Raj, I've got a ‘tourist’. Yep. Part of that Smithsonian hoo-ha. Wants to be ‘part of the investigation’. Uh hunh. Yeah, all of fifteen years old. Ennyway, I need some place to take the kid. Some place with no real danger, but lots of atmosphere and suspense and grit and all that Cop Show crap. Yeah. Well, it would be really good if it actually had something to with the case, so that we’re not completely wasting company time by humoring the kid. It’s gotta have something to do with the Trib Saints.”

It took Roger a while, but he had a lead on a suspected Saints weapons cache. “So, since they dipped into their weapons stores, they probably moved it already,” he said. “BUT, if you nose around, you might be able to get a lead on stuff like when they moved it, how-”

“And from there, check the local security measures for license plates and like that. Yeah, Raj, I know the drill.”

Vangie saw Roger smirk over the line. “So, once you give Junior his thrill ride and put him away for the night, what say we get together for a drink?”

Vangie smiled back at him over the phone. Hey, it was GOOD to be a heart-stopping babe! “Raj, you KNOW that I have a rule about not dating Cops! And even if I didn’t, I’m seeing someone regular these days. As a matter of fact, I have-” Vangie’s face dropped, “-a date tonight. Oh, Crud. Gotta Go, Raj, I owe you one!”

Wendy leaned over her desk, one hand over her keyboard, a look of predatory curiosity on her face. “Oh, what’s this?”

“Please, Wendy, I don’t need any grief right now!” Vangie pulled out her phone and hit speed-dial. “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, I do NOT want to say this to an answering machine!”

Then David’s Priority Clearance system put Vangie through. “DAVID! Honey! About the Opera tonight.” Vangie's face screwed up in an apologetic grin. “I’m afraid that I’m gonna have to ask for a rain check. A cow dropped out of the sky, and a really time-sensitive case landed in my lap. No, I can’t sluff it off on someone else. There’s a personal touch issue involved. No, David, I am not begging off, I love Verdi, but if I wanna buy out of this outfit, I have to put in the hours! Yes, I know how hard it was to get those tickets-”

As Vangie’s current flame, David Weston, an investment banker, raked her over the coals for this latest flake-out, Wendy was listening with one ear. With both hands, she was furiously factoring calculations to adjust odds.

Chai looked over Wendy’s shoulder at the odds. “Well, they’re at the cusp of the ‘starting to get nasty’ period. Put me down for a hundred on David walking out on her within three months, but no sooner than a month. Ah, what the heck, narrow it to a two-to-three month period.” Chai smiled at the odds that Wendy quoted her.

Vangie stood there, arms folded, giving Chai a look that could have frozen Lake Michigan in August. Chai looked back at her, utterly unabashed. “Hey, it’s not MY fault that you run your private life like a soap opera!” With that she left the office grinning widely, and Vangie followed, fuming.

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When Chai and Vangie got down to Covert Ops, Sullivan had Pres strapped into the facial features analyzer. Kait was helping Pres with picking out the exact features that she wanted. To do Pres credit, she wasn’t trying to copy the look of the current Teen Queen, but seemed to be going for a wholesome fresh-faced ‘girl next door’ look.

As Pres put the finishing touches on her new ‘face’, Sullivan was carefully lasering every square millimeter of her face, leaving a raw pink tinge.

Exactly why *ouch!* do you have to do that?” Pres asked.

“Gotta remove all the dead skin, facial hair and the gunk that’s trapped in your pores,” Sullivan replied, as he stripped off the plasticized ‘mask’ that took all the aforementioned detritus with it. “The pseudo-dermis needs to bond with living skin. If there’s anything except the two meshes between your real skin and the pseudo-dermis, you get ‘dead’ patches, that don’t respond, get gray, and peel.” Sullivan unpacked a mold from a box. “Okay, close your eyes, take a deep breath and relax.” He settled the mold on Pres’ face.

As the mold settled on Pres’ face, Vangie took advantage of Pres not being able to see to spell something out in Erinyes ‘hand jive’. ‘Take-Client-Idiot’s Tour. Shake her up-Put a Scare into Her-Humor her. Get her to safety-before-she does-something stupid.’

Kait glared at Vangie and vigorously signed, ‘Play Fair! Give Kid a Break! Give her a shot!’

Vangie gave Kait the snake eye and signed back, ‘Give her a shot? - No Way! - Will get killed.’

When the mold came off, Pres looked around. “Where’s the mask?”

“On your face,” Sullivan replied matter of factly.

“But I can’t feel anything.”

“Of course you can’t! What would be the point of a living mask that was thick enough to feel?” As he was saying this, Sullivan was unwrapping another mold. “Okay, now this is gonna take a while. The computer has to adjust the responder mesh to configure into the face that you want.” He loaded the mold into a slot.

They killed a few minutes until the mold-setter beeped. Sullivan took out the mold, and gave it a final eyeball exam. “Okay, looks good.” He inserted two bottles into the mold. “Okay, the Stemiderm© is bonding with the responder mesh. Now, remember, when you’re done, you have to take off the responder mesh first with this mold, and insert this bottle-” He held up a plastic bottle, “-which will cause the Stemiderm© to dissolve. Wash the gunk out of the mold and off your face, and then remove the sensor mesh with the first mold.”

“Are you sure there’s a mesh on my face?”

“Yeah, Kid, I’m sure. How, hold still.” Sullivan placed the second mold on Pres’ face.

As the second injection of Stemiderm completed the bond, Chai gestured angrily at Vangie, ‘Kid-deserves-even–chance.’

Vangie gave her a chill glare. ‘Have-you-heard-of-In-Loco-Parentis-?’, she returned.

Sullivan laid a hand on Pres’ shoulder. “Okay, I’m about to remove the mold. Be sure to keep your eyes shut. I want you to count to twenty - WITHOUT moving your mouth! - the pseudo-flesh needs to breathe a bit.”

Pres rather pointedly counted out with her fingers, and on the count of twenty, opened her eyes. “I still think you’re pulling my leg. I can’t feel a thing.”

Sullivan produced a hand mirror with a flourish. Pres took the mirror and looked into it. Her eyes snapped wide open, and she gasped.

The face that gaped back at her from the mirror was just like the one that she’d cobbled together on the computer. Only this was her face. She reached up, and it was just like touching her own face, only beautiful.

As Pres was wrapped up in her new face, Kait was rummaging around in a drawer. She pulled out what looked like a pair of deformed casaba melons.

“What are those?” Pres asked.

“Boobs!” Kait replied cheerfully. “Same idea as for the face mask, only for your chest!”

Vangie gave an exasperated snarl, reached down into the drawer and pulled out a much smaller appliance. “Training wheels.”

“Ah, c’mon!” Kait whined, “Give the kid a break! I mean, how often is she gonna get a chance like this?”

“This is NOT a Feminization Fantasy, Marksbury!” Vangie shot back, “This is a measure to keep a valuable witness alive while she’s in our custody!” Vangie leaned in closer, “Besides,” she whispered, “this way we can use a larger cup as a reward for good behavior.”

Kait just rolled her eyes heavenward, as Sullivan helped bond some Stemiderm to the breast form.

The new ‘breasts’ looked like the first blush of a fifteen-year old girl’s bosom, and Pres was amazed at how sensitive the nipples were.

Then there was a knock on the door. “Hello, hello!” chirped a cheery voice. “I hear that we have a new recruit!”

“Hey, Kitten!” Chai called back, “C’mon in!”

Julia, the lovely Mediterranean woman in the ‘toga’ came in with two dress bags draped over her arms, followed by a petite girl with shaggy blonde hair. The second girl was as short as Pres, and had a cheery gamine face with a tiny nose and huge blue eyes. She looked like she could be anywhere from fourteen to her mid-twenties. Pres remembered that Vangie had said that her specialty was ‘passing herself off as a kid’. Pres could see how that could work.

Kitten put down the boxes that she was overburdened with, and gave Pres her full attention. “You said that she was fifteen years old?” Kitten had a high, chipper, slightly nasal voice that suited her gamine look and air. “Wow! A fifteen-year-old who actually WANTS to look fifteen!”

Kitten took Vangie’s face in one hand. “With this face? What else? She’s gotta be a blonde!”

“She already IS a blonde,” Vange responded dryly.

“You KNOW what I mean! And I have JUST the thing!” Kitten picked up one of the boxes, and pulled out a wig. The wig had long, straight, butter-yellow blonde hair with bangs. “With that face, y’gotta have bangs!”

Without asking, Kitten pulled the wig onto Pres’ head and set it straight. Julia, Kait, Chai and Vangie gave the effect their collective judgement and agreed that it brought out her eyes.

“Yeah, eyes. Brown doesn’t really go with this whole look,” Kitten mused. She opened up a toolbox and started rifling through a selection of conical tubes. “So, Sapphire Blue, Teal, Sea Blue, Royal Blue, Lapis Lazuli, Cornflower Blue...”

“Cornflower Blue!” Kait said in no uncertain terms.

“Excuse me?” Pres asked, slightly overwhelmed.

“We’re deciding on your eye color, Honey,” Kitten said as she pulled one of the plastic tubes out of the tackle box. “Lean your head back and keep your eyes open. I’m going to put some drops in your eyes.” She did just that. “Now, keep your head tilted back and your eyes open for a ten count. These drops contain a nanite that uses the slope of the lenses of your eyes to form a colored false iris on the lens. It won’t form on the part of the eye that you actually use for seeing. And, viola!Cornflower Blue eyes!” Kitten handed the mirror to the furiously blinking Pres.

Pres looked, and sure enough, her eyes were a lovely deep blue color.

Yeaaahhhh! But, how do I get them out at night?”

“You don’t have to. The false irises will dissolve, if not exposed to open air for at least twenty minutes. So, when you go to sleep, they’ll dissolve, decompose, and be absorbed harmlessly into your bloodstream. So! Enough build up! Let’s get you dressed!”

Julia steered Pres out of the Covert Ops workshop and into a side room. Kitten lugged her haul of teen-wear in after them, followed by Chai. Kait tried to go as well, but the room was much too cramped already. She gave Vangie a look. “Aren’t you going?”

Vangie shrugged. “Hey, what do _I_ know about teen fashions? Even when I was a kid, I couldn’t afford those kinds of rags, and you know that they try to completely cycle through a fashion trend within five years. I’d just get in the way. Besides-” she shot a glare at Sullivan, “-someone’s got to be on Pervert Patrol!”

“Yeah, Right,” Sullivan grumped, “like I’d really waste my time.”

“Sullivan, you’ve got no less that 47 different kinds of disguised cameras in here. Besides, everybody knows that being a voyeur is part and parcel of being in Covert Ops.”

Sullivan said nothing, but abruptly stashed something in a pocket. Kait and Vangie spent the next five minutes or so glaring at him as he and his compadres went about their duties.

When Pres came out, she was wearing an outfit that managed to look both innocent and suggestive at the same time. She wore a short pleated blue skirt that barely covered her thighs, and a long sleeved diaphanous blouse that looked like a light mist over the strapless under-blouse. Kitten assured Vangie that it was THE current look in affluent high schools. Pres spun around in her traction slippers, clearly enjoying herself.

“She wanted something with a high heel,” Kitten commented, “but she admitted that she doesn’t have any experience with them.”

Vangie nodded. “Very nice. Very nice indeed!” She turned to the assembled Covert Ops gnomes. “Hey, Sugimoto! You got any Sopranette©?”

“Sopranette?” Pres asked, clearly baffled.

“It’s a throat spray. A couple of spritzes, and it tightens your vocal chords. In adults, it usually causes the voice to rise an octave or so. Since your voice is still breaking, it will keep your voice in a higher range, and it should keep it from breaking at embarrassing times.”

Sugimoto came up with three pump bottles. “So, do you want Melon, Yam or Licorice flavor?”

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Vangie sent Kitten and Julia to the Themis dorms with the rest of the clothes and things that they’d set aside for Pres. The rest went back to the office. As they walked through the office this time, the ladies took a lot more notice of, and interest in, Pres. They didn’t jeer, but rather there were gentle words of approval and encouragement, and warm accepting smiles. Pres learned that she could indeed blush through the flesh mask, but still, she was floating on air by the time she got to Vangie’s cubicle.

As Pres made sure of her skirt as she sat, Vangie gave her an amused smile.

“Okay, Fun’s Fun, but we do have to get a little work done today, or Diana’s gonna be all over us tomorrow morning.”

“Diana?” Pres asked.

“Office Honcho,” Kait explained.

“By ‘Office Honcho’,” Vangie explained Kait’s explanation, “Kait means that Diana is the Office Supervisor and our immediate superior. She keeps the Case Managers honest - and alive - and the rest of us in line. I just signed off on some pretty expensive equipment to keep you safe, and she’s gonna want to see some results for it ASAP.

“So, let’s get busy-” Vangie stopped. “Hey, what ARE we gonna call you like this, anyway? It sort of defeats the whole purpose, if we keep calling you by your right name!”

Pres blushed beet red, but didn’t hesitate. “Kallista.”

Vangie fought unsuccessfully to keep an amused smile from her lips. Kallista. Kid would choose a TV character name like that. Well, who was she to cast asparagus, with a name like ‘Evangeline’? “Okay, Kallista, it’s getting late, so we only have time for a couple of stops tonight. First, I want to get you rigged up with a few, ah, ‘special measures’.”

Chai smirked, “Ayah, the Gadget Queen strikes again!”

“Hunh?” Kallista hooted.

“Oh, Snake-eyes here,” Kait explained, “is our resident ‘Spy Movie’ gadget fiend.”

“Well, excuse me,” Vangie said defensively, “but having an unforeseen advantage has saved my ass on more than one occasion.”

Kait grinned at Kallista, “The reason that she’s so cheap in the office, is that she has expensive tastes, and those whacko doohickeys of hers head the list.”

Vangie grinned back at Kait. “Hey, _I’m_ five years ahead of my repayment schedule - how far along are YOU?”

Kait scowled back and shut up. Except for Kait, the group bundled up in the draping (but well air-conditioned) overcoats that the current fashion demanded. Kallista suspected that the overcoats were also well armored, though they didn’t weigh that much. Chai, who had changed from her chiamsong to a matching blood red leather jacket and pants set, called ahead to the motor pool and reserved an armored sled. When they got to the garage, a sleek Mercedes-Benz™ sedan was waiting for them. As she and Kait scooted onto the butter-soft leather upholstery on the back seat, Kallista whistled, “Wow! They really treat you Erinyes right!”

Vangie, Chai and Kait shared looks. “Okay,” Vangie said, “anyone wanna guess the odds that one of the THREE Em-Bees we have in the motor pool, which are ALWAYS checked out, usually by either Val or Darcy, just happen to be returned and maintained, just when we need it?”

Kallista blinked. “You mean that Val woman set this up? But how? And why?”

“Yes,” Kait answered as Vangie linked into the driver’s system. “How? Too many ways that she could set up, starting with just snarling at the motor pool monkeys. As for the Why, well, anything having to do with you has to do with the Tribulation Saints right at this moment. And anything having to do with the Saints is Big Bucks and Beaucoup Brownie points, both of which Val is addicted to. And Val-”

“Is the office hijacker,” Kallista finished for her, “yeah, I got that part. So, what are you gonna do?”

“Tonight?” Vangie answered as she started up the Em-Bee, “Nothing. We’ll be checking out a lead, and if anything, we can use them as a twisted sort of cover. They won’t let anything happen to us, until we get real close, and that won’t happen tonight. And, the extra time will give us the opportunity to come up with something especially nasty to do to Val.”

“Always a high priority,” Chai said smugly, and with no further ado, they drove out into the sweltering Washington, D.C. night.

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Back when Washington was still the capitol of the old Union, various writers and commentators made a good deal out of the contrast between the splendors of the Mall and Federal buildings, and the squalor of the slums only a few blocks away. DC was still the seat of the BAMA (Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Area) district, and the slums were now largely covered in stagnant water, but other than that, things were still pretty much the same. The Movers and Shakers still lived in Georgetown, the Bourgeois in Arlington and the other ‘burbs, and the Poor lived in the submerged shadow of glory. The Themis sled was pre-cleared to leave the dyke-gate and skimmed over the Potomac estuary waters in the general direction of ‘Alphabet City’.

Let’s just say that ‘Alphabet City’ is used a lot for ‘blighted urban landscape’ stock footage, and leave it at that.

The Em-Bee pulled up to an inlet dock on the ramshackle venice, and the four girls piled out, first Kait, then Chai, then Kallista, and finally Vangie. As Vangie got out, she shut the watertight doors and keyed the autopilot to return to the water and submerge. As she did this, Vangie saw a group of six types that looked like they probably saw a fair amount of business posing as ‘vicious urban thugs’ for the aforementioned stock footage. As were many in the nastier parts of the sprawl, these fools were sporting the ‘romantic buccaneer’ look that was all the rage, with loose shirts, tight pants and big boots. The ‘buccaneers’ saw Vangie looking at them, and returned the look with a bit of ‘oh yeah, we’re bad people’ posturing. Vangie returned the posturing with an ‘ask me if I care’ attitude.

Vangie led the others through a side door, up to the third floor. The sign by the door said, “Desmond & Lou Ellen Recycled Electronics.” The storefront looked like the purchasing counter for junk electronics to Kallista, but weren’t those places usually on the ground floor? That is, unless this place was actually a front for a fence, and Vangie was here to pump him for information about the Saint’s equipment or something. Vangie pressed the ‘service’ buzzer and waved at the security camera. After a bit, a rather anorexic looking man with a beaky nose came out. “Hello, Des. How’s Lou Ellen?” Vangie asked brightly.

“Bitching the hell out of everyone and everything.”

“Is it her time of the month?”

“Nope. That’s the problem. It should be.”

“Okay, I didn’t need to know that.”

“Hey, you asked.”

Vangie sighed, “That’ll learn me to try small talk. Okay, I need some special equipment.”

“I didn’t think you came up here for the scenic waterfront view.”

Vangie turned to Kallista. “Kallista? C’mere.” Vangie laid her hands on Kallista’s shoulders. “Des, we need to be able to keep this young lady safe, and to be able to find her again, if she gets lost.”

Des fitted Kallista for a bit of personal armor that fit almost without trace under her top. Des claimed that it would stop a .38 slug at ten feet. “True, it’ll hurt like hell,” he hedged, “and you’ll have a bruise the size of a pancake, but you’ll walk away from it.” Kallista was touched, and rather flattered by the gentle touch, the extra care that he took in fitting her, since she was a young lady.

Kallista shifted her shoulders a bit. “Are you sure that this thing is bulletproof? It doesn’t weigh much more than some T-shirts I’ve had.”

“There is no such thing as ‘bullet-proof’,” Des corrected her, “just armored. And being light is rather the idea. If it isn’t a bother to wear, then you’ll be that much more likely to put it on, No?”

Vangie fixed Des with an icy glare. “I’ll have to trust you that this thing is as good as you say. It’s not a good idea to violate an Erinys’ trust, remember that.”

“I consider myself mortally threatened, thank you,” Des replied equitably.

“Now, what else can we offer you?”

“We need a few defense measures. Non lethal, preferably.”

“Got a nice little item right here, should do the trick.” Des went behind the counter and produced a small box. Inside the box was a lovely little brooch. “This little number has a tiny magnesium flare built into it. You say the right trigger word - the shorter the better - and a vox-recog chip sets off the magnesium, producing a blinding flash. Nothing too nasty, but enough to shake up your basic street monster, as so he’ll give you room to run away.”

Vangie looked at Kallista. “Now, you remember that - running away is a VERY effective self-defense technique.”

Kallista looked wistful. “And here I thought all this time, I was being a wimp, and I was really using effective self-defense. But you can’t always run away.”

“All too true,” Des agreed - mostly because it allowed him to make more sales. “The brooch also comes with reload chips. Next, are you familiar with Spider-Man?”

Kallista shook her head.

“Old Comic Book character.” He pulled out an odd handset with two obvious tubes of something. “He used to swing around from buildings on ‘webs’ made of a kind of adhesive. Utter rot, given the tech of the time. But it was enough that some old fan managed to kludge this design together. Binary polyacetlyether, with a nitrogen fixing nanite suite, and a variable-force propellant system.”

“errrr...” Kallista bit her lower lip. “And what does all that mean?”

“Webbing.” Des pointed the ‘gun’ at the far wall and gave the firing button a tap. A wad flew out of the nozzle, and exploded into a web-wheel of adhesive. “Y’can’t swing on it of course - that part’s bosh - but it’s damn versatile. Comes with a book on the various settings and such. Don’t try anything too fancy too quick, and you should be fine.”

Vangie took the ‘web-gun’ from Des and looked at it. Well, it would give the kid a better sense of some kind of active participation in her own defense. Whether that was a good idea or not, was still up in the air. “Fine, we’ll take it. Anything else that could be useful?”

After a few rather exotic tries, Des produced a bracelet. “Switch this,” he indicated a bit that looked like an ornament, “and this little beauty generates an electromagnetic field powerful enough to mess with most non-hardened electronics and jam most guns. Has a 7 second capacitor battery, that can be recharged from most household current.”

Vangie nodded. “Very Nice! I think that that will cover it for defensive measures; what about tracking?”

“What kind of opposition are we talking about?”

“If they’re going to get her away from us, assume that we’re talking about pros. Very sneaky pros. They’ll have one eye peeled for any of the usual stuff: radio traces, ultrasonics, chemical trails, and like that.”

Des thought for a bit. “Got one thing here that the developer tried to get the FBI interested in.” He took a small disk that looked like a quarter at first glance out of a box. “In a way, it’s sort of a throwback to the oldest trick of all - a trail of string. This little disk is actually two disks. You stick it on the bottom of a shoe or bag or whatever. Basically, you just mash down hard on it and the bottom of the disk adheres to whatever it’s on. The disk splits into two spools of micro-filament thread. Each spool has a maximum range of 15 klicks for a max range of 30 klicks. The spools unwind, depending on the amount of pull on them. The thread is virtually invisible, and damn near unbreakable. It won’t slice through anything - specifically designed not to - but it’ll slip through practically any crack that isn’t vacuum-sealed, and continue to un-spool.”

Vangie raised an eyebrow. “That’s nice - but how do you follow it?”

Des pulled a rounded object that resembled an old-fashioned computer ‘mouse’. “This. It’s called a ‘hound’. It has a sensor that picks up the magnetic signature of the thread and follows it. It follows the thread at a speed of up to 40 KPH, and you follow it. It also picks up an activation signal from the ‘quarter’. It’ll also tell you the rough direction that the ‘quarter’ is from the hound, and how fast the mono-filament unspools.”

Vangie picked up a few doo-dads for herself while she was there, and then they were off. Darkness was beginning to settle over Washington, and the shadows of ‘Alphabet City’ grew long and harsh. Kallista was looking around, and as little as she knew about this part of town, she could tell that they weren’t headed in the direction of Georgetown. “Where are we going?” she asked.

“Duchess Court,” Vangie responded distractedly.

“Duchess Court?” Kallista echoed back.

“Duchess Court,” Kait informed her, “is a raft-town that’s grown up around a pair of Arks, that is, a couple of old immobilized cruise liners. TheCaribbean Duchessand the Antilles Duchess, a pair of old luxury liners that they ripped the engines out of, and turned into floating housing. The Duchesses provide the rest of the raft with clean water, power and Com-Net access.” What Kait didn’t tell Kallista was, that Duchess Court wasn’t run by a street gang. It was run by a shadowy ‘middleman’ who really didn’t like violence happening on his patch. So, the Court looked a lot like the tougher parts of town, but it was actually quite safe, as long as you didn’t try throwing your weight around.

The Mercedes pulled up to a dock set between the two huge ships, and Vangie turned in her seat to face Kallista. “Okay, Kallie, here’s the situation: it’s getting late, and witness or no witness, we gotta get you to bed at a decent time, or we answer to Family Services for it. So, we only have time for this one stop.”

“And you want me to stay in the vehicle, right?” Kallie said grimly.

“Actually - No,” Vangie replied.


“It’s like this - we have information that the Saints have one of their ammunition caches stowed in one of the storage areas of the Antilles Duchess. If we can get in there, we might be able to find something that may lead us to the Saints, or whatever it is that those three were really up to. It’s a long shot, but it’s worth taking, and nothing else is likely to develop tonight. Problem: all we have is ‘intelligence’, and no real Probable Cause. Now, I just now took out an option for the Alarm Response contract for the Duchesses, for the next hour. So, if someone who wasn’t an employee of THEMIS - like, say YOU - were to go aboard the Duchess, and go down to Storeroom 8 on H Deck - don’t worry, we’ll download you a map - and trip the alarm on the door, we would have full authority to enter Storeroom 8, in order to check that no intruders had entered.”

“You want me to break and enter into private property?”

“Good Lord, NO!” Vangie raised her hands in mock horror. “And if anyone ever asks you, we are not, and will never, ask you to commit an illegal or unethical act. All that I’m saying is that IF someone were to take a restricted piece of equipment, like, say this cardlock bypass-” Vangie handed Kallie a blank white card with an iridescent strip, “-which would bypass most cardlocks between Security Rating 1- to - 6, to gain access to Storeroom 8 on H Deck, then we would be able to board theAntilles Duchess, and enter that storeroom, even without a Search Warrant. If I were to TELL you to do that, then I’d be both Soliciting to Commit a Felony and Contributing to the Delinquency of a Minor. However, if you just DO it, out of some mostly repressed adolescent rebellion, well then, I’m sure that we could be persuaded to let you go on your own recognizance.”

Kallista gave Vangie a knowing nod, took the card and stepped out onto the dock. She squared her overcoat and marched up the gangplank like she knew what she was doing.

Once Kallie was on the gangplank, Kait crossed her arms and grumped, “I still think that we should play fair with her.”

“We ARE playing fair with her,” Vangie said as she plugged a modem link into her corymbic socket. “We’re keeping her safe, by not dragging her into a REAL danger situation. That’s as fair as it gets.” Then she looked back into the rear seat. “Speaking of which, what are you doing, lollygaging about? The reason that we brought you in on this in the first place, was to keep that kid safe!”

Kait glowered at her, and stepped out of the sled.

As Vangie flipped up the onboard computer keyboard, Chai asked, “You’re going to monitor the alarm?”

“It’s a ton more likely that they’d leave some sort of alarm on their old stash to tell them that someone’s looking for them, than it is that they’d conveniently leave a forwarding address slip.”

Chai nodded. “And if they do leave an alarm, what makes you think that the Saints would want to cope with a patrol unit that might be tapped to investigate?”

Vangie sighed. “Fanatical Theocratic Militants are SO unreasonable. You think they disconnected the main alarm?”

“Why not? It’s what I’d do.”

“Yeah, but you’re rational. For the most part. Still, I guess that if someone tripped the exterior alarm, just as the kid went in, then-"

“I’ll do it, I’ll DO it! Enough with the non-incriminating suggestions already!” Chai crawled into the back seat, pulled the cushion back and took her weapons case from where she stashed it in the trunk.

“You carry a mono-molecular katana around,” Vangie said flatly.

“Hey, when you need one, and don’t have it, THEN you’ll sing a different song.”

As they were bantering, Vangie had lifted the sled up to beside one of the windows on the decommissioned cruise liner. Chai made an impromptu entrance with one of her blades and ducked in. Once Chai was securely inside, Vangie took the sled back down the dock. Before settling in for a good computer hack, she pulled out her .45 and chambered in a round; there’s always going to be some idiot who’ll try to jack a good car that seems to be empty.

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Kallista looked down the ship’s corridor, and tried to suppress a grin. The few people that she’d crossed had given her second looks, but nothing that they wouldn’t give to a pretty young girl. She’d even had a rude proposal. Amazing, he was one of those filthy street types that her parents were always worrying about, but he’d gone away with a glower that wouldn’t even have slowed down one of the football team.

The liner’s old stores compartments had been converted into personal storage spaces, which were rented by the month. All that you got for your money was the space and a card-lock, so the rent was cheap. But Kallie figured that since there was little if any security, it also meant that the Saints could come and go without being observed. Whether that meant that the Saints were clever, or just cheap, she wasn’t sure.

Vangie’s cardlock bypass had got her past the corridor lock and it opened the compartment lock without any problems. Before she went in, Kallie pulled a phone out of her pocket, and hit the speed-dial for Vangie’s number. “Vangie? Kallie. The door is open.”

[Interesting. No sign of an alarm yet.]

“Maybe I should go inside?”

[Legally, I can’t order, or even recommend for you to commit a crime, such as Breaking and Entering.]

“We’ve already done this joke. I’m going inside.” Kallie pushed past the double door. Since triggering the alarm was part of the whole idea, she fumbled around for the light switch and found it. She blinked. She’d been expecting a cramped room with a few crates. Instead, it was a large warehouse sized chamber, with at least a hundred crates, and what looked like warehouse moving equipment.

Kallie pulled out her phone again. “Vangie, I think we have the wrong place. This looks like a regular storage space.”

[Really? Let me take a look.] Kallie panned around the storage space with her phone camera. [Kallie? This is very important. Aim the camera up at anything that’s bolted to the roof.]

Kallie did so. [Kallie, sweetie, do you feel lightheaded or anything?]

“Yeah,” Kallie’s head was a little fuzzy, “now that you mention it...”

[SHIT! Kallie-hon, do you have a breather on you?”

“Ah, Yeah. Why?”

[Sedative gas. Put your breather on NOW, and get out of there ASAP!]


Kallie pulled her breather out - you never know when you’re going to go into the drink, these days - and crammed it over her face. She hurried to the doors, but they were hermetically sealed. “HELP ME!” Kallie shrilled into her phone, “I can’t get out!”

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As soon as Kallie had shown her the gas dispensers over the cell’s camera link, Vangie had given Chai and Kait the go ahead. “Sedative Gas, and, if they’re protecting anything, probably a couple of Combat Drones. Get in there NOW!” Switching back to Kallie, Vangie said, “Kallie, sweetie, Kait and Chai are coming for you. Now, this is very important - lay down on the floor and DON’T MOVE!”


“Motion Sensors,” was all that Vangie told her. Shit! Every instinct that Vangie had, told her to get in there and help. But reason told her that by the time that she got there, it would all be over, one way or another. And she had an alarm to trace.

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When Chai got to the door, Kait had a pistol launched grenade pointed at the door and was ready to fire. Irritably, Chai swatted the pistol aside, “Oh, would you get serious?” She unsheathed her mono-katana, and breached the seal with three expertly aimed strokes.

Kait pushed the doors apart, just in time to be almost blinded by the flash from Kallie’s trick brooch. Kallie was grappling with an Aegis Arms™ Charybdis© restraining combat drone. The drone, which was constructed from two rotating hemispheres, was wrapping long telescoping ‘tentacles’ around her. It had two of them well anchored on her, and a third around her neck. It wasn’t strangling her - yet; it was concentrating on dragging her further into the room, away from the door.

The blinding flare did seem to have an effect on the drone. It paused, giving Kait an opportunity to give the basketball sized robot a resounding kick in its side, sending its stabilizing gyroscopes whirring to regain it equilibrium. Kait strangled the spongy ionic-expansion tissue of the tentacle that was choking Kallie, and ripped it from the main body. Chai stepped in, on cue, and sliced the other tentacle, severing it from the drone’s body. Kallie managed to untangle it before it managed to strangle her as it shrank.

The two Erinyes wasted little time in taking out the non-lethal security unit. But a little time was too much to waste, as a half dozen more of the units came to life and advanced on them, and went from a simple Restraint Mode to Subjugation Mode, with taser units sparking.

“Dammit, Vangie,” Kait growled into her link, “why don’t you just turn these things off?”

[Can’t,] Vangie replied, [it’s an isolated system. Besides, I almost have their alarm tracked.]

“Screw this noise,” Kait snapped. “Time to put an end to this.” She reached under her longcoat, and snapped out her Personal Assault System from concealment to attack configuration. With a bare pause to aim, she took out two of them.

[What was that?] Vangie yelled.

“Got two of ‘em,” Kait said smugly.

[Idiot! It’s on a Threat Matching system! It was using noiseless, non-projectile response because it’s a secret ammo dump! But if you go shooting-]

Vangie’s explanation was cut short by the sound of several of the ‘loading equipment’ units reconfiguring into firing modes, and chambering rounds.

Kait, Chai and Kallie’s ducks for cover were greatly hampered by the restraint drones still in use. [Kait,] Vangie muttered disgustedly, [how the fuck did you manage to make it through training? Were you screwing one of the instructors or something?]

“What’s that got to do with anything?”

Her pin had helped against the restraint drone, Kallie thought feverishly, maybe it would do something against these fire-drones. She fumbled another magnesium chip into the pin, held it up of the top of the crate that she was hiding behind, and waved it back and forth. Then she set it off.

The fire-drones’ targeting systems were temporarily overwhelmed. Kait took advantage of that to put a few rounds squarely into them, before the restraint drones were on her. Chai advanced with her katana, and Kallie used her ‘webbing’ gun on one of the remaining ones, hoping to gum up their works a little.

As the drones’ targeting systems reset themselves, Kait said, “Hit ‘em with the razzle-dazzle again!”

Kallie tried, but the pin holder was still hot from the last use. “No go! Too Hot!” Then Kallie had an idea. She pulled out her phone, jacked up the brightness on the camera flash, and set the camera on automatic flash.

The strobing flash wasn’t enough to overload the drones’ targeting systems, but it did confuse their target priority systems. As Chai and Kait were concentrating on disassembling one of them, Vangie cut in again. [Heads up, people! You managed to kick the Threat Match up to the point where it where it just requested permission to implement the - and I quote - ‘Ultimate Measure’. I think that we have at least 15 seconds before they give it.]

“So block the response, idiot!” Kait snarled.

[That’s far more easily said, than done,] Vangie replied, [especially if we don’t want them to know that we’ve tracked them. I can slow it down by maybe two minutes, without them catching on.]

“You’d rather we blow up, than lose these guys?” Kait yelled.

[No, I’d rather you spend the two or three minutes that I can give you, finding the spoilsport bomb. Chai, get Kallie OUT OF THERE!]

“More easily said than done,” Chai said. “We have two fire-drones covering the exit.”

“Just a second,” Kallie said. “Let me try something.” She slipped the magnetic bracelet off her wrist, armed it and threw it at one of the fire drones. The bracelet activated when it hit the combat drone, and the powerful magnetic field deployed. The field not only caused the firing mechanism on the fire-drone to lock up, but it pulled the two war machines together, knocking both of them off their legs.

Chai ducked under the drones’ suppression fire, and subdivided both of them with two strokes of her kat