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Trust Is a Fickle Business: A Novella

Trust Is A Fickle Business: A Novella

  • Trust Is A Fickle Business: A Novella
  • Midpoint

Trust Is a Fickle Business

DISPLACED SHADOWS 002

Cara Lee

Shakespir Edition
Copyright 2016
All Rights Reserved

After Raleigh stumbled out of her native universe, she suppressed the memory files of her time as a soldier. She and two other refugees from other universes rent an apartment together, pooling resources and helping each other cope with living in a somewhen other than the ones they’d grown up in.

But their native universes haven’t forgotten them. Raleigh had to kill one roommate’s bioengineered sister just yesterday—and, in the process, she had to activate far more of her built-in tech than she’s used since entering the somewhen she’s living in.

Her old captain’s been waiting for her to do that.

(A novella that’ll take about 1.3 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

Trust Is a Fickle Business

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)*]

TamLin outright preferred when others disliked or feared him, but as he stared at the flushed face of the petite woman lying on his guest room’s bed, he felt disgusted at his own actions.

He pulled himself back from her, from the bed, and stood. “Sorry.”

Third—damn it, he had to call her Second, now—propped herself up on her elbows and tilted her head and hid her hooded eyes with her lashes, but the tentative fingers she raised to feel her swollen lips said more than she likely realized. Intimacy was forbidden, to Nameless like her. Even a hug would’ve been foreign, and kissing went a bit beyond that.

He was an ass.

“Why?” she asked.

Why had he kissed her, or why had he pulled back? Or was she asking why he liked her, when he didn’t get along with the version of her from the same universe he was?

He shook his head and plucked her equipment belt off the floor, where he’d dropped it after testing how far she was willing to trust him. He tossed it toward her and adjusted his own clothes, ridding himself of whatever rumples he’d picked up and double-checking that everything was still fastened. He thought it was, but…

He hadn’t been that much of an ass, to his relief.

When he looked back at the young woman, Third/Second was still holding her belt.

Her sleeveless shirt had rucked up enough for a scar on her stomach to catch his eye. He was tracing it with a finger before he realized what he was doing.

Damn pulsar. It was the safest option that helped his cluster headaches, but the reduced inhibitions weren’t good for someone like him. Secrets and lies belonged in the dark, and someone had to keep them there.

For Second’s part, she drew a long, determined breath, then let it out in a huff—but she belted her equipment back on. Her fingers brushed against his.

He pulled his hand back, far more reluctantly than was wise.

Third—that was to say, Second, or whatever the hell he had to call her so he wouldn’t accidentally get her euthanized by her own family—lifted her chin. “Thank you.”

For kissing her—right after telling her outright that he knew she was attracted to him because he reminded her of her native universe’s version of him, who had died? Killed himself, from what First had told him.

TamLin didn’t care that she loved his alternate. He didn’t even care if she wanted to pretend he was that particular version of him. But he liked what little he’d seen of Second-who-used-to-be-Third, more than he’d ever liked Janni, and affection from him could get her killed.

Her clutch’s previous Second had just been murdered in graphic example of that.

He asked outright, “You have what, a year?” Until she was old enough to count as a person and maybe they could figure out if they would get along as well as he suspected they would.

She sighed so quietly that most wouldn’t have been able to hear her. She drew her legs up under her chin, wrapped her arms around them. “Bit more than that.”

She was even younger than he’d thought. “Fuck.”

She shrugged. “I wouldn’t tell if you didn’t.”

Even if they dared the risk, she and Janni—the version of her from his native universe—had resonance, a form of psychic bleed that happened between psy-positive alternates of the same person, when those two versions were in the same somewhen. Janni would soon know about their make-out session, if she didn’t already, and she would doubtless add it to the long list of grudges she held against him.

To have a bit more than a year left before she could join the Named, this woman had to be… “Twenty-five,” he said aloud. “You’re twenty-five.”

The spiderweb-like light that was characteristic of biologically modified persons from their type of universe glimmered from beneath her skin as she studied him. “You’re thirty-four.”

Janni couldn’t read telomeres and calculate ages that quickly. Without showing his surprise, he replied, “Yes.”

Second sighed and scooted aside so she could get out of the bed without stepping on his toes. “Thanks. I mean that. At least I have a start of an idea to what I’m miss—”

He had two fingers against her lips, shushing her. “You’re high. Don’t say anything you’ll regret later.”

Janni was going to be ticked off enough.

Second blinked once. “Stim.”

She had taken a jolt tab for some reason, and she was learning the hard way why psy-positives had to be leery of stimulants. He had to be careful with them, himself, and he was just psy-sensitive, not psy-positive. The distinction probably wasn’t as significant as they’d been raised to believe, but it did exist.

Second’s consideration of his words was characteristic of the person who had been named Jannis Lysacarly, in his universe. Janni could hide her thoughts and emotions, too, but she could never quite lose an underlying hardness. Her calmness was faked, a veneer to hide an underlying calculation and chill.

Second’s wasn’t, with staid nonchalance being her natural default rather than a façade. He liked it.

“I am more inclined to jabber and ignore the regen patch,” Second commented, “but I’ve been doing that anyway.”

He gave her a hard look.

She smiled sweetly, and the expression embodied what little he liked about Janni. Fools often mistook her for an idiot, discovering too late that she’d been playing them all along.

He was more unnerved than surprised to realize that Second had pulled off his belt without him noticing—treating him to the same test that he had done to her.

She’d answered consciously that yes, she trusted him enough to let him put her at a disadvantage.

He’d answered unconsciously, and that in itself was an admission of how much he liked her. (It also was a hint that ‘like’ wasn’t quite the right word for how he felt, but he knew better than to name that sort of emotion. He was too sentimental for his own good as it was.)

Thankfully, she was casually eying his belt, not him, so she’d not picked up on the physiological interest.

Or maybe she was just too inexperienced to be able to recognize his lust for what it was. There was a depressing thought.

She casually eyed his belt while she let it fall to the floor, as he’d done with hers mere minutes earlier. “Well, then. Guess I’d better go before Nev shows up.”

Nev being her oldest sister, who had murdered the previous Second before being killed, herself, by the woman who lived with Third/Second and Janni. “She wasn’t after you.”

She shrugged and rolled to her feet. “Nev is always after me. She got Second because she could. Now that she’s here, she’ll poke around for evidence until she has enough to claim I’m a Breach.”

“She’s dead.” Good thing, too, because he’d be even more troubled by who he was attracted to if he’d felt obligated to kill the sister who was a threat to her. Killing a lover’s relatives was not conducive to a long-term relationship, even if the lover was okay with it.

Third/Second froze for a long moment, then looked him in the eye. “Dead? Nev?”

“Yes. Raleigh got her.”

Third/Second bounced once on her toes, in a reserved expression of lighthearted exuberance that took his breath away. She was everything he’d wished Janni could be.

And she was a Nameless refugee from a post-apocalyptic hellverse, forbidden from life as a person until she reached an appropriate age—and she had a psychic link to the bondmate he never planned to marry but was still tied to, mostly because they’d both been too busy to bother with dissolving the bonding.

Life always was kicking him in the balls. “Fuck.”

Humor flashed in the young woman’s blue eyes. “Okay.”

“I meant—” He grabbed her hand before she could do anything with it that would encourage the pulsar. “No. Hit Naming, then we’ll talk, but before then…”

Her expression stayed flat, proving how she’d survived so long. Nameless weren’t allowed to care. She didn’t sigh again, but TamLin could tell that she wanted to.

He hesitated, too aware of the risks to truly want to tempt fate by giving reason for someone to consider her a Breach, but… With one clutchmate murdered by her sister and the other possibly suicidal from the loss of his lover and unborn child, she might need a reason to keep on fighting.

TamLin dropped a quick kiss on her lips, ran his thumb under her chin, and then retreated to the door. “Keep yourself alive, Second.”

She didn’t even flinch. She was too busy staring at him.

He let himself out and decided it was time to counter the pulsar with a tab of jolt, before he made any more of a fool of himself.

Raleigh couldn’t recall getting home, though she distinctly remembered having hot chocolate at a restaurant with Janni and First…the night before.

But now it was morning, and she was sitting at the dining room table, staring at the Jenga game that was stacked in front of her. She had no idea how she had gotten from there to here, nor what she’d done in the hours between.

Puzzling over the blocks was less distressing than fretting about the gap in her memory and what could’ve caused it, so she focused on evaluating what she’d do if she tried to play the game, though she wasn’t entirely sure of the rules. She assumed players had to remove blocks from the stack…

Janni, one of the two women Raleigh shared the apartment with, leaned through the doorway that connected the dining room to the kitchen. Her brow had been furrowed since their other roommate (called ‘Kitten’; actual designation: ‘Third’), had gotten high while Raleigh, Janni, and First—Third’s brother—were at the restaurant the night before. Janni and Third were psychically linked versions of the same person, from universes that left them different enough that Raleigh had lived with the two of them for months without recognizing the core similarities.

“Each player takes turns pulling out a block from inside the tower and setting it on top, until the tower topples,” Janni said about the game, demonstrating that she did, in fact, overhear Raleigh’s thoughts.

Janni hadn’t been overt or obvious about her telepathy, before—but then, there wasn’t much point in hiding it anymore, was there? Not after all that yesterday had revealed about what, precisely, she and Third were.

Raleigh was from what the others called an ‘apex’ universe, ones that engineered people via technological inserts. She herself was a blend of machine and human, with some tech like her gills added by the military. She’d buried her memories of being a soldier, but sometimes events triggered responses that she hadn’t rerouted yet. She could also easily restore whatever memories she needed by accessing particular programming, though she preferred not doing that. Too much risk of killing the wrong person. She kept enough memories active to stay aware of that.

Janni—and all variants of her—were from ‘alpha’ universes, ones where people were bioengineered, with varying degrees of success. They were always able to merge their bio-identities with whatever somewhens they were in, but each one seemed to apply that ability differently. Their other talents, like telepathy, seemed to vary, too.

That was aside from their different choices of occupation. Janni was a programmer; Third was some form of mercenary (which was all she had the training for, really); and there was reputedly a third version of them, Lysacarly, who was part of Shadow Corps, an organization that spanned universes and policed their type of illegal immigrant.

By nature, all versions of her had the same biogenetic modifications (or so Raleigh presumed).

By nurture, the effectiveness, intensity, and stability of those modifications differed.

According to Janni, Lysacarly was the most telepathic of the three of them, and therefore she would also be the most affected by the psychic resonance that could happen between alternate versions of a single person. Janni spoke as if that resonance would be so debilitating to Lysacarly that she and Third, if found, would necessarily be able to escape.

Raleigh had her doubts about that.

A timer dinged in the kitchen, and Janni retreated for a few seconds, only to return and put a hot sandwich beside the Jenga game.

Raleigh stared at it, the rich scent of corned beef and sauerkraut encouraging her stomach to growl. She felt the rumble, felt the hunger, but she couldn’t bring herself to reach for the food.

Janni jostled the table as she set her own plate and bottle of water at her usual spot, which put her back to the door. (Raleigh refused to sit there, and Third rarely would.) Janni dropped into the chair, took a bite of her surely over-peppered sandwich, and made a loud sound of enjoyment.

Raleigh found herself reaching for her own sandwich and noticing how…conspicuous Janni was about eating her own food. And how Janni avoided looking at her while she did so.

“Do I have food problems?” Raleigh blurted before she caught herself. She opened her internal software and started writing a quick macro to track her eating habits, so she could check for herself and confirm the patterns.

Janni’s brow furrowed even further. “Hmm?” She swallowed her mouthful of sandwich. “You aren’t anorexic.”

And that was a dodge, if I’ve ever heard one. Raleigh decided to finish her macro and examine its results for herself, though she had a suspicion as to what she’d find.

She’d rewritten her memory storage and processing years ago, to sidestep that particular conditioning from her childhood. How had it recurred? When had it recurred? Janni’s matter-of-fact reaction suggested that Raleigh had been doing it for a while.

Long enough to lose weight? She hoped not. Her programming made it extremely difficult for her to consume excess calories, and she didn’t have any excess kilos to spare.

She scanned her sandwich. It had the precise ratio of corned beef to sauerkraut that she preferred—a good balance of protein and electrolytes. “This is good. Thanks.”

Janni shrugged.

TamLin stared at the office for the local public security force, which this particular somewhen called StretSec. The square building looked large even if you didn’t know that it continued for several levels underground. The tile-floored foyer had an ironglass wall facing the street, and the foyer itself had wide-open design. It gave the man at the front desk clear line of sight and plenty of time to respond to most incoming threats.

The scanners and officers posted at the front doors were new.

TamLin had forgotten—as stupid and foolish as it was, he’d somehow forgotten—that the newly-designated Second had napalmed his boss’s office the day before. While he was leaving it.

Because of her, he was quite possibly going to end up arrested for terrorism or treason, and his skin tingled with the memory of what it felt like to touch her, to kiss her.

It was fucking inappropriate.

His coworker Kasy had been with TamLin, too, when their boss’s office had gone up in flames, but TamLin was still the one who’d brought the napalm-er into the building. He was the one who’d let her arm herself from the armory. He was the one who’d taken her to see Puce.

He was tempted to ask Janni for a time jump to get him past this mess, at least until records and memories could be adjusted. Enough shadows—people from other universes—lived in this somewhen that surely they could find some tweaker who needed the kinds of favors TamLin or Janni could provide.

He hated to owe anything to his bondmate, though, even if they weren’t ever going to consummate the bonding. Aside from their mutual disinterest in producing children to help keep their native universe populated, they didn’t even like each other.

TamLin shook his head against the coward’s option and strode in and through the scanners and security. No alarms went off—and Ribald didn’t even give him a double-take when he entered—so Second had been right when she said that his coworkers wouldn’t be able to pin things on either of them.

That seemed too easy. Too convenient.

Nobody sought to nudge or yank him aside for inquiry about the previous day, either, so something was definitely off. He was at the very least a potential witness, so standard operating procedure meant they needed to at least get his statement. SOP only got ignored when there was some bigger play in progress.

But what sociopolitical game were they playing? He couldn’t maneuver or disengage until he knew which game board they’d put him on.

TamLin stepped up to the front desk. Ribald kept gossiping with the mailwoman about someone’s new squeeze—maybe his, maybe his favorite stripper’s, maybe some married coworker’s. TamLin didn’t care enough to pay attention and figure it out.

He tapped pointedly on the broad front counter that was Ribald’s desk, showing the receptionist’s console and office accoutrements while also hiding the zinger and blaston that all on-duty secs were supposed to keep on hand, even when in plainclothes. OverMent—the oversight department—tended to look the other way on that particular rule, though, as long as a sec had a weapon and could prove themselves competent with it. Zingers were ineffective for some parts of town, and the lethality of blastons made carrying them against many folks’ convictions.

TamLin had lost all unwillingness to kill other sentients long before he even had to shave.

“What?” Ribald snapped.

“Kasy in yet?” TamLin asked. She’d promised to cover his ass on the paperwork, so he wanted to compare stories and get that finalized as soon as possible. Get her clear of him, reduce the risk of anyone targeting her to get to him, and reduce the possibility of someone conveniently misfiling his statement and getting him in trouble for making a delayed report.

“How the hell would I know?”

TamLin narrowed his eyes and met Ribald’s glare, rather than focusing on the man’s beard or poorly-hidden muscles, like most people did. The more fool, them.

“I’m not your fucking babysitter!” Ribald snapped.

“No, you’re our fucking receptionist, who’s fucking our boss’s wife. You have the roster on your console. Has Kasy checked in or not?” The console—a small flat minicomputer that some somewhens called ‘tablets’—was in literal spitting distance of both him and its owner. He could’ve grabbed and checked it, himself, if he’d wanted to risk the chance that both Ribald and his tech person had failed to activate the security option, but that could get him shot even without the excuse of yesterday’s mess.

The mailwoman stared at TamLin, her widened eyes confirming his decision to not bother learning her name. If he chatted her up, she’d be more inclined to loiter. The more she loitered around the StretSec office, the bigger risk she ran of getting targeted by a criminal inclined to take hostages. That was aside from the risks inherent in fraternizing with a shadow or an illegal immigrant or a grade-black sensate, and he was all three.

The results of civility were so rarely worth the costs.

Ribald’s face went white, then red. “Excuse me?!”

Not the response TamLin had been looking for, but if that was the road he was on already…

He gave his coworker a bored stare. “Penn? The secretary with the biggest melons? That’s Puce’s wife. Did she forget to mention that before she—”

Ribald leapt over the counter at TamLin.

As he sidestepped out of the way and prepared to let his coworker think them more evenly matched than they were, TamLin didn’t let himself sigh or smile. The delay in finding Kasy was annoying, but at least the fight would give him opportunity to get punched in the face, so blood could replace the distracting taste that lingered on his tongue.

Someone was unlocking the entrance to their street-level apartment.

Raleigh didn’t detect anyone on the other side of the door, so she activated a macro she’d written the day before, which set her scanners to checking the airflow outside. People from alpha universes could hide themselves from her enhancements, but they still had to breathe.

At least, Raleigh thought they still had to breathe. Janni and Third seemed to need oxygen, and the macro had worked the previous day when she’d needed to locate Nev’s sister.

Janni was eating, unperturbed, rather than being concerned by the visitor who was letting themselves in. That meant Raleigh could make a reasonable assumption about who it was even before the door opened.

“Third?” Raleigh asked, keeping her gaze locked on the Jenga game. First had warned yesterday that giving the girl a name rather than using her official designation, per her native universe, could get her euthanized.

After a pause, Third’s voice answered, “Second.”

What about Second? Second had been murdered, yesterday.

Janni froze a moment, then resumed chewing, not turning around. She swallowed what was in her mouth, said “There’s a sandwich in the fridge for you, Kitten,” and kept eating.

The girl entered the rental and shut the door behind her, and she abruptly appeared on Raleigh’s scanning software as though she’d been there all along.

Third’s expression was as staid as ever, but she eyed Janni as if she had noticed or was waiting for something, though Janni seemed entirely focused on her food. Maybe Third was picking up something from Janni via resonance, something outside Raleigh’s ability to detect?

The previous evening, Janni had said she thought Third was high. Raleigh activated some more of her enhancements to evaluate what she could scan of Third’s physiology, but she didn’t detect any drugs in the girl’s system, or even anything necessarily indicative that drugs had been there at all. Just a slight elevation in the cortisol, dopamine, and oxytocin.

Janni swallowed her mouthful of food. “Jolt?” she asked, turning to face the girl. “Why’d you take that?”

Raleigh would have to look up jolt and its effects, but she was pretty sure that didn’t affect oxytocin.

Third just stared blandly at Janni, then glanced over the table on her way into the kitchen, which was separated from the dining room by a counter and half a wall. The younger girl was too short for Raleigh to see her through the pass-through, but from the sounds that followed, she opened the fridge and unwrapped a sandwich.

“You’re hungry?” Raleigh asked in surprise. Grief stymied appetite, in her experience, and Third’s sister had murdered Second yesterday, shortly before Raleigh killed that sister, herself. From what had been admitted over the past day about how the Nameless clutches worked, Raleigh had expected to see at least some mourning for Second, even if Third didn’t really have a concept of ‘sister-in-law’ or miss her actual sibling.

Third leaned and peered at her through the doorway for a long moment, then brought her sandwich out to join them in the dining room. She ate it as quickly as usual—before Janni had finished another quarter of hers—then gave Raleigh a pointed glance, the one that said Raleigh was ignoring the obvious.

What, were Nameless not allowed to grieve, either?

Third returned to the kitchen, washed her hands, and rejoined them in the dining room. Her gaze danced between Janni and the floor.

“Yes,” Janni said. “I noticed. If he doses you again, I’ll break his arm.”

Third’s focus snapped up, and she blinked quickly. “Not him.”

Janni gave her a look. “He didn’t give you the jolt?”

“Stole it from his drawer.”

Janni stared. “You took jolt on purpose? Why the hell would you do that?”

Raleigh considered Third and ran her current appearance through her recognition software. The bruising and lack of sweater matched the version of Third that had time-jumped backwards to the previous morning and left her the knife she’d used to kill Third’s sister.

Okay, so it had apparently been at least a little longer for Third than it had been for the rest of them, but that just meant she’d had a little more time to get used to the fact that her clutchmate had died.

But then, come to think of it, Third had known that was going to happen hours before the rest of them did, hadn’t she? She’d alerted her brother, and they’d tried to find Second in time to warn her, to stop it from happening.

Maybe she’d dealt with the loss even before she’d told them it was coming.

Raleigh offered the knife, hilt-first, back to the girl. Third glanced at it, hesitated, then accepted it.

“I killed Nev with that,” Raleigh said outright. Perhaps that would be acceptable—either as a justification that would let her keep the knife, or as a comfort that she would be able and willing to accept.

Third paused only for a moment while sheathing it. “Thank you.”

The girl turned her usual calm, nonchalant watchfulness on Raleigh, then glanced at Janni again.

What?!” Janni snapped, slamming what remained of her sandwich on the table.

Third gave a pointed look Raleigh’s way.

Janni scowled and waggled a finger at the younger, Nameless version of herself. “You want to get yourself killed, fine, but you leave us out of it!”

Raleigh blinked. What was she talking about?

Janni shoved her chair back and stormed down the hall with their three bedrooms. A door slammed—doubtless the one to her room.

Raleigh looked at Third, who had shifted position to watch Janni’s trip down the hallway. “What was that about?”

Third didn’t so much as flinch or move her gaze. “Jealousy.”

About what, precisely? “…If she wants jolt, I can get her some.”

The edge of Third’s lips twitched, hinting at a sly, wry personality beneath the nonchalant façade that the Nameless girl usually wore. Raleigh suspected that was for her own safety.

“Not about the jolt.” Third grabbed the last bit of Janni’s sandwich from the table, and she finished the food as she headed for her own room.

Raleigh stared after her, having the disconcerting sense that something had changed in the dynamic of her roommates, but unable to pinpoint what that change was.

TamLin was rinsing off his face—because walking around bloody was a good way to increase the stress and trigger-happiness of his coworkers, and they had enough ‘accidental’ incidents without him exacerbating the likelihood of and excuses for them—when Kasy found him in the bathroom closest to their office.

He heard her approach, recognized the footsteps, but she still gave a polite sigh signaling her presence. Someone barreled past her, nearly shoving her into a hand-drying unit, and waltzed straight into one of the empty stalls beyond him in the bathroom.

Then Kasy said, “Ribald? Really? Isn’t provoking him like taking candy from a baby?”

TamLin shrugged as he turned toward her. “Needed a punch to the face, not a challenge.”

It said more about her adaptability than it did about her comprehension of the somewhen he came from that she just shook her head. She was shadowborn, meaning she’d inherited abilities from an ancestor from another somewhen, rather than her being from one, herself.

Kasy was a far weaker sensate than he was, but even she picked up traces of others’ emotional profiles. Grade yellows like her just experienced what they sensed as faint vibes, not as concrete awareness, so she couldn’t positively identify what was wrong, even for out-of-natural-timeline bio-identities.

Most sensates couldn’t spot the gaps of masked ‘should be there’ bio-identities at all. That was a grade-black thing, lucky him.

At least she didn’t get the cluster headaches.

He dried his face on his sleeve, checked the dark fabric for the particular sheen that would indicate blood, then faced her. “Got the paperwork for me?”

She lifted her chin and considered him with eyes cold enough to admit how she’d survived this long with Puce, their boss, forcing her into his illegal-but-well-protected breeding program. “You signed off on it yesterday, remember?”

He hadn’t, so Kasy was a forger. She was trusting him with that information—and implicitly offering to do it for him again. She’d also made sure he owed her a favor.

At least that meant there was a less-negative possibility for why nobody had sought his witness statement about their boss’s blown-up office. She’d already filed it for him.

TamLin rubbed his eyes, as if he were tired. “Right. I forgot to keep a copy for myself. Can you get me that?”

She offered him a mini data storage device (called a ‘codette’ in particular somewhen), which doubtless had a copy of the file on it.

He flashed her a smile and started for the door, plucking the codette from her grip. “Thanks.”

She yanked her hand back, then grimaced—because she’d failed to block the reflex, perhaps?

He still didn’t respond well to unexpected touch, himself, particularly when stressed.

TamLin paused, and then pulled his console from his belt, so he could start working on the way back to his desk. He backed into the bathroom door so he could keep an eye on her while he opened it. “You know you aren’t my type, right?”

Kasy crossed her arms and let out a huff of air, but she followed him out into the nondescript hall and towards their office. “You’ve said that before. Do you even have a type?”

Answering that honestly would admit a weakness.

Answering that honestly would reassure his coworker that he would never side with Puce’s efforts to have her raped, just because he wanted some tail. “Yes.”

Kasy’s eyebrows rose. “I’m not sure I dare ask.”

As they walked, he plugged the codette into his console and copied the appropriate file over. “Wouldn’t answer even if you did.”

She flinched.

TamLin had to be careful which details he admitted about himself, due to legitimate risk of harm to him, to witnesses, to his audience, or to other shadows he knew. Most of what was safe to say would only frighten her.

He finally offered, “You’re too soft for me.”

Kasy’s stare said he’d judged right, that she wasn’t offended by his words. “For you.”

“Yup.”

She tilted her head in a quick nod—indicating acceptance, not affront. “Nice disclaimer.”

The concise, precise responses were reminding him of She-who-used-to-be-Third. “Thanks.”

Kasy studied him. “Okay, what’d I do wrong?”

He raised an eyebrow at her but kept his stride even.

“You’re mighty uncomfortable, all of a sudden.”

There was one thing he could tell her that would explain his reaction without admitting his unhealthy attraction to a particular Nameless…but that would open too many vulnerabilities to make it worth the risk. “I am?”

She considered him for another moment, then shrugged dismissively, apparently deciding they each had too many secrets to risk forcing one into the open. “So you don’t think I’m soft?”

The pleasant smile and inquisitive eyebrows were all innocence eager for an honest answer.

Despite the office gossip calling Kasy a dimwitted floozy, that apparent naïveté was also as fake as her choice of hairstyle.

“No,” TamLin answered as they entered the office they shared with a few others, most of whom worked different shifts than they did. She was far from ‘soft’.

Surprise flashed over Kasy’s face, and she nervously fiddled with her hair instead of heading to her desk. “Seriously?”

No, he had a habit of lying when he gave compliments.

The sarcasm wasn’t a good sign. His temper could put people in the emergency room.

“So what’s the deal with Puce?” he abruptly asked instead, knocking the conversation onto another—and more important—topic as he glanced over what she’d filled out and filed for him.

She stiffened before asking carefully, “What do you mean?”

“He dead from the explosion yesterday?” TamLin asked first, letting her relax a little before he asked, to point out that he knew, “And just how often did he pimp you out?”

Kasy recoiled away from him, into the corner of a cabinet. He cringed in sympathy as she rubbed the to-bruise spot in her back.

He also noticed that she didn’t yelp.

That (lack of) reaction meant she was used to pain. But she was an agent, not an operative, so she didn’t have the kind of field training or experience that would result in that kind of pain tolerance. StretSec agents handled civil cases, not criminal ones.

She stared at him through narrowed eyes, brow furrowed as she bit her lip. “Forensics is still checking things out, but they didn’t find a body.”

There wouldn’t necessarily be one, for someone from an alpha universe, but TamLin had reason to pretend he didn’t know the top jackass of the office was a shadow, himself. (Namely, presumed ignorance would make TamLin safer whenever Shadow Corps finally showed up in this somewhen.)

She continued, “Someone tossed some kind of explosive right on Puce’s desk—”

“Napalm-echo,” TamLin stated.

Kasy rolled her eyes, catching him off-guard. “Well, yes. You and I know that, but”—she pointed her thumb over her shoulder towards the door—“our buddies down at the labs don’t, since Puce was the only person in the office with authorization codes to get our kinds of messes classified properly for the appropriate examination.”

Only one person in the entire building for the region’s division of StretSec? StretSec was incredibly centralized—foolishly so, in TamLin’s opinion—so there were far too many secs in their single building for that kind of incompetence to be excusable. “Who came up with the law that allowed that?”

“Yes, because Puce is such an upstanding example of a law-abiding agent.” She gave him the side eye. “How did you get your rank without knowing who gets the codes?”

TamLin shrugged. “Fast track.”

“Oh, so that’s why Puce’s been pressing so hard for you to knock me up. They’re trying to kill you.” Her brow furrowed with confusion. “But you’re a trained grade-black sensate with firsthand knowledge of universe-hopping. Why would they want you dead?”

Because I’m a trained grade-black sensate with firsthand knowledge of universe-hopping.” TamLin checked through the paperwork again, confirming that Kasy had filled it perfectly. “Tends to make people with illegal side businesses nervous.”

Her frown remained. “Because you know enough to be able to turn them in to Shadow Corps?”

He met her gaze, wondering how she’d gone this long without anyone cuing her in. “Because Shadow Corps actively hunts for the shadows like me.”

An itch nagged at Raleigh, but it was too nebulous for her to identify, much less resolve. She set up a physical diagnostic macro to try to find it, then turned from the table to go down the hall to her room.

Third was making something in the kitchen.

Raleigh double-checked that it was, in fact, Third—that she wasn’t confusing the Nameless girl with Janni—then looked down the hall where Third had gone only a moment before, after she’d commented about their other roommate’s jealousy.

Her first inclination was to assume that Third had…Jumped—was that what it was called?—but Raleigh had also lacked memory between the drinks last night and breakfast that morning. The Jenga game on the table had some blocks in different spots than she remembered, too.

She checked her internal chronometer, hoping the issue was just a misfile glitch and not a full skip.

A few hours had passed since her most recent memory on file.

Twice wasn’t enough to indicate a pattern—but twice in under twenty hours suggested the start of a pattern, one that Raleigh couldn’t afford to have. Even if she assumed that she’d slept her usual six hours the night before, the skips were costing her more than half her memory.

She’d witnessed such lapses before, in others like her, though the data was archived. She could see the traces from the file path, but the file itself dallied outside the area of her storage that was enqueued and readily accessible. She’d have to actively choose to access that particular information.

Something in her gut told her the memories didn’t hold anything good.

Third peered at her through the pass-through, pausing a moment before promptly returning to whatever she was in the middle of tossing into a bowl. There wasn’t enough of a smell for Raleigh to identify it without scanning, and scanning to find out seemed…rude.

In the very least, scanning to find out what her roommate was cooking would be needlessly intrusive, particularly since doing so might trigger their psy sensitivity or telepathy or some such thing.

“Raleigh?” Third asked quietly.

Were Nameless even allowed to pry like that? Raleigh abruptly suspected not.

“What was I doing?” she asked Third. “When you came back to the kitchen?”

The girl studied her for a second, expression shuttered, then stirred the bowl’s contents. “Thinking.”

What had Raleigh been thinking about?

And why couldn’t she remember it?

The itch worsened, but Raleigh still couldn’t figure out where or what it was. She hadn’t felt it before—she knew that much, but it had a familiarity that meant it was programmed into her recognition software, though the definition was filed out of her reach unless she grabbed it on purpose.

Thinking shouldn’t have led to such memory loss, even if she’d decided to store the thoughts for later. She should’ve at least had an indirect summary of her actions left in her mind, to account for the time gap.

The answer was somewhere in that memory file her gut said she really didn’t want to read.

“Thinking,” she murmured. That didn’t sound dangerous. Worrying, but not dangerous.

Unless it meant her software was breaking down. What if her personal blocks collapsed? Or the failsafes that kept her from designating her home as enemy territory and going berserker on civvies?

As well as Third and Janni could defend themselves, she couldn’t be sure they’d be able to protect themselves from her, if she snapped and sought to kill them. She wanted to believe they could—and Third, at least, had mental conditioning that would let her respond appropriately if someone she knew suddenly turned homicidal—but Raleigh knew better than to assume. They dismissed her type of universe as not very advanced or dangerous, and that could easily end up giving her opportunity to eliminate them.

Nev’s hubris had enabled Raleigh to kill her.

Raleigh wasn’t about to risk her friends’ lives by being overconfident in their abilities.

She opened the memory file.

“TamLin! What the hell are you still doing here?!”

He and Kasy exchanged equally puzzled glances across the space that separated their respective desks, then turned to the doorway and the tertiary science analyst for their shift—Mishka, Moksa, something like that. He wasn’t enough of a bully or victim for TamLin to bother to remember.

Whatever his name was, it wasn’t like him to snap like that.

TamLin casually got up and put himself between Kasy and the angry male. “I’m sorry, but I don’t know what you’re talking about. Just got the paperwork from yesterday and haven’t heard anything else since I came in.”

Scientist M’s brow furrowed. “You didn’t get pinged?”

He double-checked his console, in case he’d missed something while making out with Second or while engaging in fisticuffs with Ribald. “No.”

The other man shook his head. “Damn politics. There was a class-five breach last night.”

Of course there was. “Warehouse over on Medallion?” Though that should’ve been a class two or four.

Scientist M gave him the side eye. “No. Do I need to check the warehouses over on Medallion?”

TamLin shrugged. “No.”

“…Okay,” M said reluctantly, then glanced uneasily between him and Kasy. Did he think TamLin was one of the ones who hurt her? Good on him, for noticing and bothering to watch. “This was in the Hot Zone.”

What was it about males? Didn’t matter if they were from the wrong government or the wrong somewhen—illegal immigrants were illegal immigrants, and male ones always went for the whores.

“Any witnesses?” Kasy prompted.

“No idea,” M answered. “Nobody’s checked it out yet.”

TamLin frowned. “A class-five breach—”

“Isn’t anything I’m going to send some greenie to look into. I may not know what, exactly, a class-five breach is, but that doesn’t mean I’m blind to the fact that they shouldn’t be handled by someone unfamiliar with them.”

He considered Scientist M, but the man was either native to this universe or a merger to rival She-whom-he-wasn’t-going-to-think-about. “All right.”

M let out a huff of breath. “I’ll look into why you weren’t notified.”

“No, you won’t.”

M frowned at him. “What do you mean? You should have been notified. We need to report the lapse to—”

“Puce likes making me look bad. Case closed.” He looked to Kasy. “Coming?”

A trained sensate had a lot more employment options than an untrained one. Learning to use what she had would enable her to work with one of the gangs or even register with Shadow Corps. A grade-yellow sensate like her would get all the benefits of registration without being affected by the marriage restrictions or mandatory conscription.

If Puce had survived the napalm-echo—and without a clear body left behind, TamLin would be shocked if he hadn’t—she’d need those kinds of options. She had to get the fuck out of StretSec before their boss from hell ripped her down with him.

After a few seconds, she nodded.

TamLin couldn’t be the only coworker that Puce had pushed to rape Kasy—and from her mannerisms, he knew that more than one hadn’t refused. Forcing her to come with him alone would be cruel.

He looked to M, who wouldn’t have been among the rapists. And M…

M did a fantastic impression of bewilderment…before giving Kasy a serious glance and him a slight nod. “I—I—I—I’m not certified for the field.”

Even the pitch of the splutter was right for discomfort.

“Your choice,” TamLin tossed into the air, and he started off, Kasy in tow.

M wisely played hesitant for a few seconds before following.

Pain snatched her attention, and the cause of it slipped out of her countergrab.

Raleigh stumbled, feeling as battered as if she’d fought a mech without backup, and the surrounding bright lights and sounds struck her as if they were weapons of their own.

“Close your network connection!” Worry threaded through Third’s sharp command.

“What?” Raleigh’s voice came out slurred, but she found and activated a macro to bypass involuntary processing, to forcibly reduce intake of aural and ocular input. Light and sound lowered to tolerable levels, letting her process the market that sprawled around them, with the shoppers and stallkeepers huddled in fear.

She froze. What was she doing in Sunshine?

“Raleigh!” Third said, sounding as if she’d been repeating herself. “Your network connection! Shut it off and delete the packet!”

Packet?

She stared at Third, feeling sluggish and disoriented. When had they left the apartment?

The girl was disheveled, herself, with scrapes and cuts and blossoming bruises. Nothing serious, but more than enough to warrant concern. Raleigh’s chipset started adjusting for combat, so she could help.

“No!” Frustration flashed across Third’s face. “I will splinter you!”

Splinter?

Third met her gaze, brow furrowed. The yellowish light web that her brother sometimes displayed crawled out of her skin, and her breathing, pulse, and pupils said how much pain that brought her. “Shut off your network and delete the packet of connection software.”

Raleigh trusted Third enough to do so, though she couldn’t imagine why—

The deactivation and deletion finished, and clarity washed through her.

The surrounding stallkeepers and shoppers were cowering in fear of her.

“What have I done?” she whispered, recognizing the disarray and destruction and aura of disquiet surrounding them as evidence of a fight. Pieces of engineered plastic ranged from broken to pulverized, and even some stronger materials like ceramic and fabricated brick were cracked. How was the girl not more hurt?

“Not much.” A grimace stayed on Third’s face as the mysterious energy web crawled back into hiding. “Got in your way.”

Raleigh scanned the girl for injuries and reconsidered her own condition in light of the fact that it had been inflicted by Third. The results of both scans were reassuring evidence that, even if she did go insane, at least one of her roommates could stop her—even while she feared that the blackouts meant her enhancements were self-destructing. How could she have missed such a massive flaw in her own software?

Third was physically and psychologically capable of killing her. That didn’t mean Raleigh wanted her to have to. “I attacked you?”

The webbing was no longer visible, but Third was still breathing hard. “With warning.”

Nameless were required to be taciturn, insofar as Raleigh could tell. Third gave the information she could, when she was willing to, and pressing for elaboration wouldn’t accomplish anything except frustration.

“You’re hurt,” Raleigh pointed out, instead. Enough to warrant a regen patch at the very least.

Third gave a shrug.

Considering Raleigh was the worse off of the two of them, she had a point.

TamLin’s console pinged. He glanced at it, at M in the front passenger seat and Kasy in the back seat behind them. The incoming call was from Raleigh, the cyban who shared an apartment with Janni and Third.

Second, not Third anymore, he reminded himself again, while considering why Raleigh might call him. Janni usually stayed out of trouble, and she’d already been kidnapped once this week.

A class-five breach was likely caused by an apex universe, the type the cyban was from.

With that thought in mind, TamLin activated the vehicle’s auto-drive function and angled the console so it didn’t show his coworkers—there was no reason to share that he had company—then accepted the call.

The undersized female with auburn-tinted hair who popped up on his screen was not Raleigh.

“Why the fuck are you calling me?!” he demanded.

The new Second of her clutch didn’t even blink, possibly because the flesh surrounding one of her eyes was turning purple. “Raleigh’s beacon got triggered. I got her to delete the packet, but…”

If the cyban’s creators had tracked her down and were activating her recall beacon, ‘but’ was right.

The timing could be a coincidence, but for two roommates’ respective native universes to find them in the same week… TamLin would bet good money that Puce was involved. At least he and Janni had left their native universe amicably, so Puce would have to expend a lot of effort to find someone who wanted to come after them in particular. Other than Shadow Corps, of course—which Puce couldn’t call in without risking his own ventures.

Raleigh, though… Cybans’ programmers tended to perceive them as property, even after they repaid their indentures, and the beacons were stored in the root directory, not anything the cyban themselves could access. “Is she cognizant?”

“For now.” Second glanced over something out of range of the screen—Raleigh, he presumed. “I got her to take a sleeper, but her beacon’s eating through it.”

“And with the wireless packet deleted, you can’t jack in to sabotage it—and reinstalling the packet would just strengthen the beacon.”

Puzzlement furrowed Second’s brow.

“You don’t program?” His surprise slipped into his voice. Janni revised applications to relax.

Second glanced pointedly at the screen—no, at the not-hers console, since she was Nameless and therefore not permitted nonessential belongings. When would she have had opportunity to learn, much less to realize she enjoyed it?

He let out a breath. That had been rude of him. Third was still recovering from her sister’s attempt to kill her, and now she was even more injured from something he should’ve seen coming. “Sorry.”

Her eyebrows crept up her forehead, and TamLin could feel his coworkers staring at him at the uncharacteristically explicit apology.

Yeah, he had it bad.

Even being aware of that—and despite the fact that he had good reason for making others think him an asshole—he still had to bite his tongue against the urge to ask if she was okay. “Where are you?”

She glanced away again, towards what he figured was Raleigh, then did a quick check of her surroundings. “Sunshine.”

That market was between the women’s street-level apartment and the Hot Zone.

If this wasn’t connected to the class-five breach he was after, he’d let her break his arm. “You know how to activate the emergency flare on that console?”

Second paused, then focused and started tapping…and found the setting, because the emergency services call showed on the car dispatch.

He claimed the ping and changed the vehicle’s destination. “Don’t let her leave.”

Humor flickered in the young woman’s eyes. “Understood.”

TamLin ended the call and took over auto-drive, since a competent driver was always faster than the computer.

“Huh,” Kasy said, a smile in her voice.

“What?” asked M. “You get more out of that conversation than I did?”

“Apparently Lin’s type is taciturn with a fondness for napalming assholes.”

Despite his discomfort at the accuracy of that statement, TamLin couldn’t help but appreciate her snickering.

Third was sitting on her chest.

Raleigh blinked. “Did I black out again?”

The girl was watching their surroundings. Sunshine was a market area, and people were still busy about their days even with the berth they were giving the evidence of a fight and the two women loitering in the midst of the mess.

Third glanced down at Raleigh, shook her head, and slipped onto her own feet.

Raleigh got up carefully, considering their surroundings, but it was the same place she remembered going to sleep—where Third had stopped her earlier. She was a bit puzzled to find that StretSec was nowhere to be seen. Sunshine was a decent part of town. Decent enough that StretSec should’ve been willing to show up, anyway.

Raleigh started folding up the cot she’d used, and the stallkeeper Third had rented it from came over.

“Thanks again,” Raleigh said.

The stallkeeper didn’t look at her, just kept his gaze on Third—and didn’t accept the cot back until after the girl gave a little nod.

How did he know her? He didn’t move as if he was from a universe like Third’s or Janni’s…

The tenor of the crowd changed as someone strode their way. The shopkeeper noticed and ducked back behind his stall before TamLin broke through, decked out in the gear that proclaimed him to be a StretSec officer, prepped for a violent takedown.

So StretSec knew enough to make sure he handled folks from other somewhens. Was that reason for relief or for concern?

Considering how he’d treated her Nameless roommate, the day before, Raleigh grimaced.

Rather than coming up with some bullshit reason to beat on Third, TamLin strode up to Raleigh, herself. “When did you wake up?”

Third must’ve called him or somehow filled him in.

“Just a minute ago.”

The man’s ever-present frown deepened.

“What dur of sleeper did you take?” asked a woman Raleigh took a moment to identify.

“…Kasy?” Raleigh asked, startled. She’d met Kasy yesterday, and the woman showed obvious signs of getting put through breeder drugs. An innocuous-looking man was at her side. “This the pimp?”

The man recoiled. “Wh—what? No!”

How did someone that slow on the uptake recognize what was going on with Kasy?

“Misha, this is a friend of…”—Kasy looked at Third for a long moment, then turned back to Misha—“Lin’s ex.”

Misha blinked at TamLin. “You have an ex?”

“He will,” Kasy said, “as soon as he or his fiancée breaks off the betrothal. It isn’t as if they’re gonna go through with the wedding.”

Anger flashed across TamLin’s face, but he just turned to Third, yanking something from his belt and tossing it to her. “Well? What dur was it?”

The girl easily caught the item—a regen shot. “A four.”

A four-hour duration on the sedative, Raleigh realized, finally figuring out what they were talking about.

TamLin scrutinized Third’s injuries, gaze narrowing.

Third nonchalantly but competently broke the seal on the shot. She jabbed it into the lymph node behind the ear closer to the darkening eye. Shots and patches each worked great, but for different types of injuries.

TamLin sighed and pulled something else off his belt from where he’d grabbed the regen shot, with a gesture at Third. The girl adjusted her position, as if obeying a command.

He knelt and rolled up one pantleg, far enough to give access to the regen patch already against her skin. He replaced that patch with a new one. “You gotta take care of that leg.”

Third didn’t so much as tense when TamLin touched her, even though he’d beaten her the day before. She commented, “Sins of our parents.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” he replied, briskly unrolling her pantleg and smoothening it back down.

They held position for all of a second, then abruptly shifted away from each other, mutually uncomfortable.

What was that about? Raleigh frowned.

Third swung back around towards TamLin, a smirk or smile tugging at the edge of her lips. “You know—”

Second,” TamLin said, voice full of warning.

The insensitivity made Raleigh stare at him. “Second was murdered just yesterday, and you’re threatening Third?”

“Second,” Third said.

***

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Trust Is a Fickle Business: A Novella

All aid is not kind. ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ After Raleigh stumbled out of her native universe, she suppressed the memory files of her time as a soldier. She and two other refugees from other universes rent an apartment together, pooling resources and helping each other cope with living in a somewhen other than the ones they’d grown up in. But their native universes haven’t forgotten them. Raleigh had to kill one roommate’s bioengineered sister just yesterday—and, in the process, she had to activate far more of her built-in tech than she’s used since entering the somewhen she’s living in. Her old captain’s been waiting for her to do that. · • · • · • · 
 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: 9781370321452
  • Author: Misti Wolanski
  • Published: 2016-08-08 15:35:19
  • Words: 47774
Trust Is a Fickle Business: A Novella Trust Is a Fickle Business: A Novella