Baen books by mercedes lackey

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Get up, Red. It can’t end like this, it can’t…

The blood was flowing, I knew it, just as I knew I could fix it. I had kept a secret from all of them, and it was that I could fix this; I just needed to get past the pain. I could barely move, I could barely think, and I needed to concentrate, to fix this…

Startled yells came from a distance. I heard Jack in there, shouting a warning. And another voice. A female voice. A familiar voice. A voice that had once purred in my ear all the love one man could stand. My wounds forgotten, I strained to listen and to slowly crawl through a pool of my own blood to the door, to see what was going on.

“We don’t have time for this! I don’t care if they’re Echo metas, take them!”

“Captain, we can take them! We need to reach the armory and get back out there! The people…!”

“Get that gun out of my face, asshat! Didn’t you hear that? They’re right behind us!”

“It’s four on three, Jack! And they’ve got that goddamned Echo armor…”

“Shut up! Shut up! Shut up! None of this matters right now! They’re coming down here and they’re going to kill us all!”

I managed to peek out the door, and for a moment the pain went away, replaced by shock. A group of Echo operatives, OpOnes by the look of them. And in front, screaming at my crew, was Victoria Summers, callsign Amethist, Echo OpTwo. The same Echo OpTwo we had run into last time in Atlanta.

It was a Mexican standoff. Everyone had their weapons trained on each other, shouting to be heard over the din. But over them all, Amethist commanded attention, and screamed the words that brought Jack, Jon and Duff to a puzzled halt. As for me, they were a painful reminder of the surreal, dreamlike quality of that day.

This day just can’t get any worse…

“Look, you morons, we’re under attack by Nazi metatroopers! We’re all under attack! You help us—help us help you—or we’re all dead!”

Okay, I stand corrected.

Jack hesitated, and that was all she needed: Amethist took control immediately, and commanded everyone to arm themselves from the weapons depot.

“Anything big and meaty that looks like it can punch through a tank! Grab it, arm it, aim it at the blast doors!”

Jack was done looking startled. He realized that Amethist had meant him, Jon and Duff as well. He signaled the others to follow her. Dumbly, Jon and Duff scrambled for what looked like high-tech rocket launchers.

The look on their faces…If I hadn’t been swimming in my own blood, I might have laughed.

They took a defensive position behind a short ledge, waist-high, lined with riot shields, and trained their hastily armed weapons at the tunnel.

“Where’s Red Djinni?” Amethist demanded.

“Dead,” Jack answered. “Back in the vault.”

Amethist just looked at him, started to say something, but her attention was drawn back to the tunnel. There came a steady thumping of steel slamming into stone, a march of metallic feet crashing down in unison. Whoever they were, I muttered a curse at them. If they hadn’t distracted her, Amethist might have looked back, might have seen me lying in the strong room, weakly waving at her.

She would have seen I was alive.

Would she have rushed to my side? I’d like to think so. I mean, it’d be dramatic. Our lives had gone in such different directions, it was sometimes hard to imagine us as those crazy kids. Still, there was a time when nothing could have kept us apart, when nothing else mattered.

Does that surprise you? Does it confuse you that I had a history with the OpTwo that had sent us scurrying into hiding a couple of years back? It shouldn’t. Like I said before, this was the worst day, ever. The love of your life always plays a pivotal role on your worst day.

“Fire!” Amethist bellowed.

As one, the seven defenders unleashed hell on the advancing troopers. Just moments before, they had been ready to kill each other. Now, they fought side by side against a metal-clad death squad.

Nothing like a Nazi invasion to bring people together.

And I, watching my world accelerate into a delirious cosmic opera of crazy, chuckled a maniacal laugh of confusion, continued to bleed, and felt myself black out.

* * *

How long I was out, I couldn’t really say. It couldn’t have been that long, but in those moments I saw my life—the parts I wanted to see.

I wanted to see Victoria.

Soft light streaming through white silk curtains, making her features burn as her eyes fluttered open, and her first smile of the day warming me with a fiery glee that I could feel creeping through my whole body. Despite how it ended, how she had left it, I chose to remember her that way.

Vic had grown up in Manhattan, in the small neighborhood known as Hell’s Kitchen. She was the youngest of three daughters of a simple shopkeeper and his wife. A bright, fair-skinned, blond beauty, she believed in the tired old ideals of justice and honor and was raised to believe that people, at their core, were good. She fought for the underdog, hated bullies, and had a pretty solid left hook to back that up.

Do you remember that July evening, years back, when a freak snowstorm ravaged the state of New York? That was the night we met. The coast took the brunt of the storm. It made my life pretty miserable, I can tell you. I was a street urchin at the time. No, seriously, I lived in alleys, on deserted rooftops and when the weather got cold, in steam tunnels. Those days, I always wore the mask. My control over my skin was, shall we say, lacking finesse? Still a teenager, I was constantly fighting growth spurts and the mask would hide the ropes of skin that would sometimes erupt from my head. To survive, I had made theft my trade and the compact urban jungle of Manhattan my routes of escape. Up to that point, I had kept it simple and stole from unattended homes or small-time stores with no security. But that night I was caught in the sudden turn of weather. I was without shelter, in nothing but my mask, worn cut-off jeans and a ragged shirt, and I was freezing to death. So I tried to mug someone.

Vic had been walking home late from a jazz competition. In the open solo competition, her saxophone set had landed her second place. She had shown up her critics, the ones who had beaten her down with their caustic comments for months. That night, she had stepped away from the musical theory, from the tightly regimented rehearsals, and had just bared her soul for all to hear. She felt wonderful, and despite the cold, she felt truly warm and alive. Part of that, I’m sure, was from the thick parka she was wearing. And for a young, freezing and desperate Red Djinni, that parka offered a warmth that was impossible to resist.

I had never tried to mug anyone before. This was made painfully obvious from my awkward efforts to drag her into an alley. The girl didn’t even have the decency to be scared. She shrieked insults at me, which led to a pretty childish argument. Hey, we were kids. By the end, I remember letting my claws extend in disgust tinged with petulant anger. Her eyes grew wide, at first with astonishment and, finally, registering some fear. And then, inspired by true stupidity, I demanded she hand over the saxophone too. Her eyes narrowed into feral slits. There was just no way, not that night. She began pelting me with ice. That confused the hell out of me. I didn’t know where she was getting this ice. Jagged chunks of it just seemed to appear in her hands.

That was the night Vic Summers discovered her own metapowers, which she used to make Red Djinni scream like a little girl while running for his life.

By our next meeting, I had made a name for myself as a ghost, a spook of the neighborhood. The soiled red scarf I always wore as a mask had branded me for life. “Get in before dark!” mothers would lecture their children, “or the Red Djinni will getcha!” My game had improved. I had learned to control my skin, to hug the shadows and to dance across rooftops in nightly raids. Doors that had seemed impenetrable before began opening up to me. That was the night of my first big job, a local club on the cusp of a successful run. The plan was simple, but it was the scariest thing I had ever tried. Grab the money as Red Djinni, disappear into the crowd and leave.

That was also the night that a new, cold-powered meta named Amethist made her debut in Hell’s Kitchen. I’ll spare myself the more embarrassing details, and just say that the job was a major flop. I didn’t get the money. I didn’t even make it into the club. That night, all I got for my troubles was a clumsy escape, a new nemesis and a mild case of hypothermia.

The next couple of years started out rough. Amethist was everywhere. I couldn’t pull even simple jobs without her lurking about. We did the dance, had any number of street fights, complete with premeditated insults and witty remarks, and continued to be thorns in each other’s paws.

But after a while it became…fun.

We fought constantly, but I never beat her in a straight fight and she never managed to capture me. The dance continued, and I couldn’t have asked for a better partner.

I don’t think either of us wanted a clear victory. We wouldn’t admit it, but we defined each other. We needed each other, each forcing the other to be faster, smarter, tougher, to be better. I learned so much from sparring with her—how to fight, how to plan and how to judge your opponents.

That was an important lesson. Know everyone. Be they your enemies, your friends or your victims, you controlled your destiny by predicting the greatest variable there was—the actions of people. After a few tussles with Vic, I had made it my job to read people, to get under their skin. If I couldn’t deal with her in a straight fight, I figured I could get to her another way—by understanding her drive, by observing those she cared about, all to predict her actions, her reactions, and ultimately, her.

This accomplished two things.

First, I learned how to generalize people, classify them, and imitate them. I learned how to read people as open books.

Second, I came to the startling conclusion that I was in love with Amethist.

I hadn’t seen that coming. I should have. Did I mention she was beautiful? Well, it turned out it wasn’t skin deep. This girl was beautiful. She always fell for my traps, each one, and why? Because I put people in danger and she couldn’t let people get hurt, even if she knew it was just a diversion so I could pull some fast job on the other end of the city. And every time she saved them, every time. A few times she even managed to catch up with me to foil whatever petty job I had planned. And she did all that because it was the right thing to do. How do you not fall in love with someone like that?

And even after all my careful planning, my vigilant observations of her, there was still a lot I couldn’t figure out. I did my homework. I learned her secret identity. That Amethist was a poor Kitchen girl named Victoria Summers only deepened what love I had for her. She had these remarkable abilities, and she didn’t use them for herself, or even to give her family a better life! She used them for any poor Joe who was victim to jerks like me.

But the greatest mystery was about her feelings for me. Somewhere, somehow as our paths continued to bump and bang against one another, she had fallen in love with a jackass like me. She told me later that she’d known, from the first night we met, that I wasn’t hopeless. She said she knew there was something in me worth her effort and patience.

That did it. It had been so long since I’d heard anyone say those words to me.

“I believe in you, Red.”

So I tried it. I tried being like her, a hero. I ran with Amethist for months, and we stopped some pretty sick individuals. Before long, I had bared my soul to her. In return, she told me things that made me marvel at her curiosity, at her naïvety. How did someone who faced the worst of humanity stay this unblemished, this pristine, even after all the horrors she had witnessed? I didn’t know, or care. I just wanted to protect that innocence, to protect her. I had to laugh at myself. The plan had backfired. Learn to read people, predict what they’ll do and they’re yours, right? Funny how that works out. When you draw someone close like that, you forget that it’s a two-way street. As you’re digging around inside them, they’re sinking their claws inside you.

By the fall of 1991, six months after we had confessed our love for each other, she wanted out.

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