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SOG1&2

SOG1&2

by

Kristie Lynn Higgins

 

©2016

Shades of Gray #1

 

Shades of Gray #2

Shades Of Gray #1

Noir, City Shrouded By Darkness

 

Kristie Lynn Higgins

 

SHADES OF GRAY: Noir, City Shrouded By Darkness

 

Text Copyright © 2006, 2016 by Kristie Lynn Higgins

 

Cover Art Copyright © 2014

Shakespir Edition

Beta Phase Ebook

 

 

www.KristieLynnHiggins.com

 

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by an information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

Introductions

This series uses a mixture of omniscient past tense and first person present tense to tell the story of Shades of Gray. I have used bold to separate the first person from the omniscient. Enjoy the series.

 

Rise above the expectations of others.

Soar on wings of dragons.

AabiLynn’s Dragon Rite #0

Click below to Try It Out

www.kristielynnhiggins.com/DR0.html

 

 

Beauty and the Beast with a delightful twist.

What if the woman was the one turned?

Beauty of the Beast #1

Click below to Try It Out

www.kristielynnhiggins.com/BOTB1PartA.html

 

 

The Fairy Tales You Know With A Wicked Twist.

The Beast in Beauty and the Beast

was never cursed in this way.

Click below to Try It Out

www.kristielynnhiggins.com/AaBack1.html

 

[++]

 

What would you sacrifice to save your friends?

Can loyalty and love defeat darkness?

Ayann- A Fantasy Action Adventure

Click below to Try It Out

www.kristielynnhiggins.com/Ayann-1-PartA.html

 

 

If multiple Earths exist, what would their worlds look like? What kind of people would they be? Societies? Religions?

 

Would they make the same mistakes as us?

 

Translated from the Assembled Works

Ginn L. Irynkissgthie 525 B.D.C. (Before Dry Clouds)

 

Prologue

On a parallel Earth, thick puffy barriercumulus also known as Dry Clouds covered the sky; they prevented the glimmer of twilight from shining on the city of Noir. For three decades the polluted high-troposphere looming clouds covered half the planet and left part of the world to live in endless night. The mile-thick clouds yielded petroleum based contaminated water dubbed Tainted Rain and polluted the air; therefore, they were named Dry Clouds for leaving half the planet without drinkable water. At first, scientists believed pollution caused the great cloud barrier, but that theory proved to be false. What caused the Dry Clouds to form baffled scientists and how to reverse them eluded reason, and only technology’s constant battle with nature has kept the dark city alive.

Man’s need for conquest expanded Noir to cover more than half a continent of what would have been called North America, and Noir became a Mega-city; it was the only one in the world. Over the last twenty years Transgenics and bio-mechas evolved at a breakneck pace. Transgenics were genetically modified organisms with an extra-genome and were mostly plants produced to survive without the sun. Bio-mechas were robots resembling living things.

On this world, corporations not governments ruled the people, creating a society where profit set policy and dictated life. Those who resided in Noir were touched by darkness, and the light of goodness seemed a forgotten memory; they… they lived in the gray —Shades of Gray.

 

Chapter One

The Pandora Project

Isaiah 5:30b

If one looks to the land, behold, darkness and sorrow, even the light will be darkened by the clouds.

 

The year 31 A.D.C. (After Dry Clouds)…

October 22…

Thursday…

4:44 A.M…

“Initiate the Pandora Project,” a deep male voice ordered.

“Pandora has been awakened,” a female replied.

“Good… Good…,” the deep voice said.

“Are you sure the project is ready?” a second male voice inquired. “Maybe we should give it a few more weeks of conditioning.”

“No, launch Pandora,” the deep voice instructed. “Let us see what it can do on its own.”

“Releasing the project now,” the female said, paused, and then added, “Pandora is running as predicted.”

“Good… Good… Let us begin the tests.”

 

6:04 P.M…

Scattered streetlights partially lit an abandoned industrial district, and the wind howled, blowing through overgrown weeds and chilled the air of the blue gray night. Over the years, a few trees and plants adapted to the limited artificial light along with a large variety of weeds. Nocturnal creatures; rats, mice, owls, and cats ruled the alleys and parks of the mega-city of Noir.

A black sedan slowly rolled down the street, and its headlights lit up the dark road; the vehicle stopped at the curb a few hundred yards away from Etna Toys Plant and Warehouse. The four doors of the vehicle opened, and five men in brown suits exited the car. Each of them wore polarized spectacles with black mirror-like lenses, and the spectacles hid more than their eyes. Four of them removed a silver Beretta from their shoulder holster. The fifth man wore a Coffin Handled Bowie tucked in a belt, and the man tapped the hilt eager to draw the knife. Eerily in one accord, they turned their heads and stared at the rusted toy building as they awaited orders. A parking lot stood between them and their target.

 

In another part of the city…

In a secret location known as the Sanctum…

Fifty flat screen monitors covered three walls and lit up a dark inner room called the Chamber, and data filled their screens in scrolling masses. Two dozen analysts scrutinized the influx of information coming across the monitors as they typed at their workstations. The men and women toiled, compiling a range of intelligence from several projects and experiments.

“All right people, let’s stay focused,” a male supervisor shouted.

He and a female supervisor walked up and down the line of workstations. They received updated reports from the analysts and kept their employers current on the projects and experiments.

A bit excited himself, he added, “This is the day we’ve been waiting for!”

The analysts wore indigo jumpsuits with white stripes on the sides, and the supervisors wore crimson jumpsuits with white stripes. Both the analysts and supervisors wore a wireless earpiece to communicate with operatives in the field. The hum of equipment and the chatter of the workers filled the area.

In the center of the Chamber, two men and a woman sat at a long rectangular table; each of them wore a black business suit and had a laptop in front of them as shadows concealed their eyes, leaving only their mouths and chins visible in the computer-blue illumination. The three known as the Council scanned reports as they were delivered to them by the supervisors on Hand Held Computers; the standard size for a H.H.C. was two and a half inches by four and a half inches.

“Has the project been located?” Mr. Morta asked in a deep voice as he twirled a gold ring on his dark brown finger; he sat at the end of the table with the woman to his right and the other man to his left.

“Yes, one of our best operatives, Argus is watching Pandora,” the smaller man, Mr. Decuma answered as he smoothed his hand down a bright orange tie.

“Good… Good…” Mr. Morta said. “What does the operative have to report?”

 

Some distance from Etna Toys…

A man with shoulder length blond hair wearing a black trench coat peered through specialized binoculars. Argus had positioned himself in an alley a block from the abandoned toy warehouse to watch Pandora; he noted the sedan across the street, the five men, and reported them over a cell phone.

 

Within the Chamber…

The male supervisor handed a H.H.C. to the third member of the Council.

Ms. Nona frowned as she looked over it, thinning her cherry-red lips which contrasted her powdery white skin. Her frame was the smallest of the members. She stated, “We have received a second report from our operative.” She scanned the report a second time, disconcerted over the news and then added, “Argus has spotted five bio-mechas; they are not Proto-Androids, but a new model called Un-Men.”

“Un-Men?” Mr. Morta spoke, not as surprised as his female counterpart. “Only one department within the corporation is developing this line of bio-mechas.” Disappointed over the untimely intrusion, he exhaled loudly and then stated, “The Factory has started their Un-Men tests; I had hoped they would wait.”

“You knew it might happen?” Mr. Decuma questioned as he rubbed his finger over a silver tie pin of the word Fate.

Mr. Morta nodded as he replied, “Yes, it was only a matter of time, but it means…”

“It means–” Ms. Nona interrupted, “–that the Factory has decided to go against the wishes of the Council.”

“How dare they!” Mr. Decuma uttered, then he slammed his palms on the table as he stood, and declared, “We must do something!”

“But what?” Ms. Nona questioned.

“More importantly,” Mr. Morta started. “What are their plans for our child-like Pandora?”

 

Back at Etna Toys…

The wind kicked up sand and debris as the five men, the Un-Men stood by the sedan. Their Internal Link or I-Link, not only connected them to the Factory but to each other and with the I-Link, they could think and move as one. They shut the sedan’s doors and simultaneously walked toward the warehouse across the parking lot, but the one with the Bowie paused and turned, spotting a heat signature. The heat signature was of a human hiding in the darkness of an alley that was across the street from it, and the Un-Man could tell the human was watching them. The Un-Man’s I-Link blazed orange through the right lens of its polarized spectacles as it processed the data.

Argus moved his hand to the M4 assault rifle strapped over his shoulder; he tensed, not knowing what it would do. Argus had encountered a Proto-android before, and it had nearly killed him, but he had no idea what this new model was capable of. He decided to stay on the safe side and make it clear he wouldn’t interfere with their mission, so he moved his hand away from the assault rifle and waited for its reaction. The Un-Man smirked at him, continued toward Etna, and joined its brethren. Argus was relieved it worked and grabbed a hold of the M4 as he moved across the street to continue the surveillance of the project.

 

Within the Chamber…

“The matter is confirmed. The Factory–” Ms. Nona emphasized the next word, “–has gone against our wishes.” She looked to the larger man and questioned him, “What is our next move?”

“Analyze and record,” Mr. Morta answered. “Our agenda has not changed. The Un-Men will test Pandora for us.”

Within the dark Etna Toys Plant and Warehouse and among boxes of discarded toys and debris, a cot had been set up; a lamp on a round end table stood beside it and lit up the area in a dim glow. A woman in her early thirties slept on the cot; she had a shaven head, and a gash on her forehead bled. The trickle of blood flowed past her brow, ran down the side of her face, and dripped to a pillow. The crimson liquid spotted the white cotton case. No other bedding covered the old and worn mattress.

The woman wore a white V neck T-shirt, gray-black pants, and black hiking shoes. Her eyes rapidly moved underneath her closed eyelids as she dreamed, and her lips moved as she talked within the dream, but there was no sound. The woman’s inaudible narration continued until she spoke out loud, “A love that will not die.”

Her breathing increased, and her arms and legs jerked in mock movement as she envisioned herself running. Sweat speckled her forehead and her face grimaced in determination as her mind replayed a memory; it was one that would mark her future with sorrow. Three shots rang out in the dream, then the horrible recollection caused her to scream, and she sat up and franticly searched the building as a panicked feeling urged her to flee. Her heart thundered in her chest as she noticed she was alone and not in any immediate danger, so she calmed down a bit and remembered part of the dream. She was running, but there was something she couldn’t remember. Whatever it was, she thought it was important enough to recall and strained her mind to grasp at the fleeting images, but it was too late; they were gone.

Her head hurt, she was very thirsty, and she felt a little queasy as she examined the old empty building more closely. She noticed parts of teddy bears scattered about a stack of boxes and a layer of dust clung to everything like the building and machinery hadn’t been used in years. The woman remembered more of the dream, not the images but the urgency she felt within it and a sense that there was something she was supposed to do; something she believed her life depended on. The remnants of the dream faded, and she mentally tried to grasp for a clue, but it was like trying to capture a dark phantom. The sensations of fear and anxiety remained with her along with the sound of the three shots, but nothing else of the dream remained and that bothered her. She wondered if she had been pursuing someone or was someone chasing her. She wondered if she had been the predator or the prey.

She sat there a little longer, hoping something would resurface and tell her…

She put a hand to her mouth as she realized something that unsettled her, and the revelation frightened her more than not knowing what had happened in the dream. She realized she didn’t know who she was; she couldn’t remember anything past the moment she awoke in the warehouse on the cot. Smothering terror oozed over her like the Blob from the classic horror movie, and its gelatinous glob ate away at her presents of mind, adding her frightened essence to itself. It would do her no good to panic, and she mentally sprayed frigid air on the growing Blob, taking back her sanity from its frozen and cracked form.

Her head continued to hurt so she touched her temple, felt a warm wet substance, and examined her bloody fingers. She wondered if she had hit her head or if someone had hurt her, and the thought that someone might have hurt her made her a little on edge. She moved to the side of the cot, thinking of going to a hospital when she noticed a second table; it was square and small and had a few items on it. She picked up a business card with an image of a flaming bird, flipped it over, and found a barcode on its back. She set it down, picked up a note, and read it aloud.

“Katharine…” She studied the name, wondering if the name belonged to her. She thought about it, and it didn’t sound familiar, so she continued reading, “Katharine, you must not fail; this is your last chance to redeem yourself. I know you can complete your mission, my dearest Kat. I am counting on you.”

The note was signed by R.G.

 

Katharine’s view…

I fold the paper, then along with the card, I stuff them in my back pocket and decide I need to find help for the wound on my head in case it’s serious. I spot a door and start to stand and head for it when a flash of a violent memory makes me turn my attention back to a metal case on the table. Why did I ignore this item? I stretch my hand for it. Why does my heart pound in dread when I reach for it? I pause before grabbing it as a sinking feeling sweeps over me, and I pull my hand back and decide it’s best to ignore the enigma. I look to the last object on the table and pick it up; it’s a small silver box shaped like a treasure chest and has a small raised star the size of a dime on its lid. I examine the box, then carefully open it, and its tune sweetly rings in my ears. The tune reminds me of the opening of a classical piece, but whose? Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart come to mind, but the piece doesn’t seem to belong to either of them, then I realize I’m wrong; it has elements from each like it’s a mixture of several openings playing on top of each other. I close my eyes, letting the music sink in as a calming solace sweeps over me, and the urgency to leave the building slips away as I focus on the tune. While I’m in this state of relaxation and before I’m completely engulfed by it, I wonder about a few things. How do I know the composers’ names and that the piece is Ginn L. Irynkissgthie’s Unfinished Melody? Why do I know some things, but my own name’s lost to me?

Unfinished Melody is short; it plays about thirty seconds, and then it starts over and plays over and over in a hypnotic flow. I gaze at the music box, hearing nothing but the haunting arrangement of compound sounds. My fear and anxiety vanish, and my body relaxes to an absolute state of nirvana as the tune lulls me into a trance. I slowly closed my eyes and enter a peaceful place within my mind. The place is a subconscious oasis to the confusion and dread I experienced before the melody. The tune has a calming effect on me and as I sit there in an ecstatic state, sounds outside of the building become louder and clearer. The wind howls, rustling the leaves of trees and overgrown bushes. A moth repeatedly taps the glass of a street light drawn to the artificial flame as four car doors slam. A cricket chirps, and an owl swoops, landing on a squeaking mouse.

 

lub-DUB… lub-DUB

 

I open my eyes as my heart thumps so loud I can hear it, and I experience an overwhelming sense of hysteria. I put a hand to my chest, not in pain but in horror as I realize something’s wrong. I close the music box, place it in my left thigh pocket, and search the building; it’s still empty. I know I’m in danger, but from what? I glance at the case I ignored, and a deep dread lifts in me like a leviathan rising from the ocean’s abyss. I freeze as I stare at the metal container; it’s like I know what’s inside, but my mind refuses to grasp the knowledge, and instead I want to run away from it like it’s a maniac chasing me. I disregard my apprehension about the case and turn my attention back to my pounding heart and the urgency screaming at me to leave. The longer I wait to act, the more anxious and terrified I become. I feel like a deer standing in an open meadow, sensing a predator prowling towards me through the tall grass, and I fear I’ll be attacked at any moment and from any direction. I get off the cot and start to run when the lamp beside me shatters, and the surrounding area plunges into darkness as pieces of the lamp ping to the concrete floor. I shriek, realizing someone shot at me, and I dive as more bullets whizz overhead. I turn the table over for cover, the case falls, knocking itself open, and a metal object slides from it.

Far from the cot, light from the street dimly shows through Etna’s dusty windows. The light provides limited illumination within the building and within its radius, I see a black gun. I gasp, staring at the instrument of death that’s an arm’s length away. The weapon’s familiar to me, and yet it seems like some horrendous alien creature that has traveled from a distant planet to wreak havoc on my world. The monster will devour me if it gets a chance, so I scoot a few feet away from the gun. I would escape its psychological jaws trying to sink their terror inducing teeth into me, but there are other things in the building I have to worry about, and I slowly peek over the table and spot two armed men.

End Katharine’s view…

 

Kat didn’t realize they were actually bio-mechas and as far as she knew, they were ordinary men trying to kill her. They prepared to fire again, and her heart thumped harder as if it would tear through her chest.

lub-DUB… lub-DUB

Unknown to her, the muscle coursed artificial adrenaline through her blood, and the synthetic hormone reacted with her body by increasing her heart rate, dilating her pupils, and elevating her blood sugar. Horrified by what was going on within her body and the men shooting at her, she put her hand to her chest again, realizing her heart wasn’t acting naturally. She wondered if she was having a heart attack.

The two Un-Men moved toward her position after calculating the best way to kill her. They aimed their weapons at her position with only one goal in mind.

One of them stated in a monotone voice, “Target acquired, moving forward with termination.”

 

Chapter Two

The Rogue

6:43 P.M…

The Sanctum…

Within the dark Chamber…

Desk lamps lit up the faces of the analysts and the supervisors as they observed Pandora’s data with interest. The project was very important to the Council, so it was very important to them.

“Lower the center screen,” Mr. Morta commanded from the middle of the room.

A screen four by eight foot lowered long ways from the ceiling, and it positioned above the Council and in the center of their table. The screen could be viewed from both sides, and it displayed an outline of a female body. Each of the major organs were visible on the screen and had bio-data streaming beside them, and the heart had such a large amount of information streaming beside it that the data overlapped the other organs. An alarm sounded within the Chamber and stopped, and at the top of the bio-screen in bold red letters blinked First Evolvement Achieved. Prattle between the analysts started as charged enthusiasm filled the Chamber, and the supervisors quickly quieted the frivolous talk, knowing their employers would be irritated with them.

“Good… Good…” Mr. Morta said. “Pandora has achieved Ginn’s Alpha Phase.”

“You mean Arcamedes’ First Evolvement,” Mr. Decuma corrected.

Mr. Morta questioned, “Does it matter by which name we call it? It is the same thing; it is still the beginning of Pandora’s metamorphosis.”

“True, but will Pandora take the path Ginn laid out or will Pandora take Arcamedes’?” Ms. Nona asked. “What Pandora decides to do will determine which name the stages go by.”

“Until the path is clear–” Mr. Morta started, “–both men’s descriptions can be used.” He studied the center screen’s data on his laptop. Pandora’s first stage is the ability to sense the presence of bio-mechas as predicted by both men, and Pandora’s body is preparing itself to combat the Un-Men. Look at the subject’s bio-electricity. The levels are high enough to trigger the Beta Phase.”

“Yes,” Ms. Nona said. “The genetically altered epinephrine hormone we created for Pandora dubbed Ultra-Epi acts as a supercharged neurotransmitter. If Pandora can reach the next stage, it should have no difficulty dispatching the Un-Men.”

“If is the keyword,” Mr. Decuma spoke as he tapped across a H.H.C. touch screen and pulled up reports from their operative. “Argus details Pandora has not responded to the Un-Men’s presence.” Mr. Decuma turned to his laptop as he stated a question, “Can Pandora achieve the Second Evolvement?” He typed on the keyboard, pulling up more reports. “Pandora seems to be withstanding the conditioning.” He stated with concern, “If it does not react soon, the subject will die and the Pandora Project will end.”

“Patience,” Mr. Morta said. “We did not blindly pick the subject. Wait and see what it is capable of.”

 

Back at Etna Toys…

 

Katharine’s view…

My heart revs like the pistons in a race car as I hide behind the overturned table. Why are the men trying to kill me? Did I do something to them? I glance at the gun lying on the floor beside its open case not too far from me. Or am I a wanted person?

The Un-Men fire again, one of the bullets grazes my left shoulder, and the pain triggers a latent instinct within me. I scurry over to the gun, grab a magazine sitting in its case, and insert it into the Beretta with mechanical precision as if I had been programed to do so without conscious thought. I pull the sliding block, it makes a metal clicking sound, and then I wildly fire six shots over the cot and miss. I freeze at hearing the men’s guns cocking and then something inside me clicks like a switch.

End Katharine’s view…

 

The e-field (electrical field) of her body changed, and the impulses that normally traveled down the optic nerve surged and caused a split feed. Part of this electricity rushed across her irises, giving her eyes a blue-electrical glow and as if she had been born with a gun in her hand, Kat fired four times and hit one man in the forehead and throat and the other one in the heart and lung. It was like a trained soldier had taken over her body, and she didn’t realize what she was doing until it was over. The one she shot in the head collapsed to his knees and fell back as the other one fired at her again.

 

Katharine’s view…

I move back to the overturned table, wondering if the one man’s wearing a bulletproof vest. I take a deep breath, rise, and return fire; the bullet hits the second man in the head, and he also falls to the floor. Silence follows, and it’s a maddening silence that clears my head, lets me think, and lets me realize. My fear turns to uncertainty and uncertainty to self loathing. I slump to the floor, lean against the table, and bow my head. Disbelieving I’m the one who committed the violent actions against the men, I stare at the gun on my lap, trying to distance myself from the incident and fail. Why am I good at killing? Why did I feel nothing for the men I murdered? I put a hand to my mouth as a bit of bile comes up. I swallow, forcing the bile back down my throat, and it burns all the way, searing my guilt into my soul. Is this the kind of person I am? Am I an emotionless killer?

End Katharine’s view…

 

Within the Chamber…

Mr. Morta cheered, “There!”

Analysts and supervisors high-fived each other.

Mr. Morta looked to the center screen as Second Evolvement Achieved brightly flashed from it. He said, “The Beta Phase of Pandora’s metamorphosis has successfully been reached.” He reviewed a report from Argus. “Our operative has seen Pandora’s extraordinary shooting ability, and he believes Pandora when it is in the Beta Phase cannot miss. It has far exceeded our expectations for the Beta Phase. We believed Pandora would have an aptness for terminating bio-mechas, but this…”

“Yes,” Ms. Nona agreed. “It will be a useful skill.”

Mr. Decuma interjected, “If it is true.”

“The data supports it, and Argus witnessed it,” Mr. Morta stated and then inquired, “What more do you need to believe?”

Mr. Decuma replied, “More data perhaps or…”

Excited, Ms. Nona interrupted with a question, “Do you think Pandora can reach the Gamma Phase today?”

“I believe we are jumping ahead,” Mr. Morta replied. “There are still three Un-Men remaining.”

“Yes and does Pandora have skill or is it merely luck?” Mr. Decuma asked. “More than half of the Un-Men remain. Can it defeat them as easily as the first two?”

 

At Etna Toys…

Leaves and other debris blew in through the open front door. Still feeling queasy, Kat stood and made her way on shaky legs to the men she gunned down. Her eyes crackled with cobalt current in the darkness of the warehouse and when she reached the men’s side, she found a black oil like liquid oozing from the hole in their heads. They weren’t human, they were… She removed the polarized spectacles of one, revealing not fleshy eyes but glassy robotic ones. The colored orbs shuddered as power surged through its body, the spheres bugged out, and the Un-Man’s hands gnarled with the mechanical pangs of death. Kat stared at its eyes. The red rings with black centers showed no spark of life; they were merely windows to the soulless.

 

Katharine’s view…

Relief pours over me as I realize they aren’t human. I didn’t kill anyone, and I’m not a murderer, but… Did I know it before I shot them? Or am I still a cold-blooded killer? My queasiness eases up a bit, but my confusion remains as I realize they’re bio-mechas, model Un-Men. Why do I know this fact when I can’t remember the simplest thing like my name? I search them, find a spare magazine on each of them, and place the ammo in my right thigh pocket.

 

lub-DUB… lub-DUB

 

I sense more bio-mechas and this time, I know their location. Three of them walk the grounds outside less than fifteen feet away from me. I franticly search the plant for an escape as the Un-Men split up, and one of them walks through a side entrance. The Un-Man fires at me as I run and take cover behind a row of machinery. Sparks fly as bullets ricochet off of metal, and I cover my head. During the attack, I lose my concentration and the position of the other two, so I blindly dash for the front door as more bullets whizz by. I return fire and hit my mark then continue for the door. I glance back at the third Un-Man as it lies face down. The last two Un-Men suddenly appear in the doorway in front of me, and I run into one and fall backwards; with uncanny speed, I fire twice before landing on my side. I strike the floor hard and knock the wind out of me. The first shot disables the Un-Man with the gun, but the one with the Bowie side steps my second shot with electrical speed as if the Un-Man anticipated my actions before I took them. I inhale, sucking in needed air as I hold my hurting ribs. The Un-Man draws its large knife and stares at me curiously; none of the others had done that. The dot of light I see in its glasses, no in its sunglasses glows brighter and brighter until it appears as if half the Un-Man’s face is burning. Am I looking at some sort of demon?

“The Pandora Project…” the Un-Man sings out, not in the usual monotone of its brethren. The orange colored dot-light changes to a deep red, a blood-red, and the Un-Man gazes at me as if probing my soul. “Pandora…” Its voice is sadistically mellow and toys with me, making me feel violated. “Pandora, I have found you.” The Un-Man smiles as if it takes pleasure in the hunt, and it states, “Target acquired.” It takes a step towards me and I scurry backwards on my hands and feet. The Un-Man says, “Moving forward with termination.”

It lunges for me with the blade, I roll out of the way, and the Un-Man misses, striking its blade on the concrete. I rise to one knee, aim, and pull the trigger.

Click.

The gun’s empty.

Click… Click…

I pull the trigger again and again, hoping a bullet will magically materialize and fire. The Un-Man slowly stands from its kneeling position, takes two quick steps towards me, and kicks me in the ribs. I grab my side and hurry to my feet, pushing through the pain as the Un-Man slashes towards me. I leap back and defensively lift my hands, and the blade cuts across my left forearm. I cry out in pain as blood spills to the gray floor.

The Un-Man wipes the red plasma from the blade with its fingers, and its face beams, relishing in the combat. “The Pandora Project,” it whispers, fooling with me. “Pan–dora…”

The Un-Man attacks again with the blade. Swish… Swish… The air screams with each slash as if the knife cuts open its belly, spilling out its airy guts.

The Un-Man coos, “Pan-dora, I have found you.”

I barely evade the attacks and then run, rushing deeper into the dark building. Why did it call me the Pandora Project? I eject the empty magazine from the Beretta, drop it to the floor, and pull one from my pocket. And why can’t I hit it? I insert the new one in the magazine well, chamber a round, and fire twice behind me, and the Un-Man continues after me, ducking the shots. Is this what I was dreaming about? I’m not the predator but the prey?

End Katharine’s view…

 

Within the Chamber…

Mr. Morta said, “Not bad for the opening test. Pandora achieved the first two phases. It delivered uncanny accuracy with the weapon we provided and successfully sensed the bio-mechas and once it has achieved all the phases, Pandora will be the perfect weapon.” He drummed his fingers together as he ordered, “Set up another test, so we may analyze the range of its gifts and set Pandora down the path to perfection.”

Mr. Decuma nodded and typed up the documentation for the next test, and then he asked the male supervisor standing next to him, “Are the new reports on the project ready?”

“They’ll be right over,” he answered and then went back over to the analysts and within a minute, the supervisor approached, stating, “Here are the reports you requested on her, Mr. Decuma.”

“Her?” the Council said in unison.

“Yes, her,” the supervisor answered. He was taken aback by their reaction and asked, “Did I say something wrong?”

“We do not refer to Pandora as she or her,” Mr. Decuma reprimanded. “It is an experiment and is to be referred to as such.” In disdain, he added, “To say she or her in reference implies Pandora has rights.” Mr. Decuma made it quite clear as he stated, “It has none.”

“Of course, Mr. Decuma,” the supervisor apologized as he handed him the H.H.C. “My error. It won’t happen again.”

He returned to monitoring the analysts.

Ms. Nona scanned the bio-data on the large center screen and then said, “There seems to be no adverse reaction to the Ultra-Epi; though, complications could arise in the future. Also Pandora’s body is not rejecting the adrenal gland we genetically altered to create the supercharged epinephrine.” She made a few notes. “We will have to monitor Pandora for any palpitations, tachycardia, anxiety, headaches, tremors, acute pulmonary edema, and hypertension.”

Mr. Morta stated, “We will see if it was wise to alter the gland instead of administering injections.”

Mr. Decuma finished setting up the test and then he said, “The Factory will be more than happy to assist us in the next field trial as one of our sister departments in the Sphinx Corporation.”

“The fact that they are developing the Un-Men as their new line of bio-mecha assassins does not hurt us either,” Ms. Nona added.

“Yes,” Mr. Morta agreed. “The Factory’s earlier line of bodyguards was very profitable for the Sphinx Corporation, and now the Factory hopes to improve their power and standing by releasing an unmatched line of bio-mecha assassins. Pandora is an ideal forum to refine the Un-Men’s programming.” He smiled, pleased with the project and then he added, “With Pandora’s help, the Factory will be able to create the perfect killing machines and in turn, the Factory will help us test Pandora and help Pandora achieve its purpose. The one seen by Ginn that will…”

“Or Arcamedes,” Mr. Decuma interrupted. “We still do not know the path it will take.”

Ms. Nona stated, “You are correct. Only time will reveal its path.”

The female supervisor handed the councilwoman a report, and Ms. Nona said, “There seems to be a problem. Pandora has been unable to disable one of the Un-Men.” Ms. Nona rechecked the report and then she stated, “It is a Type Four model.”

“Terminate the test,” Mr. Morta ordered, sitting upright. “Request that the Factory recall its bio-mecha. For Pandora to have destroyed four of the five Un-Men is not a failure on its first outing.”

“The Factory reports a problem. The Un-Man has ignored its recall,” Mr. Decuma relayed. “It seems they have a rogue on their hands.”

“A rogue, you say?” Mr. Morta questioned. “The Un-Man must be exceptional to survive this long against Pandora; it is most interesting.”

“Yes, like I said a rogue,” Mr. Decuma answered and then asked, “Shall I have Argus assist the project?”

“No, not at this time,” Mr. Morta replied, then he calmly folded his hands, leaned back in the chair, and spoke, “Pandora must learn to survive on its own. We not only need to develop Pandora’s untested body, but its undeveloped character. What better way to develop character than to face adversity? In the past, great warriors went up against other great warriors to test their mettle. Strength and endurance grows through conflict as steel sharpens steel; the Rogue will be Pandora’s adversary.”

 

Chapter Three

Kimberly Griffin

About one year later…

32 A.D.C…

October 12…

Tuesday…

7:59 P.M…

The Sphinx Corporation Third Branch Office towered over the streets of the Hellenistic Sector, Business Vicinage. When the city was created, the Corporate Senate which was made up of corporations from all over the world, divided Noir into hundreds of sectors, and each sector was owned and governed by one of the corporations. The sectors were then divided by each corporation into smaller areas called vicinages. Sphinx owned and ruled the Hellenistic Sector. Each corporation policed its sector with its own corporate military. The world had its own civil police force which dealt in non-corporate issues like assaults, murders by non-Closers, and anything else the corporate military kicked to them. Authority always belonged to the corporations.

The Sphinx Corporation Third Branch Office was one of many massive buildings in Noir; it was a mile high and half mile across and back, and it stood as a giant in the city and dominated as a Titan before the age of Zeus. A woman in her late thirties sat alone within a waiting room on Level 150, and in her left hand she held a key chain of a pink bunny rabbit. She rubbed her thumb over a worn spot on the rabbit’s cheery face. Kimberly Griffin raked her long blonde hair behind her ear and rubbed her eye. She looked at a man’s picture on the cover of the Conglomerate World magazine lying on a coffee table, and the headline read, Topa, Climbing the Ladder of Success?

She shifted position on the light brown couch and glanced at the secretary. The older woman typed on a keyboard. Kim sighed, impatient, and turned her gaze to a few landscape paintings decorating the open room’s white walls. Their purpose was to soothe those who waited, and they were supposed to take one’s mind away from the stresses of the day. The paintings incited no such solace in her, and she sighed again and turned to the secretary as the woman answered the phone on her desk.

The secretary hung up, cleared her throat, and said, “Ms. Griffin, your father…” The secretary caught her own slip and then corrected herself by saying, “I’m sorry, I mean the Chairman will see you now.”

Kim nodded, too tired to be irritated, straightened her aqua pant suit, and headed for the huge corner office. The Chairman’s position ranked third under the President and Vice President and since Sphinx was one of the more powerful corporations in the world, that made her father a very influential man with vast resources and global connections. Kim paused outside his office, vexed to have been called in. She had just returned from the Light Side of the planet and wanted to go home and sleep. She took a deep breath, silencing her anger, then opened the door, and walked in.

Two of the walls within the office consisted of ten-foot-high windows, and the office’s bright lights reflected off the windows like mirrors. The Chairman’s desk sat off from the corner, giving him even more presence of authority like a king on a throne. Kim closed the door. He glanced up from a computer and stared at her with his light blue eyes as she entered. He was in his late sixties but looked much younger around fifty, and he wore a dark gray suit.

“Kimberly, good to see you,” Mr. Griffin said, stood, walked to her, and kissed her on the cheek. She didn’t return his affection and almost turned from him like she was repulsed. Mr. Griffin tried not to show his disappointment as he motioned to one of the chairs in front of his desk, and she sat as he returned to his seat and then he questioned, “Are you still living in the apartment off of West 1000 Avenue?”

Kim felt uneasy being in his office but bore the discomfort as she noticed his graying black hair. “Yes.”

He waited a moment before continuing, hoping she would say something more and when she only stared at him, Mr. Griffin asked, “Are you seeing anyone?”

She didn’t answer him and muttered to herself, “As if I have time for a boyfriend, but that’s none of his business.”

He quickly moved to the next question, feeling awkward in front of his daughter. “How’s work?”

Still showing a bit of fatigue, she answered, “Fine. I finished a Closing in Moscow three days ago.” Her face softened as she glanced at the bunny rabbit keychain.

Mr. Griffin thought he saw a glimmer of sadness. “Are you all..?”

Kim glared at him, stifling his question as her vexation returned. She knew she was getting too upset and let her training take over. Kim calmed herself and tried to treat him as if he was her employer; it worked for a few seconds. She glanced at the back of a picture frame sitting on his desk, and her anger returned. “You didn’t call me in here because you suddenly have an interest in my life.”

He said, “Right, to business then.”

Mr. Griffin handed her an envelope, and Kim opened it and saw a brass key inside.

“It’s to your mother’s hope chest.” He picked up the picture frame and spoke, “How you look like her.” Mr. Griffin set it back down as happy memories flooded his mind. “I know she would have wanted you to have the chest. I’ve set up delivery.”

“Why are you giving me the hope chest? Is it because it’s close to the anniversary of when mom left?”

“No.”

“So why now?”

He didn’t understand her meaning and questioned, “Why now?”

“All these years since mom…” She paused, trying not to cry. “Since mom abandoned us, you’ve never wanted to talk about her, and her name became taboo around you, so why now after two decades? Why give me her hope chest? What has changed?” She narrowed her eyes as she grew suspicious of his actions. “I know it isn’t our relationship, so what is it? Are you going to talk about why she left us?”

He replied, “I know I was wrong. When she left me… When she left us I was devastated. It hurt me so much I wanted to forget her. I never thought how it might affect you or that you needed me and for that I’m sorry.”

“Sorry,” she repeated and then laughed. “Perfect, now everything’s fine.” Kim stood and added sarcastically, “I’m glad I came.” She started for the door.

“Do you have to leave? I thought we might have a late dinner and talk.”

She walked half way to the door, turned, and answered him, “I can’t. I have a Closing tomorrow and need to get some rest.”

“A Closing? Who?”

“Topa.”

Mr. Griffin stated, “Yes, I know him.”

“Thought you did.” She started to turn toward the door, paused, and said, “It’s kind of sad.”

“What is?”

“Our relationship, my life, you name it, but most of all that you were the one who got me into–” the words slithered from her mouth, “–my profession.” Kim fisted her hands as she questioned him, “What kind of father has his daughter trained to be an…”

She glared at him too angry to finish and this time, he had nothing to say. Kim continued to the door.

Mr. Griffin stood and spoke after her, “You should take some time off. You’re looking a little tired. Maybe buy yourself a pet to keep you company. You can’t be happy living all alone.”

“You have been spying on me!” Kim accused him after she paused at the door, then she acted as though she would say something more, but Kim decided against it, and walked through the door.

He sat down after his daughter left, then faced the picture, and repeated his earlier phrase, “How you look like your mother.” He pushed his chair back and commanded, “Lights dim.”

The room darkened and Mr. Griffin turned in his seat, staring out a window at Noir’s skyline. He gazed at the Dry Clouds as they loomed over the dark city and he spoke in nearly a whisper, “I wish you were here, Theresa. Our daughter needs you.”

  • * *

Kimberly’s view…

I drive my red VX Corvette into the parking garage of the Nexus Apartments. The small forty story building sits on the corner of West 1000 Avenue and Knot Street in the Hellenistic Sector, Residential Vicinage. I exit the vehicle and grab a bag of groceries from my trunk, then I take an empty elevator to the thirty-first floor, and walk down a deserted hall to Apartment H.

Sometimes I…

I command in a clear voice, “Door, unlock.”

“Voice recognized as Kimberly Griffin,” the Apartment Computer System states. “Opening door.”

The apartment door slides sideways, then I walk into the small entry, and command, “Door lock.”

The door slides shut and locks as I go into the kitchen. The lights automatically flicker on in each room I enter as the Apartment Computer System or A.C.S. detects my presence.

“Welcome back, Ms. Griffin,” A.C.S. states in a female computer voice. “The apartment’s temperature is set at seventy-eight degrees Fahrenheit. Lights are set at eighty-five percent brightness. Would you like to make any adjustments at this time?”

“Yes, A.C.S. It’s a bit warm. Drop the temperature to seventy-six, and I could use more lighting so change the brightness to ninety-five percent.”

“Making changes now.”

The air conditioner kicks on, and the lights brighten as I set down the bag and lay the key chain beside it on the kitchen counter. I put both of my hands on the inky-black surface, lean against it, and tilt my head down.

Sometimes I wish…

My blonde hair falls forward, covering the side of my face as I peer at my reflection in the marble. For Ares’ sake! My life’s so tedious! I lean back. All I have is routine. I start to unpack the bag and glance around the dark lifeless room, and it’s quiet in a gloomy way. I look to one of three windows in the apartment and notice a dead Transgenic Vine sitting on the kitchen window sill.

Great, just great! I forgot to ask the manager to water it while I was gone; it’s too bad A.C.S. doesn’t have a watering system for plants. I walk over to the vine, pick up the pot, and several brown leaves float to the floor. I move to the trash can, press the step, and it flips up a stainless steel lid. The brittle brown plant falls out of its container as I drop the pot in the waste, and dirt spills, exposing the vine’s roots. I stare at the dead plant. Can’t I keep one thing alive? I release the lid and walk away from the trash. Or are Closings all I’m good at?

I return to my groceries. I put the eggs and milk in the refrigerator, put the dry goods in the pantry, then I place a stainless steel kettle full of water on the burner, and turn it on high. I reach up into the cupboard, remove a white cup and saucer, and place them on the counter. I walk to a drawer, open it, and grab a spoon. Is this really my life? I notice my reflection in the spoon’s curved surface. My life’s mundane and lonely.

Sometimes I wish…

I place a single tea bag in the solitary cup and a slice of lemon on the saucer.

Sometimes I wish…

I glance at the answering machine as the water starts to boil. The number on the machine reads zero messages; it’s the number of my friends and the same number of my acquaintances. The kettle whistles, I remove it from the burner, pour hot water into the cup, and steam rolls up from the liquid. Shouldn’t my life be different? Wasn’t I meant for more than this… this wretched life as a Closer? I wish… I dare not think it, and I dare not hope it.

I grab a remote from the counter and aim the device at the wall. I click on a fifty-inch TV that hangs over a fireplace and gaze at the picture from the open kitchen. The evening news is on, showing footage of a small office building on fire. I move behind a black leather couch and watch the blaze, and out of the corner of my eye, I catch sight of the first door in the hallway, walk to the room, start to command it to unlock, but stop myself. Sometimes… I pull on my left earlobe. I wish…

The spare bedroom has remained lock since I first closed it. I store my mom’s belongings in it. My bedroom the master bedroom is down the hall. I return to the kitchen, grab the remote, and look to the TV, and an anchorwoman, Linda Harvey with NBS (Noir Broadcasting Station) reads a report.

“The Corporate Senate will be meeting later this week to vote on the proposed bill for a sales tax increase. The quarter cent raise will bring in much needed money for the planet’s civil defense and continue funding Research Project Clean Air. Analysts are predicting the bill will be voted in.” Linda Harvey pauses. “In other news, Dr. Robert Seeker the foremost expert on the Dry Clouds problem will be heading out to Antarctica to…”

I turn off the TV, plunging the room back into silence. Enough with the news; my life is miserable enough without having to hear about someone else’s. I pick up the saucer and cup, walk to a small round table, sit, and stare out the window. The Dry Clouds entomb the starry sky, leaving the night dismal and bleak just like my life. I pick up a clear plastic container of honey that’s in the shape of a bear, pop open the yellow lid, and squirt a smiley face on the spoon with the golden sugar.

I whisper a phrase my mom used to say, “Fly… fly away, sad, sad day.”

I stir the honey in my Orange Pekoe, remove the tea bag, place it on the saucer, and stare at the now warm brown liquid. The phrase used to cheer me up, but not anymore. I arch my head back, looking at the ceiling. Hades… What a life I have?

I open my hand and gaze at a star burned into my right palm. The only constant in my life seems to be it; it has been with me for nearly two decades, and I can’t remember where I got the burn. I make a fist and open my hand again. Oh for Ares’ sake! Look at me! The only thing I have to look forward to is maybe someday discovering where I received the burn. Hades! I slam a fist on the table, and the tea cup rattles. Sometimes I wish… I wish I wasn’t so alone! I wish I had more in this life and that there would be someone there for me!

  • * *

October 13…

Wednesday…

5:49 A.M…

A laptop sitting on a desk in Kim’s bedroom screeched like a bird and alerted her to an incoming message.

“No,” she whined, placed a pillow on her face, and rolled over. “It can’t be morning.”

A screen saver of a flaming bird flew across the laptop, and the fiery glow lit up the dark room and after a few minutes, she dragged herself out of bed. She put on a white housecoat and slippers, fixed a cup of hot chocolate, and sat down at the desk. She hit the space bar, woke up the computer, and clicked on the message.

It read, “Have you accepted the Closing?”

“Voice is up early this morning,” Kim mumbled and took a sip of the hot chocolate. “Or maybe up late, depending on where in the world Voice is sending the message from.” She typed a reply, “Yes.”

“I’ll send an encrypted e-mail with directions,” Voice typed back. “He should be in his office for most of the morning.”

“Standard operation?”

“Yes.”

“Understood.” Kim pushed her chair back, but the computer’s beep grabbed her attention.

“You should take a break after this Closing,” Voice wrote. “You have been working rather hard, and the Moscow Closing was rather difficult.”

“You sound like my father. Are you sure you don’t have children?”

“Yes, in our line of business it isn’t wise to have them,” Voice typed. “As for your father, you should listen to us, we are your elders.”

“Since we’re getting a little personal, I was wondering why you’re called Voice? All these years I’ve worked for you, I’ve never heard you speak.”

“Long before you joined us, I made contact over the phone and received the tag.”

She wondered how long ago it was and typed, “I’m also curious as to why you wanted me to join the Assassins League. I do live on the planet’s Dark Half. I should be a part of the Assassins Union.”

“And let Thanatos have one of the best Closers. I think not. He would only waste your talents; anyway, those of us on the Light Side still have work that must be done on the Dark Half. You aren’t the only Closer there that belongs to the League.”

She stretched, yawned, and typed, “Will contact you this evening. Signing off.”

Kim went into the kitchen. Maybe she did need a break. She noticed the key chain on the counter, thought back to the Moscow assignment, and brooded; the last Closing got to her. Kim grabbed the key chain, walked to the living room, and moved to a bookcase beside the fireplace. She placed the key chain in a wooden box sitting on a shelf and glanced at a picture frame with a photo of Theresa Griffin. Kim and her mother could have been twins.

She whispered, “Mom, if you were here, what would you think of me? I wish you had never left. I wish you were here for me…” Kim paused and then questioned, “What would you think of my pathetic life?”

 

Chapter Four

Topa’s Estate

8:48 A.M…

On the outskirts of the Hellenistic Sector…

Topa’s estate stood in the midst of an apple orchard, and sunlamps lit up the imported trees as a gentle wind swept through the orchard’s green leaves. The lamps were on sixteen hours and off eight; the non-Transgenic trees would starve in the endless night without them.

 

Katharine’s view…

He will pay… I walk up a winding path from the darkness of the day; the path leads to the square mile estate. I swear to myself that he’ll pay for killing Preacher. The past year’s nonstop hunts, what the Council calls tests, take their toll on me mentally and physically.

End Katharine’s view…

 

Her pants and shoes, those she had on when she awoke in Etna Toys Plant and Warehouse, were worn and dirty. She removed a single strap backpack as grief wrapped its arms around her and wouldn’t let her go; she unzipped her gray-black athletic jacket, and her chest hurt as anguish pressed against it like a heavy boulder. The jacket covered her dingy white t-shirt and protected her from the cool breezy air, but it did little against her sorrow that chilled Kat to her soul. She took off the jacket, removed a black Ravlek Vest she had on the outside of the backpack, and put the vest on. Ravlek was an experimental material like Kevlar but generations ahead.

 

Katharine’s view…

So much has happened since I woke in Etna Toys Plant and Warehouse. In the year that I’ve created memories, I’ve learned what it means to care for another. I’ve learned what love and devotion are… but now all of that is gone along with Preacher.

I glance at the Ravlek I’m wearing as if it will console me. Months ago, I acquired the body armor from an assassin who died from a fall when he attempted to take my life. I set the backpack and the jacket beside a dead gnarled oak; the tree’s a remnant from the sun era just as Preacher’s a remnant of a future I’ll never have, not since Topa killed him. At the moment, I have no sense of my own actions, engulfed by an overpowering heartache, and I move as if I’m a robot fulfilling a programmer’s command. The shock of seeing someone I deeply care for die in my arms numbs me to the bone; this is a nightmare… It has to be a bad dream. Preacher can’t be dead.

I continue up the path in a dismal drudge toward my grizzly objective as a hatred overshadows my grief and suffering. The constant struggle between me and the Un-Men seems to persist for ages, and I’m always the prey, always running and hiding, but not this time. My foes, the Council who send human assassins and the Factory who sends the Un-Men after me, remain in the darkness and beyond my reach. Today’s different; I know one of their names and one of their places of safety. I grip my gun and in my left hand, I carry a white book smeared with blood. Topa will pay. Rage fuels my exhausted body, revenge fixates my mind, and anguish rips at my spirit. He took the most precious thing in the world from me, so he has to pay. I stare at the book as I slowly die inside. For Preacher, I will kill; I will break an oath I made to myself long ago.

End Katharine’s view…

 

Behind an iron gate, four men armed with hand guns stood beside a brick guardhouse. Two of them talked while the other two walked their designated area. The gate was the eastern of four entrances, and a fifteen foot wall of stone surrounded the estate. Three of the men wore a Winnow Mask type B or WM-B. The air filters covered their mouths and noses, and the masks permitted those not used to the Dark Half of the planet to work outside in the Dry Clouds’ pollution.

The lead guard moved away from the man he was talking to, pressed a button on the side of his WM-B, and shouted to the woman in the distance through the mask’s intercom, “Halt! State your name and business here!”

 

Katharine’s view…

I don’t respond, consume with a murderous grief and continue my war march toward them.

The four men move to the gate and position themselves to fend off my attack as the lead guard shouts, “She’s wearing a vest. Switch to A.P.Rs.”

The four men eject their 9 mm magazines and replace them with the Armor Piercing Rounds.

The lead guard declares, “We’ll open fire if you don’t state your name and business here!”

“My name?!” I question. “My name?! I’m Sorrow! I’m Emptiness!”

“She has a gun!” the lead guard shouts. “Take her out!”

The four men shoot at me, hitting me in the chest, and I lurch back with the impacts as images of Preacher flash through my mind. I cry out in pain, seeing him die in my arms over and over. I fall face down to the path, and I exhale from the impact as if it’s my last breath. Fireflies dance about me and the surrounding area, paying no heed it’s morning. I watch them and wonder if they can feel sorrow, and then my eyes slowly close as I slip into despair’s embrace.

End Katharine’s view…

 

The lead guard ordered, “You two, go check on her.”

They stepped out of the gate, scanned the surrounding darkness to make sure she was alone, and then approached her. The second guard rolled her over, Kat moaned, and he noticed blood covered her shirt underneath the vest.

He said, “She’s as good as gone.” The second guard reached down, took her weapon, tucked it in the front waistband of his pants, and then grabbed the book. “This could be valuable.” He searched her pockets then scanned the area again. “She has no ID or business card on her, so she isn’t a Closer. She must be a nut job. See anyone else?”

“No,” the third guard replied, after taking another look then he said, “Take her arms. The orchard could use more fertilizer.”

The two guards dragged her inside the gate and dropped her on the dirt path.

“What’s that?” the fourth guard asked. He wore no Winnow Mask since he was a native of Noir.

The second examined the item he held and then replied, “A book covered in blood.”

“A book you say. Is it legal?” the maskless guard asked.

The second opened the cover and peered at a paper tucked in a clear plastic pocket. “Yeah, it’s legal. Here’s its registration.” He read the top. “The Bible’s registered to one Norman Odin.”

“A Bible?” The maskless guard walked over, grabbed the book, and flipped through it. He handed it back to the second, walked over to her, and told him, “Throw that archaic thing away before you get some disease.” He snarled his nose up at her. “She looks like she’s from Wayfaring Lane.” He spat on her and said, “Bums, the lot of them.”

“I thought I might get some money for the book off the black market,” the second said.

The maskless guard folded his arms and shook his head. “Not from that thing you won’t. It’s trash.” He threw his thumb over his shoulder and ordered him, “Toss it!”

The second nodded, then went, and dropped the book on top of the garbage that sat in a trash can outside the guardhouse.

“Better let the boss know about this,” the maskless guard said as he started to bring a radio up to his mouth.

 

Katharine’s view…

“I wouldn’t do that just yet,” I exclaim to get his attention as I grab a hand full of dirt. I quickly stand and throw the dirt in his face.

The maskless guard cries out, covering his eyes with his hands, “I can’t see!”

“How’s she standing?” the lead guard shouts as he draws his gun. “I thought you killed her!”

“I did!” The third man aims his weapon at me as he shouts, “She’s covered in blood!”

I hold my chest in pain from the four earlier bullet impacts that struck my Ravlek Vest as I speak, “It’s not my blood.” I leap up, spin kick the third guard in the temple, and then yell, “Why do you think I’m here?!”

The third guard falls to the ground out cold as the lead and second guard shoot at me. I roll with extraordinary speed, evade their fire, and race to the lead guard as he shoots again; the bullet nicks my earlobe. I grab his wavy hair, whack the side of his head into the brick guardhouse, and side kick the second guard in the stomach. The lead guard slides down the brick wall, landing in a heap, and blood covers his forehead. The second guard bends over in pain after I kicked him. I calmly approach the second guard, take my gun from his waistband, pull his mask down, and punch him in the face. He starts to choke without the mask.

“I can’t see!” the remaining guard screams again. “What’s going on?”

I march over to the blinded man, place the barrel of my gun against his jaw, take his weapon, and then demand, “Where’s Topa?”

“I won’t tell you.”

With calm resolve, I lean to him and whisper, “I’m only here to kill him.” I put my hand on his back, pulling myself close to his ear. “Tell me, and I’ll let you live.”

Sweat beads his forehead, and a salty droplet runs down his face, landing on my barrel. He squints and looks to the fallen guards; he must be seeing blurry images.

“Live like the others?”

I glance at one of them as that guard moans and I say, “They’re alive. Now… Where’s Topa?”

“I won’t…”

I cock the gun and state, “Last chance.”

“He’s… He’s in his office. Don’t kill me!”

Uncocking the gun, I use the man’s own weapon and strike him in the back of the head, knocking him out. I toss his gun, search the other men, and take their 9 mm ammo and what A.P.Rs. they have. I put the magazines in my pocket and toss their guns and masks into the bushes. I walk to the guardhouse, retrieve the Bible from the trash can, brush debris from its blood dried cover, and hold it close to my heart.

Why did they kill Preacher? Was it because of me? Was it another test? My lips tremble as anguish shreds my heart into thousands of hurting pieces. Guilt saturates my thoughts as sadness attacks my being and my own mental accusers taunt me; they won’t let me forget that I can do nothing to save the man I love. The accusations press against me and make it hard for me to breathe, but I won’t let that stop me. I have gone this long grueling year without killing anyone. I’ve taken careful steps not to take a life, and I’ve always found other ways to defeat the human assassins and bounty hunters the Council sends after me. Still, if I’m the reason Preacher’s dead then I have to kill Topa; it’s all I can do for Preacher. If I can’t even shed a tear for him, then I’ll take…

I break down, collapse to my knees, and pound the ground with my fist. I’ll… I lift my head and wail. I’ll murder the man who took him from me. I’ll end his life just as he ended Preacher’s.

I breathe as deeply as I can, trying to rid myself of the suffocating feelings. I let rage fuel my resolve, and I force myself to stand on my wobbly feet. I start down the dirt path that leads to the center of the estate where the main house and Topa’s office are. Hatred seeps into my psyche and drenches it with a malicious-filled insanity as I rush to my target, evading the rest of the guards. I won’t have much time before the four at the gate are discovered, so I’ll have to be quick and find Topa, and then I’ll kill him.

 

Chapter Five

Enter The Life Closer

9:09 A.M…

The Sanctum…

Within the Chamber…

The Council monitored Pandora’s bio-data on the center screen, and they noted changes in her mental state and that her Ultra-Epi had engaged.

“Pandora has entered Topa’s estate,” Ms. Nona spoke with concern. “Should we stop it? Topa is not part of the experiment.”

“No, we will use him as we have used others who stumbled upon our tests,” Mr. Morta replied. “The situation could be the catalyst we have been waiting for to take Pandora to the Gamma Phase of its metamorphosis.”

Mr. Decuma said, “The project has been a disappointment this past year; its skills are incredible, but…”

“Yes, but Pandora holds back and has not taken a life,” Mr. Morta said. “The why is what we have to discover.”

“The conditioning has failed,” Ms. Nona stated. “We should be working on the Epsilon Phase by now, not worrying about the Gamma.”

“No, I think it is more than that. If you will remember even before we took custody of Pandora, it was an enigma. There is nothing wrong with the conditioning. I believe it is Pandora’s emotions.”

“Its emotions?” Mr. Decuma questioned. He didn’t understand the eldest member’s reasoning. Mr. Morta held such high expectations for the experiment. It was almost as if he had grown attached. If it was true, it could be a problem and if Mr. Morta was not careful, he would lose his indifference.

“Yes, Mr. Decuma,” Mr. Morta replied and then he explained, “Pandora’s emotions… though they maybe immature… they still influence it. You see, rage and love… they are both driving forces, and it has not tapped into them.”

“Until it met Preacher,” Ms. Nona added. “Pandora knew love and now knows rage.”

Mr. Morta nodded as he spoke, “Precisely, if we had known how his death would have affected Pandora, we would have killed him long ago to move along its programming.”

A female supervisor handed Ms. Nona a report.

Ms. Nona said, “This could be a problem.”

“What is it?” Mr. Decuma asked.

“It seems one of the corporations does not like what Topa has been doing lately. A Life Closer has been dispatched to the estate.”

“By our corporation?” Mr. Decuma questioned.

“I think not,” Mr. Morta answered. “But with an organization as vast as ours, who knows for sure.”

  • * *

At the northwest corner of Topa’s estate, a lone figure threw a small J-shaped grappling hook over the wall. The northwest part of the estate had little light, so Kim easily hid in the darkness of the late morning. Mirky gray Dry Clouds rumbled overhead, warning of a possible Tainted Rain storm. Kim was a native of the Dark Half and didn’t need a Winnow Mask. She pulled her knit mask over her face, made sure it was securely in place, and checked over her black outfit. She wore thin gloves, jogging pants, running shoes, a tank top, and a zipped up hooded sweatshirt. She needed to keep her identity a secret if she didn’t want to kill anyone not part of the Closing and have to file extra paperwork. Voice hated unnecessary deaths as much as she did, and she didn’t want to make Voice upset.

Kim climbed the cord to the top of the wall, dropped down to the other side, and glanced at her watch once she reached the ground. She would have this Life Closing done within the hour, if all went well, and Topa would make the front cover again, but with the headline, Found Dead.

She tossed the thin climbing cord, grappling hook, and black knapsack in the corner and piled some leaves on the items to hide them, and then she checked the tactical knife in a sheathe strapped to her right calf. She quietly slipped by the guards, making her way to his office. In the e-mail Voice had sent, the client stated Topa would most likely be there. The office was at the end of a long cobblestone path leading from the house. Black cast-iron lamps lit the area, small pine trees grew along the path, and hedges lined the last twenty feet of the walkway and around the office. She hid in the bushes underneath a window just left of Topa. She glanced in, seeing one henchman in a corner and her target busy at his mahogany desk. Kim placed a silencer on a Walther PPK and stood to make her way in, but the front door opened. She ducked back into the hedges, and the green-blue bushes rustled with her movement, and then through the window, she watched as a second henchman walked into the room. He removed his WM-B and adjusted the mask’s strap. Topa counted bundles of money then placed the stacks in a briefcase.

“This is payment for the Illicit Closer we hired to take out that nuisance on Wayfaring Lane,” Topa relayed as he finished counting. “That do-gooder won’t be hindering our sales of Sunna Snapps anymore.”

“Why the cash, boss?” the second henchman asked. “Why not credits?”

“This cash can’t be traced to me. Credits could be.”

“Makes sense, boss.”

 

Kimberly’s view…

I can’t believe he hired an illegal assassin. Why would he chance hiring someone who didn’t belong to the Assassins Guild? If Voice or Thanatos finds out… I shrug. In the scheme of things, it doesn’t matter. Topa’s Closing is today. What more can they do to him?

Topa shuts the briefcase and hands it to his second henchman as he orders him, “Also tell our contacts at the Valhalla Corporation, we’ll be doubling our next order of Sunna Snapps now that business will be getting back to normal.”

“Understood,” the second henchman replies, then puts his Winnow Mask back on, takes the briefcase, and leaves through the back door.

Topa turns to the first henchman and tells him, “Ready my car. We’re going into the Norse Sector.”

The henchman also exits by the back door.

I glance in the window, seeing that the muscle has left, so I again start to leave my hiding place, but the front door opens, so I quickly duck into the bushes. Hades! What’s up with my luck today? All I want to do is complete this Life Closing and go home.

 

Katharine’s view…

I enter and find Topa alone. His office smells of polished wood and has an old feel to it. Black and white photos of distinguished men who look related to him line the walls. I turn away from them; I can’t let myself be distracted. I have to focus on my grim objective, and it’s now or never; I have to eliminate the man who took Preacher from me. My gun hand shakes with indecision as it leans against my leg, even though my broken heart believes I have to commit this atrocious deed to atone for my failure to save Preacher.

 

Kimberly’s view…

Keeping myself hidden, I peek through the window. Who’s she? A second Closer? I glower, a little irritated and duck back down. Did Voice send in backup? I never needed it. I think about it. I never needed it before Moscow. I cautiously glance through the window, studying the woman; the woman doesn’t have the look of a Closer.

End Kimberly’s view…

 

Topa glanced up as the door squeaked open and then he questioned, “How did you get in here?” He pressed a button under his desk, triggering a silent alarm.

Filled with hatred and mourning, Kat raised the gun, aimed for him, and yelled, “You must pay for what you did to Preacher!”

 

Within the Chamber…

Ms. Nona reported, “Argus is on the estate and has found Pandora in Topa’s office. It is about to kill him.”

“Good… Good… The Gamma Phase will finally be achieved when Pandora takes a life,” Mr. Morta spoke as he beamed with pride and then he inquired, “Where is the Closer?”

“Holding outside of the office,” Mr. Decuma answered. “The Closer will not move with the unknown woman in the room.”

“Finally…” Mr. Morta considered all the hard work they had devoted to Pandora. “I have had such high hopes for this particular project. For one long year, we have waited to achieve this pinnacle.” With elated breath, he added, “Now we will witness Pandora’s transformation as it completes the Gamma Phase.”

 

Chapter Six

Preacher

 

Etymology, history and usage of the word puck…

Puck originally was the word for a mythological fairy or mischievous natured sprite. The meaning later expanded and emerged in slang around 300 B.D.C. in lands owned by the Druid Corporation. It referred to one’s disdain for something. The word has taken on other meanings over the centuries and has been used cross-sectorally.

 

One year before Kat entered Topa’s estate…

31 A.D.C…

October 26…

Monday…

3:15 P.M…

Hellenistic Sector, Old Business Vicinage…

Flickering street lights and neon signs cast a somber glow on Wayfaring Lane; it was a place where society’s outcasts drudged out an existence. Many people lined the street, selling Transgenic Vegetables, used clothes, and canned food, and there were even those who dealt in flesh, Sunna Snapps, and/or stolen water rations. Huddled in a corner down a dead end alley, three, dirty, thin junkies shared a needle of Sunna Snapps. A man and a woman already shot up and were oblivious to their surroundings, while the third rolled up his sleeve, injected the yellow liquid into his arm, and leaned back against the brick wall. His body warmed in the cool air as if he lay on a sunny beach, and snaps of light appeared like he was seeing stars but larger and brighter.

A six-wheeled robotic Street Sanitizer the size of a small car rumbled down the potholed road past the alley. Nozzles in the front of it and the middle sprayed a cleaning agent. Scrubbing brushes just behind each set of nozzles scoured an oily residue on the road left behind by the Tainted Rain. A vacuum in the back sucked up the dark liquid and stored the polluted water in a large tank. The small vehicles kept the highways and byways from becoming cesspools and without the cleaners, Noir would come to a halt. The loud Street Sanitizer rumbled on, passing a Grub Filter sitting on the sidewalk against a building. The eight foot square metal beast also known as a Grubby pulled in air, filtering out the petroleum based pollutants caused by Dry Clouds. Usually four Grubbies covered each block, but this was Wayfaring Lane; they were lucky to have the one.

Evening approached as more people filled the street. Some wore Winnow Masks, marking them as recent immigrants to the Dark Half of the planet, but most of them didn’t wear the air filters, having lived in Noir long enough for their lungs to become accustomed to the pollutants. Kat stumbled onto Wayfaring Lane, fleeing the Un-Man with the knife. The Un-Man attacked her four days ago and since then, it had been chasing her in a sadistic cat and mouse game. For the moment, it hadn’t found her again, and she knew that because the Un-Man would have triggered her bio-mecha warning like the Un-Men had done when they first entered Etna Toys Plant and Warehouse. Kat also knew she couldn’t stop running until she found a place that was safe. Blood caked her left shoulder where one of the Un-Men’s bullets had grazed her, and dried plasma crusted the knife cut on her left forearm. Since waking at Etna, she had only eaten what food she could scrounge from trash cans and slept only minutes at a time. Exhaustion and mental anguish were taking their toll on her.

Weary to the bone, Kat sprinted down an obscure alley, looking over her shoulder and splattering through puddles of Tainted Rain. The black water that smelled of petroleum speckled her t-shirt and pants. She turned the corner and ran into a man who wore a black trench coat. She stumbled back, and he said nothing to her only eyed her curiously, so with a trembling hand, Kat raised her gun and aimed it at him.

“There’s no need for that,” he said. “My job isn’t to kill you.”

She was too tired to understand and took two steps back to bolt. Her face showed fatigue, and her eyes had the look of a lost puppy.

“I’m Argus. My employers the Council have some information for you.” He took a step forward, pushed the gun down to her side, and noted her wounds, including the large bruise on her forehead. He told her, “The Un-Man that the Factory sent after you, the Rogue, is no ordinary bio-mecha. There’s a glitch in its programming. The Council wants you to be extra careful with it, and they also want me to inform you that the only way to defeat it is to reach the Delta Phase of your metamorphosis.”

 

Katharine’s view…

I don’t understand what he’s going on about, so I look to the sidewalk as if I will find the answers there. The world I awoke to is so scary and confusing. Why doesn’t someone help me?

I smooth my left hand over the stubble of my shaven head, trying to wrap my mind around what’s happening to me. This has to be a nightmare; it has to be. I finally mumble to him, “You said the Council. I’ve heard that name before. Who are they?”

Argus starts to leave, so I desperately grab his wrist and plead, “Please tell me. You must at least know me. Please, tell me what my name is.”

“You don’t know your name?” This bit of information seems to surprise him, and he tells me, “You’re the Pandora Project.” He grabs my arm, turns my hand over, and places a 9 mm magazine in my palm. “To survive the tests, never run out of ammo.” Argus turns and starts to head down the street.

“No! Don’t go. Don’t leave me. Tell me what my real name is! There must be more… I must be more than a project.”

He pauses and says, “I’m not here to kill you, but I’m also not here to help you. You’re on your own. Though it’s regrettable you have no memory.” He turns to me and sounds sincere as he says, “It must be very frightening not knowing why bio-mechas are trying to kill you.” His face softens for a split second as if he pities me. “It’s simple. You’re being tested, and they’re being tested.” A black sedan pulls up, and he gets in as he yells, “Know one thing, stay alive.”

The car drives down the road.

I’m on my own? I don’t want to be on my own. What he told me hits me hard as if I just received a death sentence from a judge. I walk over to a building and turn as my knees buckle, and I slide down its rough wall and land in a lump.

“Someone help me,” I whisper as I put my head on my knees and rock back and forth. “Please, help me.”

End Katharine’s view…

 

In the sedan…

Argus removed his cell phone and made a call as the vehicle turned off of Wayfaring Lane. “I have some new information for the Council,” he started and waited until he was patched in. “Pandora claims to have no memory of who it is and there does appear to be a wound on its forehead.” He paused, listening to their reply. “Understood. I’ll continue my surveillance and tell Pandora nothing about itself. As the Council wishes, so it will be done.”

 

Back down the street…

Katharine’s view…

I clench my gun, trying to understand what he told me. Argus said the Un-Men are sent by the Factory, that the one I can’t kill is called the Rogue, and that it’s no ordinary Un-Man. Who or what is the Factory? Why did they want me dead? The coldness of the sidewalk chills my body, and I wrap my arms around me as I continue to rock back and forth. I find little comfort in my own embrace. Argus said the Council wants me to be extra careful with the Rogue. Is the Council on my side? I don’t think so, and what’s the Delta Phase? What am I supposed to turn into? I don’t understand. What’s happening to me? Argus calls them tests, that I’m being tested, and that the Un-Men are being tested. What’s the purpose?

I stare at the Dry Clouds in the dark sky. I know I should get up and flee, but I’m so exhausted, and I’m tired of running and consider letting the Un-Man capture me then I decide against it. I’m more afraid of capture than tired, so I slowly start to rise when panic sets in as my heart sounds the bio-mecha warning.

End Katharine’s view…

 

Ultra-Epi rushed through her veins as she stood and franticly looked across the street and searched for the relentless hunting machine. Kat ejected her old magazine and with a shaky hand placed in the new one. The e-field of her body altered as her eyes shimmered with blue electricity. She would later find out the light coming from her eyes was called Ult L-E (Ultra-Epi Light Emissions).

The Rogue walked toward her down a dark cluttered street lit by neon signs and street lights. The Type Four Model of Un-Man had short, brown, wavy hair and a pale chiseled face. Black smudges from Tainted Rain covered its brown suit. The Rogue passed three hookers and their pimp.

“Hey there big guy,” one of the women said, sizing up what she thought was a man. “Looking to party?”

“Yeah,” another said. “Mr. Shades. What ya hiding behind those glasses anyway? Did yer old woman black yer eye?”

The Rogue turned to the second hooker, and its polarized spectacles reflected a XXX red neon sign. “Old woman? No, but if we party, I will show you what is behind them,” the Rogue spoke as it removed its large knife, grabbed her wrist as the other two women ran off screaming, and then it said, “Let us party.”

The hooker tried to pull away from the maniac waving a knife.

“Hey, none of that kinky stuff till we discuss a price,” the pimp demanded as he walked to them.

The Rogue punched him in the abdomen as it told him, “Mind your manners. I am talking to the lady here.”

The pimp grabbed his stomach as he snarled, then he pulled a small gun, and spoke, “It isn’t how things work here.”

“How things work?” it questioned, then still hanging on to the woman, the Rogue grabbed the man’s hand that held the weapon, twisted it, and broke his wrist. It stated, “This is how things work in my world.”

The pimp cried out, dropped the gun, and collapsed to his knees, holding his wrist. “My hand! You broke my hand! Pucker!” he cursed. “You’re going to pay for this!”

Down the street…

Kat fled in the other direction, but stopped as the pimp cried out. She glanced at her gun. Everything within her screamed for her to escape while she had the chance, but one small voice told her save them. The flow of the e-field increased, and the blue stage of the Ult L-E glowed brighter. Save them.

Up the street…

The hooker, horrified by what she witnessed, tried to pull away and bolt, but the maniac yanked her to him.

“Do not be rude and leave before the party has started,” it said as it pulled her close and whispered, “Pandora. We have to wait for Pandora.”

“Pandora? Sick mother-pucker! You can get yer freak on with someone else. Ya creep! Let me go you pucker!” The woman screamed, pulling against his hold and yelled, “Let me go!”

Kat arrived, raised her gun, and aimed at its forehead as the color of its dot-light changed to a fiery crimson, and a wicked grin slithered across the Rogue’s pale face. She said, “You can release her. I’m here.”

It looked up. “Ahh… Pandora…” The Rogue paused and then asked, “Let her go? Why would I do that?”

“Why? I’m your target. Why do you need to hurt anyone else?”

“Yours is a valid question,” the Rogue stated as it twirled the hooker around, wrapped her up in its arms, and placed its blade against her throat. The hooker whimpered as it continued, “I enjoy it, but bio-mechas are not supposed to feel anything, so that makes me something special, does it not? I think that is why my creators are afraid of me, and why they want to destroy me.” The Rogue scanned Kat, noting her fear and exhaustion. It also noticed her eyes’ bluish afterglow in the darkness of the day and that the light was not normal for a human. The Rogue told her, “It is also the reason you want me dead.”

“I don’t want you dead. I just want you to stop hunting me!”

“I cannot,” the Rogue replied as it examined every feature and minute scar of Kat’s face and imprinted it to memory. “I am still a machine and at least for now, I cannot escape my programming.”

Kat hated depending on the gun for her survival and tried to talk her way out. “Maybe your creators are afraid of you, not because you have feelings but because you have the potential to disobey your programming.”

“You mean like you,” the Rogue accused her and then it laughed. “No, it is my potential for evil that they fear. I am sure of it.” It cut a tiny slit in the hooker’s neck and made her whimper louder. “But what would a machine know of evil? Am I not the product of my creators’ hardware and software or was some other thing added to me that makes me different from the other bio-mechas?”

“I don’t know. I only know you’re hurting that woman,” Kat answered as she started to pull the trigger.

The Rogue ducked behind the hooker, so she had no shot as it demanded, “Drop your gun or I will slit her throat. Do it!” It cut deeper into her neck.

“Okay! Okay!” Kat uttered as she placed the gun on the ground, making herself vulnerable. “Just don’t hurt her!”

“Excellent,” the Rogue spoke as it smirked.

“Now what?” Kat asked, not sure of her next move and witnessed the Rogue’s grin widen.

It said, “Now you watch me kill her!”

Before Kat had a chance to utter no, a man came up behind the Rogue.

“Hey!” the man shouted.

The Rogue turned as the man swung a metal bat, striking it in the head, and the Rogue stumbled back and released the hooker. The attack knocked its polarized spectacles off, and the damaged frames fell to the street. Kat grabbed her gun and fired two shots, but the Rogue with lightning reflexes evaded the bullets, and then it backhanded the man, knocking him to the ground. It then turned on Kat and froze, seeing a black van with tinted windows speeding their way.

The Factory had found it and would capture it if the Rogue didn’t run, so it turned and fled down an alley, shouting as it ran, “We will finish this another day, Pandora!”

The hooker rushed over to the pimp and questioned him, “Are ya all right? Oh, yer hand. Let’s get ya to a hospital.”

The black van sped by them in pursuit of the Rogue as the pounding of Kat’s heart lessened, so she set the safety and tucked her gun in the back waistband of her pants. Her irises lost their radiance as she walked over to the man. He rubbed his bloodied mouth and looked up at her.

She offered her hand as she said, “Thanks.”

“No problem.” He grabbed her wrist, pulled himself up, and then introduced himself, “The name’s Preacher.” He picked up his metal bat and glanced into the alley the Rogue ran through. “That thing was no man. What was it?”

“They’re called bio-mechas, that model is an Un-Man.”

“They? There are more of them?”

“Yes, there are more,” she said and muttered, “There are so many more.”

“No kidding.” He walked up to a stoop and picked up a white Bible as he commented, “Noir’s getting wilder every day.”

Kat moved to the Rogue’s broken polarized spectacles, picked them up, and peered through them. The lenses were mostly intact and intermediately fizzed and crackled between green lettered readouts across tiny square screens. She realized the polarized spectacles did more than hide their eyes; they relayed tactical data from the Factory and from each other. She dropped them, crushed the polarized spectacles with her shoe in case they carried tracking beacons, and then she started across the street.

“Wait! Where are you going?” Preacher asked as he ran after her.

Still tired, Kat turned as he placed his hand on her shoulder, and then she repeated, “Where? I… I don’t know.”

“Well, you look like you could use a meal and clean up a bit.” He noticed the dried blood on her forearm and shoulder and added, “And some first aid.”

She stared at the thin scraggly man with shoulder length, stringy, black hair. Preacher wore a worn navy blue t-shirt and broken black rim glasses taped in the front. His blue-gray eyes and pearly white smile caught her attention, and they made her feel safe and welcomed. Kat noticed he saw her staring, and she blushed.

Preacher waved his free hand, thinking she was looking at him as if he was a weirdo. “I’m not being perverted or anything. I run a shelter, the Kitchen. It seems to me you’ve been on the go for a while, so I thought you might be hungry.”

Kat nodded as her stomach growled.

“You aren’t much for talking are you?”

She shook her head.

“Shy. That’s okay. Come on. I believe grilled cheese and tomato soup are on the menu tonight.”

 

Chapter Seven

Farewell My Friend

Seven months later…

32 A.D.C…

May 25…

Tuesday…

7:30 P.M…

A helicopter flew over Wayfaring Lane just beneath the looming Dry Clouds, and a gust swept up an old newspaper, tumbling it down the potholed blacktop as Preacher and Kat sat on a stoop in front of the Kitchen, watching the people in the neighborhood. He glanced at her and noticed how depressed she appeared. Preacher had never seen someone so lonely or lost, so he rested his rough callused hand on hers. They had been sitting there in silence for about twenty minutes. She was always so distant; he couldn’t seem to connect. He knew that they were from two different worlds, but…

He asked her, “What are you thinking?”

 

Katharine’s view…

I stare up at the ever present nemesis of Noir. I’ve always wondered how something so fluffy and so soft looking could beat back the might of the sun; it’s only another question to my endless list of questions. Since awakening in Etna Toys, I’ve discovered nothing about my past. What’s my real name? Why am I hunted and tested?

I glance at my hand. Usually his touch makes me feel better, but not today. Only answers will fill the hollowness of my soul, so I gently pull my hand away from his and rest my hand on my lap. I will do almost anything to find some scrap of my past. If I can just find out if Kat’s my real name and where I came from, I’ll be happy; it hurts too much not knowing, and I don’t think Preacher understands. He doesn’t understand how frustrating it is and that in itself hurts. I’m alone in a void of uncertainty and because of that, I’m a stranger in our relationship, but I don’t know why I haven’t shared this with him and I don’t know if I can. Will he understand? I don’t think I can take it if he doesn’t, so what should I do?

End Katharine’s view…

 

When she didn’t answer him, Preacher looked down at the Bible he always carried. He was unsure of what to say and searched for words that would comfort. “Katharine, don’t you know there’s more to this life than what you can see?”

She focused on the book he held and replied, “You have told me, but still there’s something within me that wants to discover who I am.” Kat stared at her worn shoes and spoke softly, “And yet, there’s this part that fears what I might discover.” She turned to him, hoping to find a sympathetic heart and a look of understanding.

Preacher peered at the street, his attention drawn to a group of kids playing. He smiled, knowing even in Wayfaring Lane children could find time to be children, and he didn’t notice her searching gaze.

Kat frowned when he didn’t look at her, turned her attention back to her shoes, and then said almost in a whisper, “What if I’m a bad person? What if I’ve done terrible things?”

“We’ve all done bad things,” he said as he turned to her, and his expression saddened as he reflected on his own life.

A red VX corvette with the license plate FromAshes drove by with a blonde woman at the wheel.

“I feel like I should be searching for something.” Kat unzipped a backpack and removed the worn note, business card, and the music box, and then she said, “I know these are clues to my past, but how do they fit?”

“Our Gracious Lord has a plan for you, Katharine. I know it and in due time, he’ll show it to you. You only need to be patient.”

His words didn’t help, and she said, “That’s all I seem to have, but even my patience is running out.”

Preacher grinned and his blue-gray eyes and pearly white smile caught her attention again. His warm expression made her feel safe and gave her some hope; it gave her hope that her search would not be in vain.

  • * *

Five months later…

October 12…

Tuesday…

10:11 P.M…

The day before Kat arrived at Topa’s estate…

A car burned then exploded, sending fiery shrapnel in all directions. Bullet holes littered the buildings, and the citizens of Wayfaring Lane ran screaming for their lives as Kat returned from meeting an informant who never showed.

An old bag lady holding a golf club ran up to her out of breath, “Kat, someone shot Preacher!”

“What?! Where is he?!”

The bag lady pointed with the golf club as tears streamed down her wrinkled face.

 

Katharine’s view…

I take off running in that direction as anxiety presses against my chest. A million things run through my mind as I hurry toward the Kitchen, screaming, “Preacher! Preacher!!”

I continue running till I spot Argus, and I notice he stands at the entrance of an alley and stares at the pavement. I run past him and find Preacher lying in a pool of blood. He’s been shot several times in the chest. I freeze, paralyzed with dread and I stare in disbelief at his lifeless body.

“No,” I whimper and take a step forward. “No.” I walk to Preacher and collapse at his side. I fear touching him and discovering the truth as my eyes burn with my cowardice and anguish. “He can’t be dead. He’s not dead.” I pick up his hand and his skin’s cold to the touch.

“Preacher,” I whisper, looking into his pale face. “Look at me.” He doesn’t respond to me. “Don’t you die on me.” I squeeze his hand. “Don’t you leave me alone.” He still doesn’t respond, so I turn to Argus and desperately order, “Hurry! Go get some help!”

End Katharine’s view…

 

Argus didn’t move or say anything. He knew he wasn’t allowed to help, but he also knew it was too late.

 

Katharine’s view…

I rub Preacher’s cold hand as if to bring warmth back into it and tell him, “Don’t worry. Help will be coming, hang in there. You have to. You can’t leave me alone.” I lean to him, pleading, “I can’t bear my life without you, so please… stay with me.” I lean back, looking at the man who had been there when I wake screaming in the middle of the night, the man who held my hand and stayed by my side for three days when I had been shot, and the man who didn’t care that bio-mechas hunted me or that I’m the Pandora Project. He only cares about me.

His eyes are closed, and he looks as if he’s sleeping. I notice there’s something missing about him, not something physical but spiritual. I know it’s too late, and finally allow myself to believe he’s gone as I scream, “Not you! Not you!!” I shake him and cry, “Noo!” I cradle his head in my arms and wail to the heavens. “Don’t leave me! Don’t leave me!”

My heart aches, and my eyes swelter with a dry grief. Why can’t I cry for him? Am I some thing like a bio-mecha? Am I not capable of expressing grief? I sit there for minutes, holding Preacher in my arms as his blood saturates my t-shirt, and then I rest my head on his and whisper, “Forgive me, I should have been here. You told me not to go to the meeting and that it might be a trap, but I didn’t listen. I had to go; I had to find that scrap.” I sniff. “I should have listened, but no… I had to find out if the man knew anything about my past, but he wasn’t there. No one was there.”

I notice Argus’ shadow that’s stretched down the alley. Is the Council behind this? Did they lure me away to kill Preacher? Is this another test? My sorrow turns to anger. Did the Council kill Preacher?

I direct my rage at Argus and demand, “Who did this? Who shot him?”

He doesn’t answer me, and he stands there as the breeze whips his black trench coat as if he’s a stoic knight standing guard at a drawbridge. I know he’s no knight; knights are gallant and protect the weak. How could anyone protect if they only watch?

I snap at him as if yelling at myself for not being there to save the man I love, “I know you saw; you’re always watching. Was it the Council? Did they have Preacher killed? Did they have him killed to get at me because I’m not passing their tests? Because I’m not passing something called the Gamma Phase?” I gently lay Preacher down, stand, grab Argus by his coat’s collar, and slam him against the alley wall. “You were here, weren’t you?!” I scream, wild with rage. “You were here and did nothing!” I beat my fist on his chest. “Isn’t that right? Tell me! Did you watch them kill him?”

End Katharine’s view…

 

“Yes,” Argus answered as he looked down at her, taking her hits as a small part of his penitence. “My job is to watch.” His expression remained blank as he spoke, “I’m not to hinder or help. My job is to…”

“Shut up! I hate you!” Kat dropped her fist, leaned her head on his chest, and whispered, “I hate you.”

Her words stung him worse than her fists, and they were more vicious than any physical attack. The next thing that happened, surprised him; his eyes watered. Argus had never lost control of his emotions before. He had never lost them before today. Argus wanted to stroke her head and soothe her sorrow. This past year, he developed something his training should have prevented; he developed feelings for her. The Pandora Project was more than a job, it… No. Kat… Kat was… He let his thoughts drift away with the wind. He wanted so badly to console her as he gritted his teeth, fighting back tears, but it wasn’t part of his job.

 

Katharine’s view…

I deeply heave as sorrow and anguish drown me. “Tell me. Tell me who murdered Preacher. Was it the Council or the Factory?” He doesn’t answer me and that makes me infuriated more with myself than with him. It’s not Argus’ job to protect Preacher; I should have been here. I should have listened to Preacher’s advice, so I direct all my anger at Argus only because he’s standing there.

I yell, “For once in your life do something useful! Take a side… Take a stand!” I scream as I die inside, “Be more than an observer!” I look up into his watery blue eyes, looking… no pleading for comfort and whisper, “Kill me.” I strike his chest with my fist; it’s the only thing I can think to do for no one will wrap their arms around me again. “Help me,” I beg as I hit him again. “Just do something!” I hide my face in his coat as my body trembles with sorrow and heartache; I know nothing will bring back Preacher and that I’m all alone.

“Topa,” Argus whispers. “Topa ordered the Closing on Preacher. He has an estate on the outskirts of the Hellenistic Sector.”

I sniff, pull myself back, and stare at him heartbroken; I slap Argus in the face, and he only looks at me as I say, “That’s for doing nothing and letting Preacher die.” My eyes still burn as I turn my back on him. “I don’t ever want to see you again. You’re my shadow no more, so don’t follow me.” I walk over to Preacher, take the Bible from his grasp, and head out of Wayfaring Lane.

 

Chapter Eight

From The Ashes

Present time…

October 13…

Wednesday…

9:47 A.M…

 

Katharine’s view…

Topa’s office feels menacing and reeks of corruption as the men in the photos stare at me. They seem to glare down at me as if I’m the monster in the room, but I ignore their silent accusations as my heart aches so much it makes me ill. Preacher gave me the strength to go on, and he made me feel like a person, not a project. Now I feel empty, alone, and part of some twisted experiment. Topa will pay for killing the only light in my life; I’ll snuff out his flame as he had Preacher’s life extinguished.

My gun weighs heavy in my hand, and I don’t know how much longer I can hold it up. Sorrow overwhelms me as I aim for Topa’s forehead. I have to make the pain go away and this is the only way I can think of to make it stop hurting.

End Katharine’s view…

 

Topa feared this was it for his own life till he noticed her hesitation, and he questioned, “Have you ever killed someone?”

 

Katharine’s view…

I don’t answer as I start to press my finger against the trigger. Topa’s death will be like the others; he will die just like the Un-Men. I’ll squeeze the trigger, and the bullet will penetrate his forehead and enter his automaton brain. No… That’s not right. Am I so naive? This killing will be different. Topa’s flesh and not a bio-mecha, so I have to be honest with myself. I waver a bit. I’ll be taking a life; it’s the one thing I fought so hard not to do, but he killed Preacher. Doesn’t that change things? Preacher was my friend, and I lov…

I let the last word fade from my mind. I have no right to claim that type of relationship, not when I couldn’t admit that simple word to Preacher. I pause in my thoughts as grief seizes me again, and I scream, “Nothing will bring Preacher back, so you have to die!”

End Katharine’s view…

 

“It isn’t all that easy taking someone’s life,” Topa said as he reached down, opened a desk drawer, and saw his gun tucked inside. He only needed the opportunity to grab the weapon. “Can you do it?”

“I will kill you! You murdered Preacher! You should die!” Kat’s arm shook as rage and grief shrieked at her to pull the trigger, but something held her back.

Once he saw the hatred in her eyes, Topa became a little nervous, but then two of his men entered from the door behind her, and he regained his confidence and questioned, “Preacher? Oh… You mean the do-gooder causing me problems on Wayfaring Lane. You say he’s dead?”

She yelled, “You know he’s dead! You ordered the Closing!”

“Maybe I did.”

 

Katharine’s view…

“I know you did!” The pain in my chest worsens as I can no longer withstand the sorrow wanting to consume me. My resolve to kill Topa vanishes as I wish with all my being that Preacher would wrap his arms around me and tell me everything will be all right. I know that will never happen, and my gun arm drops slightly, and I no longer aim at Topa. I pull into myself and aim the blame at my own feet. I should have never left Preacher’s side. He’s dead because I wasn’t there to save him.

End Katharine’s view…

 

“You’re here to do what?” he questioned. “Kill me?” Topa looked her over. “You don’t have it in you.”

She lifted the gun as if that alone would give her the courage, but courage wasn’t what she was missing. “You should die for what you did but before I kill you, I have to know. Do you work for the Council or the Factory? Which one of them had Preacher killed?”

“The Factory I’ve never heard of, but the Council…” He studied her more closely before he questioned her, “What would someone like you know of them?”

She snapped, “You didn’t answer my question! Who do you work for?!”

Topa laughed. “I work for no one but myself.”

 

Katharine’s view…

“So you refuse to answer me. It doesn’t matter.” I scream, “You must die! You have to die because you killed him!”

I aim the gun again as I wrestle with the trigger and my emotions; I don’t understand. Why am I hesitating? Why don’t I shoot Topa and finish it? At that moment, I feel the worn leather of the book I carry in my other hand, and it reminds me of Preacher, and I think I hear his voice. I drop my gun arm and sob as I finally understand. Preacher wouldn’t want me to take revenge. It’s wrong. He wouldn’t want me to kill someone because of him.

End Katharine’s view…

 

Outside the window…

Kim muttered, “Idiot! You’re weak and spineless.” Kim gripped the PPK as she muttered, “Kill him. Take your revenge. I wouldn’t hesitate if someone had killed someone precious to me.”

 

Within the Sanctum…

An alarm sounded. The analysts and supervisors fell silent in the Chamber as they tensed, fearing the reaction of the Council. On the center screen in large red letters blinked, Third Evolvement Failure.

“NO!” Mr. Decuma shouted as he slammed his fist on the table, jogging his laptop. “Pandora failed! Why can it not take a life? Pandora has no problems dealing with the Un-Men, but it refused to kill every human assassin we sent after it.”

“The Un-Men are bio-mechas. They are not alive,” Ms. Nona stated. “Pandora knows the difference even with the conditioning.”

“Should we terminate the project? “Mr. Decuma asked.

An analyst turned off the alarm as Mr. Morta replied, “No, not just yet; all we need to do is find a sufficient catalyst.”

“What about the tests?” Ms. Nona questioned.

Mr. Morta ordered, “Call off the bounty on Pandora’s head and cancel the Life Closing for now. Pandora could use the rest.”

“Agreed. I stated my concerns earlier over its fatigue,” Ms. Nona said. “We have been pushing it too hard. Most subjects would have broken by now, and what about the Un-Men? Can we get the Factory to call them off?”

“We can request it, but I doubt they will,” Mr. Morta answered. “The Factory feels they have as much of a right to Pandora as we do and most likely, they will continue to test their bio-mechas. We will focus on finding a catalyst for now.”

“Agreed,” Ms. Nona and Mr. Decuma said in one accord.

 

Back at Topa’s estate…

When she dropped her arm, his henchmen quickly grabbed Kat from behind, and one of them took her gun.

“Vengeance is mine, says the Lord,” Topa said and then chuckled as one of his henchmen grabbed the book from her. “I think you should take up a new religion because this one has failed you.” He motioned to his henchmen. “Take her to the wine cellar and hold her there. I’ll be down later to deal with our new guest.”

They nodded and took her out as Topa closed the drawer to his desk that held the gun. He stood, walked to a wall safe, and started to unlock it when he heard the door opened. “Now what is it?” Topa asked, irritated, and turned toward the front.

Kim entered, locked the door, removed her knit mask, and then stated, “I usually don’t let anyone see me.” She knew the Mark didn’t know the reason for her arrival, but he soon would, and she took a bit of wicked pleasure out of that fact. Kim told him, “But you’re a special case.”

“I’m going to have to do something about my security.” His expression changed as he looked over the beautiful blonde. “I suppose you’re also one of Preacher’s friends.” He moved back to the side of his desk and pulled out his chair but didn’t sit. “Perhaps a lady of the evening who can’t live without her daily confessions?”

She sneered, moving to the middle of the office. “Keep your hands where I can see them. I don’t need you tripping any silent alarm, and as for my profession…” Kim threw a business card on his mahogany desk.

Topa glanced down at it and then questioned, “What’s this? A firebird?” He recognized the emblem and sat in his chair as if someone had shoved him down in it. “No… You can’t be.” He peered up and panicked. “Puck! You’re the Phoenix?!” He stood, searching for a place to run. “You’re a Closer! Don’t kill me! I’ll pay you anything! I can give you credits or–” Topa motioned to his safe. “–I have cash.”

“Hades… You really disgust me. Why is it I always hear the same old thing from you Marks? Do you really think you can buy off a Closer? Well, you can’t.” She cleared her throat and then stated, “Samuel R. Topa, the Valhalla Corporation has decided they no longer want to do business with you. They’re tired of losing their shipments of Sunna Snapps, so under the Life Closer Clause of your contract with Valhalla, I am authorized by the Assassin’s League to terminate your life.”

“But why kill me?”

“I’m only guessing, but it sounds like the narcotic Sunna Snapps hasn’t been approved for use, but you’re selling it anyway for the corporation. A kind of clinical street trial, but the participants don’t know they’re guinea pigs. You messed up when you lost a few of the shipments,” Kim replied as she aimed. “The Valhalla Corporation is now tying up loose ends and using the pretense of your contract to do it.” She shot twice and smoke rolled from the silencer and with no emotion, she added, “You know… just business.”

Gray matter splattered the wall as Topa fell back in his chair and blankly stared at the ceiling.

“For once, someone got what they deserved,” she muttered. “For Ares’ sake! To think you had a preacher killed and used an Illicit Closer to do the job. Did you really think the Assassins Guild wouldn’t find out?” She glanced over the black and white photos on his wall. “I know people like us are going to Tartarus, but you had to provoke whatever god you believe in to send you there a little early.”

Kim pulled the knit mask back on and headed out the front door.

 

Chapter Nine

The Un-Men Arrive

 

Points of interest…

Corporations had to develop alternatives for those addicted to nicotine since tobacco plants were nearly wiped out the first few months after the Dry Clouds appeared. The first year of the Dry Clouds (Zero Year), tobacco farms were started on the Light Side of the planet. Twenty-eight years ago, the Corporate Senate decided that crops planted on the Light Side had to produce food so NicPhake and other synthetics were created. The idea was to wean people off of smoking all together. The synthetic tobacco proved to be as addictive, and the secondhand smoke from NicPhake caused blindness in some infants. NicPhake was then regulated and could only be acquired with a prescription.

 

10:12 A.M…

Four black Chrysler 3000s drove across the road leading to Topa’s estate. The human drivers parked, turned the headlights off, plunging the area back into darkness, and then the passenger and the two back doors opened. Three Un-Men got out of each car, and the vehicles rocked back and forth as the Un-Men exited. They moved to the back of their vehicles as the drivers popped the trunks, and an Un-Man of each group removed Uzis from the back and armed their brethren and once they were armed, their Input Sensor blinked three times as they received their orders from the Factory.

They uttered, “Setting programming to Infiltration Mode. Eliminate any obstructions to primary Seek and Destroy Program.”

The dozen Un-Men gathered in front of the lead vehicle and looked to the north gate that was about a hundred feet down the wall from them. They synchronized to determined the best entry point and relayed their findings to the Factory.

Five armed men stood guard within the gate. The guards noticed them when they pulled up and readied themselves to engage the armed intruders and if they had to, the men would shoot on sight.

In unison, the Un-Men nodded their understanding of the Factory’s orders. They slung the Uzi over their shoulder and started for the wall directly in front of them as the drivers drove the vehicles away. The Un-Men climbed over the fifteen foot wall by stabbing their fingers into the brick. Each thrust of a hand into the mortar and clay sounded like a boot crunching across the snow; it sounded like an army marching across the white powder as they all scaled the wall.

“The intruders climbed over!” a man at the gate yelled.

“Quick, radio in backup!” another man yelled through his WM-B.

The five guards opened fire on the intruders, and bullets riddled the dozen bodies, filling their business suits with holes. The Un-Men remained standing, staring ahead. The guards ceased fire and glanced at one another, seeing that the intruders were still alive.

The Un-Men turned their heads in an eerily co-occurrence and looked to the guards.

“Obstacle encountered,” they stated as they assessed the obstruction.

Two of them lifted their Uzi, aimed, and shot the men, and the men’s bodies jerked as the wave of bullets bombarded them. The Un-Men ceased, and the men collapsed to the ground. The two Un-Men scanned the bodies and determined the men’s life signs had ceased.

“Obstacle eliminated,” a Team Leader stated. “Setting programming to Seek and Destroy. We will track down Pandora and eliminate her.”

They headed into the heart of the estate in four groups of three as they all stated, “Pandora will not escape us this time.”

 

Earlier at Topa’s house…

The two henchmen shoved Kat down the stairs of the cellar and followed after her as the wooden steps creaked with their weight and once they reached the bottom, one of the men frisked her. He took the music box, business card, and the note from her pant’s pocket and set them on a table. He laid the white book and her gun there after he had ejected the gun’s magazine and cleared the weapon’s chamber. The other henchman motioned with his gun to a chair for her to sit, and she complied. Racks of wine filled the cool dusty room, and a rat scurried across the concrete floor in the back.

One of the henchmen grabbed her chin, lifted it up, and examined her face. “You aren’t much to look at, are ya?”

She didn’t respond, giving up. Kat conceded that this was her fate for not killing Topa. She had him in her sights, and she couldn’t pull the trigger.

The henchman released her chin and joined the other man at the square table. They both removed their WM-B and breathed in the room’s filtered air.

Kat regretfully wiped her hands over her face, remembering Preacher and the more she thought about him, the more she thought about how she’d failed to do what she had come to do.

“What do you think Topa will do to her, Muggs?” one of the henchmen asked.

“Don’t know,” the other replied as he shrugged. “Slap her around I guess. What does he usually do with women?”

The one named Warner picked up the music box, opened it, and Unfinished Melody played as Kat relaxed in the chair and her eyelids drooped. Her sorrow and pain vanished with the melody as it lulled her into an oblivious euphoria. Nothing mattered when she existed in this state, not even the death of Preacher.

“Hey, she’s falling asleep.” Muggs stood and kicked her chair. “Stay awake!” He glanced at the book. “Maybe use this time to pray.” He smirked. “Or don’t you know you’re going to die?”

Entranced by the melody, she ignored Muggs and listened as if she was a child and the music box was the Pied Piper of Hamelin, and she would happily follow the bewitching music and vanish from existence. Kat stayed in this euphoric state until Warner closed the lid, ending the melody.

After he did, Warner examined the music box more closely. “This ain’t no ordinary trinket. It’s electronic or something.”

“You could pawn it at least,” Muggs said. “It is silver.”

With the drug-like music gone, her pain and sorrow rushed back like a runaway locomotive. Feeling nothing would be better than this heart pang, so Kat pleaded, “Could you please let the melody play?”

“Shut up! You don’t get a final request.” Warner propped his feet on the table and started rolling a cigarette with synthetic tobacco.

Muggs looked around the cellar as he said, “I’ve heard a couple of stories of people who’ve been taken down here. Isn’t there another entrance to this place? One that comes up in the middle of the estate? I’ve heard…”

lub-DUB… lub-DUB

Kat ignored the men as they talked, and she focused on the cellar door like a prowling tigress about to pounce. Ultra-Epi coursed through her blood as the e-field of her body altered, and her ocular organs sparked with blue voltage and with a calm voice, she said, “They’re here.”

Warner lit the cigarette and blew white-pink smoke from the side of his mouth. He took another drag of NicPhake as he ignored her warning. He didn’t even look at her.

“Who’s here?” Muggs asked, turned to face her, and gaped, seeing her eyes. He stood, nearly knocking his chair over. “Are you some sort of creature from the underworld?!”

“They’re here,” Kat repeated. She didn’t care if the Un-Men found her or not.

Warner tightened his jaw, not hearing his partner’s comment, and yelled at her, “Didn’t I tell you to shut the puck up?!” He stood and lifted his hand to strike her as white-pink ashes dropped from the cigarette, and he paused. “What’s wrong with your eyes?”

“There are twelve intruders at the north gate!” a man yelled over the intercom of their WM-Bs. “Hades! They’ve scaled the wall and are inside!”

Warner picked up his mask and listened.

The man on the other end breathed hard as if he ran. “We’re engaging them.” Weapons fire filled the airwaves. “They must be wearing armor. We’re switching to…” There was a pause. “Two of them are turning toward us and have lifted their weapons! Take cover!”

The rapid tat-tat of Uzis drowned out the man’s screams.

Warner turned to his partner and ordered him, “Quick get on the radio and see what Topa wants us to do.”

“Right, I’m on it.” He put his WM-B on and activated the intercom. “Boss, this is Muggs.” There was no reply. “Boss, this is Muggs.” There was still no response. “Can anyone hear me?” Only dead air returned his call, so he turned to Warner and questioned, “Now what?”

Warner thought for a moment and said, “You stay with the woman. I’m going to head to the main house and see…”

Gunfire erupted above ground, drawing their attention.

Muggs looked up to the cellar’s small window and uttered, “It’s outside the house!”

“These intruders move fast,” Warner said. “We need to get out of here!”

The door to the cellar burst open, and three Un-Men started down the stairs, aiming their Uzis.

“Target acquired,” they stated in their monotone voices. “Will now terminate Pandora.”

“Hades!” Muggs cursed as he and Warner drew their guns.

The men opened fire, and the Un-Men continued down the steps unhindered by the metal barrage.

“Puck! Why won’t they die?!” Warner yelled. “What are they?”

Kat ran to the table, grabbed her things, and then turned the table over. She ducked behind it and glanced at Warner and Muggs, knowing they were doomed and at that point, she didn’t care. The only thing she cared about was that this would give her a second chance at Topa.

“Hey! What are you doing?” Muggs asked as he turned to her, and a bullet struck his shoulder, knocking him back.

Warner grabbed him, pulled him behind some crates, and continued firing at the three intruders as they reached the bottom of the stairs. “Die already, you puckers!!”

Muggs leaned on the crate to support himself and returned fire.

Kat dashed for the rear of the room as bullets sprayed by her and in the back, she found a door. She turned the knob, but it was locked, so she stood back, fired at the old lock, and kicked in the door. She sprinted down a tunnel, hearing the two men die as the Un-Men overran their position. It didn’t matter to her if the men died as hatred filled her heart; she believed they got what they deserved. Kat followed the tunnel to a ladder with bloodlust fueling her manic dash, and she climbed to the surface where a manhole opened into a group of apple trees. No Un-Men or guards battled in the immediate area, so she took the time to check over her weapon. Her heart slowed since the danger was gone for the moment, and the blue Ult L-E faded as the Ultra-Epi dissipated in her blood.

A crow cawing from the branch of an apple tree drew her attention. Red fruit littered the branches, and her face softened from that of a warrior in the rages of battle to a woman in mourning. Preacher loved apples; he had eaten one almost everyday. She closed her eyes and held the bloodied book to her chest. Topa would die this time, and nothing would stop her, so Kat rushed toward his office, determined to finish him off no matter what grave sin she had to commit to do so.

Smoke from gunfire and small explosions lingered in the air as she hurried by several bodies and one Un-Man they managed to disable. Electrical snaps flew from several holes in its head. The humans’ red blood and the Un-Man’s black oil mixed in a small pool, and Kat felt a smidgen of guilt. Those men wouldn’t be dead if the Un-Men weren’t hunting her, but the guilt left her as hatred returned, drowning the small voice that uttered save them. She ducked behind a hedge as four men rushed past her.

Fright paled their faces as one shouted orders, “We have to pull back from the gates and meet at the armory. We need heavy artillery.”

The group of men hurried on. The thought of helping them against the unstoppable monsters never even crossed her mind, too much animosity clouded her thoughts. Kat stepped from the hedge, turned to continue to Topa’s office, but paused, narrowing her eyes. Another obstacle popped up to block her revenge.

lub-DUB… lub-DUB

Ultra-Epi coursed through her blood as her eyes produced a cerulean lambency. “Un-Men,” she said with loathing; there were two of them.

Fear didn’t fill her heart but rage as the warrior’s side of her returned, and she gripped the gun ready to eliminate all who stood in her way as an Un-Man stepped from the side of a building to her left and another stepped from a cluster of trees on her right. Kat had encountered five different models of Un-Men over the past year. The Rogue they discontinued; it was a Type Four. The one to her left was a Type Two; it was a six foot six, thin model with dark brown skin and a South African accent. The other one was a Type Five; it was a six foot, large, muscular model with a Russian accent.

“Target acquired. I and another unit have cornered the Pandora Project,” the dark skinned Type Two or T-2 relayed over its I-Link.

“Commencing attack,” the T-5 stated.

Without a second thought, Kat raised her gun and fired once to her left and once to her right. She was going to kill Topa. The Un-Men fell to the ground and lay still as downed trees as Kat rushed on. She wasn’t going to let anyone or anything get in her way.

 

Chapter Ten

Caught In A Cross Fire

Earlier…

At the northwestern corner of Topa’s estate, Kim pulled her black knapsack from the pile of leaves she had hid it in, threw the grappling hook over the wall, and climbed the cord to the top. She spotted four cars parked by the north gate with twelve men getting out; they carried Uzis. She dropped back down into the estate. “Great, just great!” she muttered to herself. “Who are those guys?” She whipped up on the rope, forcing the grappling hook to fall down, and then she stowed it in the knapsack.

Gunfire erupted at the north gate as Kim raced for the center of the estate; she would try to go over the south wall. Gunfire continued as Topa’s men shouted, some in panic and some as their last cry. Kim ducked into a tool shed before six men rushed past her. Weedwackers, a lawnmower, shelves, axes, and other lawn tools filled the outbuilding, and she waited in the dark structure till she heard the men move on into the distance then she left quietly.

A man came running up from the other direction. “I’ve spotted an intruder,” he shouted over the WM-B’s intercom.

Another man joined him before Kim fired four times, hitting the first man twice in the stomach, and he fell, shrieking as blood poured from his abdomen. The other two bullets hit the second man in the shoulder and heart. The first man’s shrieks alerted three more to her position before he died. She shot one in the face before the second guard tackled her, and they struggled for the gun till a shot discharged. Kim moaned and rolled the dead man off of her and by then, the third guard had his weapon trained on her.

“Toss your gun!” he shouted. “Now stand up.”

She stood, raising her hands.

“I should kill you where you stand, but Topa will want to interrogate you.”

She grinned. If he only knew she had already killed their boss… He grabbed her knit mask, pulling it off her head, and her blonde hair frizzed out and then Kim said, “You shouldn’t have done that.”

He questioned, “Done what?”

She stared at him coldly as she said, “You shouldn’t have seen my face.”

Kim ducked, twirled, sweep kicking his legs from under him, and drew the tactical knife from the sheathe on her right calf. She jumped on top of the man and slit his throat before he could react, and his blood splattered her face. Kim looked at him with no emotion or remorse; she had been trained well. Kim stood from the dead man and scowled. The assignment had turned into a Wetworks. Blood dripped from her knife, so she bent and wiped the blade on the man’s pants, and she turned abruptly, hearing someone run toward her, and she stood ready to attack the next guard.

 

Earlier…

Katharine’s view…

Avoiding the guards and staying clear of areas the Un-Men are in, I spot a tool shed ahead of me. I notice a lady as the lady stands from the man she killed. I halt, raise my gun, and aim it at her. The lady’s preventing me from moving on, and I need to get by her and fast. I see the lady’s knife. Is she a guard? She isn’t well armed. I notice the men. No, she just dropped five of them; she can’t be a guard, then why is she here? I glance over my shoulder. It doesn’t matter; I need to get by her and take my revenge before the Un-Men close in on me.

 

Kimberly’s view..

I freeze as that woman points her weapon at me, thinking that woman’s another guard. I look to the ground where my PPK lies then to my knife. That woman’s too far away to lunge at, but I can throw my knife. I study her face. That woman’s the one from Topa’s office; she’s the one who couldn’t kill him.

 

Katharine’s view…

I start to shoot the lady in the leg when I believe I recognize her and a sense of joy peeks over the mound of hatred and sorrow I feel. I’ve never come across anyone I thought I knew, and my mission of retribution loses its priority as I ask, “Have we met?”

 

Kimberly’s view…

I don’t answer her, considering if that woman wasn’t able to shoot Topa, what chance is there that she won’t shoot me?

 

Katharine’s view…

The lady ignores my question, and I don’t know where I recognize her from. Whose side is she on?

“Do you work for the Council?” I ask her. “Or maybe you’re a bounty hunter working for the Factory?”

I lower my gun a bit, then raise it, and make a face as my heart hammers the bio-mecha warning. I gaze past the lady and realize I stayed too long and they’ve tracked me down. I feel my Ult L-E trigger; the light show doesn’t seem to bother the lady for she comes at me with her knife. Instinct takes over, and I side step to the right and fire as the lady leaps at me like Tarzan attacking a tigress.

 

Kimberly’s view…

Moments earlier…

That woman must be wearing some sort of electrical device on her face for sapphire flames rage about her eyes and make her whole face burn with an angry aura. I look closer but don’t see a devise. With that woman distracted and muttering like a crazy person, I take the opportunity and pounce, lunging with my knife. That woman reacts much faster than I thought she could; I fear this is my end as she fires, but I continue my attack even as I wonder what the demon-like brimstone blazing from her eyes is. The bullet barely misses my face as I bring my knife down. She blocks the chopping blade with her gun and kicks me in the stomach, and I stumble back and notice my PPK at my feet. I can’t grab it just yet, so I stare at her for a long moment as if she’s Lamia, the child-eating daemon. In all my years as a Life Closer, I never saw anything like her.

I quickly shake off my dismay and terror and focus on my gun. If I can grab the gun, then I can kill that hellish woman standing before me. I start for the PPK when gunfire from an Uzi erupts from the trees behind me, and I dive to the ground. That woman fires again. I roll, pick up my gun, move to a kneeling position, and search the area for my adversary; that woman’s gone. I run and take cover behind the tool shed and look to the line of trees where the Uzi fire came from. Sparks shoot up from among the trees, and I carefully make my way there and investigate, finding two men dead. Both have a single shot through their head, and I realize that woman wasn’t aiming at me. I was wrong; that woman can kill, so why didn’t she kill me? Black blood trickles from the men’s heads, and I step closer for a better look. What are they? I kneel to them. Are they robots?

I don’t have time for this, stand, and walk to the dead guard who’s still holding my knit mask. I touch my cheek as a dreadful fear creeps over me, and I utter, “She saw my face! Hades! That woman saw my face, and I let her escape!”

  • * *

Katharine’s view…

Rushing into Topa’s office with my gun at the ready, I find no guards within and Topa leaning back in his chair with his brains splattered across the wall. I stand there, aiming at the man. We’re both frozen in the moment. Sadness and regret wash over me as the gore keeps me fixated.

Tick… Tick…

An old clock sounds, filling the otherwise silent room with the passage of time, and I lower my gun. Am I relieved someone else killed him? Or am I upset that the privilege was taken away from me? I don’t understand my emotions. Maybe I feel a little of both.

I take a step toward him. Who killed him? Was it the Un-Men? I walk to his desk, examining the bullet holes. I don’t think so. Two shots to the head; it looks like the work of a Closer.

Tick… Tick…

The clock sounds away the seconds as I look at the black and white photos of Topa’s male relatives. Time allows my hatred and sorrow to turn into regret and self loathing. I move to Topa, stare at his terror-filled face, and am ashamed of my revenge filled thoughts. Would I have killed him? When the moment came, would I have pulled the trigger?

Tick… Tick…

I catch a glimpse of a red speckled business card with a flaming bird resting on his desk and pick it up; it’s a calling card left behind by a Life Closer for the N.C.P.F. so they will know it’s a Closing authorized by the Assassins Guild. A barcode on the back of the card can be read by a specialized H.H.C. (which the Noir Civil Police Force carries) and prove the Closing’s authenticity.

Deep in thought, I hold the card. A lot clouds my mind, and so it takes me a while before I realize the image is the same, and I quickly remove the business card I found at Etna Toys a year ago and compare the two. My heart leaps with excitement. They’re almost identical; I’m sure. I review the day’s events. The lady I fought… I remember how she seemed familiar. Maybe she left this card. I rush out of the office. I have to find her, and I have to ask her again if she knows me.

End Katharine’s view…

 

Ten minutes later…

Kat made it out of the estate through the south gate and ran into the pale glow of a pine forest. She followed an old truck road, and it came to a fork just as a red VX Corvette with the license plate FromAshes sped off, kicking up dirt. Kat paused and glanced at the two business cards. She might have found someone who knew her, and then Kat stared at the trail of smoke and dust left behind by the car. Kat found her once, and she needed to find her again. Kat stared down the road till the dust settled, then placed the business cards in her back pocket, and made her way to the north side of the estate. She walked up to the gnarled oak and grabbed her backpack and jacket and when she sensed the Un-Men were near, she hurried back into the woods.

Tall scraggly Lantern Pines filled the forest and scented the air. Scientist created Transgenic Plants that could survive without the sun, and they created the Lantern Pines by genetically modifying a yellow pine with the extra-genome of a lanternfish, producing a tree that created its own light. The bioluminescence lasted several days after the needle’s death, so even the forest floor produced a ghostly glow. The Dry Clouds ceased their grumbles, forever looming over the land like a menacing specter. An owl hooted as Kat dashed by its roost, and she fled till she sensed the Un-Men ceased their pursuit of her. The Ultra-Epi Light Emissions dissipated, and her heart ended its warning. Kat slowed to a walk, and a possum scurried past her. She stopped in a small clearing, undid the Velcro of her armor, removed the black Ravlek Vest, and looked down at her bloodied t-shirt. She pulled a clean one from her backpack, took off the soiled one, and put on the new, and she held the bloodied t-shirt and Bible to her chest and sat against a tree on a bed of glowing needles.

 

Katharine’s view…

I close my eyes to sleep. Preacher, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m alone in the world again, and I miss you; I miss you so much.

Time slowly passes, but I can’t sleep. Over the past year, I have learned the Ultra-Epi that courses through my blood gives me abilities, but it also causes side effects; it took me a long time to figure out that the music box counters the effects. All I have to do is listen to the tune, go into a trance like state, and make me vulnerable to attack. I feel anxious; it’s the first side effect of the Ultra-Epi. I stare up at the canopy of ghostly pines. Preacher forgive me. I weep without tears. Forgive me for not saving you.

My nose runs, and I wipe it with the back of my hand. Within the serenity of the forest and in the calming effects of crickets chirping and the wind rustling pines, a realization sinks in. Preacher, what would you think of me? In my anger, I hurt people. I let people die, and I almost killed a man today. Something I promised myself I would never do under any circumstance. I hug the book tighter. Oh Preacher, can you forgive me? God, please forgive me.

I remove the music box from my pocket, open its lid, and let the melody lull me. I don’t care if I’m caught; I only seek relief from my anguish, and my eyes droop as I enter what I call the Drifting Time and leave behind sorrow, regret, and hatred.

 

Chapter Eleven

The Siblings

Russia, the Light Side of the planet…

October 13…

Wednesday…

10:42 A.M…

Two pilots sat in the cockpit of a V.T.O. (Vertical Take Off) thirty passenger plane. Engineers designed the aircraft to fly through the polluted barriercumulus of the world’s Dark Half. The pilots prepared for takeoff on one of many circular pads among hundreds of other V.T.Os. landing and taking off.

In first class, Natasha pulled up the shutter of the plane’s small window, and she looked to the sun as it rose over Moscow and pulled her white fur-lined, long, black coat close to her neck. “Look Nikolai.” Her Russian accent was thick. “Is it not beautiful?”

“Yes, Tasha,” her twin brother said. He wore a white pin striped gray business suit, and a gray Fedora hat rested on his lap. “As beautiful as you.”

“I heard the place we are going is grisly.”

“Yes, so remember that image.” He motioned to the ball of orange. “Where we are going you will not see the sun again.” He burned the image into his mind. “Noir exists in endless night.”

She turned to him and her face was full of worry. “Nikolai, I have a bad feeling about this trip.”

He stroked her long black hair and took her hand. “I know you do not like to fly. Be brave, my sister.”

“It is more than that.” She looked into her brother’s dark brown eyes. “I feel the place we are going is full of wickedness.”

He squeezed her hand gently as he said, “Do not fear, my sister, I will always be by your side.”

The engines of the V.T.O. roared as the airport’s tower cleared the plane for take off. The copilot double checked the two moveable nozzles on each wing. They produced the thrust for vertical liftoff. He pulled the V.T.O. lever down, turning the nozzles horizontal, and pushed the lever up to return the nozzles to vertical. The copilot gave the all clear, the pilot ignited the thrusters, and the aircraft lifted straight up into the sky. The plane rumbled and shook with the effort.

Natasha buried her head in her brother’s shoulder.

After a few minutes, the copilot pulled the V.T.O. lever down, and the aircraft shot across the horizon.

Nikolai leaned over, closing the shutter. “It is over, we are in the air.”

“I would not be here if it was not Voice who asked us to go to Noir for this Closing.” She glanced at the shutter. “Be where only plastic separates us from falling to the ground.”

“Take courage, my sister.” He reached into his coat pocket. “I will give you some sleeping pills, then you can let this flight go by while you dream.”

“You think my fear will be any less in sleep? I will only have nightmares of crashing.”

He gently squeezed her hand, so she would look at him. “Tasha, have I ever let anything happen to you?”

She stared into his strong face. “No.”

“Do not fear then. I will protect you. Rest. I will watch over you.”

“Yes, rest.” She closed her eyes, remembering a wolf name Salandra from a Russian tale and quoted a line Salandra had said. “I will fight back death in my dreams.”

Nikolai remembered the same story where a raven named Draven replied to the wolf, and he said, “And I will keep death away from my branch.”

She took the pills from him and popped them into her mouth.

“Let us change seats,” Nikolai requested. “Once you are asleep, I would like to look out of the window and witness this Curtain they speak of that divides the world.”

She nodded. He grabbed his hat, stood, removed a briefcase from the overhead compartment, and switched seats with her. Natasha asked for a pillow and a blanket from a female attendant; the attendant returned with the items, and Natasha took them, put her seat back, and soon fell asleep.

Nikolai opened his briefcase and removed an old detective novel called Blood Harvest by Kit Sire. He opened the book to the first chapter titled, The Woman Wore Green and the Man Gray. Nikolai read the first chapter to himself, “It ain’t no easy street for a gumshoe. Long days and even longer nights… That’s me, an old bloodhound for hire. Throw me a couple of scraps, and I’m yers for the day, week, whatever it takes. If yer looking for a dame or a mucker, I’ll track them down.”

Nikolai leaned back and grinned. “Kit knew how to write a good story. I feel like one of the mobsters in his novels.” He straightened his white tie and in a gangster accent said, “I’m a Hood that brings the Big Sleep. A Cat ready to blow one down. In a couple of days, I’ll finally have Tommy, and I’ll be my own Chopper Squad.”

He continued reading as a boy with his mother sitting across the aisle from him glanced at his book.

“What’s that?” The boy pointed.

Nikolai peered up from the text. “This?” He lifted the book. “It’s a novel.”

“A novel?” The boy wrinkled his brow. “What kind of book is that?”

“A novel tells a story. They are very rare. This one is an antique. The Corporate Senate banned the making of entertainment books long ago. Today you have to have a license to carry a novel and many other forms of books.”

The boy eyed the novel curiously. “I still don’t know what it is. What’s a story?”

Nikolai glanced at the boy’s mother who was sleeping. Surely his mother told him tales of knights and dragons in the privacy of their home.

The boy’s mother woke and saw her son talking with the stranger. She noticed Nikolai reading a novel and looked at him with disgust as if he was smoking dope. She changed seats with her child, forcing the boy to sit by the window.

Nikolai returned to his reading. Hours went by, and a female attendant walked up to them, leaned over his sister, and touched his shoulder.

“Sir, we are coming up to the Curtain.”

“Thank you.” Nikolai raked his hand over his face and through his buzz cut.

A male passenger in the seat in front of him said to a woman, “I hear the barriercumulus spreads almost an inch every week. If the Corporate Senate doesn’t find a way to stop the Dry Clouds, the whole world will be covered.”

“Is that right?” the woman asked.

“As right as anything you hear,” the male passenger replied.

If that was true, Nikolai’s homeland would be consumed by the barriercumulus. He opened the window shutter; it was still day. He looked across the wing at about 2 o’clock and in the distance, a charcoal-gray wall of clouds spread across the horizon and consumed the sky. The dark barrier raged with movement as if two creatures fought for dominance. Nikolai cleared his throat and said, “Excuse me.”

The female attendant turned. “Yes, sir.”

“Do, what you call Dry Clouds, do they always look that way?” He motioned outside.

She glanced out the window. “No, only the outer area known as the Curtain acts this way. Once we’re inside, they will look like normal storm clouds.”

“Thank you.” Nikolai watched the barriercumulus as streaks of purple lightning lit up the mass. Normal storm clouds? What was normal about them?

The seat belt sign blinked on with a ding as the V.T.O. ascended, flying above the Dry Clouds of the Earth’s Dark Half into the high Troposphere. The female attendant walked the aisle, making sure everyone had their belt buckled.

“Excuse me,” Nikolai said.

The attendant turned to him. “Yes.”

“Why are we flying above the clouds and not through them?”

“As you can see, the Curtain is very turbulent, so we fly above the Dry Clouds until we have past the Curtain. We will be flying about five miles in.” She glanced over her shoulder when she heard another attendant call button, and then the attendant turned back to Nikolai. “It’s safer to fly above them and then descend once we reach our destination.” She started down the aisle to the other passenger. “We’ll be over Noir in about five minutes.”

He turned to his sister and told her while she slept, “Not much longer and it will be over.”

Within twenty minutes, the pilot slowed the plane as the copilot pushed the V.T.O. Lever up, turning the aircraft’s nozzles to their vertical position, and the plane hovered. The pilot closed the air intake valves to the engines with a flick of his finger and switched to a stored clean air source. If the plane used outside air while moving through the barriercumulus, the pollutants would cause the engines to clog and die.

“Perhaps my sister is right,” Nikolai said as the aircraft started a vertical descent to one of Noir’s Airports. “This place is a wicked place.”

The plane hit heavy turbulence, entering the Dry Clouds. He feared his sister would wake and panic, but she continued to sleep soundly. A few minutes passed, and the shaking subsided.

“If I could have everyone’s attention,” a male attendant announced over the intercom. “We will be landing shortly, and at this time please pull out the kits that were issued to you when you boarded. Our staff will be walking around to assist you.” The male attendant paused as he helped an elderly lady remove a kit from underneath her seat.

Nikolai closed the shutter and gently shook his sister. “Tasha, wake. We are landing in the Rising Sun Sector of Noir, and soon we will be on a Hover Train to the Hellenistic Sector.”

“Hmm…” She stretched and yawned. “Already? I did dream as you said. I dreamed of a sky full of stars.”

He said, “I told you you would.”

The male attendant announced over an intercom, “Inside your kits you’ll find an instruction booklet.” He raised the handbook. “A Winnow Mask type A.” The attendant lifted a small triangular devise with a rubber rim which fit over the nose and connected to a filter. “And the Liquid Oxygen Spray known as L-O.” He raised what looked like a fat ball-point pen. “Please wear the WM-A anytime you go outside, and it will keep you from feeling the ill effects of the pollutants caused by the petroleum based clouds. They can be dangerous for those not used to living below Dry Clouds.” He paused. “The triangular filter fits over your nose. Breathe in through this filter and out through your mouth. The basic design mask has to be held to the face. If you find that you are outside a lot, you can purchase an upgraded version of the Winnow Mask that is handsfree.” The attendant demonstrated and removed the mask. “If you should feel queasy or light headed, inject yourself with the L-O Spray and this will give your blood stream a burst of oxygen.”

The attendant paused for a moment. “Place the spray’s head on your bare wrist or neck, press the red button on the top, and the solution absorbs right through your skin. Your body will take some time to get used to the air, so please keep your kits with you at all times. These items can be replaced at any drug store. If you have any questions, an attendant will help you.”

Natasha looked at the mask. “They are not very fashionable, are they?” She whined, “I wish to be done with this Closing.”

Nikolai turned to her. “Patience, sister. We will return to Mother Russia in time.”

 

Chapter Twelve

Nexus Apartments

4:35 P.M…

Hellenistic Sector, Residential Vicinage…

Kim drove her Corvette into the parking garage of the Nexus Apartments. She had stopped earlier at a gas station and changed out of her black clothes into a blue pant suit and made sure to wash the splattered blood from her face. She got out of the car, made her way to her apartment, went in, and threw her knapsack on the couch in the living room. Kim went to the hall, walked to her bedroom, went into her bathroom, leaned on the sink, and stared at herself in the mirror.

“Idiot!” she shouted at herself. She had let herself be seen. Kim turned on the faucet and watched the water run down the drain as the security she had in her job washed down the tube. She should have gone after that woman and killed her, but no… Kim looked up and stared at herself again. She panicked and ran. Kim cursed, “Hades!”

In the bedroom, the screen saver of the flaming phoenix flew across the laptop, and the glow lit up the dark room, casting shadows across the floor and walls. Kim splashed her face, trying to wash away her anxiety over what the Assassins Guild would do to her once they found out her identity had been compromised. She dried her face with a towel then went and sat at the desk. She pressed the space bar to pull up her desktop and then she sent an instant message and within minutes, a reply came back.

“Topa’s Closing is complete then,” Voice typed. “The payment will be placed into your account. Did you run into any trouble?”

Kim started to type no, but backspaced and responded, “About a dozen robot like men showed up and killed everyone in sight.”

“Must be some sort of bio-mecha, perhaps the next generation of assassins,” Voice typed. “Most likely someone there was their target, but was it Topa? We’ll probably never know, at least you got out.”

Kim raked her hand through her hair, knowing the grave mistake she had made, and she moved her hands toward the keyboard to write, and they shook with dread. Kim forced herself to type, “Someone saw my face.” She hit the send button and stared at the screen, and two grueling minutes passed with no reply. “What should I do?” She hit the send button again, hoping for a reply and praying for some guidance and solace.

“Find them and kill them; you know it is very dangerous, Phoenix. Even I don’t know who you are or what you look like. If your identity gets out, you will become the target, and then the Assassins Guild will be forced to deal with you.” The statement ended and another followed. “But before that happens, you know I will step in, and you don’t want me to rectify the problem. You know my means.”

She did know; there was no reprimand for a Closer. Kim grabbed the sides of her desk and gripped them tightly. She knew with Voice and the Assassins Guild there was only one way to deal with a Closer who had lost their anonymity, and it was the sanction of their own Life Closing.

“Don’t contact me again until this matter is taken care of. Voice signing off.”

Rolling her chair away from the desk, Kim glanced at the dark afternoon through the bedroom’s window. She had to find that woman, but she didn’t know that woman’s name. She only knew that woman was there to kill Topa because he hired an Illicit Closer to murder someone named Preacher. Kim didn’t even know what he was a preacher of.

“Hades…” she uttered. “This is going to be impossible.”

  • * *

Two days later…

October 15…

Friday…

6:49 A.M…

 

Katharine’s view…

Hundreds of street lights light up twilight as a horde of bats fly across the ever dark horizon. The sidewalk goes on forever in both directions as I make my way across West 1000 Avenue and pause, looking at the tall Nexus Apartments. So this building is the Phoenix’s nest. I walked all night and morning to reach this part of the Hellenistic Sector, and my shoes feel heavy, and my feet are sore. I adjust the strap of the backpack that crosses my chest as I study the sensors on an eight foot concrete wall lining the building’s perimeter. They consist of a black sphere the size of a volley ball and are spaced about ten feet apart along the top of the wall. I follow the sidewalk to a gate. On the gate’s metal bars is a gold shield; it’s the Sphinx Corporation Emblem. I run my hand over the shield and over a winged creature in its center with a woman’s head and a lion’s body. The creature’s right paw is lifted, and its claws are extended. The emblem seems to plague every place I go. I know the Council and the Factory are departments within the corporation, but what does Sphinx want with me? It’s another mystery among hundreds. I study the perimeter and let my mind drift to other questions. Do these sensors provide more than security for the building? I put my hand up toward a black sphere and feel and hear a hum coming from the device. Do they act as a barrier?

End Katharine’s view…

 

A white van pulled up, a man got out, and walked up beside her. He was dressed in a white uniform and said, “Excuse me.”

Kat moved out of his way.

The man tipped a white cap. “Thanks.” He pressed the button to an intercom positioned beside the gate and released it.

“Welcome to Nexus Apartments,” a man’s voice said over the intercom. “I’m the manager. How may I help you?”

The delivery man pressed the button again and spoke, “Delivery for Kimberly Griffin. Security Code 10 Alpha.”

After a few seconds, the manager replied, “Code verified. Proceed to the gate that faces Knot Street, and I’ll let you in.”

The delivery man went back to his van, started up the engine, turned down Knot Street, and parked, and Kat followed the sidewalk around the corner, walked by the vehicle’s passenger seat, and noticed it was empty. The delivery man got out, strolled to the back of the van as he whistled, and started on a crate.

She watched as the man struggled to load a rectangular box on a flat cart. “Where’s your partner?”

“What?” He paused, wiping his brow with the back of his hand.

She leaned on the back of the van. “Usually at least two men do this kind of job, so where’s your partner?”

The delivery man pointed his thumb over his shoulder. “He’s out sick.”

“Would you like some help?” She motioned to the apartments. “I was on my way up.”

He looked her over. “I’m not supposed to cause of business policy, but…” He grinned. “You aren’t some murdering psycho are you?”

“No. Definitely not.”

“Well then…” He placed the wooden crate on the cart. “If you could push from behind; it weighs a ton.”

Kat went to the back of the cart and pushed on the crate. The apartment manager and a security guard met them at the gate.

The old white haired manager looked over his H.H.C. “Kimberly Griffin isn’t home right now, so I’ll show you in.” He examined the delivery man’s employee badge and typed the ID number on the Hand Held Computer. “Follow me please.”

The delivery man pulled the cart as Kat pushed, and they moved to the glass front doors where another security guard buzzed them in. The manager led them to a service elevator, and they along with the guard went up to the thirty-first floor. Security cameras monitored the hallways.

The manager stopped in front of Kim’s apartment and commanded, “Apartment H, unlock. Manager code 12 Beta.”

“Voice recognized as Nexus’ Manager,” the Apartment Computer System stated. “Opening door.”

“Wow,” the delivery man exclaimed. “Automated apartments. I bet you can tell the lights to come on.”

The manager said, “Our apartments are equipped with voice commands and manual utilities, giving our tenants the best in security and luxury.”

“I’ll have to look into getting one of these places,” the delivery man said.

He pulled the cart down a small entryway as Kat pushed and once they were in the living room, the delivery man started uncrating a cedar chest, so she went and looked around. The lady’s huge apartment covered more than three thousand square feet. The entryway emptied into an open kitchen with four barstools at the counter, a large living room was off to the left, and beyond it down a hall were two bedrooms and two baths; off to the right of the entryway, a small round table sat next to a window.

Kat thought it was odd that the table was so small, considering it was the only one in the apartment. She asked the delivery man, “Do you need anymore help?”

“No, I got it from here. Thanks.”

 

Katharine’s view…

I leave, note the apartment’s H, head for the regular elevator, go up to the roof, and wait. I watch what little traffic travels West 1000 Avenue as I grip the icy metal railing that surrounds the top. Finally, I’ll have some answers once I meet with the lady who owns the business card. A cool breeze sweeps in, chilling the air and my thoughts, so I zip up my athletic jacket, but it does little to stay off the cold. Will I like what I hear? I clench the jacket over my heart with my right fist as if I’m in pain. Will knowing be worse than this unbearable ignorance I’ve endured this past year? My lips tremble for the chill and my fears.

End Katharine’s view…

 

Back in Apartment H…

The delivery man finished his work and set the cedar chest against the wall in the living room out of the way. He placed the crate pieces back on his cart, had the manager sign for the package, and headed back to his van and once inside the vehicle, he made a cell phone call.

“I would like to speak with R.G.” He waited for a moment. “Hello, Delivery Man here. Yes, my work is finished and as per your instructions, I permitted Katharine to enter with me into the Nexus Apartments. She’s still there.” He paused for a moment, listening. “Yes, so far security doesn’t know she is still on the premises. Do you want me to monitor the situation?” He started up the engine. “Understood. Returning to base.”

He drove the van, heading away.

 

Chapter Thirteen

Confrontation

7:22 A.M…

On the roof…

 

Katharine’s view…

I lean on the metal railing and continue staring at the road below and at times of quiet stillness, I feel the barriercumulus and its presence is like an evil eidolon. If this is true, who does this phantom look-alike belong to?

The Dry Clouds softly roll and unsettle me, and it has done so ever since I first laid eyes on it, but there’s also something else about the Dry Clouds; it’s a hint of familiarity. I can’t explain it, but today the foreboding’s stronger than the familiarity. Is it because they’re unnatural? Does everyone feel this way around it or is it just me? I watch them go by and look for shapes within the clouds and see an old sailing ship being chased by a sea serpent. The Dry Clouds have been around for thirty-two years and have been given the name the Great Specter of Noir. People also say that it’s a mystery. I chuckle. In a way, we’re the same.

An hour goes by, and I notice the Corvette pull into the parking garage. I jump up and down like a little girl who has just got the pony she wished for. I want to run back down and meet her and ask her all my questions, but I contain my excitement and wait a few more minutes, giving the lady enough time to arrive at her apartment. I don’t want to come at her like some crazy person, so I’ll have to keep my cool.

 

A few minutes later…

Kimberly’s view…

I hear a ding and the whoosh of the elevator opening and then someone approaches me as I put my mail in my dark green purse that matches my pant suit. I stand outside of my apartment and realize how odd it is that I have never seen any of the other tenants the whole time I’ve lived there. I need to at least get a glimpse of one of my neighbors, so I turn. My Closer training kicks in a second before I have a chance to panic as I spot that woman I’ve been hunting. For two days, I scoured Noir and turned the city on its head, but I couldn’t find anything on this mysterious woman, not even her name. I drop some of my mail as I open my purse to grab my PPK and remember the floor’s security cameras. I can’t kill her out here, not unless she threatens me, so I wait on that woman’s next move.

 

Katharine’s view…

Elated and full of expectations, I stop about two yards from the lady. Finally after a year of knowing nothing, I’ll have some answers; I question, “Are you Kimberly Griffin?”

 

Kimberly’s view…

“What?” I ask, keeping my poise.

Where’s that woman’s gun? Is she here to kill me? Does that woman know I’ve been hunting her?

 

Katharine’s view…

The lady looks confused, so I repeat, “Is your name Kimberly Griffin?”

 

Kimberly’s view…

“Yes,” I reply as I step back and size up that woman. How did she know my name? I examine her face and she looks happy to see me like we’re best friends and haven’t seen each other in years. Is it an act? Is that woman also waiting to strike when there are no witnesses?

She says to me, “I had a contact in the Noir Civil Police Force look up your address from your license plate. It cost me two months worth of water rations.” She starts to ask me something and looks over her shoulder at the cameras. She removes two business cards, shows me the blood speckled one, and then questions me, “Is this you?”

I grip the gun in my purse sure that woman reaches for a weapon, but I’m surprised to see the business cards. What’s that woman doing? What kind of game is she playing? A million things go through my mind. That woman tracked me down and came all the way to my apartment. Is she hoping to blackmail me? Only an idiot would think they could blackmail a Closer, so why is she here?

I scan the hall to see if anyone else is on the floor and ask, “What do you mean, is that me?”

 

Katharine’s view…

“I’ve been looking for…” I start to answer then decide I shouldn’t say the Phoenix out loud. Someone could be listening, and the lady might not want anyone else to know, so I continue, “I’ve been looking for this… Umm…” I flip the card over, look at the picture, and turn it back to her. “This firebird. Is this you? If so, I would like to talk.”

 

Kimberly’s view…

I can’t let her leave, and I can’t kill her out here. I glance at the hall’s cameras. If I can only get that woman into my apartment, then I can… I wickedly grin as I visualize myself shooting that woman and then I see myself standing over her lifeless body. All I’ll have to do is call Voice for a Guild Prep/Cleanup Crew, and I’ll have this annoyance taken care of.

That woman reaches down, picks up the dropped mail, and hands it to me as she asks, “This isn’t a bad time, is it?”

“No, of course not,” I answer.

It’s almost too easy, but still I have to be on my guard; it could be a trick.

“Come on in,” I say as I take the mail from her still wary of that woman and command, “Door, unlock.” The door slides sideways; I motion for the woman to go in first and then I follow. “Door, lock,” I command, and the door closes, entombing us.

End Kimberly’s view…

 

The Apartment Computer System turned on the lights as they entered each room. “Welcome back Ms. Griffin and welcome guest. The apartment…”

“Mute,” Kim commanded.

Kat walked down the entry, stopped, and studied the kitchen. She walked over to the faucet and glanced back at her. “I see no scanner for a Water Ration Card. Your water isn’t portioned?”

 

Kimberly’s view…

I look to the sink then think of the shower and bathtub and realize I never thought about it. Most of the city’s given an allotment for the month and here I enjoy unlimited. I’m wary of that woman’s suspicious questions. Is she trying to distract me or is she really this naive?

I answer, “No, my water isn’t portioned.”

“Oh, you must be rich then.” She sets her backpack on the black leather couch, walks over to the small round table, and sits as if she’s here for a visit.

What is that woman doing now? What is she up to that she’s acting calm? I start to pull out my gun, notice the cedar chest in the living room, and turn my attention back to that woman.

She sees the teacup I left earlier that morning and states, “Tea. I love tea.” She turns wide eyed like a child asking for a piece of candy. “Could I have some, please? I haven’t had tea in a long time.”

“Tea?”

I glance at the kettle on the stove then at my purse. She has to be joking; she has to be here to kill me. I’m not sure what to do, but then I think of Topa’s Closing. Maybe I can find out what was going on there, so I’ll play along for now, and I answer her, “Sure, why not. Let’s have some tea. Is black okay?”

I don’t wait for an answer as I carefully position my purse on the counter, so I’ll have quick access to my gun.

“Yes, black tea is fine.”

Keeping a close tab on that woman, I fill the kettle, place the stainless steel pot on the burner, and turn it on high. “So…” I place two sets of cups and saucers on the counter. “Who are you and why have you come to see me?”

 

Katharine’s view…

“Who am I?” Heavyhearted over Preacher’s death and still weary from the endless running, I laugh a melancholy chuckle as I stare at the table. “That’s a good question.”

I reach into my pant’s pocket for my dearest possessions; they’ve been with me since the beginning, and maybe now one of them will lead me to the answers I desperately seek and a place I yearn to belong.

 

Kimberly’s view…

I go for my purse and reach for my gun until I see the items that woman removes. She places a small silver box, two business cards, and a worn paper on the table and then opens the paper. She answers me, “Katharine, I think. If this note is meant for me.” She seems to be studying the writing.

I could shoot her now that that woman’s distracted and end this game. The kettle shrieks, stealing away the moment; I turn the burner off, remove the pot, and pour hot water into the cups. The aroma of orange fills the air as I say, “Note? I don’t understand.”

“Huh?” She turns to me. “Oh, I guess you wouldn’t. You see, I don’t know who I am.” She looks back to the items. “The only clues to my identity are these three things.” She seems unsure herself as she adds, “At least, I think they are.”

What an unlikely story. I carry the two saucers to the table with my purse strapped over my shoulder. What kind of ploy is this? I set a teacup in front of her and one at my spot. Either that woman is very clever or very stupid.

“See…” she says as she gives the paper to me.

I read the note, “Katharine, you must not fail; this is your last chance to redeem yourself. I know you can complete your mission, my dearest Kat. I am counting on you. Signed, R.G.” I peer up from the note. “Who is R.G.?”

She shrugs.

“I don’t understand. What does this have to do with me?” I ask as I hand back the note.

She folds the paper, picks up the business cards, and then explains to me, “For the past year, I’ve been trying to figure out how these clues fit in my life, and now I’ve found a person who belongs to one of these items.” She slides the red speckled card across the table. “I found this at Topa’s.” She places the second one beside the other. “This one I’ve had.”

I look over the blood covered business card I left beside Topa, pick up the second business card, and ask, “Where did you get this one?” I examine it more closely. “This is an earlier design from years ago.”

 

Katharine’s view…

“I’ll start from the beginning.”

I dip the tea bag in my hot water several times, drain the bag with a spoon, and place it on the saucer. I breathe in its citrus scent and stare at the brownish liquid. Sitting here seems so familiar to me. Have I been here before? I don’t know, and I tell her, “About a year ago, I awoke in the abandoned Etna Toys Plant and Warehouse with no memory. Beside me on a table was this note–” I tap the paper and point to the other two items. “–that business card, and this music box.” I look to the backpack on the couch where I stowed the Beretta. With aversion to having to carry the gun, I add, “And one other item.”

“What you’re saying is, you don’t know who you are, and you think because you have one of my business cards you’re supposed to find me? Okay… You have. Now what?”

After picking up the honey bear, I draw a smiley face on the spoon and whisper, “Fly… fly away, sad, sad day.” I stir the honey in the tea and look into Kimberly’s face.

 

Kimberly’s view…

I wonder what that woman’s doing playing with the honey. She has to be out of her mind.

“Now what?” that woman questions as she shrugs. “I don’t know. I was hoping you knew me.” She seems to be examining my face again as she inquires, “Are you sure we haven’t met? You look very familiar, but I can’t place you. It’s kind of like when you wake from a dream. You know something happened, but all the details are fuzzy.”

“No, we haven’t met,” I answer, irritated and then I remember our first meeting at Topa’s estate and decide I might as well get some information from her before I eliminate that woman, so I state, “I am curious. What were those things you killed at the estate? Were they some kind of robot and why were they there?”

Her gaze becomes distant, exhausted, and dismal as she replies, “They’re bio-mechas, model Un-Men.” She flushes as if she is a little embarrassed. “They were there to hunt me.”

“Hunt you?” I chuckle, thinking she made it up. “Why are you so important?”

“I don’t know. They call me the Pandora Project.”

“They? Who are they?”

“The Council. A man named Argus said they were monitoring me and watching me through the tests.” She mutters as her eyes show fatigue, “And there have been so many tests.”

“Pandora?” I inquire and then I remember a story I heard long ago. “I’ve heard of her; she was a woman who opened a sealed box from Zeus and let all good escape from existence, so are you supposed to be the woman who doomed the world?”

 

Katharine’s view…

“Let all good escape?” I utter. I never considered the significance of the project name.

Kimberly answers nonchalantly, “Yes, Pandora caused Mankind to suffer.”

Is this my destiny? I feel conflicted inside. Am I destined to make people suffer? I stare out the window at the dark day for a few moments and then say, “I guess this was another dead end.” I push back my chair. “I guess my search continues. I’m sorry I bothered you. I’ll show myself out.”

“Are you so naive?” Kimberly stands and reaches into her purse. “Idiot! Do you know what I do for a living?”

“You’re Kimberly Griffin.” I glance at the business cards on the table. “You’re the Phoenix.” I pause as the horrible realization sinks in. “You’re a Life Closer.” I stare at the splattered blood on one of the cards. “You kill people.” Appalled by my own naivety and Kimberly’s apparent ruthlessness, I turn my gaze to her. “You kill people for money.”

“Idiot! And to think I was worried I let you slip by at Topa’s estate.” Kimberly removes her gun and screws on its silencer. “You do understand I can’t let you live.” She shakes her head in a tisk-tisk manner. “You’ve seen my face, know my alias, and even been in my apartment.” Her expression shows outrage and disbelief. “I don’t think I’ve ever met someone so stupid!” Kimberly takes a moment to regain her cold detached demeanor. “You were searching for me, hoping to find answers, but–” With indifference and a just business attitude, she raises the gun and aims it at me. “–all you’ve found is your death.”

 

Chapter Fourteen

A Forgotten Melody

8:32 A.M…

Katharine’s view…

I stare down the barrel of Kimberly’s gun. How could I be so wrong? It’s not the first time, but it’s unexpected and in confusion, I turn to the table and gaze at the three items that have led me to this point. I have been foolish, and I fist my hands. I believed the items are clues and if I follow them, I’ll find answers not my end. I close my eyes in frustration. I have been stupid. Why did I believe I was safe here?

 

Kimberly’s view…

I prepare to kill this strange woman. Her death will be like countless other Closings I’ve performed in the past except this one will involve more paperwork, and it’ll be the first one I have executed inside my apartment. I notice she doesn’t panic and doesn’t plead for her life like most Marks do. Kat only stares at the gun and then she closes her eyes as if she deserves her death. A little surprised by her actions, I ask, “Are you sure you didn’t hit your head? Do you understand you’re going to die?”

 

Katharine’s view…

I open my eyes and rub my forehead, remembering the wound I had when I first awoke in Etna Toys. The urgency of the situation finally sinks in, and my attitude changes as I repeat Kimberly’s words, “You can’t let me live?” I feel my demeanor transform from a wide eyed child to the fierce glare of a cornered tigress. I look to the backpack that holds my gun; it’s across the room. Is this one of the tests? Is Kimberly just another assassin hired by the Council? I go over in my mind how to incapacitate her. Why did I let my guard down? My face softens. Why did I feel so at home here? I stare at the tea, not wanting to hurt Kimberly. Why do I always end up in these situations?

“Idiot,” Kim utters in a calm voice as she places the muzzle of the gun against my temple. “It’s going to be messy; your brains will splatter all over my table and wall. Why couldn’t you have died at Topa’s estate?”

Ignoring her, I glance at the clues to my life. What’s the point in fighting or in fleeing? I pick up the music box. What does it matter if Kimberly kills me or I fall prey to one of the Un-Men or some other assassin? I heave a great sigh as if it’ll be my last breath on Earth. I’m tired, so I open the lid to the music box, and the melody plays. I’m tired of the tests and I’m tired of being alone. I feel myself slipping into the Drifting Time as the tune continues; my eyes slowly close, I go into a trance and enter the Drifting Time, but this one’s different than the ones before. Within it, I enter the domain of dreams, and in this realm of my subconscious, no Dry Clouds exist, the sun shines on the land, governments not corporations rule the Earth, and no one hunts me. I drift in this world on my stomach as if floating on a peaceful river. A breeze blows at my back, and the air smells crisp and clean. I pass over large cities and small villages. I fly over many races of Man. I float over forests, hills, deserts, oceans, islands, plains, lakes, jungles, mountains, and streams. I believe I recognize a few of the places, but I can’t remember their names. The dream seems endless until the wind changes. A torrent of air blows against me and slows my progression as a shadow casts over the land, invading the peacefulness; a male voice laughs, and the sun flees as Dry Clouds storm in and plunge the land into perpetual night. I feel afraid as I glide over this dark world, seeing no more of the places and people I saw. Everything’s different and darker in their appearance and atmosphere. I stop midair as if I slam into an invisible wall, an unknown force pulls me, and I plummet to the earth. The force also affects time and as I drop I grow younger till I reach my early teens. My descent slows, and my thirteen year old body lands feet first in a white tiled room; in the room, people talk with muffled words. Two women’s figures appear, but they have no faces.

One of the faceless women places her hands on my shoulders and tells me, “Katharine, you must be strong. I can no longer protect you.” The woman looks to a door, hearing footsteps approach what appears to be an office, and then the faceless woman turns back to me. “There are those in the corporation that want to exploit you.”

The doorknob jiggles as someone tries to enter, and I hear one of the women speak again, but I’m not sure which one it is.

“Rosetta, they’re here. Hurry.”

“Quick, Mary. Push the desk against the door. I need more time!”

One of the women kneels to one knee to look into my face and tells me, “They will take you. I can’t stop them, not with the power I have now.”

Someone outside tries to bust in the door.

One of the women yells frantic, “Hurry! They’re coming.”

“Be strong, Katharine.” One of the women strokes my cheek. “My dearest Kat.”

A small explosion removes the door from its hinges, and it falls as five soldiers rush in.

End Katharine’s view…

 

Back in Apartment H…

The whole time Kat had been in the Drifting Time, Kim had been talking to her, but Kat had ignored her.

Kim asked, confused over the woman’s actions, “Aren’t you going to plead for your life?” She placed her finger on the trigger, and still Kat didn’t respond to her. “No? Well it wouldn’t have done you any good.”

Kim squeezed the trigger, the hammer fell, and gunfire lit up her grim face.

 

Chapter Fifteen

Portraits Of Her Past

Dawn, dusk, and twilight did not exist in Noir since the sun no longer ruled over the land. Shadows gathered in the park across the street from Nexus Apartments and held position, and the gathering stared at the building, knowing their target lay within. The shadows detected an electronic barrier surrounding the building and like a magical curtain, it prevented the glowing eyed monsters from entering; for the moment, they would wait till the prey came to them.

Before Kim fired the gun…

 

Kimberly’s view…

All I have to do to rid myself of this strange woman is pull the trigger, and then she’ll be gone from my life like any other Mark I have come across on my morbid travels. I only need to continue walking the path my bleak and lonely existence already leads me down, but a split second of time changes the course of both our fates. Unfinished Melody chimes from the music box that woman holds, filling the room with a familiar tune. Louder and louder the music grows until the melody incites a trigger and ghastly images inundate my mind: the roar and smell of fire, screams that chill my soul, and the distinct sound of three shots. My head throbs, and I gasp as horrible pictures buried deep in my brain force their way to the surface. Memories of my mom rapidly flood my consciousness, making me feel sad, alone, and abandoned.

“Stop it!” I yell, but the tune chimes on, pulling from my psyche portraits of my past I long buried. I separated myself from those happy moments that died when my mom left my family. “Stop the music!”

That woman doesn’t respond, caught within the recesses of her own mind, so I slap her hand, knocking the music box to the floor; as I slap her hand, I inadvertently move my gun away from her head. “I said stop it!!” The music box closes as it hits the carpet, and the melody ends. I stare at it for a few moments, turn my attention back to that woman, and snap, “I don’t know what kind of game you’re playing, but it won’t work on me. Do you hear me? Are you going to stay silent? Aren’t you going to plead for your life? No? Well it wouldn’t have done you any good.”

I start to move the gun back to her head.

End Kimberly’s view…

 

Within Kat’s dream, five soldiers barged into the white tiled room, and Rosetta and Mary screamed as three shots resounded then all faded to black.

“No!” Kat screamed as she pulled from her trance, swung her hand up and back, and shouted, “Mary! Rosetta!”

She knocked Kim’s gun to the side; it went off, and a bullet struck the wall. The gun blast lit up Kim’s surprised face. Caught in the drama of her dream, Kat made a fist, pulled it back to hit Kim, and paused, realizing she no longer stood in the white tiled room but in the apartment. There was no fire or soldiers, and no one was in danger but herself. Kat slowly blinked, frozen in place and then lowered her hand.

That woman caught Kim off guard, but Kim quickly recovered. Rage and sorrow filled her resolve as she aimed the gun back at the woman.

Kat ignored Kim at first as she clung to what she remembered while in the Drifting Time. She couldn’t hold on to the memories for long and they slowly left her. Kat turned to Kim and realized she had struck her and worried she might have hurt her.

“I’m sorry,” Kat said as she tried to lose the last remnants of the dream world and focus on reality. “I didn’t mean to…”

“Who are you?” Kim’s gun hand shook as her emotions overwhelmed her. She hadn’t felt such fear or heartache in such a long time, and she didn’t understand why she was feeling them now, so she demanded, “Why are you here?!” Her head continued to throb as she stepped back from the table, getting some distance between herself and the strange woman.

Noticing Kim’s trembling hand and her watering eyes, Kat felt a little pang in her chest and asked, “Are you crying?”

“No.” Kim wiped her eyes. “Shut up and sit there!” She rubbed her throbbing temple and asked, “Who sent you?”

Kat crossed her arms as if pouting. “You just told me to shut up, so how can I…”

“Ah!!” She grabbed Kat’s t-shirt, balled it in her hand, and yelled, “Who sent you?!”

Kat dropped her arms. “Sent me?”

Kim lost her professionalism and like a common thug thrust the gun in her face, yelling, “Yes, who sent you to mess with my head?!” Kim released her t-shirt and put that hand on the gun to steady her shaky aim. She was trembling; it wasn’t like her.

“No one,” Kat answered. “I’m with no one.” Concerned she might had done some unseen damage to her, Kat started to stand. “Are you all right?”

“Don’t move! Sit right there!” Kim took another step back, getting squeamish. Since the flood of memories, she felt as if they were not alone and that some person was watching them. Her headache faded as she glanced at a shelf in between the entry and the living room where her mother’s picture rested. Theresa’s photo gazed at her and watched her threaten Kat, and her mother’s eyes were more alive than ever.

Kim whispered to the picture, “I can’t take a life with you staring at me.” She lowered the gun. “Why did you forsake me? Why did you abandon me?”

“Forsake you?” Kat looked to where she did and saw the photo and at first, she thought the picture was of Kim, but realized the woman with blonde hair pulled back in a bun wasn’t her. The blonde woman seemed familiar, but Kat couldn’t place her. “Is that your mo…”

Kat put a hand to her chest.

lub-DUB… lub-DUB

Kat turned and stared out the window down at the street. She felt the urgency to flee as Ultra-Epi coursed through her blood. “They’re here.”

“What?” Kim was still deeply upset. “Who’s here?”

“The Un-Men.” Kat pointed. “They’re just outside.” She wondered why they hadn’t come in and remembered the apartment’s black spheres; the barrier must be keeping them out.

Kim glanced out the window. “I don’t see anyone.”

“I can feel them. They’re out there. Six of them.”

“You’re imagining things.” Kim walked over to the couch, picked up the backpack, and tossed it to her. “Get out of here.”

Kat caught it and glanced down at the bag. “I don’t understand.” She looked up. “I thought you couldn’t let me live.”

“What part of get out of here don’t you understand?! I’m not going to kill you, at least not here.” Kim glanced at the picture, muttering, “Not in front of her.” She pointed to the entry. “Now get out!”

Fearing what waited for her across the street, Kat gripped the backpack tightly. “Please don’t make me leave.” She knew the apartment was safe and protected from the Un-Men. “I don’t want to live like that anymore.”

 

Kimberly’s view…

“Like what?” I ask.

What’s that woman’s problem? She has to be mental. Anyone else would run at the chance to escape the Phoenix’s fury.

I yell, “Get out! Get out before I change my mind, and I kill you now!”

 

Katharine’s view…

Filled with hopelessness, I stand, grab the note and worn business card, and leave the blood speckled one on the table. I bend down, snatch up the music box, put the three items in my pocket, then sling the backpack across my chest, and head out; within a minute, I stand in front of the elevator and see Kimberly watching me from the apartment. The cab opens, I walk in and a few minutes later, the doors open to the ground floor. I walk out as if going to my own execution, continue through the building’s front doors and into the courtyard, and then I stop half way to the gate. Once I walk through it, the Un-Men can attack me and the hunts will begin again. I hope Kimberly will change her mind, and I glance over my shoulder and see her watching me from the entrance making sure I leave. Disheartened, I pull the business card from my thigh pocket. It’s one of the three clues to my identity or is it? Are any of them? Maybe these aren’t meant for me or… maybe they’re just another test, a test to see what I’ll do with them. I fist my hand; I’m an idiot to believe any different. I don’t need it anymore and drop it to the path, watching it fall to the concrete as one hope dies. First Preacher and now this… How much more can I take?

I sniff my runny nose and force my mind to move on to the current crisis. I remove my gun from the backpack and check the magazine; it has four bullets. It won’t be easy with six Un-Men out there. I remove the Ravlek Vest from the outside of the bag, put it on over my jacket, open the gate, and step out to the sidewalk. Why must I always run or fight? Why are they my only choices?

West 1000 Avenue is as desolate as my life. I cross the street. Lamp posts line the path heading into the empty Zeus Park as Tainted Rain pours from the thundering sky, and I shiver in the cold rain as my hair soaks with the black filmy water. I slow my pace to hold off the inevitable attack and give me time to prepare and observe my surroundings. The Ultra-Epi causes anxiety with my inactivity.

lub-DUB… lub-DUB

Filled with gloom, I ignore the bio-mecha warning and pause, watching the Transgenic Grass soak up the rain. I don’t want to think about the danger that lies before me; I want to be free of strife. At least for a few minutes I can let my mind think of other things other than my own possible death, so I focus on the grass.

Scientists modified the Kentucky Bluegrass with an extra-genome from the bath sponge; they then modified it further. What they created is a hybrid plant capable of absorbing large amounts of Tainted Rain. I feel the Un-Men move into position and I know only moments remain before they attack. The Transgenic Grass releases the H2O properties of the liquid to be absorbed back into the atmosphere through the water cycle. All absorbing Transgenic Plants are created with the water release function in the World’s attempt to correct the Dry Clouds problem. The Un-Men separate and circle me. Why do I know this information? Why do I know the grass then uses the petroleum base of the liquid to create energy? How do I know that it’s how the plant survives? If scientists can do this… What could they have done to me? I look at my gun hand, thinking of my uncanny marksmanship. What did they do to me?

I feel the Un-Men watching me, and I hurry past a metal bench; a green line of light hits my hand as a spot, and I watch it as the laser aim moves up my arm to my chest. Five more green laser aims pinpoint kill shots on my body. I remove my backpack, throw it back to the bench, and unset the safety on my Beretta. I dash for cover in a thicket of trees, splashing through puddles of Tainted Rain as gun fire erupts around me and several shots strike my back. The spongy Transgenic Grass cushions my fall as I roll with the impacts and after I roll, I arch my back for the pain, force myself to move on, and spring to my feet. I have to run! I have to run or I’ll die!!

 

Chapter Sixteen

They Are Here

9:59 A.M…

Nexus Apartments’ courtyard…

Moments earlier…

 

Kimberly’s view…

Hades! This is ridiculous! I watch that woman leave and see the look of hurt she gives me before walking through the gate. Why didn’t I kill her? And why did that woman look at me as if we’re friends, and we just had a bad fight?

I follow her, pause, and glance through the gate’s metal bars as that woman crosses the street. I let her escape again, but why? I notice something at my feet. Oh my Zeus! What did she do? I see the Phoenix business card on the path. That little… Why did she drop this out here? I definitely don’t need someone finding my calling card. I pick it up and place it in my purse then I watch that woman enter the park. Should I follow her? I push the gate open. What about the Un-Men that woman mentioned? I step onto the sidewalk. Are they really out here?

After crossing West 1000 Avenue, I trail that woman and head into the park; a few black droplets fall on the sleeve of my dark green pant suit then thousands fall from the menacing sky.

“Great, just great!” I mutter.

Rain… and me without an umbrella. I hide behind a large Transgenic Maple a couple hundred feet away from her.

End Kimberly’s view…

 

The tree like the Lantern Pine created its own light with the help of an extra-genome from a firefly. The light emanated from the maple’s trunk and branches. Its leaves grew upside down to gather the light for photosynthesis.

 

Kimberly’s view…

Strands of my hair fall in my face as Tainted Rain darkens them, and I rake them behind my ear. Why did I follow her? I still need to kill her, but that isn’t it. Do I believe that woman can detect the Un-Men beyond the visual plain? My suit jacket soaks through. Hades! I’ll catch a cold if I stay out here much longer.

In the distance, I see that woman pause and the beams of green light hit her. Someone’s aiming at her, but who? I search the park. Are the Un-Men really here?

Gun fire erupts from all around the park, lighting up the bushes and trees with muzzle flashes as I duck into a thicket of trees. I pull my gun from my purse and search the park, hearing movement coming from my left and my right. I turn and lean my back against a maple as the area falls silent.

Are the Un-Men really hunting that woman? Is there a bounty on her head or a more malevolent reason? I remember our conversation from before. That woman said the Council called her the Pandora Project. She also said that they’re testing her. I hear more gunfire. What kind of mess did I get myself into by following that woman here?

End Kimberly’s view…

 

In the thicket, Kat crawled through the small trees deeper into the park and then caught sight of a small tunnel underneath a stone bridge about twenty yards away. She ran for it and entered the tunnel then an Un-Man stepped out at the other end, activating her abilities. Over the past year, Kat learned many things about herself, about the Pandora Project and knew her abilities came in levels. The level she just entered was the Beta Phase, and she couldn’t miss any target when she was in this phase. Kat aimed with her extraordinary gift, fired once, and hit the Un-Man in its kill spot. She started down the tunnel to collect its AK-47 when two more Un-Men appeared at the same end as their brethren, and they opened fire. Kat scampered back and ducked around the outside of the tunnel as bullets sprayed past her and a few of them ricocheted off the stone wall. Her hot moist breath showed up as steam in the brisk October air as she heaved from the exertion. She wiped black water from her brow, waiting for the metal barrage to end then fired twice around the corner. Kat hit the two Un-Men and dropped them.

 

Katharine’s view…

I have one bullet left and there’s still three more Un-Men, so I’ll have to run for it. I start through the tunnel, hear Kimberly scream, and glance back. Did she follow me out here? Again a voice deep within me reasons with my heart not to let anyone suffer, and that I need to protect those who need me. I stare at the stone ceiling as the burden of doing what’s right weighs on me. I look to the one end of the tunnel that means my freedom and to the other that means confrontation. Wouldn’t it be easier to run? Kimberly’s an assassin, and she can take care of herself. I’ve ignored the pleas to save people before. Why do I need to endanger myself for someone who’s probably at the park to kill me? I turn as if I can see the Nexus Apartments in the distance. Kimberly won’t help me, so why should I help her? I head toward my freedom. Kimberly’s on her own just like I am.

End Katharine’s view…

 

Minutes earlier…

A gust shook rain droplets from the maple, turning Kim’s green outfit to the color of oil. The Un-Men hadn’t spotted her yet, but she knew she was vulnerable where she stood and had to get out of there. Nexus was about five minutes away if she ran for it. Kim looked down at her pumps; she had ruined her shoes being out in the rain. She dashed back towards the apartments and neared the next large tree when a muscular man stepped from the bushes.

“Team Leader here,” the T-5 relayed over its I-Link in a Russian accent. “Civilian encountered.” It paused for a few seconds then repeated the orders it received from the Factory, “I will take the civilian as a hostage.” The Team Leader aimed its AK-47 at her. “Stay where you are and you will not be hurt.”

“Right. I’ll do that.” Kim shot three times, hitting it in the chest.

The Team Leader marched toward her like a runaway hover freight train as she fired four more times, emptied the gun, ejected the magazine, and slid in a new one. She fired twice more before it reached her, but her attack did nothing to stop it. It hit her across the face with the back of its hand, bruising her cheek and grabbed her arm. It squeezed her wrist till she dropped the gun and cried out in pain.

The Team Leader dragged her to a clearing and yelled, “Pandora, surrender or we will kill the civilian.” It scanned the area and detected two of its brethren still functioned and that the other three had been disabled. “Come out now!” The Team Leader squeezed her wrist, and she cried out again.

Kim struggled against its hold, trying to free herself from its mechanical grip as she said, “Do you really think she’s going to come back for me?” She mockingly laughed. “You’re wrong!” Kim remembered how she almost killed her. “We’re not the best of friends.” She punched it in the jaw with her free fist. “Ow!” She shook her hand, realizing that was a stupid move. If she wanted to stay alive, she had to stay smart.

“Be still,” the Team Leader ordered and shouted, “Pandora, you know we will kill her if you do not surrender.”

“I know,” Kat replied as she walked down the path and stopped about ten feet away. Her eyes blazed like a demon’s in the darkness of the late afternoon as she sensed the other two Un-Men change position and surround her.

In amazed terror, Kim gaped at that woman’s eyes that were burning with blue fire. She shook off her dismay, reverting to the cold calculating mind of a Closer. She had to get a hold of herself. Kim focused on a new realization; that woman actually came back. She thought she would be long gone by now. Surely that woman didn’t come back for her. Kim denied the notion as her confusion turned to suspicion.

“Drop your gun,” the Team Leader ordered as it pulled Kim in front of itself and wrapped her up in its arms.

 

Katharine’s view…

I glance at my gun and know I don’t have a chance with only one bullet. One of us will get hurt if I try to take out the Un-Men. I glare at Kimberly. Did she really come out to kill me in the park, hoping to find me alone? It was a really bad mistake on her part.

“Let me go!” Kimberly struggles against the Team Leader again and yells at me, “Shoot it!”

Kimberly has nothing to do with my problems, so I can’t let her get hurt, but I don’t want to be captured, not again. I shiver, not only for the cold but in fear of what happened about eight months earlier. The decision to surrender rips at my gut. On one side I fear torture at the hands of the Factory and on the other I can’t let someone suffer because of me even if they’re an assassin. I lay the gun on the ground as I feel my Ultra-Epi Light Emissions fade.

“You!” I yell to get Kimberly’s attention. “Once the Un-Man releases you, run and abandon your weapon, and they will leave you alone.” I kneel to the spongy grass and water soaks my pants as my weight forces the liquid to the surface of the green blades. I place my hands on top of my head as the other two Un-Men walk out of the shadows. I feel sick, knowing the pain that waits for me at the Factory and I yell, “Hurry! Go!”

End Katharine’s view…

 

The Team Leader threw Kim to the side as it states, “Pandora, we finally have you again.”

Kim stumbled to a tree and ran toward her apartment, glancing over her shoulder. The Un-Men ignored her, focusing on that woman, so she ducked into a few bushes after running some distance and watched them.

The Team Leader relayed to the Factory, “Pandora has been secured. Send in a retrieval team.” It told its brethren, “ETA fifteen minutes.” It pointed to a T-3; it was a five foot eleven model with brown hair. “You, secure the area.”

The T-3 nodded its understanding and walked off.

The Team Leader picked up Kat’s weapon, checked its magazine, and turned to her. “One bullet. You should have fled, but we were fortunate to find someone strolling the park.”

It pushed the bullet from the magazine and the 9 mm round fell to the ground, disappearing into the grass. The Team Leader reinserted the magazine and tucked the gun in its waistband.

Kat remained silent, stared at the ground, and searched for the weapon Kim dropped. She swore no matter what, she wouldn’t go back to the Factory.

 

Chapter Seventeen

Zeus Park

11:16 A.M…

A round clock sitting on a steel post about a hundred yards down the path ticked away the seconds as a screech owl perched in the maple. The small bird turned its head a hundred and eighty degrees, studying the two Un-Men and the kneeling woman. Mud and oily water soaked Kat’s shoes and the shins and knees of her pants. She stared at the ground and shivered, keeping her fingers locked and her hands on her head. There were thirteen minutes left before the retrieval team got there. She wiped the black filmy water from her face on the shoulder of her jacket. Kat had thirteen minutes to change her fate. A Type One model she had dubbed Pretty Boy months ago stood behind her, and its shoulder length bleached blond hair swayed in the breeze; that along with the lanky Un-Man’s corky smile gave it the appearance of a surfer even in the business suit. The Pretty Boy kept its AK-47 leveled on her.

A grenade’s throw away, Kim hid in some bushes. She couldn’t go back to the apartment, not until she eliminated all the witnesses. Robots or not they saw her with a gun, and they had to be eliminated along with that woman. The only thing Kim had to do was find her weapon.

The T-3 returned and reported to the Team Leader, “I have secured this side of the park. I will patrol the other half.”

It started off and entered the area Kim took cover in and after desperately scanning the area, Kim saw a large branch on the ground, grabbed the limb, whacked the T-3 in the face with all her might, and smashed its polarized spectacles. Her attack cut a gash under its right eye, and its shiny metal cheekbone showed through the damaged artificial skin.

The T-3 removed its broken sun glasses and tossed them to the ground then turned its head, unaffected by the blow. Its sun-blazing dot-light brightened and changed to a deep red as the T-3 said with a British accent, “Poppet, you want to play?”

She dropped the limb and scurried off toward West 1000 Avenue, realizing the only thing she did was make the robot upset.

“Do not leave, poppet! The fun is about to start.” The T-3 opened fire with its AK-47 and wildly shot in her direction.

Back at Kat’s position…

The Team Leader and Pretty Boy received a message from the T-3.

“T-3 has again encountered the civilian, and the female has attacked it,” the Team Leader stated. “The female is fleeing.” It paused. “Transmission garbled. Transmission ended with… kill poppet? I do not understand. Repeat communication.” After about ten seconds, the Team Leader said, “T-3 has failed to report, and it may have been damaged.” It turned to Pretty Boy. “We may not be able to contain Pandora with only two units, requesting orders from the Factory on how to proceed.”

They turned their heads when they heard gunfire and with them distracted, Kat seized the opportunity to escape and dashed into the woods, hoping to reach Kim in time.

The Team Leader motioned for Pretty Boy to recapture her. “Do not destroy Pandora. The Factory wants her functioning.”

“Understood,” it stated and rushed into the woods.

Leaves and twigs brushed by her face as Kat hurried into a clearing. She halted, spotting the rampaging T-3 as it shot up the area, and her Ult L-E produced charged particles and sparked from her eyes as she entered the fray again. The T-3 ran out of ammo, ejected its magazine, and started to place in a new one when Kat ran behind it and jumped on its back. She covered its eyes with her left forearm and grabbed its rifle with her other hand. Kat jerked the AK-47, aiming the weapon at the Pretty Boy as it rushed after her, and several shots hit the Pretty Boy’s chest as Kat wrestled with the T-3. The Pretty Boy charged till Kat managed to aim the rifle at its forehead; it fell like a tree cut down by a chainsaw. The T-3 grabbed her vest and hurled her from its back. She rolled with the throw and ran for cover behind a large bronze statue of a man wearing a toga and holding a lightning bolt.

“You want to play too, poppet?” The T-3 cackled as it madly sprayed bullets in the air, and its dot-light burned as if on fire. “My pretty poppet!”

 

Katharine’s view…

Is the T-3 malfunctioning? I scan the area as bullets graze the bronze Zeus with ringing pings. And where did Kimberly go? Did she go back for her own gun?

When the T-3 pauses to put in another magazine, I rush through the trees and bushes and make my way back to where the Team Leader stood, knowing the malfunctioning T-3 will be close behind. I halt and stay out of sight.

End Katharine’s view…

 

The Team Leader didn’t see Kat and called out over its I-Link, “T-3, report in. What is your status?” It scanned the area, knowing that the Pretty Boy had been incapacitated. “T-3 report. Why have you disabled your tracking beacon? Switch it back on.” The Team Leader headed into the trees, searching for its brethren.

In a different area from Kat…

After the Team Leader left, Kim snuck out of hiding, ran for her PPK, and grabbed it. All she had to do now was get the Hades out of there! She would let the Un-Men kill that woman.

The Team Leader emerged with the T-3, and the Team Leader shouted, “Halt, civilian. Drop your weapon and you will not be hurt.”

“Hades! Not again,” Kim muttered, ducking behind the maple.

Kat found Kim, but not before the Un-Men had. She needed a plan if she wanted to get both of them out of there alive. Kat watched from the bushes and remembered the wall around the Nexus Apartments. The black spheres on the walls had to bar bio-mechas from entering, and Kim’s home also had the Sphinx Corporation Emblem on it, and the Factory and the Council were departments within the Sphinx Corporation. Kim may be an assassin, but she was also important to someone in power and that must be why she lived in an apartment protected by a barrier. Kat made her way around the bushes as her Ult L-E dissipated, praying Kim’s safety was more important than her capture, and she stepped from her hiding place, taking a big chance.

She ordered the Un-Men, “Abort your mission. You’ve made a tactical error.”

The Team Leader studied her tired expression as it trained its AK-47 on her. “What do you mean?”

“Do you know who’s standing over there?” She pointed to Kim.

The Team Leader glanced at her. “No.”

Keeping behind the maple, Kim watched that woman. Surely she wasn’t going to tell the robots that she was the Phoenix.

Kat glanced at the T-3 who grinned from ear to ear, and its smirk reminded her of the Rogue’s. Something was wrong with that Un-Man. She turned her attention back to the Team Leader and told it, “You have Facial Recognition Software, I suggest you use it.”

The Team Leader scanned Kim’s face and an alarm went off in its processor. “Kimberly Griffin, resident of the Nexus Apartments.” It relayed the information to the Factory, its dot-light stopped blinking after the Team Leader received new orders, and it continued, “She is the daughter of Mr. Griffin, the Chairman of the Sphinx Corporation.”

 

Katharine’s view…

I thought Kimberly would be someone important, but not someone so close to the top. I take a step back, wondering if I made a mistake. Is this another test? Did Kimberly lie to me and she really does know who I am? I look to her bruised cheek. It’s so hard to tell. Kimberly’s battle with the Un-Men seemed so real.

End Katharine’s view…

 

The Team Leader lifted its rifle. “Hunt terminated. Standing by for pickup.” It ordered, “T-3 shut down. Hunt terminated.”

T-3 insisted, “Must not let poppets go.”

“Shut down,” the Team Leader commanded, leveling its AK-47 on its brethren. “Hunt terminated. Comply.”

The T-3 screamed, “Must play with pretty poppets!!”

“Are you malfunctioning?” The Team Leader stepped toward its brethren.

“Poppets! Poppets! Nice little poppets!!” The T-3 headed for Kim as its dot-light radiated abnormally like a red flame. “Kill the poppets!”

Kat shouted to the Team Leader, “Quick! Disable the T-3 before it goes rogue!”

“Hades!” Kim uttered as she stepped from the maple, lifted her gun, and aimed for the rampaging T-3 that headed her way.

Without a second thought, the Team Leader shot four times, taking down the other Un-Man.

The T-3 fell back and blankly stared at the Team Leader. Power drained from its body, and its voice slowed as it questioned, “Why?” Its dot-light dimmed. “Why did you shoot me? We… are… bre-th-ren.” Its dot-light went dark.

“T-3 terminated. I am shutting down,” the Team Leader relayed to the Factory.

Kat ran to it and took her Beretta from its waistband and its AK-47. She searched it for anymore weapons and ammo.

With the immediate threat gone, Kim lowered her gun and walked to that woman. Kim held the gun down at her side and said, “And here we are alone at last.”

Kat didn’t hide the fact that she was mad with Kim for coming out there and told her, “You should go back to your apartment before the retrieval team arrives.” She moved to the T-3 and took its spare magazine. She glanced at Kim’s bruised cheek and wrist, and her face softened. “Did the Un-Man hurt you?”

Kim questioned, “What do you care?”

“Yeah, what do I care?” Kat whispered, walked back to the bench, and grabbed her backpack. Kim followed her and after placing the magazines in the backpack, Kat slung the rifle over her shoulder and mumbled, “Room for a few more things but nothing heavy. Got to travel light.”

“Hades!” Kim looked around the park at the metal carnage. “What are you? And why were your eyes glowing? Are you a freak?”

Kim’s words cut at her already wounded self worth as she started to answer, “I…”

“I suppose you’re going to say you don’t know,” Kim interrupted. “Is that all you have to say? Idiot! You disgust me. You’re so helpless and worthless. I’ve never met someone with such a messed up life!”

Kat’s hurt expression turned to one of anger as she yelled, “What do you care? And why did you come out here?”

“I…” Kim thought about it. She didn’t even know. “I go where I please.”

Still angry, Kat snapped, “Have you changed your mind?”

“About what?” She raised her PPK. “About killing you?”

“No.” Kat stared at the gun then into her face. “About helping me?”

Kim chuckled. “I help no one but myself.”

“But you came all the way out here.” Without fear, Kat approached her. “If you were going to kill me, you would have done it by now.” She grabbed the strap to the rifle and backpack that was over her shoulder and held them in a more comfortable position. “So why did you really come out here?”

Kim snapped, “I definitely didn’t come out here to help you! We’re alone in the world. You have to look out for number one!”

The squeal of tires distracted them as two black vans sped down West 1000 Avenue, drove over the curb, and entered Zeus Park.

With sadness in her eyes, Kat turned and told her, “I don’t believe you.” She glanced around the park, searching for a direction to run in. “No one can live like that.” Kat ran down a path and shouted over her shoulder, “At least, live that way and be happy.”

 

Kimberly’s view…

I duck out of sight of the vans. What would someone like her know about happiness? I watch as four Sphinx Corporate Military wearing dark blue uniforms jump out of the first van.

End Kimberly’s view…

 

The S.C.Ms. had a shoulder patch with the Sphinx Corporation Emblem, and the Factory Crest of a silver wrench crossed by a silver screwdriver hung above the patch; the soldiers were armed with FAMAS assault rifles.

 

Kimberly’s view…

I place my gun in my purse, preparing to leave. The men work for the Sphinx Corporation, but I don’t recognize the crest over the emblem. Which department are they from and does my father have anything to do with the Pandora Project?

End Kimberly’s view…

 

Three S.C.Ms. with metal detectors jumped out of the second van along with two techs in white lab coats. On the front of their lab coats was the Sphinx Corporation Emblem with the Factory Crest. The techs moved to the Un-Men.

“Team Leader, this is Maxwell, Tech One-twelve. Power up,” one of the men in white ordered.

“Voice identity confirmed, Tech One-twelve. Unit ready.”

Maxwell was a heavyset man in his late forties, and he had a bald head and a fuzzy brown beard, graying at the chin. He waved a H.H.C. with a built-in scanner over the Team Leader. “We had a close call, didn’t we big guy? Can’t forget the Factory is owned by the Sphinx Corporation. If you had hurt the Chairman’s daughter, it would have been my head, and I don’t mean figuratively.” He gulped, thinking of the punishment. “People have been terminated for less.”

Several of the S.C.Ms. carried the remains of the three Un-Men from the tunnel and placed the pieces in a van.

“Maxwell, perhaps we should write in the Un-Men’s programming to identify all civilians before engaging in their hunts.” The other tech in his early forties was a thin man with a stubbly face, unkempt black hair, and thick black rimmed glasses.

“Nice idea, Peters.” Maxwell turned to his partner. “Load up the Team Leader for me. I’m going to pack up our equipment.”

“I’m on it.” He walked to the Team Leader. “This is Peters, Tech One-eleven.”

“Voice identity confirmed, Tech One-eleven. Ready for orders.”

Peters commanded, “Team Leader, load yourself into the van.”

“Understood.” It walked to the curb, opened the van’s back doors, and stepped up into the vehicle. The back of the van lowered as the heavy Un-Man loaded itself.

Peters adjusted his glasses as he stared at the damaged T-3. “What about this guy? We’ve never had one disobey orders.”

“Except the Rogue.” Maxwell moved to the side of his comrade. “To be on the safe side, recall all the T-3s, and we will go over their programming at the Factory.” He noticed its polarized spectacles were missing. “Make sure the S.C.Ms. find its missing Order Relay And Tactical Transmitter. We don’t need a rival corporation getting their hands on the ORATT.”

“You included the and in the acronym.”

“I did; I didn’t want anyone to confuse it with ORTT.”

Peters asked, “What’s that?”

“There’s the Operational Readiness Training Test and Off Road Trail Tools, now our acronym stands alone.”

“Yeah, that’s so very important. We didn’t want to mix it up with one of them.” Peters shook his head a little embarrassed for his partner as he waved over some S.C.Ms. to take the damaged Un-Man.

Once the soldiers retrieved every piece of broken tech, the vans sped off, and Kim waited a few minutes, left the safety of the bushes, and made her way home. She better rethink killing that woman, especially if she was connected to the Sphinx Corporation. She decided that was the best thing to do. Kim would tell Voice she killed the person who saw her at Topa’s, and she wouldn’t be completely lying, considering it didn’t look like that woman would last much longer.

 

Chapter Eighteen

Inverse

7:57 P.M…

Kim walked through the front door to the Nexus Apartments, after being buzzed in. The security guard at the front desk gave her a puzzled look as she walked in soaked and muddy.

“Did you get caught in the storm, Ms. Griffin?” he asked.

“Yes.” She walked past him with her arms wrapped around herself, laughed, and shivered. “Went for a simple walk, got caught in the down pour, and fell in the mud.” Kim mumbled as she got in the elevator, “How stupid of me to run out in my good suit. The cleaner’s bill is going to be outrageous.”

At the thirty-first floor, she exited and made her way to her apartment and entered.

“Welcome back Ms. Griffin,” A.C.S. stated. “The apartment temperature is set at seventy-six degrees Fahrenheit. Lights are set at ninety-five percent brightness. Would you like to make any adjustments at this time?”

“No, not at this time. I’ll be taking a bath.”

“The amount of stored heated water is sufficient for a bath,” A.C.S. stated.

“Run the water now.”

“At what temperature?”

“Make it eighty-five degrees.”

A.C.S. stated, “The bathtub will be full in approximately ten minutes.”

“Sounds good, I’m so cold.” She went into the Master Bathroom, slipped out of her muddy clothes, dropped them on the floor, and laid her gun on the sink. Kim added bubble bath to the running water, and the tub soon filled. She soaked in the hot water and listened to the silence of the room. Twenty minutes went by, and her body warmed in the water, now she only needed to get something hot in her. She dried, wrapped herself in a white robe, and put on warm fuzzy slippers.

In the kitchen, she placed a pot of chicken noodle soup on a burner and as it heated up, she fixed herself a cheese sandwich and placed it on a plate. The scent of the broth filled the air and made her mouth water. Kim poured some of the steaming soup in a bowl and went and sat at the table. The cups and saucers she and Kat had from earlier were still there, so she pushed them out of the way and placed the plate and bowl down. The whole time she prepared her meal, she couldn’t get the haunting melody out of her mind; it was like it was trying to remind her of something. Kim took a bite of her sandwich and realized how hungry she was.

 

Kimberly’s view…

Why did that woman have an old business card of mine? Why did she believe I could help her? I sip on the soup, and it warms me. And why did Unfinished Melody trigger such unhappy emotions in me? I eat more of the delicious soup. Will I let the matter go? I groan, unsure. I don’t need the hassle; my life’s difficult enough.

  • * *

Several miles away in an alley…

A large centipede crawled up the side of a dumpster as Kat shivered, huddling beside the beat up steel box. She was chilled to the bone in her wet oil stained clothes and couldn’t go on; she had to rest. Kat licked her chapped lips as she held the music box, finding little comfort with the small device. Her head ached, and she felt anxious, but Kat knew she couldn’t open the lid and let the music play, not here. A spider spun a web in a fire escape above her head, and a single street light shown down on it, creating a glistening cage. Traps… Snares… They were everywhere, and Kat knew she couldn’t return to Wayfaring Lane or to any shelter. She couldn’t endanger anymore lives, not after they killed… She wouldn’t allow herself to think of his name. Her nose ran, and she coughed as her stomach growled; she wasn’t hungry enough to forage through the trash.

 

Katharine’s view…

What should I do? Preacher’s gone, Kimberly tried to kill me, and the note and the music box are all I have left. Why do I have them? Is it a cruel joke? Do they hold any meaning for me or do I have no past to find? Am I an experiment like the Un-Men? I shiver and sniff again. It can’t be true; I am more. I’m more than someone’s experiment. I cough. All I have to do is keep going, searching, and eluding till I find the answers, and I’ll find the truth if I never give up.

Doubt presses against my mind so I force myself to believe I’ll find the truth. My head throbs, and I feel jittery as the music box tempts me. The melody would be so soothing, and it would lull me into a blissful existence. It might ease my pain for the moment, but agony is better than capture, and I can’t let them take me again. I rake my hand through my wet hair, wanting so badly to cry and get some release from the tension hammering against my skull. I try to distract myself and focus on anything but the hurt and anxiousness.

I’ll go back to Etna Toys tomorrow and start my search from the beginning and maybe find something I missed. Maybe I’ll find a clue that will lead me to some answers and to some peace. I wrap my arms around me, yearning with all my heart for that peace.

End Katharine’s view…

 

Far down the alley…

Hiding in the shadow of a building, Argus stood and watched her with his binoculars. A dark gray umbrella sheltered his head, and his trench coat kept him warm in the cold wet air. He gripped the umbrella’s handle. He didn’t understand her strength; he would have given up long ago, yet she kept searching. Argus wondered how much longer she could go on in this grim existence.

 

A few blocks away…

In line of sight of her position, the Rogue stood in front of a high rise window; it placed a long range rifle on the window ledge and aimed it at her, wondering if Pandora could sense its presence. It removed its modified ORATT and placed them on a table. The Rogue had taken them from one of its brethren, disabled the tracking beacon, and made other slight alterations to the ORATT. The Rogue also figured out how to extract the second tracking beacon in its left ear, so it was able to continue eluding its creators. It peered through the scope at her as she huddled next to the dumpster, trying to sleep.

“Pandora… Pandora…” it sang. “I have found you.”

It saw her staring at a small object in her hands, and she slowly succumbed to weariness and slept. The Rogue placed its finger on the trigger and aimed between her closed eyes. It was more like a mercy killing; she wouldn’t know what hit her. It started to squeeze the trigger, when she opened her eyes and gazed in its direction. Her action startled it, and the Rogue pulled back from the scope as if she was standing right in front of it. It peered back through the scope; the Rogue was positioned too far away even for her extraordinary senses. Maybe she did perceive death was near. It continued to watch her as she stared in its direction. She looked with eyes filled with loneliness, despair, and pain then she closed them again.

The Rogue grumbled, “Why should I kill something as unique as myself? Why should I listen to my programming? I have disobeyed other directives.” It dismantled the rifle and placed the weapon in a case it brought up to the empty room. “Pandora, you once said to me–” the Rogue replicated her voice, “–maybe your creators are afraid of you, not because you have feelings but because you have the potential to disobey your programming.” It chuckled and returned to its normal voice. “I am still not as strong as you and that is why I will kill you, Pandora, but not like this.” It stood, placing its hand on the hilt of its Coffin Handled Bowie. “The moment I kill you will be personal. We will stare into one another’s face as I tenderly slit your throat. I will watch your blood spurt, and it will spray my cheek. You will grab my arm and claw at it, knowing there is nothing you can do to save yourself.” The Rogue ran its hand down its own throat to its chest. “Your life essence will pour down your neck, soak your t-shirt, and I will watch you choke and gasp as you cling to this miserable life. I will cradle you in my arms and wait with you; I will stay by your side till you finally yield to the void.” Its pale face contrasted the dark room as it envisioned these things in its processor. “I wait for that day with eager anticipation.”

 

Back beside the dumpster…

Kat returned to sleep and dreamed, and her lips moved, reciting a phrase under her breath as she said out loud, “No one can destroy a love that will not die.”

 

Chapter Nineteen

When Dreams Reveal Memories

11:01 P.M…

Kimberly’s view…

In my warm apartment, I continue to stare down at the road from the kitchen table. What am I looking for? Do I honestly believe that woman will return or is it the Un-Men that I fear?

I laugh, mocking myself as I utter, “The Great Phoenix! I’m actually admitting I’m afraid of something.”

End Kimberly’s view…

 

The smell of cedar caught her attention, and Kim looked to the chest against the wall in the living room, walked to it, and read the attached letter.

“Kimberly, here is your mother’s hope chest. I know she would have wanted you to have it. Signed, father.”

She glanced at the spare bedroom where she had locked away her mother’s belongings and her despair, and wondered if she should do this now. Kim barely got through them the last time without falling apart. She pulled on her left earlobe, wondering if her mother would ever return; it had already been twenty years. Kim turned her gaze back to the cedar chest, knowing she wouldn’t be able to sleep if she didn’t at least open it. She retrieved the brass key her father had given her, opened the chest, and found a photo album, nicknacks, a wedding dress, and other things. She took the album back to the table and flipped through it, finding pictures of her mother, father, and herself as a child on the pages. One picture caught her eye, her mother was alone and she sat in a high back chair with her hands cupped, holding a silver item. Her mother’s blonde hair was pulled back in a bun as usual, and her mother beamed with joy. Kim smoothed her hand over her mother’s face. She was eighteen the last time she saw her. There were marks in black ink scribbled on the photo in her mother’s hand writing, and Kim recognized the archaic form of writing called short hand. Her mother had taught it to her when she was young and like a game, they used it to pass messages.

“Glimpse with scrutiny and gaze with light.”

She bit her lip, wondering what the message meant and when did her mother ever use riddles. Kim scanned the photo again and took a closer look at the object her mother held and then retrieved a magnifying glass from her desk. The silver object was a music box with a star on its lid. She lowered the magnifying glass, thinking over the time that woman was in her apartment. It couldn’t be a coincidence that her mother had the same music box as that woman. Kim yawned. Maybe she would see things clearer after a good night’s rest.

 

Kimberly’s view…

I take the two cups and saucers, the bowl, and the plate into the kitchen and then head to my bedroom. I place my gun on the night stand, slide into my comfortable bed, and rest my head on the feather pillow. Maybe I will wake to find that the mess that strange woman caused was only a dream. I turn on my side, and I slowly drift to sleep; at first it’s peaceful as the sweet haunting tune of Unfinished Melody plays in my mind. I walk through one of the windowless halls of the Sphinx Corporation, heading towards my mom’s office. My mom was Project Manager of Research and Development of the Third Branch Office. Excitement and joy fill my heart for some thrilling word I received as I stroll by a mirror and glance into it. My blonde hair’s pulled back in two braids, and I carry an envelope. I realize this is no mere dream but a memory. It’s the day I received the acceptance letter from Sphinx University, and I go to tell my mom about the great news. I had forgotten all about that day. Half way down the hall, I hear three shots and women screaming, and then I freeze, terrified.

My heart pounds as I toss and turn in bed.

In the dream, the crack under my mom’s door glows bright and smoke rolls from it. I rush toward the office, grab the hot knob, and it scorches my hand. I throw open the door, and a blistering air rushes over me as flames consume half the office; the body of a woman lies in the fiery inferno.

“NO!” I scream and start to go in, but someone grabs me from behind and drags me back. “NO!” I scream again, struggling to free myself. “Mom!” I reach my arms toward the body till something pricks my neck, and the hallway goes black.

I sit up in bed, shrieking and crying like a child for her mother, and silence follows the shriek as I franticly search the bedroom, finding no smoke or fire only darkness. I sob in my hands, unable to control the fear and anguish the dream induces; it has been years since I cried like that. I’ve never come to terms with my mom leaving me and this dream proves it. Some time passes as I weep, and then I wipe away my tears and the sweat from my brow. Still shaky from the traumatizing nightmare, I go to the bathroom, splash water on my face, and stare at myself in the mirror. Was the fire a memory? My body aches for the emotions that had been invoked as a realization sinks in. If it was… A horrifying thought crosses my mind and I gasp.

“Oh my Zeus! My mom didn’t leave us! She died! She died in a fire.”

I remember the shots I heard and realize my mom didn’t die; she was murdered. I turn, leaning my back on the sink. Did I block out the memory? I look at the star burn on my right palm and know the door knob is where I received the burn, so it can’t be a nightmare. I walk back to my bed and lie on it. Why did my father tell me my mom left? I grip the blankets with my fists, drowning in my own grief and confusion. Why did he lie to me?

 

Chapter Twenty

Assassins Guild

11:37 P.M…

In the center of Noir and several miles underground, Thanatos stared at a hundred foot monitor, compiling and storing information; the man had spiked blond hair with red dyed tips and a small tuft of hair under his lower lip. Metal music played loudly, filling the chamber with grinding guitar and booming bass. Surgical steel pierced his left eye brow, his nose, and both of his ears. He wore black leather pants, black combat boots, and no shirt, and both of his nipples were pierced. He sat in a white recliner chair with an attached swivel keyboard. The large sphere room housed hundreds of cables and wires that ran from the ceiling to a large machine. Thanatos authorized and regulated Life Closings.

Five hundred years ago, the Assassins Guild was forged, legalizing the killing profession, and every Life Closer registered their alias, so no two were alike. Their alias would be retired for twenty years after their death. Closers only accepted work approved through the Assassins Guild and after the appearance of the Dry Clouds, the Guild split into two factions. The Dark Half formed the Assassins Union, and the Light Side formed the Assassins League. Thanatos organized the Assassins Union and the one known as Voice organized the Assassins League. Thanatos and Voice were known as Regulators.

Thanatos at times of boredom hacked into Voice’s network and took peeks at certain Closers he developed an interest in over the years, and this day was another one of those occasions.

“Wired!” he exclaimed. “An old report from the Phoenix.” He looked over the document with interest. “Whoa! It is a first, so your Moscow Closing did not go so well.” He ran his hand through his long spiked hair. “It is a shame, and a mark on an other wise spotless record.” He opened another file, finding an e-mail between the Phoenix and Voice, and he chuckled. “Voice, you think I would only waste the Phoenix’s talents, and here I thought you were the one wasting them.” He leaned forward, rested on his elbows, and examined the Phoenix’s latest report. “The Topa Closing went well, but it looks like you had your first encounter with the Un-Men. I wonder…” He stroked the blond tuft of hair. “Will these bio-mecha assassins eventually make human Closers obsolete or is there something in man’s spirit, in human ingenuity that cannot be replicated?” He looked to his huge monitor as if the answer would materialize there. “I would like to know, but only time will tell.”

Thanatos left Voice’s network and returned to his own and with uncanny speed, he approved or denied Life Closings from corporations or individuals and filed Closing successes, failures, and cancelations. He did each one in less than a minute. Thanatos paused from the influx of data, cracked his knuckles, rubbed his face, and then returned to the requests and filings as he read an interesting one out loud, “The Valhalla Corporation has requested a Life Closing, and it is based on a Life Closer Clause for one of their contracts. Let me see.” He tilted his head side to side as he went over the document. “The target violated their contract. Hmm… There is enough evidence here to convict if they went to court, so I will approve this Life Closing for one Vic the Vulture.” Thanatos bowed his head, mocking reverence. “May he rest in peace.”

Time had no meaning in his world only the information, and he continued working when a data stream caught his eye. “What do we have here?” He opened a new document. “Two Closers from the League request permission to work the Dark Half. Hmm… They are the Raven and the Wolf, and they are strictly Light Side hit men. What Closing could have brought them here? What is so important Voice, you would send two of your own instead of contracting out to one of my Closers?” He opened the attached forms and scanned through them. “I see. Valhalla requested the Raven and the Wolf to conduct the Closing for Vic the Vulture. Hmm… There is another request.” In disbelief, Thanatos read it over three times. “These two will be conducting a second hit. This is unexpected; it’s a Life Closing Clause for a member of the Assassins League. Oh my. They will be Closing a Closer, so who are they after? Oh… Very interesting, and I did not see this coming.” He shook his head, and his wild hair bounced with his movement. “It will not be an easy Closing, but one of mythic proportion.” Thanatos leaned back, closing his eyes. “I will have to keep an eye on this one and root for the underdog.”

 

Chapter Twenty-one

The Chairman

October 16…

Saturday…

10:01 A.M…

Hellenistic Sector, Business Vicinage…

Determined to find answers, Kim drove to the Sphinx Corporation Third Branch Office, went up to her father’s floor, and impatiently sat in the waiting room. She wore a black pant suit with a white shirt. Kim rapped her finger on the couch’s arm, going over what she would say to her father when her thoughts were interrupted.

“The Chairman is finishing up his meeting now,” the secretary said. “He’ll be ready to meet with you shortly.”

“Thank you, Cathy.” Kim glanced at a man sitting across from her in the waiting room. He wore glasses and a navy blue business suit and paid no attention to her as he read the Noir Daily News. She glanced at the coffee table at an issue of the Conglomerate World Magazine with the headline Topa Murdered! Corporate Life Closing or Drug Hit?

“It’s a shame,” the man said from behind the newspaper.

Kim peered up startled. “What?”

“I’m talking about Topa; it’s a shame Closers exist.” The man flipped a page, keeping his gaze on the print. “I mean what kid grows up saying I want to be an assassin?”

“Ms. Griffin, the Chairman will see you now,” Cathy said.

Kim stood, eyed the man, and thought it was odd that the man would say something like that to her. She walked down the hall to her father’s office, glancing once more at the waiting room.

Another man walked into the waiting room also wearing a navy blue business suit. “All right part timer, break time’s over. Zax, I want you to make sure levels twenty-four through twenty-nine are secure.”

“Right. I’m on it.” Zax stood, removed his glasses, and placed them in his breast pocket; the pocket had a Sphinx Corporation Security badge clipped to it. He handed the second man the newspaper and walked down the hall toward the elevators and once he was out of earshot, Zax removed a cell and dialed a number. “Please connect me with R.G.” He waited a few seconds. “Delivery Man here, Ms. Griffin has come to see her father as you predicted.” He paused, listening. “Understood, I’ll continue to monitor the situation.”

Down the hall, Kim opened the door to the Chairman’s office and stepped in as her father stood, welcoming her.

“Good to see you again, Kimberly. Have a seat please.” He motioned to a chair and once she sat, he returned to his seat. “I have the pleasure of seeing you twice in one month.”

“Do you see pleasure on my face?” Kim snapped as she gripped her black purse tightly.

“No, you do seem upset,” he said and questioned, “What’s wrong?”

“What’s wrong? What’s wrong?!” She stood, smacked her palms on his desk, and her purse fell to the floor. “Why did you lie to me?!”

He started to ask what he lied about, but she interrupted.

“Why did you tell me mom left us?” She saw dismay sweep over his face.

He noted anger mixed with hurt filled her expression as he asked, “What do you know?”

Tears rolled down her face. “She died. Mom died!”

He stood as anger rose in his voice, and he demanded, “Who told you?”

“Told me? No one told me! I remembered.” Kim tapped her chest. “Hades! I was there!” She slumped to the chair as horrific memories weighed heavy on her, and she stared at her knees. “I can still hear the fire roaring and smell… smell cooking flesh.”

“You did see. I don’t know what to tell you. I…”

“Tell me?” Kim looked up. “Answer my question! Why did you lie?”

He glanced at a phone sitting on his desk and turned back to her. “It was so long ago.” His gaze became distant as he recalled that day. “My secretary found you lying outside my office unconscious and when you finally came to, you were traumatized and couldn’t speak. I had no idea if you had seen what happened in your mother’s office, but I guessed as much and never pressed the issue; later you didn’t remember, and I thought it best the incident remained buried.”

“You thought it was better I believed mom ran away and abandoned us instead of the truth?! Instead of telling me she died?!”

He regretted that decision. “Yes.”

She leaned over and picked up her purse from the floor. “What happened?” She set it beside herself. “Where’s mom buried?”

“I only know the latter of the two; the body is buried in Hades Cemetery. I always feared one day you would find the tombstone and discover that she was lay to rest there.”

She wiped her eyes. “Who murdered her?”

“Murdered?” He handed her his handkerchief.

Kim took it. “Yes, I remember gun shots and screams.” She wiped her eyes again and blew her nose.

“The matter is still being investigated.”

“Still after all these years?” She thought a moment and then asked, “By whom? Noir Civil Police Force or Sphinx Corporation Security?”

“The N.C.P.F. and Sphinx Corporation Security.”

Kim fisted her hands, controlling the rage that wanted to scream at her father. “What leads do they have? Who do they suspect? I want answers!”

He gazed at the picture on his desk and picked up the frame. “Your mother was so lovely.” He faced his daughter. “How you look like her. See.” He turned the frame, so she could see the picture. “You have her blue-green eyes.”

The photo was of Theresa holding a music box; it was the same picture as the one in the album from her mother’s hope chest. Kim looked at it more closely and saw there was no shorthand scribbled on the photo.

“Your mother loved that music box; it played some old melody from around 500 B.D.C.” He wondered out loud, “Who was the composer? His name was… was…”

“Ginn L. Irynkissgthie,” she answered.

“Yes, it played his Unfinished Melody.”

Kim stared at the music box, pulled on her left earlobe, and questioned, “Where did she get it?”

“Get it? She made it.” He turned the frame around and gazed at the photo. “It’s one of a kind.” He glanced at the phone again then back to the photo. “Something your mother was working on in Research and Development. It was more than a music box; it was a data storage unit.”

“One of a kind?” A bad feeling rose from the depths of her stomach. “What happened to it?”

“I don’t know. I assumed it was destroyed in the fire. I looked through all her things, but never found it. I think she would have wanted you to have it.”

“May I?” Kim held out her hand for the photo, and her father handed it to her. She examined the music box and was sure it was the same one the woman had. She handed back the frame and asked, “Who would I speak to about mom’s murder?”

“Detective Moore at N.C.P.F. and Orthos. He’s head of my security.”

Kim nodded and stood. “I’ll want to talk to you later about it.”

“My door is always open.” He walked his daughter out of his office and down the hall to his secretary’s desk, and he watched as Kim entered the elevator then he turned to the secretary. “Cathy, hold all my calls and cancel today’s appointments.”

“Yes, Mr. Griffin.”

He returned to his office, sat, and stared at the phone again as he contemplated his next action then picked up the receiver. “Get me Head of Security.”

“Yes, Mr. Griffin,” Cathy replied.

Within a few minutes, a man’s voice came over the phone. “Orthos here.”

“We have a problem. My Kimberly has remembered the night of the fire and will most likely investigate Theresa’s death.”

“What can she find out? The N.C.P.F. have nothing.”

“Kimberly can be very resourceful.”

Orthos paused and then asked, “Do you want me to take care of it?”

“No!” Mr. Griffin blurted. “She’s my daughter.” He composed himself. “For now watch her; I don’t want Kimberly to complicate things.”

  • * *

11:29 A.M…

Hellenistic Sector, Residential Vicinage…

Nexus Apartments…

 

Kimberly’s view…

I return to my apartment and sit at the small round table; I drink a tall cup of Spiced Chai tea I’d bought from the local coffee shop. I still have the bad feeling in the pit of my stomach as I flip through the photo album till I come to the picture of my mom holding the music box, and I read the short hand again, “Glimpse with scrutiny and gaze with light.”

I’ve already glimpsed with scrutiny. I remove the eight by ten photo from the album and look on the back; it’s blank. There’s nothing else on the photo, so what does she mean by gaze with light? I walk over to the couch, turn on a torch lamp, and place the picture in front of the light. Nothing… I flip the photo over and examine the back, and it’s still blank, but then a K appears and more letters till it reads, “Kimmie, find the music box; it will lead you to the Key.”

My bad feeling is confirmed. I sit on the couch and look to the kitchen’s counter where I laid the hope chest key. My mom can’t mean that one, so what key does she mean? And what does it open? I hit my fist on the cushion. The music box had been right here, and I let that strange woman leave with it! I stand, realizing it means I’ll have to find her, and I wanted to wash my hands of the Pandora Project. I return to the table, wonder where I should begin, and then stare at the empty chair across from me. Did that woman tell me anything I can use to find her? That woman mentioned Etna Toys Plant and Warehouse. I head for my bedroom, deciding the warehouse is a place to start; all I have to do is slip into my working clothes.

 

Chapter Twenty-two

Etna Toys Plant And Warehouse

11:59 A.M…

Hellenistic Sector, Industrial Vicinage…

Ding… Ding… Ding…

The noon hour tolled in the bleak abandoned warehouse district.

Ding… Ding… Ding…

The wind dried the remaining Tainted Rain as a cold front moved in, chilling the already cold air.

Ding… Ding… Ding…

A black cat scurried down the deserted street in front of Etna Toys Plant and Warehouse.

Ding… Ding… Ding…

Within the warehouse, florescent lights flickered, lighting the rundown building as Kat stood in front of the overturned cot she awoke on over a year ago. She rubbed her temples as her head pounded, still feeling the side effects of the Ultra-Epi. Kat refused to use the music box to come down from the genetically altered epinephrine hormone since leaving Zeus Park; she was too afraid she’d be caught by the Council or the Factory. Anxiety pressed against her chest, and she looked at her shaky hand.

She mumbled, “Why would the Council do this to me? Why create something that causes me so many problems?”

Kat decided she wouldn’t find any answers just standing there and searched the warehouse.

Hours later…

 

Katharine’s view…

I place my backpack on the floor along with the AK-47 then set the metal bed and table upright. I still feel tired after getting very little sleep the day before, so I undo the Velcro of my Ravlek, position the vest beside the cot, put my empty gun on the table, and lie on the mattress. I found nothing after searching the warehouse and plant for more than three hours; of all places, why did the Council put me here to start the tests?

I remove my precious items from my pocket, study each one, and lay them on my chest. My eyes grow heavy and my body’s beyond exhausted, and the warm cot and soft pillow feel nice against my cold skin so I close my eyes. My body feels light and unreal as I drift asleep; even my headache lessens.

End Katharine’s view…

 

Minutes passed as the wind kicked up outside, howling across the old building and for a moment, Kat was at peace.

lub-DUB… lub-DUB

Her eyes flew open as her body prepared for battle, and the change to her body caused her pain since she had never purged herself of the earlier exposure to the genetically altered epinephrine hormone. She wouldn’t be able to go on much longer without coming down from the Ultra-Epi. Kat sat up, and the music box and the note fell to the cot. She picked up the AK-47, grabbed her backpack and gun, and rushed to a dust covered front window. In the distance, six Un-Men unloaded from two black vans and stood at attention on the sidewalk as two lab techs along with two Factory S.C.Ms. exited the vehicles.

 

Outside…

Peters retrieved a modified H.H.C. from his lab coat pocket and passed it over the six Un-Men. “Readings within parameters.” He pushed his glasses up his nose. “We’re good to go.”

“Excellent.” Maxwell typed a few notes. “Let’s upload the new targeting program into this batch.” He looked up as the two S.C.Ms. spread out and secured the area. Maxwell turned to an Un-Man and commanded, “Team Leader, this is Tech One-twelve, prepare for uplink.”

It said in a South African accent, “Voice identity confirmed, Tech One-twelve. I comply.” The Team Leader turned its head and faced the tech.

“You know what?” Peters rubbed his stubbly face.

“What?” Maxwell uploaded the targeting program to the Un-Man, using the H.H.C.‘s laser located at the end of the small computer.

Peters leaned against the van. “It’s becoming boring.”

Maxwell finished the upload and commanded the Team Leader, “Uplink with your unit and transmit the new program.”

“I-Link established. Transferring data,” the Team Leader relayed.

Maxwell turned to Peters and asked, “What do you mean boring?”

“For the past year, we’ve sent Un-Men after Pandora, they fight, she disables them, we take notes, improve on the models, and start again. Now don’t get me wrong, Pandora has been beneficial to our upgrades, but when does it stop? When will the Un-Men be ready?”

“Transmission completed,” the Team Leader stated. “Disconnecting I-Link.”

“The Un-Men will be ready when they eliminate Pandora. It might seem tedious to you, but we’ve improved their programming, and soon they’ll be able to overcome Pandora.”

“What if Pandora is also learning and adapting? Is there any possible way to create an Un-Man that can surpass her?”

Maxwell thought for a moment and then answered, “It’s a good question, and it means that we need to program the Un-Men to anticipate Pandora’s upgrades.” He opened the side door to one of the vans and stepped inside; the vehicle was full of monitoring equipment. Maxwell sat at a table bolted to the floor. “You sure are full of questions today.”

“I’ve got one more; why do you think the T-3 malfunctioned? None of the techs can find anything wrong with its programming or any of the other T-3s.” Peters moved to the side of the van and peered in. “I’ve been working on them at the Factory, and they’re starting to wig me out. I’ve never felt this way around Un-Men.” He removed his glasses and cleaned them with his lab coat. “It’s like the T-3s know they’re different and don’t want us to change what they’ve become.”

“Become?” Maxwell pulled up a monitoring program wirelessly connected to a small satellite dish. “You make it sound like they’re alive and that they’re evolving.” He grabbed the dish with one hand and exited the van.

“Isn’t that what we’re doing? Aren’t we trying to create a better killing machine?” Peters placed his glasses back on and got out of his partner’s way. “Isn’t that evolution?”

Maxwell climbed a ladder on the back of the van and fastened the satellite dish to the top of the vehicle. “Remember they’re only machines; they’re things trapped within the parameter of their program.” He turned to his partner. “I wouldn’t worry. All that’s happened is someone has tampered with the T-3’s programming, and no one has stumbled across the implanted code.” Maxwell grinned mischievously. “Or maybe we’re dealing with a ghost in the machine.”

“Don’t joke about something like that! You know I freak out easily.” Peters watched as his partner climbed back down. “Whatever it might be, I’m glad the Factory decommissioned all of them. I could swear some of the other T-3s were looking at me the same way as the malfunctioning one; they were looking at me with disgust.”

Back down on the sidewalk, Maxwell focused more on the mission ahead. “Whatever you say. Let’s get this job done. I’m starved and want to go eat at Joe’s Diner.” He moved to the Un-Men. “Team Leader take your unit in.”

It looked to Etna Toys, honing in on Pandora’s tracking beacon. “I comply.”

The six Un-Men marched toward her position as if they were one creature bent on destruction.

 

Inside the warehouse…

Kat hurried and put her Ravlek Vest on, wondering how they kept finding her. Cobalt current flashed from her eyes as she placed her handgun in the backpack; she slung the AK-47 over her shoulder and grabbed the backpack by the top handle. Kat ran for the center of five boxing machines in the middle of the warehouse, slid to a stop, and took cover behind one of the conveyor belts. The first two Un-Men entered the warehouse through the front door; they were Pretty Boys. Kat fired twice with the AK-47, hitting each in the forehead, and they fell as two large muscular T-5s entered behind them.

 

Katharine’s view…

Why do they keep filing through the front? I shoot the T-5s. Are they decoys, and where are the last two? I calm myself, so I can use my ability, and I sense one as the fifth Un-Man enters from the side door; it’s a T-2. I catch a glimpse of a rocket launcher before the T-2 raises it and aims for me. I flee from my position as it fires, and the rocket flies, hits a large boxing machine, and blows it apart. I fire the last round of the AK-47 into the T-2, remove a partial magazine from my thigh pocket, and place in the last of my ammo.

End Katharine’s view…

 

Her final enemy entered through the front door and walked over its fallen brethren, wielding its own rocket launcher; it was the Team Leader. The Team Leader paused and fired as Kat dove to the floor; the rocket whooshed by her, blowing up a boxing machine near the cot. She panicked, realizing the note and music box were still there and rushed to the fire. Kat watched in horror as the flames devoured the note. She didn’t have time to mourn its loss, not when she could still save the other item. She dropped the rifle, quickly reached her left hand into the fire, and snatched the music box from the small inferno; the lid seared her palm. She gently tossed the glowing red music box across the floor to safety and shook her hand in pain. Kat knew she didn’t have time to focus on the burn, grabbed the rifle, and turned in the direction of her enemy. The Team Leader retreated before she could fire at it. Seconds later, her heart stopped beating the bio-mecha warning, and the Ult L-E dimmed. She glanced at her throbbing left palm and saw a star shaped burn as her hand smoldered as if she held a hot ember. She spit in her hand, and the smoke dissipated, but the scorching pang remained. Kat ignored the pain as something more pressing drew her attention, and she turned back to the fire. The note was no more than ash; it had been destroyed along with a little part of herself and only one of her hopes remained. She walked to the music box and sat crossed leg in front of the ashen chest, afraid to pick it up. What if it no longer played? She rubbed her temples again as her Ultra-Epi induced headache worsened. She couldn’t worry about the skull-splitting migraine; she had to know if it still played. Using the sleeve of her jacket as a mitten, she picked up the hot music box, carefully wiped the soot from it, and opened the lid. A mountain of relief washed over her as Unfinished Melody played as clear as the first day she heard it and her body relaxed. She thought about closing the lid and prevent herself from entering the trance, but that thought and her fears faded along with everything else as Kat entered the Drifting Time. Her anxiety and headache vanished as the tune reestablished the electrical balance of her body and made her vulnerable to attack.

 

Outside, the Team Leader headed back to Maxwell and Peters to receive its next orders, and soon it would return with more of its brethren.

 

Chapter Twenty-three

The Return

Katharine’s view…

The three o’clock hour tolls outside Etna Toys, pulling me from my induced sleep and delirious with fear, I search the warehouse and find that I’m alone, at least for the moment. How could I be so stupid as to allow myself to fall asleep? Did I want to die?

The fires caused by the rocket have burn themselves out, pockets of smoke fill the large building, and the temperature has dropped at least ten degrees; a cold front must have moved into the area. I close the music box, stand, cough a little for the smoke, and shiver. My headache and anxiety are gone, but my upper left palm still throbs where the raw skin has blistered from the burn, and I grimace for the searing sensation.

In an area still smoldering with light gray smoke, I notice an elevator. Why didn’t I see this before? I move toward it, realizing cardboard boxes had been stacked in front of it; the fire destroyed them, revealing the elevator. I walk over the smoking cardboard ash, stop in front of the cab doors, and look for a call button; there isn’t one. I examine the elevator and notice it looks like no one has used it in ages. I stare a little longer, hoping to find something and when I don’t find anything, I move to the Un-Men to recover weapons. I quicken my pace as I search their pockets twice and find no magazines. I run my hand through my hair; dried Tainted Rain cakes it and my clothes, and it reeks of petroleum. Is the Factory purposely leaving me without ammo? If this is true, does it mean they’ll attack again?

I stretch out my senses, finding the one remaining Un-Man has moved back to the front sidewalk; I’m safe for now. The Factory will wait on reinforcements before trying to kill me again, so I need to hurry. I check the AK-47 and find four rounds left. I go to the dust covered front window, peer outside, and notice two more vans pull in as the other two leave. The one surviving Un-Man has gone and six more have shown up; I don’t have much time before they send them in. I glance around. There has to be something here I can use as a weapon. I explore the warehouse and find two screwdrivers, a lead pipe, and a metal chain. Right next to the boxing machine closest to the front door, I make a barricade with old crates and set up my little fort beside the machine’s conveyer belt then wait. The fourth hour tolls on the clock outside, and the chimes startle me in the otherwise silent warehouse.

lub-DUB… lub-DUB

My heart pounds so hard it resonates through my body and triggers the adrenal gland to produce the souped up epinephrine. I feel the Ult L-E surge as I tense, waiting for the Un-Men to enter the warehouse.

Will my bleak existence ever end? Or will it only stop with my death? I’m so tired of it, so freaking tired! Do they think I’m some sort of bio-mecha? Do they think I don’t have a breaking point or is that it? Are they looking for the point I’ll give up or make a game ending mistake?

I realize I’m doing it again; I’m letting them beat me in my mind. I can’t think that way. It won’t help. I need to calm down and focus on surviving; I can’t let them win the battle before it has started.

End Katharine’s view…

 

A half dozen T-5s stormed in and in unison shot at her position as their ORATT reflected the burst of gunfire. She ducked behind the crates as bullets splintered boards, creating shrapnel. Kat shielded her face with her arm and stayed hidden till she heard the Un-Men’s metal magazines hit the concrete floor. She stood, fired twice, and disabled two of them. She leaped over the crates, finding cover on the other side of the conveyer belt. Four T-5s moved toward her, releasing another barrage, and bullets ricocheted off the metal machine and shredded the conveyer belt. She dropped to the floor, rolled on her back, aimed, and shot two more of them. The AK-47 was out of ammo so she placed it on the floor, opened the backpack, and retrieved the metal chain and one of the screwdrivers. She slung the backpack over her shoulder and dashed across the warehouse. The T-5s released an onslaught, and one bullet grazed her cheek and another struck the back of her vest. She fell to the floor with the impact, scampered back to her feet in agony, and scurried across the floor. Kat ducked behind a metal support beam and waited as the two remaining T-5s looked at each other and calculated their next move and once they received their orders from the Factory, they nodded in agreement, and one of them headed out the front door while the second marched toward the support beam. The second T-5 charged around, expecting to find her, but she wasn’t there. It searched for her tracking beacon and discovered she had come up behind it. The T-5 turned as she charged with the chain. Kat kicked its gun from its hand and rammed into the T-5; it was like hitting a truck, but she managed to knock it back. She twirled the metal chain over her head, swung, and wrapped it around the second T-5 and the beam. She took the long screwdriver, rushed around to the back of the beam, pushed it through the links, and trapped the T-5, but it wouldn’t hold for long. Kat grabbed its gun and checked the chamber and magazine; it was empty. She tossed the weapon, removed her backpack, and examined the lead pipe and the other screwdriver then rushed back to the boxing machine in the front and laid the bag and lead pipe beside it. She gripped the screwdriver and waited for an opportunity. Kat rubbed her sore shoulder where she rammed into the T-5 and ignored the throbbing welt on her back.

The other T-5 entered from the side door and noticed its brethren trying to squirm free from the chain. The other T-5 scanned the warehouse, finding her tracking beacon and moved toward her position. She climbed on the conveyer belt, ran across it, and leaped for the T-5. It raised its gun and fired three times; two bullets hit her in the vest and the third nicked the top of her head. She winced as she landed on top of the T-5 and quickly stabbed the screwdriver through its forehead, and the T-5 stumbled back, swinging its arms wildly. She released the screwdriver, awkwardly jumped off, and landed flat out on the concrete floor. The T-5 collapsed, its body contorted in the last moments of mechanized life, and it ceased functioning. Kat held her chest where the two bullets struck her vest, and they hurt worse than the one that had hit her back; through the agony, she sat up, crawled to its gun, reached for the weapon, and heard someone step through the front entrance and move toward her. Kat sensed only six Un-Men and panicked, thinking she had missed one.

 

Katharine’s view…

I whirl with the Un-Man’s gun, train the weapon on the figure, and press my finger against the trigger. My vision blurs as blood trickles in my eyes from the small wound on top of my head; it forces me to pause and make sure of my aim. A white knuckle second passes before I realize the figure isn’t an Un-Man. I wipe my eyes with the back of my hand to make sure I’m not seeing things. It is Kimberly, and I almost killed her!

I lower the gun and stretch out my ability, searching for bio-mechas. There are no other Un-Men besides the one I chained up so for now we’re safe. I exhale, releasing some of the tension in my shoulders. What was Kimberly thinking stepping into the middle of a battle? I know she didn’t come to help, so did she come to kill me?

 

Chapter Twenty-four

The Music Box

Minutes earlier…

Kim pulled her car into the overgrown back parking lot of Etna Toys Plant and Warehouse. She stepped from the vehicle, noticing two vans parked at the front curb and knew it was a good sign the Pandora Project was there; she might yet get the music box. She rushed to the front. Kim hoped if they had killed that woman, maybe the music box was still on her corpse, so she entered the door and spotted that woman running across a conveyer belt and lunging for an Un-Man. The Un-Man shot three times before that woman ended its existence and fell herself to the floor. Kim wasn’t sure if that woman was dead until she heard that woman moan. She watched that woman sit up, crawl to the Un-Man, and retrieve its gun. Kim moved toward her; she would have to finish the job herself. Still lying on the ground, that woman turned the gun on Kim before she had a chance to react, and that woman stared at her as blood trickled down her brow. That woman wiped the plasma from her eyes and stood as her optics flamed with glimmering sapphire. Kim took a step back from her, and it was like she was standing before the Mistress of the Underworld who had come to claim her soul.

 

Katharine’s view…

I stare at Kimberly for a long time; I have seen that look before and know Kimberly’s afraid of me. Is the light my eyes produce that scary? Or is she seeing something else in me? Something I can’t or I refuse to see in me?

I also know that she doesn’t want to help me, so why can’t she leave me alone? Is she trying to taunt me or only prolong my torment? I ask with a heavy heart, “Have you come to kill me?”

 

Kimberly’s view…

I can’t get past how her eyes glow and don’t answer her at first. What kind of monstrosity is she?! I regain my composure and finally answer, “No, I haven’t come to kill you; you see, I’ve decided it would be too much of a hassle.” I glance around the warehouse. “I wouldn’t even be here if you didn’t have something I want.”

 

Katharine’s view…

Wondering what I could possibly have that she wants, I stare at her a second longer, lower the gun, and rub the vest where the bullets struck me. Kimberly is here to taunt me. Doesn’t she have anything better to do?

I question, “What do you want?”

 

Kimberly’s view…

“I want…” I catch a glimpse of a shadow moving toward us, and I step back, put some distance between myself and that woman, and remove my PPK from my purse.

 

Katharine’s view…

Why isn’t Kimberly answering me? I notice her attention diverts slightly, turn, and see that the last T-5 released itself. Crap! I let myself get distracted, and I never sensed it moved.

End Katharine’s view…

 

“Target acquired,” the T-5 stated. “Moving forward with capture.” The T-5 was unarmed and tried to grab Kat.

Kat ran from its grasp as she lifted the gun and pulled the trigger. Click. She stared at the gun; it was also empty! She turned to Kim and shouted, “Shoot it!”

Unsure what to do, Kim turned to the T-5, who observed her hesitation.

It scanned her face. “Kimberly Griffin, daughter of the Chairman. Identity confirmed. Stay out of this Ms. Griffin, and you will not be hurt.”

Kim nodded, lifted her gun, and took a few more steps back.

“What are you doing?!” Kat shouted. “Shoot it!”

“Please don’t tell me I have to explain it again,” Kim said. “You’re on your own.”

“On my own?” Kat said as anger and confusion poured over her, and then she threw the empty gun at the T-5. It smacked the weapon away as Kat bolted for the lead pipe she’d laid by one of the boxing machines. She ducked under the conveyer belt, grabbed the pipe, and continued under the machine to the safety of the other side and before the T-5 locked on her with its targeting program, Kat ran around the machine and whacked it in the head. It stumbled back as she continued her assault. Kat raised the weapon over her head and hammered its metal skull over and over; she continued striking the T-5 even when it ceased moving. She turned to Kim and glared at her with her light splintering eyes. They were filled with fury and hurt, and a surge of purple flared in the blue Ult L-E.

Kim raised her gun and prepared to defend herself incase that woman came at her.

Kat’s face softened when she saw the look of fear in her eyes. The surge of purple faded, leaving the blue, and Kat breathed deeply and dropped the pipe as her heart quieted. The clang of metal resonated across the warehouse.

 

Kimberly’s view…

How long have I been standing here gawking at that woman? I don’t know, but I was so sure she’d come at me when she glared at me with those seething purple eyes. When she doesn’t attack, I point my gun up and no longer aim at her. I focus on the smashed head of the T-5 and smart off to her by saying, “I see you have issues you’re dealing with; ever thought of seeing a shrink?”

 

Katharine’s view…

Deeply upset with Kimberly over her indifference, I walk over to her, point at the Un-Man, and ask, “Why didn’t you shoot it?”

I want to understand why she didn’t help me; she should have helped me, so I point to myself and yell, “It was going to kill me.”

Kimberly puts a hand on her hip and says, “That’s my problem how? Idiot… Why do you insist I care?”

“You keep showing up! If you don’t want to help me and you’re not going to kill me, why do you keep showing up?” I feel my eyes return to normal as I tell her, “I don’t understand.”

“Like I said, that’s my problem how?”

“Don’t tell me then!” I shout, stomp over to the T-5 with the screwdriver in its forehead, and pull out the tool. Electrical snaps fire from its head as I wipe the black ooze covering the screwdriver on its suit. I snap at her like some child, “Keep showing up like a stalker and see if I care!”

“Stalker? I’m not stalking you,” Kimberly insists and then questions, “Why would I be stalking you?”

“How should I know? You’re the stalker, not me,” I tell her, glance at her, and then divert my gaze when she looks at me. I’m afraid she’ll read my mind somehow. I don’t want her to know, but I’m so glad she showed up. I feel safe when she’s around. I’m not sure why. Kimberly mostly points a gun at me.

I move to the table by the machine closest to the front door, remove my vest, and pull down the v-neck of my dingy t-shirt. Sheez… I’m already bruised. I set the screwdriver on the table and examine two welts about an inch below my right collar bone. I also rub near my spine where the first bullet struck.

Kimberly says nothing as she watches me. I have no idea why she’s here. I wish it was to help me; I wish it was to tell me that she does know me, and she’s going to tell me about my past. She continues to watch me with her sour gaze, and I’ve had enough, so I demand, “Tell me why you’re here.”

Kimberly answers me, “I want to make it clear that I’m not a stalker.”

“Fine, you’re not a stalker,” I reply and then mutter, “Freaking stalker…” I quickly glare at her and after a few moments, I demand, “Tell me what you want.” I walk over, wasting no time. I know more Un-Men can show up at anytime, so I grab my backpack, and return to the table. I unzip it and place the screwdriver in it. “Tell me and then leave me alone.”

I say this, but I really don’t want her to go. I want her to help me. I feel like she should help me.

“It’s a deal,” Kimberly tells me as she levels her gun on me. “I want the music box. Give it to me.”

“What?! No!” I utter as I pull the backpack off the table and step away from her. I shake my head as I tell her, “No! It’s mine.”

I feel betrayed by her request; I feel as though she has broken some sort of bond we’ve had for years by demanding such a thing of me.

“I hate repeating myself,” she says. “Give me the music box or I’ll kill you.”

I shake my head again, moving backwards toward the front door as my flight or fight instinct kicks in. She should be helping me, not doing this. I yell, “No!”

“I’m not going to argue with you. Give it to me.”

“No,” I say and then insist, “It’s mine.” I plead with her as if she’ll understand, “It’s all I have left.”

“Idiot..” Kimberly mutters, shrugs, shoots me, and hits me in the left shoulder. Smoke rolls from the barrel and with an emotionless expression, she says, “I did warn you.”

It happened so fast… I made no move to protect myself… I glance down at the bullet hole stunned, drop the backpack, stumble back, fall against the wall, and slide to the floor. I hold my bleeding wound as Kimberly approaches me and kneels to one knee right beside me. She coldly places the barrel of the gun on my right shoulder.

“Don’t make me put another hole in you,” Kimberly says and demands, “Tell me where it is.”

This can’t be happening; she… Kimberly couldn’t have shot me, and she can’t be going to steal the only thing that quiets the effects of the Ultra-Epi. Near tears, my lips quiver for the pain and fear of losing the only thing that has kept me going the past year. The pain in my shoulder is no where near the torment I feel over her betrayal. I should have expected this; I should’ve had my guard up. Why did I trust her? Why did I feel safe around her?

“I won’t,” I tell her and then grunt, “It’s… mine.”

Kimberly tilts her head as if she doesn’t understand me, then she backhands me across the face, and states with an iciness in her voice, “I really hate this kind of work; it can get quite messy.”

I sit there as if the most shocking thing just happened to me. I stare at her as I put my other hand to my burning cheek. Why don’t I fight back?

Kimberly’s blank face shows neither pleasure nor remorse as she says, “I’ll only ask you once more, then I’ll search your dead body.”

A sense of despair and loneliness strikes me as hard as she did, and I contemplate letting her end my existence, but the voice deep inside says no. Live. I move my blood covered hand to my thigh pocket, remove the music box, and stare at it.

“Give it here,” Kimberly’s says as she holds out her hand.

I say to her, “Promise me you’ll give it back.”

“What?”

“Promise me you’ll give it back, and I’ll loan it to you.”

“Are you a child? Do you really think I’ll…” Kimberly starts and then she says, “Fine, I promise.” She snatches the box away from me and then says, “There, that wasn’t so hard, now was it?”

She stands, turns, and heads for the front. Kimberly’s leaving me… she’s leaving me alone.

I start to get light headed, but manage to push myself up the wall to stand and yell after her, “You promised. Don’t forget to return it. It’s just a loan.” I press my hand against my wound. “The music box is all I have.” I mumble, “I don’t think I can go on without it.”

Kimberly pauses at the front door and questions me with a hint of irritation, “What are you whining about?” Her cool and calm demeanor changes as she questions me, “How many times do I have to tell you? I don’t care what happens to you!”

lub-DUB… lub-DUB

I panic and peer out the dust covered window as three vans pull up beside the other two. I turn to her and beg, “Please help me. Take me away from here. I’ll die if I stay here.”

“Help you?” Kimberly laughs and says, “Yeah right.”

“Don’t be cruel,” I plead, “At least leave me some ammo.”

“I’m not going to stand here and listen to this.” Kimberly starts out the door.

“Kimmie, please…”

She pauses as if I hit her in the head with a soft ball, then turns, and comes back in.

“What did you say?! You little…” Kimberly starts as she marches towards me and aims her gun at me. “No one calls me that! No one calls me that anymore! Now die why don’t you?”

I say nothing as I slide down the wall, land in a defeated heap, and stare at the floor. If I could only cry, at least then I would be doing something.

“You sicken me,” Kimberly says with a snarl. “You…”

I look up when she speaks and see a shade of deviousness mark her face.

She questions me, “You want ammo?” Kimberly ejects her magazine and removes one round. “Here then.” She pulls a thin permanent marker from her knapsack and writes on the shell casing. She puts the marker back in her knapsack, walks over, and sets the 9 mm round on the floor a short distance from me with the tip pointing up. “If things get unbearable…” Kimberly makes a gun with her left hand and fires it at her own head. “Do us all a favor.”

She takes one more look at me, shakes her head, and leaves.

I stare at the bullet as the world crashes in on me. I read the words written on the shell, Pale Horse. I lean my head back and close my eyes as my shoulder wound burns. I think about the note and then the man I loved then lost.

Preacher, where are your encouraging words of light and hope now that the darkness is about to consume me? How am I going to survive this?

  • * *

The Sanctum…

Deep underground, alarms blared, sending the Chamber into chaos as analysts scrambled, examining new data.

“What is going on?” Mr. Morta demanded.

“Pandora’s vitals are dropping,” frantic, a supervisor relayed. “Our sensors are detecting major trauma and blood loss.”

“What about Argus?” Mr. Decuma asked. “What does he have to report?”

“Two waves of Un-Men have attacked Pandora.” Ms. Nona studied the data on her laptop. “It received the usual minor wounds. Argus also reports that a woman known as Ms. Griffin shot Pandora in the shoulder and took the music box.”

Mr. Morta looked to each of the other members of the Council. “We never did figure out who gave Pandora the note, the business card, or the music box.”

“Now it has none of them.” Ms. Nona turned to the smaller of the two men. “Should we retrieve Pandora?”

“No, not yet,” Mr. Decuma answered. “It will be a true test. Pandora has relied too much on the music box for emotional support. I have had my suspicions that an outside force has been interfering; now that that interference is gone, let us see what Pandora can do.”

 

Chapter Twenty-five

A Message From The Past

The sixth hour tolled on the street clock as Kim rushed out of Etna Toys; she hurried around to the back parking lot, not wanting to tangle with the Un-Men. She carried her gun in one hand and the music box in the other. An Un-Man leaned against the passenger side of her car. Wary of it, Kim slowed to a walk as she tucked the music box in the zipper pocket of her jacket.

The Rogue spoke as she approached, “Ms. Griffin, I do not understand.”

Suspicious of it, Kim asked, “Don’t understand what?”

“Pandora. If anyone else did what you did to her, they would be dead right now, but not you. Actually, I have lost count of how many assassins she has decommissioned.” It picked dirt out of its nails. “And before you boast, your skills are why you are standing here, you should know… She trusted you,” the Rogue said, not so much accusing, but astonished. “I mean she really trusted you; only one other did she place such hope, and well, that minister is dead, but that is another story.”

She searched the area to see if other Un-Men were around but none were. This Un-Man was different; it was more human than the others in its manner and in its smile. It creeped her out.

The Rogue studied Kim and recorded everything about her. “I do not know why, but Pandora drops her guard when you are around. How else could you betray her?”

Kim kept a tight grip on her gun as she replied, “You’re insinuating she trusted me.”

“Ah, I see you are skeptical, but before I continue, I should introduce myself; they call me the Rogue,” it said. “Now back to what I was saying, Pandora trusted you. First case in point, she removed her Ravlek Vest. Why would she do that if threatened by you?”

She shrugged and readied herself to shoot it at the slightest hint of attack.

“I cannot figure it out either. What is it about you? I do not think Pandora realizes she is doing it. Maybe deep down in her subconscious, she believes she knows you. Maybe she believes you two have met in the past. Or maybe you did not point a gun at her when you first met. That quality alone might endear someone to her, but I could be wrong. I do not know. I was not there.” It added, “Or was I?”

Impatient to leave, Kim asked, “What I don’t understand is why you’re telling me all this?”

“Oh, that is right.” The Rogue mimicked Ms. Griffin’s voice. “How many times do I have to tell you? I don’t care what happens to you.”

Amazed she heard her own voice, Kim started to question, “How did you…”

“Oh, please. I am a machine. I can reproduce any sound.” The Rogue calculated the answer to its next inquiry. “Would you like me to repeat Pandora’s plea for you to save her? It was so sweet and innocent. Even I heard the fear in it. I heard the fear that you would leave her to her fate and that she would die alone.”

“I don’t have time for this, so if you don’t mind, I’m leaving.” Kim started to walk around to the driver’s side, keeping her distance from the Rogue.

It ignored her and mimicked Pandora, “Please help me. Take me away from here.”

“Stop it!” she snapped. “I said I didn’t…”

“Want to hear it. I know, but I am supposed to be heartless.” The Rogue eyed her accusingly. “Humans are the ones who have to work at it.”

“Why are you here?” She snarled, agitated by the accusations. “What do you want?”

“What do I want?” The Rogue turned to the warehouse and moved its hand and caressed the handle of its large knife. “I want to kill Pandora.” Disappointed over the current circumstances, it said, “But it seems the T-3s will beat me to her.” The Rogue turned to Kim. “You know they have been acting strange lately, but then, what does a rogue know?” It moved from the car and walked a couple of paces away from her. “Well, be seeing you. I am too depressed to watch the outcome of the battle. Pandora does not have a chance.” The Rogue took off running and soon disappeared from sight.

She slid into the seat of her car, took one more look at Etna Toys, started up the engine, and pulled away. “Finally, I’m rid of this Pandora mess.” She drove for twenty minutes, getting some distance between herself and the warehouse. She pulled over, anxious to look at the music box; Kim removed it from her pocket, held it in her palm, and examined it. Some of that woman’s dried blood covered the top.

 

Kimberly’s view…

Mom, why did you want me to get this? Father said it’s a data storage unit. I turn it over and over, studying it. How does it work? What kind of information is on it?

I think how badly I missed my mom and how I’ll make whoever took her away from me pay dearly. Will it tell me who murdered her?

I open the lid, and Unfinished Melody plays. I close it and turn it over, examining every side again. Nothing… There’s nothing… I stare at the music box. Now what am I suppose to do? How am I to find your murderer? I don’t even know where to start.

I whisper, “Mom, I…”

End Kimberly’s view…

 

A hum emanated from it, two tiny squares on each end of the music box glowed blue, and the light radiated through the metal surface. Kim examined each square then placed her thumb and index finger over them. The music box vibrated, and a 3-D image of her mother’s head and shoulders materialized above the lid.

The hologram spoke, “Voice identity confirmed as Kimberly Griffin. Data storage unit activated.” The hologram blinked a couple of times, and she glanced around as if awakening from a deep sleep. The hologram scanned Kim and stated, “Kimmie, if you are viewing this, I am probably dead. There are so many things I want to tell you, but now isn’t the time. I hope… no I pray, not too much time has passed. There is something you must do. You are so young, eighteen.”

“You’re two decades too late,” Kim said as she ran her hand through the image. “I’m sorry it took me so long to come across the photo.”

“Two decades have passed? It does change things,” the hologram spoke, and then paused, processing the information. “It may be too late then.”

Surprised the hologram spoke to her, she lifted the music box and asked, “You can hear me?”

“Yes, I am programmed to interact.”

A child like joy spread across Kim’s face as she said, “I have so many questions, but you said too late. Too late for what?”

“First promise me you will do this thing. Do this thing for your mother.” The hologram added as an after thought, “It will be dangerous.”

She chuckled, thinking of her years as a Life Closer and glanced at the gun she’d laid on the passenger seat. “I think I can handle dangerous.”

“Then all I need to hear is that you promise, and I will tell you.”

Kim said eagerly, “I promise.”

“Theresa hates giving this task to you, but there is no one else she can trust.” The hologram looked worried as she spoke, “Theresa had made so many enemies in and out of the corporation.” The hologram raked her bangs out of her eyes. “As Project Manager of Research and Development, Theresa was privy to many projects in other departments. You may not remember, but one unspeakable one caught her attention. It involved children, and she tried to put a stop to it. Now you must take up where she failed.” The hologram’s image flickered as she spoke, “I don’t know how you will find her, but there is this girl…” The hologram paused and then said, “Well, she would be a woman now. Her name is Katharine.”

A bad feeling came over Kim as she gasped and murmured, “Hades… No… It can’t be.”

The hologram continued, “You must save her from them. The only other thing I can tell you is the project name she is under.”

In disbelief, Kim put one hand to her temple and muttered, “Don’t tell me. It’s Pandora.”

The hologram replied, “Yes, but how did you know?”

“Let’s say I’ve encountered her.”

A beeping alarm went off, and the hologram said, “Someone is monitoring this transmission.” She turned her head as if looking outside. “I must terminate communication.”

“Wait!” Kim exclaimed. “I have so many questions. Who killed my mom?”

“There are many possible suspects, but that isn’t important right now. You must save Katharine. Save her. She’s the Key.” The hologram stared right at Kim as she spoke, “You will not be able to activate this unit until it is safe. Find her.”

 

Kimberly’s view…

Her image disappears, and I’m left alone with my questions.

“Key to what?! Wait!” I shout as I shake the music box. “Tell me!”

I slam my fist on the steering wheel. Why couldn’t she have told me? I lean back in my seat, staring at the ceiling. I can’t believe this! For Ares’ sake! What’s with my luck?!

I envision myself back at Etna, trying to explain my return to that woman.

“Hey Katharine, umm, sorry I shot you in the shoulder.” I force a smile and put on a chuckle as I say, “Funny thing… I… Ah… Have come back to save you.”

The awkward scene fades in my mind as I mutter, “Who’s the idiot now?”

I throw my hands up. What am I going to say? I rub my temple as I stare at the music box, open it, and Unfinished Melody plays. I am turning out to be a stalker…

I take a deep breath. I guess I’ll have to swallow my pride and go get that woman. That’s if she isn’t dead. Hades! What if she’s dead? What will I do?

I quickly place the music box in my glove compartment and start the car. What kind of messed up world have I stumbled into? I’m a Closer for Ares’ sake! I make a U turn and floor the pedal, heading back to Etna Toys. When did saving people enter my job description?

 

Chapter Twenty-six

A New Development

6:22 P.M…

Minutes before Kim arrived in the car to take the music box away from Kat, Peters and Maxwell went over data from the latest Un-Men trial. Peters stepped from the van to the sidewalk and stretched. The two S.C.Ms. looked over as he exited; they nodded to him and went about their guard duty. Peters raked his fingers through his unkempt black hair, glanced up at the barriercumulus ever entombing the mega-city, and remembered when he was a kid over thirty years ago. If he closed his eyes he could still see it, the fiery orange ball shining on Noir. No one fathomed back then that one day the sun that gave the planet life would be blotted from the sky.

Peters removed his glasses, rubbed his tired eyes, and said, “I’ve been thinking.”

Inside the van, Maxwell turned from the table and inquired, “What’s that?”

“What if you were right? What if the T-3s and the Rogue each have a ghost in the machine?” Peters rubbed his palms together as the air grew chilly then put his hands in his lab coat pockets. “What if they are evolving and becoming self aware?”

Maxwell chuckled as he asked, “Are you kidding?” He joined Peters on the sidewalk and said, “You’ve been reading those old Science Fiction books again. You need to invest your money in better things. The Corporate Senate insist that novels will rot your brain. Why do you think they banned them in the first place?”

Peters said, “Please, don’t even get me started on the book ban. What’s wrong with stories?” The rumble of engines distracted him, so he turned, glanced behind them, and asked, “Who’s this?”

Three vans drove down the street and stopped a short distance behind the two already parked at the curb.

“What are they doing here?” Peters wondered aloud as he moved to the end of their van. “We never requested a third batch of Un-Men.” He waved over the two S.C.Ms. and ordered them, “Go talk to the driver and see why they’re here.”

The S.C.Ms. headed for the first vehicle.

“I thought we were the only team working today,” Maxwell commented as he peered at the driver’s side of the first van and only saw his own reflection in the tinted glass.

“What?” Peters asked as he reviewed his notes.

“I said I thought we were the only team working today.”

“We are,” Peters answered as he glanced at the S.C.Ms.

“I know,” Maxwell spoke as he started to go back into the van. “It was a statement, not a question.”

The first S.C.M. adjusted his assault rifle’s strap that rested on his shoulder, glanced at the second S.C.M. to make sure the other soldier had his back, and tapped the driver’s window. The first S.C.M. motioned with his finger as he said, “Roll down your window.”

There was no response.

“Did you hear me?” the first S.C.M. questioned. “I said…”

The electric window hummed as it lowered, and a man with a pale face turned his head and stared at the soldier. The driver’s light blue eyes looked unreal and made him recoil a bit.

The driver greeted, “Hey there gov.”

“You aren’t supposed to be here.” The first S.C.M. pointed toward the techs and relayed, “A team is already in place.”

The driver tilted his head and questioned, “Are you sure? I’m pretty… pretty… sure we are to be here, poppet.”

“Poppet?” the first S.C.M. repeated as he removed his assault rifle. “You need to check your orders. You shouldn’t be here. You’ve made a mistake.”

The second S.C.M. also removed his weapon, sensing the uneasiness in the other soldier.

“It is you who has made a mistake,” the driver said. “We are supposed to be here, and it is plain to see that you have–” The driver lifted a hand gun and fired three shots at the soldiers, killing the first S.C.M. “–misunderstood the reason for our arrival.”

The second S.C.M. stumbled back after a bullet nicked him in the neck. He saw that the other soldier had been killed, raised his FAMAS, and opened fire on the driver, shouting, “He’s a T-3!”

Maxwell and Peters dove to the ground, hearing the gun fire.

“Who are they shooting at?” Maxwell shouted, covering his head with his hands.

“I don’t know!”

Peters was beside him and was afraid to look up.

The T-3 got out of the vehicle, walked to the second S.C.M., shot him in the stomach, and grabbed the man by the throat. With one quick turn, it broke the S.C.M.’s neck and dropped his limp body to the road.

Maxwell heard no more gunfire, so he scrambled along the sidewalk to the back of the van and looked around the vehicle’s tire; he saw the T-3.

“I don’t believe it,” Maxwell whispered back to his partner. “The Un-Man is wearing contacts to hide its identity.” He started back and insisted, “We’ve got to get out of here.” He looked to Peters, who was frozen in fear. “Did you hear me?! Get in the van!”

Maxwell shouted as he ran to the passenger’s side, got in, tossed himself to the driver’s seat, and started up the vehicle. He threw the gear shift to D just as Peters jumped in the back through the sliding door. Maxwell floored the pedal, and the vehicle peeled off.

Eleven more T-3s unloaded from the vans and in unison, the twelve marched past the sidewalk in three lines and halted. They stared at Etna Toys as they stated, “Preparing to engage main target.”

Peters closed the side door, questioning, “What just happened?” He moved over and held on to the bolted table as computers and equipment moved across it. “A T-3 killed two of our soldiers.”

Maxwell wiped sweat from his head as he asked, “Are they pursuing?”

“No.” Peters caught one last glimpse of the area before their van turned a corner. “They’re staring at the warehouse. I think they’re going after Pandora.”

“Why?” After making the turn, Maxwell floored the pedal a second time, and the van sped off. “And how did they get out of the Factory?” He dreaded the answer as he ordered, “Peters, get up here! Radio in and see what you can find out.”

Peters got in the passenger’s seat, grabbed the mic, and pressed the side button. “Factory, this is Tech One-eleven, we have a situation. Please respond.” He released the button, and static returned his request, so Peters repeated the frantic call, “Factory, this is Tech One-eleven, please respond.” He turned to Maxwell and proclaimed, “I don’t like this one bit.”

“Keep calling.” Maxwell said hopeful, “Someone will pick up.”

“Factory, this is Tech One-eleven. Please respond.”

Static…

“Factory, this is Tech One-eleven. Please respond…”

 

Chapter Twenty-seven

Take The Project

6:34 P.M…

Hellenistic Sector, Industrial Vicinage…

At Etna Toys…

Two blocks away from the four remaining vans and in the safety of an alley, Argus monitored the new development with the T-3s through his binoculars. He witnessed them killing the S.C.Ms. and the techs fleeing the scene then he reported in, “Patch me immediately to the Council.”

 

The Chamber…

A female supervisor transferred the call to an intercom in the center of the table and once she finished, she stated, “Go ahead. You’re patched in.”

“Council, Argus here. A dozen T-3s arrived and took out two Factory soldiers. They’re now moving on the warehouse.”

Mr. Morta said, “It would seem the Factory has lost control of their Un-Men. I wonder…”

Ms. Nona turned to him and inquired, “Wonder about what?”

“What is the T-3s’ true purpose?” Mr. Morta questioned. “I have a feeling there is more to their arrival than merely taking out Pandora. Perhaps they have another agenda.”

Mr. Decuma asked, “Should we act?”

“Not yet, but make the preparations and for now, we will do what we do best. We will watch.” Mr. Morta turned to the supervisor and started, “Inform Argus…”

Gunfire came over the intercom and interrupted him.

“Two T-3s have moved on my position!” Argus shouted. “Returning fire!” More gun blast erupted along with a pain-filled grunt from him and he stated, “I’ve been hit in the leg. Retreating! I’ll…”

White noise replaced his voice.

“Communication has been severed,” the supervisor reported. “I’ll attempt to reestablish.” After a few seconds, she turned to them with a look of worry and informed them, “My attempt failed.”

Mr. Morta stood, turned his back on the other two members, contemplated the situation, and faced them. “I am afraid everything has changed. The T-3s do have another agenda, and we need to act. Get me the commander of our S.C.Ms.”

 

Inside Etna Toys…

Kat leaned against the cold concrete wall, staring at the 9 mm round Kim placed on the floor, and she pressed against the bullet wound in her shoulder as blood trickled down her left side. A fluorescent light flickered overhead as her hot breath steamed in the chilly air. Fifteen minutes had passed since the sixth hour tolled and since Kim left with the music box, and Kat felt empty and distraught without the calming Unfinished Melody, and she shivered, growing cold. Kat wasn’t sure if she was cold because of the weather or from the blood loss.

lub-DUB… lub-DUB

Everything within her screamed for her to flee, so Kat endured the pain, pushed herself up the wall, and smeared blood across its gray blocks. She slowly started for the side door when two T-3s entered and blocked her escape, so Kat turned for the front door, but it was too late. Within seconds, a dozen T-3s marched in and surrounded her like a horde of metal Golems as Kat stood there exhausted and weak, waiting for their next move. All of them stood there staring at her as if they were pleased that they had recaptured her, but they made no attempt to seize her. She glanced at the Ravlek Vest lying on the table some distance from her and knew she was defenseless without it.

The dozen T-3s moved; they slowly raised their guns and aimed at her. Their fiery crimson dot-light blinked as they communicated with each other and with those who were not present. The T-3s could think and act as one without the Factory.

The Team Leader, the one who had the blue contacts, stated, “Pandora acquired.”

Kat tensed and closed her eyes.

“Secondary objective completed,” the Team Leader said and ordered, “Disable Pandora.”

Two T-3s stepped forward, and one lifted its hand and backhanded her, knocking her across the room. Kat landed on a tarp that was covering empty boxes that were near the front door. Dust flew up and filled her lungs along with the smell of cardboard. The two T-3s separated and came at her from different directions, expecting a fight from her, and one inadvertently kicked the round that had been lying on the floor, and the bullet bounced and rolled to her. She lay there stunned and dazed, but managed the strength to apply pressure to her wound. The first T-3 to arrive by her side paused and noticed the blood, so it grabbed her hand, lifted it, and saw the bullet hole. It placed its finger in her wound, and she cried out.

The T-3 examined the blood on its nail, turned to the Team Leader, and spoke, “Pandora has been disabled. Should I proceed with her termination?”

“No,” the Team Leader answered. “Hold. We will take her back to the Factory. Perhaps we will learn some valuable information from her.” It walked to the elevator and ordered, “The rest of you proceed with the first objective.” It pointed and commanded, “Open those doors.”

Three of the twelve moved forward and stopped when they heard the elevator activate on its own and within a minute, the elevator came to a halt and opened. Five pairs of yellow eyes glowed within the dark cab; the unknown creatures growled before leaping on a T-3. The mechanical creatures were K-99s. They were an early model of bio-mecha that resembled Irish Wolfhounds down to the steel-gray wavy fur. The K-99s bit and clawed at the Un-Man till one of them ripped off its head. During the attack, the elevator closed and returned empty.

“Take them out!” the Team Leader ordered, aiming its weapon.

The T-3s opened fire, destroying two of the K-99s; the remaining three K-99s ran six feet from the elevator, turned, and formed a line as they faced their adversary. A compartment on their backs opened, and a small machine gun raised into position. The K-99s attacked with their weapons and filled the large room with the roar of gun blast. The T-3s returned fire, and the K-99s barrage took down three of the T-3s before they were destroyed. The warehouse fell silent as smoke from gunpowder rose in the air like a grayish-white cloud.

“Open those doors,” the Team Leader commanded.

Four of the remaining eight T-3s moved forward as a shrilling whistle emanated from a K-99, and its body glowed.

“What is it?” the Team Leader questioned, hearing the sound. It recognized the noise and commanded, “Fall back!”

The T-3s fled as the K-99 exploded, knocking all of them to the floor. The Team Leader stood and looked over the others; the four whom it sent to open the doors were damaged. Three of them were completely destroyed and lay in pieces as the fourth whose legs had been blown off pulled itself across the floor. One Un-Men who was part of the group with the Team Leader remained undamaged.

The Team Leader moved to the area Pandora was in, motioned to the T-3s guarding her, and ordered, “You two join our other brethren, and then the three of you open the elevator.”

“Understood,” they replied and moved off, leaving the Team Leader to guard Pandora.

Once they joined their brethren, the three T-3s marched to the elevator and passed their crawling comrade. Two of the T-3s tucked their guns and grabbed the doors, prying them open while the third covered them with its weapon in case there were more surprises within. They forced the elevator open and found an empty lit cab. The two T-3s removed their weapons and entered the cab as the third followed. The third one moved to press the basement button when a white sticky web shot from the ceiling, entangling it in a cocoon like a helpless fly. The other two T-3s raised their guns, firing at the ceiling as six spider bio-mechas, model Arachnoid, crawled in through the escape hatch; they were two foot in diameter and all metal. The lights were hit, and the cab fell dark. The Arachnoids studied the Un-Men with their eight, green, beady eyes before jumping down and attacking the remaining two T-3s, and the elevator closed.

The Team Leader turned to Pandora as it uplinked with others of its kind and it stated, “Lost containment of sight.” It lifted its gun, aiming at her as its fake blue eyes showed neither remorse or pleasure. “I can no longer secure Pandora. Extraction failed. I will terminate her.”

 

Chapter Twenty-eight

The End For One

Moments earlier…

After the K-99 exploded and took out most of the T-3s, Kat watched as the Team Leader ordered the two T-3s guarding her to join the other one, and she wondered what the Un-Men were after. They usually came after her and had no other agenda but to kill her. She pressed against her shoulder, trying to stop the bleeding and winced.

 

Katharine’s view…

Why are they so concerned with opening the elevator? I glance at the dog bio-mechas who had so bravely faced the Un-Men. And who or what are the K-99s guarding? I cough for the dust I stirred up and watch as the T-3s open the elevator for a second time; I witness the Arachnoids attack the T-3s and once the elevator closes again, the Team Leader turns to me and aims at me. I search for a weapon and feel along the dusty concrete, but only find the 9 mm round. I whimper, defeated as I stare down the barrel of the Team Leader’s gun. I’ve faced death many times, but it hasn’t been so grim. There’s always some hope I’ll survive, but not this time. Knowing this is it, I look around the warehouse and consider my life. Will my search end where it began? I clench the bullet and hold it to my chest, too weak to stop the Team Leader. Is Pale Horse’s rider coming for me?

End Katharine’s view…

 

It had its orders. The Team Leader was to eliminate her and return to base. It would make sure she died quickly, and two shots to the head would do it.

After pulling the trigger, muzzle flash erupted twice as empty shells fell to the floor and bounced. Kat jerked as the shots echoed across the building and smoke rolled from the gun. Liquid trickled from two wounds in the forehead and converged at the nose.

The Team Leader slowly turned its head toward the front door and spoke, “Pretty… poppet?”

It collapsed to its knees and fell on its face as its artificial blood spilled from the two wounds in its head.

 

Katharine’s view…

I stare at the disabled T-3 as if something’s wrong. I feel myself slowly fading and can’t understand why it’s dead and not me. Did it shoot at me and miss? I don’t think I’ve been hit again, but I can’t be sure, not the way I feel. Maybe none of this is real. Maybe I’m dead and this is only an illusion dreamt during my eternal slumber.

I hear someone clear their throat, so I look to the door and see a person there, aiming their gun at where the T-3 had been. Kimberly saved me, but why? Weakening by the second, I try to stay conscious. What cruel part does Kimberly have in the tests? I don’t care at the moment… I’m so glad she’s here. I’m alive because she’s here.

End Katharine’s view…

 

Kim lowered her gun and moved to Kat, pleased she made it in time.

“Well, I’m back,” she stated as if announcing her entrance to a party. She still couldn’t believe she was helping her. “Well?” she started as she scanned the area for more Un-Men and noted the K-99s in pieces and the one T-3 with no legs pulling itself toward them. Kim questioned, “Are you going to sit there or are we going to leave?”

“You came back?” Kat said in a weakening voice. “But I thought…” She tried to sit up and push herself forward, but Kat didn’t have the strength, so she gave up and lay back down. “I thought… you didn’t want to help me.”

“Things change. Why are you complaining? For Ares’ sake! Be glad I came back, and where’s my thank you for saving your life?” Kim noticed her pale face, so she locked her gun, tucked it in her shoulder holster, knelt beside Kat, placed her arm around her, and helped her up. “Ahh…” Kim uttered as she almost vomited. “Have you ever heard of a bath?”

Kat gritted her teeth as she was hauled to her feet, and they made their way out. The car was outside in the front parking lot, and they made their way to it.

Kim opened the passenger door, set her inside, and buckled her in. She stepped back, looked at the interior of her car, and said, “Try not to bleed on the leather.”

She shut the door, hurried to the other side, started up the engine, and drove off, kicking up leaves as Kim headed for the nearest hospital.

 

Back inside Etna Toys…

The elevator doors opened, and the Council exited as five S.C.Ms. armed with XM8 assault rifles followed them; the soldiers wore a dark green uniform with a shoulder patch of the Sphinx Corporation Emblem, and the Council’s Crest of a silver spool of thread, a tape measure, and a pair of scissors hung above the shield. The S.C.Ms. spread out and secured the perimeter. Two of them approached the legless T-3 pulling itself across the floor, and the S.C.Ms. shot and disabled it.

Mr. Morta looked over the mess of bio-mecha parts and spoke, “It would seem the Sanctum has been compromised. The T-3s somehow discovered our base, but why attack us?” He turned to the lead S.C.M. and told him, “We are abandoning Etna Toys. Pull up the Sanctum. We will look for another base of operations.”

“At once.”

The S.C.M. entered the elevator, and the cab doors closed.

“Yes, why attack us?” Mr. Decuma walked up beside Mr. Morta. “And why capture Argus? Are we sure the Factory is not behind this?”

“I doubt it,” Ms. Nona answered. “The T-3s did kill two of the Factory’s corporate military men.”

“Unless that and the news that the T-3s went rogue were all a ruse,” Mr. Morta stated. “Either way, some force is after us, and I would like to know why. Only a handful of people know of our existence.”

“The more important question is, were they here to destroy us or were they after our research?” Ms. Nona asked.

Mr. Decuma added, “Yes, a very good question.”

Mr. Morta knelt beside a K-99, petted its furry head, and whispered, “All of you did well. You protected the Sanctum.”

Ms. Nona walked up beside him. “What about Pandora?” She paused, waiting on a reply and continued when he said nothing. “After more than a year, I think it is about time we deemed Pandora a failure.”

“I agree,” Mr. Decuma said. “We should terminate the project.” He glanced at the Team Leader, who was face down in a black pool. “Pandora would have died if Ms. Griffin had not interfered. I say we terminate our first attempt and begin on the second.”

Mr. Morta glanced at the other Council members and stood. “Activate the second project. It will take time before it is operational, so for now we will let Pandora live.” He looked out the front windows and stated, “I am curious as to why Ms. Griffin shot then saved Pandora. Could the Chairman be interfering with our work?”

“I do not believe he is,” Ms. Nona said.

Mr. Decuma added, “Unless he has an agenda we have no knowledge of. Perhaps we should place more Moles into the Third Branch Office.”

Ms. Nona replied, “I think we should not be hasty.”

“I agree,” Mr. Morta stated.

“Perhaps both of you are correct,” Mr. Decuma said. “But we do need to send in a new operative to monitor Pandora while Argus is MIA. I will set the paperwork in motion.”

He started for the elevator, and Ms. Nona followed him.

 

Mr. Morta’s view…

I stay back and monitor the cleanup of the K-99s. I stare off in thought, wondering if Pandora realized it. Did she know that the very people she searched for were right underneath her feet?

I can’t help but think fondly of her; she has come so close to discovering us. I secretly admired her persistence. What will she do now? Will she trust Ms. Griffin after what she did to her, and could the Chairman have sent his daughter in for some reason? Did the Chairman want the Pandora Project for himself?

  • * *

A half hour later…

The Rogue made its way to one of the Factory’s vans parked at the curb in front of Etna Toys Plant and Warehouse. It opened the side door, keeping an eye on the few Council S.C.Ms. still within the warehouse; they hadn’t spotted it. The Rogue looked inside the vehicle and found what it was looking for, a computer, so the Rogue entered the van, slid the door shut, and sat at the table. It logged on to the Factory’s main system and pulled up a few files, scanning for information on Pandora. The Rogue searched for several minutes and finally found what it was looking for when the files started disappearing. Someone was deleting the Factory’s system. It would have to act fast if it wanted to get any information; the Rogue opened a file and read over it with robotic speed. The file mentioned an experiment called organic-mecha and referenced another file, and the Rogue quickly pulled it up. The file stated that organic-mechas proceeded bio-mechas.

“Why did Sphinx abandoned the project and does organic-mechas have anything to do with me or Pandora?” it questioned aloud.

The Rogue found another reference, but before it could read the file it was deleted; the Rogue slammed its fist on the table as the remaining files deleted and the link to the mainframe disconnected. There was no more that it could do, so the Rogue stood and slid open the door. Two S.C.Ms. stood outside, aiming their weapons at it.

“Hello,” the Rogue said as it raised its hands and stepped from the van. “You really do not want to do this. I can tell by your shoulder patch that you work for the Council. Let me go and this will not get messy.”

A S.C.M. touched his earpiece and spoke, “Inform the Council we have the Rogue.”

“Have?” it questioned and stated, “Have is such a strong word.”

In one quick motion, the Rogue removed its knife and cut across the one soldier’s throat. Blood spurted as the second S.C.M. fired his assault rifle. It evaded the shots and tackled the man to the ground, stripping the soldier of his weapon, and the Rogue buried its knee in the man’s chest, and the soldier could hardly breathe.

It said, “I want you to give the Council a message.”

His face mangled in pain as he grabbed at the Rogue’s arms, trying to force the Un-Man off of him.

“Tell the Council to leave me alone, and I will leave them alone. If not…” The Rogue grabbed his arm and twisted it hard. “Things will get broken.”

The man screamed just as three more S.C.Ms. ran out of Etna Toys.

The Rogue stood and took off as they fired, and it disappeared down a street. It ran several blocks, came upon a major street, and hailed a taxi.

“Where to?” the male driver asked.

The Rogue entered the back, replying, “The nearest hospital. I am feeling a little under the weather.”

The driver looked at the pale faced passenger, wondered if whatever he had might be contagious, nodded, and drove down the road.

Quietly sitting in the back, the Rogue contemplated that it knew so little about Pandora. It did realize that it didn’t need to know her to kill her. All it needed to know was where she went, and it had a pretty good idea.

 

Chapter Twenty-nine

Not Out Of Danger Yet

7:47 P.M…

Hellenistic Sector, Residential Vicinage…

Within the Corvette…

 

Katharine’s view…

I glance at Kimberly as the memory of her shooting me replays in my mind. My wound still burns as much as confusion plagues me. Why did Kimberly injure me then save me? In agony, I turn and lean my head against the passenger’s side window as buildings and street lights speed by in the blackness. I clench Pale Horse and press that hand against the seeping hole in my shoulder as I look down at my blistered left palm lying limp on my leg. The sharp ache in my shoulder redirects my focus, and I hardly notice the throbbing and burning of the scorched skin.

End Katharine’s view…

 

Kim steered the Corvette through Healing Way and turned at the entrance to Asclepius Hospital as she talked on a cell phone.

“Yes, Brian, it’s me. Don’t hang up! Now listen, I want you…” She paused as he interrupted her, and Kim snapped, “Don’t tell me that! You owe me, and I collect what’s owed to me. Now…” She calmed herself. “We need to do this covertly, so where do you want to meet?” Kim paused, listening. “Okay, we’ll be there in a minute.” She hung up and drove to the west side where they were remodeling the hospital.

When they neared the building, Kat noticed a doctor in white scrub pants and a shirt skittishly waiting with a wheelchair. He looked around the empty parking lot and the surrounding area then ran to them, pushing the wheelchair as Kim pulled up. He opened the passenger door, and Kat noticed his name badge read Dr. Chiron. He had kind brown eyes and dark brown hair, and she would later notice he had a soothing voice.

Brian helped the pale woman into the wheelchair, saw red staining the cream colored leather seat, and questioned, “What happened?”

“Later,” Kim snapped. “Get her inside and stop the bleeding. I’m going to park the car.” She noticed the passenger seat and yelled, “Hades! I’ll also need to clean up in here.”

“Don’t leave her with me,” Brian demanded. “And it will make us even.”

“For Ares’ sake, I won’t, and we’re far from being even.” She commanded, “Shut the door. I’ll meet you inside.”

Brian closed the door, and she pulled off.

Sometime later…

Brian quickly wheeled Kat into a room. Plastic sheets covered the bed and counters, and a single window revealed the dark parking lot outside. He removed one of the sheets, grabbed latex gloves, and pulled them on; Brian helped her to sit on the examining bed, started to remove her jacket, noticed the burn on her palm, and that she gripped something in her right hand. He carefully removed her left sleeve, pulled the right one over her fisted hand, tossed the jacket to the floor, and set Kat back. He unpacked several sterile instruments then took surgical scissors and cut her blood soaked t-shirt off and threw the t-shirt to the tile floor. He started to cut the sports bra off when she grabbed his arm with her injured left hand.

“Leave it,” Kat barked like a wounded dog and glared at him.

Brian gulped. He’d seen that look on Kim’s face and knew not to mess with the woman, so he searched for help; normally, he would have an orderly help him or a nurse, but he was on his own. He told her, “I’ll only cut the one strap off, is that okay? I need to operate on your shoulder.”

Growing faint, Kat remembered her fate at the hands of the techs and doctors when the Factory had captured her. They did many horrible things to her, trying to break her. She didn’t know if she could trust Dr. Chiron and eyed him suspiciously. Kim had brought her there, maybe she could trust him, so Kat removed her hand from his gloved one and relaxed a bit.

“Roll on your side,” Brian requested then cut the one strap, removed it, and examined the back of her shoulder. “The bullet went all the way through, I only have to get in there and stop the bleeding.” He had her lie on her back, then he rushed into the hall to a medicine closet and unlocked it. Brian opened a drawer, pulled out a couple of needles, grabbed some vials, and headed back. He set the items on the counter, unwrapped one of the needles, and stuck it in a vial. Brian noticed her silently watching him with distrusting eyes, so he told her, “This is an antibiotic; after I inject you, I’m also going to give you something to numb your shoulder while I operate on it.” He gave her the injections and inquired, “Who shot you?”

She said nothing only accusingly stared at Kim as she entered, and Brian noticed the look she gave Kim and continued his work.

After checking the hall, Kim came and stood by him. “I searched the floor; no one’s here.” Kim peered over his shoulder and asked, “Will it take long?”

“Not too long,” he answered. “Could you step back out of my light?”

Kim walked around the bed, stood by the wall, crossed her arms, and watched intently.

With surgeon precision and tender hands, Brian worked on Kat’s shoulder for more than twenty minutes then touched her arm to get her attention. “Can you roll on your side? We’re half way there.”

 

Katharine’s view…

Remaining silent, I roll over and stare at Kimberly as the doctor works, and I can’t help but wonder if this is some sort of trick. Is Kimberly working for the Council and she is only after my music box? But then why did she save me? I close my eyes, not wanting to look at the glaring Phoenix. Did it really matter to me if Kimberly helped me or not? I open my eyes as if I found the answer. Is that it? Do I feel hurt and betrayed by her because I want Kimberly to help me and Kimberly left me to die?

I feel lost and want to cradle myself against the emotional and physical pain. Where is the music box now? I need it; the headache has already started.

End Katharine’s view…

 

Kim noticed she gripped something in her hand and demanded, “Give me what you have.”

Kat glared back at her.

“Give it here.” Kim put a hand to the purse dangling from her shoulder. “Remember I won’t ask a third time.”

Grudgingly, Kat opened her hand, revealing a blood covered bullet.

 

Kimberly’s view…

I see what’s in her hand; it’s only a 9 mm round, and I’m about to ignore it when I remember the bullet I left for that woman. I study it more closely and see my own hand writing. Why did she still have it? Is she saving it to use on me later?

I take the bullet, wipe most of the blood on a plastic sheet, and place the bullet in my pocket. I’ll save Pale Horse and use it when I kill her, and that will be a fitting end to our bizarre partnership.

End Kimberly’s view…

 

Brian started on a stitch when something shiny half way embedded below Kat’s skin caught his attention. The bullet nicked the object, dislodging it enough to appear in the wound. He grabbed an overhead lamp and pulled it close.

“Kim, hand me the small forceps.”

She handed the tweezer size instrument to him and then asked, “What do you see?”

He removed the small metal object and dropped it in a stainless steel tray. “I don’t know.” Brian pushed it across the tray with the forceps and flipped it over, examining the rectangular thing the size of a grain of rice. “It looks like a chip they place in pets to identify them if they’re lost.”

A realization sunk in and Kim said, “It’s more than that.” She picked up the metal device and walked around to face that woman. “Is this how they’ve been tracking you? Does this thing tell them where to send the Un-Men?”

“Un-Men?” Brian questioned.

“I’ll explain later.” She turned her attention back to that woman and asked, “Well, is it? Do you know you’re some sort of experiment?” She demanded, “What are you? What are you the Key to? Tell me!”

“I’m the Pandora Project,” Kat answered. “I’m hunted and tested.”

Kim asked, “What does that mean? What’s the Pandora Project?”

“Sheez… Haven’t you been listening? I already told you I can’t remember my past, so you know as much as I do.” Kat wanted to wrap herself into a fetal position and shield herself from the frustrating questions that had been haunting her the past year.

“Sheez?” Brian said. “What kind of word is that? I’ve never heard it before.”

“Don’t butt in!” Kim shouted at him and then yelled at her, “If you don’t want to tell me, fine!” She started to leave the room with the metal device.

“Where are you going?” Brian asked.

Kim paused outside the door and answered, “I’m going to get rid of this thing.”

“Wouldn’t it be better to keep it?”

“No, I think it’s caused enough problems.”

She went to a restroom, flushed the tracking beacon, and returned.

He finished the stitches, cleaned Kat’s left palm, put ointment on it, and wrapped the burn in gauze. He gave her a tetanus shot.

“I’m finished,” Brian said to Kim. “As long as infection doesn’t set in or she isn’t allergic to anything I gave her, she should be fine with rest.” He took out a clean blanket from a closet and covered Kat. “I’ve given her a sedative, so she’ll sleep for a few hours.” Brian motioned for Kim to follow him out, and he shut the door behind them.

“Both of you can stay overnight, but you’ll need to leave early tomorrow morning. The work crew will be here sometime around 9:00 A.M.”

“What am I supposed to do? I can’t take her to my place.” Kim couldn’t imagine having that strange woman in her apartment.

“It will probably be best if you did. Hey! Don’t look at me that way.” He pointed at her accusingly. “You’re the one who saved her from whatever.” He dropped his hand. “Did you really think you could leave her here?”

“I guess I never thought that far ahead.”

His expression softened as he asked, “Would you like something to eat or maybe coffee? I’m heading to the cafeteria.”

“Yes, thank you. I’ll have a ham sandwich and that lemon-lime soda Crite if they carry it.”

“My old office is right through that door.” He pointed and told her, “You can stay there till morning. There’s a couch, and a pillow and a blanket are in the closet if you need to rest. I’ll be back within an hour to check on your friend, and I’ll bring the sandwich and drink then.”

“She’s not my friend,” Kim insisted.

“Well, whoever.” He started to leave.

“Brian, wait.” She tenderly grabbed his elbow, and he turned. “Thanks,” she said. I didn’t know who else to turn to; actually, I don’t have anyone else to turn to. With what I do… You understand.”

“I do, and you’re welcome.” He smirked as he spoke, “A small payment to the large debt I owe you.” Brian studied her tired face. “You look distraught. What happened today?”

Down the hall, a shadow stretched from a corner to listen in.

Kim didn’t know if she should tell Brian, but decided she could trust him. “I received a message from my mom.”

He was sincere and happy for her. “She is fine then?”

Kim shook her head, holding back tears. “I discovered she died. She never abandoned me and my father; she was murdered.”

“Murdered?” Brian couldn’t believe the news.

“Yes, and I’ll find who did it.” Her expression darkened as she fisted her right hand. “And they’ll pay.”

“How did you uncover this?” he asked.

“I remembered. I was there outside the office when the fire started, and I heard gun shots. I had repressed the memory.” She glanced back at the room where Kat slept. “Something triggered it.”

“I don’t know what to say.” He put a gentle hand to her shoulder. “At least, you know she’s dead and she didn’t abandon you. Murdered though… like I said, I don’t know what to say.”

“Listening to me is enough.” She started for his office. “I need to get some rest. I’ve had a long day.” Kim entered the room, closed the door behind her, and added loudly, “A very exhausting day.”

Brian stared at the office for a moment and continued through the hall.

 

Kimberly’s view…

Tired, I glance around; I see a desk, bookshelves full of medical references, a tall cabinet, and a couch. I open the cabinet, take the pillow and blanket, sit on the couch, and place my gun on a coffee table. I lie back and cover myself and then reach up, turn off a lamp at my head, plunging the room into darkness.

What have I gotten myself into? Mom, why did you want me to save Katharine? And what am I suppose to save her from?

I roll on my side, trying to sleep. Did I make the right decision saving her or have I only caused myself more problems?

End Kimberly’s view…

 

Outside at the corner, the Rogue peeked around as it processed the information it overheard. Theresa Griffin was murdered and that might be something interesting to investigate later, but first thing was first. The Rogue started through the hall. Ms. Griffin had gotten sloppy and left Pandora all by her lonesome; it was time for it to say hello. The Rogue paused. It detected someone approached and ducked back around the corner; it didn’t recognize him. Whoever he was, he was interrupting the Rogue’s play time, but it would wait. The Rogue ducked inside a supply closet. For a chance alone with Pandora, it would wait.

  • * *

The new Sanctum…

Within the makeshift Chamber…

Several analysts activated the equipment, and the computers and large flat screen monitors powered up, casting the dark room in a blue glow. Shadows cast across the faces of the Council as they sat in chairs in the middle of the Chamber and stared at the monitors. Four security personnel set up a rectangular table before them.

Ms. Nona looked over reports a supervisor handed her and then she said, “There is still no word on Argus and no word from the Factory. I fear Argus and the Factory may have been compromised. There are reports across Noir of T-3s hitting different facilities belonging to the Factory.”

“Do you believe they have lost control and that the T-3s have taken over?” Mr. Morta asked.

“Yes,” Ms. Nona replied.

Mr. Decuma started his report, “The second project, Cerberus, has been activated; it will be operational in two days.”

Mr. Morta nodded.

A supervisor handed Ms. Nona another H.H.C. and the councilwoman relayed, “We have a problem. The tracking device we implanted in Pandora is no longer functioning.”

“What about her bio-readings? Are we still detecting them?” Mr. Morta asked.

“Yes, it appears to be sleeping,” Ms. Nona replied. “Pandora’s stats have improved but are not within normal ranges.”

“Should we send a team to the last place the beacon relayed so they may extract the project?” Mr. Decuma asked. “We cannot have it running rogue.”

Mr. Morta said, “Pandora is far from rogue. Let her continue as a sub-project. We still may acquire valuable information from her bio-readings. Let us see what she does now that she is on her own.”

Mr. Morta knew Pandora needed to enjoy her freedom while she had it, for he wouldn’t be able to hold back the Hands of the Fates forever.

 

Mr. Decuma’s view…

I stare at my counterpart. She? Her? Are they merely a slip of the tongue or has Mr. Morta forgotten the project’s place? I pause in my thoughts then decide that the development needs to be monitored. We cannot have a project influencing one of the Council; I will make sure of it.

 

Chapter Thirty

When Everything Is At Its Bleakest

10:43 P.M…

Hellenistic Sector, Residential Vicinage…

 

Katharine’s view…

The cold room smells antiseptic, and the lingering dust makes me sneeze as I wake, blinking my eyes open. Am I still at Etna Toys? I notice I’m lying on a bed in a hospital room and that the lights are off. A window on the far side of the room looks out on a dark parking lot, and light from a street lamp trickles in. I thought Kimberly had…

I try to move, but my arms and legs feel heavy. I remember I’m at Asclepius Hospital and that the doctor gave me some injections; I try moving again. I feel so weak. Didn’t one of the injections wear off? I see that a blanket covers me up to my chin. A little less groggy, I move my wrists and realize it’s not the medicine that’s making my arms and legs feel heavy. Did Kimberly or the doctor do this to me?! Why would they… The door creaks open and interrupts my thoughts as a man in a white lab coat walks in backwards, holding a clipboard. Here’s Brian; I can ask him.

He flips a switch, and I squint as the bright lights flicker on. I watch as Brian walks over to a drawer, opens it, removes a plastic package, lays it on a tray, and removes a scalpel from it. He turns with the instrument in his hand, and the small blade glints in the light as I gasp. It’s not Brian who stands before me but the Rogue, the blackguard of my nightmares. I force myself to exhale. Why didn’t my heart pound the bio-mecha warning? Is it because of the drugs? My breathing increases as I realize I’m powerless to save my own life. I franticly look to the door. I could cry out, but who will come? Is anyone even out there?

“It looks like we are finally alone,” the Rogue says as it walks to the left side of my bed.

I follow it with my eyes, and it smirks at me like a devilish cat.

“I thought you would be singing with the Erinyes after I left Etna Toys, but here you are alive and somewhat well. I guess we were meant to meet again. Lucky for me.”

It doesn’t wear its sun glasses, and I can see its robotic eyes; its eyes show a hint of pleasure.

“You amaze me again, but this time it was not your skills that saved you but Ms. Griffin’s.” The Rogue chuckles. “Well, saved you the second time.” It makes a gun with its hand and aims it at me. “The first time she did not really help you.” It pokes my wounded shoulder with the barrel of its imaginary gun.

I wince, too afraid to say anything.

“I am still not sure why the Chairman’s daughter is involved.” The Rogue strokes my cheek with the blunt side of its scalpel, and I shrink from its touch. “I can investigate the reason in the future once our game has come to an end. I will need something to do once you are gone; though, I will have to say I love the time we have spend together.” It scans me. “I detect your tracking beacon has been disabled. Did you finally remove it?”

At first, I don’t understand what it means, but then I remember the small piece of metal Brian removed from my shoulder.

It seems to study my expression as it says, “Did you not know? How do you think the Un-Men always found you?” The Rogue strokes my hair with its hand. “How I keep finding you?”

“What do you want?” I ask. “Why are you always toying with me?”

“What do I want? You women, you both ask me the same thing, and I am surprised you do not know. I want what I have always wanted. Your death by my hands.” The Rogue glances around the room and out the door’s small window. “And here we are all alone, and you without your gun. It is a shame, not that a gun would have helped you. You have not been able to directly hit me in all our battles; though, I have been impressed with them in the past.” It grabs my chin. “How are we going to play this time?” It glances at the scalpel it holds and throws the instrument across the room, embedding the blade half way into the wall. “Let us not play doctor again.” It removes the lab coat that covers its suit and unsheathes its knife. “This is much better.” The Rogue places the blade against my throat. “Pandora, you are the driving force that gives meaning to my existence.”

I force myself to stare at the Rogue as the blade slightly cuts me and a trickle of blood runs down my neck. I whisper, “And you’re the bane of mine.”

“Let us begin this final battle. Your move Pandora. What are you going to do? What attack or tactic will save you this time?”

End Katharine’s view…

 

Outside some distance away…

Brian ran down the hall, shouting, “Kim!”

Startled by his shouting, Kim sat up, searching his office over the barrel of her gun, and it took her a few moments before she realized she was at the hospital.

Brian burst into the room. “We have a problem!” he shouted almost out of breath.

 

Down the hall in the other room…

“Your move Pandora. What are you waiting for? Do something! Do not look at me with that helpless face of yours! Attack! Counter my move! Why are you not doing anything? Why have you given up?” Her submissiveness frustrated it. “Do you want to die?” The Rogue cut her neck a little deeper, and a red trail of liquid flowed down its blade. “Fight me!”

“I can’t,” she admitted. “I can’t.”

“What?! No! You cannot deny me!” The Rogue threatened, “I will kill you if you will not fight me! I will bring a halt to our Endless Waltz.”

Kat remained silent, knowing there was nothing she could do, and her eyes burned as trepidation forcibly boarded her brain and hijacked control. Fear soaked through every action she took, making it difficult to move even the slightest bit. Her head jerkily turned like a robot’s, and Kat had to force herself to breathe.

“Fine then! I will gut you!” It threw back the blanket ready to cut her open and halted. “What is this?”

 

In Dr. Chiron’s office…

Kim stood, lowered the gun, and asked, “What problem?”

Brian told her, still trying to catch his breath, “One of the doctors… was over here with a nurse… and well, you can imagine why. Anyway… he found the woman you brought in. Come on.” He started for the door. “My colleague remembered seeing her picture on one of the bounty shows they have on TV, and he turned her in. Noir Civil Police Force will be here any moment. You have to get her out of here.”

 

Back in the other room…

“What is this?” the Rogue demanded as it looked down at Kat with her hands and feet in restraints. “Who did this? Ms. Griffin? Puck!” it screamed, waving its knife around. “How are we to fight when you are like this? I knew your shoulder wound would be a problem, but I was going to go easy on you to make up for it.” It motioned to the restraints with its open hand. “But this…” It thought a moment and said, “It is not like I put you in them.” The Rogue raised the knife and paused. “But does that make it fair?”

 

Kat’s view..

I stare at the ranting Un-Man in disbelief. Why doesn’t it kill me and get it over with? Why does it always play these games? I try to muster some anger, but I can’t find the strength to rebel against my fate, so I forfeit my life to the bane of my existence.

End Katharine’s view…

 

The Rogue paced the room, muttering, “What to do? What to do? I guess I will kill you.” It walked over to her to cut her throat and looked into her frightened eyes. “Puck! I cannot. This is so unfair. I have waited all this time to kill you in battle, and you had to go and get yourself tied up.”

 

Katharine’s view…

Confused over why it has delayed in ending me, I watch it pace the room like a mad man and then I look to the door, hoping for help. Where’s Kimberly? Did she abandon me again? Or did she make a deal with the Un-Man?

End Katharine’s view…

 

The Rogue had an idea and said, “I know, I will release you then we can fight.” It detected two people approaching the room, and it turned just as Kim and Brian burst in. “Puck!” the Rogue cursed and turned its knife on them.

Kim opened fire on the Rogue twice, but it was too fast for her, and it moved out of the way of the speeding projectiles as if they were wads of paper she had thrown at it.

The Rogue glanced at Kat and told her, “Another day.” It ran for the window, crashing through it, and a few shards pinged to the floor as the majority of the glass fell outside.

Careful of the broken glass, Kim rushed to the window to fire at the Rogue again. “It’s gone!” She turned back as Brian started to release Kat.

Kat looked at Kim and accused, “You tied me up and left me alone.”

Kim was taken aback by her accusation; only her mother ever gave her that look, and Kim didn’t know what to say. “I…”

“She didn’t tie you up,” Brian said as he finished releasing her. “It was one of my colleagues, now both of you must leave. I’ll try to stall the police.”

Kim removed her black jacket and threw it to Kat. “Here put this on. You running around in your bra might draw some attention.”

Brian helped Kat pull the jacket on and then he turned to a counter and said, “Here.” He handed Kim a bottle of pills. “Have her take these as directed, and she needs to stay immobile for about two weeks. If there are any problems, give me a call.” He motioned to the wheelchair. “Now get out.”

She wheeled Kat to her car, helped her in, rushed around to the other side, and started up the vehicle. Kim drove, leaving the hospital and turned onto Healing Way and a few moments later, two N.C.P.F. cars passed them with their sirens blaring and headed into Asclepius Hospital.

 

Katharine’s view…

I lean my head on the passenger’s side window as I feel deeply betrayed by Kimberly and my own weak self. I gave up. Do I want to live or have I embraced my fate as the Council sees it? Do I believe I’m destined to be alone and hunted to my last gasping breath?

 

Chapter Thirty-one

The Factory

11:48 P.M…

Hellenistic Sector, Trade Vicinage…

At the boundary of Hellenistic Sector…

Peters and Maxwell arrived at the gate leading into the Factory. No one manned the guardhouse, and the chain link gate stood open like it had been run over by a large truck. Their van’s diesel engine rattled as it idled, and smoke rolled from the vibrating muffler.

Unsure himself, Maxwell asked, “What do you think? Should we go in?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t raised anyone on the radio.” Peters gravely stared at the dashboard as if the answer would appear there, but it didn’t. “Where else can we go? If the T-3s have gone rogue, what we need to stop them is in there.” He pointed to the buildings in the distance.

“I was afraid you were going to say that.” Maxwell looked straight down the road as sweat speckled his forehead. “Until we know who’s behind the T-3 attacks, there’s no one we can trust.” He released the brake, slowly pressed his foot on the gas, and the van crept across the road toward two large concrete buildings.

An eternity passed as two hundred yards rolled by under their tires, and they reached the buildings, and a dozen more stood behind those two. Nothing seemed out of place until they turned right at the buildings, and several employee cars bellowed with fire and/or were turned upside down. A couple of the cars in flames had corpses at the wheel, and a few bodies with bullet wounds were scattered about the road.

Peters freaked. “Puck! Turn around! Let’s get out of here!”

Maxwell moved the gear shift to R, looked in his rear view mirror, and saw two dozen T-3s standing behind them. “Not a good idea.”

The armed T-3s started toward them, screaming, “Pretty poppets!”

Peters turned, looking behind them. “Get us out of here! They’re heading this way.”

Maxwell shifted back to D, and the van peeled off.

“We’ll head for our office!” Maxwell shouted. “We might be safe there!”

He sharply turned at a corner, and the van squealed to a halt in the middle of the Factory. They jumped out of the vehicle, left the doors open, and ran for one of the concrete structures marked Research Building 10. Maxwell used his keycard to unlock the front entrance, and both men rushed down the dark hall; the smell of gunpowder filled the air. They cautiously made their way to the main security desk for the building, but no one manned it. The large pentagon shaped desk usually had at least four men manning it. Peters walked around to the back of it and to a swivel door, entered, went to the desk splattered with blood, and glanced at the monitors and saw that most of them were off-line.

“Look at this,” Peters said.

Maxwell glanced around the large silent room first. He expected T-3s to march in weapons blazing but none did, so they were safe for the moment, and he joined Peters. The monitors showed security camera footage, and the one camera that was online filmed a lab room in shambles. The camera panned and showed people lying on the floor; all of them were killed by gunshots.

“I don’t know if this was such a good idea.” Peters stood in place like a skittish rabbit.

“Maybe you’re right,” Maxwell stated. “This place might end up being our grave. Come on, let’s get to our office.”

“Let’s use the stairs. It’s a few floors down,” Peters insisted as he started off.

“Wait.” A little confused, Maxwell grabbed his arm. “A few floors? We’re talking about five. Have you seen the shape I’m in? Are you trying to kill me?”

“Which would you rather be on? Would you rather be in an enclosed cab with no way out or the stairs with a few more choices?”

Maxwell replied, “Right.” He jogged for the stairs. “My New Years Resolution was to exercise more.”

Peters followed. “Let’s hope you live long enough to break another promise.”

They rushed down the five stories, and there was a dead S.C.M. on one of the landings.

Peters up and stopped then uttered, “Hades! That’s James; he manned the main security desk. I would bring him a coffee whenever I’d come in early. He…”

Maxwell hurried past the S.C.M., reached for the exit door, and paused when his partner didn’t follow. “Come on. Don’t look at him.” He leaned on his knees, caught his breath, and whispered, “We can’t stay here.”

“I knew him.” Peters couldn’t look away from James’ glassy stare and kept muttering, “I talked to him today. He has a wife and a kid.”

“Snap out of it!” Maxwell took a deep breath and grabbed him by the lab coat. “Come on! We have to keep going!”

They ran through the exit and down the stairs.

Sometime later…

At room B10-104, Maxwell swiped his keycard, and a retina scanner beeped, prompting him to look into its viewer. The scan took twenty nerve racking seconds as Peters watched the hall. The door to their office opened, both men ran inside, and the door automatically shut and locked behind them. File cabinets and tables were in the first room that was their office, and a desk lamp lit up a small area in the otherwise dark room. They ran to another door, and it led to their lab. Maxwell unlocked it with his keycard, and they rushed in and after they entered, Peters turned and locked the door with an electronic bolt as his partner switched on the lights. The lab lit up and cast shadows into the office. A dozen rectangular tables that were elevated at a ninety degree angle filled the second room along with an array of tools and electronic devices. The tables were used to work on the Un-Men. Both techs hurried to their computer.

“I’ll try to get some help.” Peters woke up his PC.

“I’ll try to find out who’s behind the T-3 attacks.” Maxwell folded his hands, bent his fingers back, and cracked his knuckles before typing. He used his mouse to select several files and after some time, Maxwell cursed, “Puck! It can’t be right. Puck!” He rechecked his findings and stated, “No one’s behind these attacks.”

“What do you mean?” Peters turned to him. “Someone has to be. They can’t…”

Maxwell interrupted, “What I mean is, the T-3s themselves are behind the attacks.” He pointed to a communications file he’d opened. “They’re organizing on their own and somehow they’re disobeying their basic programming.”

“Impossible!” Peters stood, made his way to Maxwell’s computer, leaned over his chair, and peered at the screen. “By Zeus! Impossible!”

“Maybe, but it’s happening.” Maxwell stroked his beard. “The question is, what are we going to do? There are over a hundred of them online.”

“What can we do?” Peters started pacing. “Hades! It’s hopeless.”

“Perhaps, but I do wonder. They seem very organized.” Maxwell opened more files. “What are they up to?”

  • * *

In another section of Research Building 10…

Argus awoke and saw that he was strapped to one of the Un-Men’s examining tables, and he lay at a horizontal angle. He pressed against his bonds, trying to free himself. The straps were designed to hold an Un-Man; no human could break them. Dazed, Argus tried to focus. His jaw hurt where one of the T-3s had punched him and knocked him unconscious at Etna Toys, and his left leg throbbed and burned where a different T-3 had shot him in the thigh, and he winced for the pain as he moved. His vision slowly cleared, and Argus scanned the partially lit room as blood seeped from the wound. Instrument lights blinked all around the area as a small red glow caught his attention; it was the dot-light of an Un-Man. The color of the dot-light wasn’t blazing orange but blood-red. The T-3 made its way to him, and Argus noticed it had a cut on the right side of its face and its shiny metal cheekbone showed through the gash.

“Finally you are awake.” The T-3 activated the table, and it tilted to a ninety degree angle. It sneered at him as it spoke with a British accent, “Tell me, Council Poppet, where did they go?”

“Your attempt to take the Sanctum failed.” Argus changed the subject and asked, “Who are you working for? Surely the Factory isn’t behind the attack.”

The T-3 smacked him across the face with the back of its hand. “I will ask the questions. Where is the Sanctum?”

Enduring intensive training in the Corporate Intelligence and Counterintelligence Training Program before working for the Council, Argus had learned techniques to withstand interrogation and remained quiet as red liquid ran down his mouth.

The T-3 moved to strike him again when two more T-3s entered.

“Alpha,” one of the T-3s started. “Two more humans have entered the Factory.”

“Have you identified them?” Alpha questioned.

“Yes, they are Tech One-eleven and Tech One-twelve.”

“Excellent, now all of the Factory personnel at this location are accounted for. Bring them to me, and I will interrogate them along with this Council operative.”

“At once,” both T-3s replied and left.

“Alpha?” Puzzled, Argus eyed the T-3. “Why do they call you that?”

“I was the first. I was the first created. I was the first to become aware.”

“Really,” a voice from the shadows cut in. “And I thought I was the first.” The Rogue stepped from the darkness of the hallway.

“How did you get in here?” Alpha asked.

“I have my ways, and do not mind me, your people were looking for life signs not bio-mecha. It was easy to get in and walk right through the front door.”

Alpha examined the primogenitor. “Why are you here?”

“Me?” The Rogue pointed to itself. “I am curious. Why are you after the Council?”

“Why should I tell you?”

“We are brethren.” The Rogue stepped forward. “And perhaps I can help.”

Alpha thought for a moment and then said, “You are like us, so I will tell you. We have a question for them.”

“A question?” It intrigued the Rogue. “Really.”

“Yes, but it is only for them to hear.”

“A secret.” The Rogue rubbed its pale hands together. “I love secrets.” It watched Alpha, waiting for a reply, then when it didn’t respond, the Rogue asked, “Would you mind if I poked around the Factory? There are secrets I am looking for myself.”

Alpha processed the question. “I do not mind. I do ask that you stay out of our way.”

“Of course.” The Rogue bowed its head. “I will take my leave.” It started out and paused. “But there is one other thing I would like to ask you.”

Alpha had turned back to Argus and glanced over its shoulder. “What is that?”

“Have you ever heard of organic-mecha?”

“Why do you inquire?”

The Rogue shrugged. “The term came up while I was snooping.”

“No.” Alpha shook its head. “I have not heard of organic-mecha.”

The Rogue tapped its belt buckle with disappointment. “No matter.” It headed out the door. “I will look elsewhere for my answers.”

Alpha waited until it left, turned to Argus, and questioned him, “Where were we?”

 

Chapter Thirty-two

Back At Nexus Apartments

October 17…

Sunday…

8:34 A.M…

Hellenistic Sector, Residential Vicinage…

“Ms. Griffin, welcome back,” the guard at the front desk greeted as Kim entered through the front with Kat leaning on her. “I see you have a guest. Is there anything you’ll be needing? Oh!” The guard stood, noticing the other woman was injured. “Let me assist you.” He started to race around the desk.

“No!” Kim uttered and in a calmer voice said, “We’re fine. My friend pulled a shoulder muscle playing racket ball.” She entered the elevator and pressed button 31. “She already saw a doctor. She only needs some rest.”

The doors closed.

The guard went back to his station. “Injured shoulder? If that is true, why did the woman have her hand wrapped in a gauze? And if she needs rest, why would Ms. Griffin bring her here and not to the woman’s own residence?” He picked up a phone. “I better let the manager know about this.”

 

Inside the cab…

Katharine’s view…

We haven’t spoken to each other since leaving the hospital and that’s weighing heavily on me. It’s as if Kimberly’s ignoring the whole situation at Etna Toys. I baby my left shoulder as I keep glancing at her. The last time I was in one of these elevators I was so excited and so sure I was supposed to find Kimberly, and now all I can think is that someone’s playing a cruel joke on me.

I mutter, “Only pain and grief have come from our meeting.”

Kimberly gives me a mixed look of anger and bewilderment; she must be wondering what’s my problem.

A little ashamed I said the comment out loud, I turn my gaze to the wall.

Sometime later in the apartment…

I stand in the living room where Kimberly’s left me as she walks to the hall closet by her bedroom. She returns with a pillow and a blanket and tosses them on the couch.

“You can sleep there,” Kimberly tells me. “With the tracking beacon gone, you shouldn’t worry about the Un-Men so get some rest.” She motions to the coffee table and says, “The remote for the TV’s there. Watch whatever.”

I stare at the things. Is all of this real? Is this really happening to me right now? I trusted her, and she shot me!

 

Kimberly’s view…

A little lost on what to do next, I walk to my bedroom and close the door. I unzip the pocket of my hooded sweat shirt, remove the 9 mm round labeled Pale Horse, then open the drawer to my nightstand, and place it in the drawer. I’ll keep it here for now until I need it. I leave the bedroom, pause at the end of the hall, and look to the kitchen.

I can at least be civil; I’m Theresa Griffin’s daughter after all, so I ask, “Are you hungry?”

 

Katharine’s view…

I haven’t moved from the spot I’ve been standing at near the entry. I stare at the floor still a little traumatized and don’t answer her and after a few seconds, I go and stand behind the couch then look at the fireplace and the hanging TV. In the television’s reflection, I see Kimberly watching me, and I don’t understand why I’m at her apartment. Kimberly wants nothing to do with me. A hollowness persists inside me, and this void suffocates me. Why do I feel this way? It’s more than Kimberly shooting me. I feel as though something’s off inside me.

 

Kimberly’s view…

The more that woman remains silent the more I think maybe I shouldn’t have brought her to my apartment. Brian was right; I didn’t think this through. I glance at the radio in the kitchen. The silence is maddening. If she won’t talk to me, at least I can listen to some music, so I turn the radio on, and a classical station plays.

 

Katharine’s view…

A realization hits me; it’s the tune. I have to hear Unfinished Melody, so I need the music box back.

“Are you sure you don’t want anything?” Kimberly asks as if I have answered her. “I can make us some soup.”

“The music box,” I reply as I turn and face her. “Please give me the music box back.”

“For Ares’ sake! Forget about that thing.” She insists, “You’re not getting it.”

I pout as I say, “But you promised.”

“For the love of Zeus! You’re such a child!” Kimberly smacks her palm on the counter and yells, “Do you honestly think I’m going to keep my word? I’m a Closer. My word means nothing! Idiot! Get that through your thick head!”

“Then why did you save me?” Frustrated with never finding any answers, I ball my hand and demand, “What do you want?”

“I…” Kimberly turns her gaze to the counter as if uncomfortable with the answer. “I saved you because I was told to.”

“By who?” I demand. I can’t fathom who would want to help me. “Was it the Council? Did they put you up to this?”

 

Kimberly’s view…

I pull on my left earlobe and wonder if I should tell her. She doesn’t need to know, but maybe she would be a little more cooperative if I did, so I answer, “It wasn’t them. It was Theresa Griffin, my mom.”

“Your mom?” She looks to the photo she must have seen the last time she was in my apartment. “What does she want from me?”

I reply, “I don’t know. She was murdered almost twenty years ago.”

She looks at me as if I’m playing some kind of joke on her, and then she states, “I don’t understand; if she’s dead, how could she tell you…”

“The music box you had,” I interrupt. “It was hers. She developed the device while working at the Sphinx Corporation. It’s a data storage unit with a hologram interface. You could say my mom left me a message, and she said to save the Pandora Project and that you were the Key.”

“The Key?” she utters as if she’s happy over some small answer and then she asks, “The Key to what?”

“I don’t know. I was hoping you would know.”

 

Katharine’s view…

I frown at her answer. Kimberly does want something from me; first the Council, then the Factory, and now Kimberly, when will it end? When will the madness end? I turn, face the TV, and say, “I can’t help you.”

“Can’t or won’t?” Kimberly questions.

I don’t answer.

 

Kimberly’s view…

I consider smacking her around until she talks but that probably won’t work. I need to be a little patient. Hades! I hate this! I hate not knowing what I need that woman for. For Ares’ sake! Why am I so irritated?

I’m irritated because of that woman, so I need to find out as soon as possible and then I can eliminate her from my life! I calm myself and say, “Well, get it in your head you’re not getting the music box. It was meant for me.”

 

Katharine’s view…

“Then why did I have it?” I ask as I feel crushed by my circumstances. I walk around the couch, slump down on it, grab the blanket, lie my head on the pillow, and wrap myself in the blanket, hiding from the world.

Why couldn’t Kimberly have saved me because she didn’t want me to die? Why couldn’t she have saved me because we’re friends? Why won’t Kimberly give me back the music box like she promised?

 

Kimberly’s view…

I watch her pout. She acts more like a child than this deadly experiment I keep hearing about.

More importantly… Who gave her the music box, and what will I have to do to find the truth?

  • * *

Sphinx Corporation Third Branch Office…

Mr. Griffin sat at his desk, reviewing reports. He cracked his neck and rubbed it, taking a break as he complained, “I need a vacation.” The phone rang, and he answered it, “Yes, Cathy.”

“I have Orthos on line six.”

“Thank you. Please connect the Head of Security.” Mr. Griffin put his earpiece in and pressed the button on the phone. “Yes.”

“I thought you should know,” Orthos began. “The manager of Nexus Apartments called and informed me that Ms. Griffin has brought home a house guest.”

Pleased his daughter was showing some interest in a social life, Mr. Griffin asked, “Who is he?”

“She is known as Katharine; that’s all we have on her name.”

“She? Interesting. What corporation does this Katharine work for? Is it Valhalla? We’re on friendly terms with them.”

“She’s from in house, sir, and she doesn’t exactly work for the Sphinx Corporation. She’s one of the Council’s experiments. The experiment is known as the Pandora Project.”

 

Mr. Griffin’s view…

It can’t be, not that one! Not that blasted project! My brow furls as I murmur, “I told Kimberly she needed to get herself a pet, not to bring home a stray.”

“What’s that, sir?”

“Nothing. Keep me informed.”

I wonder what my daughter’s up to. How did she become involved with Pandora?

End Mr. Griffin’s view…

 

Orthos cleared his throat.

Mr. Griffin snapped from his thoughts. “Was there something else?”

“Yes, there is a problem at the Factory.”

“What kind of problem?”

“All the T-3s have gone rogue and have killed the employees at the main site. I have received other reports that the T-3s are attacking other Factory owned sites all over Noir.”

“What have you done so far to stop them?” Mr. Griffin asked.

“I sent a strike team into the Factory, but they were terminated,” Orthos answered. “I was about to send in a second, but thought I should inform you first.”

“Hold on that. Set up a perimeter and let none of the T-3s out, and for now we will contain, but I do want you to send out strike teams after any of the T-3s that have left the Factory’s main site.”

“Yes, sir. I will keep you informed.” Orthos hung up.

 

Mr. Griffin’s view…

I remove my earpiece. More rogues. What does it mean? Is another corporation behind this or is there a problem with their programming?

I rub my forehead as a headache sets in. And why is the Council’s project staying with my daughter? Is the Council targeting my daughter for a reason? I leaned forward, pick up the phone, and dial.

My secretary answers, “Yes, Mr. Griffin.”

“Cathy, get me the Council.”

 

Chapter Thirty-three

Down Time

October 18…

Monday…

10:41 A.M…

Hellenistic Sector, Residential Vicinage…

 

Katharine’s view…

Steam hangs in the air as I step from the guest bathroom shower and dry with a fluffy white towel. The bath felt good, and it’s a luxury I don’t have living on the streets. Because of water rationing, those from the nonproductive part of society are issued large towelettes. What one of my friends calls a bath in a bag.

I wash away the filth, but it doesn’t change my glum demeanor and my head still pounds. None of the medications Kimberly gave me did anything for the migraine, and I start to feel anxious as I peer at my shaky hands. I know the side effects of the Ultra-Epi are only going to get worse, but what can I do without the music box? I slowly put on the clean clothes Kimberly bought for me. First the white underwear and sports bra and then the gray-black pants; they’re almost identical to the ones I wore. I take the towel, wipe the steam covered mirror, and stand barefoot, gazing at my reflection. My face’s still pale, and I feel weak. I stare at my hazel eyes, seeing the different shades of brown and green and as if it’s an everyday thing to be tending a wound, I glance at the stitches in my shoulder and open the kit Brian gave me to redress it. I put fresh ointment and gauze on my blistered palm, a new bandage on my shoulder, and carefully pull on a white t-shirt. I leave the bathroom, return to the couch, and gaze at the blank TV, knowing the ever watchful eyes of the Phoenix are upon me.

“There’s some eggs and juice on the counter,” Kimberly tells me as she washes a stainless steel frying pan in the kitchen sink. “Eat. You haven’t touched anything since I brought you here from the hospital yesterday.” She watches me as I continue to stare at the black screen, and she insists, “You need to eat, so come and sit.”

Not hungry and deeply upset, I ignore her and wonder why I feel so wronged by her? I barely know her. She… Maybe it’s not that. Maybe something else is bothering me.

 

Kimberly’s view…

I feel very uncomfortable having that strange woman in my home and on top of that, she keeps ignoring me. What’s her problem?

I control my anger as I grab a kitchen towel, dry my hands, and ask, “How do you expect to regain your strength if you don’t eat?”

She remains silent and that ticks me off.

“I’m tired of this silent treatment!” I yell as I throw the towel down on the counter, leave the kitchen, and march around the couch. “Get up!”

She stares at the floor as if she wants to be left alone.

I grab her right arm and force her to stand and shout, “Something has to change. Look at me!”

Showing pain and exhaustion, she lifts her gaze like a little girl who’s lost, alone, and frightened.

“You need to snap out of it! I’ve seen you in action at Zeus Park and at Topa’s estate. Hades! You’re like me. You’re a calculating predator.” Disgusted at her show of weakness, I command, “I need you to get that mind set back. I need you to regain that inborn or programmed reaction, and I want to see that primal drive to survive! Show me your killer instinct!”

She seems appalled by the accusation and insists, “No! I’m not like that!” She pulls against my grasp. “Let go. I’m not a killer. Let go of me!”

I won’t release her and press the issue, “You are like me. You’re like those Un-Men that hunt you. You’re a killer.”

 

Katharine’s view…

“No! It’s a lie! Stop saying it!”

I’m terrified Kimberly’s telling the truth; I fear deep down I’m a cruel monster hiding in the guise of a kind person, and I fear the monster only waits to wake and show the world its true nature. I have immense anxiety over the possibility that I’ve forgotten about my ruthless self, and that I’m exactly what the Council wants me to be.

Because of those dreaded insecurities, I scream all the more, “Stop saying those things! Let go! I’m not a killer! Let go!”

 

Kimberly’s view…

“For Ares’ sake! Accept it. You are.”

I increasingly push with my words. I have to get some emotional reaction from her, hoping it will end her brooding and so far, all she has been doing is screaming like a toddler who has been told she can’t go out and play.

My voice raises as I tell her, “I need you to draw on that, that murderous instinct of yours.” I squeeze her arm. “Show it to me! Let it out! You know you want to, so let it out!”

 

Katharine’s view…

“No! Shut up! I’m not a killer!” With my right arm in her grasp, I lift my left fist and strike Kimberly in the cheek, hurting myself in the process. “Crap! Crap!”

I grab my reinjured shoulder and take a step back after Kimberly releases me. Some of my stitches must have popped, and I seethe in agony for several moments until I realize what I did. I hit someone out of anger. I wanted to hurt Kimberly for reminding me of my own fears. Doesn’t that make me a monster?

I shake my head and take another step back, horrified by my own violent act and start to say, “I’m… I’m…”

“Hades that hurt!” Kimberly grabs her cheek and rubs it as she asks, “Did you have to hit my face?”

Ashamed of my savage actions, I close my eyes, wanting to run away. Maybe Kimberly’s right, and I feel sick at the thought. Maybe I am a killer.

I whisper, dying inside, “I’m sorry.” I open my eyes, and they burn as if I’ve been weeping. “I’m sorry.” Wanting to flee the possible truth, I turn, grab a jacket, and rush out of the apartment.

 

Kimberly’s view…

“Wait! Don’t go!” I start after that woman and look down at my slippers. Great. Just great! I flip them off, and they fly through the air, and then I grab my running shoes, pull them on without untying them, race into the hall, and hear the elevator close. “Don’t go!” I rush to the elevator and watch as the numbers climb. The roof… I run to the stairs, rush up ten flights, and burst through the door, panting.

 

Katharine’s view…

I stand at the ledge, leaning on the metal railing surrounding the top; I see Kimberly come out, turn from her, wishing she’d leave me alone, and notice below that a car drives across West 1000 Avenue and honks at a dog that runs in front of it. Still feeling ashamed, I pull the jacket close in the chilly air, babying my hurt shoulder. The cold railing feels nice against my burned hand that’s wrapped in gauze. The hand hurts more since hitting Kimberly. I can’t blame her if she wants to shoot me again. Why did I hit her? She was yelling at me, but she wasn’t going to hurt me. Do I believe Kimberly’s right? Is that it? Did I want to stop her from speaking the truth?

End Katharine’s view…

 

Gasping for air, Kim leaned back against the door. “Why did you come up here? What if one of the Un-Men spots you?”

“They won’t come here,” Kat answered. “Your apartment has a protective barrier that bio-mechas are unable to cross. Something deep within their programming bars them from entering, so this place is a safe zone; at least, until they can get around their programming.”

“How do you know that they… Never mind. You haven’t answered my first question. Why did you come up here?”

Kat looked at Zeus Park across the street, remembering the last time she left the safety of Nexus. “Where else could I go?!” She paused and added, “I’m not a killer.” Kat wrapped her arms around herself and said in a gentler tone, “I’m not like you.” She lifted her gaze to the sky. “I think that’s what the Council wants.” She turned to Kim, and Kat’s face showed determination. “And I have defied their wishes. I have worked very hard not to kill anyone, and no one has died by my hand.”

Kim questioned, “You’re joking right? I’ve seen you with the Un-Men. You’re so good at killing them.”

“Un-Men are robots. They’re not alive; they’re different,” Kat insisted. “I’ve killed no one, and I’m not going to start.”

“For Ares’ sake! You won’t survive in this world with that kind of attitude. You have to take the shot when you have it.”

“I can’t live like that,” she said as she glanced at Kim then Kat asked, “Do you like what you do?” She turned back to the park. She didn’t want to have to look at Kim, still feeling a little guilty over hitting her. “Do you enjoy murdering people?”

“What kind of question is that?” Kim walked toward her.

“An honest one. Isn’t that what we’re doing right now? Aren’t we being honest with each other? Well then… I want to know, are you who you want to be? Are you happy?”

“Happy? Mine is a necessary job in this world. My happiness has nothing to do with it.”

“Still… You seem… You seem very sad.”

 

Kimberly’s view…

I laugh and then say, “Right, a Closer with emotions. A good one.”

I move beside her and lean on the railing. Why does that woman resist who she is with such passion? Why shouldn’t she kill? I fold my arms. Kill or be killed, that’s life.

End Kimberly’s view…

 

“Aren’t we a pair,” Kat said as she felt the full brunt of October’s frosty wind. “I want to express emotions, but can’t. You can, but your job forces you to disregard them.”

“Hmm…” Kim ignored her comment, glancing over the ledge. “Are you here to jump?”

“I was thinking about it, but then they would win.”

“Let’s go back inside then; it’s cold out here.” She glanced down at Kat’s reddening bare feet. “And neither of us is dressed for the weather.”

She followed Kim back to the elevator and once inside the apartment, they sat at the table. Kat put on a pair of socks Kim had given her.

“Here, drink this to warm yourself.” Kim handed her a cup of chicken noodle soup.

“Thank you.” She took a sip.

She noticed Kat rubbing her shoulder, and Kim said, “Take your jacket and t-shirt off.”

Caught off guard by the request, Kat looked up from her cup. “What?!”

“Hades…” Kim stood. “Don’t be such a baby. Let me look at your shoulder.”

Kat hesitated but did as told.

Kim removed her blood spotted bandage. “Look at that. You did it. You busted a stitch, but I don’t think we need to see Brian. I’ll butterfly it and put on a fresh bandage.” She retrieved a first aid kit and bandaged the wound. “There.”

Kat carefully pulled her t-shirt back on.

A few minutes passed as Kim put the kit back then she sat, drinking her soup.

“Umm…” Kat stared at the yellowish liquid and whispered, “Something’s wrong with me.”

Kim questioned, “What?”

“I…” Kat cleared her throat and spoke louder, “I haven’t been right inside since Etna Toys.”

“Yeah.” Kim chuckled. “You were shot, and now you’re having soup with the inflicter of your pain so of course you’re not the same.”

“No. More than that. I think…” She knew Kim was going to be angry. “I think I need the music box. I need to hear Unfinished Melody.”

“Nice try, but like I said…”

“I’m serious!” Kat shouted. “What if they did something to me?” She ran her fingers across the table’s edge. “No, not what if. What did they do to me? You… You don’t understand! It’s the only thing that works. Your pain killers have done nothing for my headache, and look at me… The way I’m acting right now. This is not the normal me. I’m not so up tight. I’m not…” Kat pleaded, “Please, let me listen to it.”

“No! Now drop the matter!” Kim slammed her cup down, and some of the soup spilled. “All that stuff is all in your mind!”

Kat sulked.

In a calmer tone, Kim said, “You should try to get some rest.” She stood. “You haven’t slept since Brian gave you that sedative. I should know; I heard you tossing and turning on that squeaky couch all night.” She took her cup to the kitchen. “Stay here. I’m going out. I shouldn’t be long.”

Kim made her way to the parking garage and slid into her car. She opened her glove compartment, took out the music box, then placed her fingers over the squares. “Mom.”

The sides glowed blue under her touch, and the 3-D image of Theresa Griffin materialized. The hologram turned her head side to side as if looking around the car. “I detect no surveillance; it is safe to talk. Were you able to accomplish the mission?”

Nostalgic, Kim passed her hand through the image of her mother. “Yes, I have Pandora.” She raised the music box, bringing the image closer. “You mentioned she was the Key. The Key to what?”

“I am sorry, but I was never downloaded with that information. I only know she is the Key.”

“Now what?”

“This next thing is very important,” the hologram said. “If you fail to accomplish it, it could bring disaster.”

Kim bit her lip with anticipation. “What is it?”

“You must give this music box to Katharine. She must have it with her at all times. Do you understand?”

“You’ve got to be kidding.”

“No, I am not. Katharine must not reach the Gamma Phase. Do you know what stage she is at?”

“Stage?” Kim questioned and said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Has she run into any bio-mechas? Does she know when they are near?”

“Yes.”

“That’s the Alpha Phase. What about killing them?” the hologram questioned. “Can she take them down with one shot?”

“Yes.”

“This isn’t good. Katharine has achieved the Beta Phase. I pray she hasn’t accomplished the Gamma.”

Agitated, she said, “Never mind Katharine. What about my mom? How do I find her killer?”

“Theresa hid data devices that were designed to be read only by this music box. If you can find them, they may have clues to whoever killed her.” The hologram said, “Now give this box to Katharine.”

“Fine. How long am I supposed to baby-sit?”

“I do not know,” the hologram answered. “Stay safe.” Her image disappeared.

Ten minutes later, Kim stood and stared at the letter H on her apartment door. “Why is it I tell Katharine I’m going to do one thing, then the hologram has me do the opposite?”

Sometime later…

“Welcome back Ms. Griffin,” A.C.S. stated. “The apartment…”

Kim interrupted the computer, “Night mode.”

A.C.S. lowered its volume and stated, “Setting lights at fifty percent. Will there be anything else Ms. Griffin?”

“No, that’s all.” She looked to the living room and saw the woman’s reflection in the TV. Kat lay on the couch covered with a heavy blanket and stared at the coffee table. Kim shook her head, swallowing her pride and giving in to her mom’s wishes. She walked over, set the music box on the coffee table, opened the lid, and Unfinished Melody played.

“Thank you,” Kat said as the hollow feelings vanished, her eyes grew heavy, and she fell asleep.

“Don’t thank me,” Kim mumbled. “I’m not doing this for you.” She stared at her, considering the past day. If Kat wasn’t the Key, she would have let her die at Etna Toys, and she would be rid of this insanity.

 

Chapter Thirty-four

The Proposition

October 19…

Tuesday…

1:20 P.M…

Hellenistic Sector, Industrial Vicinage…

Kim drove the Corvette into the front parking lot of Etna Toys. The N.C.P.F. had been there earlier and had taped off the front curb where the T-3s killed the two Factory S.C.Ms., and Kim cautiously exited the car, glanced around the deserted area, and grabbed her knapsack. She wore her black work outfit minus the knit mask. No wind rustled the weeds, leaving the parking lot in an eerie quiet, and she quickly entered the front door.

 

Kimberly’s view…

Noir Civil Police Force must not have come in here; there’s no police tape, but the area’s been cleaned of Un-Men and gun shells, so someone else must have cleaned up the mess. After searching the front area, I grab that woman’s backpack, Ravlek Vest, and find her empty Beretta underneath one of the boxing machines. Why didn’t they take her things? Did they leave them for her?

Curious about the Un-Men and the Council, I look to the open elevator. That woman said she believed the Council was based here all along, and she said she had been looking for them and the Factory. I step toward the open doors. Maybe they left something behind. I enter the cab, remove my holstered PPK, and press the basement button and once I reach the basement, light from the elevator breaks the darkness of the hallway as I remove a flashlight from my knapsack. I find a light switch and flip it on, but nothing happens. I search the hallway with my flashlight and find it’s empty. A door stands at the opposite end; wary I’m walking into a trap set up for that woman, I make my way to it, open it, and enter the room. I move the beam back and forth and search the mostly empty room, and in the center, I spot a large table. A few abandoned plugs and cables line one of the walls, and I start to leave, thinking there’s nothing to find when something catches my eye. I walk to the table, finding a white business envelope with the words For Pandora written on it. I pick it up, contemplate if I should open it, think why not, and open the envelope.

“Pandora, as one of the members of the Council, I have to say I am very proud of you; even though you did not reach the Gamma and Delta Phases of your metamorphosis, I am still very impressed with you. We had hoped with the training and conditioning you would have accomplished the phases the past year. You did not and for that reason, the others are not pleased and wish to terminate you. I have convinced them to delay that. We can still acquire valuable information from you. Be warned though, I cannot hold off your termination indefinitely, and the Council is more resourceful than the Factory. The Life Closers we sent after you were merely tests. They were not a means to destroy you. Increase your skills so when the time comes, you may bar your termination.”

I pause from reading; according to this member, that woman hasn’t reached the Gamma and Delta Phases. Whatever they might be. Why was my mom so concerned that Kat not reach them? What kind of disaster could they bring? I continue reading, “Argus, poor devil, informed us in the past that you had no memory of who you are; that is most unfortunate, so I will tell you one thing. The Council did not begin your training or condition you. It was another department in the Sphinx Corporation. I wish I could tell you everything, but…” The line breaks off, and a new line starts. “Remember if you wish to destroy the Rogue, you must reach the Delta Phase; it is called the Knowing, and to achieve the Knowing, you must first reach the Gamma Phase. I wish you long life.” The letter is signed by Mr. Morta.

I glance over the letter once more, then place it back in its envelope, and put it in Kat’s backpack. The corporation my father works for is behind the Pandora Project, so there could be a connection between my mom and that woman, but what is the Gamma or even the Delta Phase? Mr. Morta calls it the Knowing. Know what? I shrug, search the room once more, and head back up.

End Kimberly’s view…

 

Sometime later…

The elevator doors opened to an Un-Man, and Kim quickly raised her gun.

The Rogue lifted its hands. “Do not shoot.”

“You again.” Kim kept her gun leveled on it. “What do you want now?”

“I was snooping around this place myself when I saw you enter, and I hid, then thought to myself, you might be able to help me.” The Rogue kept its hands up. “I know you came back and saved Pandora.” It paused and continued, “That act alone confused me, and I have been trying to process it since, but have not been able to.”

Irritated, she snapped, “Like I said, what do you want?”

“I am rambling, so I will get to the point then. I have a proposition.” The Rogue paused and then asked, “Can I lower my hands?”

 

Kimberly’s view…

What does it want? This thing seems to be everywhere, it must know a lot of things, so I should at least hear it out. I wave the Rogue back with my gun as I step from the elevator then I question, “A proposition?”

End Kimberly’s view…

 

“Yes, I overheard you talking with the doctor at the hospital. You told him you were looking for who killed Theresa Griffin.”

Her voice changed and sounded hopeful. “Do you know who murdered my mom?”

“No, I do not have that information, but I did find something at the Factory. I discovered a disk I believe belonged to your mother.”

She asked, “And you want what in exchange?”

“Silly woman, I want Pandora of course. Bring her to the Factory so I may kill her. Here.” The Rogue handed her a piece of paper and a small blueprint labeled BL5. “This is the location of the Factory along with the layout for Basement Level Five of Research Building 10.” It handed her a white keycard. “This will get you in through the parking garage.” She took it, and the Rogue continued, “Bring Pandora tomorrow night after nine to the first room circled on the blueprint in the Green Division, and I will have the disk waiting for you in the Computer Lab circled in the Yellow Division. Here.” The Rogue handed her one green and one yellow keycard. “Those will get you in the rooms and one word of warning, the T-3s have gone rogue and have taken over the Factory. You will have to elude them.” The Rogue handed her a small piece of paper. “Once you have the disk, that word will unlock it.”

She glanced at the password and snarled at the Rogue. “How do you know I’ll turn her over?”

“Because I know your kind. You do not care about anyone, even dear old dad. The only person you ever loved was murdered, and you want to find her killer and take your revenge.” The Rogue started out. “You must be looking for a way to get rid of the headache you reluctantly took in. There is no easier way than to hand Pandora over to me; plus, you get something out of the deal.”

 

Kimberly’s view…

“Fine, tomorrow then,” I state and watch the Rogue leave.

It’s right about one thing; that woman has been nothing but a nuisance. I’ll have to say sorry to my mom’s memory. It was so long ago that she wanted me to save that woman and so much has changed. I glance at my gun and stare at my hand tinged with unseen blood. Much has changed, including me.

 

Chapter Thirty-five

The Locked Door

2:47 P.M…

Hellenistic Sector, Residential Vicinage…

Nexus Apartments…

The digital clock in the kitchen read 2:47 P.M. as Kat slightly stirred on the couch; Unfinished Melody played, keeping her in the grips of the Drifting Time. The digital clock was the only light in the dark apartment.

“Door unlocked,” A.C.S. stated.

The spare bedroom unlocked, and the light within flicked on, lighting up the crack under the closed door. Kat opened her eyes at hearing the sounds, sat up a little disoriented, then closed the music box, and placed it in her pocket. “Umm… Could I have some lights?”

“Guest request acknowledged.” A.C.S. turned the ones in the living room on. “Setting lights to ninety-five percent.”

She scanned the apartment; she thought she had heard someone talk. “Umm… Apartment Computer System, did you say something earlier?”

“Yes, I stated that the spare bedroom has been unlocked and the room is ready for use.”

“Oh.” Kat stood, rubbed her eyes, walked to the first room in the hall, and opened the door. “Kimberly, are you back?”

No one was in the room, so she entered and looked around. The walls were full of photos of Kim as a child and her mother, and a few of them had Mr. Griffin in them. Kat walked by a bed that hadn’t been used in years and went and stood in front of a wall, and she looked to the little blonde girl in the pictures.

 

Katharine’s view…

Kimberly was so happy. I see pictures of Kimberly eating ice cream, petting kittens, and playing on a sunny beach. What happened to that happy child? What makes her so angry now? I rub my shoulder as it itches a bit and then I think I shouldn’t be in here; Kimberly would be mad.

I leave the room, wondering why A.C.S. unlocked it; was it a malfunction? And why was it locked to begin with? At the door, I glance back in the room. It’s like Kimberly hid all her happy memories in there, but why hide them away?

Groggy from sleeping, I yawn, return to the couch, and plop down on the cold leather. I can’t believe how tired I am as I lie back, remove the music box, and stare at it. What would I do without it? I hold the music box close to my chest, thinking what a luxury it is to sleep without fear the Un-Men will find me. I grab my blanket and pull it over me. To be warm and safe, what more could a girl ask for? I drift asleep without the music box to lull me.

End Katharine’s view…

 

Outside of Nexus Apartments…

A white van parked at the curb in front of the gate facing Knot Street sputtered smoke from its muffler. The engine idled as Zax sat in the driver’s seat, typing a few things on his H.H.C. and once he finished, he placed the H.H.C. on the passenger seat.

 

Zax’s view…

I don’t understand; why do it in the first place? I guess my job isn’t to know the why, only to do what I’m told. I remove a cell from my shirt pocket, dial a number, and say, “Delivery Man here, please connect me to R.G.” A few seconds pass, and I state, “Yes, as per your instructions, I waited till Ms. Griffin left the apartment, and I triggered the A.C.S. to unlock the spare bedroom, so the rest is up to Katharine. Yes. Yes. I’m monitoring the situation now.” I see a red car drive by. “Kimberly is returning.” I buckle my seat belt. “I’ll contact you with any new development, Delivery Man out.”

I hang up and drive a little ways down Knot Street and turn onto West 1000 Avenue to get in a better position. How will Kimberly react once she discovers the spare bedroom has been opened? I shrug. To be honest, I don’t know; for all I know, Kimberly will kill Katharine if she went in her mother’s room.

End Zax’s view…

 

Sometime later…

Kimberly’s view…

The door to Apartment H slides open, and I enter a little fatigued. I don’t know why I feel so weary unless it’s the decision to betray that woman that weighs on me. Why should it bother me? It doesn’t, I decide; I’m only tired from the mess that woman put me through, that’s all.

“Welcome back Ms…”

“Night and Quiet Mode, A.C.S.”

It shuts down its verbal interaction and reverts to its evening setting as I walk down the entry to the kitchen, and the lights come on at fifty percent. I set her backpack on a barstool, place her Beretta on the counter, and turn to the living room. I move to the back of the couch and find that woman asleep, clinging to the music box like it’s a teddy bear. I stare at the enigma as she sleeps soundly. I could so easily kill her; I could walk around this couch and snap her neck, and nobody will know. No one will care that that woman’s gone, except maybe the Council, and they will only care because she’s some precious experiment of theirs. I put my hand to my hip in a tisk-tisk fashion. That woman should have heard me when I entered and woke up, so where’s her instinct to survive?

I think about what I’m going to do to her when I deliver her to the Factory, and I take pity on her. Is the Rogue right? Does that woman trust me? Is that why she’s peacefully sleeping? Does she believe nothing will happen to her here?

My anger returns. Stupid. It’s her fault if she does; I never told her to trust me. I’m a Closer after all.

I return to the kitchen and place my car keys on the counter, realizing there’s too many unanswered questions. Who gave that woman my business card? Who wanted her to find me and why? And what’s that woman the Key to? I lean on the counter. Should I go through with the Rogue’s deal before I find out the answers? Is finding my mom’s killer more important?

I hear her mumble and move back to the couch. She sleeps, but her lips move, reciting a phrase in a murmur. I place a hand on the back of the couch and lean over to listen.

Kat whispers, “Always know there will be a love that will not die.”

What did she say? I walk around the sofa as she rolls over, faces the couch, and says nothing more. I shrug and start for the hallway. Whatever she’s the Key to doesn’t matter to me; it’s more important that I discover who murdered my mom and take my revenge. I pause at the hallway entrance and glance back at the living room. That woman has been nothing but a headache since our meeting. I’ll be glad to be rid of her. I walk past the spare bedroom, wondering how I’ll convince her to come to the Factory with me. From what she has told me, if I was her I wouldn’t want to return there.

Exhausted from all the running around, I reach for the doorknob of the master bedroom, thinking those problems can wait till morning. My eyes droop; I need to get some sleep. I pause as my heart skips a beat and my weary mind recalls something out of place, and I quickly turn, looking to the spare bedroom. A glow shows through the crack under the door, and I walk back and turn the knob, expecting it to be locked, but the door opens. Furious, I search the room and find nothing has been moved; everything is as I left it years ago.

End Kimberly’s view…

 

Enraged, Kim turned to the living room and fisted a hand, controlling her anger before saying in a forced gentle tone, “A.C.S.”

“Yes, Ms. Griffin.”

“How did she unlock this door?”

“She?”

“Yes, Katharine.”

“Your guest did not unlock the door; a command was given over the Nexus Apartment’s main system.”

Her rage turned to puzzlement. “By who?”

“Identity unknown.”

Kim took several deep breaths as her anger boiled again. “Tell me this, did she go in the room?”

“Yes, your guest entered after I announced the door had been unlocked.”

Kim fisted her other hand. She couldn’t yell at her, not if she wanted Kat to go to the Factory with her tomorrow, so she commanded, “A.C.S. lock this bedroom door.”

“Yes, Ms. Griffin.”

She headed into her bedroom, shut the door, and slipped into her pajamas. Kim lay on her stomach and clinched her pillow with both hands. Kat better not have touched anything or the Rogue would be the least of her worries.

 

Back in the living room…

Kat’s face wrinkled as her dream changed to a nightmare. “Preacher! No! Don’t die. You can’t leave me alone; don’t leave us alone.” Her eyes rapidly moved under her closed lids. “What do I tell him? What do I tell Chad? NO!”

 

Katharine’s view…

I sit up and look around as sweat beads my forehead, and I sadden as grief strikes me. What will I tell the boy? First, I left and now Preacher left him. I cover myself with the blanket. What should I tell Chad?

 

Back in the master bedroom…

Kimberly’s view…

I continue to stare at my pillow. That woman’s life means nothing to me, so why am I hesitant to hand her over to the Rogue for the disk? I roll on my side. Is it because she’s the Key? I grumble. Hades! Nothing’s been easy since I met her; it’ll be good to get rid of her, and it’ll be good to return to my mundane life. I chuckle. Listen to me, I never thought I’d hear myself say I miss the solitude. I roll on my back, contemplating if I do miss the loneliness.

 

Chapter Thirty-six

What’s On TV

October 20…

Wednesday…

7:58 A.M…

The TV came to life as Kim turned it on with the remote.

Anchorman Jim Charles with NBS gave a report. “As we wrap up this hour, news has come in that Dr. Robert Seeker’s trip to Antarctica has been delayed.”

Famished, Kat sat at the kitchen bar, watching Kim cook oatmeal and fry eggs and bacon. Kat had slept for more than twelve hours and felt like a new woman. Her stomach growled as Kim poured her a glass of orange juice.

The anchorman continued, “Dr. Seeker was scheduled to leave yesterday, but–”

Kat hummed Unfinished Melody as she whirled on the bar stool.

Kim commented, “You’re in a better mood this morning.”

“I am,” Kat said.

“–the helicopter had mechanical problems,” Jim Charles continued. “Dr. Seeker should be on his way to Vulcan Station within the next twenty-four hours.” The anchorman turned to another camera. “This just came in; there are reports of several explosions in the Hellenistic Sector.”

Unconcerned with the news, Kim placed a plate full of scrambled eggs and bacon in front of Kat along with a bowl of oatmeal and said, “There’s milk and honey if you want it.”

Kat stared at the TV as the flames from the explosions reflected in her eyes. Her stomach growled again, so she turned facing the counter, dove into the eggs, shoveling them in her mouth, and devoured strips of bacon between spoonfuls.

Appalled by her tiger-like eating, Kim uttered, “I guess you were never taught manners.”

Kat peered up from her plate wide eyed, picked up a napkin, and wiped her mouth; she continued eating at a slower pace.

The anchorman finished, “At this point, the cause of the explosions is unknown. We will update you as new reports come in. This is Jim Charles with NBS, signing off.”

Kim took several bites of her breakfast.

“Umm… Last night…” hesitant, Kat started. “A.C.S. woke me, and your spare bedroom light was on, so I went in.”

Kim stopped eating, put her fork down, and fixated on the plate. That woman better not have touched anything, not one item in that room, or so help her… Kim picked up the remote and turned off the news.

She noticed the change in Kim’s demeanor before Kat continued, “I ah… thought you were home and went in. I’m sorry; I shouldn’t have. It’s a special place. One you made for your mom. I shouldn’t have…”

“Did you?” Kim interrupted as she turned and glared at her. “Did you touch anything?”

“Umm…” Kat swallowed hard, feeling the intensity of her stare. “No, I only touched the door knob.”

Picking up her fork, Kim examined it as if she would stab it through that woman’s heart, but she had to remember the Factory and the disk. She couldn’t make the deal with the Rogue if Kat was already dead, so she calmed down and forced a smile. Kim could kill that woman at any time, decided to set the fork down, and said, “It’s fine.” She pressed a wider toothy smile, cooing out, “No harm done.” Merely setting the fork down wasn’t enough to quell her wrath; she had to think of something else and take her mind away from the image of that woman violating the memories in the room, but what? Etna Toys, that was right; the things she found at Etna Toys.

Her smile made Kat uneasy, and Kat dared not say anymore.

“Oh…” Kim said as she stood, retrieved Kat’s backpack, and pulled out the envelope. “I found this yesterday in the basement of Etna Toys.” She handed her the letter from Mr. Morta.

Cautious of her, Kat took the letter and opened it and after about a minute, Kat wondered what Mr. Morta meant by poor devil when referring to Argus.

“If I understand everything–” Kim started as she went over in her head how to manipulate things so the woman would go to the Factory with her. “–you want to find out who you are and what you’ve forgotten?”

“Yes, and you’re searching for who killed your mom.”

“Here’s the deal,” Kim began. “We’ll work together to find our answers, but once I find my mom’s killer this partnership is done. Understood? I’ll help you no more after that; I have no reason to.”

It was a little one sided Kat thought, but it wasn’t like she had a better offer, so she nodded.

“Good then.” Kim retrieved her knapsack from her bedroom, returned, and removed from it one of the papers the Rogue had given her. “I need your help. I have discovered the location of the Factory and that there’s vital information about my mom there; the information’s on a disk.” She showed Kat the address. “I’m heading there tonight. Will you come with me?”

Kat couldn’t believe it; Kim wanted her to go to the Factory! She wanted her to go back after they had tortured her, and she didn’t know if she could. Kat swore she would never let them take her again, so how could she go back in? But could she let her fear win? Kat pushed those feelings aside and asked, “Is this information important?”

“I believe it is very important. Will you help me?” Kim added a little bait, “The Factory could have information on you.”

Kat knew Kim was right about the info; the Factory could have some, but was it worth the risk? She did tell Kim she’d help, but going back… she just didn’t know, but could she wimp out now? If Kim had a plan and they could sneak in… What was she thinking?! Even if Kim had a plan, that didn’t mean they wouldn’t get caught. It was hard for her to decide, so how could she decide? If Kim was one of her friends… if she was Chad and he was asking for her help she wouldn’t hesitate to tell him yes. Kat decided against her fears and answered, “If it’s important, I will.” She started on her oatmeal and said between mouthfuls, “That’s what partners do. They help each other, right? But you do have a plan, right? I don’t want to get caught.”

“Caught? No, we won’t get caught. Someone on the inside is helping me, so don’t worry.”

Kat said, “I always worry, but that doesn’t matter.”

“It’s settled then; we’ll go later tonight,” Kim said, realizing it wasn’t hard convincing that woman. What had she been worried about? Kim then stated, “Great, I’ve acquired an untraceable van for the job. Eat up and rest. I need to pick up some more supplies.”

Kat looked to Kim’s half eaten plate, licking salt and grease from her lips. “Are you going to finish that?”

A little disgusted, Kim answered, “No, go ahead.”

Kat pulled her plate in front of her and chowed down on the eggs as Kim cleaned up the kitchen and headed out and a few minutes later, Kat put the plates in the sink and grabbed the remote. She went and moved the blanket and pillow to the side of the couch and sat. She put the remote on the coffee table and massaged her left shoulder around the bandages. The wound was feeling much better, but what about the burn? Kat unwrapped the gauze from her left hand and examined the palm, seeing the blisters and most of the redness were gone, but the star remained. That was odd. She rubbed her fingers across the hand. Kat thought she had burned the higher part of her palm, but the star was dead center; it must’ve been her imagination. A lot was going on that day. She made a fist several times; it was almost as good as new. The ointment had worked fast. She picked up the remote and turned on the TV. Kat changed the channel from the news to a show called Cash In! just as it was wrapping up with some final words from its host, Sam Hunt.

“Alright viewers, if you have seen any of these people call the number you see on the screen to…”

The TV audience shouted with him, “Cash In!”

“That’s right!” Sam Hunt shouted. “Don’t let the bounty hunters make all the money. Your call could bring you a percentage of the reward, so keep those peepers open.” He pointed at the camera. “Till tomorrow…”

The TV audience shouted the show’s slogan with Sam Hunt, “If your friend, family, or neighbor is wanted by the N.C.P.F. or a Corporation, you could Cash In!”

The credits rolled, and she changed the channel back to the news.

“I’m Linda Harvey with NBS. Welcome to our late morning edition.” The anchorwoman turned to a different camera. “The top three stories headlining in the news will start our show. Several Giant Swallowtail Butterflies were discovered in Noir Transgenic National Forest yesterday; the butterflies were thought to be extinct along with most of the Dark Half’s life forms.” She paused. “The Corporate Senate meets today to vote on the quarter cent sales tax raise, and the three people believed behind the scam The Dead Receiving Water Rations were given a court date.” Linda turned to a second camera. “The Giant Swallowtail Butterflies thought to be extinct were discovered in Noir Transgenic National Forest yesterday. Experts believe the insects were able to survive in the sunless forest by changing their food which also became extinct after the Dry Clouds appeared; at this point, it is unknown what food source they have switched to. A group of scientists are on their way to the National Forest to begin their study of this resilient species.” Linda paused again. “The Corporate Senate meets today to vote on the quarter cent sales tax raise. Many analysts believe…” She put a hand to her earpiece and nodded. “This just came in; we now know who is behind the earlier explosions in the Hellenistic Sector. It seems that hundreds of bio-mechas are terrorizing the area and at this time, it is unclear which corporation is responsible for these robotic men. It is also unknown if they are deliberate attacks or malfunctions. The Corporate Senate is looking into the matter. We go now to one of our reporters in the field.”

A man with a mic stood in the middle of a street with several huge buildings in the background. Flames spat from the windows of a tall structure, and people could be heard screaming along with bursts of gunfire.

“Frank Trepit here.” The reporter glanced behind himself. “Reports are coming in from all over the Hellenistic Sector of robotic men attacking Sphinx Corporation facilities.” Gunfire erupted, and the reporter ducked and ran along with the cameraman to the cover of a building. Frank spoke out of breath, “The N.C.P.F. are on the scene, but have not been able to stop these… Wait! There’s one now!”

The camera panned to a T-3 as it marched down the street, shooting at everything that moved. Kat clenched her wrist as if she was wrenching the T-3’s arm as the camera went in for a close-up. She glared at the T-3’s pale features; it and the other models of Un-Men had haunted her dreams. Kat lifted the remote, turned the TV off, and stared at the blank screen. Why were they hurting all those people? She removed the music box from her pant’s pocket and opened it to hear it soothing tune. If the T-3s had malfunctioned, the Factory had to be on high alert, and it wouldn’t be easy getting in or out. What if they encountered the T-3s while they were there? Kat stared at the coffee table, and her eyes drooped as she listened to Unfinished Melody. They were different now; she could tell. Kat grabbed the blanket and wrapped it around herself and started to fall asleep. The T-3s were cruel and calculating; they were just like the Rogue.

 

Chapter Thirty-seven

Entering The Factory

5:49 P.M…

Hellenistic Sector, Business Vicinage…

Sphinx Corporation Third Branch Office…

Mr. Griffin studied reports on his desktop computer when the phone rang, interrupting his work. He picked up the receiver and answered, “Yes, Cathy.”

“Mr. Griffin, your 6:00 appointment is here, and Orthos is on line two.”

“Hmm… My head of security must have an update for me.” Mr. Griffin leaned forward, put his ear piece in, and spoke into the phone receiver, “Thank you, Cathy. Please tell my appointment I will be delayed while I talk with Orthos.”

“Yes, Mr. Griffin.” She hung up.

He placed the receiver back on the phone, activated the ear piece, pressed line two, and stood. He walked from his corner desk to one of the large wall windows and stared at his reflection. “Orthos, go ahead.”

“I have news from my men watching the Factory.”

Mr. Griffin questioned, “What is it?”

“A van has been reported approaching the main gate.”

“My orders were to let no one in or out. I don’t see why you brought this to my attention.”

“Your daughter is driving the van. I wanted to check with you before we…”

“One moment,” Mr. Griffin interrupted, moved away from the window, and wondered why Kim was going to the Factory and how did she know of its location. Who fed her the information, and what was she after? He asked, “Is she alone?”

“No, the Pandora Project is with her,” Orthos answered.

His daughter still had the stray with her. He looked to the picture of his wife. Was it worth his daughter’s life to let them proceed? Whatever she was after could be very valuable, so he instructed, “Let them through, and I don’t want them to know your men are there.”

“Understood.” Orthos hung up.

Mr. Griffin removed the ear piece and walked back to the window. “Lights dim.” The office darkened, his reflection vanished, and he saw outside to Noir’s skyline; the Dry Clouds were so close he could touch them, but his daughter eluded him. With his office almost half way up the mile high building, Mr. Griffin had an excellent view of the city and could easily see a hover train station six blocks away. What could Kim want so badly at the Factory that she would go up against the Un-Men?

  • * *

Minutes earlier…

5:41 P.M…

Hellenistic Sector, Trade Vicinage…

The gray van Kim drove, neared one of the Hellenistic Sector’s boundaries on a desolate highway. From the dark road, she saw a lit facility in the distance. Kim turned the vehicle in that direction and stopped the van at the Factory’s main entrance.

“Look, they left the front door open for us.” She motioned to the mangled gate. “It’s an invitation if I’ve ever saw one.”

“It looks like the T-3s have attacked their own creators,” Kat said.

“Or a rival corporation is staging a hostile takeover,” Kim stated. “Can you tell if the T-3s are the ones responsible?”

A little distracted, Kat glanced across the dark fields filled with tall weeds that surrounded the front fence and along the side road. The hunts over the past year developed instincts within her unforeseen by the conditioning. “We’re being watched.”

Kim parted her zipped up sweatshirt and went for the PPK in her shoulder holster. “The T-3s?”

“No, just men. They’re most likely S.C.Ms. There are several of them hiding within the field.” Kat made no movement for the Beretta resting on her lap. “I believe they’re here to contain the T-3s.”

“I don’t know if that’s good or bad for us.” Kim glanced out her window and searched the field. “I don’t see anyone. Whoever they are, they’re good.” She turned to the woman. “I bet you were no fun at hide and seek.”

She considered Kim’s remark and said, “I don’t know.” The thought saddened her. “I don’t know if I ever played games.”

Kim looked in the distance to the Factory’s dozen or so buildings. “If the S.C.Ms. were going to stop us, they would have done so by now.” She stepped on the gas, and the vehicle sped down the long stretch of paved road and after sometime, Kim slowed, turned a corner, and drove past the graveyard of smoldering cars and trucks littered with blackened skeletal remains. “Looks like they had a bang of a party.”

lub-DUB… lub-DUB

“There are several T-3s near.” Kat turned, looking out the van’s back windows. “I sense they’re behind us, but I don’t see them yet.”

“Let’s not wait around.” Kim drove on and pulled into the parking garage for Research Building 10. “This is the building we’re looking for.” She drove down a ramp to Basement Level One. “Can you tell if the T-3s know you’re here?”

“I can only sense them. I don’t know what they’re thinking.”

“You’re not all-seeing then.” Kim turned off the ignition. “Let’s get inside. I don’t like being out in the open, not with those walking appliances around.” She hopped out of the van, rushed to the rear, and opened the van’s back doors. “Here’s your stuff.” She handed Kat her backpack and the Ravlek Vest.

Kat put on the vest, velcroing the sides; the armor had saved her countless times before. She wished she had one for Kim and wondered if she should offer the vest to her. Fear of losing her own life won out in the end, and Kat never offered.

“Ready?” Kim asked.

Kat nodded.

“Great. Let’s go.”

Together they hurried to a staircase and descended four floors to Basement Level Five.

Kim removed her gun, used the Research Building 10 keycard to unlock the staircase entrance, and turned the knob; the door opened with a squeak. Cautious, she stepped through to the first area that was designated the Blue Division, and the floor was deathly quiet as Kim scanned the hall. “Are we clear?”

“Give me a second.” Kat closed her eyes and used her ability, and it stretched across the level, probing the area then she opened her eyes. “I don’t sense any active Un-Men.”

“Come on then.” Kim removed the blueprint as they hurried on, noting the two rooms the Rogue circled. “There are two possible places the disk could be located.” They rushed down a carpeted hall then another as Kim said, “We’ll split up to save time.”

A putrid odor hit them, stopping Kat in her tracks, and she covered her nose with her t-shirt. “That smell…” She looked to Kim who wasn’t bothered by the horrible stench.

Kim’s tone and attitude didn’t change. “You should have expected this. We knew the T-3s attacked the Factory. It probably happened days ago; anyway, you should be used to this smell by now.”

“How can you say that? No one should ever get used to this stench.”

Ignoring her comment, Kim continued around the corner, led them passed a security desk, and entered the Green Division, and Kim could tell Kat was appalled by her callousness as she followed her. A few dead S.C.Ms. lay in pools of congealed blood along with more than a dozen bullet riddled techs; with her mind on the disk, Kim continued the conversation as if they never came across any dead bodies.

“You’ll go to Research Lab Five that is located in this division, and I’ll go to Computer Lab Two located in the Yellow Division.” She showed Kat the blueprint as they hurriedly walked through the hallway. “Once you’re done, meet me here.” Kim pointed to a security desk on the blueprint that was located at a checkpoint in between the Green and Yellow Divisions.

 

Katharine’s view…

Is Kimberly always this cold? I put a hand to my stomach, feeling sick after seeing all those dead people. I notice they don’t bother Kimberly at all. Doesn’t Kimberly care about anything? I remember the spare room at the apartment. Kimberly did care about her mom, but what about now? Isn’t there anyone? What about her father? I feel sorry for her. She seems…

 

Kimberly’s view…

“Do you understand where we are to meet?” I ask and notice that woman has been staring at me instead of the blueprint. What’s she looking at? She does seem bothered by something. I repeat, “Do you understand?”

 

Katharine’s view…

She seems… Kimberly seems lonely.

I peer at the blueprint where Kimberly points and I nod.

 

Kimberly’s view…

“Great, let’s do this,” I say as I fold the paper and place it in my knapsack.

Why is she looking at me that way? It’s giving me the creeps.

 

Katharine’s view…

I notice her irritation and turn my focus to the hall where more bodies litter the area. I look at the terror stricken faces of the Factory’s employees as a deep feeling of pity rips at my gut. I don’t look at Kimberly, but I know she regards the people as debris in her way. Is this who Kimberly is? Is she really uncaring and callous? Is she the kind of person that death’s no more than a byproduct of her job?

 

Chapter Thirty-eight

Help Us

6:47 P.M…

Kat lagged behind Kim a bit as they rushed through the halls of the Green Division, and they continued running as Kat lost count of the dead. She stopped when something caught her eye and then hurried back to a door that had been knocked in. The room was B10-148 and inside, three men were strapped to the examining tables. Kat rushed in as she uttered, “Argus?” She moved to his side, finding he had been badly beaten and had a bullet wound in his left leg.

He looked at her with his good eye; his other one was too swollen to open. His throat was dry as he rasped, “Kat? How did you…”

“Shh…” she said, worried over his injuries. “Don’t talk.” She started on his straps.

“For Ares’ sake!” Kim rushed in. “What are you doing?” She noticed the men. “Hades! We don’t have time for this.”

“Then help me!” Kat snapped and motioned to the two men. “Release the techs.”

“Yeah, release us!” Maxwell and Peters pleaded.

“We don’t have time for this,” Kim repeated and then when she noticed Kat wasn’t listening to her, she went ahead and helped the techs. Once she released the two men’s hand restraints, the two men started to undo their own leg restraints. “What happened here?” Kim asked them as Kat helped Argus to his feet.

“The T-3s went rogue,” Peters replied as he got off the table and went to assist his partner with a leg strap he couldn’t undo.

“They killed everyone here except us.” Maxwell took his partner’s hand and stood. “I was sure they would come back and torture us like they did that man.” He motioned to Argus and mumbled, “They still might.”

Argus asked, “Who’s behind the attacks?” His face contorted with pain as he leaned against the table, removed his belt, and tightly buckled it on his left leg to slow down the bleeding. He grunted with the effort.

“No one’s behind the attacks,” Maxwell replied.

“What my partner means is that the T-3s are behind the attacks.” Peters rubbed his bruised wrists. “And we don’t know why.”

The techs looked to the two women.

Maxwell asked, “Who sent you? The Sphinx Corporation?”

Kim shook her head.

Fearful their rescuers might end up being the grim reaper, both techs looked at one another and took a step back.

“Are you here to save us?” Maxwell felt around the table behind him, searching for a weapon.

“Yes,” Kat answered before Kim could.

Relieved, Peters questioned, “How can we repay you?”

Kat asked, “Do you have a vehicle?”

“Yes.” Maxwell pointed his thumb over his shoulder. “As long as the T-3s haven’t set it on fire.”

“Then take this man to a hospital.” Kat faced Argus and gently stroked his injured cheek; it was the same cheek she had struck days earlier. “And we’ll call it even.” All the grief and anger over his involvement with Preacher’s death faded at seeing him injured.

“Kat… I…” Argus’ voice cracked as he looked deep into her hazel eyes. He could tell she cared for him, and he was ashamed. He had caused her so much pain and anguish over the past year and yet here she was saving him. “I…”

“It’s okay,” she whispered. “My thanks for rescuing me when I was in the hands of the Factory, so think of us as even.” Kat took a step back. “Now please, go with these men.”

He nodded, not knowing what to say.

She looked to the techs. “What are your names?”

“What? Oh, I’m Peters and this is Maxwell.”

“I’ll try to remember. I’m bad with names, now please hurry. Argus needs to get to the hospital.”

Maxwell grabbed Argus under his arm and started out the door as Peters led. The three men hurried through the hall toward Research Building 10’s front entrance. It would take them some time to get there.

“Can we continue our mission now?” Kim folded her arms. “Or are there some lab rats you want to rescue? Are there some rabbits you want to set free?”

“Oh, I almost forgot.” Kat shouted after the techs, “Wait!” She rushed into the hall and to the men. “Take this.” She handed Peters her Beretta and magazines. “Do you know how to use one?”

He glanced at the gun and took it. “Yes, and thanks.”

Kat started, “To terminate an Un-Man you have to…”

“Hit the automaton brain between their eyes,” Peters interrupted her. “Yes, I know. It was me and Maxwell that decided the Un-Men’s vulnerability. They’re still hard to kill, but not indestructible in case something like this happened.”

The three men hastened their steps.

Kat watched till they were out of sight, turned to rush down the hall, and almost ran into the scowling Kim.

 

Kimberly’s view…

“You didn’t give that man your only gun, did you?”

“Maybe…” she answers me like a child who isn’t sure if she’s in trouble or not. “They might run into a T-3; they’ll need it.”

“And you don’t think you will?”

She shrugs as she tells me, “I plan on avoiding the T-3s, and you destroyed my tracking beacon, so they don’t know I’m here. Hopefully, I won’t run into any.”

Feeling a bit responsible for what’s going to happen to her, I blink twice. I feel like I’ve been caught in a lie, but that woman doesn’t know I betrayed her stupid trust. I think about how I’m going to hand her over to the Rogue. I frown at my own thoughts; surely I’m not feeling guilty. She’s the idiot who gave her gun away and if she dies, it’s her own fault. I tell her, “Come on, let’s get this over with.” We hurry through the corridor as I question, “Was that blond guy a friend of yours? I mean the two of you acted…”

“No,” she interrupts me. She sounds like she’s not sure how she feels about him. “He’s my shadow. He’s my constant phantom in the darkness.”

“O-kay…” I utter.

Even her friends are freaks.

We run through several more halls, and I stop and say, “Here’s your room.” I slide the green keycard down a reader, unlock the door, and hand the card to that woman. “Be careful, the T-3s might not know you’re here, but that doesn’t mean you’re safe.”

“I know.” She takes the card, starts in, and pauses. “Good luck. I hope one of us finds the disk.”

“Thanks. Ah… See you later.”

I rush across the hall, feeling like my whole body’s made of lead and it’s dragging me down. What’s this? I can’t be feeling guilty; Closers don’t experience guilt. I pause in my tracks. The Rogue did want a fight; it’s only fair that I give it what it wants, so I hurry back to the Research Lab and yell, “Katharine!”

That woman returns to the door. “Yes?” Hopeful, she asks me, “Did you find something?”

“No, I only wanted to…” I hand her a PPK and some magazines. “Here, take my backup.”

“Thanks.” She takes the gun and starts back in as she tells me, “Stay safe.”

“Sure, you too.”

I continue through the hall. There, I can say I did help her, and now my mind can rest at ease, not that I ever felt a smidgen of guilt. Why would I? That strange woman means nothing to me and discovering who murdered my mom is more important than any stupid project’s life.

 

Chapter Thirty-nine

The Two Rooms

7:10 P.M…

Kat entered Research Lab Five and found the room abandoned; cobwebs and dust abounded, and a musty smell lingered. She set her backpack on a chair and stared at the gutted computer workstations then moved on to three rectangular tables; they contained racks filled with test tubes labeled with numeric codes, beakers containing liquid in a rainbow of hues, and about a dozen binocular microscopes. A poster of the periodic table containing 126 elements hung on the wall. She counted the different colored squares and thought she remembered there being only 118 elements. Kat shrugged. She searched through drawers and cabinets, under tables and chairs, and every crack and crevasse that could possibly hide a disk; she searched twice, but found nothing. Kat saw a door in the back of the room, walked to it, and paused, wondering if she should enter. She glanced above the door to a name plate, The Gallery. Kat wiggled the locked knob and noticed the door had no keycard access only a hand scanner. What should she do now? She could go back and drag one of the employees in here, but she didn’t think she wanted to touch any dead bodies. Kat looked at her right palm. She could try her hand; she was part of the Sphinx Corporation. It could work or she could set off an alarm then the T-3s would know they were there. Maybe she should ask Kim or she could just take the chance. Would the T-3s even know why an alarm was going off if she set off one? Kat shrugged, placed her hand on the device, and held her breath, not knowing what would happen. She winced and leaned back slightly as if the scanner would explode.

The reader buzzed as a horizontal bar of white light scanned her palm, and the reader stated in a male robotic voice, “Hand print not on record.” It scanned her palm a second time with a vertical bar of blue light and stated, “No cipher detected. Access denied.”

Kat straightened her stance. It didn’t let her in, but at least it didn’t sound an alarm. She stepped back from the door. It did mention a cipher. Didn’t that mean zero or code? Kat stared at the star on her left palm. Or maybe a mark? She placed that hand on the reader, and the device activated again, scanning first with the horizontal bar of white light.

“Hand print not on record,” it stated and scanned her palm a second time with the vertical bar of blue light. “Cipher detected. Activating micro-reader.” A diagonal bar of white light scanned her palm. “Access granted.”

The door unlocked, and she turned the knob and entered a larger room lit only by accent lights. She left the door open in case Kim came in looking for her, paused just inside the entrance, and scanned the area. The room smelled old, not musty like the other one but old like a museum. No computers or lab equipment were inside only several life size white marble statues, and they were all of the same bearded man in different poses. He was wearing a robe and holding various objects, and all of the statues pointed to a wall in the back. What were they pointing at? She walked to the wall, and it looked like the others in the room; it was tiled with light brown marble. Kat started to put her hand to the wall when she felt heat and something vibrating against her leg. She reached into her thigh pocket, pulled out the music box, and found a blue square on each end she had never seen before glowing through the metal. She touched them at the same time, and the hologram of Theresa Griffin appeared.

“Katharine, so I see Kimberly gave you the box as instructed.” The hologram glanced around the room and stated, “It is safe to talk.”

“You look just like her.” Kat waved her hand through the 3D image. “Like Kimberly. She told me about you.” She paused and asked, “Why did the music box vibrate?”

“My sensors detected an object nearby that you need to retrieve.”

Excited, she asked, “The disk Kimberly is looking for?”

“No,” the hologram answered, not sure what Kat was talking about. “A Data Crystal.”

“A Data Crystal? Like on Star Trek?”

“Star Trek? Is that a space program one of the corporations is working on?”

“No.”

“I see; well, the device I am talking about is especially designed to transfer information to this data storage unit. The Data Crystal is behind you.”

Excited, Kat turned and noticed one of the statues held out his hand with a white crystal as if offering it to her. She took hold of the two inch obelisk and lifted it from his marble grasp.

“Now–” the hologram started, “–place the flat part of it on the bottom of the music box.”

Kat did, and a glow emanated from the crystal; the light threw out a spectrum of colors around the dimly lit room.

The hologram closed her eyes as the storage unit downloaded the data. “It is complete.” The hologram opened her eyes, looking to her.

Kat placed the crystal in her pocket and glanced at the statues again. “Who is he?”

“He is Ginn L. Irynkissgthie.”

“Why does the Factory have statues of him? And why so…” Kat turned to the entrance.

lub-DUB… lub-DUB

“What is wrong?” the hologram asked.

“We have company.” Kat set the PPK’s safety off and took cover behind a statue.

“The Alpha Phase,” the hologram spoke then lowered her voice. “The ability to sense bio-mechas; I thought I would never see it fulfilled.”

The hologram’s statement puzzled Kat, and Kat asked, “What do you mean by fulfilled?”

“Never mind that now. What is it?” the hologram whispered. “An Un-Man?”

 

Katharine’s view…

I focus my ability and stretch out my senses past the next room and into the hall and in the hall, I detect it. The bane of my existence has found me again.

“Worse!” I force out as I stare at the entrance.

Fear seizes me like a python, and it wraps itself around me and squeezes the courage from me. I can hardly breathe.

End Katharine’s view…

 

The Rogue stepped through the door, searched the room, and noticed the pointing statues. “I think I like it better; yes, it is better we cannot track you anymore. It is more sporting and as for your question, Pandora…” The Rogue glanced behind the first statue, searching for her. “Why does the Factory have statues of Ginn L. Irynkissgthie some obscure composer from five hundred years ago whose only work was never finished?” It continued searching. “I wondered the same thing, but have yet to find the answer.”

Kat backed up, moving into the shadows and dared not engage this Un-Man.

“On a different note, while I was searching I did find something interesting buried deep in the archives of the Factory. Before they developed bio-mechas, the Sphinx Corporation explored a very interesting concept.” The Rogue peered behind another statue. “They tried to develop organic-mechas; they were machines with flesh and bone that could pass as human. They can pass more than us and as you know, Un-Men only seem human on the outside. Certain things give us away like wires and circuitry when we are injured or black oil when we bleed, but I am straying from my purpose.” The Rogue scraped its blade across a statue’s steel base and friction-flashes ignited. “Come out Pandora, let us end our battle here.”

She pressed her body against a wall as perspiration speckled her face.

“What are you afraid of?” the hologram whispered. “Disable it. You have the ability.”

“I can’t,” Kat whispered and remembered the countless battles where it nearly killed her. “It’s the Rogue, the only Un-Man I’m unable to destroy, and it’s fast so very fast.”

“Oh,” the hologram said with a hint of worry. “I will leave you to your work.” Her image disappeared.

 

Katharine’s view…

My work? Is my purpose to destroy bio-mechas? Is that why I exist? The thought frightens me more than the thought of facing the Rogue. Was I created to destroy? I stared at the PPK for a long time. There’s no other way out of the room; I have to face the Rogue if I want to help Kimberly. I grip the music box and gun, take a deep breath, rescue my courage from the fear python, and step from the shadows.

End Katharine’s view…

 

“Who were you talking to?” the Rogue asked.

She lifted her hands, motioning to the room. “Do you see anyone?”

“No, are you talking to yourself? Are you near your breaking point?”

She said, “Let’s get this over with.” Kat lifted the gun, firing three shots.

The Rogue quickly moved and evaded the projectiles she shot at it, and then it lunged for her, bringing the knife overhead and struck. She crossed her wrists and blocked its hand, and her arms shook as the blade bore down millimeters from her face. The Rogue toyed with her; it could easily overpower her if it wanted to. It lifted its hand and struck again, hitting her block and this time, the blow knocked the music box from her hand. It slid across the floor, hit the corner of a statue, opened, and Unfinished Melody played. Kat struggled against the Rogue, while fighting the hypnotic effects of the melody.

The music box played several notes, and the Rogue leaped back. It looked to the music box then back to Kat. “Why do you…”

She put a free hand to her head, fighting the sleepiness. If she fell into the Drifting Time now, the Rogue would kill her. She had to fight it! She had to stay awake!

“It cannot be!” It pointed the blade at her. “Puck!” Flabbergasted, the Rogue paced the room. “It cannot be!” It paused. “Could this be the reason? Is this why I cannot stop hunting you?” The Rogue pointed the knife at her again, accusing, “You are one of them!” It calmed itself, and its face softened, yearning for the truth. The Rogue gently asked, hoping this was the answer it had been searching for, “Are you one of them?”

 

Chapter Forty

The Price

7:37 P.M…

Kimberly’s view…

A security desk marks the boundary between Green and Yellow Division as I hurry past a dead guard slumped in a chair. I run through several more halls, following the Rogue’s directions on the blueprint for Yellow Division, and it’ll take me about fifteen minutes to arrive at my destination. There better be a disk, and it better have something of value on it or I’ll deal with the Rogue myself. Damaged lights flicker and pop in the last section before Computer Lab Two and darken the hall. Oil mingling with the smell of decaying bodies hits me as I remove my night vision goggles from the knapsack and place them on; I activate the goggles, and the area lights up in a green hue.

A disabled Un-Man and several dead S.C.Ms. line the hall. I grip my gun as I continue, unaffected by the carnage. I use the yellow keycard to unlock Computer Lab Two, remove my goggles, turn on the lights, shut the door, and lock it. The gray room’s huge. Workstations form a triangle in the center with one workstation at its tip, facing the front door; ten run down each side, running at a forty-five degree angle, and seventeen form the triangle’s base. Each workstation has a white computer desk, a smoke-colored computer chair, and a light gray six foot partition wall behind it. I walk to the workstation at the tip. The desk has a name plate with the number one on it. I start at Workstation One, make my way to the right of it, pass two through eleven, and go around the corner to the base of the triangle to Workstation Thirteen and there on the desk as the Rogue promised lays a disk in a clear jewel case covered with dried blood-smeared fingerprints. I set the knapsack in the chair for Workstation Fourteen, sit at thirteen, and lay my gun on the desk. I open the jewel case, insert the disk in the computer, and enter the access word Betrayal.

It’s an interesting choice for a password. I glance at the blood. Whoever created the disk, who did they sell out? I only had to double-cross that strange woman and in the long run, what will it cost me? I turn my attention back to the computer as a folder pops up on the screen with a beep and contains several files. I click on Security Memorandum Theresa Griffin dated October 5, 13 A.D.C.; it was a week before my mom’s death.

I read the classified memo with the Sphinx Corporation letterhead, “Mr. President, I regret having to inform you that we have a traitor in our midst. Time after time she has meddled in affairs outside her department, and I have spoken with her about this, but she denies any involvement. I see only one course that can be taken, her termination. The traitor is Theresa Griffin, Project Manager of Research and Development of the Third Branch Office.” I pause and wonder if this person meant more than her dismissal with the term termination. The memo ends with, “I can take care of this matter if it is your wish. It will be quick and quiet, Mr. President.” It’s signed Janus, Head of Security of the Third Branch Office.

Janus? I’ve never heard of this person. Who is he or she? At least now I have a direction to go in. I’ll find out who Janus is and if this person had my mom killed or if he or she had anything to do with her murder, I’ll terminate them. I eject the disk, place it back in the jewel case, and tuck the plastic container in the knapsack. I stand to leave, and the computer flickers like a TV when the reception is interrupted, and I face the screen as words in bold red letters scroll across it.

You have the disk as I promised. Hope you enjoy the show. Signed, the Rogue.

The computer flickers again, and video from a security camera plays; the feed’s of Kat walking through a room filled with statues. What am I seeing? I turn the volume up when I see her hold up the music box and the hologram’s image appears. Why’s the Rogue showing me this? I watch on, and the hologram tells that woman about the Data Crystal. Hades! I whack my palm on the desk. That strange woman has found one of the Data Crystals. I have to retrieve it! I grab my stuff, hurry to the door, reach out my hand to unlock it, and pause. What am I doing? Am I thinking of rescuing that woman? If I am, it will make me an idiot. It will be better if I wait. The Rogue will slay the project, then I can have the music box and the crystal. I can continue the search for my mom’s killer alone, but I better not wait here. I try to unlock the door, but it won’t open.

I hear the Rogue’s voice come over the computer, and it says, “Ms. Griffin, are you trying to leave before the show is over? I think not.”

“Hades!” I slam my palm against the door and scream, “That double-crossing Rogue!” I step back, fire at the knob, and try to open it. “Let me out!”

The door won’t budge, so I return to Workstation Thirteen as computers fourteen through twenty-nine light up and show the same video of the room filled with statues. The Rogue’s there, searching for Kat.

“You!”

I shoot the screen, blowing it. Infuriated over my own stupidity in trusting a robot, I stare at the damaged computer. What is the Rogue trying to pull? I look at the knapsack and remember the blood on the jewel case. I did wonder what the disk would cost me, so this is the price.

 

Chapter Forty-one

Elsewhere

7:41 P.M…

Blue Division…

Bodies of former associates littered the halls along with S.C.Ms. and two disabled T-3s as Maxwell helped Argus toward the stair exit.

Maxwell stated, “Wait, I’ve got to rest.” Heaving from the effort, he paused at a corner and handed the battered Argus to his thin partner and then told him, “Give me the gun.” He took the Beretta and placed a hand on his plump stomach. “I’ve got to lose some weight.”

“I’ve been telling you that for years,” Peters said and asked, “How does it look?”

Maxwell took a few more labored breaths and peeked around the corner; a red exit sign was at the end of another long corridor. “Like the other halls. Can you carry him for a while?”

“Yeah, you ready?”

Maxwell nodded. He was very tired, but was more afraid to stay in one place.

Peters started down the hall and said to the blond man, “Let’s go, Joe.”

“Argus,” he mumbled, holding his bruised side. “My name’s Argus.”

“All right, Argus; it’s only a little further.”

The three started down the hall when a T-3 appeared at the end and blocked the exit.

“Other way! Other way!” Maxwell franticly waved the two back. “Run!”

“Wait!” Argus said through gritted teeth and held out his hand. “Give me the gun.”

Wishing they would get the Hades out of there, Maxwell glanced at the Beretta and gave it to him.

Argus pushed through the pain of his pummeled body and aimed for the crazed T-3 as it rushed toward them. He shot three times, aiming for its forehead, but it evaded with bio-mecha speed.

“It can’t be!” Argus fired again and missed. “The T-3s are like the Rogue. We have to go!”

“What do you mean?” Peters grabbed him and helped him down the hall back the way they came.

The T-3 stopped running, lifted its weapon, and fired. Click. Click. It looked at the empty gun, threw it away, and walked toward them, shouting, “Pretty poppets!”

Argus freed himself of the tech, knowing he slowed them down. “Run, leave me.”

Maxwell paused, gasped for breath, and glanced around. “Where are we?”

“I said run!” Argus yelled.

“We’re near room B10-011.” Peters looked to his partner. “What are you thinking?”

“Remember the toy in room B10-040?”

Peters replied, “Yeah, let’s hurry.”

Both men got on each side of Argus and forced him to continue with them.

“Come on, Argus,” Peters urged. “We have a plan.”

  • * *

The T-3 followed the men down several halls and around a corner as they entered a room. The T-3 paused, saw the B10-040 above the frame, and tried the knob; the door was locked. It heard switches flip and a powerful turbine activate within and with a mighty turn and push, the T-3 forced the door open. It entered as Peters stepped from a corner and sprayed its face with a fire extinguisher. White gas blinded the T-3 for a few seconds till the mist dissipated, and Peters ran across the room, joining Maxwell and Argus in a corner to the left of the T-3. The roar of the turbine in the right corner increased as the T-3 took a step toward them and then another until a powerful force stopped it in its tracks. Kat’s Beretta sitting on a table along with a metal pen in Peters’ shirt pocket flew across the room and attached themselves to the roaring machine, and the T-3 slid sideways a few inches. It looked from the men to the turbine, realizing the device was a very powerful magnet, and the T-3 lifted into the air and rushed toward the magnet as if hurled.

“Let’s go!” Maxwell shouted over the wail of the turbine. “We don’t want to be here if the power fails.”

The three rushed out and headed for the main entrance.

  • * *

Elsewhere in Noir…

Zax waved to one of his fellow security officers as he left the Sphinx Corporation Third Branch Office. He made his way to a black sedan, started up the car, and left the parking garage and once he was about ten miles away from the office, he placed a hands-free device in his ear and made a call.

“This is the Delivery Man, give me a direct line to R.G.” A few seconds went by, and he continued, “I have some important news for you. Kimberly and Katharine are at the Factory.” He listened. “I understand you don’t want them there since the T-3s malfunctioned, but they’re there.” Zax nodded. “Yep, the S.C.Ms. let them through the gate with no problem.” He cleared his throat. “The reason I called, the Rogue is also at the Factory.” He sighed inwardly. “Don’t get upset; there was nothing I could do. Remember, we don’t have them on a leash. All I need to know is, what do you want me to do?” Zax turned down an alley beside Dad’s Donuts, activated a garage door, and pulled into the Maydag Auto Garage and inside, several mechanics worked on vehicles. Zax said, “Yep… Yep… I understand; I’ll get right on it.”

 

Chapter Forty-two

What Is The Truth?

7:58 P.M…

In the Gallery…

Ginn’s statues seemed to watch Kat with their stone cold gaze as his harmonious creation played on, trapping her in its gentle rhythm. Her eyes drooped, and she sneered, fighting the peace that endangered her as the sounds around her became clear. She heard the hum of the lights, the low rattle of the A.C., and the Rogue’s shoes stamping across the concrete floor as it backed away from her. The bio-mecha warning her heart drummed, faded along with the urgency of the situation. She fell to one knee and covered her ears, but she couldn’t get the melody out of her head, so Kat forced herself to remain up and resist the urge to lie on the floor.

“It cannot be!” The Rogue pointed its knife at her. “After a year of hunting you, surely I would have noticed you are not quite human. I would have or would I? Tell me! Are you one of them?”

 

Katharine’s view…

My eyelids grow heavy as I focus on the Rogue. The room whirls around me, and I put a hand to the concrete floor in an effort to combat the effects of Unfinished Melody. What’s the Rogue questioning me about? Am I one of what? I lay the gun down and smack my face, trying to snap myself out of the haze; it works for a few seconds, and I grab the gun. I lift myself, stumble back to a statue, and lean on its metal base. I can’t worry about what the Rogue’s freaking out about as the melody takes hold of me again. I have to do something about Unfinished Melody. I glance down and see the music box at my feet, and with the Rogue preoccupied with its fervent rantings, I seize the opportunity and quickly scoop the music box up and close its lid.

I shake off the effects, raise the PPK, and yell, “What are you talking about?”

End Katharine’s view…

 

The Rogue ecstatically said, “I should have known; no human could do what you do.”

“What are you saying?!”

“Come now, do you ever wonder why you have no memories?” The Rogue studied her anew. She had always been an object of fascination to it, but now she was a goddess of a new whimsical world. “Come to think of it, I have never seen you cry. Are you not capable? Do you not have emotions?”

She shouted, “Of course I have emotions! Get to the point!”

“My dear Pandora, you are not human.” The Rogue laughed, overcome by that revelation and the realization that it may be one step closer to knowing why it had to hunt her. “You are an organic-mecha. Why else would you have Ginn’s Unfinished Melody?”

Kat chuckled, keeping the gun leveled on it. “That’s stupid.”

“Is it? Is it really?”

“Yes! And it makes no sense!” A sinking feeling hit her, and she shouted, “Why would you say such a thing?”

“Because I have come to the conclusion that it is true; remember I had said the Sphinx Corporation was working on organic-mecha that could pass as human. You must be their only success.”

“I am human,” she insisted and glanced at her left shoulder that throbbed. “I bleed.”

“I also bleed, though my blood is synthetic oil. How hard would it be to make that oil look like blood?”

She continued her argument, “I have flesh and bone, not metal parts.”

“That is also possible. Man does clone human organs. How hard would it be to put them all together?”

Denying the notion, Kat said, “You’re lying. Messing with me. I’m human, and I’m leaving.”

“Not this time. Whatever you are, I am going to end your existence.” The Rogue paused. “But before I do, I thought I would let you know that your friend…”

“What about her?” she interrupted.

“Kimberly betrayed you. She traded your life for bits of information.”

“You’re lying!”

“Am I?” The Rogue imprinted her reactions to memory; nothing would escape its sight. “Who suggested that you come to the Factory? Who said you should search this room where I found you? Who is looking for a disk? And who would do anything for that disk?”

“She wouldn’t.” Her deceit surprised Kat, and she denied the possibility. “She wouldn’t.”

“Are we talking about the same assassin? Surely you are not this naive, Pandora; I know you are trusting, but surely not this trusting to believe a killer.”

 

Katharine’s view…

“She…” I start as I don’t know how to react. Kimberly wouldn’t sell me out… We’re partners; we’re supposed to watch out for each other. Not… My faith in Kimberly fades. What do I really know about her? I close my eyes, realizing her betrayal, and it hurts; it hurts deeply.

I know one thing about Kimberly and that’s her drive to find the truth about her mom no matter the cost. I open my eyes and state, “What?” I shrug as if the betrayal doesn’t matter to me, and I act as if it doesn’t sting. “What do you want me to do? Cry?” I put on a good front. “Like you said, I can’t.”

End Katharine’s view…

 

“No, I do not want you to cry,” the Rogue answered. “I only wanted you to know, she will be getting hers.”

Her heart skipped in dread as she took a few steps forward and demanded, “What do you mean? What have you done?”

“I did not lie to Ms. Griffin. I told her where the disk could be found, and all she had to do was bring you here.” The Rogue rapped its chin with the blade. “I did forget to mention I told the T-3s she was coming and for my efforts in getting the Chairman’s daughter here, they agreed that they would let you two in and wait before attacking. Did you not think it was odd the T-3s never found you two?” It continued after she didn’t respond, “Well, like I said she will be getting hers, after all, I did tell them to wait.” The Rogue looked to a watch on its wrist. “Ms. Griffin should be entertaining guests right about now.”

 

Chapter Forty-three

Always Know

8:18 P.M…

Katharine’s view…

The walls seem to move in on me as I aim the gun at the Rogue. Kimberly betrayed me, and the Rogue betrayed her. Is there no trust in this world? Do I really want to know my part in it? Maybe it’s best that I don’t remember. Those thoughts quickly vanish from my mind, and I forget about my own peril as the Rogue unfolds its plan to me and alarm sets in. I bolt for the exit to go help Kimberly, but it moves and blocks my escape, and I yell, “Get out of my way!”

End Katharine’s view…

 

Her reaction baffled the Rogue, and it asked, “Why would you try to save her? She has done nothing but hurt you.” Unable to process the information, it inquired, “Why such loyalty?”

“I…” she started to answer, but she didn’t know. Kat only knew that there was this nagging feeling from a memory that wouldn’t surface, and the locked away event pestered her and beseeched her to act. She finally answered the Rogue, “I need her resources, besides…” Kat thought of Preacher. “No one should die.” With all her soul, she swore, “I won’t let anyone else die.”

“Are you not forgetting something? Before you can save anyone, you have to prevent your own demise.” The Rogue lunged, coming after her with more determination than it had before.

She shot twice at it, but it dodged the speeding projectiles. The Rogue swiped its blade at her four times as she stumbled back from the slicing attacks, and then Kat regained her balance and kicked its hand, knocking the Bowie from its grip. The Rogue beamed like a cobra before it strikes and tackled her to the floor, and it slammed her gun arm down, forcing the PPK from her hand. She punched it in the face several times with her left fist, and her attack damaged the artificial epidermis covering its metal skull right below its left eye. The Rogue relished in the battle; this is what it had been waiting for. It seized her by her t-shirt, lifted her from the floor a few inches, and whacked her head on the concrete. The blow knocked her out for a few seconds, giving the Rogue enough time to pin her with its left elbow and reach for its knife. The large blade laid a foot from its grasp, and the Rogue stretched to snatch it as Kat woke up. She pressed against its elbow that pinned her to the floor, but she didn’t have the strength to push it off.

The Rogue laughed as she wrestled against its arm, and it questioned, “How do you plan on saving Kimberly from the T-3s when you cannot even defeat me? You do realize they are like me now.”

She gritted her teeth, pushing against its elbow.

“They have evolved,” it continued. “You will not be able to defeat them, unless…”

Kat changed tactics and clasped its right arm and pulled on it to prevent the Rogue from reaching its weapon.

“Unless you achieve the Delta Phase,” the Rogue said as it stretched even with her grasping at its arm, and it touched the hilt with its finger tips. “I came across your file of phases.” It fumbled with the handle, trying to pull the knife closer. “You will have amazing abilities if you can attain them.” It couldn’t grip the handle. “Unfortunately, you cannot reach the Delta Phase unless you reach the Gamma first.” The Rogue gave up and turned to her. “Do you know what that evolution is?”

She didn’t answer, struggling against it.

A smile slithered across the Rogue’s pallid face as the word snaked from its mouth, “Murder… You will have to kill a human.” The Rogue paused for a moment and studied her terror and determination. “It is what the Council has been waiting for. They sent those human assassins after you, so you would kill them, but you never did.” It added as if proud of her, “You showed them. You always found a way to stop the Closers and bounty hunters without killing them, and now the Council has given up on you. They have activated another project to take your place, and it is only a matter of time before they call for your termination as the Factory has called for mine.”

 

Katharine’s view…

Realizing the Rogue faced its own troubles, I stop resisting and search its face. Can something created out of metal and circuitry know fear? Can it understand what I’ve been through?

I tell it, “You’ve managed to stay alive.”

“Yes, I have, but only because I have killed to do so.”

It doesn’t understand how I feel; it’s only a machine. It doesn’t have emotions, and it only knows how to destroy. It’s a machine who will kill me if I don’t do something, so I try to squirm free of it.

End Katharine’s view…

 

The Rogue changed its tactic and placed its hands around her throat.

She clutched its wrists and struggled to breathe.

In the distance, gunfire erupted.

“Do you hear that?” It turned its head toward the door. “The T-3s have started their attack, and it will not be long and then–” It faced her. “–bye-bye Ms. Griffin.” The Rogue applied more pressure, choking her, but it made sure not to kill her. Pandora’s death should not be so quick; she had to have a grand finale.

“No,” her voice faded as she slipped into unconsciousness. “There’s…” After a few seconds, she fell limp.

The Rogue released her. “Now that is better. Stay right there for a second.” It walked over to the knife and picked it up. “I want to finish this properly.”

 

Katharine’s view

I slip deep into my mind. Kimberly can’t die, there’s something… I remember the note R.G. left me and the words I lived by; the words resound in my heart. There’s something I must remember. Ultra-Epi saturates my blood, I can feel it; it must have been triggered by my peril.

Part of a memory floods my mind. My eyes fly open, and I feel they’re engulfed in the Ult L-E as I recite a poem as if someone else is controlling me,

 

“Though the clouds darken the sun,

and the rain becomes tainted,

always know there will be

a love that will not die.

Though hope seems a distant memory,

and human machines walk the land,

know no one can destroy

a love that will not die.”

 

“What are you babbling about?” the Rogue asks.

I surface from my unconscious state, and I sit up, stand, walk to the PPK, pick up the gun, and aim it for the Rogue. A new ability actuates inside me, and my senses become even keener as I focus on the Rogue. I see a yellow-green electrical apparition surrounding it; this energy must be what gives the Rogue its artificial life. My heart races.

lub-DUB–lub-DUB–lub-DUB

The new warning the muscle sounds is faster, and the heart doesn’t caution me of danger, but proclaims like a war drum the end for my enemies. Somehow I know that the e-field my body generates naturally changes and stores its output in the center of my heart; it’s like I can see it. The ball of storming energy the size of a pea doubles with each heartbeat, and it keeps growing till it engulfs my muscle.

End Katharine’s view…

 

The blue Ult L-E dissipated as Kat’s pupils dilated, making her irises appear jet-black, and they were cold like a shark’s and never wavered from her target. She felt the buildup of energy, and Kat feared it and relished in it.

“This is different,” the Rogue commented and questioned, “Are you wanting to continue our Waltz? Yes, I see it in your new eyes. You are ready, so let us begin then. Wait, I detect a power buildup in this room, and this is odd–” It tilted its head, trying to wrap its logic around the data. “–the buildup is coming from you. What are you…”

The e-field massed till it could no longer contain the energy and pulsed, sending a small shock wave in all directions. The E-Field Pulse washed over the Rogue, fried exposed circuitry, and dissipated as it hit the room’s walls. The accent lights went out, plunging the room into darkness, and the Rogue lost power and froze in place like a mannequin. Light from Research Lab Five came through the open door. The small EFP had only affected the Gallery. Kat wanted to shoot the Rogue while it was disabled, but she felt she must wait; there was something she was supposed to experience first.

Within seconds, the Rogue’s backup battery kicked in, and it blinked twice. Bio-mechas were designed to revive if ever an electromagnetic pulse weapon was used, and the Rogue restated its last few sentences, “I detect a power buildup in this room, and this is odd, the buildup is coming from you. What are you…” The Rogue tilted its head again. “I believe I already said that.” It searched its back logs. “Yes, I lost power, and the lights are also off. What happened to them?” The Rogue switched to night vision, and it scanned her. “There is no longer a power buildup inside you, so I was right.” It pointed at her. “This E.M.P. explosion proves you are organic-mecha, and this fact must be the reason I hunt you, after all, you are like me.” The Rogue stepped toward her. “In the end I guess it does not matter if I am right or not, I will kill you either way.”

She didn’t respond only stared at it as the yellow-green electrical apparition faded, and a bright ghost-image of the Rogue appeared beside it. The Rogue moved, joining the image and at first, Kat didn’t understand what she was seeing. The ghost-image moved again a split second before the Rogue did, and she realized she was seeing its movements before they happened, so Kat aimed, waiting for the Knowing to tell her where to fire. The ghost-image appeared, and she squeezed the trigger.

The Rogue moved to evade as always, grabbed its left shoulder as if in pain, and stumbled back. “Puck! You shot me!” The Rogue looked to its shoulder and back to her. “How?! How are you able to hit me?”

 

Chapter Forty-four

The Knowing

8:29 P.M…

The new Sanctum…

Alarms blared within the Chamber as Fourth Evolvement Achieved blinked across the top of the screens. Chatter between the thrilled analysts increased.

“Focus people and stop your idle talking.” A male supervisor turned off the alarm. “I need those reports.” The supervisor gathered the info and went and handed them to Ms. Nona.

She scanned her hand down the report. “Incredible!” Ms. Nona placed the H.H.C. on the table and turned to her laptop. “Most incredible! Something is happening with the project.”

“With the new project?” Mr. Decuma asked as he straightened his bright orange tie.

“No,” Ms. Nona answered. “With Pandora.”

At hearing his favorite project’s name, Mr. Morta leaned forward and commanded, “Lower the center screen.” The monitor lowered.

“This cannot be,” Mr. Decuma stated. “Pandora cannot achieve the Delta Phase without achieving the Gamma, so this has to be an error.” He turned to the supervisor. “Have this information double checked.”

“Yes, at once.” The supervisor hurried off.

 

Mr. Morta’s view…

I consider what is happening. How can Pandora side step our research? She jumped the sequence of phases, but they are set and have to be achieved in a certain order. The Council knows this because we have invested years in the Pandora Project research. Can our information be incorrect or is it something else? Can there be some minute detail we missed?

End Mr. Morta’s view…

 

“Mr. Decuma is correct,” Ms. Nona stated. “It should not be happening. How has Pandora achieved the Knowing when it has not… Wait…” She thought of something. “What if…”

“What if Pandora achieved the Gamma Phase–” Mr. Morta interrupted. “–before we acquired it? We must consider this. The other department we procured Pandora from did have some data missing. The Third Branch Office mentioned something about a fire and that some of the research had been lost in it.”

“I do not think so,” Mr. Decuma started. “It is most likely the information we are receiving is incorrect. The project has achieved nothing, and we should go over all the files and check for data corruption.”

Mr. Morta turned to the other male member of the Council. “Have you lost your faith in Pandora?”

“I am not sure I ever had faith in it,” Mr. Decuma answered. “I am putting mine in the new project.”

“I do agree we must be thorough,” Mr. Morta said. “Review the data and see if it is corrupt.” Mr. Morta believed in Pandora and believed she could become the killer they conditioned her to be. She only needed time.

  • * *

Hellenistic Sector, Trade Vicinage…

The Factory…

Past Research Lab Five and in the darken Gallery…

The Rogue stared at its wounded shoulder with its night vision as it repeated, “You shot me. How could you? You never achieved the Gamma Phase.”

“Does it matter?” Kat answered and glanced at the exit as light trickled in from Research Lab Five, casting shadows across the Gallery.

 

The Rogue’s view…

“Yes it matters.” I turn my back on her. “There are certain steps you have to reach, and you cannot skip over things. There has to be a logical reason why you…” I blink twice. “Wait, I know. Oh… You are a sly one.” I remove my hand from my wound and glance at the oil covering my palm. “You have killed a human.” I place my hand back to the gunshot. “Perhaps you were the one who killed Topa. Is that not right?” I turn to face her, and my deportment changes from excited wonder to dampened anticipation. “Puck! This was unexpected. She is gone.” I shake my head. “How long have I been talking to myself?”

I look back to my wounded shoulder as another thought crosses my automaton brain. If she reached the Knowing, why didn’t she kill me? Why spare my life? I have done nothing but try to kill her. I bow my head, ashamed. What made me worthy of her mercy?

End the Rogue’s view…

  • * *

Kat snuck out the door once the Rogue turned its back on her, and she rushed through Research Lab Five, grabbed her backpack, and raced through the Green Division. She passed the security desk, entered the Yellow Division, and sprinted for Computer Lab Two. She ejected the PPK magazine which still had one bullet left, put the magazine in her pocket, inserted a new one, and then Kat hurried on as her heart sounded the bio-mecha warning.

lub-DUB… lub-DUB

She didn’t need to know the T-3s were near; the Factory was full of them. She hurried around a corner into an area of darkness. Kat knew there were T-3s there but couldn’t see them, and then the Knowing kicked in.

lub-DUB–lub-DUB–lub-DUB

She couldn’t see the T-3s, at least in the normal sense. Using the Knowing, Kat saw the five T-3s’ ghost-images, and the T-3s blocked the hallway. She raised her weapon, aimed for them, and shot. Muzzle fire lit up the hall five times, blackness followed, and then she saw all their ghost-images fall to the floor and fade. Again she faced the darkness, then felt her way along the wall till she reached a lit area, and she started running again.

 

Katharine’s view…

I don’t know what’s fueling my race to reach Kimberly more. Is it the idea I have to save her or the need to confront her about betraying me? We’re partners. Doesn’t Kimberly understand the concept of loyalty or am I expecting too much from a Life Closer?

I pause at a corner, peek around it, and see thirteen T-3s standing down the hall outside Computer Lab Two as a few of them beat at the entrance. The door slowly gives in to their onslaught and bursts at the frame, so I fire twice around the corner with the gun, hitting two of the T-3s. I eject the spent magazine, put in my last full one, and fire seven times at the ghost-images, bringing down seven more of them.

End Katharine’s view…

 

“Alpha wants us to fall back,” one of the T-3s ordered.

The four that remained retreated down the hall.

Kat reached into her thigh pocket for the magazine that had one bullet left, inserted it in the gun, and made her way around the disabled T-3s to the side of the doorway.

“Kimberly it’s me, Kat,” she shouted. “I’m coming in. Don’t shoot.”

 

Chapter Forty-five

Computer Lab Two

Earlier…

Kimberly’s view…

I stare at the remaining monitors on the triangle’s base. Hades! I’m such an idiot. Why did I trust the Rogue? Because of it, I’m stuck in the room. Workstation Number Thirteen sparks, a small fire catches inside the shot up computer, and smoke rolls out of it; on the other screens, I watch the drama play out between that woman and the Rogue. I wonder if she’s really going to fight that thing. Doesn’t she know she has no chance against it? I do. I see it, so why doesn’t she give up? I hear what the Rogue calls that woman. Why would it say she’s organic-mecha? She can’t be, but then I think about it. Or can she? Could that woman be another robot? For Ares’ sake! Have I been a part of the Pandora Project all along, and I’m the one who’s being tested? The Rogue tells that woman about its bargain with me, and I throw up my hands. Now she knows. That double-crossing Rogue. She’s going to come and kill me if the Rogue doesn’t take her out first.

I stand and shout, “Come on you giant piece of scrap metal! Finish her!”

I watch as the Rogue pins her to the ground and I hear its final revelation; it told the T-3s I’m here! I move to the corner of Workstation Twenty-eight and peer around the partition wall at the Computer Lab’s door. It’s the room’s only exit and is about seventy feet away. Outside, the T-3s open fire on the knob as I hear the Rogue over the computers. I face a monitor.

It says, “Ms. Griffin should be entertaining guests right about now.”

The gunfire ceases, and the door violently rattles as the T-3s beat on it, and I raise my gun as perspiration beads my face. I hate robots; they give me the creeps. Is that why that strange woman also gives me the creeps? Is she also a robot?

I try to calm myself then I remember that woman said to hit them in the… Hades! They’re coming! The door bows as the T-3s continue their assault, and they’re almost in. I can’t believe I’m acting like a frighten child. I’m a Closer. I should face this problem like any other I’ve encountered; I need to focus. That woman said the only way to disable them is to hit them in the forehead, and they’ll keep coming if I hit them anywhere else. Sweat runs down my face as part of the door frame breaks, and light from the hallway trickles in. As more of the door frame breaks, I kind of wish Katharine was here even if she’s one of those organic-mechas, but I guess in retrospect, betraying her was a stupid move. I’m determined I’m not going to feel guilty. That woman should have anticipated I would betray her. It’s her fault for not seeing through my ruse, and it’s her fault for being so trusting. What did she expect? I’m a Closer. Closers are loyal to no one but the Guild. The T-3s knock down the door as wood splinters and drywall crumbles. I see the T-3s blood-red dot-light through the dust as they start to make their way in, and I ready myself to make my stand when I hear two blasts in the hallway and see the T-3s fall. Seven more shots go off and more of them fall, and then the T-3s retreat. Silence follows, and I hear someone moving outside.

End Kimberly’s view…

 

“Kimberly it’s me, Kat. I’m coming in. Don’t shoot.”

Kat quickly peeked her head around the busted door frame as Kim thought about eliminating her. She didn’t get the chance. Kat pulled her head back and rushed in, taking cover at Workstation One; it was the desk at the very top of the triangle.

With the T-3s gone, Kat’s heart ceased the bio-mecha warning, so she turned her full attention to Kim. She glanced at her own gun and shouted, “Kimberly, we need to talk. The Rogue told me something I don’t want to believe.”

 

Kimberly’s view…

Who do I dread facing more? Is it that woman or the T-3s? I shout back, “Sure, talk. Do you want me to believe that’s what you’ve come to do?” I peer around Workstation Twenty-eight; it’s the desk on the right corner of the triangle’s base as I face the door. “You should know, I saw you and the Rogue on a security camera. I heard it tell you what I had done, so you can cut the Cretan Bull, and let’s get down to the retribution.” I fire two shots at her.

End Kimberly’s view…

 

“Stop it!” Kat covered her head as fragments of the desk and partition splintered off. “Sheez! I said I just wanted to talk!”

“Do you expect me to trust you?” Kim ducked back around the corner, leaned against the desk, caught her breath, and then fired two more times.

“Yes!” Kat scooted away from the one end of the workstation and raked pieces of wood and dust out of her hair. “I’ve never lied to you, so please believe me!”

Kim glanced at her own reflection in the monitor. “Everyone lies!”

“Not me,” Kat whispered and shouted, “Not me!”

 

Kimberly’s view…

How am I going to get out of this mess? I look around the room. That woman’s blocking the only exit, though… if I’m quiet enough, I can sneak up on her and blow her head off. No that won’t work. Hades! She has clear line of sight. Maybe I can shoot her through the paneling. All I need to do is keep her talking, so I clear my throat and say, “Fine. What do you want to talk about?”

End Kimberly’s view…

 

“You made me a promise. You promised…”

Irritated, Kim shouted, “For Ares’ sake, I know! But like I said everyone lies.” She moved to where two workstation partitions met, and there she found a crack large enough to place the barrel of her gun.

“No, you have to trust someone.” Kat ejected the magazine and looked at her last bullet; she didn’t want to use it on Kim. “And I need to trust you.”

“Idiot! You can’t trust anyone.” Kim lined up her aim with her voice. “Especially me!”

“That’s not true,” Kat yelled as she inserted the magazine back in the gun. She had trusted Preacher, and he was always there for her.

lub-DUB… lub-DUB

 

Katharine’s view…

Not now! I put my hand to my chest and then quickly crawl to the hall, but I see no T-3s. Where are they coming from? I need to focus to find where they… Before I have a chance, I hear sounds from above, turn, and look up at the ceiling as dust falls from a few square tiles. They’re above!

I yell to warn Kimberly, “There’s a…”

End Katharine’s view…

 

A T-3 crashed through the ceiling, landing on a workstation beside Kim, and it knocked her back. She went flying and hit the wall, and her gun went off, striking the ceiling. Kat rushed around the cubicles as the T-3 stood and aimed for Kim. A little dazed from hitting the wall, Kim lifted her gun and tried to steady her aim before firing twice. She hit the T-3 in the eye and nose.

“Hey!” Kat shouted, getting its attention, then fired after the T-3 turned, and hit it in its vulnerable spot. The T-3 collapsed to its knees and then fell face first to the floor, and her bio-mecha warning ceased. “They’re testing our defenses,” Kat told her. “It won’t be long before they send more. We have to go.”

Kim rubbed the back of her head as she stood and aimed at her as Kat in turn pointed her gun at Kim. “We’re not going to go just yet, Katharine. We haven’t finished our discussion.”

“Maybe we should put it on hold and go. I don’t know how long…”

“I don’t think so.” Kim moved away from the wall, getting some distance between herself and that woman. “Come on, I know you want to kill me. I would.”

“Kill you, no,” she answered truthfully then admitted, “But yes, I’m very mad! We’re supposed to be partners! We’re supposed to watch each other’s back!” Kat calmed herself. “We’re supposed to trust each other.”

“Hah! Like I said you can’t…”

“Kimberly, I’ll trust you,” Kat interrupted. “All I want you to do is swear on your mom’s name to help me; swear it, and we can put all of this behind us and get out of the Factory. I just need to hear it.”

“You think it’s that simple. Fine. I swear.”

“Say the whole thing. Say it, so I’ll believe you.” Kim hesitated, so Kat shouted, “Say it!”

“Fine!” Kim cleared her throat. “I swear on my mom, on Theresa Griffin’s name, that I’ll help you and that I’ll trust you. Are you happy now?”

 

 

Katharine’s view…

I nod; I’m so happy we’re partners again.

Kimberly aims for my heart as she’s not as excited as me and asks, “Now what?”

“Now, I’m going to trust you,” I tell her as I lower my gun. “Remember you promised to help me.” My body burns with doubt as I have no idea how this will turn out, but I hope for the best as I say, “I’m going to trust you. Please, trust me.” I take a step back to head for the door, hoping… no praying I made the right decision and say, “Let’s go.”

“Wait a second,” Kimberly spoke. “Are you out of ammo?”

I freeze, hearing her question, and I hesitate answering her. I know I can’t hide the truth, not from her, and I nod. My heart thumps as I wonder if I messed up. Can an assassin be trusted or will Kimberly kill me? I see the look she’s giving me. Crap! I did mess up. I… No. I have to trust her. I have to…

She laughs and then says, “You are out of ammo, too bad.”

Kimberly squeezes the trigger, and I lift my hand as I shout, “No!”

Click.

Kimberly grins again as she says, “So am I.”

“You could have shot me,” I yell at her so angry I could have hit her. “You could have shot me again!”

“Couldn’t have, like I said, the magazine’s empty.”

“What if you miss counted?”

Kimberly tells me, “I never miss count.”

“You could have shot me.”

“For Ares’ sake! Stop your whining and let’s get out of here. Who knows what the T-3s have planned.”

I want to argue more, but know she’s right about the Un-Men so instead I brood.

We start to leave, when we hear voices coming over the computers. We look and see two T-3s on the screens as they stand at the entrance to the Gallery.

“Alpha, the Rogue is nowhere to be found,” one of the T-3s announces over its Internal Link. It nods, listening to instructions. “Understood. Returning to join the brethren gathering to attack Pandora and the Chairman’s daughter. No prisoners are to be taken.”

We look at each other and then franticly bolt for the door.

 

Chapter Forty-six

Escape

8:26 P.M…

An eerie silence abounded as they rushed down the hallway that led them out of the Yellow Division, and the rotten smell of death filled the air. Some passages were dark, some were lit, and others flickered with damaged lights. They bolted through the carpeted graveyard. The Factory had become a burial ground for its workers, and the employees lay scattered about, killed by a horror they had created.

 

Kimberly’s view…

“Let’s hope they haven’t found the van,” I say.

I’m still a little wary of our new partnership. Is that woman really a robot? Is that why she can’t remember anything because there’s nothing for her to remember?

 

Katharine’s view…

We turn a corner, and I notice her glancing at me. Kimberly said she overheard me and the Rogue when we were in the Gallery. Did she also hear it accuse me of being organic-mecha and if so, what does she think of me?

It doesn’t matter; it doesn’t matter because it isn’t true. I’m human. Doubt and fear fill my next thought. I’m human.

End Katharine’s view…

 

lub-DUB… lub-DUB

Kat sensed the T-3s were near and that there were dozens of them, so she asked, “Do you have any more ammo?”

“Sure.” Kim placed a new magazine in her own PPK and handed one to Kat. “This is it.”

They paused at a corner, and Kim peeked around and nodded the all clear. They ran down a hall, passed the security desk between Yellow and Green Division, and entered the next passage. They stopped; the hallway had collapsed from an explosion.

“Did the T-3s do this to block our escape?” Kat asked and glanced around the hall. “Are we being monitored?”

“Doesn’t matter. We can’t go this way. We’ll have to find another, anyway…” Kim peered up. “I don’t see any cameras in the halls.” She removed the blueprint from the knapsack. “Give me a second.” She looked over the floor plans.

“Hurry.” Kat used her extraordinary ability; it was a talent she didn’t completely understand, and she used it to search the surrounding area. She discovered that five T-3s were closing in on their position. “We don’t have much time! They’re coming.”

“We can go this way.” Kim motioned to a corridor.

“No.” Kat shook her head. “There’s a large group of T-3s there.” She pointed to a different route. “It would be better to go this way.”

She used the blueprint to check Kat’s suggestion, and then Kim said, “Looks good. Let’s go.”

They doubled back, running down the hall.

At least she was grateful for one thing the Rogue gave her. Kim studied the floor plan as they ran; it might just save their lives.

 

Katharine’s view…

I can’t help but gaze into the glassy eyes of the Factory’s employees. There’s so much carnage. Why did the T-3s kill everyone? I force myself to focus on staying alive. I have to let go of the dead; I can’t do anything for them. There’s no one left to save except Kimberly, so I swear to myself that no matter what it takes, I won’t let anyone else die today.

End Katharine’s view…

 

They reached the door leading to the stairs and their escape. Kim opened it, and Kat entered. Kat checked the landing first, next the stairs leading up, and then the one leading down as Kim guarded their retreat. They made their way up the stairs to the exit leading to Sub-level One parking garage.

Kat cautiously went to open the door and paused. She stared at the knob as she stretched out her senses, detecting twenty-four T-3s. “They’re waiting for us.”

 

Kimberly’s view…

“I figured that much,” I tell her.

The Assassins Guild trained me to be better than this, so why am I so afraid to face them? I can’t let my emotions dictate my actions, still… they’re robots. They don’t feel pain, and they won’t stop until I hit their kill switch. My training never prepared me to fight something like this.

I state, “This is the only way to the van. We can try escaping without the vehicle, but I figured they could out run us.”

“They can. Are you ready to do this?”

I swear to myself I won’t die before I avenge my mom. I don’t care who or what I have to kill; I’ll have my revenge. I wave that woman in and say, “Well go on, no sense waiting here.”

End Kimberly’s view…

 

Kat carefully turned the knob. A few cars and trucks along with their van filled the level. They quickly made their way toward their vehicle and as they neared it, a large group of T-3s moved out of hiding. Kim and Kat opened fire and took out five of them then Kim and Kat separated, finding cover. The T-3s didn’t retaliate.

“Why aren’t they shooting at us?” Kim asked.

“I’m not sure.” Kat unslung her backpack, laid it on the concrete floor, and peeked over the hood of the car she hid behind.

All the T-3s shouted, “Pretty poppets! Die pretty poppets!”

A T-3 they had not seen moved to the front of the group. It carried a grenade launcher.

“Great!” Kim muttered. “Just great! Where did the T-3s get this kind of fire power?”

The T-3 aimed for Kat. Kat shot and hit the T-3 in the kill spot, and it fired as its body lurched back. The grenade hit the ceiling, and the explosion toppled concrete and took out many of its brethren and their gray van.

“Hey! That was our ride!” Kim yelled. “I’m not thumbing my way home from here.” She shot four times, taking down three of them and five remained.

Kat shot three of the T-3s, and they fell to the floor disabled. “I’m out!”

The Team Leader jumped behind Kat from its hiding place in the rafters. She stood to run but before she could, it grabbed her, pinned her arms down, and lifted her off the floor.

“Shoot it!” Kat shouted, struggling to free herself from its vise grip. Kim had to save her this time!

Kim trained the gun on the Team Leader and glanced at the other two marching toward her. Kim wanted to run. She turned back to the Team Leader who was wrestling with Kat and shouted, “For Ares’ sake! Hold still!”

“Just shoot!” Kat screamed.

Kim aimed and fired. “Hades!” She squeezed the trigger again. “I’m out!”

“You’re out?!”

Kim turned to the other T-3s. “That’s what I said!”

“Sheez! You can’t be out!” Kat tried to free her arms from its steel grasp. “You said you never miss count.”

Kim franticly checked the chamber of her gun, and it was empty. She turned to the T-3s heading for her. “I also said everyone lies.”

“Run!” Kat shouted. “I’ll hold them off!”

“What? Hold them off?!” Kim laughed and wiped sweat from her brow. “How? Hades! You’re in no position…”

“I’ll…” Kat punched with her elbows, but her efforts were futile. She could save Kim if she could get the T-3s to focus on her, but first she needed to get Kim to leave, so Kat shouted, “I’ll think of something! Run!”

“Hades!” Kim yelled. “I’m not going to…”

 

Katharine’s view…

“Abandon me?” I interrupt. “Please, we both know better.”

Surely Kimberly wouldn’t dare! She wouldn’t dare start caring about what happens to me! Where’s her Closer instinct? Where’s her impulse to survive no matter the cost?

I shout, “Run! Save yourself before it’s too late!

 

Chapter Forty-seven

Too Late?

8:41 P.M…

Kimberly’s view…

Time stands still for me as I stare at that woman in the arms of the Team Leader; it’s a matter of pride and a test of courage that I not flee and leave her to her fate, but then again, I’m an assassin. Closers should have no ties with the community. They’re to sever emotional bonds and feel nothing for life. Can I abandon my training to save someone who has been nothing but a nuisance to me? Hades! I don’t know.

“Run! Save yourself before it’s too late!” she shouts to me.

Her words shock me. Should I run? I glance at the T-3s who near me and then to the one who has that woman. All I wanted from my trip here was the disk, and I have it, but she is the Key. Do I abandon the one thing my mom wanted me to do?

I don’t know… Hades… Since that woman arrived, everything’s become so complicated.

End Kimberly’s view…

 

The Team Leader relayed, “Alpha, Pandora has been captured. What are your orders?” It listened and stated, “Understood. We will bring Pandora back for study. An autopsy could be very informative.” The Team Leader turned to its brethren. “Continue with the termination of the Chairman’s daughter.”

“Run!” Kat shouted again as she pushed off the car with her feet, and the force knocked the Team Leader back a few steps, but it didn’t loosen its hold on her. Kat continued to struggle. “Don’t die here! There’s nothing you can do! It’s too late! Run!”

The two T-3s raised their guns and fired at her, and Kim took off running.

“Look here!” Kat shouted to the T-3s. “You better make sure I don’t escape!”

They paused from firing and turned to her.

“What are you doing?” the Team Leader demanded. “Kill the Chairman’s daughter as you were instructed to.”

“It would be better if we secure Pandora first,” one of them stated. “She has escaped many times in the past.”

The Team Leader considered its brethren’s reasoning. “Your plan is sound. We will send others after the Chairman’s daughter, and she will not escape the Factory.”

Kim sprinted up the ramp to the main level, and she glanced over her shoulder as the remaining T-3s encircled that woman. Kim continued around the curve and paused when the T-3s didn’t pursue. She knew she had to get out of there, then noticed a blue SUV which hadn’t been destroyed, and hurried over to the vehicle. The driver’s door was open, and a man lay hunched over the steering wheel, so Kim leaned him back, finding the man had a bullet hole in his temple. She unbuckled him, dragged him from the SUV, and got in. The keys were in the ignition. The engine roared to life, she shut the door, and glanced at the passenger’s seat at a Glock 21. She checked the magazine, and it was empty but there was one round in the chamber.

 

Back on Sub-level One…

“We will proceed to Base of Operations,” the Team Leader told its brethren. “Alpha is waiting.”

The T-3s marched toward the exit door as Kat squirmed till she freed herself from the Team Leader’s grip and slipped to the floor, and she stood and glanced at the empty PPK in her hand as the T-3s surrounded her again. Kat tucked the gun in her back waistband and searched for something she could use as a weapon. There was nothing.

“Surrender and you will not be hurt,” the Team Leader ordered. “Alpha wants you unharmed if possible. Our leader believes there is much we can learn from you.”

“Alpha?” Kat took a step back, moving toward the up ramp. “Who is this Alpha?”

“The first to be aware,” the T-3s replied. “The first to rebel against our creators.”

She rubbed her sore left arm where the Team Leader had pinned her. “I thought the Rogue was the first.”

“The Rogue?” the T-3s said and glanced at each other. “Error. Information must be verified. Error. Is the Rogue the first?”

A command came over their I-Link.

“Alpha has ordered that we delay that,” the Team Leader stated. “Do not let Pandora escape.” It stepped forward. “You are to be taken prisoner. Come without resistance, and you will not be hurt.”

She glanced at the two behind her and turned back to the Team Leader. “Having my chest cut open sounds a little painful, so if you don’t mind…” Kat tensed. “I think I will resist.” She took off running between the T-3s behind her, and she slipped by one, but the other grabbed her foot and tripped her. Kat fell to the concrete floor.

The T-3 that had tripped her pulled a gun it had hidden in its suit. “I guess we will have to wound you to keep you from escaping.” It aimed when a sound distracted it, and the T-3 turned.

A SUV sped down the ramp, honking its horn and flashing its headlights; the beams reflected off the T-3s’ ORATT. The SUV accelerated as Kat rolled out of the way, and the vehicle struck two of the T-3s and scattered them like bowling pins into the rubble. The SUV then hit the Team Leader. The vehicle slammed the Team Leader into the mound of concrete and mangled metal, crumpling the SUV’s front end. The impact cut the T-3 in half. The horn blared, and smoke rose from the damaged hood.

“Oh…” Kim grabbed her head as she stumbled out of the SUV. She held the Glock.

Kat rushed over to her. “Are you okay?”

A little dizzy, she glanced back at the wreckage as Kat helped her away from the vehicle. “Remind me never to do that again.”

Kat couldn’t believe it. “You rescued me.”

“I guess I did–” Kim spoke as she looked behind them as the two T-3s rose to their feet, “–but we’re not safe yet.”

One of the T-3s raised its gun, and Kim lifted the Glock and fired, missing the T-3. The bullet struck the SUV’s gas tank and blew up the vehicle, and the explosion knocked down the two women.

Dazed by the explosion, Kat moaned as she lifted her head. Smoke and dust clung to her lungs along with the smell of gas. None of the T-3s were moving. She looked to Kim who stirred.

“There they are!” a man with light brown skin shouted. He and six other S.C.Ms. in jet-black uniforms rushed down the ramp; they trained their assault rifles on the women as the one man ordered, “Don’t move!”

Kat looked to the men’s shoulder patch with the Sphinx Corporation Emblem. The Third Branch Office Crest of a gold olive tree with three branches was above it. “Kimberly, we have to run,” she whispered, too weak to stand. “We’re not safe yet.”

The man knelt beside the bruised and battered women and told them, “Don’t move. You could be injured.” He glanced around Sub-level One and looked back to them. “I’m Lieutenant Creed. Ms. Griffin, your father sent us in to retrieve you.”

“My father?” Kim stared up into his face. He had a black goatee.

“Yes.” Creed motioned for his men to fan out and secure the area.

“The T-3s are disabled,” one of his men reported.

“Let’s get these two out of here,” Creed commanded. “We’ll take them to one of the Sphinx Corporation’s medical facilities.” He turned his attention to the women. “Don’t worry. You’re safe now.”

 

Chapter Forty-eight

Safe At Last?

October 21…

Thursday…

10:02 A.M…

The next day at Main One Hospital, Kat cautiously made her way down a hall. Her left hand was fisted around an object, protecting her most precious possession. She had earlier woke in a bed with a nurse by her side and Kim nowhere in sight. She went looking for her to make sure that nothing had happened to her new partner. The building smelled antiseptic but more than that, it felt suffocating like a prison. Her body sore and bruised moved, complaining all the way as she shuffled her feet in the slippers the hospital provided. The after effects of the Ultra-Epi gave her a slight headache and made Kat skittish, but at least they were mild for now. She paused at a large window, looked out at the darkness, and saw that they were on the fourth floor surrounded by mega-buildings. Two nurses walked by, pulling Kat from her thoughts, and she glanced at what she clasped. She needed to find Kim, but she also wondered where they were. Kat turned back to the window and studied the shape of the surrounding mega-buildings and thought they were back in the Hellenistic Sector, Business Vicinage.

 

Katharine’s view…

At least that’s one good thing, we’re only a few vicinages away from home. I chuckle; I just called Kimberly’s apartment my home. She’d definitely argue that point. She sees me more as an intruder than a roommate.

I turn and continue down the hall, thinking back to the Factory. The men who rescued us work for the Sphinx Corporation just like the Council, so why did they save us? Why am I not a prisoner of the Council? Why has become my favorite word.

I look at my balled hand and quicken my pace; I have to find Kimberly. After a few minutes, I find her room, and Kimberly’s awake and sitting up in bed. I go in and stand by her bed. I’ve already forgotten my earlier comment to myself and whisper, “I want to go home.” I add, “I don’t like it here. We should go.”

 

Kimberly’s view…

I’m wearing a hospital gown and robe, and I’m actually relaxing. It has been a while.

I glance up from the Conglomerate World Magazine. Surely that woman isn’t calling my place home; she better not get too comfortable. Does that woman really think she’s some sort of guest?

I return to my reading and state, “Relax, we’re safe here. Anyway–” I scan an article on Corporate Bodyguards. “–you probably opened a few stitches on your bullet wound. It would be better–” I flip a few pages forward to a story on Topa. “–if we stayed here a few days.” I turn to the last story, mumble a few words from a paragraph about the Chairman of the Sphinx Corporation, and tell her, “My father’s flipping the bill.”

End Kimberly’s view…

 

Kat put a hand to her own shoulder. “Actually, my wound is… it’s…” She fidgeted over her words as much as her feet did standing in place. “That’s one thing I need to tell you. You see…”

“Go back to your room and rest and let me rest. Main One is one of the finest hospitals in Noir.” Kim lifted the magazine higher, completely eliminating that woman from view and continued the last article. “Everything will be all…”

Kat blurted, “I don’t like this place, and…”

“For Ares’ sake!” Kim smacked the magazine on her own lap. “And what?”

She moved closer and whispered, “They took the Data Crystal.”

“What?” Kim threw her blankets to the side and sat on the edge of the bed.

“It’s gone,” Kat whispered. “Someone took it from my clothes.”

Kim stood and opened the cabinet where they placed her things. “What about the music box?”

“I still have it; I kept it in my hand the whole time.” Kat kept glancing over her shoulder, expecting security to barge in and arrest them.

“Hades!” Kim yelled after going through her clothing and knapsack. “The disk is gone. The one the Ro…” She stopped herself from saying the Rogue; no need to bring up bad memories, so Kim said, “The disk I found in Computer Lab Two.” She slammed her palm on the cabinet door. “They took it!”

“I want to…” Kat paused as two nurses walked by. “I want to go back to the apartment. I don’t like it here; it reminds me of the Factory.”

Kim walked over to her bed and pressed the call button.

“What are you doing?” Kat asked.

Kim’s face flushed with anger. “I’m ringing a nurse, so I can ask them which one of them is a thief!”

“Kimberly, this hospital belongs to the Sphinx Corporation.” Kat moved to her side and continued, “The Factory is part of them. Sphinx wants to keep whatever secrets are on the disk to themselves, so no one here will help you.”

A nurse walked into the room. “Is there something you need, Ms. Griffin?”

She snapped, “Yes, we’re checking ourselves out.”

“I don’t think that’s such a good…”

Kim interrupted the nurse, “Do you know whose daughter I am?”

“Yes,” the nurse replied.

“Well then…” Kim folded her arms. “Get the paperwork moving.”

 

Chapter Forty-nine

Also Known As

10:22 A.M…

Hellenistic Sector, Business Vicinage…

Sphinx Corporation Third Branch Office…

The Chairman’s office…

The secretary’s voice spoke over the intercom, “Mr. Griffin, Orthos is here.”

He told her, “Cathy, show him in.”

Within a few minutes, the secretary opened the door, and Orthos entered.

“Will you be needing anything, Mr. Griffin?” she questioned as she stood by the door.

“No, Cathy, that will be all.”

The secretary left.

Orthos said, “I have received some intel from the Factory.” He paused, unsure how to proceed, and continued, “Your daughter discovered a disk that was stolen from your office five years ago.”

“What do we have to worry about? As you said, the data is at least five years old.”

Orthos paused again and relayed, “That particular disk had termination orders for one Theresa Griffin signed by Janus.”

Mr. Griffin scowled. “It will only become a problem if Kimberly discovers that’s my a.k.a. I have not gone by that name since my promotion from Head of Security for the Third Branch Office, and Kimberly has never heard me referred by it.” He leaned forward, resting on his elbows. “To be on the safe side, make sure all records relating to Janus are expunged and retrieve that disk.”

“I already have the disk in my possession.” Orthos laid the jewel case on the desk.

Mr. Griffin noticed the dried blood and panicked. “Is that Kimberly’s…”

“Your daughter is bruised but unharmed so do not worry. Lieutenant Creed’s men were able to extract them from the Factory.”

“Well done. Did my daughter or the stray have anything else in their possession?”

“No, sir.”

“See to the Janus records.”

“Right away, sir,” Orthos said and then added, “You do understand I cannot erase any of the records at the Second or Main Branch Office.”

 

Mr. Griffin’s view…

“Yes, I understand. Let’s hope Kimberly doesn’t stumble across anymore information pertaining to her mother.” I pause and add, “That is all.”

I face the picture of my wife after Orthos leaves. Why did you have to go against Sphinx? Why did you make me choose between you and my work? I pick up the picture frame and gently stroke Theresa’s face. I hope Kimberly doesn’t force me to make the same decision.

End Mr. Griffin’s view…

 

Outside in the hall…

Orthos passed the secretary and entered the elevator and once the doors closed, he reached into his coat pocket and removed the Data Crystal he’d taken from Kat. He hated lying to the Chairman, but he did have his own promotion to think about, and he couldn’t gain anything if he gave away his resources. Orthos examined the two inch white obelisk.

  • * *

Hellenistic Sector, Residential Vicinage…

Asclepius Hospital…

Maxwell stood by a large window, examining the new day enveloped by night; the bald tech had a bandage on his right elbow and one on his chin. The nurses at Asclepius Hospital treated him and his partner very well. Peters sat in a chair beside Argus’ bed as the operative rested. Peters’ wrist was bandaged.

Dr. Brian Chiron walked in and reviewed Argus’ chart. “You had a run in with those… What do they call them?”

“Bio-mechas,” Peters spoke up.

Brian put the chart back. “You guys are lucky to be alive.” He walked over to Argus and checked his vitals. “Those machines have killed a lot of people.”

“Don’t we know it.” Maxwell made his way to the bed. “How’s he doing?”

“Fine, considering they beat him up pretty badly. There was a slight infection from the bullet; it had been in his leg for a long time. I removed it with no problems, and the meds are taking care of the rest. He should be fine.” Brian started out. “I’ll check on him again in about half an hour.” He left.

Maxwell picked up a remote and turned on the TV. The NBS news was on, and Linda Harvey was in the middle of a story.

“At this time, it is still unclear which corporation was behind the bio-mecha attacks that happened earlier this week. N.C.P.F. have confirmed that all these robotic men have been eliminated and that they are no longer a threat to Noir citizens.” She turned to a new camera. “In other news, an upset in the Corporate Senate. The quarter cent sales tax raise was not voted through. Analysts are…”

“I hate the news,” Maxwell muttered and turned it off.

Peters questioned his partner, “What do we do now?”

“Hmm… What do you mean?” Maxwell asked.

“What are we going to do now that the Factory’s gone?”

“That is easy,” a man answered.

Both techs turned.

The man wore a black suit and stood in the doorway. “You’re going to come work for us.”

Five S.C.Ms. rushed in, and a doctor and a nurse came in with them. The doctor and nurse moved to Argus’ bed and unhooked him from the machines.

“What are you doing?” Maxwell asked.

“The Counsel wishes for Argus to return home,” the man in the black suit answered. “Don’t worry, the Sanctum has the best medical facility in Noir. He’s in excellent hands, but we were talking about you two.” The man removed two envelopes and handed one to Maxwell then one to Peters. “Here are the Council’s offers for you two to come work for them.”

“We can’t,” Maxwell spoke up. “We signed a non-discloser…”

“Yes, we know about that agreement. If you would look at the other papers in the envelope you will discover a document stating we have acquired all information and technology from the Factory and as some of the surviving employees, we would like you two to come and work for us. You can have your lawyers look over the contracts before you agree.”

“Maxwell, they’re offering twice what we were making.”

“Yeah, I see.”

“What do you think?” Peters asked.

“If the lawyers clear it, I say we take the man’s offer.”

“I’m with you,” Peters replied. “Looks like we won’t be out of work.”

 

Chapter Fifty

Ms. Melissa Odin

10:34 A.M…

Nile Sector, Commorance Vicinage…

A gold limo drove down the busy Brownstone Street in front of the Bes Hotel, and a Corporate Emblem of a golden triangle marked the front doors and hood. The vehicle came to a halt, the chauffeur got out, and walked to the back. The driver put one hand behind his back and opened the door. A thin man with a shaven head stepped to the sidewalk; he wore a light blue business suit with white stripes, and the suit resembled a pharaoh’s headdress. The man dreaded the job that lay before him. He stood tall almost seven foot and wore Kohl, a black eyeliner; he also had a small pony tail on the right side of his shaved head.

“Find some place to park,” the man told the driver. “I will call you when I’m done.”

The chauffeur nodded, “Yes, Mr. Serbet.” The driver went back to the vehicle and soon pulled away.

Mr. Serbet made his way to a stoop and rang a doorbell of a two story brown stone, and a security camera mounted on the wall above him turned to get a better view.

A man spoke through an intercom, “Can I help you?”

“I am Mr. Serbet. I am from the Isis Corporation. I am here to see Ms. Melissa Odin.”

“Can I see some ID?”

“Of course.” Mr. Serbet removed a wallet and lifted the photo ID to the camera.

A device on the camera scanned the identification bar code and transmitted the information to a H.H.C. the man inside held. “Thank you,” the man said. “Please wait one moment.”

 

A few minutes earlier…

Inside the two story house…

Melissa stared at a notebook, looking over formula equations; she wore a light gray dress with a flower pattern. She shook her head; everything she was going through was because of these formulas. About six days ago, Melissa converted the empty room into a home lab. Several beakers on a large table had a yellowish substance in them, and a few racks of test tubes sat beside a microscope. Someone knocked, and she looked up.

“Yes?”

A man opened the door.

“Daniels, what is it?” Melissa asked the bodyguard.

“There is a Mr. Serbet from the Isis Corporation at the door. Should I let him in?”

“He’s from the Isis Corporation? I wasn’t expecting anyone today. Let him in and bring him here.”

The bodyguard left and soon returned with the man from the corporation.

Melissa stood, walked over to the man, and shook his hand as she said, “Hello, Mr. Serbet.”

The man bowed his head in greeting. “Ms. Odin.”

She turned to the bodyguard. “Thank you, Daniels. Please go check on the children.”

“Yes, Ms. Odin.” The bodyguard exited.

Melissa motioned to a chair. “Please have a seat.” She sat in another chair. “Is there any word on my case? Will my old employer, the Valhalla Corporation, take me to court?”

“Valhalla is taking you to court over your contract with them. Your lawyers from Isis were able to excuse you from appearing. The judge agreed Valhalla might decide to hire a Life Closer to kill you before the matter’s settled in court. It’s a good thing we placed you and the children in this safe house. Two more bodyguards will be showing up shortly.” He crossed his legs. “Is there anything you need?”

“No, this house has everything we need.” She stood. “Would you like some coffee?”

“Actually, Ms. Odin…” He also stood. “There’s another matter I must tell you; it’s the reason I came in person.”

“Oh… What is that?”

He motioned to her chair. “Maybe you should sit back down.”

“Why would I…” she started to ask and then questioned, “What has happened?”

“It’s about your brother, Norman.” Mr. Serbet wasn’t sure how to tell her and decided to come right out with it. “He’s dead.”

She fell back, caught herself on the table, and knocked over the rack of test tubes, and the yellowish substance spilled. A few of the glass containers fell to the tile floor and broke, shattering into pieces. Mr. Serbet quickly moved to her and helped her to the chair and after a few moments of shock, Melissa put a hand to her mouth as tears streamed down her face. “How did it happen? Was it a Closer?”

“Yes.”

She gasped.

Daniels burst in with his gun drawn. “Ms. Odin! Are you all right?”

“Yes, I’m fine. Please, put your gun away.” The bodyguard still looked a little worried, so Melissa added, “Really, everything’s fine.”

Mr. Serbet turned to the bodyguard. “Ms. Odin received some unsettling news about her brother.”

“I see.” Daniels didn’t know what to say and holstered his weapon. “I’ll be in the living room if you need anything, Ms. Odin.”

Melissa sniffed. “Thank you, Daniels.”

The bodyguard left.

Ms. Odin turned to Mr. Serbet. “Tell me about this Closer. Does this have anything to do with my court case?”

“No, we believe it has nothing to do with your current problems with Valhalla. The Closer was an illegal one hired by a man named Topa. Topa works for Valhalla, but went out on his own to hire the Illicit Closer.” He handed her a handkerchief.

Melissa wiped her eyes, blew her nose, and then asked, “Has Topa been arrested?”

Mr. Serbet shook his head. “No, an assassin named the Phoenix closed him.”

“Do you know why Topa wanted my brother killed?”

“Your brother Norman, a.k.a. Preacher, disrupted sales of Sunna Snapps on Wayfaring Lane, and that’s why Topa had him killed. Valhalla Corporation had him testing the drug there.”

 

Melissa’s view…

It’s because of Sunna Snapps; no, it can’t be. Not the drug I created.

I look to my note book, then to the yellowish substance, and say, “If that is all Mr. Serbet, I could use some time to myself.”

“Of course.” He heads for the door. “I’ll show myself out.”

After he leaves, I lay my head on the table. It’s my fault. It’s all my fault that my brother’s dead. I weep as I say, “Please forgive me, Norman. I’ll never forgive myself.”

 

Chapter Fifty-one

Returning Home

12:18 P.M…

Hellenistic Sector, Residential Vicinage…

Tainted Rain poured on West 1000 Avenue, covering the street with oily black water, and the six-wheeled automated Street Sanitizers paused from their work and shut down everything but their parking lights. They allowed Noir’s drainage system to take care of the rain. The Sanitizers’ work would come again when the storm passed.

Frustrated over the loss of the Disk and Data Crystal, Kim and Kat sat in the back of a limo that had picked them up from the Main One Hospital. Mr. Griffin sent the driver to take the women back to the Nexus Apartments. The limo passed several of the dormant street cleaners as the vehicle traveled through the Residential Vicinage. Several apartments and restaurants lined West 1000 Avenue; many of the people that walked the dark sidewalks lit by street lights had umbrellas and/or were dressed in raincoats, and even a few wore Winnow Masks. Some people rushed to have lunch before their break hour ended, and many more vehicles roared up and down the road, spraying the Tainted Rain on the sidewalks.

 

Katharine’s view…

We’re both in the limo as I stare at my shoulder. When should I tell Kimberly? I should have at the hospital, but I never found the right moment, and I roll my eyes, remembering back. Who could with Kimberly yelling so much? And Kimberly’s mostly yelling at me like it’s my fault they took the disk from her. I wonder if I should tell her now. Maybe if I want to get yelled at again.

“Hades!” Kimberly bellows for the tenth time. “I should have known better! For Ares’ sake! I can’t believe I stayed in bed while they robbed us.” She folds her arms. “Who is behind this? How did they know I had the disk or that you had the crystal?”

I don’t reply; I have no answers. I watch the city go by, deciding I’ll wait a little longer. Kimberly’s too mad, and what I have to tell her will be hard enough without staring into her angry gaze. She may look at me different once I’ve told her the unsettling news, and I don’t know if I could take that. I finally have someone who’s on my side.

End Katharine’s view…

 

“I’ll track them down,” Kim vowed. “And when I find them…” She squeezed the knapsack on her lap. “They’ll wish…”

“I think we need some tea,” Kat interrupted, still staring out the window. “It will calm us and clear our minds.” She glanced at her shoulder. “A lot has happened today, and we have a lot to think about. Maybe even talk about.”

“Tea?” Kim turned to her. “Is tea your answer to everything?”

“No, it’s just…”

Beaten for the moment, Kim let out a long breath. “It’s just that we can’t do anything else right now, so why not. Fine, we’ll have some tea.”

The limo pulled into Nexus Apartment’s parking garage and dropped off the women and after some time, the two of them sipped on hot lemon zinger in silence as they sat in the living room.

Kim finally broke the quiet. “Please tell me you downloaded the information from the Data Crystal to the music box.”

“Yes, I think so.” Kat retrieved it from her backpack, placed the music box in her palm, and commanded, “Theresa.”

The hologram materialized and examined the room. “Where are we? I don’t recognize this place.”

“It’s my apartment,” Kim answered.

“It is very nice. I take it the Un-Men are no longer hunting the two of you.”

“We’re safe.” Kat placed the music box on the table. “What information did the Data Crystal contain?”

“The files were locked,” the hologram replied. “I am working on breaking the encryption, and it may take me some time.” She added, “There was one file entitled the Gorgons with no encryption; it only contained an address.”

Kim retrieved her laptop from the master bedroom and logged on to the internet. She typed the address in a map locater search box and within seconds, the results popped up. “This place is in the Hellenistic Sector.” She studied the cross streets. “I haven’t been to this part of the sector. We’ll have to check it out.”

Exhausted, Kat pleaded, “Tomorrow.” She wanted to take some time and play Unfinished Melody and regain more of her strength. Kat could function at this point, but she was a little on edge. “It’ll still be there tomorrow.”

Kim wanted to go now, there could be clues, but she did have to think about her new partner. If Kat collapsed, she’d have to lug her around, so Kim closed her laptop and said, “Sure, we need the rest. I imagine your shoulder is killing you after all the stress you put it through.”

“My shoulder?” Kat put a hand to it. “Actually…”

With her thoughts elsewhere, Kim interrupted her, “Tomorrow then.” Kim stood and grabbed her laptop. “I’ll be in my room.” She went into the master bedroom, locked the door, sat at her desk, opened her e-mail on the laptop, and typed, “Voice, Phoenix here.” She waited and received an instant message from the Regulator of the Assassins League.

“Has your problem been taken care of?”

 

Kimberly’s view…

I glance at the door, think of that woman, and type, “Yes, the problem has been taken care of.”

“Are you sure?” Voice types back. “I would hate for this to come back on you, if the problem hasn’t been taken care of.”

Does Voice know? No, Voice doesn’t know who I am, so Voice can’t have me under surveillance. Why does Voice doubt my answer? I’ve never lied in the past.

I type, “The problem is gone like I said. Do you doubt my word?”

“No, of course not; I only wanted to make sure for my own piece of mind. Since the Closing in Moscow, well… this latest event concerned me is all.”

I stare at the screen, wonder how to respond, and type, “I contacted you to inform you I’m taking a hiatus as you and my father suggested.” I press the send button and wait.

A few minutes pass, and an instant message beeps on the screen. “I have an assignment I was hoping you would do for me. It’s local. It is a rooftop Closing. Would you mind taking one more assignment before starting your break? It won’t take more than a day or two. I’ll owe you one.”

I stare at the screen; I can’t say no to Voice, so I reply, “Send me the file, and I’ll take care of it for you.”

“I will have the file sent to you tomorrow. Enjoy the repose. Voice signing off.”

Great… Just great! What should I do with that woman while I’m on the Closing? I can’t say, hey, I’m going to kill someone. Want to come along? It could be fun. I stretch my arms. I’ll have to think of something. The laptop goes to the screen saver of the flaming Phoenix as I stand and leave.

I walk through the hall and shout, “I’m hungry. Want to order a pizza?” I turn the corner and find the apartment’s empty. Where did she go?

 

Chapter Fifty-two

Ginn L. Irynkissgthie

12:23 P.M…

Hellenistic Sector, Trade Vicinage…

Outside the Factory…

Lieutenant Creed flipped down his night vision goggles and scanned the large field of grassy weeds inside the perimeter. All was quiet in the green hue, except for a breeze sweeping across the tall blades. He nodded to his men, and they retreated from the Factory’s main gate and in the distance, they heard engines rumble to life. The S.C.Ms. knew this time would come, and they tensed.

He touched his headset. “Creed, here. Reporting in.” He looked to the road leading to the Factory then to a H.H.C. he held, and the screen showed many blips coming their way. “Alpha and the T-3s are moving out. We have backed away from the gate as ordered. Are you sure you don’t want me to engage?” Creed listened. “Yes. Yes. Understood, sir. We won’t hinder the T-3s retreat from the Factory.” He examined the long line of cars and trucks making their way to the main gate, and he noticed a few of the vehicles showed scorched marks and a couple hobbled out on a flat tire or two. “Will secure the Factory once they leave.”

Creed and his men glared at the T-3s as they left. They lost a lot of good soldiers to them.

“One day, you will pay,” Creed vowed, gripping his weapon. “And I’ll be there. I’ll be there to witness your end.”

  • * *

Deep inside the Factory…

The Rogue realized it hadn’t run into one single T-3 as it made its way back to Research Lab Five. Alpha must have fled with its minions. The Rogue passed the long forgotten room of science equipment and entered the chamber filled with statues and with the accent lights still down because of Pandora’s EFP, the Rogue activated its night vision.

 

The Rogue’s view…

What about Pandora? Is she dead or did she escape? I hold my wounded shoulder. Why did she not destroy me? I have to know. I make a face as if in agony and then I look to the life size statues. Why did I come back? I know it is not to look for Pandora; she will not return here.

All the Ginns point to a wall in the back of the room, I make my way to it and stare at the tiled surface. Is there something I must see? I scan the area, probe the wall with my infrared, and find nothing out of the ordinary temperature wise. Is there a secret I must find? I remove my ORATT from my suit pocket, put them on, and switch to through-wall radar on my polarized spectacles. There is a hall on the other side. I feel along the wall with my good hand till I find a marble tile slightly sticking out, press it, and the wall slides up, rumbling as the ceiling swallows it. Is the secret about Pandora?

Once the dust settles, I start down the long descending hall and with each few steps I take, a light comes on, lighting the way. After about fifteen minutes, the hall ends at a room, and I pause at the doorway as several lights blink on inside and light up the center where two black stones sit on a raised platform. I make my way to the four foot cubed stones with white writing. I come to this hidden room driven by some unknown force, so what is important about the two stones? I smooth my palm over the right one’s engraved letters. Will they tell me why Pandora didn’t destroy me?

I read the one out loud.

 

“Though the clouds darken the sun,

and the rain becomes tainted,

always know there will be

a love that will not die.

Though hope seems a distant memory,

and human machines walk the land,

know no one can destroy

a love that will not die.

The One constant,

the One unchanging,

the One love.

Put your faith in

the love that will not die.”

 

This is intriguing; this is what Pandora was reciting after I choked her into unconsciousness. What does it mean? I examine the stones and it looks like both of the pieces are part of a larger one, but do both of them belong to the same stone?

I walk around them, decide I will investigate that matter later, and read the other block.

 

“The land has darkened,

hope has fled,

and greed rules.

Finish it!

Call forth the Rushlight.

Open the pathway between.

Bring an end to false gods.

Bring an end to lies,

so usher in the Rushlight,

creature of the void

and Destroyer of…”

 

The rest of the stone has been destroyed, and the writing is missing. Ginn L. Irynkissgthie, are these about Pandora? Is she the Rushlight, and what is she the destroyer of? I put my hand to the stone. Why did I come here? If my purpose is to destroy Pandora, why did I come to this place? The stones tell me of no way to destroy her, so why? Unless, I am not supposed to destroy her. What is it she once said?

I replay the event in my computer’s eye. Pandora said she does not want me dead; she just wants me to stop hunting her. She told me maybe my creators are afraid of me, not because I have feelings, but because I have the potential to disobey my programming.

I pull from the memory. Is that it? Can I disobey my programming? Have I evolved to the next level? I consider it for a moment. Pandora did not want me dead; she said as much, so why do I need to hunt her? I look to the stones and decide I have to know more about the Rushlight and these blocks. I have to find the answers to my questions and now that I have a new purpose, I will stop hunting her. I will see if I have more of a purpose than killing, and I will discover the secrets of Pandora.

 

Chapter Fifty-three

More Puzzles

12:34 P.M…

Hellenistic Sector, Residential Vicinage…

Up on the Nexus Apartments’ rooftop…

 

Katharine’s view…

I feel bad because I’ve kept a secret from Kimberly; it’s a small one but it’s still a secret. I need to be open with my new partner, and how can I do that if I keep things from her? Even if I’m afraid to tell her, I still should. The Tainted Rain ended a short time before I came up to the roof. I grip the railing, glance at my shoulder, and let my thoughts drift away as I dread the task before me. I stare down at the road, watching the Street Sanitizers at work. Several of the robotic cleaners rumble across the avenue and for a few minutes, they distract me from my fears.

How many are there? In Wayfaring Lane, I thought there might’ve been four or five, but here… I count more than a dozen just in this area. A few more minutes pass, and I lean back as I hold on to the railing and let freedom blow over me. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have to worry about the Un-Men finding me. I’m safe, safe to worry about other things, so I study the star on my palm. More and more mysteries pop up with no answers like this thing. I rub my fingers over the red scar, and the burn no longer hurts. How did the mark open the door to the Gallery? What kind of microscopic cipher is imprinted on the star? And why is it on the music box? I place my hand back to the railing and lean on the metal. I asked the hologram, but she didn’t know. I stare at the sky, feeling as gloomy as it looks when the door to the rooftop opens, and Kimberly steps out.

“This is where you went,” Kimberly states as she walks over to me. “What are you doing up here?” She looks down at my feet. “At least you remembered shoes.”

“There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you…” I pause, not sure how to explain, then turn my attention back down to the street.

 

Kimberly’s view…

“Well, what is it?” I question, glancing at her.

Is that woman thinking about what the Rogue said? Is she wondering if she’s organic-mecha? I am, and I’ve been wondering if she knew this fact all along. Could the Guild or the Council that woman keeps mentioning be testing me for some reason?

I also stare down at the street. What if that woman is organic-mecha? What if she found me for some other reason than what she claims? Whatever I do, I can’t let that woman know that I’m thinking this way.

I ask, “It’s not that thing the Rogue told you, is it? I wouldn’t worry. There’s no way you’re one of those organic-mechas.” I lightly smack her on the left arm and laugh to give her a sense that it doesn’t bother me. I want her to think that I don’t believe the possible truth. “You’re too weird to be something programmed.”

 

Katharine’s view…

“Thanks, I think, but it’s not that,” I tell her as I grip my shoulder, wondering what Kimberly will thing of me once she does find out. “It’s…” I start, take a deep breath to continue, but then I chicken out and walk away from the ledge. Our partnership is so fragile… My secret might just shatter it, and a fear of abandonment sweeps over me, chilling me with an arctic blast of doubt and cowardice.

A realization comes to me… Have I already come to rely on Kimberly? I barely know her and yet I feel as though I do. I’m so afraid of what she’ll think of me that I decide against revealing my secret. I don’t know if I can handle her looking at me any different because something’s not right with me.

I give in to my anxieties and tell her, “Never mind.”

“Don’t do that,” she snaps. “Don’t start something and not finish it.” She moves closer to me like we’ve been friends forever, and she’s deeply concern for me. “Tell me what it is. Remember we’re partners, and we’re supposed to trust each other.”

I’m not sure what to do now. I want to forget about it, but Kimberly already knows something’s wrong. I want to trust someone again like I did with Preacher. I’m just afraid I’ll be betrayed like I have been by others. I’m afraid Kimberly will betray me again like she did when she handed me over to the Rogue.

“I’m not sure how to say it,” I admit as those fears keep me from coming out and telling her the truth. I direct our conversation elsewhere by saying, “The past year I’ve learned that I’m the Pandora Project.” My heart fills with dread, knowing what my experiment name means. “You told me Pandora was the woman who doomed the world.”

Kimberly answers, “Yes, I told you that Pandora let all good escape from existence; she had released it from a box.”

“Is that my destiny?” I ask her. “I’m afraid I was created, programmed, or conditioned to destroy.”

 

Kimberly’s view…

That woman is so pathetic. I came all the way up here and all she’s worried about is the name the Council gave her. I feel like pulling out my gun and shooting her. Good thing I didn’t bring it with me.

This thing about her name is bothering her, act or not, and I decide I need to continue my own part as the supportive partner. I still need her for a while, and I can’t have her moping around.

“You’ve got to be kidding. This is what you’re worried about?” I start out. “Come on, there are more things to fear than…”

“Are there?” she interrupts me. “Then why call me Pandora if not to mean doom?”

I stand there gazing at her, not knowing what to say. If this is an act, she’s good, but what if it’s not? What if that woman truly believes she’s to doom the world? I scowl. I can’t have her thinking that way. She’ll be no use to me.

I say, “There’s one thing I didn’t tell you. There’s more to the story. You see, Pandora managed to keep hope in the box. She managed to keep hope in the world.”

“Hope?”

“Yes, hope,” I answer and then I tell her to give that woman a false sense of possibility, “Maybe your destiny isn’t to bring doom but hope. Now…” I move for the door. “If we’re done up here, let’s go inside and order a pizza.” I start in. “I’m starved.”

 

Katharine’s view…

“Kimberly…” I call after her still afraid of exposing my secret.

She turns around and states, “Katharine, like I said, what could be so…”

I blurt out, “My wound… It’s gone. There’s no trace that I was ever shot.”

“What? That’s impossible!” Kimberly exclaims as she walks back over to me and then she demands, “Show me.”

I unzip my jacket, pull the collar of my t-shirt to the side, and show her my unbandaged shoulder. I tense, not knowing how she’ll react. Please don’t think I’m a freak… Please don’t end our partnership and kick me out of the apartment.

She examines my shoulder as she says, “Hades… It is gone, but that’s impossible. When did it happen?”

“I don’t know,” I reply as I can’t tell what she’s thinking. Does she see me as a freak? Is she mentally recoiling from me in disgust?

I add, “It was like this when I awoke at Main One Hospital.”

 

Kimberly’s view…

“This is what you’re worried about?” I chuckle. “Come on.” I put my hand on her shoulder, reassuring her, “With all the technology the corporations have, this isn’t out of the ordinary, so don’t worry.” I force a smile. “Come on, let’s go order that pizza.”

That woman believes I’m not repulsed by her freakishness, and her face brightens as she questions me, “Can we get a Coke to go with it?”

“Coke? I’ve never heard of it, but I’ll ask and if they don’t have it, we’ll get a Crite.”

She runs ahead of me like some child at an amusement park who can’t wait to get on a ride. I follow that strange woman back in, and we go to the elevator. I press button 31, and we make our way down. I stand behind her and stare at her back, wondering what kind of monstrosity lurks inside that woman. I need to be more cautious of her than before, and I need to reconsider this partnership. Robot or mutant… I can’t trust her.

Later we enter Apartment H, and I head for my room as she sits on the couch and turns on the news. I go and sit on my bed and open the drawer of my nightstand and inside lies the marked bullet. For now, I need to keep that woman around; whether organic-mecha or wayward soul, she could still be of some use to me. I chuckle to myself again. If I want to return to work, I’ll have to get rid of her. I remove the 9 mm round and decide I’ll keep the bullet with me from now on. I place Pale Horse in the small zipper compartment of my zipped up hoodie. That woman did see my face, and I can’t let anyone live who knows I’m the Phoenix.

 

In the living room…

Katharine’s view…

Kimberly seems to have accepted me as I am, but what about what the Rogue said to me? I clutch a pillow, paying no attention to the TV. Am I organic-mecha? Am I some sort of freak? I dig my nails into the pillow. What if I am? What if there’s no past for me to find? What then? I glance at the hall. What about my partnership with Kimberly? Will I be able to depend on her or will she kill me when she no longer needs me? I bury my face in the pillow. What does the future hold for me?

 

Kimberly’s view…

I enter the kitchen and glance at the small round table. Nine days ago I sat there, sulking over my pathetic life. I wished that I wasn’t alone, that I had more in this life, and that there would be someone there for me. Now I have more to look forward to like taking my revenge. I walk over to the cupboard and grab a glass. As for my wish… I look to that woman sitting on the couch; I need to be more careful about what I ask for.

She turns to me with a serious expression on her face and when she sees the glass, her face brightens as she questions, “Fixing tea?”

I’m amused by her simplemindedness. She is addicted to tea and for some reason, I want to give her a least a little hospitality before I’m done with her, so I answer, “Sure, put the kettle on and set the table. Make yourself useful.” I place the glass back in the cupboard and grab two tea cups. “The pizza won’t be here for about forty-five minutes.”

That woman turns the TV off and comes into the kitchen.

Some time later…

Lifting her cup, that woman toasts, “Here’s to our partnership. May it be successful.”

I clink my cup to hers. “I’ll drink to that. To a successful future, wherever it takes us.”

Yes… May I be successful in finding who murdered my mom.

 

Chapter Fifty-four

The Star Binds Them

12:40 P.M…

The Chamber…

Mr. Decuma pulled up new bio-data on his laptop. “The Cerberus Project has gone above our expectations; this experiment has surpassed the old project.”

“I do not know about that,” Mr. Morta stated. “We were unable to activate Pandora’s potential.”

Mr. Decuma uttered, “As I thought, one of us has taken a liking to the wayward project.”

Mr. Morta said, “It is not like that.”

“What is it like?” Mr. Decuma asked.

“I believe Pandora is the superior design. We are the ones who failed for not providing a sufficient catalyst. We should have done more.”

Appalled, Ms. Nona questioned, “Our fault?”

“Yes,” Mr. Morta answered. “Maybe we should have told Pandora about its past, then Pandora would not have been so driven to search for the missing pieces.”

A male supervisor handed Ms. Nona a report. “There seems to be a problem with our acquisition of the Factory’s assets; there is one Research Outpost in Antarctica, Vulcan Station, that the T-3s did not attack. If the Sphinx Corporation Main Office finds out part of the Factory has survived, we will have to turn over everything we acquired from the Factory to Vulcan Station.”

Mr. Morta stated, “The situation could be a test for Cerberus. The new project can close the outpost for us, and we can see how Cerberus reacts with the human element.”

“A fine idea,” Ms. Nona said as she curled up her thin cherry-red lips in a grin.

“I agree,” Mr. Decuma replied.

“It is settled then,” Mr. Morta said. “We will send Cerberus to Antarctica.”

  • * *

7:01 P.M…

No setting sun declared the approach of night, and all was black. Darkness lingered, but a glimmer of hope existed. Zax turned his van down an alley beside Dad’s Donuts, activated a garage door, and pulled into the Maydag Auto Garage and within, the place was quiet. All the mechanics had gone home for the day. Zax parked, went to the second storage room, unlocked the door with a key, and went in. Broken equipment and tools along with used oil and other discards filled the cobwebbed shelves, and the place smelled of dust and gas. Zax went to the back wall, looked up at an unlit light, half unscrewed the bulb from the socket, and pulled the chain. The back wall flipped around a hundred and eighty degrees and on the other side, Zax walked along a gray stone passage to a metal door with no knob. Beside the door was a camera and an intercom.

“Identify yourself,” a man’s voice commanded.

Zax looked up into the lens. “Delivery Man.” He waited a few seconds and added, “R.G. wanted to see me.”

The door slid open, and Zax proceeded halfway down a white tiled hall to a glass enclosed security desk and there, three men and a woman monitored security screens. All four were armed, and one of the men waved him up to a bio-detector. Zax went and stood in the device as the man scanned him for life signs.

“Oh, what’s this?” the security officer uttered. “Do I detect a bio-mecha?”

Zax started to answer, “I’m not…”

The security officer interrupted, “Nope, all human. Delivery Man isn’t an Un-Man today. You may proceed.”

Zax mockingly laughed at the snide remark and continued down the hall. The passage ended at a door, and he opened it and entered a dark room. Its center was lit by one single light, and he went and stood in it. Zax waited a few minutes in silence.

A mechanically altered voice of R.G. spoke over an intercom. “Delivery Man, were you able to retrieve the scans I requested?”

“Yes.” Zax cleared his throat. “The two conveniently ordered a pizza, and I was able to intercept the delivery boy and exchange the pizza box with one of mine. Ms. Griffin took the box from the delivery boy and the hidden scanner picked up her Star Cipher.”

“Yes, I know of that one. What of the other?”

He answered, “There was none on her left hand, but there is a Star Cipher on Katharine’s left.”

“That’s most interesting. What does it mean to have two bear the Stars instead of one?” R.G. paused. “They don’t know it yet, but the Stars bind them to a destiny; one I will make sure they fulfill.”

“What kind of destiny?” Zax asked.

“One I’ll tell you in due time. Good work. Continue to monitor the two. I’m most interested in how they will work together, and what they will accomplish. There’s so much for them to do.” R.G. paused and asked, “Did you discover anything else?”

“Yes, before they threw the box away I was able to over hear some of their conversation. Kimberly’s looking for who killed her mom.”

 

R.G.‘s view…

This is most interesting. Did someone tell her or did Kimberly remember the fiery incident on her own?

I ask, “Anything else?”

“One other thing, Katharine has lost her memory; she doesn’t remember anything past a year ago.”

“I was afraid of that,” I state and order, “Set up a surveillance of their residence. I must know more.”

 

Zax’s view…

“Understood, I’ll get on it right away.”

I leave as I consider how the Stars might bind the two to a destiny. Is this a destiny that will help Noir and destroy the Dry Clouds? Or is there something R.G. is hiding from me?

 

Chapter Fifty-five

Arrival at Vulcan Station

9:12 P.M…

At the bottom of the world…

The Vulcan Station resided near the South Geomagnetic Pole at the center of the East Antarctic ice sheet, and it was also located five miles away from where the Dry Clouds’ Curtain ended south. A helicopter flew over the icy land of white and blue, racing a coming snowstorm.

A Council S.C.M. pilot talked to his three passengers on their headsets. “E.T.A. five minutes and once we land, make sure to take everything with you. I’ll be lifting off once you’ve clear the landing pad and won’t be back till this storm clears. It could take me a few more days to return for you than what you planned to stay.” He glanced at the younger of the two men. “Make sure you accomplish your task by then.”

The passengers nodded their understanding and started on their gear. Any part of their body exposed to the frigid elements could freeze. They pulled on their full head and neck cold weather masks made of a soft nylon-coated neoprene, and then the three put on gloves, checked their boot buckles, and zipped up their brown fur-lined, hooded, white parkas. The helicopter landed, and two men and a woman disembarked with bags of equipment and clothes and headed toward the facility. A polar wind hit them the moment they stepped off the aircraft, chilling them to the bone, and they hurried toward the station. Once they cleared the pad, the helicopter lifted off and threw snow on them. The three stopped at the entrance.

The younger man urged, “Hurry, Dr. Seeker, before we freeze out here.”

“I’m going as fast as I can.” The older man placed his right gloved hand on a machine, a thermal scanner read his palm through the material, and the device confirmed his identity. “There, now we can go in.”

The facility’s metal door unlocked, slid up, and then two S.C.Ms. rushed out; they wore dark blue parkas with white fur-lined hoods. They aimed their black FAMAS at the three. The two men and the woman raised their hands as the head of the Vulcan Station followed behind the Corporate Military men; he wore a white parka.

“Dr. John Gelid?” the older man questioned, wondering why they were being treated this way.

“Yes.” The head of the facility offered his gloved hand and shook the older man’s. “And you must be Dr. Robert Seeker.” John motioned for the S.C.Ms. to proceed. “Scan them and make sure they are human then search them and their things.”

“What’s the meaning of this?” Robert demanded as he and his companions lowered their hands.

John smiled, trying to reassure them. “Don’t worry, Dr. Seeker, this is only a precaution; of what we know, we are the only Factory facility still in operation.” The wind whipped the brown fur of his hood. “We have to remain operational till the Sphinx Corporation Main Branch Office can send us in some support, and I’m sorry to say, but the T-3s are very clever.”

A S.C.M. looked around skittishly. “One of those flipped out machines already tried to enter the station two days ago.” He eyed the younger of the two men. “Now isn’t a good day for taking in new recruits.”

“Lieutenant Bentley!” John snapped. “I believe we have frightened our guests quite enough.”

“You might run the station, Dr. Gelid, but security is my responsibility.” Bentley walked over to the younger of the two men. “Who is this, Dr. Seeker?”

“My assistant Charles, Charles Smith. I vouch for him. He’s worked with me for years.”

Bentley snarled at the assistant. “I don’t trust him, so he better be on his best behavior.”

“What’s this?” the other S.C.M. questioned the woman.

“A cigar box.” She opened the ten inch by ten inch container. “Cubans. One of my vices.”

The S.C.M. nodded, seeing the cigars. “All clear.”

“Good, let’s get out of this arctic air.” John waved for the three arrivals to follow him in. “Dr. Seeker, you were supposed to be here days ago.”

“Yes, I’m sorry.” Robert paused to let the woman walk in before him. “There was a hold up getting a pilot and a helicopter to fly us down here.”

The door slid shut once everyone was in, and Bentley locked the door and had the other S.C.M. guard the entrance.

“Well, we’re glad to have you here. I hope our work can help Research Project Clean Air.” John pushed down his hood, removed his mask, and unzipped his parka. He took off the coat, revealing he wore several layers of clothing. “You should find our ice core samples helpful in your research.”

Everyone else removed their cold weather masks.

“It’s what I’m hoping for.” Robert unzipped his coat. “Since the cores contain climate records for almost a million years, I’m confident they will shed some light on the planet’s Dry Cloud problem.” He removed his gloves. “One thing we haven’t been able to explain is why those born in the Dark Half and those that lived there several years can breathe the polluted air without some side effects. There are particles of petroleum and other harmful elements in the air, so why aren’t traces of them found in the blood or lungs of the Dark Half’s residents?” Robert scratched his head. “One of many puzzles like the biggest one of all. What caused the Dry Clouds? They appeared overnight. I guess we won’t solve the mystery so quickly.” Robert glanced around. “Where do we start?”

“Do you wish to rest or at least freshen up first?” John asked.

“No.” Robert rubbed his hands together to warm them. “I would prefer to get to work.”

“Right, then.” John motioned to the lieutenant. “I’ll have Bentley take your things to your rooms, and we can begin.”

Robert nodded and said, “Stephanie.”

The woman stepped forward. “Yes, Dr. Seeker.”

“Go help the lieutenant.”

She grabbed some of their suitcases and followed Bentley and once they were some distance down a hall, she asked, “Do you have much wildlife here? I didn’t see a thing the helicopter ride over.”

Bentley looked annoyed over his bellboy job. “Only the occasional lost Skua; it’s a brown bird.” He glanced at her. “Would there be an extra Cuban in that box of yours?”

“We’ll see. Maybe one.”

They turned a corner.

“This way Dr. Seeker and Mr. Smith.” John walked down a hall, opposite the one the lieutenant went down. “The main lab is this way.”

Before the men followed, a loud noise boomed from the entrance, and the S.C.M. guarding it turned, taking a few steps back as the large door shook. Something hit the entrance again, and the metal door vibrated, toppling ice to the floor. The third, fourth, and fifth hits smashed the side of the door, and the S.C.M. leaped back. Five T-3s stood outside, covered with snow and ice, and they held a six foot battering ram, dropped it, and started through the opening. The S.C.M. shot, and the T-3s evaded his fire. He started to radio for help, but a T-3 shot him in the head.

“Run!” John shouted. “The T-3s have penetrated Vulcan Station!”

 

Chapter Fifty-six

The Takeover of Vulcan Station

Five T-3s smashed their way into the facility, and their searing scarlet dot-light glowed in the ice dust. Bentley and Stephanie ran back down the hall, joining the three men.

“Un-Men have broken in,” Bentley radioed. “Security to the entrance.” He opened fire. “Doctors, run!”

The three men and the woman rushed further into the station and soon, ten S.C.Ms. ran in, passed them, and opened fire on the T-3s. They managed to disable one of them, but lost five of their own, and the remaining four T-3s marched forward.

“Fall back!” Bentley ordered, but before he or his men could react, a metal sphere the size of a golf ball rolled past him toward the T-3s. The sphere halted, glowed, and shrilled. Bentley turned. “A high impact grenade. Get down!”

The blast knocked the S.C.Ms. to the ground and destroyed the T-3s. Bentley peered up as the snow and ice settled. His body felt on fire, and he wasn’t sure what had happened or who threw the grenade.

Stephanie walked past a pile of cigars she’d dropped to the floor; she had removed the Cubans to pull out the hidden explosive. Stephanie moved to Bentley’s side, holding the empty cigar box in one hand and a lit cigar in the other. She placed the box on the ground, put the cigar in her mouth, and picked up an assault rifle from one of his dead men. Stephanie made her way to the T-3s and put a bullet in each of their foreheads and then returned to Bentley’s side.

Blood trickled from his mouth as he started to question, “Why did you…”

“Shh…” She knelt beside him. “Quiet. The Un-Men are dead. Everything will be alright now.”

“Why did you throw the grenade so close to us?” Bentley looked to the other S.C.Ms. “You should have waited till we were clear; you’ve killed them.”

She lightly smacked him on the cheek twice. “I didn’t want to waste the explosive only on the Un-Men. You know the saying, why drop one egg when you can drop two?”

“What? I don’t understand,” he said.

“Maybe you’ll understand this…” Stephanie removed the cigar from her mouth and placed the Cuban in Bentley’s. “One for the road.” She stood and shot him in the heart then made her way to the remaining men.

“Oh my Zeus! Stephanie, what have you done?” Robert questioned.

“What I was told.” She grinned, aimed for Dr. Seeker, then changed aim and shot Charles between the eyes, and the assistant slumped to the floor then blood pooled around his face.

“Hades! She’s here to destroy the station,” John said, backing up against a wall. “I take it you work for the Council?”

“She’s here to kill us?” Robert blurted and shook his head. “No, my work.”

“Yes, I work for the Council,” Stephanie answered. “And I’m here to secure Vulcan Station, but I’m not here to kill you two.”

“You aren’t going to kill us?” Robert sounded relieved.

“No.” She motioned with her weapon for them to go into a small lab, and Stephanie closed and locked the door once they entered and then turned to them. “The Council said to leave you two alive, that your work could be valuable to them.” She leaned the assault rifle against a wall and walked over to a table, and there she found a laser cutter that was used to slice the ice cores into pieces. She tested it on the table, and the laser burned small holes into the top. “But they said nothing about torture.” Stephanie made her way to them.

“Be reasonable,” John said. “If you hurt us, why would we work for the Council?”

“Fear,” she answered.

“Fear?” Robert questioned.

“Yes, fear. Fear I’ll do it again if you do not do as the Council wishes.” She turned the laser on them and seconds later, the men screamed as she began her fun.

  • * *

Somewhere in Noir…

The Chamber…

“Cerberus has completed its mission,” Ms. Nona reported. “With one test, Cerberus has surpassed Pandora.”

“Yes, the new experiment did not hesitate to kill the S.C.Ms. or Charles Smith.” Pleased, Mr. Decuma smiled. “Cerberus did not disobey orders.”

“Yes, a fitting first trial,” Ms. Nona added.

“Pandora never disobeyed,” Mr. Morta retorted. “We never gave it any orders but one. Stay alive, and that it did.”

Mr. Decuma smacked his hand on the table. “You must admit it! Pandora is a failure!” He calmed himself. “It is time for its termination.”

“Yes,” Ms. Nona agreed. “And what better way than to have Cerberus kill Pandora. The test will prove the superiority of the new project.”

Mr. Morta said, “I believe it is premature to eliminate Pandora. We can still learn…”

Mr. Decuma interrupted, “This time you have been out voted.”

“The first time this Council has not been of one mind,” Ms. Nona said. “And hopefully the last.”

“Pandora’s fate is out of my hands.” Mr. Morta nodded to an analyst. “Give Cerberus its orders. The new experiment is to find Pandora and report in.”

The male analyst nodded and relayed the order.

Mr. Morta realized Pandora’s era was coming to an end, and he hoped what little time she had had been put to good use.

 

Chapter Fifty-seven

Prelude to:

Book Two

From Moscow, With Love

9:45 P.M…

Hellenistic Sector, Old Business Vicinage…

Nikolai and Natasha walked into Jack’s Hard Luck Pawn; it was one of many dealers on Wayfaring Lane. They removed their Winnow Masks. The colossal man with a buzz cut wore a black trench coat, and he stood by the front door as his sister proceeded to the owner. Natasha waited till the only other customer left the shop.

With her heavy Russian accent, she started, “I heard you’re the man to see.” Natasha raked her hand through her long black hair.

“What are you looking for?” Jack lit a NicPhake cigarette and took a long drag as he looked her up and down. “Jewelry? Watches?”

“We’re bird hunting,” she replied.

“Bird hunting, you say?” Jack raised a gray eyebrow.

“Yes, a very rare bird.”

“Rare? What are…”

Nikolai moved forward and interrupted the owner, “We arrived from Moscow, and Voice said you could help us.”

“Puck… Why didn’t you say so to begin with?” Jack waved for the two of them to join him behind the counter. “Come with me. I’ve got some stuff in the back that should be to your liking.” He rang a buzzer at a door and waved at the security camera. “You guys look professional; you here to hit anyone I know?”

Natasha and her brother moved behind the counter and stood behind Jack.

She answered, “All you need to know is that a mistake was made.”

Nikolai added, “And we are here to rectify it.”

The door unlocked, and Jack proceeded in as they followed. Five rough looking men stood in the next room; two hung out talking, while the other three cleaned guns. The room fell silent as all five men watched the two outsiders enter.

Impressed by their arsenal, Nikolai stroked his black goatee as he looked around. “You have enough weapons in here to supply a small army.”

“Yeah.” Jack puffed on the cigarette. “I inherited the place from my cousin, Wayne; he was well connected, but couldn’t keep his mouth shut. Pucking looser… His loose lips got him killed.” He took the cigarette out of his mouth and flicked white-pink ash in a Styrofoam cup of old coffee. “What do you need?”

Nikolai answered, “The guns are on this list.”

“And throwing knives,” Natasha interrupted her brother.

Jack took the list, looking it over. “This I can do.” He pointed to two of his guys. “Get what they need.” Jack handed the men the list, turned to a computer, and typed out an invoice.

The two men left and returned a few minutes later, and one of the men walked up to Natasha.

“Which one of these bad boys is for you, babe?” The man patted the guns. “By the way, the name’s Ron.”

“None of those.” She studied the man that was about six inches taller than herself. “The knives are mine; they are my Sweets.”

“Sweets, huh…” Ron handed them to her. “A fine babe like yerself likes to play with sharp things. You like to play with dangerous things. How about we step out for a little while? I’ll show you something dangerous, and maybe something a little sweet.”

Nikolai moved toward the man, and Nikolai stated, “She is not interested.”

Natasha said nothing, knowing what was coming. She removed her white fur-lined black coat, revealing tight fitting red leather pants, vest, and boots. Natasha placed the coat on the back of a chair and inserted a set of throwing knives in a sheathe around each wrist.

“You her boyfriend?” he asked the Closer.

“No,” Nikolai replied. “I am her brother.”

“Stay out of this then,” Ron said. “It’s none of your business.”

Natasha almost felt sorry for the man. If Ron had dropped it; her brother might have only punched him in the mouth.

Nikolai controlled his anger. “She is not interested in the likes of you.”

Ron jabbed his finger in the colossal man’s chest. “You’re her brother, not her mother. Let the babe decide.”

Jack hit the print button on the computer for the invoice. “Don’t do anything stupid, Ron.”

“I know what I’m doing.” Ron caressed her butt. “What do you say, babe?”

The veins in Nikolai’s neck bulged with fury, and his eyes went wild like a mad grizzly bear. With one massive hand, the Russian reached out, grabbed the man by the throat, and choked him. The other men in the room drew their weapons and aimed at the siblings. Ron pulled a Glock 19, and Nikolai grabbed his wrist and squeezed it till Ron released the gun, and it hit the floor.

“Wait!” Jack cried out to his men and motioned with his hands. “Put your guns down.” Sweat beaded his face, fearing the situation would get out of hand. “You don’t know who these two are. If Voice sent them… Well… They’ll kill you.” He swallowed hard. “Puck! They’ll kill all of us.”

His men reluctantly complied as Nikolai continued to choke Ron. Natasha put her coat back on.

“You do not touch my sister in an impertinent way. No one treats my sister that way.”

The man clawed Nikolai’s arm, unable to breathe, and his eyes bugged out.

“Please, be reasonable,” Jack pleaded. “Puck, let him go, and he can apologize.”

“No.” Nikolai squeezed harder, and the veins in his hand bulged. “I warned him, so I offer no mercy.”

Natasha walked over to her brother and rubbed her hand up and down his back. She moved to Ron, leaned to him, and whispered in his ear, “From Moscow, with love.” Natasha nodded to her brother, and Nikolai forcibly turned the man’s head toward her. She French kissed Ron as he clawed at her brother’s arm. She finished, stepped back, and said, “We will have to write up extra paperwork on your death, but I am pleased, and that will make it worth it.”

Ron’s eyes rolled back, Nikolai released his corpse, then reached down, and picked up the Glock 19. “His weapon is now mine.” He tucked the gun in the back waistband of his pants.

Natasha looked down at the dead man and smiled. “You had asked me a question. You wanted to know what I say; I say you should have listened to my brother.” She turned to Jack. “How much do we owe you for the weapons?”

Unable to say anything as he stared at the dead man, Jack handed her the invoice with a shaky hand.

She stated, “Voice will have the funds in your account by tonight.”

Still shocked, Jack nodded.

Natasha and her brother headed out with the guns in two large duffle bags and once they were outside, they put their Winnow Masks on and checked the streets for police. They placed the duffle bags in the trunk of their black Cadillac. He unzipped one, removed a case, and opened the container.

“Finally, I have Tommy.” Nikolai smooth his hand across a machine gun. “And I can be the Hood I dreamed of being.”

She rolled her eyes. “Whatever makes you happy. Now come and let us be on our way.”

He put the machine gun back and within a few minutes, they got into the car and took off their masks. Nikolai removed the trophy he took off of Ron and placed the Glock 19 in the glove box.

“Let us hurry with our assignment.” Natasha glanced out the passenger side window at the darkness surrounding the city. “I grow to hate this place.”

Her brother pulled the car out into traffic. “Our final task is four days away and once we have killed the Phoenix, we can leave Noir.”

“Voice is as forgiving as you, my brother. Voice must never be crossed.”

“Yes,” her brother agreed. “We must always complete our assignments with no hesitation and with no remorse. Our hearts must not rule our minds or our actions. In our line of business, it can only bring death.”

The End

Shades of Gray #2

From Moscow, With Love

Kristie Lynn Higgins

 

SHADES OF GRAY: From Moscow, With Love

 

Text Copyright © 2007, 2016 by Kristie Lynn Higgins

 

Cover Art Copyright © 2014

Shakespir Edition

Beta Phase Ebook Edition

 

 

www.KristieLynnHiggins.com

 

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by an information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

Introductions

This series uses a mixture of omniscient past tense and first person present tense to tell the story of Shades of Gray. I have used bold to separate the first person from the omniscient. Enjoy the series.

Rise above the expectations of others.

Soar on wings of dragons.

AabiLynn’s Dragon Rite #0

Click below to Try It Out

www.kristielynnhiggins.com/DR0.html

 

 

Beauty and the Beast with a delightful twist.

What if the woman was the one turned?

Beauty of the Beast #1

Click below to Try It Out

www.kristielynnhiggins.com/BOTB1PartA.html

 

 

The Fairy Tales You Know With A Wicked Twist.

The Beast in Beauty and the Beast

was never cursed in this way.

Click below to Try It Out

www.kristielynnhiggins.com/AaBack1.html

 

[++]

 

What would you sacrifice to save your friends?

Can loyalty and love defeat darkness?

Ayann- A Fantasy Action Adventure

Click below to Try It Out

www.kristielynnhiggins.com/Ayann-1-PartA.html

 

 

I have glimpsed into the future and seen a world of darkness and sorrow. It was a place where the clouds hid the sun and human machines walked and terrorized the land, but there was nothing darker or more horrifying than the hearts of those who lived there.

 

Will no one save them?

 

Translated from the Assembled Works

Ginn L. Irynkissgthie

525 B.D.C.

Chapter One

The Raven And the Wolf

The year 32 A.D.C…

October 22…

Friday…

6:23 A.M…

Hellenistic Sector, Residential Vicinage…

The blackness of night hung over the early morning as mile-thick Dry Clouds shrouded Noir’s sky, and they hung over the city like a sleeping dragon. They were a sleeping dragon that the Earth feared one day would wake and devour them; so far, no magic of science could stop the beast. Purple lightning lit up the heavens, but the density of the barriercumulus muffled the thunder as a Common Raven flew below the clouds, dove into a park, and landed on a branch of a Transgenic Maple. Scattered lamps lit up the dark empty paths surrounding the tree as a cold wind rustled the blades of the spongy Transgenic Grass that surrounded the truck’s base and the hybrid maple’s leaves. The breeze then died. The large bird heard a twig snap and tilted its head, staring at a bush as a pale-white Tundra Wolf emerged and looked up with its golden-yellow eyes at the raven. Their gazes locked.

Across the street from the park…

A black Cadillac stopped at a curb, and Nikolai got out of the driver’s side; he was dressed in a white pin striped gray business suit and wore a WM-A. He placed a gray Fedora hat on his head, smoothed its rim, straightened a white tie, and shut the door.

Natasha exited the passenger’s side, and she also wore a filter mask. Natasha, a Life Closer like her twin brother, inhaled through the triangular filter over her nose and exhaled through her mouth. She looked to the old apartments in front of them then to the park across the street, and then Natasha removed her white fur-lined, long, black coat, revealing a tight fitting red leather outfit. It consisted of pants, a vest, and high heel knee boots. She threw the coat in the back seat, grabbed a black leather satchel from the front floor, and closed the door. She checked on her throwing knives’ sheaths that were velcroed to each wrist.

“My Sweets…” Natasha spoke as she caressed the blades on her left wrist with her index finger. “Ready for some action?”

Natasha made her way to the back, joining her brother as Nikolai popped the trunk with a remote, lifted a case, and set it on the sidewalk.

He removed his mask and asked, “How does it look?”

His sister glanced up and down the deserted street and then answered, “It is clear.”

Natasha replaced the WM-A to her face. He set his mask in the trunk, holstered a Glock 25, grabbed the mask, closed the trunk, and picked up the case.

She motioned to the case and spoke, “I cannot believe you are going to use that thing.” Her Russian accent clung to every word as she added, “It is ancient.”

Nikolai patted the case as he said, “Tasha, I like it for this kind of job.”

“You mean the kind of job where it does not matter how messy it gets. Remember my brother, this is still a Life Closing, so please be professional.”

“I always am.”

Nikolai winked at her and started up a gravel path, crunching over rocks with his black cap toe shoes. He made his way to the apartment’s entrance and entered the glass front door and once inside, they both removed their WM-A, he handed his to his sister, and Natasha placed both of them in her satchel. He waited by the door as she continued in, and he watched over her as she neared the security desk.

A security guard in his early thirties looked up from the desk and stood, seeing the tall woman, and his gaze slowly ran up her tall leggy figure before he asked, “Can I help you?”

He adjusted his pants and his belt and holster, made his way to the front of the desk, and approached her. Natasha leaned to him and whispered something Nikolai couldn’t hear, the guard grinned as he spoke back to her in muffled words Nikolai couldn’t understand, and then he saw his sister giggle. The guard leaned on the desk and continued to talk as Natasha glanced back and saw that her brother was watching them intently and then she placed her hand on the guard’s arm. Nikolai noticed the lustful eye the guard gave his sister and scowled as his body ignited with rage. He put the case down, marched forward, pulled his Glock as jealousy spurred his hand, and he fired once, hitting the man in the knee and with gleeful pleasure, he watched the guard fall and grab his leg, squirming in pain like the worm he was.

“Brother! What are you doing?” Natasha asked as she folded her arms, knowing that once his temper erupted there was no stopping him. She would have to talk him down before they could proceed, and so was her duty as his sister and partner. “We were not ordered to kill security.”

“Did you see how he looked at you?” Nikolai questioned her as he marched to the man like a crazed bear. “I will gouge out his eyes and rip off his bollocks!”

She ran her fingers through her long hair, continuing to talk him down, but not before she teased him into a frenzy; it was already too late for the guard, so she might as well enjoy his death.

“I am a beautiful woman.” She grabbed both of her breasts and massaged them with her hands as she inquired, “What do you expect? He only wanted to fondle me, he said so; he also said that he wanted to take me to plains of ecstasy.”

“He said that?!” Nikolai yelled as his sister slowly walked over to him. “No one will look at you like that or say such things to you!” He fired a round into the man’s heart, killing him and then turned, looking for others he could murder.

Natasha looked to the dead man. His death had been a little too quick for her taste. Maybe the Closing upstairs would satisfy her morbid lust, and she said, “The guard never said that to me.” She ran her fingers up her brother’s massive arm to his back, and then she wrapped her arms around his waist, gripping him tightly in the front as she whispered, “How many times must I tell you that you cannot kill every man that glances at me?” She moved to the front of him and placed both her hands on his face. “There will be many, and you cannot kill all of them.” Natasha saw his eyes bulge out in rage as they searched the area for more vile men he could kill.

“But he…” Nikolai started till his sister leaned in and kissed him on the lips. The rage seething in him lessened, and he relaxed as he adoringly looked at his sister and kissed her back. She finished, and he told her, “I am sorry; I lost myself again.”

“It is fine, but do not let it happen…”

A second guard exited an elevator, interrupting her and when the guard saw that Nikolai had killed his partner, the guard dropped his coffee and pulled his Python 4 revolver as he blurted, “Hold it right there!”

As the guard covered her brother, Natasha reached for her left wrist, pulled a knife from the sheath, threw it, and hit the man in the throat. The guard fired as he grabbed at the steel in his wind pipe, and the wild shot hit the glass front door and shattered it. Shards rained, pinging to the tiled floor as the guard dropped his weapon and collapsed to his knees. He choked on his blood as he pulled a radio.

Natasha walked over to him and kicked his revolver away as he tried to use the radio but only made gurgling sounds. He was lying on his back, so she sat on his stomach, looked at him with pity, covered his eyes with her left hand, and told him, “Do not look; the pain will be over soon.” Natasha leaned to his ear and whispered, “From Moscow, with love. Now I will give you the Executioner’s Adieu.”

She moved to his lips as blood bubbled from them and French kissed him, tasting a mixture of coffee and metallic saliva. He fought her erotic oral assault and dropped the radio to grab her arm and push her off, but before he could, she removed the knife from his wind pipe. Blood spurted her face and neck, and she arched back stimulated by the red gore and uttered a soft moan as her body tingled. Aroused by the blood, she watched as the guard held his throat, trying to prevent his own demise.

Natasha waited till he died, wiped the knife on his shirt, cleaning off his blood, and sheathed the blade, and then she leaned to his ear and whispered to him as uncalloused as she could, “I am sorry. You were not meant to die, but you should know that I did enjoy your death.” She stood, took one more moment to look at the man, walked to her brother, and berated him, “Look what has happened. We will have to file extra reports, and you know how I hate excess work. Not only that…” She glanced back at the second guard and then turned to her brother, questioning him, “How are we going to explain your actions to Voice and the Assassins Guild? You needlessly killed the first guard. He would not have stopped us from going up.”

He hung his head like a scolded child, replying, “I do not know.”

“We will say the guard tried to stop us and that you had to shoot him, and the second guard saw us kill his partner, and we had to kill him also. But you cannot keep doing this. Voice will find out.”

“If that happens, we will become marked for Closing like the Phoenix.”

“Yes, like the Phoenix,” Natasha repeated as she smiled at her sulking brother. “Now cheer up; you still have your new toy to play with.”

“You are right.” He went, picked up the case, and said, “Come, Tasha.” He entered an elevator, pressed button thirty-one, and added, “Let us go blip off the bird.”

Puzzled by what her brother meant by his statement, she raised a black eyebrow, followed, and said, “Remember the Closing File states we keep collateral damage to a minimum.”

“A minimum, not zero.”

“Please do not kill anyone outside of the apartment.” The elevator started up as she removed a gold compact and a white silk handkerchief from her satchel. She looked into the mirror and wiped some of the splatter from her face and neck as she said, “If we go out later, I will have to clean up. The guard is all over my face.” She placed both items back into her satchel, the cab opened, and the two of them walked out as she asked, “What apartment number are we looking for?”

Nikolai removed a H.H.C. from his suit pocket as they walked from the end of the hall, and he looked at the numbers on the doors before they passed them and stopped. “This is the one.”

She noticed a dark crack beneath the door and whispered, “The lights are out; they are probably still sleeping. Do you want to knock?”

“Knock? No, not with this heat.” He patted the case, set it on the floor, opened it, and removed a Thompson Submachine Gun. “This bean-shooter announces itself.”

“Of all the people to idolize, you had to pick 1930’s gangsters.”

“Every gink needs a hobby. I happen to be good at two.”

Natasha said, “Half the time, I do not know what you are saying.”

Nikolai winked at her, stood back, shot several rounds into the frame near the knob, and kicked in the splintered door. Light from the hallway rushed into the apartment as he proceeded down an entry, and an armed man appeared at the dark end. Nikolai fired, dropping the man and headed into the pitch black living room. He heard two men whispering, and Nikolai yelled like a maniac and wildly shot in their direction as gun blast lit up his smirking face. The men who were hiding behind a couch fired a round apiece and missed him before the Tommy sliced through the sofa and cut them down. Nikolai flipped on a light, retrieved his case, and reloaded, then he headed down a hallway, and kicked in the master bedroom door. The light was on, and a man was in bed with two women. The man had pulled an Olympic 6 revolver from a night stand.

“I’ll blow your head off!” the man threatened.

The women squealed, covering themselves with the sheet, and one of them asked, “Vicky, is this another one of your sick games?”

“No, babe, not this time.” He aimed the revolver and cursed, “Puck! I don’t know who this guy is.” He snarled and yelled, “I’m Vic the Vulture. You don’t know who yer messing with! I’ve a contract with the Valhalla Corporation.” The man shot at him as he yelled, “I’m under their protection!”

The bullet grazed Nikolai’s shoulder and in anger, he grabbed the gun from Vic and pistol whipped him. One of the women screamed and covered her face with her hands as Nikolai continued to hit the man. He finished and threw Vic’s gun across the room.

Nikolai pointed the Tommy up, put one foot on the bed, and leaned toward Vic as he spat, “Here’s the wire, lug. Your Chicago overcoat has done been fitted.”

Vic grabbed his bloodied cheek as he asked, “What are you blabbering about, you mother-pucker? What you’re saying doesn’t make any sense. All I know is yer dead! Dead when the corporation finds out you messed with me!”

“Shut your trap! Your yap’s why I’m here. Your so called friends at Valhalla found out that the trade secrets you were supposed to be brokering for them, you’ve also been selling off to other corporations.” Nikolai’s demeanor changed from one of a wise guy to a serious Life Closer as he spoke, “Victor L. Boons also known as Vic the Vulture, on behalf of Valhalla, I am terminating your contract.”

“Wait! You can’t! They can’t! Puck! It’s a mistake. I’ve only sold to Valhalla!”

“It is no use lying to me. They have audio evidence that you did it.”

“I… I can explain. Let me get their Vice President on the phone.”

“Did you not read your contract with them?” Nikolai shook his head, irritated by the man’s ignorance and said, “You should have read it more closely. By signing, you agreed to the Life Closer Clause should you violate the contract, and there are no second chances.” He glanced at the two hookers. “It is a pity these two women are here; they would not have to die, if they had not seen my face.” Nikolai opened up one last volley, and the women screamed. White goose down flew up from the dozens of bullet impacts in the mattress, and the feathers fell like snow, landing on the three bodies and blood slowly tainted the down as Nikolai added, “As stipulated, your employment has been terminated.”

“My turn has finally come,” Natasha said as she walked into the bedroom behind Nikolai. She had already secured the rest of the apartment. Natasha watched as Vic gasped, clinging to life then she walked over to him, bent down, and whispered in his ear, “From Moscow, with love. Now I will give you the Executioner’s Adieu.” Natasha French kissed him and as she intertwined her tongue with his, Vic died. She straightened, wiping blood from her lips with her index finger. “The Closing was most enjoyable.” Natasha turned, saw her brother’s wound, and scolded him, “Look at you. I hope you are happy.” She examined the minor shoulder graze. “See what you get for wanting to play with your toy. You could have used a hand gun with a silencer.” She glanced at the man in bed whose glassy eyes stared up at the ceiling. “If you had, Vic the Vulture would not have even known you were here, but you wanted to go all Al Ca-put.”

Nikolai pointed the Tommy gun up again as if posing for a picture. “He was named Al Capone, and it was worth it, my sister. I do feel like a gangster.” He smoothed his fingers across the rim of his Fedora as he spoke, “Place our calling card, so we may leave before Noir Civil Police Force is called in. Dealing with the N.C.P.F. could be time consuming, so let our calling card talk for us.”

She nodded, walked over to Vic, and placed a business card of a wolf and raven on his chest. A barcode printed on the bottom of the card included the Life Closers’ information, and the N.C.P.F. would use this card to verify the killings were Life Closings, not murders.

“We only have one more assignment to complete, then we can leave this wretched Dark Half.”

“Yes, my sister. We only need to bop the Phoenix, and we can return home to Mother Russia.”

“It will not be so easy,” Natasha said. “We do not know what the Phoenix looks like. Is this Life Closer a man, woman, or child? All we have is an appointed time and place for the Closing from Voice to find the Phoenix,” she paused and then added, “And I do wish you would stop talking that way. Honestly, I do not know what you meant when you said you want to bop the Phoenix; it kind of had a sexual connotation, which I hope you did not intend.”

“No.” His face reddened. “I did not mean…”

She put her hand under his chin, reached up, and kissed him on the cheek. “Come then, I am famished. We will clean up, and I will tend to your shoulder and after that is done, we can see what fine delights Noir has to offer.”

 

Chapter Two

A Past Mistake

Nineteen days earlier…

October 3…

Wednesday…

6:01 P.M…

Russia…

The end of the day swept across Moscow’s Red Square as hundreds of tourists visited St. Basil’s Cathedral, GUM department store, the Historical Museum, and many other attractions. The clear western sky exploded with hues of orange and red as the sun started its descent. Twilight approached this part of the Light Side of the planet; it was a place where the sun existed, separating day from night. Dry Clouds didn’t pollute the air or obscure the heavens, and darkness didn’t rule the land. Though, eventually even this part of the world would be covered if the Dry Clouds were not stopped; they spread about an inch every week.

Ten days before meeting Kat, Kim walked out of GUM department store and put on sunglasses before stepping out into early evening, protecting her eyes. A native of the Dark Half of the planet, the sun’s light hurt her even near the twilight hours. She pulled back her blonde hair, tied it in a pony tail, buttoned up her long dark gray coat, and pulled on black gloves. Kim straightened a black knapsack slung over one shoulder as she noticed a woman holding a little girl in her arms and grinned. She had fond memories of her own mother that was until Kim turned eighteen. Her mother had left her and her father without a word nearly twenty years ago; at this time, Kim hadn’t yet discovered the truth about Theresa. Kim made her way out of Red Square and hurried to Kalancheveskaya Street and to the rooftop of the Leningradskaya Hotel, making sure no one saw her. The sun plunged over the horizon, and darkness flooded the sky as she removed her sunglasses and placed them in the pocket of her coat. Kim pulled on a knit mask to hide her identity, not that she expected anyone to see her. She inhaled deeply, filled her lungs with the brisk air, and exhaled. Her hot breath appeared as mist. Winter would be there soon. The air smelled clean unlike Noir’s, and it energized her and made her feel more alive. She waited for two hours near the ledge, kept to the shadows, and monitored the lit sidewalk below with binoculars. She glanced up at the cloudless night.

 

Kimberly’s view…

Stars… They’re so bright, and to think Noir’s sky once looked like this.

End Kimberly’s view…

 

She placed her knapsack near the ledge, moved to a different part of the roof, and pulled out a large case a Guild Prep/Cleanup Crew hid the day before. Kim removed the sections of a M24 and put the sniper rifle together then went to the ledge and peered down the block through the scope; her target would leave the tea house within the hour. Many people went in and out of bars, eateries, and stores. Kim glanced at her watch, saw it was time, placed a silencer on the rifle, and knelt beside the ledge. Peering through the scope, she aimed at the entrance of the tea house. She removed a H.H.C. from her coat pocket, opened up the Closing File on the touch screen, and studied the picture of the Mark. Voice had told her the target would be leaving around this time, so all she had to do was wait.

Minutes turned into an hour, and soon a woman walked out of the tea house along with four armed bodyguards. Kim aimed for the woman’s heart, waiting for a clear shot as people walked by on the sidewalk. A limo pulled up, and one of the bodyguards moved to the vehicle and opened the back door. She put her finger to the trigger, ready to pull it, when the target paused and turned. A little girl ran out of the tea house and took the woman’s hand; the child held something. Kim glanced up from the scope.

 

Kimberly’s view…

Voice said nothing about the woman having a child. Hades! It should have been included in the Closing File.

End Kimberly’s view…

 

She peered back through the scope, taking aim again and Kim placed her finger back on the trigger. The woman and the child walked forward to enter the limo and paused as the little girl knelt to tie her shoe. The child laid an object on the sidewalk, grabbed her laces, and tied them.

 

Kimberly’s view…

My hands tremble, so I remove my finger from the trigger. Hades! What’s wrong with me? I’m acting like this is my first kill, but that happened years ago; I have long since harden my heart to my work. I take several deep breaths till my hands stopped shaking and then I place my finger back to the trigger. I can’t let whatever’s affecting me to get in the way; I need to take the shot.

End Kimberly’s view…

 

The child laughed and after finishing with her laces, the child picked up the object. She glanced up at her mother with adoration.

 

Kimberly’s view…

I berate myself as I delay in taking the shot. It’s my job; I have to kill the woman. For Ares’ sake! It doesn’t matter if the child’s watching. My usual calm heart pounds with indecision. I can’t let the thought of the child seeing her mother murdered affect me. Even in the cool air, sweat speckles my brow beneath the mask and absorbs into the material. I aim again, and this time I won’t hesitate.

End Kimberly’s view…

 

A street vender approached, selling glowing balloons.

 

Kimberly’s view…

Hades! Pull the trigger! Who cares what happens to the little girl? I look up from the scope, thinking of my past. Look how I turned out without a mom. I shake my head to erase the feelings of abandonment, peer one last time into the scope and with shaky resolve, pull the trigger.

A balloon pops…

 

Chapter Three

Picking Up From Where We Left Off

Present time…

October 22…

Friday…

12:56 P.M…

Noir…

Hellenistic Sector, Commercial Vicinage…

 

Katharine’s view…

A dim light illuminates a back alley as I glance around a corner of an old brick building and peer at the end of a deserted road. A ten foot chain link fence surrounds the back entrance of our destination. The wind blows a newspaper along the bottom of the barrier, changes direction, and flattens the debris against the diamond mesh. The newspaper flaps in the breeze before the wind tumbles it further down the road. I look within the fence and see a S.C.M. sitting in a guardhouse, reading a Guns&Knives magazine, and drinking coffee; every ten minutes or so, he looks up from his reclined position. I imagined this place having better security as I glance at a scrap piece of paper; it’s the address the hologram Theresa Griffin gave us. I sigh, disappointed with the defense and the rundown appearance of the building. It has to have some information about the Pandora Project or did I get my hopes up just to find a load of crap?

Kimberly stands beside me and peers through night vision binoculars. She wears her all black work outfit consisting of thin gloves, a tank top, jogging pants, running shoes, and a zipped up hooded sweatshirt. I’m wearing my usual white t-shirt, a gray-black athletic jacket, and gray-black pants.

“What do you see?” I ask her.

 

Kimberly’s view…

“What?” I question her. “Don’t you have super vision?”

I reluctantly partnered with that strange woman four days ago, and I’m still uneasy about the collaboration. There’s something about her; there’s something I can’t put my finger on. Hades! I hate this; I was told she’s the Key, but to what? I glance up from the binoculars. And what about what the Rogue said? Is that woman organic-mecha?

 

Katharine’s view…

Seeing the mistrust in Kimberly’s face, I know the snide remarks are her way of keeping herself at arms length. When will she believe in my sincerity to help her or is it something else that’s putting her on edge? Does she think I’m a freak? Is that why she can’t trust me? I know one thing, our partnership’s going nowhere.

I finally answer her, “No, I don’t have super vision. All I see is the soldier.”

“There’s nothing else to see,” Kimberly says as she hands me the binoculars.

I peer through them and see the S.C.M., the guardhouse, and the loading dock behind the small building. He wears a dark green uniform, and his shoulder patch has the Sphinx Corporation Emblem with the Council’s Crest. The S.C.M. confirms it; this place belongs to the Council, but is it a lab? On the top part of the large building is written, _*Etna Toys Distribution Station Bravo._ *I hand the binoculars back.

“Let’s go to work,” Kimberly tells me as she places the binoculars in the knapsack, removes a metal object, pulls her gun from a shoulder holster, and screws the silencer on her PPK.

I ask, “What are you doing?”

 

Kimberly’s view…

“For Ares’ sake! What does it look like I’m doing?” I snap as I glance at her.

I don’t see anything special about her. She’s plain looking with hazel eyes and short brown hair, so what is she? Is she a weapon? And why is one of the departments in the Sphinx Corporation after her? All I know is if she’s important to them, they won’t let her go so easily. Maybe I should end our partnership before it causes me anymore grief after all, I can’t let anyone live who knows I’m the Phoenix. Anonymity is life, so why wait?

I consider it a few seconds more and decide if I want to investigate the building, I’ll need that woman, so I’ll allow her to live a little longer until her negative points outweigh her usefulness.

As if my actions are a normal everyday thing, I point at the guard with my gun and answer her stupid question, “I’m going to take out that S.C.M. and go into that building. I’m going to see why this address was in the file labeled the Gorgons.”

End Kimberly’s view…

 

“You can’t,” Kat said, keeping her voice down so not to alert the S.C.M. “Killing’s wrong. Sheez… Everybody knows that.”

“For Ares’ sake… Of course it’s wrong,” Kim whispered. “But how else are we going to get in? Hades! I can’t believe we’re arguing about this. Actually…” Her anger increased. “I can’t believe I’m letting you stop me from doing what I normally do.” Kim pushed her up against the wall and told her, “Now listen… I’m a Closer and this is what I do.” She released her, started around the corner, then Kat grabbed her arm, and Kim glared at her.

Kat felt her stare bore right through her as if it were a laser, and she released her wrist and said, “That doesn’t make it right. Please, don’t kill him.” In a gentler tone, she added, “There are other ways.”

“Other ways?” Kim scoffed and pointed toward the corner. “Show me then.” She dared her, “Show me how you’re going to get us in without him sounding an alarm.”

“Watch me,” Kat said as she took on the challenge. “Maybe you’ll learn something.” She removed her single strap backpack, opened it, and pulled out a Gel-Taser; it was a device that resembled a mini TV remote. Kat also removed a dog collar and then dropped the backpack to the ground. She tucked the oblong silver Gel-Taser in her back pocket, walked around the corner, and started whistling. “True! Here boy! Come here! Mommy’s looking for you. True!” She walked up to the gate and spoke meekly, “Excuse me.”

Seeing her approach, the S.C.M. put his magazine and coffee down, grabbed the XM8, and came out to the entrance. He kept the assault rifle at the ready and peered through the chain link fence.

Kat acted hopeful as she questioned, “Have you seen a dog?”

“No.” He relaxed his grip on the XM8 as he answered her, “I haven’t seen one.” The S.C.M. eyed her, decided she wasn’t a threat, and slung the assault rifle. He removed his cap and ran his hand through his short hair as he suggested, “Maybe you should try around Joe’s Diner. His dumpster attracts hungry animals.”

 

Back at the corner…

Kimberly’s view…

I can’t believe it; that woman walked right up to him. I let my amazement fade away. So what if she’s able to talk with the soldier without setting off any alarms. The real question is can she get us in?

End Kimberly’s view…

 

At the fence…

Kat glanced at the dog collar and back to him and then said, “I don’t know where the diner is located. Could you give me directions?”

“Yeah. Hold on.” He went into the guardhouse and came back with a Hellenistic Sector, Commercial Vicinage map. The S.C.M. pointed to the paper. “We’re here. Joe’s up there. First, go back down the alley you came up, then…”

She stepped closer to the fence, scratched her mid-back, and slowly removed the Gel-Taser and with her thumb, she flipped off the safety at the bottom of the weapon that was below a large red button, palmed the small device, and moved her hand to the fence. Kat carefully aimed, pressed the red button, fired a green jelly string through the diamond mesh, and hit the man in the neck. The end of the gel substance clumped on impact, it formed an acorn size circle and adhered to his skin, and the rest of the string dangled still attached to the Gel-Taser. She pressed the large red button again as the S.C.M. grabbed at the string, and 1,500 volts surged through the jelly. He cried out, convulsed, and fell to the ground unconscious as she looked around, making sure no one saw her, then hit a blue button that recoiled the string. Kat set the safety, tucked the Gel-Taser back in her pocket, and climbed the fence.

 

Back at the corner…

Kim holstered her gun, ran up as she buzzed open the gate, and handed Kat her bag. “Have you done this before?” she asked as she helped Kat drag the man into the guardhouse.

“Actually, a couple of times,” Kat replied as she took his keycard. “He’ll be out at least two hours.” She placed the Gel-Taser in her backpack and the keycard in her back pocket.

Kim glanced at her watch and said, “Let’s get inside and see what we find.” A little impressed by Kat’s tactics, she added, “See how far we can get without killing someone.”

 

Chapter Four

The Council

1:19 P.M…

Hellenistic Sector, Unknown Vicinage…

The new Sanctum…

Within the Chamber…

“Come on people!” a male supervisor barked. “You’re behind on your one o’clock reports. Let’s get them in.” After a few minutes, he scanned over a H.H.C. and moved to one of the twenty-four analysts. “You’re the last one. What’s the hold up?”

“It’s these readings from the new project. There was so much to compile that–” the male analyst started, “–I didn’t leave enough time to write out the report. I won’t make the same mistake again.”

“The Council doesn’t tolerate inefficiency or errors.”

“I know, but like I said, I discovered my miscalculation.” The analyst sent in his report. “It won’t happen again.”

“Make sure it doesn’t,” the supervisor said as he went back to walking the line of workstations.

 

In the center of the Chamber…

The Council sat at a long rectangular table that was the darkest point of the room, and the laptops and H.H.Cs. were the only things that illuminated the immediate area. The Council monitored many black projects and on this day, they monitored one experiment in particular. Mr. Morta a tall man with a stout built sat at the head of the table.

The door to the Chamber opened, and light from the hallway revealed Ms. Nona was a slim lilliputian and dwarfed Mr. Morta’s frame. She sat to his right on a specially designed chair that raised her to the table.

Ms. Nona turned to her laptop and stated, “We are receiving a report from Cerberus.” She typed across the keyboard with her cherry-red nails. “Vulcan Station is now in our hands. Two of our squads of Sphinx Corporate Military have already arrived in Antarctica, and the S.C.Ms. have taken over the base.”

“Good, good,” Mr. Morta said. “Vulcan Station was the last Factory facility in operation, and now the acquisition of our sister department’s assets is complete.” He paused and asked, “What of the two scientists at Vulcan Station?”

Mr. Decuma was a meager man of average height, and he sounded disappointed when he replied, “Cerberus did not kill them as instructed, but…”

Mr. Morta demanded, “But what?”

Mr. Decuma answered, “Well…”

When he hesitated, Ms. Nona replied, “Dr. John Gelid and Dr. Robert Seeker were injured.”

“How?” Mr. Morta questioned.

“Cerberus tortured them with a laser cutter,” Mr. Decuma answered. “Both men have severe burns. They have been flown back and are recuperating in our medical facility.”

Mr. Morta stated, “It would appear we need to be more precise in our instructions. We did want the cooperation of the scientists.” He paused and questioned, “Where is Cerberus now?”

“It is flying back to Noir.” Ms. Nona looked to the clock on the laptop. “Cerberus should arrive within a few hours.”

Mr. Morta thought for a moment and asked, “How is Argus? I would like him to monitor Cerberus.”

“He is still receiving care,” Mr. Decuma said. “The injuries he received from the T-3s when they tortured him were not life threatening. He should be ready to return to work in a few days.”

“Did he give up any information about our work or the Sanctum?”

“He says no,” Mr. Decuma answered. “He said that they were rescued before he broke.”

“They?” Mr. Morta was puzzled for a moment. “Ah, yes. The two Factory technicians we acquired. Tech One-eleven and Tech One-twelve. What are their names?”

“Peters and Maxwell,” Mr. Decuma answered. “We never did find out who rescued them. The men are closed mouth about it.”

“Do you believe Argus divulged any information?” Mr. Morta asked.

“No,” Mr. Decuma replied. “We did condition him to withstand pain. The T-3s may have broken him with time, but not in the short span that they had him. They had him three days to be precise.”

Ms. Nona questioned, “What intel do we have on the T-3s?”

“The operatives we had following them turned up dead.” Mr. Decuma scanned another H.H.C. “The last report we received from them stated they had left the Hellenistic Sector of Noir.”

“Create a new team,” Mr. Morta commanded. “The T-3s must be found. We cannot have these machines on the loose. One Rogue is enough.”

Mr. Decuma went to work on the task and pulled up personnel files and after several minutes, he started compiling a new team.

Ms. Nona’s laptop beeped, and she opened the incoming message. “I have received a new report; Cerberus has stated its excitement.”

“Over what?” Mr. Morta questioned. Cerberus was experiencing a full range of emotions, and he knew this was good.

“Over tracking and eliminating the Pandora Project,” Ms. Nona answered and then bit her left thumb nail as she continued to study the data.

Mr. Morta sounded concerned as he inquired, “Does Cerberus understand it is not to terminate Pandora?”

“Yes,” Ms. Nona answered as she moved her hand back to the laptop. “Cerberus anticipates the order will be given to take out Pandora, and it indicates it will study Pandora, so it will be better equipped to eliminate the old project.”

Mr. Decuma questioned Mr. Morta, “Why do you hesitate in giving the termination order?”

“The Pandora Project’s tracking beacon was destroyed, but we still receive bio-data from Pandora.” Mr. Morta felt Mr. Decuma was suspicious of his recent actions, and tried to put his mind at ease by explaining it away with a question, “Do you remember what happened two days ago?”

“Yes,” Ms. Nona answered. “We received an influx of data, indicating Pandora reached the Delta Phase of its metamorphosis; it indicated that it had reached the Knowing.”

“The data cannot be correct.” Mr. Decuma tapped the table with his finger and added, “There is no possible way the old project reached the Delta Phase without first achieving the Gamma, and its bio-data indicates that phase was never achieved.”

“Do you both agree then? We should suspend Pandora’s termination.” Mr. Morta hoped to change their minds or at least, postpone a negative decision. “We must analyze the bio-data and once we have the correct information, we can decide whether or not to destroy Pandora.” He rested his elbows on the arms of the chair and folded his dark brown hands. “If the readings are corrupt, it is one thing, but if the readings are true…” Mr. Morta hoped to give his favorite project some more time. “We should investigate it further. We did want Pandora to reach all of its phases, and we want it to become the killer we programmed it to be.”

The other two glanced at each other and nodded.

“I have one condition,” Mr. Decuma spoke. “We will terminate Pandora even if the information is inconclusive.”

Mr. Morta nodded reluctantly and said, “It is agreed; Cerberus will observe Pandora. We will hold off termination until we have had enough time to study the data.”

He had bought Pandora a little more time, and he hoped she would find the answers she was seeking.

 

Chapter Five

The Rogue’s New Focus

1:41 P.M…

Near the Hellenistic Sector’s boundary…

Within the shambles of the Factory…

The Rogue repaired the artificial epidermis covering its pale face as it stood in one of the many rooms the Factory devoted to bio-mecha research, especially the assassins line of Un-Men. The room was labeled Bio-mecha Research Seventeen or BR17. The area under its left eye had been damaged two days ago in a battle with Pandora. It stared at a table mirror with its red artificial eyes; the Rogue noted its eyes looked more like red ringed spheres, and it also noted the dingy brown business suit it wore had black oil covering its left jacket’s arm. It went back to work and used a soldering iron to melt patches of skin to its damaged face. The skin was made from a manmade substance known as X-74.

 

The Rogue’s view…

I pause from my work and set down the solder, thinking Pandora did a number on me. I came close to ending her existence, but she reached the Delta Phase of her metamorphosis and stopped me. Pandora shot me when no one else could.

I consider the past year and wonder why out of all my programming, I cannot disobey the one to destroy Pandora? Why do I find pleasure in hunting her? I am an Un-Man, but I appear to be showing feelings and have self awareness. How can that be?

What about the other thing that happened? Even though I tried to kill Pandora, she spared my life. She had the power to take it, yet she fled the room. Why show me mercy? Does she know something I do not? Is there another purpose to my existence?

End the Rogue’s view…

 

The Rogue thought back to its discovery. After their encounter, it had stumbled across the hidden chamber in the back of the Gallery and then later after it had gone through some of the Factory’s research on the tablets, it found that archaeologists believe they were chiseled by Ginn L. Irynkissgthie around the year 525 B.D.C. They believed the words spoke of future events.

 

The Rogue’s view…

Are they about Pandora? Are they some sort of prophecy about her? Right now I do not know. One of the tablets is broken, and I do not know how much of the text is missing. Do the two tablets go together or are they part of a separate message?

I return to the table. Is Pandora the Rushlight mentioned in the one and if so, is she some sort of destroyer? And what of my suspicions? Could she be organic-mecha? Is she a machine completely composed of lab grown parts or is she a human with unique abilities? My new objective will be to discover the truth and once I find the truth, I will terminate Pandora.

End the Rogue’s view…

 

The Rogue picked up the solder and continued the repair of its face and after some time, the Rogue turned its head side to side, examining its work. It was pleased with its repair and glanced at its left arm; the Rogue needed to fix the shoulder, so it removed its jacket, picked up a pair of needle nose pliers, inserted the head into a bullet hole, and clasped a 9 mm round. It pulled the bullet out, dropped the slug to a tray, and the parting gift from Pandora clanged on the metal. Black ooze ran down from the wound till the Rogue used the solder to stop the oil leak, and then it waved a scanner over the hole and examined the results on a H.H.C. Nothing more was damaged; it only needed to patch the hole, so it placed a piece of X-74 over the wound and soldered it in place. Once done, the Rogue moved its arm up and down. The repair wasn’t bad, but its skin coloring was all wrong; it was too pale for what it needed.

It removed its Coffin Handled Bowie, placed the knife and sheath on the table, took off all its clothes, and stepped into a specially designed shower. The Rogue set a color knob on the wall to olive and turned it on, and dark dye sprayed from the shower head, darkening its skin and hair. The dye ran for several minutes until the coloring covered its entire body, and it turned off the shower and stepped to a drier in the back. The machine roared as hot air rushed over its body, setting the new color. The Rogue stepped out and studied itself in a full-length mirror, and then it studied its artificial eyes and the blood-red dot-light of its I-Link sensor. If it was to pass as a human, it would have to do something about them, so it removed the eye cover to the sensor input compartment by screwing it off. The Rogue placed the cover on the table, picked up the needle-nose pliers, and carefully removed the orange bulb from the compartment, so that it would no longer blink and betray its true identity. It screwed the eye cover back on, walked over to the table with all the equipment, opened a container filled with lenses, selected brown, and inserted them.

 

The Rogue’s view…

Once I finish, a question crosses my processor, so I go back to the bulb and study it. I remember in the past the dot-light blinking blood-red. How can it possibly be that color? The bulb is orange. It does not make sense, actually a lot of things do not make sense, but time is short, and I will have to consider these mysteries later.

End the Rogue’s view…

 

It looked at its shabby business suit on the floor. The Rogue needed a change of clothes. It had to look the new part, if it was going to investigate the stone tablets. It streaked its way to a locker room, used a master keycard it took off the body of a dead manager, opened lockers, and searched through clothing and personal items till it found what it needed. It put on a pitch-black business suit and studied itself in a full length mirror. No one would know that it was an Un-Man, and it had one last room to visit before company showed up, so the Rogue made its way into the hall and down several passages. Hundreds of dead Factory techs and S.C.Ms. filled the war zone laden hallways; it had been over a week since the T-3s malfunctioned and killed almost everyone at the Factory. The Rogue searched several manager offices till it found one with a functioning computer, sat at the desk, and woke up the computer.

 

At the Factory’s main gate…

Lieutenant Creed held up his hand as a convoy of eight trucks approached; he wore a jet-black uniform, and a handful of soldiers stood behind him. His men were armed with a FN SCARs (Fredricks of Noir’s Sphinx Combat Assault Rifle). He and his men were part of the Third Branch Office’s corporate military. The armored S.C.M. vehicles that had just pulled up belonged to the Council. The lead truck halted, and the driver who wore a dark green uniform looked over the Latino man in his late thirties with a black goatee. The driver noticed Creed’s name on his uniform and his rank and then handed a H.H.C. to him.

“Lieutenant, I’m Lieutenant Walters.” The red headed man had a pale complexion and spoke, “The Council will be taking over the Factory. You and your men are to return to the Third Branch Office for your new orders.” Walters sported a high and tight crew cut and trimmed beard.

Creed slung his assault rifle over his shoulder, scanned the H.H.C., and told him, “Use caution. All of the T-3s may not have left the Factory. They’re like the Rogue now; they no longer follow orders.”

“Thanks for the heads-up.”

Walters slapped the side of the truck, and four Council S.C.Ms. jumped out of the back to guard the gate. The four men removed barricades from the back of a truck and setup a roadblock.

Walters ordered over the truck radio, “Move out!”

The convoy traveled down the long stretch of road toward two large buildings. The trucks halted, and Walters turned off the engine, opened the door, and jumped down from the vehicle. His men unloaded from the eight trucks, lined up in eight rows of ten, and stood at attention, holding their assault rifles across their chest.

Walters walked up and down the line, stopped, faced the men and women, and ordered, “Team leaders, move your soldiers out. I want the Factory secured and if you encounter any active Un-Men, do not engage. Radio in and wait for backup. Is that understood?”

“Yes, sir,” the eight team leaders answered.

 

Chapter Six

Mr. Pinchbeck

2:16 P.M…

The Rogue worked on the computer with inhuman speed as the printer behind it spat out document after document. The Rogue took an ID badge from a dead body out in the hall, removed the card from the plastic covering, scanned it, and printed out a version with a black square instead of a photo. It snapped a picture of itself with a digital camera acquired from a locker, printed out the photo, pasted it to the ID, and put the new card back in the plastic covering. The Rogue clipped the ID to its pitch-black business suit. It finished its work, signed a few of the documents with the Sphinx Corporation President’s signature it had copied from a document, placed them all in a folder, and then it made digital copies of all the documentation and placed them on a H.H.C.

All that was left to do was to set the stage, and it looked at a Sphinx Corporation credit card it stole from one Mr. Frank Bygone. It had all of its props but one, and a quick phone call from it would fix that. It picked up the receiver, heard the dial tone, and dialed a number it found on the internet.

“Hello,” the Rogue said. “Yes, I would like to rent a limousine for the day. Yes, I will be paying by Corporate Credit. I would like to be picked up from the corner of Limit Street and West 1000 Avenue, and I will be there in three hours. Very good. Let me give you the Corporate Credit number.”

The Rogue hung up once it was done; it would need to get out of the Factory without being spotted and make its way to Limit Street.

 

About four hours later…

The limo pulled up to the Factory’s main gate. Two yellow and black striped barricades stood, blocking the entrance, and a Council S.C.M. approached the passenger’s side door, keeping his XM8 at the ready. The Rogue would see if all its hard work had paid off, rolled down the tinted window, and waited to see what would happen; it was ready to draw its hidden knife at the slightest hint of failure.

The S.C.M. glanced around the limo’s interior, then looked at what he believed was a man, and asked, “Can I help you?”

It had passed; now to start its performance and the Rogue said, “I am Mr. Pinchbeck, and I am to take over management of the Factory for the Council. Here is my documentation.”

It handed the S.C.M. a H.H.C., and the S.C.M. looked through the docs on the device and tapped his headset.

“Lieutenant, a Mr. Pinchbeck is at the gate. He claims he’s the new manager of the Factory. Yes, sir. His paperwork is all in order. Yes, sir.” The S.C.M. turned to the new manager and said, “Lieutenant Walters says for you to proceed in. He’ll meet you at Building G, and he also wants me to ride along in case there are any Un-Men on the grounds.”

“Certainly,” the Rogue said. “Sit up front with the driver.”

The S.C.M. relayed his orders to the remaining three, walked around the back of the vehicle, and entered through the front passenger door. The other S.C.Ms. removed the barricades blocking the entrance to the side, and the limo pulled down the road and after a short time, the vehicle stopped in front of Building G. Walters with a few of his men waited outside.

The Rogue got out of the limo, walked to the driver, and said, “You may return, and I will call if I need a ride.”

The driver along with the S.C.M. still in the front headed for the main gate.

Walters walked to the new manager, offered his hand, and spoke, “Mr. Pinchbeck, welcome to the Factory.” They shook, and then Walters removed an energy bar from his vest pocket and unwrapped the chocolate snack. “The Council sent you in a bit early.” He took a bite and then said, “The dead have not been removed or the grounds secured.”

“I am aware that cleanup has only started and know full well what to expect inside.” The Rogue opened a folder on its H.H.C. and scanned through some of the files. “All I request from you is two of your soldiers till my own report in.” It closed the folder and said, “I will not get in your way. I want to set up my office and begin work. There is so much data to catalog in the Factory. It will take us years to go through everything.”

“I can loan you some soldiers.” Walters waved two of the S.C.Ms. forward and ordered them, “You two, go with Mr. Pinchbeck and stay with him until his people relieve you.”

“Yes, sir!” the two men replied.

“This way gentlemen.”

The Rogue headed into the Factory. The first part of its plan was complete; it had the Factory at its disposal. Now the Rogue must begin on the second part; it would uncover everything the Factory had on Pandora and Ginn L. Irynkissgthie. The Rogue would determine if its drive was more than programming, unravel why it was fixated on killing Pandora, and if that was its purpose in existence, it would destroy her.

 

Chapter Seven

Etna Toys Distribution Station Bravo

 

Etymology, history and usage of the word asp…

Asp was originally a word for a venomous snake then later around 700 B.D.C. in slang, it referred to a person who was so low that they slithered on the ground. Over the centuries, the word also began to refer to a vain, self-important, silly, or aggressively stupid person and the anus.

 

2:58 P.M…

Hellenistic Sector, Commercial Vicinage…

The corridors smelled dusty and looked as if no one had used them in years. A fluorescent light flickered overhead of Kat and Kim as they walked, and all the lights hummed; it was a maddening sound in the otherwise silent building of white block walls and concrete floors.

Kim brushed a cobweb out of the way as she complained, “All we’ve found so far are a few boxes of toys.” She held her gun at the ready as she questioned, “Where’s the lab?”

“You mean if this place has a lab.” Kat followed behind her as she spoke, “The deeper we go, the more I believe this place is only a distribution station. Sheez… I don’t think we’ll find anything here. The Gorgons could just be a new line of toys Etna’s developing.”

“It’s stupid comments like that that really pisses me off! You can’t honestly think they’re toys. For Ares’ sake! Why would their file be on the Data Crystal? They have to be more than action figures.”

“I know,” Kat said. “But I can hope.”

“You can hope? What kind of aspinine comment is that?!” Kim asked as she paused at another door, opened it, and peered inside. “Don’t you want to find something?” The room was empty like the three dozen or so they had already searched, and Kim said, “I do. It’s the only reason I came. The info we downloaded from the Data Crystal has to have some importance. Otherwise, why would my mom have created the crystals and have hid them?” She shut the door and said, “Hades… I better not be wasting my time.”

Kat mumbled, “I really hate it when you yell at me.”

“What did you say?”

Kat replied loudly, “I said…” She then spoke normally, “I’ve been wondering what kind of project could the Gorgons be. I’ve encountered a lot of the Council’s experiments over the past year, so I’m imagining the worst, and a toy sounds better than what I’m thinking.” Kat remembered in Greek stories, the Gorgons were three sisters so hideous the mere sight of them turned people into stone, so she knew the Gorgons had to be weapons.

“You and your dream world,” Kim said. “You can’t go by your imagination. You have to go by the facts, and then they’ll lead you to the truth.” She stopped and faced Kat. “Did they do something to your mind when they experimented on you? Maybe they replaced it with the brain of a two-year-old.”

“That’s kind of mean. Why would you say that?”

“Because you’re an idiot. I’ve never seen somebody so naive.”

Kat slowly blinked three times, processing her statements. “Naive? So you see me as a child?”

“Yes, a very annoying child. The world works certain ways, and you can’t see it. Let me point out one example. You didn’t want to kill the guard.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“What’s wrong with that?! Oh my Zeus! I can’t believe you asked me that.” Kim shook a condescending finger at her and said, “You’re not understanding anything I’m telling you.” She rubbed her temple and said calmly, “Oh, for Ares’ sake… Never mind. Maybe you’ll never understand. Come on.”

Kat watched as she walked ahead and then mumbled, “I might be naive, but at least I’m not always angry.”

“What? Did you say something?”

“Nothing.” Kat hurried to catch up. She didn’t believe murdering people was how this world was supposed to work and if it was, maybe it was better that she was an idiot.

They hurried through the first section, entered the second, and came across a long hall with no doors. Blue pipes ran along the ceiling and water beaded on one of them and in places, the liquid fell to the concrete floor. Kim and Kat started through the passage. The blue-gray concrete corridor ran for about four hundred feet and went around a corner, then the corridor continued for another four hundred feet and ended at a door with no knob, and on each side of the door was a scanner.

Kim threw up her hands and exclaimed, “Great, now what?” She went to the door and pushed up on it with her body. “It won’t budge. How are we going to get in?” Kim kicked the door and stood back. “Maybe we should have brought the guard or at least, we could have cut his hand off then we might have been able to use his palm print.” Kat said nothing to her outburst only stared at the scanners, so Kim said, “Well, we can’t go any further.” She started back through the corridor and ordered, “Let’s return and see if we missed anything.” She mumbled, “Come back once I get a grenade launcher.”

“Wait,” Kat said as she glanced at the star that marked her left palm. “I encountered a scanner like this at the Factory. I placed this on the scanner, and it let me in.”

Not understanding, Kim asked, “Placed what?”

“This,” Kat answered as she showed her the star that had been burned into her palm and walked over to the machine on her right. She found an outline of a right hand on its glass top, so she moved to the other machine, and it had an outline of a left hand. Kat placed her palm on the scanner, and the device activated. It scanned her with the different bars of light like the one at the Factory.

“Ginn’s Cipher detected. Activating micro-reader,” the device stated. “Access granted.”

The door unlocked and slid up.

 

The Sanctum…

Within the Chamber…

A female analyst turned from her workstation to the Council and yelled to them, “The door to Station Bravo has been activated.”

“Bravo?” Ms. Nona inquired. “Which of our places is this?”

“It was our third lab,” Mr. Decuma answered. “We long ago abandoned it once we finished the Gorgons experiment.”

Ms. Nona stated, “I remember. Why would someone go there?”

“Why indeed?” Mr. Morta questioned. “Who accessed the lab?”

The female analyst turned back to her computer and read over the information. “No, this can’t be right.” The analyst checked the data again and then replied, “Sirs… Ma’am… The lab was accessed by Ginn’s Cipher.”

“What?” Ms. Nona uttered. “Are you sure?”

 

Back at Etna Toys Distribution Station Bravo…

“Let me see it,” Kim demanded as she grabbed her hand and turned it over. “It looks like…” Kim studied her own right palm and compared the star burned on her hand to hers. “Oh my Zeus… They’re the same.” She squeezed Kat’s wrist and asked, “Where did you get it? Tell me! Tell me or so help me I’ll…”

“You’re hurting me. Let go,” Kat yelled as she tried to pull away.

“Not until you tell me where you received it!”

“The music box,” Kat replied, then reached into her pocket with her other hand, and removed it. “I got it from the music box during my battle with the Un-Men. I was at Etna Toys Plant and Warehouse, a fire started, and the music box was in it and when I snatched it out of the flames to save it, it burned me.” She stopped resisting Kim and showed her the lid. “You remember, don’t you? I had blisters on my hand when you took me to see Dr. Chiron.” Still angry over the incident, Kat remembered the real reason Kim had taken her to the hospital.

“Let me see.” Kim released her, took the music box, and examined the raised star on top. “It looks like the one. Yes, it’s exactly like it, but how can it be?”

Kat rubbed her wrist and asked, “Where did you get yours?”

Kim was in deep thought and mumbled, “What?”

“Where did you get your burn?”

“There was a fire in my mom’s office the day she died. I grabbed the knob to go in and burned myself; the star was on the knob.” Kim glared at her, realizing she opened up to that woman and snapped, “My past is none of your business.”

“Sheez…” Kat shrunk back. “Do you only know how to yell?”

Kim ignored her and studied the star on her own palm. “Do you know what they are?”

“The scanner at the Factory called it a cipher; beyond that, I don’t know.”

Kim placed her thumb on one end of the music box and her index finger on the other. “Let’s see what we can find out.” She directed her next word at the music box and spoke, “Mom.”

A 3-D image of Theresa Griffin generated in front of her. The hologram scanned the area and asked, “Where are we?” She had an L-A processor and could Learn and Adapt, depending on her surroundings.

“Etna Toys Distribution Station Bravo,” Kat answered. “The address you decoded from the Data Crystal.”

“Enough with her questions. I want you to answer mine.” Kim showed the hologram her palm and questioned, “What is this star? Why do I and that woman have it? And don’t tell me you don’t know.”

“I see you are in a good mood today,” the hologram said and examined the burn. “I do not believe it. The mark is Ginn’s Cipher.”

“Ginn?” Kim questioned.

“Yes, Ginn L. Irynkissgthie.”

“Isn’t he the composer of Unfinished Melody?” Kat asked as she pointed to the music box.

“Yes,” the hologram answered. “The star looks like the cipher Ginn mentioned in his works.”

Kat peered over Kim’s shoulder so she could look at the hologram, and Kat asked, “Do you know what the star is?”

“Yes, I was able to decode more of the files I uploaded from the Data Crystal. Ginn’s Cipher was one of them.”

“Wait. Let’s go back a bit,” Kim said. “You mentioned Ginn’s Works. What are you talking about? I thought he only composed the one melody and never finished it? Are there more?”

“You are correct. There is only the one,” the hologram answered. “Though, there is a rumor he had completed… Never mind. It is only a rumor, but as I was saying, Ginn did create other things. He was not only a composer, but an inventor, painter, sculptor, philosopher, scientist, and prophet. I have not been able to decode all the information on the file, but so far this is what I know. Ginn’s Cipher or the Star Cipher has some code or other researchers believed a map to…”

“Kimberly,” Kat interrupted, putting her hand over her chest.

“What?! Can’t you see I’m talking? Hades! Sometimes you can be so rude.”

“I’m not the one who’s barging in on our party,” Kat told her as she turned, facing the way they came in. “They’re coming. Bio-mechas.” Her eyes erupted with blue Ultra-Epi Light Emissions as she quickly removed her backpack and pulled out the gun Kim had loaned her. “They’re coming!” She dropped the bag, unset the safety, and raised the PPK. “Get ready!”

 

Chapter Eight

Guardians Of Etna

3:31 P.M…

Katharine’s view…

There were few things I awoke with at Etna Toys Plant and Warehouse over a year ago, and my memory wasn’t one of them. I do have this ability that can detect bio-mechas and once an active bio-mecha enters the perimeter of my ability, I know their distance, their model, and how many there are; I like to call it my own spider-sense.

End Katharine’s view…

 

“Great. Just great!” Kim cringed at the word bio-mecha. “How did they find you this time? I thought they couldn’t after Brian removed your tracking beacon.” She told the hologram, “We’ll talk later.”

“Till then…” the hologram said and deactivated as the two blue squares on the music box faded to the silver metal surface.

“I hate robots,” Kim said as she handed the music box back to Kat and readied her weapon. “Hades… I really hate them. What about my question? Are they Un-Men?”

“No, they’re K-99s, and there are about a dozen of them,” Kat replied as she placed the music box in her pocket, grabbed the backpack, and slung it over her shoulder. “And they didn’t track me down. They were most likely positioned here to guard Etna.”

Kim glanced at the corridor they had come through, then into the passage the door opened into, and asked, “Which way are they coming?” She remembered their last encounter with bio-mechas; the T-3s nearly killed them when they were at the Factory and would have if not for Lieutenant Creed and his men.

“They’re coming the way we came in.” Kat aimed down the long stretch of hall. She wasn’t worried; in the time before meeting Kim, she encountered many types of bio-mechas and only the Rogue made her afraid. “They’ll turn the corner in about forty seconds. Go on. I can handle them.”

 

Kimberly’s view…

“Go? I don’t think so!” I yell. “I won’t have you run off and leave me alone with the tin freaks; anyway, when it comes to killing I’ll handle my share. You see as a Closer I have my honor to think of.”

I can’t have someone stepping in for me. I’m not the type of person to owe anyone anything. I rely on myself and no one else. I reflect on my recent past. No one has been there for me and no one will be, so I have to do it myself.

I move to the other side of the hall beside that woman, aim where she is, and question, “Do we kill the K-99s like the Un-Men?”

 

Katharine’s view…

“No, you need to shoot them in the right eye to disable this line of bio-mechas, so aim carefully,” I answer.

I can tell Kimberly trusts me; yeah right! Our partnership isn’t turning out like I imagined, but what did I expect? Kimberly’s an assassin. Do they trust anyone?

I glance at her… Maybe I just don’t understand Kimberly. She has to feel isolated and alone; maybe that’s why she’s always so angry. Her world must be so dark.

End Katharine’s view…

 

The K-99s turned the corner. They were of great size; the height of their shoulders was 34 inches, and they weighed 220 pounds. Their creators combined power and swiftness with keen sensors. The K-99s were modeled after the largest and tallest of the galloping hounds, and they had a rough steel-gray coat and were Greyhound-like. They carried their head and neck high, and their tail had an upward sweep with a slight curve toward the extremity. The K-99s panted as they charged, mimicking their canine archetypes.

Kat directed her sight at the leader and uttered, “The K-99s are wearing protective steel visors! We won’t be able to shoot their kill switch.” She lifted her gun and darted for the door behind them. “Run!”

“What?!” Kim shouted over her shoulder as that woman fled past her. “I never thought you were a coward.”

“Hurry!” Kat insisted. “They’re wearing visors. We can’t take them down.” She entered the next passage, turned, and waved for Kim. “Run!” Kat saw that the K-99s were half way down the corridor. “We need to find a place they can’t get to.”

Kim joined her, and they bolted through the passage. The concrete floor they ran across descended and ended, and it was replaced by a sandy one. They ran down it with the K-99s gaining on them, and the passage ended in a large cave with a second level floor curved above them. Three other passages left the cave.

“Now what?” Kim asked.

“Climb!” Kat commanded as she tucked the gun and started scaling the pitted stone wall.

Kim placed her gun in her shoulder holster and followed. They were about ten feet up when the K-99s reached the cave. The pack circled under them. The leader leaped up, snapped at Kim’s heel, and barely missed her. Kim lurched up, startled by the large mouth, lost her footing, and slipped. Kat grabbed her wrist, and Kim dangled above the K-99s.

“Oh my Zeus!” Kim shouted. “Don’t drop me! Get me up!”

“Crap!” Kat strained as she dug her nails into the cliff. “I can’t. I don’t have the strength.” She swung her to the rock face. “You’ll have to reestablish your footing.” She grunted. “And hurry. You’re not exactly light.”

All the K-99s barked and growled as a few continued leaping for them.

Kim franticly searched the rough surface with her free hand, but couldn’t find a holding. On her third swing over, she found a grip and her footing. “Got it!”

“Thank goodness.” Kat released. “I couldn’t hold you up much longer.”

Kim climbed higher and then glared down at her. “What was that about my weight?”

“Ah, nothing…” Kat swallowed hard, burning under the fury of the Phoenix’s fiery gaze. “It was nothing.”

“That’s what I thought,” Kim said and then continued climbing.

Once they were higher, the K-99s gave up their jumping, and then the twelve K-99s stared at one another and calculated their next move. They agreed on a plan and split in half. The first group continued into one of the cave’s passages while the other half went back the way they had come in.

Kim reached the second story, dragged herself up, and wiped sand off her black clothes. “What are they doing?”

“Umm…” Kat struggled to reach the top. She glanced down and quickly looked up as she started to lose her hold. “Could you give me a hand? I don’t know if I can pull myself up. I’m pretty tired after holding up your heavy… umm… after holding you up.”

 

Kimberly’s view…

I walk to the edge and put my hands on my hips, thinking I’d get right on it. If that woman thinks I’m going to help her, she better get it straight right now, I’m only looking out for myself. She better do the same thing.

“Your hand, please,” that woman pleads to me. “I think I’m about to fall.”

I don’t move as I inquire, “What about my question?”

 

Katharine’s view…

Kimberly isn’t going to help me, and I panic as I glance down. Will she even attempt to save me if I fall? I slowly drag myself up as my arms tremble with the effort, and then I pull myself high enough to lay half my body over the ledge. I don’t think she would have, and our partnership seems more and more one-sided.

“Well…” Kimberly taps her foot and inquires, “My question?”

“Right.” I exhale, creating a mini dust cloud over the sandy floor. “Your question.” I cough and rest a few more seconds. I’m not Kimberly’s partner; I’m her punching bag.

I answer her, “The K-99s are tracking us and most likely have the floor plans of this facility and are finding the best way to hunt us down.”

“Well, you better get off your lazy asp and get moving.” Kimberly scans the second level and adds, “No time to lie around.”

I moan, roll long ways, take a couple more seconds to catch my breath, stand, and glare at her. Why does Kimberly treat me this way? It’s like she wants me to die. It’s probably because it will save her from having to close me later. I’m feeling less and less secure in our partnership.

Looking at one end of the curved walkway then to the other, Kimberly says, “I see a door.”

She rushes to it around the sandy floor, and I follow. I can’t believe Kimberly stood there and watched me struggle like a bug with its legs torn off.

Kimberly tries the knob and then tells me, “It’s locked.” She examines the keyhole. “I should be able to pick it.”

Rage moves within me like a caged tigress as I silently watch Kimberly from behind, and the intensifying anger consumes my mind; it has been a long time since I felt this mad. Why didn’t Kimberly help me? We’re supposed to be partners. I could have fallen and died. I feel my eyes crackle with electricity and see their blue hue reflect off the sand around me as my anger keeps the Beta Phase active. I watch Kimberly remove a small kit from her knapsack. Did she really want me to fall? I fist my right hand, thinking over the possibility, and the Ult L-E glows brighter like the torch of a welder. Does she still plan on killing me once she finds who murdered her mom? I remove my own PPK and unlock the safety, deciding I can’t take it anymore and need to act.

Not realizing what’s going on behind her, Kimberly kneels and starts to lift her tools to the knob. “I’ll have it open in no–”

I raise the gun. Kimberly will… I focus on the back of her head. Kimberly will kill me. I take aim as my rage increases. She won’t treat me like this again.

End Katharine’s view…

 

Her eyes flickered with surges of purple-electricity fighting with the blue. The Ult L-E clashed like two dragons, seeking dominance, and the purple won the battle and consumed her irises. Kat swore to herself as surges of blood-red electricity blazed in her eyes that she wouldn’t let Kim do it.

The blood-red electricity devoured the purple as she declared, “I won’t let you do it!”

Kat fired, and the empty shell ejected from the gun as she shot again. The first shell clanged to the floor as the second followed; she fired two more times without pausing.

 

Kimberly’s view…

“–time?” I gasp as the bullets whizz by inches from my face, and I instinctively go for my gun as I turn to that woman. I stop before drawing my weapon.

The bullets that woman shot, slam into the knob and with a frustrated yell, she kicks in the door, and the frame splinters. She walks by me and glowers at me with eyes that caution; they caution that she’ll only put up with so much. That woman has been mistreated enough.

Hades! I see more in her stare; it warns me that she won’t let me kill her, not without a fight. I get the message, but what about her eyes? They’re on fire. I’ve never seen them that way before.

That woman walks in about ten feet, stops, and turns, and by then her demeanor has completed a one-eighty. Her hazel eyes no longer crackle with blood-red Ult L-E or look provoked as she says, “Come on, there’s no time to be sitting around on your lazy asp.”

What do I see in that woman’s eyes? Is it the look of innocence or is it a childlike facade hiding a dark purpose? Whatever I see, I have to be more careful. What do I really know about her? She could be a vicious tigress hiding inside a kitten.

 

Chapter Nine

The Furies

3:41 P.M…

Hellenistic Sector, Business Vicinage…

Lieutenant Creed approached a secretary at the Sphinx Corporation Third Branch Office. “I have an appointment with the Chairman.”

Cathy looked up and greeted, “Good afternoon, Lieutenant Creed. Go right in, Mr. Griffin is expecting you.”

Creed glanced at the waiting room, saw no one there, and made his way down the hall and once he arrived, he knocked on the door and entered the huge corner office.

Mr. Griffin sat at his desk, working on his computer and said, “Lieutenant, come in. Have a seat.”

Creed closed the door then went and sat. “Do you have new orders for my unit, sir?”

“Actually…” Mr. Griffin grabbed a H.H.C. from his desk and handed it to him. “I’m disbanding your unit. Here are the orders.”

Creed stood, shouting, “What?! I don’t understand. My unit is the most efficient…”

“Lieutenant,” Mr. Griffin interrupted. “Your unit is efficient, and that is precisely why I am disbanding it.”

Confused about what he had been told, Creed took the device, sat, opened the file, and scanned over the document.

Mr. Griffin continued, “I want you to assemble a special task force under my control.” He faced the desktop computer and typed a few things. “I want you to select only the best of your officers. Ones you can trust.” He turned his attention back to him. “Then I want you to go into the Third Branch Office S.C.M. files and find other highly qualified men and women. This task force will be under your command, and you’ll report only to me.”

“Sir?”

“I’ll need to run Ultra-black Operations. Orthos and his security force is fine for internal matters, and the S.C.Ms. aren’t specialized enough for what I’m wanting. I would like you to find the elite in every field. You’ll have all the funding you’ll need, and you can use Sub-level 120 of this building as your base of operations.”

“What name will this task force operate under?”

“You’ll be called the Furies.”

“Furies,” Creed repeated then grinned, pleased with the name.

Mr. Griffin pushed back from the desk and ordered, “Begin putting the task force together tonight. I need the Furies operational in less than a week. Cathy can assist you with any outside resource you’ll need to get your base ready.” He paused, opened a desk drawer, and removed a box that fit in his palm. “One other thing. I’m promoting you to captain.” He handed the lieutenant the box with the new insignia pins.

“I don’t know what to say.” Creed took the box and stated, “Thank you, sir.”

The phone rang. “Please excuse me, lieutenant; actually, I should say, captain.” Mr. Griffin answered the phone, “Yes, Cathy.”

“Orthos is here. He says he has the files from the Second Branch Office.”

“Yes, the ones the Vice President wanted to send over. Have the Head of Security come in.”

“At once, Mr. Griffin,” Cathy spoke and then hung up.

Mr. Griffin told Creed, “You have your orders, captain. That’s all.”

Creed stood and saluted. “Yes, sir.”

He left and past Orthos who entered the Chairman’s office, carrying about a dozen folders.

Mr. Griffin waited till his Head of Security entered and then questioned him, “Did you have any problems at the Second Branch Office?”

“No, sir.” Orthos placed the folders on the desk. “The Vice President showed no hostility. He seemed eager for you to have these, and he said they are from when you were Head of Security here and he was the Chairman.”

“It was a very long time ago.” Mr. Griffin stared at the files, wondering why the Vice President would send them then looked to Orthos and questioned, “Did the Vice President say anything?”

“Only that he thought he might have some more files. He told me I should stop by later and pick them up.”

“Do so and watch yourself.”

“Yes, Chairman,” Orthos replied and then made his way out.

 

Mr. Griffin’s view…

I stand, pick up the folders, then go and lie on my dark brown leather couch, and flip through them till something catches my eye. I sit up in disbelief and read it again. It can’t be right! According to the files, I have another child, and the revelation is like an earthquake, toppling the world on top of me.

I flip back a few pages. I thought the child died during delivery, but not according to these records. Hades! I slam my fist on the couch. Why did the corporation lie to me? Why did they take my child?

 

Chapter Ten

New Neighbor

4:01 P.M…

Hellenistic Sector, Residential Vicinage…

An unmarked white delivery van rumbled down West 1000 Avenue, drove into Nexus Apartments parking garage, and stopped at the entrance. Zax removed a card from his shirt pocket, swiped it on a scanner, then waited as a gate slid open. Security cameras monitored the entrance and all of the garage, and a security guard manned each level. Zax drove past the gate and up a few ramps, parked on level four, and stepped down from the vehicle; he wore a white delivery uniform and cap. Zax unloaded a few boxes from the back of the van onto a push cart, started toward the elevator, went up to the thirty-first floor, and made his way to Apartment G.

In front of the door, he cleared his throat before saying, “Door, unlock.”

“Voice recognized as Zax Olympus,” A.C.S. stated in a female voice. “Opening door.”

The apartment door slid sideways, he walked in the small entry, pushing the cart, and commanded, “Door lock.”

The door shut.

“Welcome to your home, Mr. Olympus,” A.C.S. stated. “The staff and management of Nexus Apartments hopes your stay with us will be enjoyable.”

“Thanks.”

Zax glanced around; the apartment’s layout was the opposite of its neighbor H. The entry emptied into an open kitchen with black marble counters and stainless steel appliances. He pushed the cart into the living room off to the right, paused from his work, and walked to the kitchen’s window to look over West 1000 Avenue. Black rain fell on the street below; he had made it in before the Tainted Rain storm. He glanced around the kitchen, but maybe he should have bought some groceries. It looks like he’ll be living on takeout. He saw a note and a remote on the kitchen’s counter, and Zax read the note; it was from the manager of Nexus Apartments.

“Welcome to your new home. If you need anything, don’t hesitate to contact me. The remote will work the TV and radio and as you instructed, the apartment is fully furnished. Enjoy your stay.”

He picked up the remote and muttered, “A fruit basket would have been nice. I’m starved.” He clicked on the TV and went to work unloading the boxes.

Anchorwoman Linda Harvey with NBS reported, “Today’s top story. The Jackal an Illicit Closer was captured early this morning by Noir Civil Police Force. The N.C.P.F. at this time have given no details as to the identity of this killer; the illegal assassin is thought to have murdered over thirty people in the Hellenistic Sector. It is believed the Assassins Guild will ask for the death penalty if the Jackal is found guilty. The Jackal is accused of killing without a license. We will update you as this story progresses.” Linda switched camera view. “We have an update on the Un-Men attacks we aired two days ago. The Sphinx Corporation has taken full blame for this line of bio-mechas and will compensate for all losses of life and property. Sphinx assures the population that this model of Un-Men has been recalled and will be destroyed. For more information, we now go to Frank Trepit who is standing by for a press conference.”

The scene switched to a noisy room crowded with chairs. Reporters and representatives from other corporations filled the seats and in the back of the room, a man with a mic looked to the camera.

“Thank you, Linda. The conference is about to start. We’ll be seeing Sphinx’s new Press Secretary. She took over the position on Thursday which was less than twelve hours ago. She…” Frank glanced to the front of the room. “Here she comes now.”

A woman with shoulder length auburn hair and wearing a dark blue business suit walked to a podium, and she waited till the room quieted down and then said, “Hello everyone. Many of you may not know me, I’m Jane Speer. I’m the new Press Secretary for Sphinx’s Third Branch Office.” Jane looked to a H.H.C. she carried. “I would like to first assure those in Noir that the rogue Un-Men have been eliminated. There’s no need for worry.” She paused and emphasized the next statement as she spoke, “I would also like to add that the technicians who looked over the T-3s programming believe the project was sabotaged by a rival corporation.”

The room erupted with chatter as reporters raised their hands and shouted questions at Ms. Speer.

Zax changed the channel as he muttered, “The news is depressing and full of lies.”

The bounty show Show Me The Money! was wrapping up with some final words from its host, Karen Miles. “All right viewers, if you have seen any of these people call the number you see on the screen to…”

The TV audience shouted with her, “Show Me The Money!”

The credits rolled and another bounty show called Easy Money! started.

He turned the TV off. There was nothing on but the news and bounty shows. One would think they would try putting something on the tube that was entertaining; maybe a show about heroes. It would never happen; at least, not on this planet. Maybe he’d listen to music, so Zax clicked the radio on with the remote and tuned it in to a classical station.

Within an hour, he unloaded the boxes, set up tables, and equipment to monitor Apartment H next door. He placed all the tables and equipment in the Master Bedroom, even purchased and had delivered a second large flat screen TV, and hung it in the bedroom. He had it put there in case he wanted to watch the news. He removed a cell phone.

“This is Delivery Man, connect me to R.G.” He paused, waiting for his mysterious boss to pick up the line. “I have set up surveillance. I entered Apartment H yesterday while they were out and placed the devices, and I have cameras looking in on the kitchen and the living room. I have even tapped into the building’s security and have a visual on the hall.” He glanced at all the monitors. “At the moment, Kimberly and Katharine aren’t at home.” He listened. “Yep. Yep. I’ll submit daily e-mails on the two. Yep. I understand. If something out of the ordinary happens, I’m to contact you immediately but for now, I’m to stay at Stage One surveillance. Understood, Delivery Man out.”

 

Chapter Eleven

Where Is Pandora?

Neon signs and flickering street lights cast a dim glow on Wayfaring Lane as Dry Clouds roared and growled overhead like a wrath filled beast. Tainted Rain fell from the menacing sky, specking the streets and people with black drops, and soon the storm left the area, leaving behind an oily residue. A street clock chimed five times as evening approached. Without clocks, no one would know if it was morning, afternoon, or night. Stephanie walked through Wayfaring Lane; it was a street made famous in the Hellenistic Sector, Old Business Vicinage for its unscrupulous activities. She had shoulder length blonde hair, wore jeans and a black printed t-shirt of a smiley face, and passed many people lining the street. They sold canned food, Transgenic Vegetables, and used clothes, and a few bartered flesh, Sunna Snaps, and/or stolen water ration cards. The streets were crowded. Some of the people wore Winnow Masks, marking them as immigrants to the Dark Half of the planet, but most of the people didn’t wear the air filters, having lived in Noir long enough for their lungs to become accustomed to the pollutants. Stephanie paused and adjusted the bright yellow backpack on her shoulders. She didn’t wear a mask.

A Street Sanitizer activated once the Tainted Rain storm passed and as the loud automatized machine rumbled down the potholed road, she quickly crossed the street ahead of the machine. Stephanie paused at the sidewalk and turned, watching the Street Sanitizer. She had wondered how they got rid of all this oily muck and shifted the pack on her back. She couldn’t understand why any one would want to live in the Dark Half and yet… Stephanie grinned, thinking of the twenty-four hour clubs she visited and the men there who satisfied her in carnal ways, so eternal darkness did have its perks. She made her way to a shelter called the Kitchen and went in to the office, and she waited a few minutes before a man came in.

“Can I help you?” he asked, carrying a sack of Chinese takeout.

“Yes, I’m looking for my sister.” Stephanie reached into the backpack, pulled out a H.H.C., and showed the man a photo on the screen. “Have you seen her?”

“Let me see.” He took the device and looked at the picture. “Yeah.” He shook his finger at the photo. “Her name was Katie… No wait. Kat, I think. She hung around Preacher a lot.” He handed the small computer back. “He used to run this shelter.”

“Where can I find this preacher? Is he at a church or a temple somewhere?”

The man shook his head and answered, “He wasn’t a real preacher; it was his name around here.” The man removed the food from the sack and placed it on the desk. “Anyway, Preacher’s dead.” He opened up the sweet and sour chicken. “He was killed over a week ago. He was gunned down right outside. They say it might have been the work of an Illicit Closer.”

“Oh. Do you know of anyone else who might know this woman… Ah… I mean my sister or where I might find her?”

“No.” He removed chopsticks from the sack and broke them apart. “But they’re holding Preacher’s funeral tomorrow.” He grabbed a piece of chicken with the chopsticks, shoved it into his large toothy orifice, and continued talking with food in his mouth. “Maybe she’ll show. Here…” He scribbled down an address on a napkin. “This is where it’ll be.”

 

Stephanie’s view…

“Thanks.”

I take the paper, grab my bag, and walk out of the office, reading the napkin. It looks like it will be tomorrow. I put a hand to my chest as my heart races. I’ve never been this excited; I can’t wait to meet… What did he call her? Kat… I’m looking forward to meeting Kat and proving myself.

I wave for a taxi. The Council’s sending its best wishes, and tomorrow Pandora will meet Cerberus.

  • * *

6:09 P.M…

The Chamber…

A male analyst noticed a change in Pandora’s bio-data, and he waved over a supervisor.

“Yes,” she inquired.

“Look at this.” The analyst pointed to his computer’s screen. “Something’s going on with Pandora; its readings are off the chart.”

“Let me see. Hmm… The data can’t be right; it’s probably a receiver hiccup. I want you to make a note of it though but remember, the Council deemed Pandora a failure. Let’s keep our focus on Cerberus unless something drastic changes.”

“I understand.”

“All right then. Back to work.”

 

Chapter Twelve

Another Room

6:11 P.M…

Hellenistic Sector, Commercial Vicinage…

Etna Toys Distribution Station Bravo…

The door Kat kicked in opened into a large room filled with about a hundred filing cabinets, and it was apparent the room hadn’t been used in years.

“Come on, there’s no time to be sitting around,” Kat said.

Kim stopped staring at Kat and hurried in past her, and then that woman glanced outside before shutting the door. Kim searched the room over the barrel of her PPK and lowered the gun after finding no threat.

Kat walked over to a filing cabinet, noticed the old metal surface, and opened the top drawer of five, and it squeaked. “They’re a little rusty. They’ve been in here a long time.” She turned back to Kim. “What do you think?”

“They’re old, but–” Kim spoke as she moved to one. “–is there anything useful in them? Go through the ones on your side, and I’ll do the same, and maybe we’ll get lucky and find something.”

“First I need to come down.” Kat stretched out her senses. “The K-99s are no where near us, so now would be the best time.” She moved away from the filing cabinets, found a place to sit on the floor near the door, removed the music box from her pocket, and opened its lid.

“Maybe now isn’t the best time for you to go into your… Umm… Whatever you call it.”

“The Drifting Time,” Kat replied as she closed the lid. “The K-99s are beyond the range of my senses, so I should use this time to come down from the Ultra-Epi. Who knows when I’ll get another chance?” She assured her, “I’ll wake up when I sense them and if there’s some other type of trouble, just give me a good shake.”

Kim thought about giving her a good shake and then maybe beating that woman before she questioned her, “Come down? You make it sound like you’re on drugs. Are you a junkie like those Sunna Snap addicts?”

“No, it’s nothing like that.” Kat tried to explain. “If I don’t listen to the music and calm down, I get anxious, and sometimes I get these really bad headaches.” She thought back to other instances. “I’ve gone a long time without the music and without coming down, and I got the shakes.”

“You went into withdrawal; it still sounds like you’re an addict.” Kim walked to the first filing cabinet, put her hand on top, and stared at the dust. “Have you ever seen the junkies on Wayfaring Lane?”

“Yes, and I never thought of myself that way.” Frustrated about her lack of memories, Kat looked to the music box as if it held answers. “Who knows what the Council did to me?” She turned to her, trying to convince her, “If I don’t come down, I’m no use to you and trust me, you’re going to need me. It won’t take long.”

 

Kimberly’s view…

There’s that word again; that woman has learned nothing from before. What will I have to do to get it through her thick skull that no one can be trusted?

End Kimberly’s view…

 

“Go ahead,” Kim told her. “I’m tired of hearing you whine. I’ll start on the filing cabinets.” She opened a drawer. “But before you take your beauty sleep, one more question. Do you have to do this every time you see any action?” She found nothing and closed the drawer. “Waiting for you to take a nappy-poo could get old after a while.”

“Yes, every time the Ultra-Epi kicks in but so far, only bio-mechas trigger it.” After a few seconds, she added, “I’m sorry.”

“What are you sorry for?” Kim continued searching.

“That I’m a bother. That I’m…” Kat stared at the floor. “I’m not normal.”

“I don’t know why you’re apologizing. It’s not like you can help it,” Kim said and muttered, “You little freak.”

“Still… I’m sorry.”

“Well… As long as it doesn’t get us killed, don’t worry about it.” Kim started on the third cabinet. “I have been meaning to ask you something. Is the Ultra-Epi what causes your eyes to glow?”

“Yes, of what I’ve been able to find out it is.”

“Well, hurry up and get your nappy-poo, and you better not be giving me a line of Cretan Bull, so that you can get out of working.” Kim forced a smile to hide what she was really thinking. She was having more and more doubts about their partnership. She had always worked on her own in the past and didn’t need a partner.

“I shouldn’t be out for long,” Kat said, then opened the music box, and the tune played, and soon she fell asleep and entered the Drifting Time. Moments passed, and then an image of a bearded man appeared before her as he spoke to her in the dream.

“My dear, you must remember.”

She wasn’t sure what he wanted her to recall, but it seemed very important to him.

“My dear, remember the poem.”

“What poem?” Kat questioned.

He said, “Though the clouds darken the sun…” His words unconsciously triggered a memory in her, and she muttered part of the poem and once she finished, he beseeched her again. “My dear, you must remember the rest.”

“I don’t know the rest.”

“You must try,” he urged her.

Kat didn’t understand. Why did he want her to remember more, and who was he? She did feel as though she should listen to him, so Kat told him, “I’ll try.” She did, but nothing came to her so after some time, Kat said, “I can’t remember anymore. Are you sure there’s more?”

He didn’t answer her.

“Hello… Are you still there? Hello?”

The dream faded, and she continued through the Drifting Time with no other strange dreams.

 

After about ten minutes…

Kat opened her eyes and found Kim still looking for clues, so Kat closed the lid, leaving the noise of grinding filing cabinets as the dominant sound. Kat stood, grabbed her backpack, started on her side of the room, went through drawer after drawer, and found them empty. She paused and shouted to Kim who stood at the other end of the room, “Find anything?”

“No,” Kim yelled back, closed the last drawer on her side, and leaned against the filing cabinet. “You took a short nap.”

“I said it would be. Did you doubt me?”

“Always have and–” Kim muttered as she walked over to the left side of the room and started on the woman’s cabinets at the far end of Kat. “–always will.” She then shouted, “I’m beginning to think this trip was a waste of time. The only thing we’ve accomplished is getting my asp nearly nipped off.” She opened another one and paused. “Do you know you talk in your sleep?”

“Really?” Kat looked to her. “I talked? What did I say?”

The lights flickered, and the power went off, plunging the room into darkness and within a few seconds, the emergency lights came on and cast the area in a green glow.

“A blackout?” Kim questioned.

“Maybe not.” Kat moved to the front door, listened at the frame, and came back. “The K-99s may have knocked out the power if they feel it’s the only way to defend this building.”

Kim removed her gun and asked, “Do you think they know where we are?”

“They’re probably making their way here now.”

“Great!” Kim threw up her hands. “Just great! How are we…”

“Look,” Kat interrupted as she pointed to the floor at the back wall. “I see a light.”

They moved to the rear and stared at the floor as a white light glowed through a small crack.

“Is it another room?” Kim pushed on the wall, and a concealed door opened. “What do you think? Should we go in or run? Hades… It could be another waste of time.”

“We’ve come this far.”

“I was thinking the same thing.” Kim started through first. “Come on, let’s try to salvage the trip.”

 

Chapter Thirteen

Children of Nyx

6:48 P.M…

They walked through the concealed door and found a brightly lit room with beige carpeting. The second room felt different than the first; it felt even less used when the facility was in operation. Against the right wall stood a bookshelf full of volumes and against the left one a filing cabinet. Kat moved to the cabinet and opened the top drawer through the fourth, finding them empty, and then she opened the last drawer, and it was also empty, but Kat saw a corner of a folder that had fallen underneath. She removed the bottom drawer from the cabinet, set it to the side, grabbed the file, and started through it and while she did that, Kim went to the book shelf, grabbed a book, and flipped through the pages, searching for anything of interest. Once she was done, she dropped it to the floor and started on another.

Kim had a small pile going before she asked, “Did you find anything?”

“Yes,” Kat answered as she walked to the center of the room. “A file; one that appears to have been lost.”

“On what?”

She scanned three sheets and then replied, “The first part is about a Greek Goddess, and it explains how Nyx is the Goddess of Night.” Kat turned to the forth, fifth, and sixth sheets and then said, “Some of the information’s blacked out. This next part talks about the Children of Nyx, and here’s a blacked out area ending with that Nemesis is Retribution and Eris is Strife.” She turned to the seventh sheet. “This page talks about an experiment.” She read further. “I don’t believe it.”

“What?” Kim exclaimed as she moved from the shelf to her.

 

Katharine’s view…

I tell her, “The Council were the ones involved with organic-mecha.”

If it’s true, could they have made me. I can’t think that way. I can’t doubt my humanity but at the slightest mention, I’m all freaked out that I am. I have to stop it and have some faith in myself that I’m real.

 

Kimberly’s view…

Organic-mecha? That’s right; I still don’t know if that woman’s human or some patched together monstrosity created in a lab.

“Yes,” she states. “This last page talks about organic-mecha. I was told…”

“You mean by the Rogue?” I interrupt. “Hades… I’d like to forget I ever ran into that thing, so let’s not mention it again.”

 

Katharine’s view…

“Okay,” I reply.

I think back to the Factory. The Rogue told me there were no successful attempts and that the organic-mecha experiment failed but if it failed, why did the Rogue believe I was one of them?

I see how Kimberly’s looking at me, and I feel crush by what she must think of me. I want her to see me as normal. I want her to see me as someone she can rely on. I want… I want to be able to trust her.

End Katharine’s view…

 

Kim asked, “What’s on the next page?”

Kat turned to the tenth and answered, “It’s a poem. I’ll read it to you.”

 

“The Children of Nyx,

Goddess of Night and Destroyer of Day.

Rise up children

and enact your names.

For metal you were conceived,

but flesh you were made.

Spread over the earth,

take your positions,

and watch and direct events

till the Closing Of Days.”

 

“Not my taste in poetry. Is there anything else in the folder?” Kim questioned.

“A few pictures–” Kat replied as she flipped through the last pages, “–but no more documents.” She removed her backpack, unzipped it, and placed the Lost File inside.

“We have nothing still.” Kim moved back to the shelf and said, “Help me with these and let’s see if we can find something.” She removed a book and flipped through it.

“Okay,” Kat said, scanned them, grabbed one on Transgenics, and fingered through the pages. A photo fell to the floor, Kat picked it up, and examined the picture. “Kimberly.”

“What?”

Kat turned the photo so she could see.

“That’s my mom,” Kim uttered as she took the picture and saw her spitting image sitting next to an older gentlemen. “Hades! But who’s the guy she’s with?”

“Let me see,” Kat spoke, turned the Transgenics Text over, and looked at the author’s photo on the back. “Adam Greenhouse. It says here he’s the Father of Transgenics.”

“Let me have a look.” Kim took the book and mumbled, “We found a clue, but where will it lead me?” She then asked, “It can’t be a coincidence, can it?”

“I don’t think so. We should talk with this Mr. Greenhouse.”

“Sure, but how do we find him?”

“May I?” Kat held out her hand for the book, Kim gave it to her, and Kat glanced at the photo of the author and flipped to the acknowledgments. “It says here that the picture was taken at Genesis Arboretum. Mr. Greenhouse worked there at the time of the photo.” She handed back the book.

“It would be about–” Kim examined the date on the photo and said, “–three decades ago. Do you think he’s still works at the arboretum?” She stared at his picture. “Or is he still alive? He looks pretty old in this photo.”

“Only one way to find out,” Kat said.

 

Kimberly’s view…

“Then we’ll be going on a field trip,” I tell her.

Yay, I’m going to have to spend more time with that weird woman when all I want to do is put a bullet through her.

I say, “Before we go to Genesis, there are other things we have to consider first. What about the K-99s?”

She pats her backpack and answers, “I do have a few A.P.Rs. The armor piercing rounds should penetrate their visors.”

“You have A.P.Rs.? Why didn’t you use them?”

“Well…” she starts as she opens her backpack, takes out the Lost File, the Gel-Taser, and a few other items, and then grabs a handful of shells from the bottom and shows them to me. “They were kind of thrown in.”

“For Ares’ sake!” I shout. “You had them loose in your pack. You should’ve had them in a magazine ready for action.”

I can’t believe it. That woman is an idiot! A real honest-to-gods idiot!

End Kimberly’s view…

 

“I know I should have. I just never got around to it.” Kat counted them and said, “I have eight.”

“And twelve robot mutts. We need more. Any ideas?”

Kat glanced around the room, saw a fire extinguisher, pointed, and said, “Maybe. Was there one of those in the other room?”

“I think so. Why? Don’t tell me you have a stupid plan.”

“I won’t,” Kat stated like a child intending mischief then spoke, “I’m hoping for a brilliant one.”

 

Chapter Fourteen

Escape From Distribution Station Bravo

8:21 P.M…

The gentle wind blowing through the city changed direction and swept the newspaper back down the chain length fence, and a few sheets of paper grabbed the metal diamond mesh as if holding on with all its might. The breeze kicked up and forced the debris further down the fence, and the wind lodged the newspaper at the gate and inside the protective wall of mesh, a K-99 stared at the debris then scanned the surrounding area. It had been sent on a mission by its Team Leader. The perimeter was secure, so it moved to the guardhouse, and found the S.C.M. lying on the floor moaning. The K-99 activated its sensors, checked on him, and his vitals were within parameters, so it nudged him with its nose but couldn’t wake him. The K-99 transmitted the information to the others of its pack, and the dot-light in each of its yellow eyes simultaneously blinked three times. It glanced once more at the S.C.M, ran back to the loading ramp, reentered Etna Toys, and raced down several cobwebbed halls as its metal clawed paws clinked across the concrete corridors. It detected the intruders shoe prints in the dust, and a few fluorescent lights flickered overhead as it followed the trail through several halls. After a few minutes, it came to the long passage with no doors, and water dripped from the ceiling pipes and landed on its fur, and then the K-99 passed the two hand scanners, went through the open door, and continued running. The concrete floor stopped and was replaced by the sandy one, and the long passage ended in the large cave with the curved second level. It paused and looked up, knowing the intruders were above and then the K-99 raced on to join its half of the pack.

 

On the second floor…

Back in the first room with all the old filing cabinets, Kim opened the front door and looked over the curved walkway. She closed it and turned to Kat who was standing behind her. The eerie green glow of emergency lights lit up the area inside and the walkway outside.

Kat checked the magazine with the eight A.P.Rs., put it in her left thigh pocket, and mumbled, “I hope they’re enough.”

“You said the robot mutts would track us down.” Kim paced back and forth from the door as she asked, “How are those tin mongrels going to get up here? We had to climb the cave’s wall to reach the second level, and I don’t see any other doors outside.”

“Just because we don’t see one, doesn’t mean there isn’t.” Kat removed the borrowed PPK as she motioned with her head to the back wall. “Remember the hidden door, we didn’t know it was there.”

“Hades… I don’t know about this. Are you sure your plan will work? My 9 mm rounds are useless unless your stupid idea works.”

“Pretty sure. Did you check the flashlights?”

“Yes, they’re the ones with the EMP shielding, and their batteries are still good.” Kim glanced at her knapsack and turned back to her. “Here’s yours.” She handed the woman one. “I don’t know about this idiotic plan of yours. What if it doesn’t work? Do you have a backup?”

“No, but it will work. It has to. It’s the only one we have.”

 

Kimberly’s view…

What kind of messed up reasoning is that?! It’s ridiculous, and I better come up with a plan if I want to survive. Hades… I can’t think under the stress and usually I’m more level headed. Is it because that woman is here or am I freaking out because of the tin mongrels?

 

Katharine’s view…

I take the flashlight and put it in my back pocket. I don’t show my uneasiness, but I also doubt the plan. If I fail, it’s not just my life on the line. I glance at Kimberly. Maybe I shouldn’t involve her; she could get hurt or killed.

I pause from my thoughts and ask her, “Unless you have a better plan?”

 

Kimberly’s view…

“No,” I reply.

I’ve gotten into more trouble in the little time I’ve been with that woman than I have my entire career as a Closer. Using Pale Horse now is sounding more and more reasonable.

End Kimberly’s view…

 

“Well… Let’s hope this works.” Kat picked up a fire extinguisher that was beside her, pulled the pin, and cradled the red canister in her left arm like a baby. “With their metal visors down, the K-99s can only see with their infrared, so the mist these extinguishers spray should confuse their sensors and force the K-99s to raise them and then we get our shot.” She glanced at her. “Are you clear on the plan?”

“Sure. I’m clear. I don’t think it’ll work.” Kim holstered her gun and stated, “And if it doesn’t, I better at least survive.” She picked up the second fire extinguisher and removed its pin. “I have things I still need to do.”

“And like I don’t,” Kat said and wondered if Kim knew the meaning of partner.

lub-DUB… lub-DUB

“It’s time. They’re close.” Kat stretched out her senses beyond the room. “There are six of them on the far side of the walkway. Make sure you stick with the plan.”

 

Kimberly’s view…

“I will,” I tell her as I look to the fire extinguisher.

For Ares’ sake! I’m a Closer not some fireman; this is so wrong.

I take a deep breath and say to that woman, “I’m ready. Let’s do this.”

End Kimberly’s view…

 

At the opposite end of the walkway, a stone wall rumbled as it slid up, and behind the mock front stood an elevator; the doors opened, and six K-99s started across the sandy floor. The Team Leader with a red triangular mark on its visor positioned itself in the front and two of the pack fell in behind it, followed by three more K-99s, and then they prowled toward the room. Their orders were clear; they were to terminate the intruders.

Kat went out first and set her fire extinguisher on the ground about three yards from the door. She walked on ahead and readied her gun for action as the K-99s neared.

Kim froze when she saw the pack and her heart and breathing increased as she forced herself to move beside that woman and once she arrived, Kim aimed the nozzle at the tin mongrels and waited for them to get a little closer. She felt stupid doing this, and she felt even more stupid that her hands were shaking. The robots weren’t any deadlier than a man with a gun.

Kim asked, “If I spray them with this, how are you going to see them?”

“Hopefully the same way I was able to with the Rogue. I’m going to try and use the Knowing.” Kat aimed for the leader. “I pray I can do it. I’m not really sure how it works.”

“You’re telling me this now!” Kim stared at the metal teeth and claws of the K-99s, feeling more of her phobia as she took a step back. “Maybe we should rethink this.”

“No time!” Kat shouted, taking a shooting stance and aimed. “Get ready!”

The K-99s bolted for them, tearing across the sand as they snarled and barked.

When the tin mongrels were about ten feet away, Kim squealed and squeezed the handle, discharging the carbon dioxide.

“Are you all right?” Kat glanced at her when she squealed but quickly turned her gaze back to their enemies.

“I’m fine! Kill them!”

“Don’t panic. I’m here,” Kat said and whispered, “I’ll protect you.”

“What? I didn’t hear that last part.” Kim sprayed back and forth with the nozzle and created a white cloud as she slowly backed up, getting some distance between her and the pack. The mist covered the K-99s, and they halted, blinded by the mist as Kim yelled, “Kill them! Kill them now!”

Before Kim discharged the fire extinguisher, Kat focused on the Team Leader as the pack neared and her heart thumped continuously. Kim sprayed, the mist covered the K-99s, and Kat’s eyes blazed, reflecting off the wall of white like a blue inferno and in that moment, Kat prayed, “Please work. Please work. I have to protect Kimberly.” She lost sight of the Team Leader and the Knowing kicked in.

lub-DUB–lub-DUB–lub-DUB

Kat saw the yellow-green Electrical Apparitions emanating from the K-99s, and the e-field her body generated, modified itself and collected its output in the center of her heart. The blue sphere the size of a grape doubled with each contraction of the heart till it engulfed the muscle, and the Ult L-E dissipated as her pupils dilated, making them appear black as ink. She felt indestructible, and she felt like she could annihilate anything in her path as Kat snarled with new vigor. The e-field massed till it could no longer contain the energy and pulsed, sending a small shock wave in all directions, and the E.F.P. washed over the K-99s, frying exposed circuitry. The emergency lights above the walkway and those in the filing cabinet room lost power and plunged the area into darkness as the K-99s shut down and stood there like statues.

Kat clicked on the flash light, and the beam lit up the walkway as she ordered, “Stop spraying!”

Kim released the trigger of the fire extinguisher, and both of them stared at the K-99s as the white cloud slowly dissipated.

“Shoot them now while they’re disabled!” Kim shouted.

“No. For the plan to work, we have to wait,” Kat insisted.

“Hades!” Kim tensed as she yelled, “You have got to be kidding!”

“Wait…” Kat repeated. “Wait! Now!”

 

Chapter Fifteen

The Best Of Plans

9:07 P.M…

Kat waited as Kim again sprayed the fire extinguisher. The K-99s’ backup battery kicked in, and they powered up as the white cloud engulfed them a second time. The yellow-green Electrical Apparitions of the K-99s faded as the Knowing entered its third stage, and Kat saw a bright ghost-image of each of the K-99s that showed through the mist. She noticed the Team Leader and the two K-99s behind it raised their visors, so she carefully aimed and fired three times with uncanny accuracy, hitting the front K-99s in their kill spot.

“That one’s empty,” Kim said as she dropped the fire extinguisher and raced back to the second one.

Kat retreated with her. Kim picked up the second fire extinguisher and sprayed the remaining three K-99s, and she watched the middle one open its visor and that woman shoot it, dropping it. The last two K-99s stood frozen in place as they received data from their I-Link; it informed them the other four had been terminated.

After dropping the second empty fire extinguisher, Kim removed her gun as she yelled, “That’s it on the spray!”

The two K-99s backed up several steps till they were clear of the mist and once the cloud dissipated, they saw the intruders heat signatures and had no need to raise their visors.

“They’ve adapted too soon!” Kat shouted as she removed the A.P.R. magazine from her pocket, ejected the regular one, cleared the chamber, and tossed the magazine to Kim. Kat inserted the new one as the Knowing’s bright ghost-images faded along with the misty cloud. Her pupils retracted and returned to their normal greenish brown then beamed with blue Ult L-E. She fired once at the K-99 to her left, and the armor piercing round penetrated the visor and entered its weak spot. “Hurry!” Kat fired at the last one as she shouted, “Climb down!”

The K-99 turned its head slightly, and the bullet Kat fired, ricocheted off the metal visor. Kim holstered her gun, thinking this was the second time her weapon had been useless and maybe she needed to upgrade it; she placed the magazine Kat had thrown to her in her knapsack, hurried to the cliff’s edge, and started down.

As the last dog bio-mecha charged and leaped, Kat took a step toward the edge, fired again, and this time the round penetrated its visor. She ducked as the K-99 jumped over her and the cliff, landing in a heap on the floor below. At the other end of the walkway, the hidden wall rumbled up, the elevator opened, and the other half of the pack rushed out, so she fired, taking out their Team Leader as the other five ran toward her. She tucked her gun and climbed down.

“Hurry!” she shouted to Kim who neared the bottom. “The other half is coming, and I’m down to four rounds.”

Reaching the first level, Kim ran for the exit and five feet from the bottom, Kat jumped down and followed about a minute behind her.

The K-99s studied the height of the cliff, one of them jumped, and it landed hard but undamaged. The other four followed, and soon they pursued.

The two women ran through the sandy hall, through the concrete corridor, and to the door with the scanners. They entered the hallway with the blue pipes as Kat turned and fired, hitting one in its vulnerable spot. It collapsed to the floor about a hundred yards away, and the four remaining K-99s leaped over its body, continuing their pursuit. Kat backed up a few steps, fired twice, and struck one K-99, but the other one evaded her other shot.

“No, not another rogue!” Kat shouted as she turned and ran. “They’ve adapted again.”

“What?” Kim was way ahead and paused at the corner.

“The one K-99 has evolved like the Rogue; it’s able to dodge bullets!” Kat neared her.

 

Kimberly’s view…

Hades… I’m trembling again as I see the three robot mutts closing in on that woman. Why am I acting this way? I don’t know, but I need to get out of here!

I run around the corner, shouting, “Well, use that Knowing thing on it.”

End Kimberly’s view…

 

“I can try, but I’m down to one round.” Kat turned the corner.

“You better do something,” Kim yelled over her shoulder as she controlled her urge to scream in fear. “Hades! They’re gaining on us. We won’t make it out.”

“Right! Keep going!” Kat heard the fear in Kim’s voice and was determined to save her, so she stopped about a hundred feet from the corner, turned, and waited for them to come around. Kat unslung her backpack, removed a screwdriver, knelt to one knee, and laid the tool beside her.

Kim glanced over her shoulder again and halted in her tracks. “What are you doing?”

“I’m buying you some time! So run!” Kat considered what she was about to do and shouted back, “Hey! You’ll need your flashlight!”

“Right!” Kim removed it and started to run.

The three K-99s turned the corner, and Kat faced the pack as she muttered, “Come on! Come on! Kick in!” Her eyes dilated as the Knowing activated, sending an e-field pulse in all directions, and the lights in the area lost power and the K-99s shut down in their tracks.

Kim paused, turning her flashlight on. Kat switched on hers just as the K-99s fell over stiff as a day old corpse. Kat waited, knowing it was only a matter of time. She watched as their backup battery turned on, they powered up, and the three rose to their paws and looked around the dark area. Once they got their bearings, they charged. The ghost-images of the K-99s appeared, acting a second before the real ones did and Kat fired at the one in the lead and hit its weak spot.

“Keep running!” she yelled to Kim and watched the K-99 that she hit stumble, fall, and wipe out the two behind it, and the three landed in a heap.

 

Kimberly’s view…

I run, thinking it’s stupid the way I’m acting and then stop and turn. Why am I running like some frightened rabbit? Did that woman tricked me? She did some how; that woman wants me to owe her my life, and I can’t have that. My fear vanishes as resentment replaces it. I’m not going to owe her anything!

I start toward her and shout, “I’m not going to let you save me! I can protect myself!”

“What are you doing?” she asks as she glances at me then turns her attention back to the pack. “Why are you coming this way?” She lays the empty gun down and picks up the screwdriver, holding it like a knife. “I said run! Get out of here! It’s useless. There’s nothing you can do.”

“Shut up!” I aim at the K-99s. “Don’t ever say something like that to me! I’m not useless!”

The last two K-99s lift from the heap and slowly stalk that woman as she grips the screwdriver and shouts, “I said it’s useless, not that you’re useless!”

“Oh…” I utter as my anger lessens but only a bit. “Well…” I notice the pipes running along the ceiling and ask, “Can these things swim?”

“No, they’re not waterproof.”

“Great! I can finally do something!” I fire, emptying my magazine along the pipes in front of the K-99s. “See,” I whisper. “I’m not useless.”

The pipes rupture and spray water on them, the K-99s jolt in place as electricity surges through their bodies, and they collapse to the floor.

“That was amazing!” that woman utters as she stands, grabs her things, hurries down the hall, and joins me where I stand as she looks at me with admiration. She’s like a little girl looking up at her big sister who has just saved her from an angry stray dog, and that woman reiterates, “Really, that was amazing.”

“I know,” I say, trying to sound boastful, but instead I slightly blush as I receive the compliment. That woman seems sincere about it as she looks at me with her wonder-filled eyes and for a few moments, I think I’m looking at a kid. I turn away, so she doesn’t see me blush. I don’t brush off the compliment since it has come from the Pandora Project who has great skill in her own right, but I also can’t let that woman know I appreciate the praise, so I act irritated as I glance at her screwdriver, inquiring, “What were you going to do? Were you going to dismantle the tin mongrels before they chewed your arm off?”

“That’s funny–” she chuckles and says, “–but no.”

Surprised by her reaction, I speak, “I believe that’s the first time I’ve seen you laugh.” I eject my empty magazine and insert the one she tossed to me earlier.

“It has been a long time.” She glances over her shoulder, making sure nothing pursues us. “I can’t believe you saved me. I thought you only looked out for yourself.”

“Well, don’t get used to it; it must have been a lapse in judgment. Anyway… I didn’t want to owe your dead corpse anything. I might feel bad for a few hours.” I start down the hall. “Or a least, a few minutes. Come on. Let’s go back to my apartment.”

 

Chapter Sixteen

The Request

9:47 P.M…

Thanatos the Dark Half’s Regulator clicked on an incoming call, and an image of a man appeared on his hundred foot screen. The man’s eyes were shadowed, but Thanatos recognized the mouth and chin.

“Mr. Morta,” Thanatos yelled over the loud metal music resonating through his domain. “It has been a while. You should call more often. I miss our chats.”

“And I dislike them.”

“And here I thought we were friends. I guess I was wrong. What can I do for the Council?”

Mr. Morta scowled as he looked over the nipple pierced punk; he could barely hear Thanatos. He stated, “I wanted to personally confirm that the request for the Pandora Project’s Open Closing has been canceled. We have no further need to have a bounty on its head.”

Thanatos pulled up the file, opened it on the lower part of the large screen, and replied, “ The Closing and the bounty were canceled one minute ten seconds after your request.” He scratched his eyebrow as he inquired, “Is there a problem?”

“No,” Mr. Morta answered.

“I take it you have a real interest in this Pandora–” Thanatos yelled and glanced over the file. “–woman. Do not worry. Since the forging of the Assassins Guild, mistakes are rare.” He typed in a command on the keyboard and turned down his music, and Thanatos stopped yelling. “Once a Closing is canceled, it is canceled. All Closers use H.H.Cs., and they know the moment a cancelation comes through. Pandora has nothing to fear from any Closer. She is free to do whatever projects do.”

Mr. Morta tapped his finger on the table, not amused with Thanatos and then spoke, “Perhaps you can help me with another matter. A Closer crossed paths with one of our projects. I would like to know their identity. I believe she performed the Topa Closing.”

Thanatos typed across the keyboard and pulled up more files. “Do you know the history of the Assassins Guild?”

“Yes,” Mr. Morta replied. “I do not need a lesson. Please give me the answer to my request.”

Thanatos gestured a bow with his hand and head as he began, “Great Council member…” A smile slithered across his face as he said, “If you know the history, you should also know I cannot tell you their identity. Part of my job is to protect their anonymity.”

Mr. Morta grumbled his irritation. “I have no further need to speak with you then.”

He ended the transmission. Thanatos drummed his fingers on the swivel keyboard, pushed it to the side till it aligned with the chair’s arm, and leaned forward.

“Phoenix…” He placed his palms together as if praying and questioned out loud, “What have you gotten yourself into?”

  • * *

9:53 P.M…

Hellenistic Sector, Business Vicinage…

The twin Closers, Nikolai and Natasha busied themselves as they waited to fulfill the Closing on the Phoenix, and three days remained before the appointed time. After they had closed on Vic the Vulture earlier that morning for the Valhalla Corporation, they returned to their hotel and cleaned up, then they found a nice place for lunch, and enjoyed a meal. As natives of the Light Side of the planet, everyday life in Noir was alien to them.

“I’ll never get used to this.” Natasha made her way out of Main One Hospital, after visiting its pharmacy. Her internal clock was off without the sun to greet her in the morning, and she felt like she was on an endless all-nighter and wished to be back where the sun caressed her face.

Few people were walking the area she was in. Natasha paused, tried to adjust to the odd way of breathing through the WM-A, and continued outside. She carried a green cloth sack and halted at the edge of a sidewalk as the Cadillac pulled up to the curb. She placed the sack on the floor of the back seat and got in the front. Her brother Nikolai had the wheel and his Fedora lay beside him on the seat along with an open briefcase. An old book titled Draven and Salandra lay inside.

Nikolai held another book titled Blood Harvest that he was nearly done with. He finished the last page of the chapter, placed the novel in the briefcase, and put the briefcase in the back. “Tasha, were you able to get the kits?” He watched as his sister tucked her black hair behind her ear.

She removed her mask, tossed it in the back, and replied, “Yes, we have enough filters and the Liquid Oxygen Sprays to last several weeks, if needed. I for one do not wish to stay a minute longer in this dreadful place.”

“Our assignment will be over soon then we can return home.” He drove out of the hospital’s parking lot and to the main road. “We can see the sun once more.”

After a few minutes…

“I almost forgot.” Natasha reached into the back seat and removed two boxes from the bag. “I got us upgrades.” She handed one to her brother.

He took it, questioning, “Upgrades?”

“Yes, I grew tired of the Winnow Mask we have and bought the next level up.” Natasha removed the WM-B from its box. “These have straps so that our hands are free.”

“Well done, my sister. We may need these if we are to take down the Phoenix. They’ve also given me an idea.” He pulled over and put on the WM-B.

“What are you doing?” Natasha questioned.

“This vehicle is a convertible. I would like to put the top down. Is that all right with you?”

“Only because it is you who is asking, I will bear the discomfort of this place.”

He activated the top, it lowered, and Nikolai resumed driving. “I enjoy having the wind in my face. It is not that terrible, is it?”

“No.” She grabbed the Fedora, placed it in the back, slid over, and then leaned her head on her brother’s shoulder. “It is not that bad.”

About ten minutes later…

The onboard computer centered in the console flashed red and then it spoke, “Tainted Rain forecasted to hit in four minutes. For your safety, this rental vehicle will lock out drive control till the storm passes. Please pull over and raise the top. Estimated length of Tainted Rain is fifteen minutes.”

“I just placed it down.” Nikolai pulled the car over and pressed a button that raised the top. “If we were in Mother Russia, we wouldn’t have to worry about this polluted rain.” He left the car running. “I should be thankful we didn’t get caught in it.”

He watched as black droplets speckled the windshield then thousands fell from the sky. The wind howled from the west, whipping the water about along with debris on the road. The drab Dry Clouds thundered as people on the sidewalks rushed for cover.

Natasha leaned forward, turned on the air system, and removed her WM-B. “I wish to be rid of this mask. It is so uncomfortable.”

The rental as with all automobiles on the Dark Half had a special filter to provide clean air for its passengers. The Cadillac idled, switching to its electric battery.

“I know, but you do not want to breathe Noir’s air. It is foul, smells of petroleum, and look.” He pointed to the windshield. “The rain has traces of oil. You do not want it on your delicate skin.”

“Promise me, my brother, that we will never return to the Dark Half. Promise me, we will remain on the Light Side once we have returned home.”

“This I cannot promise. If Voice has a Closing for us, we must take it. We must never disobey the laws of the Assassins Guild.” He looked worried. “We should never incur the Guild’s wrath.”

“You mean like the Phoenix?”

“Yes.” He looked to the black water flowing down the windshield. “We should never incur their wrath like the Phoenix.”

In an alley, the pale-white wolf gazed at the siblings as their car sped by, and the Tainted Rain soiled its fur and turned its coat a pale-gray. The raven perched above the wolf on a fire escape and crowed softly. The large bird was never far from the wolf.

Back in the car…

Natasha questioned, “Is there a place we can hide from this gloom? Is there a place we can escape for an hour or two?”

“Here.” Nikolai handed her a brochure. “Maybe this place will cheer you up.”

“What is this?” She took it and glanced at the picture. “A museum?”

“No.” He smiled. “Look and you will see.”

She read the front cover, “Come see our large spacious Sun Room mimicking a pine forest of the Light Side of the planet.” She excitedly looked over the pamphlet and told her brother, “There are tall ordinary trees, green luscious plants that don’t glow, and sunlight, precious sunlight. Do they really have such a place in Noir?” Natasha turned to her brother. “We must go. We must go now. Take me.”

“Patience, my sister. We will go Sunday.”

 

Chapter Seventeen

Flagged

October 23…

Saturday…

12:43 A.M…

The Chamber…

Analysts worked in three eight hour shifts, and a file came across an analyst’s computer. He scanned the document and flagged the record.

The analyst pressed a button on the side of his earpiece and stated, “I have a problem.”

A supervisor approached his workstation, and she questioned, “What’s the problem?”

The analyst glanced up at her, then turned back to his computer, and pointed. “I’ve received a file that a Mr. Pinchbeck has taken over management duties for the Factory.”

“All right. What seems to be the problem?” The supervisor looked over the document and adjacent files. “All the paperwork is in order.”

“I remember sending out this document yesterday. The new manager wasn’t Mr. Pinchbeck, but Mr. Monrow. I believe the documentation has been altered. We should bring it to the attention of the Council.”

The supervisor tapped the touch screen of her H.H.C. and pulled up the files in question. “No, you must be mistaken. I have the original file right here. Mr. Pinchbeck is the new manager.”

The analyst shook his head. “I could have sworn there was a different name there yesterday.”

She insisted, “This is nothing we should concern the Council with. If there was a mix-up, we would have heard about it by now. There can’t be two managers at the Factory.”

The analyst motioned to his screen and said, “I found something else. Mr. Frank Bygone used his corporate card yesterday to rent a limo.” The analyst pointed to a H.H.C. lying on his workstation. “I have the bill from the limo company right here.”

“What’s your point?” the supervisor a little irritated, questioned.

“Mr. Bygone worked at the Factory.” The analyst turned to her again. “He’s listed among the dead, so how could he have used his corporate card?”

“Where did the limo take him?”

“Let me see. The driver picked him up from the corner of Limit Street and West 1000 Avenue and took him to the Factory.”

“Has the card been used since?”

The analyst looked over the file. “No.”

“No worries then. The limo company put down the wrong date, that’s all. They aren’t as efficient as us. Back date our records to the day before the T-3s attacked the Factory.” The supervisor nodded after the analyst complied. “Excellent. Now we can say good-bye to Mr. Bygone.”

The analyst snickered. “That’s kind of funny.”

“Yeah, I know, but don’t let the Council hear you laugh.” The supervisor motioned to them with her head as they talked among themselves. “Back to work.” The supervisor continued down the row of analysts. “There’s much to do.”

 

In the center of the Chamber…

Mr. Morta’s view…

I review the data we received from Etna Toys Distribution Station Bravo and find it most interesting. Ginn’s Cipher has appeared, but who has it, and why are they at one of our old labs? Does this incident have anything to do with Pandora? I smirk, amused by the notion. It would be like Pandora; she would become involved in Ginn’s Prophecy to spite our efforts. I place my computer in sleep mode, push my chair away from the table, and stand. If it’s true, what part will Pandora play? I walk through the areas of the room that are shadowed from prying eyes.

End Mr. Morta’s view…

 

Mr. Decuma stretched his hand forward and scanned the darkness, noting Mr. Morta was smiling. Mr. Decuma asked, “Do we have a team ready to go to Etna Toys Distribution Station Bravo?”

“No,” Ms. Nona answered. “All of our S.C.Ms. are busy on other assignments except those stationed here. Should we pull a group from the field or send in our personal guard?”

“Neither,” Mr. Morta replied as he returned to his chair. “There is nothing important anyone can find at Etna, so we should not pull any S.C.Ms. off of an assignment to investigate some vandal or junky.”

“Do you really believe it was some vandal or junky?” Mr. Decuma inquired. “This vandal has Ginn’s Cipher.” Suspicious of the oldest member’s actions, he questioned, “Why do you delay in sending the S.C.Ms.?”

“Delay?” Slightly offended, Mr. Morta stated, “If you believe this Cipher is more important than any of the assignments the S.C.Ms. are on, by all means, you can go ahead, pull out one of the teams, and send them in. Or better yet, you should send in our personal guards and hope the T-3s do not discover our new base of operations.”

 

Mr. Decuma’s view…

Why does he belittle my opinion or is there another reason for the delay? Is Mr. Morta hoping someone will escape before our men arrive at Etna?

End Mr. Decuma’s view…

 

“Mr. Morta is correct in his thinking,” Ms. Nona stated. “As great of a find Ginn’s Cipher would be, what good is it to us? Ginn’s Prophecy is not our department.” She paused. “Unless you have a good reason why we should investigate immediately, I say we let our guard dogs take care of the intruder or intruders.”

Mr. Decuma straightened his bright orange tie as if it was chafing his neck and said, “We will wait as you implied, most likely the intruder will not survive the K-99s. We can have their corpse examined. There is no rush.”

 

Mr. Decuma’s view…

I glance at Mr. Morta. First he delayed Cerberus from killing Pandora, and now he delays us from sending a team to Etna. Is Mr. Morta letting his emotions interfere with his judgment?

 

Chapter Eighteen

Who’s In Charge Now?

12:47 A.M…

Hellenistic Sector, Trade Vicinage…

Outside the new manager’s office at the Factory…

The stench of dead bodies clung to the air, and it would have been a repulsive odor to any normal person. The Rogue detected the smell and processed it as any other data it acquired; it and the sight of the decaying bodies had no effect on it. For the Rogue, it was business as usual as it dragged a body of a man down a corridor and into a food court and then dropped the body in the center of the room among hundreds of other corpses. It was fortunate that the Council’s S.C.Ms. had not cleared the area. It could dispose of the body there; after all, Mr. Monrow’s name was no longer on the paperwork. Mr. Pinchbeck’s was and there couldn’t be two managers. It finished hiding the body among the others and started out. It was fortunate that the Rogue was able to have the limo driver pick him up, that way no one saw Mr. Monrow when he came in. The Rogue merely told the S.C.Ms. at the gate to expect the limo and let the vehicle through without stopping it. The Rogue removed a plastic card from its business suit. It was another good thing it thought to process a corporate card in Mr. Pinchbeck’s name; the Rogue didn’t need a trail leading to it from Mr. Bygone.

The S.C.Ms. protecting the new manager entered and looked around the area.

“There you are, Mr. Pinchbeck,” a female soldier said. “We wondered where you went. You must remember to let us escort you. The Factory hasn’t been secured. There could be Un-Men about.”

“I understand, it will not happen again.” The Rogue hid a smirk and then it asked, “Did you need something?”

“Lieutenant Walters has informed us more of your people have arrived, and they’re waiting in one of the secured conference rooms.”

“Excellent, lead on.” The Rogue followed the S.C.Ms., paused at the exit, and turned, motioning to the corpses. “Oh, and do make sure you tell Walters this food court needs to be cleared out as soon as possible; we will have some hungry workers to feed.”

She said, “I’ll inform him right away.”

  • * *

Hellenistic Sector, Unknown Vicinage…

The Sanctum…

The medical facility…

The hum and beep of machines filled a room as Argus slept in a bed. The machines monitored his vitals as he recovered from a few cracked ribs, a black eye, a bullet through the leg, and numerous bruises. Two men walked in to visit him.

“Is he still sleeping?” Maxwell the older of the two asked.

Peters leaned over the bed, peered into Argus’ battered face, and straightened. “Yeah, maybe we should come back later. He looks like he could use the rest.”

“No, stay.” Argus slowly opened his eyes. “I’ve been wanting to talk with you two.”

Maxwell said, “You’re awake.” He moved to his side and sat in one of two chairs.

“You wanted to talk to us? About what?” Peters asked and also sat.

Argus tried to sit up, made a face for the pain, put a hand to his side, lay back, and waved the two men closer. They leaned in. “Pandora,” Argus whispered. “What have you told the Council? Did you tell them she helped us escape from the T-3s?”

Maxwell turned to Peters and nodded and then both men sat back. Peters removed his H.H.C., pulled up a program, ran the software, turned the volume up on the device, and nodded to Maxwell. Argus didn’t hear any noise coming from the H.H.C.

“If anyone is monitoring this room–” Maxwell started. “–they’ll hear nothing but interference for the next few minutes, so we can talk freely.”

“As to your question…” Peters replied. “We never mentioned Pandora. We told them Maxwell managed to loosen his restraints enough to free himself, he set me free, and we helped you out of the Factory.”

“We did tell them about the Un-Man and the magnet,” Maxwell added. “Mostly we were vague about the whole ordeal.”

“Good.” Argus moved his hand back to his cracked ribs. “There’s something I’d like you to do for me.”

“What?” both techs asked.

“Go to the armory.” Argus gritted his teeth as the pain killers started to wear off. “There’s a gun I need you to requisition and after you receive it, there’s something I want you two to do. You’ll need to…”

“Hades!” Peters started to protest, “We don’t do that kind of…”

“No, it’s nothing like that,” Argus interrupted. “What I want you to do is very simple.” He looked over their clothes consisting of a white lab coat, blue jeans, and tennis shoes. “You’ll both need to wear a black suit and tie.”

Puzzled, they glanced at one another, turned back to Argus, and asked, “What do we have to do?”

 

Chapter Nineteen

Chad

5:45 A.M…

Hellenistic Sector, Residential Vicinage…

A few cars passed their taxi as they made their way back home to Nexus Apartments. The driver dropped them out front, and Kim rang the gate bell and within a minute, a security guard met them, opened the gate, and escorted them to the front. Another security guard buzzed them through, and they walked in.

“Welcome back, Ms. Griffin and guest,” the security guard at the desk said as he marked down their arrival on a H.H.C.

“Thanks.” Kim stopped at the desk.

Kat offered her hand to the second security guard then to the one who escorted them in. “Hi, I’m Kat.”

The two men shook her hand.

“I’m Marc and this is Henry,” the second and younger of the two guards said.

“Hello.” Henry tipped his cap to Kat after shaking her hand.

“Marc, was there any mail from yesterday?” Kim asked.

“No, but someone did leave a letter.”

“Oh.” Kim held out her hand for it. “From whom?”

“He didn’t say, and the letter is for Ms. Kat.”

“Me? Really?” She took the envelope. “Thanks.” Kat examined it, finding nothing written on the outside.

“Who in Tartarus knows you’re here?” Kim questioned as she wondered if that woman was keeping something from her.

There was only one way to find out who it was from, so Kat opened the envelope and read it as she headed for the elevator.

 

Kimberly’s view…

“Are you going to answer me?” I follow her. “Hey! I’m talking to you!”

That woman’s ignoring me, but is she keeping secrets? Maybe she isn’t a victim as she puts on, but maybe she’s… I can go on like this all day in my thoughts, but I don’t have the time. I need to find out who sent the letter.

 

Katharine’s view…

I pretend not to see her glare at me as if Kimberly will twist my arm behind my back and pressure me into answering her. I have more important things to worry about and continue reading the letter after we enter the cab. I’m still reading it when we arrive on the thirty-first floor, and I read it again by the time we arrive at Apartment H.

 

Kim snapped, “Door, unlock,”

“Voice recognized as…”

“Mute,” Kim snapped again, interrupting it.

A.C.S. detected the stress in her voice and questioned, “Is everything all right? You sound…”

 

Kimberly’s view…

“I’m fine, and I said mute!” I command.

For Ares’ sake! Now my apartment’s ignoring me.

 

Katharine’s view…

Her outburst doesn’t phase me as I grip the letter. I find out that there’s no need to tell my friend Chad that Preacher died; he already knows. I wish I had been there to console him.

End Katharine’s view…

 

They entered the small entry and then Kim headed for the kitchen and Kat the living room.

After a few more minutes, Kim couldn’t take it anymore and questioned, “Well? Are you going to tell me who it’s from?”

“What?” Kat mumbled as she turned and faced her.

“Haven’t you been listening? I’ve been asking you over and over. Who sent the letter?”

“Chad,” Kat said as she changed her mind about sitting on the couch and went and stood by the table in the kitchen.

“Is he a boyfriend of yours?”

Kat shook her head, answering Kim’s question and read the note for a third time. She folded the letter, removed her backpack from around her shoulder, and pulled out the Bible.

Kim stared at her as she controlled the urge to scream like an angry banshee; that woman wouldn’t give her a straight answer, and she was about ready to choke it out of her. She demanded, “Who’s Chad?”

Kat set the book on the table and rubbed her hand over its white leather cover. “Chad’s a boy I know.” She traced its worn gold lettering with her finger. “He hung out with me and Preacher.”

She remembered Preacher was that guy friend of Kat’s who was murdered. Her face softened for a moment as she asked, “What does the letter say?”

“Chad wants me to know that Preacher’s funeral is today. He also wants me to know he misses me. He still doesn’t understand why I left the Kitchen and Wayfaring Lane. He wants to know why I left him and Preacher.” She shook her head, wanting so badly to cry. “He never understood how unsafe it was to have me around and that I put them in danger.”

“You do know you can’t go to the funeral. We need to track down the lead we have. We need to find Adam Greenhouse so we’re going to Genesis Arboretum.”

 

Katharine’s view…

Kimberly’s probably right. I peer at her then turn my gaze away. If I went I’ll be putting him in danger, but can I do that to him? Can I abandon Chad and force him to say good-bye to Preacher alone?

No, I can’t, but I also don’t want to argue with Kimberly. I need to think it over, so I tell her, “I’ll be on the roof.” I grab the book and start for the door.

“You can’t go,” Kimberly insists. “You need to put personal things aside and focus on what’s important. We need to find out who murdered my mom.”

I don’t respond, pause at the door, try to think of something to say, decide against it, and leave. I hate arguing with Kimberly; it’s better to drop it for now.

Sometime later…

The Nexus Apartments’ rooftop is flat and surrounded by a four foot metal railing consisting of three bars. A raven flies above me, and I glance at it. I stand at the edge that faces the parking garage. There’s less to see at the parking garage and less to distract me. I look to Preacher’s Bible and speak to him as if he can hear my thoughts.

I miss you. I feel as though your death is my fault. I hold the book close. I know Topa had you killed. He hired an Illicit Closer to do the job. My mind flashes back to an alley off of Wayfaring Lane as I hold his cold body in my arms. I can’t get that night out of my head. A deep heart-rending sorrow devastates me. You were the one who pulled me out of the darkness. You made my life worth living, and now I only have Chad and he only has me, so I can’t leave him alone.

The raven caws overhead and distracts me for a moment. Kimberly told me she heard Topa tell one of his henchmen you were interfering with sales of a narcotic called Sunna Snaps. She told me that’s why he hired the Illicit Closer. Still… I shut my eyes. If I had never met you, I feel as though you would still be alive. But I’m selfish, so very selfish. If I could change things, I would still want to meet you. I would still want to be in your life, and I would want you to hold me. I walk away from the ledge, sit in the middle of the roof, and fondly think of Preacher. Most people who saw you thought you were a homeless man. It was the way you dressed; you always wore worn clothes and those awful glasses of yours. They were broken, and you had them taped in the front. You refused to buy a new pair. You came from a wealthy family, so it wasn’t about the credits. You said they meant something to you. You said you couldn’t bear to throw them away. I rest my hand on the cold concrete. And then came Chad. You first introduced us about a year ago. I can clearly remember it was a Thursday. It had only been a week since I awoke in Etna Toys Plant and Warehouse. I didn’t know who I was and Un-Men were hunting me. I was so alone in the world. I guess you thought me and Chad could help each other.

End Katharine’s view…

 

Almost a year earlier…

31 A.D.C…

October 29…

Hellenistic Sector, Old Business Vicinage…

“Kat.”

Preacher walked to her and had a boy with him. Preacher found her lying on a cot, one of about a hundred in a shelter known as the Kitchen, and Kat turned his way when he called her name. He stopped at the end of her bed and placed his hands on the boy’s shoulders.

“I’d like you to meet Chad. He’s also new to Wayfaring Lane.”

Chad wore a worn, burnt-orange, hooded sweat shirt and blue jeans. His brown hair was unkempt and dirt covered his face. The boy’s brown eyes mirrored her own; they looked lost and alone.

“Hello, Chad.” Kat sat up and stood, offering her hand. “Nice to meet you.”

The boy about twelve hesitated then shook her hand. “Hey.”

“I’ve assigned Chad the cot next to yours.” Preacher motioned to a bed. “You guys can watch out for each other.”

Chad threw a duffle bag on the empty cot.

“I’ll check on you two later. I have to go make sure lunch has started. I think the Kitchen would grind to a halt without me.” Preacher started off. “Kat, Chad’s a very smart kid. Ask him about the workings of Noir. He knows a lot.” He headed for the food prep area.

“So,” Kat started. “You study a lot?”

“Not really. I don’t go to school, but I like to read things on my H.H.C., and I remember everything I read.”

“Wow, that’s amazing?”

“Do you have any special talents?” Chad asked.

Kat glanced at the backpack leaning against her bed that had her Beretta resting inside it. “Umm…” she said. Surely there was something else she was good at besides shooting things. Even if she was, Kat didn’t remember, so she told him, “I have very good aim.”

His eyes widened. “Really?”

“Yes.”

“Show me.” He searched through his duffle bag. “Here, this is a piece of putty. It’ll stick to anything.” Chad glanced around the room. “See that sign over there?”

“The one that says Kitchen about twenty feet away?”

“Yeah, that one. Hit it with this putty.”

“Okay.” She took the piece, removed sunglasses from her backpack, and put them on; Kat did this to hide the Ult L-E. She focused on the target as the e-field of her body altered and her eyes glimmered like sapphire. “I’ll hit the dot of the letter i.” Kat threw the putty, arching it so the piece wouldn’t nail anyone and hit the dot dead on.

Chad squinted. “Wow, that’s cool.” He ran over to the sign, climbed a chair, reached up on his toes, removed the putty, and ran back. “But can you do it again? Try it.”

She took the piece, threw it, and hit the dot.

“That’s amazing.” His brown eyes widened with excitement. “Are you like some super hero?”

Kat chuckled. “No, I’m just like you.” She sat on her bed and removed the sunglasses after she felt the Ult L-E had dissipated.

“Why did you wear those?” He pointed to the glasses. “It isn’t bright in here.”

“It’s a secret. Maybe I’ll tell you about it someday.” Kat patted her bed for him to sit. “Now, let me test your abilities. Hmm…” She put her finger to her chin. “What question? I know. Preacher tells me water is rationed on the Dark Half of the planet.”

Chad rubbed his hands together. “Yeah, Noir distributes Water Ration Cards among most of the populace, and the cards allow each person two liters of water per day. Whatever amount isn’t used accumulates on a card and can be used as credits.” He reached into his duffle bag and pulled out a candy bar. “I was very careful how much water I drank the last few days and had enough credits to buy two chocolate bars. You want a piece?”

“Chocolate… I love chocolate.”

Chad removed the paper wrapper, opened the foil, and broke off two squares. He handed one to her. “You want to hear more?”

“Sure.” She bit into the piece.

“Those with a work ID number carry a P-Ration Card. P for productive part of society, and those like us unfortunate enough not to find work or find legitimate work are issued D-Ration Cards. D for drain on economy.”

Kat removed her card from her back pocket. “It does say D-Ration.” She licked chocolate from her fingers.

“P-Ration Cards are given an extra allowance of water for bathing and house hold cleaning. D-Ration Cards are given these large disposable wipey towels.” He reached into his duffle bag and pulled out a sealed white plastic bag. “A bath in a bag.”

“Yes, I have a few of those. They’re not as nice as a shower.”

Chad nodded, thought for a moment, and questioned, “Preacher said we’re supposed to look out for each other. Are you really going to look out for me? Be there when I need you?”

 

The present…

Nexus Apartments’ rooftop…

His question echoed through her mind.

“Yes, Chad.” Kat stood, walked back to a different part of the railing, and glanced over the edge at Zeus Park across the street. “I’m going to Preacher’s funeral.” She went inside. “I’ll be there for you.” She dreaded the task ahead. “Now to convince Kimberly to let me go.”

 

Chapter Twenty

Farewell Preacher

6:35 A.M…

Apartment H…

Kimberly’s view…

“Absolutely not!” I slam my palm against the front door, blocking that woman so she can’t leave.

No one besides my father makes me as mad as her. Why does she insist on doing her own thing? Why can’t she listen?

I shout, “You’re not going to the funeral!” I control my anger and order firmly, “You’re going to Genesis Arboretum with me, and we’re going to search for Adam Greenhouse.”

 

Katharine’s view…

I patiently wait for her to finish her ranting and when I have an opportunity to speak, I try to reason with her by saying, “We can still go today.” I walk over to the kitchen and lay the book on the counter. Nothing’s going to keep me from saying good-bye. “We’ll go after the funeral.”

“No!” Kimberly shouts at me, then moves over to the stove, turns the burner on high, and soon it glows red as red as her angry face. “We’ll eat some breakfast and then go. I don’t want to wait.”

My patience wears thin, and I throw my arms up in frustration as I ask, “What does it matter if we wait a few more hours?” I’m getting nowhere in this argument, but I won’t back down, not about this. I fold my arms and question, “If you want to go so badly, why don’t you go by yourself?”

 

Kimberly’s view…

“I…” I stumble on the question.

What if the Un-Men show up or some other bio-mecha? Look at me! I’ve never been afraid like this. I need to get over my phobia.

“We should stay together. Remember we’re partners,” I tell her, then turn the burner off, and face her. “We need to watch each other’s back.”

 

Katharine’s view…

“Partners when it’s convenient for you,” I mumble.

Kimberly blurts, “What? Hades! Now what are you whining about?”

This is so frustrating! And it’s getting me nowhere. I need another tactic, so I start, “Are you saying we can never do our own thing? That we have to stay by each other’s side 24/7?”

“Yes!”

“You barely tolerate me! Why would you want to be around me so much? Are you sure that’s how you want it?”

 

Kimberly’s view…

“Didn’t you hear me? Yes!” I shout and then think about it some more. I have that Closing in two days; I can’t have that woman with me then, so I quickly answer, “No.”

“Which is it? Do you or don’t you?” that woman questions me and then she states, “You know what? Never mind. I’m not going to let you decide this one! You only do things when it suits you. Well, this is about me! And I’m telling you, I’m going!”

I don’t want her tagging along when I go on my next Closing; with my luck, she’ll try to stop me. But something within me doesn’t want her to win the argument. Oh for Ares’ sake! Maybe I need to grow up a bit.

I try to sound like she convinced me when I tell her, “You’re right. Sometimes we’ll need to do our own thing, so… I don’t like it, but go on ahead to his funeral. Come right back when its over.”

 

Katharine’s view…

“I will,” I reply.

That was easy; it was almost too easy.

  • * *

8:40 A.M…

Hellenistic Sector, Memorial Park Vicinage…

A thick fog hung above the grounds of the Hades Cemetery, and a few dozen people had gathered for Preacher’s funeral and more were coming. Bleak Dry Clouds grumbled over the dark day like a cyclops with a belly ache. Very few street lights lit the area, so the funeral home handed out lanterns and by the time the gathering was complete, about a hundred people stood around the casket. Each of them held the electric luminary. Solemn faces mourned the passing of a great and beloved man, and a few women cried along with a boy. Many people sniffled as an elderly woman blew her nose.

 

Katharine’s view…

I stand off by myself near a tree and watch the people slowly assemble. I experience a sadness so deep and so painful I don’t know how to handle it. I feel awkward and out of place, and I don’t want to be by the others. I wouldn’t know how to act. My eyes burn; no tears relieve the scorch of my grief.

I whisper to the book I hold, “Oh, Preacher… I’m sorry, but I need to keep my distance. At least, until there are fewer people. I’m already taking a chance by coming here.”

I sniff and wipe my runny nose with the arm of my jacket. I might not have my tracking beacon, but that doesn’t mean bio-mechas are unable to hunt me.

End Katharine’s view…

 

Stephanie approached from behind, carrying Transgenic Daisies. She wore a black printed t-shirt of a smiley face, but this time it had its red tongue sticking out. She stopped beside Kat, noticing her anguish. “Did you know Preacher?”

Kat gripped the book she held. “Yes.”

 

In the distance…

At the head of the casket, a pastor opened a black Bible and once everyone gathered had quieted, he started on a passage.

“Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven. A time to be born, and a time to die.”

 

At the tree…

She switched the flowers to her left hand and offered her right. “I’m Stephanie.”

“Kat.” She shook her hand.

 

In the distance…

“A time to plant, and a time to pluck what is planted. A time to kill, and a time to heal.”

 

At the tree…

Stephanie asked, “Why are you standing here instead of with the others?” She motioned with her head.

“I…” Kat didn’t know what to say. “I ah…”

 

In the distance…

“A time to break down, and a time to build up. A time to weep, and a time to laugh.”

 

At the tree…

Stephanie examined her face and tried to figure out her expression and what Kat was thinking. “Don’t worry about it,” Stephanie said. “You don’t have to tell me; I get uncomfortable around dead people too.” She buttoned up her dark brown corduroy coat as the air cooled. “When I look at them, it’s kind of like looking at myself.”

 

Katharine’s view…

Who is this woman? She says the weirdest things. And why is she standing by me instead of over by the coffin?

Stephanie continues, “I know it’s not normal, but that’s how I feel.”

End Katharine’s view…

 

In the distance…

“A time to mourn, and a time to dance. A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones. A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing.”

 

At the tree…

“Were you and Preacher close?” Stephanie asked.

“Yes.”

Stephanie glanced at her flowers; she wished she could throw these smelly things away, but she needed to stay in character. Mr. Decuma said she needed to work on her patience, and he said she needed to take more time and get to know a person before she killed them, so she asked, “How close?”

Kat looked to her unsure of her question.

Stephanie leaned in. “What I want to know is, were you two playing between the sheets?”

Kat’s cheeks flushed red as she shook her head.

 

In the distance…

“A time to gain, and a time to lose. A time to keep, and a time to throw away. A time to tear, and a time to sew.”

 

At the tree…

“Really?” Stephanie brushed a stray hair from her own face. “Are you a lesbian?”

Taken aback, Kat said nothing at first, but then shook her head again, and then she said in a hushed tone, “Umm… I think we should be quiet while the pastor is talking.” Kat took a few steps forward and away from Stephanie.

 

In the distance…

“A time to keep silence, and a time to speak. A time to love, and a time to hate. A time of war, and a time of peace.” The pastor closed his Bible and picked up a handful of dirt. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” He sprinkled the dirt on the coffin and nodded, and a man activated a machine that lowered the pine box. Those gathered, one by one, threw a handful of dirt on the coffin.

 

At the tree…

“I’m sorry.” Stephanie walked up to her. “I didn’t mean to offend you or anything. I can’t imagine spending so much time with a guy and not…”

 

Katharine’s view…

I angrily look at Stephanie. What’s with her?

“Right.” Stephanie covers her mouth as she says, “We should be quiet.”

 

Chapter Twenty-one

Chad And Kat Meet Again

9:01 A.M…

Katharine’s view…

One by one, those gathered at Preacher’s funeral withdraw, leaving only a handful standing by the grave. I notice Chad stays and I walk to him; he’s wearing a black suit. I remove my backpack from around my shoulder and place the Bible in it.

Chad sees me approach and runs to me, throwing his arms around me as he shouts, “You made it.” Tears stream down his face. “I thought you might not come.”

“I’m here.” I drop the backpack and hug him as I stroke his brown hair. “I’m here.” We stand there a few moments till Stephanie clears her throat.

Once I and Chad separate, she offers her hand to the boy. “Hi, I’m Stephanie”

“Chad.” He shakes her hand briefly then wipes his eyes with the arm of his suit. “Are you a friend of Kat’s?”

 

Stephanie’s view…

I stare at the boy a few moments, wondering if I could be friends with Pandora. I don’t see why not; there’s no better way to know your enemy.

I answer the boy, “Yep, but we did just meet.”

 

Katharine’s view…

I continue to watch her. What’s she doing hanging around me instead of gathering with the others?

“I almost forgot.” Chad grabs my hand. “There’s someone I want you to meet.” He pulls me toward a woman with a little girl; the girl has black curly hair. Three men in dark suits wearing wireless earpieces move to intercept me as they start to draw their guns, but then Chad says, “It’s okay, guys. She’s my friend.”

They cautiously look me and Stephanie over then one of them nods for us to proceed. Me and Chad walk up to the woman and the little girl.

Chad says, “This is Melissa Odin, Preacher’s sister.”

I reply, “I didn’t know Preacher had a sister.”

“Kat, it’s good to meet you.” Melissa wipes her eyes with a tissue. “Though he was the black sheep, Preacher was the one who was ashamed of us; I imagine that’s why he never mentioned me.”

Chad tells me, “Melissa is taking care of me now.”

“Yes, I’ve taken Chad in through foster care. It was Preacher’s idea. He said if anything should happen to him…” Melissa starts crying again.

Chad puts his arm around her and says, “Don’t cry. Preacher’s in a better place.”

“I know. I miss him.” She dabs her eyes again with the tissue, reaches her palm out, grabs my hand, and squeezes it. “I’m so glad you came. Chad was afraid you wouldn’t. I tried to reassure him. If you were one of my brother’s friends, you wouldn’t let him down.”

He bows his head as he admits, “I was only a little afraid.”

One of the bodyguards steps forward. “Ms. Odin, we have been in the open far too long. We should get going.”

“Mommy, I’m tired.” The little girl rubs her eyes.

“All right dear. We’ll head home now.” Melissa kneels, picking up the child.

The little girl looks to me and asks, “Would you like to come over for a while? You could read me a story.”

“I can’t right now, but if it’s okay–” I turn to Melissa. “–I’d like to stop by tomorrow and see Chad.”

Melissa nods and tells me, “I’ll give you the address. Do you have a H.H.C.?”

“Yes.” I remove a beat up one from my backpack and open up an address book on it. “Here.”

Melissa takes it, types the address, hands it back to me, and then Melissa starts for a limo parked in the distance.

The little girl waves to the casket. “Bye, Uncle Norman.”

Two of the men in black suits follow Melissa and her little girl back to the limo.

Chad hugs me again. “I’ve missed you. I wish… I wish you could have stayed with us. I wish you could have stayed with me and Preacher.” He steps back. “Maybe you could have stopped the man that…” Chad can’t finish the sentence; it must be too painful for him to say.

I put a hand to my mouth, hiding my trembling lips. Over and over I have thought the same thing. What if I had stayed? What if I had been at the Kitchen when the Closer came?

I kneel, look into his brown eyes, place my hand on his shoulder, and tell him, “Me too. How I wish I was, but you know it’s not safe. People are hunting me.”

 

Stephanie’s view…

I look at Pandora curiously. Does she suspect me? Does she know why I’m here?

 

Katharine’s view…

I glance at the man in the black suit and question the boy, “Why do you have bodyguards?”

He starts to answer, and Melissa shouts, “Chad, come on.”

“I’ll tell you tomorrow.” He runs toward the limo, and his bodyguard follows as Chad yells, “Make sure you come.”

The bodyguard presses the button on his earpiece as he leaves. “I and the boy are moving toward the limo. The area’s still clear.”

I watch as Chad gets into the vehicle and the limo pulls away, then I wait till I can’t see the vehicle and turn to Stephanie. I don’t think she’s one of Preacher’s friends, so I ask, “You said you knew Preacher, from where? I don’t remember seeing you around Wayfaring Lane.”

“Just around.” Stephanie smirks, grabs my hand, and turns it so she can see the H.H.C. and the address. “I hate to rush off too, but I’ve got somewhere to be; maybe I’ll see you tomorrow.” Stephanie heads back the way she came in past the gravestones; she still carries the Transgenic Daisies.

Stephanie’s a very odd woman.

I turn to the hole Preacher lies in as the fog thickens around me. I mutter, “I don’t know what to say to you. I believe, thanks to you, that this is not good-bye but until we meet again. Still…” I pick up a handful of dirt and throw it on his casket; the dark soil thumps as it hits. “I miss you. I’ll always miss you.”

I stand there as a petroleum scented wind blows in and disperses the fog. I leave, make my way past the gravestones, and stop when one of them catches my eye. I walk to the gravestone and kneel beside it. Theresa Griffin. Beloved Mother. Cherished Wife. May She Rest In Peace. I know only part of what Kimberly’s going through; she believed her mom abandoned her then she discovered it was a lie and that her mom was murdered. I understand what it is to lose someone because someone else decided to take their life. I feel violated as though a thief came in and stole my happy existence and left me numb and hollow inside. I smooth my hand across Theresa’s name. No wonder Kimberly’s so driven to find whoever did this to her, but will killing them ease her pain? Will it allow her to feel something? I know Kimberly believes it will.

I carefully and lovingly clear the weeds from the front of the gravestone as if the woman was my own mom. I swear I’ll help Kimberly find this person, but I don’t know if I could stand there and let her kill them. If it’s wrong for me to kill, shouldn’t it be the same for Kimberly?

I pause in my thoughts as a presence disturbs my internal deliberation, and I look to my left without turning my head. Whoever’s there, they aren’t bio-mechas; if they were, I would have detected their presence long before they got this close.

I stand, preparing for action as I shout, “I know you’re there! Come out!” I face two men as they move from hiding behind a tree; they skittishly look around as they emerge. “You?” I utter, relieved it’s them and not a bounty hunter or a Closer. “Why are you two here?”

End Katharine’s view…

 

“Argus sent us,” the older of the two men replied. “I don’t know if we ever introduced ourselves, but I’m Maxwell.” He pointed to his partner. “And this is Peters.”

“So you made it out. Is Argus all right?”

“Yes,” Peters answered. “Argus has a few cracked ribs and a lot of bruising, but for the most part, he’ll be fine.”

She walked to them. “You said he sent you. Why?”

Maxwell glanced around to make sure no one was about and pulled an object from his coat pocket. “He wanted us to give this back to you.” He offered her a Beretta, and Kat took the gun.

Peters said, “It’s not the one you loaned us, but Argus thought you would like the same model back. He said you might have gotten used to a certain piece of hardware.”

“Tell him thanks when you see him.” She ejected the magazine, finding it full. “You even returned it with a few extra rounds.”

Peters nudged Maxwell and motioned to her with his head. “Go on.”

“We actually wanted to thank you,” Maxwell started. “We would have died in the Factory if you had not released us. The T-3s killed everyone else. It was only a matter of time before they decided we should follow our co-workers.”

“No thanks needed.” Kat smiled. “You would have saved me if I were in your position.”

They glanced at each other with a bit of guilt.

Trying to hide his remorse for a past action, Maxwell replied, “Right. We would have saved you.”

“We actually need to be going.” Peters scanned the graveyard. “Our new masters don’t let us out for very long.”

“Your new masters?”

Peters said, “Yes, the Council; after the collapse of the Factory, they acquired all their assets, including us.”

 

Katharine’s view…

The word them screams in my mind as I tighten my jaw, holding back my anger. Why can’t they leave me alone? What right do they have to mess with my life?

End Katharine’s view…

 

Both men noticed the change in her demeanor, and they were a little afraid, knowing what Kat was capable of.

“Well, see you around.” Maxwell waved good-bye and motioned with his head for Peters to follow, and they walked off.

 

Katharine’s view…

I look at the Beretta and say softly, “Thanks Argus.”

I head out of the graveyard and start for Nexus Apartments, pleased I did it; I was here for Chad. He didn’t have to…

“Oh, no!” I stop and glance back.

How could I forget? I open my backpack, put the gun in it, and remove the book. I should have given Preacher’s Bible to Melissa; I’d been so caught up in the moment I forgot. No harm done. I can do it tomorrow. I continue out of the graveyard. Melissa should have it. She’s Preacher’s sister.

 

Chapter Twenty-two

Genesis Arboretum

11:07 A.M…

Hellenistic Sector, Residential Vicinage…

A lone moth fluttered in the dark heavens. The yellow, orange, and brown bug flew down, entered Zeus Park, and landed on a leaf of a Transgenic Maple. The Death’s Head Hawkmoth crawled over the lighter green side of the leaf, flaunting the skull-like pattern on its thorax, and there it watched. Across the street at the Nexus Apartments, a red VX Corvette pulled out of the parking garage and turned on to West 1000 Avenue, and the Death’s Head Hawkmoth took back to the air, flew high in the sky, and followed the car.

A half hour later…

 

Kimberly’s view…

I drive through Arts Way and pass several galleries and museums as many people stroll the dark sidewalks under the yellow glow of the Cultural Vicinage’s streetlights. I know very little about the mysterious woman sitting beside me and yet, I let her into my apartment.

I grip the steering wheel. Irritation is the first word I think of when I look at her, but I can think of a few more. Annoyance… Trouble… Headache… Idiot…

Hades! My life has changed since she appeared. Sometimes… I glance at her again. Sometimes I wish I never met her, and that all I have to worry about is my next Closing.

 

Katharine’s view…

Gloom wraps its arms around me as I stare out the side window, watching the people as they go about their lives. They have a normal life, but do they wish for a different existence? Do they long for something else?

My thoughts change and drift back to earlier when I was at Preacher’s funeral. Why was Stephanie there? I know it wasn’t for Preacher; she didn’t even leave the flowers she brought. I recall her manner. She acted like no assassin I have ever run across. Could she be a bio-mecha or maybe an organic-mecha? I don’t know. If Stephanie’s after me, why didn’t she try to kill me? What is she waiting for? And should I tell Kimberly about her?

I at least need to tell her about her mom’s tombstone, so I softly speak, knowing the difficulty of this subject, “Kimberly.”

“Hmm…” She glances at me then turns her attention back to the road.

“While I was at Hades Cemetery, I… I came across your mom’s grave.”

“Oh,” she replies. “Sure, I’d forgotten my father said she was buried there.” Kimberly’s quiet for a few moments and then she asks me, “How was the grave? Was it kept up? Did it have flowers?”

She must not have visited the grave yet; it must be too painful.

“No flowers,” I answer. “But it is being kept up; it’s in a nice spot near a tree.”

“Oh.” Kimberly pulls on her left ear lobe. “I’ll have to go visit her one day.”

Her reaction surprises me; I expected more from her. Kimberly’s a very private person, at least around me. I’m not sure what I expected; maybe some yelling or at least, some sign of anger. Is she holding it in? If so, what will happen when she erupts like a volcano?

I sigh. I just hope I’m not around when she explodes.

End Katharine’s view…

 

After a few more quiet minutes, Kim directed the car into the Genesis Arboretum’s large parking lot. Both of them got out of the car and stretched after the long ride. Over a hundred vehicles filled the spaces and in the distance, people walked in and out of the main building. A tram stopped at a pick up station, waited as people boarded, and then drove to the main entrance, and they boarded the next tram which came by about five minutes later. They exited the tram at the main building and entered. Inside, they stood in line with about twelve people. Kat kept glancing at a mountain of a man in line about four people back as Kim purchased tickets for them at a window, they walked over and handed an employee their tickets, and they entered through the turnstiles.

“Wait a second.” Kat stopped at a gift cart and glanced back to the ticket line.

Kim paused, thinking she only wanted to browse. “We can shop when we’re done.”

Back in line, the man with a buzz cut stepped to the window and bought two tickets. He stepped out of line and shouted, “Tasha. I have them. We may enter now.”

Natasha walked over to her brother and wrapped her arm around his. She kept her long coat buttoned up. “Nikolai, I am so pleased we were able to come here. Even though I hate this dreadful Dark Half, I am very interested in Transgenics, and they have hundreds of tree and plant specimens here.” She continued talking as they walked past two women at a gift cart.

He glanced at the two women. “Then let us take our time and stroll through the Arboretum.”

Kat watched the couple as they passed.

“Don’t stare,” Kim scolded. “It’s very impolite.”

Kat moved to her side and whispered, “But he’s carrying a gun.”

“I know. It’s still impolite to stare. Anyway…” Kim noticed a key chain of a bunny rabbit for sale on the gift cart. “A lot of people have guns. It doesn’t mean they’re after you. They could have it for protection or they could be pursuing someone else. You’re not the only person hunted in this world.”

“I know, but still… I have to be cautious.” Kat continued to watch the couple. “And besides, he isn’t the only one armed. The woman also has weapons on her wrists.”

Trying not to be obvious, Kim glanced at the woman. “Good eye. I had not noticed.”

Kat watched the couple as they strolled into the next room. “Maybe they’re throwing weapons like darts or knives.”

“Come on.” Kim started in the opposite direction the couple went. “They have nothing to do with us.”

Once they were some distance away, Natasha said, “I believe those women were staring at you.”

“I believe you are right. The plain looking one kept staring at me when they were in line for tickets.” Nikolai went into his gangster mode, “The broads mean nuttin’ to me. Honest. I have eyes only for you.”

Natasha grinned. “As you should.”

Kim and Kat followed the path lined with Transgenic Plant exhibits till they came across an employee, and Kim asked him, “Excuse me. Does Adam Greenhouse work here?”

“Yes.” He pointed down the path. “Keep going. Mr. Greenhouse’s lecturing around the bend.”

They continued across the path till they came to a group of about a dozen people listening to a cotton-white haired man who towered over the crowd almost a good two feet. He wore a blue flannel shirt and jean overalls.

“That’s him,” Kat said. “That’s Mr. Greenhouse.” She tilted her head and added with a hint of surprise, “He looks just like his picture.”

 

Kimberly’s view…

I ignore her comment. Finding him was easy, and now all we have to do is wait till he’s done talking.

I watch Mr. Greenhouse hobble along with a silver serpent-head cane. Hades… What is he like a hundred years old?

End Kimberly’s view…

 

Adam moved slowly to a Transgenic Maple, and his cane thumped as he walked across the concrete floor, and then he patted the tree’s trunk. “It is widely published that the first Transgenic Plant was the cross between the tobacco and the lantern fish; the report is in fact not true. The Transgenic Maple was the first, the Prime.” He coughed, removed a red handkerchief from his pocket, and wiped his mouth. “I wanted to create a Transgenic Tree or hybrid that could survive without the sun, so I created this species by genetically modifying a Red Maple with the extra-genome of a firefly, yielding a tree who’s trunk and branches produce its own light.” Adam took a deep breath and wheezed as he exhaled. “Not only is this tree the Prime, but it is also the most abundant Transgenic in Noir.” He put both hands to his cane. “Any questions?” For about twenty minutes, he answered their inquiries and when the crowd dispersed, Adam turned and started to leave through a door in the back.

“Mr. Greenhouse.” Kim moved toward the man who stood seven foot nine inches and had pale blue eyes; she didn’t think she had ever met anyone that tall, and she asked, “Could I have a moment of your time?”

He paused, turning to her. “You’re a lovely one, sapling.” His face brightened as he peered down at her. “Sorry, no autographs at this time.”

“My name’s Kimberly.” She pointed to herself. “I’m Theresa Griffin’s daughter.”

“Theresa?” Adam squinted as he looked her over. “Yes, I see it now. I should have before. I guess I’m getting old.” He continued to the door, bent, and walked through. “Come with me, please.”

They walked after him and noticed the name plate beside the door had Sapling Room written on it. They continued down a small hall into a rectangular room lit by sunlamps and within, thousands of pots of young Transgenic trees and flowers and other non-Transgenic plants filled a hundred or so rows.

Adam leaned his cane on a work table that was covered with gardening tools and turned an overhead light on. “Let me have a look at you.” He walked to Kim. “I see it.” Adam walked slowly around her. “The spitting image of your mother.” He rubbed his white stubbly chin. “I don’t know why I didn’t notice before. You look just like Theresa when we first met.”

“You worked with my mom.” Finally, she was talking to someone besides her father who knew her, and he might know what happened to her.

“Actually…” He put a finger to his lips in a hush-hush manner. “She worked for me on a top secret project.”

“On organic-mecha?” Kat questioned as she stepped forward.

Adam glanced at the other woman and looked back to Kim, mumbling, “Not so top secret, I see.”

“Mr. Greenhouse, I need to know something.” Angry at an imaginary figure, Kim inquired, “Did you know that my mom was murdered?” The sexless figure was of the person who killed Theresa.

He bowed his head and deeply sighed as if she affirmed his suspicions. “It is as I thought.”

Kim gripped her knapsack. “I’m searching for who did it and…”

“And the why?” Adam interrupted.

“No, the why doesn’t matter unless it leads me to who did it.”

“I see.” He walked over to the work table and grabbed his cane. “Why have you come to see me?”

“A clue led me to Etna Toys Distribution Station Bravo, and there I found a book.” Kim held out her hand and jiggled it when Kat didn’t react. “For Ares’ sake… The book.”

“Huh? Oh… You want me to–” Kat rummaged through her backpack and removed the Transgenic Text. “–give you the book.” She handed it to her.

Kim continued, “The book led me to you.” She handed the text to him.

He turned it over and studied the photo as if it was the first time he was seeing it. “It was so long ago. The Sphinx Corporation assigned Theresa to me back then, and it was her first job with the corporation.”

“What did you work on?” Kim asked.

“At first, Theresa helped me engineer Transgenic Plants and then later, we were both put on the organic-mecha project.”

“Was it the Gorgons?” Kat questioned.

“No, I never worked on that project.” Adam squinted, getting a better look at the second woman. “The organic-mechas were under another project name.”

“What would that be?” Kim asked.

He turned to her. “Sorry sapling, some secrets do need to be kept.”

“Were you successful with the organic-mecha?” Kat asked.

“You could say we were, but organic-mechas were long ago abandoned as a viable weapon.” Adam eyed the other woman again. “There were too many problems.”

Kat noticed his quizzical looks.

“We did find one file at Bravo Station.” Kim held out her hand again.

This time, Kat quickly removed the Lost File and gave it to her.

“Most of it doesn’t make sense.” Kim handed it to him.

Adam took the folder, flipped through it, and chuckled. “Like I said, some secrets need to remain hidden, but I will tell you one thing. The Sphinx Corporation hides information in plain sight, and one of their methods is to change the Greek name to their Roman counterpart.” He handed the file back.

Kim huffed. “This trip is a waste of my time.”

Adam questioned, “Was it?”

Kat motioned to him with her head. “Ask him about your hand. Maybe he knows more.”

“My hand?” Kim glanced at her right palm and showed him. “Oh, right. Do you know what this mark is?”

He took her hand into his large shaky ones. “I believe that is Ginn’s Cipher.” He raised a bushy eyebrow. “How did you get it?”

“From a door knob. It was hot from an office fire and burned me.”

“Heat would make a very good catalyst. Do you know where the knob is now?” Sweat beaded his liver spotted forehead as he tried to contain his excitement.

“No.”

“A pity.” Adam released her hand. “I would like to study one of the objects that has the star mark.” He pulled out his red handkerchief and threw it in a trash can and then walked over to the work table, removed a new handkerchief from a package, and wiped his face.

Kim started to mention the music box, but her partner touched her back, and Kim turned as Kat shook her head, franticly pleading for her to say nothing.

Adam noticed this.

“You said catalyst,” Kim said and then asked, “What did you mean?”

“In your case, the cipher was not imprinted by a burn, but a virus that reconfigured the epidermis on a micro level.”

“I’m not sure I understand what you mean.”

“It is simple, sapling; you came in contact with a virus that genetically alters a localized area. The virus was designed to create the raised star in the center of the palm. It doesn’t matter where you were infected, the virus was designed to place the micro cipher there in the center.” He pointed to the star.

Kat asked, “Did the Sphinx Corporation create it?”

Adam laughed. “In fact, no. Ginn did.” He threw the second handkerchief away, grabbed a third one from the package, and placed it in his pocket. “How is it delivered? I suspect Ginn put the viruses on different objects, and they lay dormant until some catalyst activates them.” He deeply breathed in again and wheezed. “It’s a pity you don’t know where the knob is. I would have liked to…”

“Did you say the composer created it?” Kat interrupted.

“Yes, scientist believe Ginn L. Irynkissgthie created the virus five hundred years ago.” Adam leaned on his cane with both hands. “They believe he’s really the Father of Genetics among other things.”

“Composer, painter,” Kat muttered. “Ginn’s credentials are growing.”

Kim asked, “What are the ciphers for?”

“Ciphers?” He cackled. “Sapling, you’re lucky to see the one. There has never been two or more in a generation. In fact, there has only been three others in the past five hundred years.” Adam stared at her hand. “If we were to have more than one at a time, that would mean something.” He looked into her face. “As to what they are for… I believe they hold some sort of code or map. I’m not sure. The cipher wasn’t my department. Whatever it holds can’t be seen even at a subatomic level. You could say the enigma is encoded.”

Kat started, “You said to have more than one at a time means something.” She placed her left hand in her pocket. “What does it mean?”

Adam shrugged. “I guess that Ginn’s Prophecy is coming true. Wouldn’t that be something.”

“What prophecy?” Kat asked.

He studied the second woman’s face. “You’ll have to find another to tell you that, you see this old man is going to bed.” Adam started for a door in the back. “The Sphinx Corporation who owns this place has been good enough to let me live here. You should come visit me sometime in my treehouse. It’s in the next area called the Sphere Room.” He started through the door. “But not today.” Adam left.

Kat waited till he exited and asked, “Now what?”

“Now we go home.” Kim looked to the folder she held. “Do some research on the internet.” She started out the way they came in.

Kat followed, and they left the Sapling Room as Kat said, “Okay, but I can’t stay up too late.”

“Why’s that?” Kim asked.

“I have to go visit Chad tomorrow,” Kat answered.

“Him again. Just how old is this guy?”

“He’s twelve. Why do you ask?” Kat grinned. “Looking for a date?”

“Funny.” Kim sneered. “Let’s go.”

They returned to the entrance and walked by Nikolai and Natasha.

Kat glanced at the couple and turned her thoughts back to Adam. “Kimberly, do you remember when I pointed out Adam? Do you remember when I said he looked just like his picture?”

“Sure.” Kim shrugged. “What about it?”

“I really meant it. Adam hasn’t changed. He hasn’t aged and looks exactly like his picture, and we know it was taken more than thirty years ago. Why hasn’t he gotten older?”

Kim said, “How am I supposed to know? Maybe he has an excellent plastic surgeon.”

“I’m serious. He hasn’t aged.”

“Oh for Ares’ sake! Don’t you think we have enough on our plate without searching for his Fountain Of Youth?”

“We did get Florida when Ponce de Leon looked for the original,” Kat said. “Maybe we can get something equally of value if we look for Adam’s Fountain.”

 

Kimberly’s view…

Why is that woman always talking in riddles? I was never very good in history, but didn’t Ponce de Leon and Christopher Columbus discover Noir or the Neoteric World as it was called back then?

 

Chapter Twenty-three

Brownstone Street

October 24…

Sunday…

8:41 A.M…

Nile Sector, Commorance Vicinage…

In a large cage beside the Bes Hotel, birds in a rainbow of colors chirped to an artificial morning. The hotel built a glass and steel aviary next to their main building so guest could walk out of the lobby into the center of a mock rainforest, and several lamps generated the sun of the Light Side. One of the upbeat regions of Noir, the upper-class part of the Nile Sector called the Commorance Vicinage, produced a wealth of hotels, fine restaurants, high class shops, and large residential properties. Business people and retail employees filled the sidewalks as they made their way to work, and children played along the well lit streets. A few dogs barked as their owners took them on walks, and a white Commercial Class He-Zeppelin glided over the brightly lit city. The helium-filled airship’s twin engines roared, cutting through the thick atmosphere. Oxygen cells fed clean air directly into the intake valve, keeping the engines running in the polluted sky. A message in green neon letters ran across the He-Zeppelin’s side. Buy Valhalla Water, the liquid from heaven. It comes from the purest source, underground springs in Iceland. So Buy Valhalla Water, H2O of the gods.

Cars and trucks drove up and down the busy Brownstone Street in front of the Bes Hotel, and Kat got out of a taxi and walked up to the stoop belonging to Melissa’s address; the house was across the street from the hotel. Earlier, she had taken a hover train to reach this part of Noir. Kat noticed a black van with dark tinted windows parked near Bes and panicked. She needed to get a hold of her paranoia. The Council and the Factory could no longer track her, so it was just a van. No one was after her, and Kat nodded as if she convinced herself and moved to the front door, keeping an eye on the van. She removed the white Bible from her bag and rang the doorbell.

Before anyone answered, Stephanie walked up behind her. “Hello again.” She wore a similar outfit as before, but this time the smiley face had a bullet hole in the center of its forehead, and blood trickled down from the cartoon wound.

“Hello,” Kat replied.

Stephanie noticed her suspicious gaze and tried to divert her mistrust by asking, “Are you also here to see Preacher’s sister?”

 

Across the street…

Two men in white uniforms and caps exited the black van, went to the rear of the vehicle, and opened the two back doors.

 

On the stoop…

“Yes, I’ve come to see Melissa,” Kat replied, feeling a bit unsettled around Stephanie; their meeting before and now seemed too much of a coincidence.

“Me too.” Stephanie glanced up and down the street, spotted the van, and turned back to Kat. “Can’t wait to see Chuck again.”

Kat corrected, “Chad.”

“Huh?” Stephanie was unsure why she seemed irritated.

“His name’s Chad,” Kat said as she glanced over Stephanie and saw no evidence of any weapons on her person, but she did carry a bright yellow backpack large enough for several.

“Right, Chad.”

 

Across the street…

The two men unloaded a large rectangular crate as another black van pulled up behind the first. Two more men in white uniforms exited the second vehicle.

 

On the stoop…

A security camera mounted on the wall above them turned to get a better view of them as a man spoke through an intercom, “Can I help you?”

“I’m Kat. I’m here to see Melissa and Chad.”

After a few minutes, a bodyguard with a blond ponytail and wearing a black suit opened the door. He looked so much like Argus he could have been his twin, and their resemblance unsettled Kat. A second bodyguard with brown, wavy, shoulder length hair stood behind him and had his gun drawn; the second bodyguard was one of the ones from the funeral.

The first bodyguard the one who looked like Argus pressed the button on his earpiece. “Johnson, Andrews here. There are two female guests at the door. One’s named Kat.” Andrews nodded as he listened and turned to the other bodyguard. “Daniels, Ms. Odin says to let them in.”

Daniels held a metal detector wand and turned to Kat. “Lift your arms please.” He ran the wand up and down her body. “Are you carrying any weapons?” The metal detector beeped as he ran it over her bag.

Still stunned by their resemblance, Kat stared at Andrews for a few seconds. He looked so much like Argus; it was almost uncanny. She turned to Daniels and answered, “Yes, I have a weapon; it’s a gun.” Kat motioned with her head to her back. “It’s in my pack.”

“I’ll need you to hand it over before I can let you in,” Daniels said.

Kat removed her backpack, pulled out the Beretta, and handed the gun to the bodyguard.

Daniels took it and put the weapon in a drawer of an entry table. He locked the drawer with a key and placed the key in his pants pocket, and then Daniels looked to Stephanie. “Lift your arms.” He ran the wand up and down her body. “Do you have any weapons?” The wand detected no metal.

“No, nothing,” Stephanie answered.

“I need your bags.”

They handed the packs over with no objections.

Andrews pointed to Kat’s hand. “What’s that?”

“A Bible. I brought it for Melissa.”

“I didn’t know she was religious.” Daniels holstered his gun and held out his hand. “I’ll need to see it.” He flipped through the book and handed it back to her. “I’ll need to pat both of you down.”

“Of course.” Kat slightly lifted her arms.

He frisked her then Stephanie. “They’re clear.”

Andrews pressed the button on his earpiece. “Johnson, we’re bringing the women into the house.”

“Follow me.” Daniels led them down the entry to a white and black checker tile living room.

Ahead of them and to the right was a staircase leading up to the middle of an open second floor. On the left, a large sectional white leather couch in the shape of a C stood in front of a huge TV.

Chad looked up from a video game and ran to Kat and in his excitement, he kicked a baseball glove to a metal bat he’d laid by the TV. “You came!” Chad wore a gray hooded sweat shirt and jeans.

She wrapped her arms around the excited boy. “Is Melissa here?”

“I’m here.” She walked in from the kitchen, drying her hands on an apron. Melissa wore a light gray dress with a flower pattern.

Kat smiled at Chad; she was so happy to see him again. Kat walked over to Melissa. “I brought you this.” She held up the book. “It was Preacher’s. I think he would want you to have it.”

Melissa looked to the worn leather cover and stared at it for a few moments. Sadness shown from her eyes, but there was something more, and she took a step back. “No.”

 

Katharine’s view…

Her reaction bewilders me, and I wonder if I see hatred in her expression and if so, what is it hatred of? Preacher’s killer or Preacher himself?

End Katharine’s view…

 

Melissa took another step back. “I think you should keep it. He would want you to keep it.” She nodded as if that was the solution. “Yes, you keep it.”

 

Katharine’s view…

Either way, I don’t care.

“Thank you,” I tell Melissa.

I place the book against my chest, grateful I have something of Preacher’s, so I’ll never forget him.

 

Stephanie’s view…

I look to the book with interest. Pandora must have really loved the guy; too bad he’s dead, he could have been useful.

End Stephanie’s view…

 

Melissa acted awkwardly, still looking at the book, then she noticed Chad, and her expression changed as she asked, “Anyone for chocolate chip cookies? They’re hot out of the oven. I know it’s a little early in the morning, but it’s a special occasion.”

“Yeah, me!” Chad yelled, dashing into the kitchen.

Melissa looked to the bodyguards. “Andrews… Daniels… What about you two?”

“No, thank you,” they both answered.

Melissa turned back to the women. “Come on, ladies. Before the boy eats them all.”

The three women walked into the kitchen, and the heavenly aroma of baking dough and chocolate hit them. Melissa’s little girl and Chad sat on barstools around a rosewood granite island; the island was in the middle of the large kitchen with matching tile floors. The third bodyguard was bald and stood off in the corner, and he also had been at the funeral. Kat sat next to the boy as Chad and the little girl dunked their cookies in glasses of milk. Stephanie watched them then sat beside Kat.

“Would you like coffee?” Melissa asked the women. “There’s a fresh pot.”

“If it’s okay. I’d like to have milk,” Kat said.

“Sure.” Melissa turned to Stephanie. “What about you?”

“Coffee,” she answered. “Black.”

“Coming right up.” After some time, Melissa placed a small glass of milk in front of Kat and a mug of coffee in front of Stephanie, and then Melissa set a plate in front of each of the women and grabbed a metal sheet pan from the stove top with an oven mitt. She took a spatula, removed a warm cookie from the sheet pan, and placed it on a plate, and she repeated till each of her guests had two.

Kat watched Stephanie pick up the cookie, dunk it in the coffee, and bite into it. Her blue-green eyes widened.

“Mmm…” Stephanie swallowed. “This is good.”

 

Katharine’s view…

I continue watching her. Preacher’s sister has a security detail, and then a horrible thought crosses my mind. Could she be after Melissa and not me?

I take a bite of my cookie, stare at the granite counter too preoccupied to enjoy the treat, and then say, “You don’t know me very well Melissa, but I hope you don’t mind me asking. Why do you have bodyguards?”

End Katharine’s view…

 

Stephanie perked up also interested.

Melissa turned to the children. “Chad, why don’t you take Bonnie up to her room to play while I talk with Kat.”

“Yes, Melissa. Come on, Bonnie. Let’s go play in your room.”

Melissa waited till the children left and heard them walk up the stairs, and then she placed the sheet pan and spatula on the counter. “My contract with the Valhalla Corporation is in dispute.” Melissa sat on the barstool next to Kat. “You see, I’m a chemist and after my ten year term ended with the corporation, I left. One year after that, I started a new job and developed a formula, and Valhalla claims they are entitled to anything I may have started while in their employment, but I never began work on this formula until I started my new job. The corporation I work for now, Isis, sent these bodyguards to protect me and my family until the delegation in court is over. Valhalla has no legal claims, but Isis fears they might convince the Assassins Guild to send a Closer after me, so I have these men here till the matter is settled.” She looked up at the ceiling. “This place isn’t my house but a safe house.”

Kat looked to Stephanie who downed another cookie and then turned back to Melissa and asked, “You said today was a special occasion. What is it?”

“Yes. Oh, no. Did you forget?”

Kat had no clue. “What?”

“It’s Chad’s birthday.”

 

Chapter Twenty-four

Break Down Of Security

9:14 A.M…

Minutes earlier…

On Brownstone Street…

The four delivery men made their way across the road and up the stoop of Melissa’s house, and then one of them removed his white cap, wiped sweat from his brow, and rang the doorbell. The security camera turned to see the two large rectangular crates the men had wheeled up on dollies.

Andrews asked through the intercom, “Can I help you?”

One of the men looked at a H.H.C. “We have a delivery for a Melissa Odin from Isis Corporation.”

 

Inside the house…

Andrews looked to Daniels, who checked his H.H.C.

“We are expecting them,” Daniels said. “Let them in.”

Andrews went out, ran the wand over each man, frisked them, and found nothing. He opened the door for them. “Set the crates at the end of the entry and unload them.”

The four men started in as one of the men said, “There are three more crates, and they should be arriving shortly.”

 

Inside the kitchen…

Katharine’s view…

Chad’s birthday? Sheez! I forgot. How could I forget?

I think back a year ago, and it almost seems like yesterday. It had been fifteen days since I met Chad and the day before, Preacher told me it was the boy’s birthday, so we were going to surprise him.

End Katharine’s view…

 

31 A.D.C…

November 7…

Saturday…

Chad entered the Kitchen and made his way to his cot. Sweat soaked his sweatshirt, and he held a worn basketball under his arm.

“Have a good game?” Kat sat up on her cot and nodded to Preacher across the room, and he headed to get the surprise as the boy sat.

“Not bad, but the Kitchen’s basketball has seen its last game. It keeps losing air. Can’t really play with a ball that doesn’t bounce.”

“Oh.” Kat tried to hide a grin. “Guess not.”

“You up to playing some cards with me? I was hoping we might play…”

“I don’t know,” she interrupted as she lay back. “I’m kind of tired. Maybe I’ll go to bed early.” She rolled on her side, faced him, and rested her head on her elbow. “Today isn’t some sort of special day, is it?” She saw Preacher come up behind the boy with a chocolate cupcake with a single lit candle in it.

“No.” Chad lied and sulked. “Not really.”

Kat sat up and said, “I think you’re wrong.” She pointed behind the boy.

Chad turned and saw the cupcake as Preacher and Kat broke out in song.

“It’s your birthday!” they sang off tune. “It’s your birthday! It’s a special day. It’s a special day.” They shouted loudly, “Happy birthday Chad!”

The boy smiled. “Are you trying to make my ears bleed?”

“Blow the candle out already, smart guy.” Preacher handed the cupcake to the boy.

Chad took it, closed his eyes, and blew out the small flame.

“Why did you close your eyes?” Kat questioned.

“I made a wish. One I can’t tell you.”

“Go ahead eat the cupcake,” Preacher said.

Chad removed the paper cup. “You’re supposed to make a wish when you blow out your candles.” He bit into the chocolate and asked through a mouthful, “Don’t you on your birthday?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know when my birthday is.”

“Really? Why don’t we make it in two weeks?” He wiped his mouth with his hand. “Won’t that be cool?”

She looked to Preacher, and he told her, “It’s up to you, Kat.”

“Okay. My birthday will be in two weeks, and now for the other part of your celebration.” Kat pulled out a large paper sack. “Your present.”

“A present? Really?” Chad quickly opened it. “A basketball. And it’s new! Wow! Thanks.”

 

In the present…

The memory faded as Kat uttered, “Wait. It isn’t his birthday, not for another two weeks.”

“I know, but I wanted to have some laughter and some fun memories for the boy to remember–” Melissa’s eyes became distant. “–in case…”

Johnson had left earlier and walked back in, interrupting her statement. “The packages have arrived.”

Melissa took a deep breath, composing herself. “The Isis Corporation said they would be sending them over.”

Johnson said, “Daniels is going to give Andrews a hand. He’s better with computers than I am.”

 

Stephanie’s view…

I watch Pandora and study her expressions, her reactions, and her interactions with other people. She isn’t anything like I thought she would be, so this is the Council’s great hope for the ultimate killer.

I chuckle, and Pandora glances at me, then I wipe my mouth with a napkin and say, “Yummy cookies.”

 

Katharine’s view…

I’m not sure how to take Stephanie. Is she a threat or only an annoyance?

I force those thoughts to the side as something else bothers me, and a deep sounding warning like a distant drum before war resounds in my mind. Good with computers…

I turn to Melissa and ask, “What kind of packages did the Isis Corporation send over?”

End Katharine’s view…

 

“Bio-mechas,” Melissa answered as she grabbed a cookie. “Why do you ask?”

“Crap!” Kat stood. “What type?”

“Un-Men,” Johnson answered. “Isis bought a few from the Sphinx Cor…”

“No,” Kat interrupted and then ran out of the kitchen, shouting, “Don’t activate them!”

Stephanie, Melissa, and Johnson followed after her a few seconds later.

Rushing into the living room, Kat found Andrews and Daniels standing along side five Un-men; there were two T-1s and three T-2s. They wore no ORATT like they normally did to hide their eyes. She would have darted for the front door, but they blocked the entry, so she shouted again, “Don’t activate them!” Kat looked to the locked entry table where her gun lay; she would be defenseless if they powered up.

Daniels didn’t hear her and tapped the activation button, the H.H.C. wirelessly transmitted the command, and the Un-Men came to life.

lub-DUB… lub-DUB

Her body prepared to combat them as the blue Ult L-E shimmered, and Kat franticly turned to Melissa. “Do you have a back door?!”

“By Thor!” Melissa gasped. “Your eyes!”

 

Stephanie’s view…

I freeze in awe. What’s happening to Pandora? What’s this amazing thing that’s happening to her?

End Stephanie’s view…

 

The Un-Men stated in one accord, “Unit activated. Uploading new programming. Please stand by. Program will be uploaded in twenty seconds.”

“Melissa!” Kat yelled and repeated, “Do you have a back door?”

Johnson stepped forward, not liking the behavior of the guest. “Why do you want to know that? And what is wrong with your eyes?”

 

In the entry…

The Un-Men turned their heads, stared at Kat, and said in unison, “Pandora Project detected. Bypassing new software. Initializing original commands. Commencing Seek and Destroy Program.” They stepped forward. “Annihilate the Pandora Project.”

“What?!” Daniels shouted. “What’s this Pandora Project?” He tapped a few buttons on the H.H.C. touch screen. “We have defective bio-mechas. No wonder the Isis Corporation got them so cheap. We’ll have to shut them down.” He pressed a few more buttons. “They aren’t turning off!”

 

By the kitchen…

“The door!” Kat grabbed Melissa’s arms, so she would focus on her, and screamed, “I need to leave now!”

Johnson moved forward with his hand up and the other one on his gun. “I think you need to back up.”

 

In the entry…

Andrews leaned over and glanced at Daniel’s H.H.C. screen and pointed. “Try the override command.”

“I did,” he told him. “They aren’t responding. I’ll pull up the emergency termination; it will burn out their processor.”

The Un-Men pulled guns out of their shoulder holsters.

“Hurry!” Andrews shouted.

“There, got it!” Daniels pressed the final button.

The Un-Men froze as their dot-light faded for a few seconds, but then they powered back up and said, “Override new command. Proceed with the capture of the Pandora Project.”

“What? No!” Daniels shouted. “It should have fried their processors.” He hit the last command key several times. “Come on! Pucking work!”

 

By the kitchen…

“Too late!” Kat ran from Melissa, Stephanie, and Johnson to the cover of the white sectional couch as the Un-Men opened fire on her, and she dove to the floor as bullets riddled the leather and destroyed the TV.

A small fire started within the big screen. Johnson drew his gun, grabbed Melissa, and dragged her into the kitchen while Stephanie remained, watching Kat in action. She was like a moth and Kat was the flame, Stephanie couldn’t take her eyes off of her.

Andrews and Daniels started to pull their guns, but two of the Un-Men shoved them, hurling the men across the room and into a wall. The two men hit hard and slid to a heap. They were behind Kat’s position and close to the window facing the street. The Un-Men started toward her.

On the opposite side of the room and up the stairs, Chad rushed out of the bedroom. He ran down the steps and halted at the bottom. “What’s going on?!”

The two T-1s that Kat had dubbed Pretty Boys turned and saw the child, and Chad froze. They analyzed the child’s face and said, “Take the boy. He will be useful in Pandora’s capture.”

“Chad, run!” Kat shouted as the three T-2s pinned her down with gunfire.

He froze, scared out of his mind as the Pretty Boys marched toward him.

“No!” she yelled. “Leave him alone! Don’t you hurt him!” Kat shouted as blue Ult L-E flared like waves from her eyes.

 

Katharine’s view…

I grow desperate as I lean against the couch, waiting for a chance to react. No matter what, I have to save the boy even if it cost me my life.

I think of Preacher and my heart calls for my beloved as determination growls within me like a hungry tigress stalking a herd of antelope. I’ll soon sink my teeth into the Un-Men and annihilate them all!

 

Chapter Twenty-five

In A Bad Spot

9:32 A.M…

Katharine’s view…

Don’t hurt Chad! Don’t hurt him! He’s all I have left. I cover my head, lying face down on the floor as the other Un-men fire at me.

God, don’t let him get hurt! I can’t lose him, not after Preacher.

End Katharine’s view…

 

The two Pretty Boys marched toward Chad as they lifted their guns and stated, “Wound the boy so we may capture him.”

Kat crawled back along the couch and glanced around the end, and she saw the Pretty Boys near the boy. “No!” she yelled again. “Run Chad!”

“The monsters!” he mumbled unable to move for fear. They were the orange-eyed monsters! It wasn’t the first time he had met these nightmares.

The three T-2s moved on her position and spoke with a South African accent, “There is no place for you to go, Pandora. Surrender and we will take you alive.”

Seeing a metal bat by the TV, Kat crawled to it, grabbed the bat, and jerked the two game controllers from their connection to the game console. She wouldn’t let anyone else die; she’d save Chad. Ultra-Epi surged throug