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The Innocence of Serpents: A Novella

The Innocence Of Serpents: A Novella

  • The Innocence Of Serpents: A Novella
  • Midpoint

The Innocence of Serpents

DISPLACED SHADOWS 003

Cara Lee

Shakespir Edition
Copyright 2016
All Rights Reserved

TamLin grabbed the opportunity to leave his native universe to escape his mother. Living in another universe as an illegal immigrant is the only way he can outmaneuver others’ efforts to puppeteer him.

He’s a sensate, able to detect and interpret eddies of psychic energy and space-time without the need of tools and technology. That’s a valuable ability—and he’s an expert with it. He prefers loitering outside the law so he can take care of the manipulative jerks who work their ways around the system…and circumstances outside TamLin’s control mean his current target knows he’s onto him.

Now it’s a race of who can destroy the other first.

(A novella that’ll take about 1.5 hours to read, for the average reader.)

This is a work of fiction. All people, places, and events are made up or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is coincidental. Any referenced trademarks and copyrights are the property of their respective owners, and their use speaks only to the characters’ opinions, not to the product.

Jenga® is a registered trademark of Pokonobe Associates and was invented by Leslie Scott. Author enjoys the game, but she has no association or affiliation with the company.

If the e-book you’re reading wasn’t bought for your use specifically, please respect the author and either delete or pay for the e-book. Thanks!

Cover Designed by the Author

Foreground Image © outsiderwww.kozzi.com

Background Image © Flavio Takemoto (flaivoloka) – freeimages.com

This e-book contains two versions of the story, for the sake of anyone who wants “clean” rather than “bad” verbiage.

[[++
++](rated M)]

[[Authorized Cut
(rated T)]]

Why the two editions?

[* Author’s Edition (rated M)*]

The man seated across from Janni tapped the tabletop. He cycled through each work-roughened finger, one per second, then skipped a second for the scarred thumb, which faced her—the print had been seared off, suggesting the rest of his fingertips were similarly modified—before he restarted.

The off-kilter pattern was doubtless meant to discomfit her.

Janni smiled.

He paused, then resumed his tapping. “Who are you?”

His questions didn’t affect the cycle, so he had a better sense of time and coordination than most nons. That took training, except for the rare savant.

“Where are you from?”

She waited.

“Why are you here?”

They had repeated that cycle for the past hour or so—felt longer, but that was normal for monotony—and before that, she’d spent a solid two hours sitting here, in this chair, with her wrists shackled behind her. They’d given her a nice lead on the chain, though. Not so loose as to leave her able to wriggle out, but not so tight as to hurt her.

Not once in the past hour had irritation flared in his dark eyes or face—dark from birth, not sun.

Her interrogator abruptly stopped tapping, sighed, and stretched his neck and shoulders. “You could keep this up all week, couldn’t you?”

The mild question sounded intrigued, almost amused, and not at all annoyed.

Janni liked him. She let her expression soften.

He folded his fingers over each other—from the glimpse she caught, all his fingerprints were indeed seared—and leaned forward to rest his elbows on the table. “All right. What will you tell me?”

The question made her want to grin, but that wouldn’t be appropriate, so she sucked in her lips, cleared her throat, and schooled her face into a polite smile. “Not ‘What are you?’”

He returned the expression. Both eyes crinkled at the edges, too, so the smile was likely genuine. “Human. Obviously.”

She scrutinized him, but the fingertip scars suggested he was a shadow-type operative. No tech besides the communication jack behind the ear, and no bio-mods that she could—

She dropped her psy shielding long enough to catch that he was a grade-orange sensate—the equivalent of a receptor dish for strong emotions—and she raised her eyebrows. He was a mod, not a non. “Shadowborn.”

Shadows were people from universes other than the one they were in. Any descendants who inherited knowledge or abilities from another somewhen were called shadowborn.

He raised a single shoulder and dropped it in a half shrug. “Maybe.”

She kept her eyebrows up. She hadn’t realized this universe had already started genetic engineering.

“So?” he pressed. “What will you tell me?”

She leaned forward, elbows on the table, mirroring his position although her shackles added weight to her wrists. How much did he know about his origins? She intentionally used the jargon of Shadow Corps, the organization that policed people like her, as she calmly said, “White shadow in smallville attempting godhood.”

He blinked once, and his gaze went up and to the left as he processed her words. “Shadows are supposed to be dark,” he said slowly. “So ‘white shadow’ is one of you that’s…a criminal?”

Janni ignored his identification of her as from another universe—that was irrelevant, at this point—and translated what she’d said: “You have a shadow in one of the suburbs who’s engaging in human experimentation to try to produce alpha mods. ‘Alpha mods’ being the ones that ultimately result in everyone with them longing to kill all their siblings of the same gender due to ingrained loathing.”

He blinked again. “You killed your sisters?”

“No.” She could kill her sister if she had to, but Nev was older, stronger, and her mods were better integrated. Nev just didn’t have the wherewithal to kill someone she knew, even if that person had become a zombie out to eat her brains.

Granted, that had only happened once, but Janni hated to think about what would’ve resulted in the universes wherein she hadn’t happened to be there, to destroy the parasite before it reached the virulent stage. She’d never actually visited one of the zombie apocalypse hellverses, but she knew people who had.

Her bondmate was currently—and wittingly—not-dating a version of her from one such universe, in fact. The poor girl was younger than Janni and a far better match for TamLin than she herself had ever been.

Her interrogator rubbed the back of his neck with his left hand. “So we have someone trying to illegally modify themselves in a way that’s known to produce insanity?”

His belittling of alpha mods triggered a sense of insult and indignation, which Janni promptly squelched. He wasn’t talking about her—and her interest in him was premature. She didn’t even know his name, yet.

“I’m pretty sure he’s a mass murderer who’s fled his universe to escape retribution.” Or a mob boss who was taking a temporary hiatus from his native universe while he sought to destroy her ex-bondmate. To-may-to, to-mah-to.

Her interrogator’s right hand went through a tapping cycle. “What would it take for your ‘pretty sure’ to be ‘all sure’?”

Interesting question. He had dealt with more than his share of shadows, then, which made her suspect this somewhen was on its way to becoming a convergence…and that was something she should’ve been able to tell, upon entering it. So why hadn’t she?

She held out her left hand as far over the table as the chain would let her, and gave the answer that would be true if she were actually the grade red she’d always aimed to test as, rather than the level of merger she actually was. “Touch.”

His eyes smiled again, and he stretched his arm out to touch three fingers against hers.

Janni made use of her core mods, which were hidden from view by further mods, some of which had been installed by her sister. What she gained in discretion, she lost in power, so she wasn’t nearly the strongest version of herself she’d ever met.

But the stronger versions of her were far more vulnerable to psy overload, so she found the trade-off well worth the cost.

Janni held their touch for several seconds longer than necessary, because it was always safer to let others underestimate you than for them to know the full extent of your abilities. (She suspected that particular feeling was part of the mod-ingrained paranoia, but she didn’t see any harm in it.)

She withdrew her hand and twisted her wrists, adjusting the way the shackles lay against her skin. “You’re from this universe; never been to another one. You have, however, been involved in a temporal anomaly, which put you back in time slightly, but it remained within your time zone—that is, within the zone of time wherein you naturally live, so it was between your birth and the date when it happened, for you.”

He chuckled. “It set me back thirty minutes.” Smiling, he glanced at the mirror. “And my comrades are freaking out over how the Ford you can know that.”

She frowned.

“Sorry. Book reference—Brave New World. I’m a fan of the dystopian classics.”

Janni nodded. “I’m more of an Elizabeth Barrett Browning fan, myself.”

He frowned.

“Poet, eighteenth century Earth?” She shrugged. “Not sure why.”

He raised his own eyebrows, apparently surprised by her choice in literature, but he was polite enough to refrain from ridiculing her over it.

Or, possibly, just smart enough to avoid irritating a woman who could probably kill him without breaking a sweat. Nice people didn’t go universe-hopping.

More accurately, nice people didn’t have the hutzpah, wherewithal, or wits to be able to do it and get away with it.

“You have alpha mods, yourself?” he asked.

She met his inquisitive expression with a bland stare.

He answered with a smile. “Fair. You seem sane enough to work with.”

Indignation welled up again, and it got stronger than she liked before she managed to stomp it back under control.

‘Sane’ was such a relative concept.

TamLin snapped awake, which was usual.

A woman was on the edge of his bed, which wasn’t.

He blinked at Second a few times, his mind uncharacteristically sluggish as he processed that she was atop his blankets, fully clothed and between him and the door. Acceptable and even appropriate for a single Nameless out with her keeper…but he wasn’t her keeper. And the position reminded him all too uncomfortably of his parents, even down to the auburn-tinted hair caressing his pillow.

“Second?” he asked, concerned about what could cause his memory to take so long to catch up to the situation. “Why are you in my bed?”

“On, not in.”

Because she was on the sheets. Right.

“Okay,” he said amenably, since Second was similar enough to Janni that her response meant he hadn’t done anything too stupid. “Why are you on my bed?”

“Sins of our parents,” she said.

That meant his lack of memory could mean there wasn’t anything to remember. She might’ve let herself in to take up guard after he went to sleep for the night.

He grimaced. “Yeah, let’s not replicate my parents’ relationship.”

She snorted, and her eyes warmed with the wry smile she usually had to keep off her lips.

She rolled out of the bed, grabbing her equipment belt from his nightstand and buckling it with the swift ease that came from competence. “I was thinking about mine.”

TamLin bit his tongue—Nameless didn’t speak of parentage, for good reason—but what would it really hurt to ask? Thanks to the accident that had left them bondmates, she was already a Breach, someone to be euthanized if her people discovered her, and his apartment was safe from every sort of spy. “You knew your parents?”

“Just my mother.” Second opened his dresser and tossed him a shirt without even having to look at what she’d grabbed, so she’d snooped before taking guard position on his bed last night. “I terminated Janni’s father two days ago.”

What?

He made himself finish pulling on the shirt, since leaving his chest bare would be both unfair to her and unwise for them both. “I thought Meyon died in a shuttle accident.”

“Infested.”

“How the fuck did he get himself Infested?”

Second shrugged, the line of her back stiff, but her voice stayed bland. “Looking for me, apparently.”

Why would Meyon Waver go jumping to a hellverse? “How the hell did he even know you?”

“There was an…a rippler?”

He grimaced. Ripplers were natural waves between somewhens that were how jumping generally happened, until a time zone figured out how to do it on purpose. Second, being from a post-apocalyptic hellverse, would’ve had little reason to be taught anything unrelated to her duties as expendable zombie killer.

“How old were you?” he asked.

She hesitated before answering “Ten,” so she’d been even younger than that.

He’d never had anything against Janni’s mother, but Second’s… If he ever met the woman, ‘Fuck you’ would be the least of his reactions.

“He never said,” Second continued, still talking about Janni’s father, “but I think he was originally Nameless.”

Meyon?” TamLin blurted, startled. He paused long enough to get his voice back under control before pointing out, “My universe didn’t really have Nameless.”

“But it was an option.”

He grimaced, reminded yet again of his own father.

“Yeah, but…” But Nameless origins would explain details like Meyon’s calm competence in emergencies and his children’s handicaps—and that Meyon and Ellsi had caught those handicaps early enough to be able to hide them from others.

“Fuck,” he said, more softly. “That explains a lot.”

It even explained Janni’s obsession with the big picture. Might’ve been why she chose to leave their native universe to begin with—she was the most handicapped of her siblings, so living in another somewhen provided the least risk that someone would realize something was fishy with her lineage.

Or maybe Janni’d just chose to leave their native universe because she had a talent for pissing people off, and he’d come along to escape his mother’s efforts to make him inherit her job.

The sound of a sole scuffing against the frick flooring caught his ear, and he glanced over at Second.

She was watching him, her nonchalant façade in place. “What do bondmates do, exactly?”

“What do you mean?”

Second pressed her lips together, then gave a little sigh and moved the tension to her hands, instead. “You and Janni never consummated, so you were never officially married or mated or engaged or whatever. But you were still bondmates.”

“It’s closest to a betrothal, when still unconsummated. Janni and I are…”—not friends—“allies.”

“Depending on the situation,” Second commented. “You don’t always have the same end goal. Nor play the same game board, for that matter.”

Janni’s current vacation from this somewhen was a case in point. She’d gone jumping because he and others were pissed at her—because she’d set up Raleigh, one of her roommates, to get recovered and disassembled by her own captain so the virus she’d planted in Raleigh’s software would damage that universe’s ability to enter this one.

She’d justified it by pointing out how many folks would theoretically be saved by what that other universe now couldn’t do, but it would’ve been a hell of a lot easier to block things from this universe’s end if Janni had just used her abilities to help Raleigh and bothered to let someone else know what was going on.

Considering his own tendency to work alone, did he really have any room to cast stones?

TamLin shrugged. “We keep each other in line, then.”

One of her eyebrows quivered, giving voice to her doubt, but she otherwise seemed her usual sedate self.

“Well,” he said. “I can see how terror of someone uncovering that particular family secret would result in such willingness to sacrifice friends.”

“She doesn’t know.” Second tapped her own head, pointing out that she naturally picked up Janni’s thoughts when they were in proximity with each other—a side effect of two variants of the same psy-positive person sharing a somewhen.

“Maybe she didn’t think about it.” It wasn’t too hard to hide thoughts from telepathy, particularly when the psy-positive was just picking up stray thoughts rather than probing.

Second gave him a flat look that both asked, You seriously think I haven’t accounted for that? and reiterated, She doesn’t. fucking. know.

He shrugged an apology. She dismissed it as unnecessary with a flick of her eyes—an action that reminded him why he liked her so much better than Janni. So much more accepting about the way things were, rather than bitching about how they were supposed to be.

Okay, so that wasn’t entirely fair. Janni didn’t actively seek to sabotage his drug habit. She just bitched about it whenever given half a chance, not caring what his reasons were, whereas Second recognized that self-medicating was all he could do for his particular health issues.

It was a lot easier to show someone respect—or to decide if you even wanted to—when you understood where they were coming from. Easier to communicate with them, too.

Second stretched a little. “Work?”

Right. He checked his console for the time and started about the process of getting dressed and ready for work.

He turned so his back was to Second, and he was efficient about swapping his sleep pants for his work ones, but the action still left him feeling uncomfortable, almost dirty, as if he was sullying something precious.

Not his fault if Second had decided to watch.

There was some lawyerly discussion and negotiation and paperwork, but it took only a matter of hours for Janni to get evaluated and relieved of handcuffs and signed on as a consultant for that specific case. Far too little time, that was. Who has Puce already ticked off?

At least, she thought her target was TamLin’s boss. She’d tracked someone from the somewhen she was in to the somewhen she was visiting, and whoever it was hopped universes far more often than anyone should. Puce was the only one she knew of who was had the knowledge, inclination, and incentive to do such a thing.

If a man wanted to play god, he could hardly do so in proximity to a grade-black sensate. Grade blacks like TamLin could even detect when a should-be-there bio-identity wasn’t showing. It was problematic enough to jump around such a person, but TamLin wasn’t the type to care about that sort of problem. If this was his boss, he’d surely noticed that the man was hopping somewhens. TamLin just didn’t think enough on things like that to realize the implications or to bother to tell her.

Puce—if it was Puce that she was tracking—surely hopped somewhens in order to hide something worse than the shit TamLin already knew about and was ignoring, and that usually meant a person was playing god.

She scowled in annoyance. Things would’ve been so much easier if he’d just told her and she could’ve set up a net to catch Puce mid-…whatever method he was using to cross somewhens. A portal, probably. Enslaving a jumper gave too many openings for the master to ‘accidentally’ end up dead.

The public security officer—detective?—who was her native contact for this somewhen returned to the interrogation room, carrying a cardboard tray with two cups, lids, stirrers, and some sugars and creamer. He set his burden on the table, then unwrapped the lanyard from his forearm and slid it across the table to her.

Janni left the lanyard on the table and fiddled with the plastic identity card that was attached—her photo and “Janis Keller, Civilian Consultant” was followed by an ident number.

“That’ll give you access to files for this particular case,” he said, “and your ID will be logged for whatever you work on and help with.”

The card would also, she sensed, track her movements. What did they call the technology in this somewhen? GPS?

Whatever it was, it was easy enough to block. If she wanted or needed to.

“Your access at this time pertains specifically to this particular case, involving the suspected illegal immigrant engaging in illegal experimentation. Efforts to interfere with, influence, or affect other cases, active or not, may result in the revocation of all clearance and a return to the status you had when we first met.”

Handcuffs and all. Message received.

“Any questions?”

What was his name, what did they plan for her after she helped them, what would they let her do to their mutual target, would they grant vacation visas for a jumper from another somewhen, when would she be offered that coffee and how would they respond to her answer…

Fighting the urge to smirk at the ridiculousness of his open-ended offer for inquiry, she kept her gaze on the plastic card. She ran it through her fingers and tapped it twice against the table. “My name has two n’s, not one.”

Silence answered her.

After three seconds, she glanced up—and her point of contact looked amused. “I’ll make a note to have it fixed if we hire you again, sometime.”

“Not now?” she asked archly.

He kept his body still, but his humor showed in the edges of his eyes and lips. “Consider it deniability. Your friend can get convinced you’re some version of yourself other than the one he knows.”

“He isn’t my friend,” she said dryly.

They exchanged a mutual sly smile.

The man turned back to the tray with the drinks. “I wasn’t sure how you took your coffee, so I brought sugar and creamer.”

Janni didn’t reach towards the tray. “I appreciate the thought.”

His glance took in her hands, still fiddling with the ident card. “Ah. You don’t drink coffee.”

“‘Allergic’s the easiest way to put it.” Though that wasn’t quite right. She could have as much caffeine as she wanted. It just lessened her control—and she was a strong enough merger that slip-ups could cause…problems.

He paused in the middle of lifting his own coffee for a sip, glancing from the cups to her in clear question. Considerate of him.

“It’s a matter of consumption, not proximity. I don’t process stimulants the same way you do. Enjoy it all you like.”

“Huh.” He took a swig. “We have tea or hot cocoa—or wait. Those have caffeine, too. What can I get you? I know there’s water.”

“I’m fine, thank you.” She put the lanyard around her neck and made sure the identity card was face-up. “So what am I to call you, precisely?”

He was relishing that coffee to a degree that made her wonder if he was on a double shift. “Agent Samstag.”

“That’s what your friends call you?” she teased.

“We aren’t friends,” he replied immediately, but with good humor in his eyes.

“Not yet.”

“That would be unprofessional.” He glanced pointedly at the mirror.

Yes, yes, they were still being observed and recorded. She didn’t particularly care, for her own sake…but maybe his organization didn’t look to kindly upon its members flirting with—she double-checked how her ident classified her—‘civilian consultants’.

She gave him a little smile and got up and let him show her the door. She reached for the second coffee as he returned his own coffee cup to the tray and picked it back up.

“I can carry that for you,” she said.

“Not friends,” he said dryly as he opened the door—to a scowling man whose salted hair and wrinkles about the eyes called old enough to be a grandfather. “Sir.”

“Agent Samstag,” the man said brusquely. “I understand you’re the one behind getting a civilian assigned to assist on a high-clearance case. We like our consultants alive, Sam—”

“I’m not precisely a civilian,” Janni cut in, with a polite and pleasant smile.

“That so?” He glared at her, doubtless used to intimidating the information he wanted out of folks.

She kept smiling.

He harrumphed. “Who’d you fight for?”

“Nobody you’d be familiar with.” Admitting her ability to interfere with their tech would be unwise, unless she wanted to risk ending up with someone trying to dissect her. “I’ve already tackled both biologically and technically modified persons this week.”

Well, she’d been captured by Nev and she’d sabotaged the tech of Raleigh’s people, but that much forthrightness wouldn’t help her case, here. If TamLin wanted to leave his boss capable of hunting him, fine, but she wasn’t about to ignore the others the man was hurting.

This man scowled.

Janni kept smiling.

Agent Samstag plucked his coffee from the tray, handed the rest to the man—his boss?—and guided her on past.

Ribald was ignoring him. Again.

Usually TamLin wouldn’t think much of that—Ribald worked as front receptionist mainly to dissuade anyone from making trouble—but TamLin had picked a fight, yesterday morning, so he should’ve warranted at least a discreet sneer somewhere between passing the guard and scanner at the front entrance, and crossing the wide-open foyer in front of the front desk.

He paused before progressing over to the door that would continue his way to his office and the paperwork he needed to hammer out with Misha about the previous day’s events—namely for the class-five breach of this somewhen and the associated cyborg who’d decided to stick on their side of the bridge before they shut it down.

Okay, before Janni destroyed it.

Ribald was still ignoring him, so TamLin tapped the desk. “You okay?”

The man glared at him, and he scowled deeply enough that his beard failed to hide it. The bruise on his face was far too purple and swollen for the day that had passed since their fight.

That kind of injury warranted a regen shot, not a patch, so TamLin fished one from his belt and slid it across the desk. Ribald’s reflexes kicked in, and he caught it automatically

TamLin strode for the door.

“Hey!” Ribald snapped, sounding as offended as he looked. “What’s this shit? You think you can buy me off?”

It was just a regen shot. “Why the fuck would I need to buy you off?”

The secretary-bouncer glared at him for a few seconds, still scowling…and then shrewdness softened his gaze. “Scatter on the street is that your girlfriend kidnapped the boss and you know where she’s keeping him.”

“Seriously?” Of course Ribald was serious—that was too…creative for him to have made it up. The man wasn’t stupid, but he had his job because he was quick to notice concrete threats, not abstract ones.

Well, and because he was too belligerent for other positions that would benefit from concrete thinking.

TamLin glanced back at the front entrance guards and scanners, but they’d waved him on in, so it was only gossip, not anything substantiated.

Not that evidence was necessary, in order to crucify someone.

“Well, that’s more interesting than the scatter around the office tends to be,” he said lightly. “Who’s my girlfriend?”

“You don’t know who your own girlfriend is?”

He gave a shrug. “I don’t follow the betting pool.”

“What, so you have a boyfriend?”

Playing along with that question could get amusing, but TamLin had things to get done. “I have a fiancée,” he said flatly. “And she’s never touched Puce.”

Okay, so Second napalmed his office two days ago, but that had been to destroy his blackmail material, not to kill him.

Fiancée?” Ribald’s eyes narrowed with suspicion. He tapped his console, glancing at what was surely the employee record. “You’re not documented as having a girlfriend.”

“Just happened. I’ll file the necessary paperwork before the fortnight’s up.”

“What, so you got both together and engaged yesterday? That’s…convenient.”

“Not really, no.” TamLin nodded to the console, which had all the official stuff needed for his job and kept track of the office gambling. “Who do people think I’m doing? Kasy? ’Cause I can tell you right now, she isn’t my type.”

Ribald snorted. “That’s what I told Penn. Kasy’s too skittish for you.”

TamLin couldn’t help but wonder if that conversation with Penn had come before or after Ribald found out his favorite lover was their boss’s wife.

“You’d be too busy teaching her to protect herself in order to fuck her,” he finished.

Wasn’t that a ‘lovely’ image. “So charming, Ribald. No wonder you’re such a hit with the ladies.”

That wasn’t entirely fair. Ribald was a crass bigot, but his whores said he didn’t hurt them and he tipped them well.

“Look,” TamLin said. “I’m just asking who the office thinks I’m fucking so I can figure out why and warn my fiancée.”

Ribald studied him, and TamLin didn’t let his concern show.

“That girl shadow from the same universe you are,” Ribald said finally. “Jan.”

TamLin grimaced—and most of the revulsion wasn’t due to the accusation that he was sleeping with Janni.

“Absolutely not,” he said, and he progressed through the door and down the hall.

His coworkers had always known there was something odd about him, but this universe still treated travel through time and across universes as something classified and to be hidden from the masses. Only a handful in the office were supposed to know that refugees from other universes were even possible. Even fewer were supposed to know that such refugees were called shadows and their children were called shadowborn.

And only one would’ve actually broken the rules and unleashed that rumor in the office gossip pools.

Puce was far from the first manipulative asshole TamLin had ever dealt with, and he recognized the gossip from Ribald as an opening volley. Thanks to the napalm, Puce had lost the blackmail material he’d been holding as leverage over various shadows. It had been obvious for months that TamLin didn’t care for Puce or his methods, so now that there was nothing to stop TamLin from lashing out…

Puce was striking first.

Kasy would be a target, too. She was shadowborn. A sensate like him, except she was classified as a grade yellow. He had reason to believe she only rated that low due to lack of training rather than due to natural limitations on her ability, and Puce’s repeated games to have her dosed with fertility drugs then forcibly impregnated surely didn’t help that.

Wait a minute…

If Puce, the only one ‘in the know’ who would’ve told everyone what TamLin was, had forced Kasy to conceive and birth before, where were the children?

TamLin had plenty of leverage to get himself out of pretty much anything Puce sought to pin on him. But using what he had would leave others open to retaliation—thus why he’d been picking his battles and biding his time.

What if he could destroy Puce altogether? Now? While the man was too distracted from setting TamLin up in order to replace all the leverage that had been destroyed?

Slavery was illegal in this somewhen, and the enslavement of children couldn’t be hidden with carefully-designed contracts.

TamLin entered the office he shared with Kasy.

Okay, there were a few other coworkers with desks in this room, but he and Kasy were the main ones whose shifts were consistent.

A snort and grunt interrupted the snores coming from beneath the mop of hair covering one of the desks. TamLin frowned at the mophead as he went to his desk.

Kasy glanced up at him and followed his gaze.

He grabbed a stylus and pointed at the sleeping coworker, who had never been enough of a viper or a mouse for TamLin to bother to learn his name. “What the fuck?”

“Icarus got stuck with a triple and was denied six of his five-minute breaks, last shift.”

Breaks that were required by law to be made available hourly, whenever possible—never mind the illegality of the triple shift in itself.

Maybe he should’ve paid more attention to that particular coworker.

He looked from Icarus to the door. Anyone could walk by, spot the guy sleeping, and doctor some paperwork to trump up some bullshit charge on him, right now, though he was on a legally mandated break.

TamLin went back to the door, shut it, and glanced at Kasy to make sure she was okay with that.

She tensed but tossed him a wan smile and focused on whatever she was doing on her console.

He carefully kept his body angled away from her as he returned to his desk, to help reinforce the “I won’t rape you” that she already knew. He ensconced himself in his seat, pulling the chair further under the desk than usual so it would take a second longer to extricate himself than usual, and she relaxed slightly.

Sometimes, he really wanted to kill Puce.

Janni and Samstag left the grouchy grandfather in the hall outside the interrogation room, and Samstag took her to a large room with a series of desks separated only by empty space. He set his coffee down on one—his desk, she assumed, and its position at the edge of the pack was probably a perk of his position. Whatever his position was.

“So how does one go about finding a…‘white shadow attempting godhood in smallville’?” Agent Samstag asked mildly as he unlocked his desk drawer and paged through the file folders.

Janni shrugged, oh so casually, and didn’t let on that she noticed the six different agents watching her. “Depends on the resources that are available at one’s disposal. In this situation, our first step to take is obvious.”

“Is that so?” Annoyance seasoned his voice.

That meant he wasn’t enjoying the coyness, so she dropped it. “Figure out which part of town he’s holed up in. You figure out the quadrant, you can then narrow things down to the bolthole.”

“Okay.” He sipped his coffee. “And how do I do that?”

Oh. He’d been asking how he could track Puce. Her smile wobbled. “That’s what you need me for.”

Samstag restrained his frown. “So you use your…ability for that?”

“Of course not,” she answered. “Why wear myself out to track down the time-space residuals for which quadrant of town he’s in, when a little leg work can find that out?”

“How are we supposed to find his quadrant, then?”

Considering the level of technology in this somewhen, she probably needed to make sure… “You have some way to display recent missing persons reports?”

“We have a pinboard.”

Janni checked his thoughts of what, precisely, a pinboard even was. “That’ll work.”

The sidelong glance he slid her way said he’d caught that this somewhen was primitive compared to where she usually lived.

So how had Samstag gotten stuck in a temporal anomaly when the universe hadn’t even developed the ability to detect ripplers yet? Ripplers were like Schrödinger’s cat, in the sense that they didn’t really affect anyone incapable of understanding what they were. If you couldn’t detect them, they wouldn’t affect you, because the very process of detecting them was what brought them into a somewhen.

“Hmm,” Janni said.

Samstag cast another glance at her. She shrugged dismissal of his wordless query for what she was thinking. He accepted that and showed her to a room with a large board of cork spanning much of the wall, behind a small table.

“Heather,” Samstag said to a woman that couldn’t be anything but a secretary. “Get us a map, would you? And then a printout of all missing persons for the area in the past…six months? Would that be enough?”

“Better go a few years,” Janni said, considering the cork board and push pins and recognizing that they were going to have to plot this out manually. Ugh. “He’s comfortable here, so he’s been hopping back and forth for a while.”

“You know of other universes he visits?” Samstag asked. “Why not pursue him there? We’re not equipped for this sort of takedown.”

The secretary returned so quickly with the map that surely they had a stack in an office supplies closet, just waiting to be used.

“They aren’t, either,” Janni said, taking a push pin from the container and considering it. Her psy abilities let her know what they were, thanks to the surface thoughts of other people around her, but that wasn’t the same as having actually used one, herself.

“So why us?” Samstag asked. “Why here?”

The secretary unfolded the map and put it up with the brisk ease that came from long practice. Janni watched her put a few pins in.

“Because here,” she said, carefully adding her own pin to support one of the sides, “he isn’t in charge.”

The StretSec office was full of biometric scanners of various types, so—after making sure Misha had sent him the files he needed to review from the day before—TamLin focused on accessing that data first, then quietly pulled up Kasy’s medical records.

He wasn’t going to ask, “So what has Puce done with your kids?” unless or until he had no other choice.

It didn’t take TamLin long to understand what he was looking at, and even less time for him to start feeling disgusted with himself for not thinking on it sooner. He should’ve been working to stop this back when he started his job. He saved the documentation to his console—specially encrypted by Janni herself—and shut it down, and fought the urge to cry on Kasy’s behalf.

Murder, assassination, accident, self-defense—however he could wrangle it, he was going to see Puce dead. As soon as possible.

A timer went off on Kasy’s console. TamLin shifted focus from his personal project to the paperwork from Misha; she got up and poked Icarus with her stylus.

The man jolted awake with a snortle and a “I’m awake!”

“Now you are,” she said. “Your break’s up.”

Icarus blinked at her a few times, then grimaced and rubbed his eyes. “Fuck Puce.”

“He show back up after his office got bombed?” TamLin asked, keeping his body language as casual as his voice.

“He’s alive,” Icarus said, “and some of the uppers have seen and spoken to him, but he’s gone to ground, saying the napalm was an assassination attempt.”

“It wasn’t?” Kasy asked, mock-seriously.

“The supervisors say it was,” Icarus answered, “but I saw the damage. That was targeted at his files, not at him.” He hesitated. “Makes me wonder—”

“Hold that thought,” TamLin cut in, and he pulled up a particular program on his console that interfered with the office cams. He activated it, double-checked that it was working, then said, “Go on.”

Kasy was staring at him with clear incredulity.

“What?” he asked. “Did you seriously think I wouldn’t have a reflector?”

“No,” she said, “but I have to wonder why you don’t use it more often.”

Usually, TamLin wouldn’t have this conversation in front of witnesses, but he was done hiding, and someone who’d gotten steamrolled into an illegal triple shift wouldn’t be among the assholes. “Puce knows we hate his guts. If that never showed on the surveillance, he’d get suspicious.”

“…Right.” Kasy shook her head, then turned back to Icarus. “You were saying?”

“Uh…” It took the man a few seconds to recollect his thoughts. “Is that why someone would target Puce’s files? He was blackmailing people?”

Kasy went blank-faced and stiff, her eyes going dead.

“Among other things,” TamLin said casually, to draw Icarus’s attention away from Kasy.

“Then why does nobody stop him?!”

TamLin indicated the room at large, as a stand-in for the fact that Puce ran their building.

“What, so because he’s a chief sec, he’s above the law?”

“No, it’s unwise to go after him because he’s a manipulative asshole who can easily destroy more lives than just yours if you move against him.” If he was the grade-black executioner that TamLin thought he was, Puce could even electrocute a person to death without touching them, but TamLin was frightening these two enough already. “He craves power and will do whatever the fuck he has to in order to get more of it.”

“…What does that have to do with you?”

Kasy let out a hollow laugh.

TamLin kept his gaze on Icarus. “Breathe, Kasy.”

With her history of having been forcibly impregnated—more than once—so the infant could get dissected for study, he wasn’t going to tell her to calm herself. She was fucking calm. She was handling the situation and conversation a lot better than most primes would, judging from the ones he’d known.

“What did he do to you two?” Icarus whispered.

“Me?” TamLin asked breezily. “Nothing.”

Kasy laughed again. “Not for want of trying.”

He allowed himself a glance her way. She looked more collected than she had any right to be.

To help her keep that equilibrium, he kept his tone idle. “Puce telegraphs his moves four months out. I could dodge that shit from my mother by the time I was twelve.”

“So you knew he was going to interpret the attack on his information as an attack on his person and organize a witch hunt after the invented assassin?” she asked.

Uh, duh. “What else was he gonna do? Invite Second over for tea and ask her nicely to leave his information the fuck alone? She’d have him dead inside two minutes.” Grade-black executioner or no, his experience came from dealing with civilians in quiet, one-on-one situations. She was special ops from a universe that suffered a zombie apocalypse. “Being outnumbered and outgunned is her normal, and she’s still alive.”

“Wait… You know who napalmed Puce’s office?”

The reflector should’ve still been active, but he double-checked to confirm before admitting, “Yeah.”

“Who—”

“My wife” slipped from his lips before he thought about it. He kept his calm to avoid drawing attention to it. “Why?”

Icarus and Kasy both stared at him.

“…Wife?” Kasy asked first.

Close enough. He shrugged.

“I thought she was Nameless.”

He intentionally answered as if Kasy was asking how he’d married her, rather than why. “We had an accident with resonance bonding.”

“Okay. I’m gonna pretend that makes sense to someone born in this universe, who doesn’t have a clue what the fuck is going on unless someone deigns explain things to her.”

Cursing was unusual for Kasy.

He looked at her.

As if she’d been waiting for that, she slammed her palms on his desk and leaned in his face, glaring at him—obviously well aware that he’d understood what she’d meant and refused to answer.

Either she was better at reading him than most, possibly as a side effect of surviving all the abuse from Puce and his lackeys, or she was supposed to be at least a grade-red sensate. Which meant her current grading of yellow was outright faked, because even training couldn’t take a person from yellow to red.

“Fuck. You.” She stormed out of the office.

TamLin had thought she wasn’t broken entirely, and the evidence that he was right filled him with relief. Of course, that meant she’d possibly resent him when she realized just how much he could’ve been doing all along, but the fact that there were a few dozen civilians who would’ve paid the penalty for his overt behavior would likely mitigate that particular source of ire.

“…What?” Icarus was one of the nice ones—or at least nice enough that he wouldn’t have been one of the ones Puce sought to impregnate Kasy.

“Oh,” TamLin said lightly, “Puce has been drugging her for illegal experiments without her consent for at least two years, now.”

Icarus went white. “And you…knew this? How?”

He shrugged. “I’m not from this universe.”

“Why haven’t you done anything?!”

“She’s assigned to our office, isn’t she?” he asked mildly—a setup that let her have protection part of the time, when he was around. Puce had done that, himself—but TamLin had wittingly led him into it. He’d just known that Puce would be more willing to do it and more reluctant to change it if he thought it was all his idea.

Puce had been all too eager to assume that TamLin would knock up Kasy if left to his own devices, and that had helped for a while. There’d been too much risk to others for TamLin to be willing to sabotage his own standing with Puce to assist one woman who wasn’t even asking for his help, so he’d maneuvered to minimize harm to as many people as possible.

And now Second’s destruction of that information meant the very reason TamLin had fallen into the détente no longer existed.

So he smiled and added, “Puce isn’t from this universe, either.”

As Janni did what she could to help Samstag and the few officemates he’d recruited to help him map out the missing persons reports, starting from the most recent, she marveled that police in these types of somewhens caught as many criminals as they did.

Considering what she was overhearing from other in-progress investigations, that success rate might’ve been mostly a matter of general stupidity from the average criminal, but still. There were only so many hours in a day, and they were taking so long to map this out…

She did a double-take at the map and moved to check it from another angle before she said, “Stop! Stop! We don’t need any more than that, thank you. You can all go back to whatever crime you were working on solving. We have this now, thanks.”

Samstag looked at her with surprise. “We only have two months on here.”

“It’s enough.” Janni grabbed a legal pad and stylus, realized what she was holding, then swapped the stylus for a pen. She diagrammed the basic structure and set about finding the golden helix.

She finished that and ripped the page off the pad in time to see Samstag considering the stylus she’d handled with a bemused expression.

“What?” she asked, setting the page upside-down on the table.

“Precisely how primitive is this universe compared to the one you’re from?”

“The one I was born in or the one I live in?” she replied promptly, repeating the diagram and calculations she’d just made on a fresh page.

Samstag took a few sips of coffee before answering, “The one you live in.”

“Not too far behind this one. A century at most.” She finished the duplicate calculation, then picked up the first page and compared her results. They matched.

Relief that she wouldn’t have to announce that particular defect just yet settled in her bones. Math relating to merging came naturally to her, her instincts letting her follow the numbers in a way that most folks couldn’t comprehend. Navigators had the same problem, but their view of numbers focused on reaching a destination, rather than on blending with one, so navigators and mergers tended to not understand each other that well, either.

The end result was that both types of jumper-class primes had difficulties with normal math. The repetition of the problem was her particular check method. Whatever answer she got from two out of three attempts to solve a problem was the right one. Usually.

She pointed to the spoke of the golden helix with her pen. “Here. He’s somewhere in this neighborhood.”

Samstag nodded and tapped the pages—each index finger applied to a single page. “Dyscalculia?”

Janni’s face went hot with what was surely a flush.

He raised his hands in placation or surrender. “No offense intended. These things are just useful to know.”

She took the few seconds she needed to wrangle the instinctual revulsion and indignation under control so she wouldn’t lash out in temper. “Not exactly. The nuances of it are unique to jumpers, so far as I know.”

“Jumpers? As in time jumpers?”

“Jumpers, as in…” Oh, he was a sensate. He needed to know this. “As in people genetically engineered to have the ability to hop somewhens. There are two main variants: navigators, who are best at crossing to a particular somewhen; and mergers, who are best at enabling others to survive the crossing.” That was one way of describing the difference, at any rate.

“What type are you?” Samstag asked. “Navigator?”

She usually didn’t admit this, but what the hell. “Merger. So if you run into another rippler, I can keep you from going into temporal arrest, but I can’t ferry you to a particular somewhen very well unless there’s already a path set up.”

“Temporal arrest?”

“Laws of conservation of mass and energy don’t like it when people fuck with them,” Janni said dryly, though that particular turn of phrase rolled awkwardly off her tongue.

She wondered if she’d be returning back to her somewhen only to discover that TamLin had added Kitten to the list of people he’d started on a drug habit. She surmised she was supposed to feel grateful that at least he procured his narcotics legally.

Janni sighed.

Once Icarus was done gaping in disbelief, he asked, “How do you know that? I mean, okay, you being from another universe is weird enough, but it explains a lot of your…um.” He evidently decided against specifying and shook his head. “But Puce?”

TamLin shrugged. “It’s a talent of mine.”

Icarus mulled on that a minute, accepting the new information with a readiness that was probably why the assholes hated him so much: he was willing to notice what he actually saw and not stick to assumptions and stereotypes. “How does that work, exactly? You can look at someone and…just know ‘hey, this dude’s from universe zeta’?”

“It’s more a sense of divergence from what’s native to the somewhen I’m attuned to, and I don’t need visual contact to make it, but yes, I’m that accurate.” TamLin kept his body language as casual as his tone, ready to spin everything as a massive joke if he spotted any signals that Icarus was less upstanding than he presented.

“Huh,” Icarus said. “Why are you telling me this?”

The reflector was still running, so TamLin could still make Icarus disappear if it proved necessary. “Puce has been abusing shadows and shadowborn for too long.”

Confusion creased Icarus’s brow, so Puce’s volleys against TamLin hadn’t reached the nice guys’ scuttlebutt yet. That had some troubling implications about whatever he was planning. It was harder to outmaneuver someone who was already intending to resort to illegal methods, anyway, because that meant law enforcement wasn’t a deterrent and couldn’t be relied on as an aid or ally.

“‘Shadows’ are people from other universes,” TamLin explained. “Their children are called ‘shadowborn’.” Only if the child inherited something from the shadow’s native universe, but that was getting more complicated than the man needed.

Icarus blanched. “You have children?”

TamLin grimaced. “No.”

At least, he hoped he hadn’t left any kids behind when they’d fled home. He’d done his best to ensure he hadn’t, but birth control wasn’t always possible when you weren’t consenting to begin with.

Second would probably be willing to double-check for him, but he couldn’t ask that of her. His mother would recognize what Second was and respond accordingly, and then TamLin would have to commit matricide.

His coworker’s blatant relief admitted much of how the nice guys around the office saw him.

If thinking TamLin an abusive asshole meant they kept their distance and therefore out of harm’s way, he was okay with that. “Puce is a bastard, and it’s time to stop him.”

“…How does telling me do that?”

TamLin shrugged. “Office grapevine I have access to isn’t the same one you do.”

Most of the coworkers that TamLin associated with were either Puce’s lackeys or his victims. It had been safer for others that way, since Puce had so desperately wanted TamLin’s loyalty. Anyone TamLin lingered around would’ve been pulled into that part of office politics, and he hadn’t been about to force anyone into that.

But now…now he had a chance to take Puce on and win for himself and everyone the asshole was hurting, and he’d be damned if he was gonna let something as inconsequential as his reputation as a cruel bastard interfere with that.

“You want me to tell everyone that Puce isn’t from this universe?” Icarus asked.

Ah, there was the incredulity. TamLin had been wondering when that would hit.

He made sure his shrug was nonchalant. “He’s telling everyone about me.”

Icarus stared at him, obviously expecting a punchline.

TamLin just met his gaze blandly.

“Damn,” Icarus said softly. “You’re serious.”

Of course.

He rubbed around his eyes. “Okay. Who else knows about you?”

“Puce. Whoever his gossip’s been scattered to. Kasy. Misha.” If the tertiary scientist for their shift didn’t know, after what happened yesterday, TamLin would dose the man with a few years’ worth of ReWrite, himself. That would be kinder than whatever Puce would do to him.

Icarus waited for him to finish the list, then went pale again with the realization that he was done. “Your wife doesn’t know?”

TamLin scowled and gave him a dark look, hoping to press him into avoiding that topic. “The knowledge or lack thereof of anyone outside this office is not your concern.”

“Lies are no way to build a relationship.”

Bullshit. “Plenty of relationships rely on lies. Whether it works or not just depends on the presuppositions and personalities involved.”

Something akin to pity flickered in Icarus’s eyes. “I see,” he said quietly.

And TamLin had the uncomfortable sense that the man actually did.

The vehicle Agent Samstag used wasn’t marked as security, but it had a discreet siren system, and the metal and windows ‘read’ as denser and heavier than other vehicles on the road around them. Reinforced?

“So what do have we have in a century?” he asked. “Hovercars?”

Janni turned sharply from looking out the window, but Samstag’s expression was as amused as his voice.

He nodded towards where she’d been looking. “Something’s different, obviously.”

She considered what she could admit without contaminating anything—not that Shadow Corps would care about the distinction. She’d be arrested if caught in this somewhen, but she’d ignored legalities for years. Why fret about it now? Especially for a legal system she never consented to abide by?

“The required additions to asphalt are too expensive,” she said. “Hover devices don’t really develop until the first colonies on Venus, where they just take advantage of some of the natural features of the cloud stations. From there, they move to the most elite of the neighborhoods and domes, but hover vehicles don’t really take off until after the automation of asteroid mining and street laying. Even then…some really poor colonies or persons will still use wheels and combustion engines.”

At least, they would until the imperialistic spacefaring society imploded into an apocalypse, but that wasn’t something that warranted sharing. Samstag would be long dead before his universe hit that point.

He absorbed her words without reacting. “So where’d you grow up? Rich enough for hovercars or…”

“Vehicles only matter planetside.” Or in Dyson spheres, but those hadn’t been populated enough to warrant vehicles, by the time she was born. Too many uninfected persons in a locale was zombie bait. Most who’d survived to Janni’s generation could trace their lineage to the space gypsies…in part because the gypsies in general had been naturally stable breeding stock. That was why she and TamLin had been bonded, after all—his stability to balance out her own wobbly genetics as a merger-class jumper, for the sake of the following generation.

Not that she and TamLin ever would’ve consummated, even if they’d stayed in their native universe—and not only because they disliked each other. A dying universe wasn’t anywhere to have and raise kids.

They’d agreed on that much, at least. Might’ve been why they’d never bothered to break off their bonding. Well, that and the mental scarring. Breaking a bond always had risk, even though their respective abilities and skill levels made the risk minimal.

An emptiness caught her attention, where the bond was supposed to be. “What—?”

“Hmm?” Samstag asked.

She blinked, remembering where and when she was, and shook her head to clear it. “Um, nothing.”

TamLin must’ve had Kitten break the bond—but why would he ask her to do it? He knew the risks, and as a Nameless, Kitten wouldn’t even know how, much less have the exposure or experience to be able to break it safely.

Janni grimaced. If he’d wanted it broken, he should’ve asked her, not gotten Kitten involved.

She hoped the girl was okay.

Icarus left to…do whatever he had next on his schedule. And hopefully to start passing the info about Puce’s origins on the nice-guy grapevine.

TamLin finished reading over the paperwork that Misha had filed for the day before, double-checked what he needed to sign and file, himself, and glanced over Kasy’s own documentation for the day. The two of them had come up with a good cover story—direct enough that nobody was lying, while leaving out inconvenient details relating to the alternate universe and other shadows involved in the situation.

Well, except for Norris, who apparently Misha and Raleigh had thought warranted being brought in to the office, and who they’d booked as an undocumented cyban. (That or Kasy had doctored the files after the fact, which was entirely plausible and could explain why she hadn’t forged his paperwork for him, again. Forging took time, and she’d had her own paperwork to fill out, too.)

TamLin sighed and hoped Puce’s current lack of physical presence would at least spare the cyban the worst of what could be inflicted on him. Was Puce even interested in the technological modifications characteristic of apex universes—which this somewhen was on-track to become on its own—or only in the biological modifications from alpha universes? TamLin wasn’t sure.

***

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The Innocence of Serpents: A Novella

All harm is not malicious. ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ TamLin grabbed the opportunity to leave his native universe to escape his mother. Living in another universe as an illegal immigrant is the only way he can outmaneuver others’ efforts to puppeteer him. He’s a sensate, able to detect and interpret eddies of psychic energy and space-time without the need of tools and technology. That’s a valuable ability—and he’s an expert with it. He prefers loitering outside the law so he can take care of the manipulative jerks who work their ways around the system…and circumstances outside TamLin’s control mean his current target knows he’s onto him. Now it’s a race of who can destroy the other first. · • · • · • · E-book has two versions of the story: one with mature language and one without. · • · • · • ·  a novella that'll take the average reader about 1.5 hours to read


  • ISBN: 9781370283583
  • Author: Misti Wolanski
  • Published: 2016-08-08 15:35:25
  • Words: 50130
The Innocence of Serpents: A Novella The Innocence of Serpents: A Novella