Baen books by mercedes lackey

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I could call Ramona, he mused. She might have an idea…or at least commiserate with me.

A subsonic hum roiled his guts. Could the disrepair of the building be a sham? He might be standing on top of a massive hidden complex. Jumpsuited Echo Ops with clipboards could be waiting for him to find the concealed switch to activate a giant elevator…or something equally absurd.

I’m too tired and drunk for subtlety, he decided. He pounded on the metal door, which rung with a satisfying clangor. “Hey! It’s Mercurye! Open up, will ya?”

The hum increased in volume, accompanied by a rush of air. He scanned the yard for some indication of elevators, platforms, anything. In the nighttime dark, he could only barely make out the grasses waving.

Above him, a black circular shape blotted out the stars; it was at least fifty feet across, larger than the war machines that had attacked Echo earlier. No details were visible, just a deeper black than the night sky. The descending object lacked the wicked orange glow of the Thule crafts’ propulsion system.

Nevertheless, Mercurye unslung his pistol, though he knew he ought to flee.

Blue lines coalesced on the belly of the silent craft. They joined to form a symbol: a star floating over an eye, the same Mercurye had seen in Tesla’s buried room.

The craft halted twenty feet above the ground. White light poured out of an aperture, from which a ramp snaked down and gripped the ground before stiffening. Three figures stood silhouetted by the glare.

“Alex kanyat?” A woman’s voice called.

“Not quite,” Mercurye answered, shielding his eyes. “Why don’t you come down where I can see you?”

The figures trotted down the ramp, resolving into the recognizable forms of human beings. All three wore matching two-piece outfits that reminded Mercurye of psychedelic-era Nehru jackets, with their raised collars, plastic sheen and straight seams. Two had golden skin and Latin features; the third, a middle-aged woman with a wide, soft face, possessed preternaturally pale skin. She looked him over with a quizzical expression.

“Oh my,” she said in a melodious voice, with an accent he couldn’t place. “You aren’t kidding about not being Alex. I don’t think he ever looked so good shirtless.” She gave him a once-over as if he were on display at a butcher shop. “To what do we owe this pleasure?”

“To this poor bastard.” Mercurye nudged the body bag containing Eisenfaust. “Heinrich Eisenhauer, late of the Third Reich, or so he claimed.” He craned his neck to peek inside the craft. “If you folks are from the funeral home, you’ve really upgraded your hearses.”

The woman’s brow furrowed for a moment before opening up in a toothy grin of understanding. “Ah! We are here for the body, it is true. Your witticism makes sense in this context. Would you care to lower your weapon?”

“Ah, right. Sorry.” He tucked the gun back in its holster, feeling embarrassed. The woman emanated nothing but serenity and calm. He recalled Alex bellowing at a screen in his secret room. “Ms. Metis, I assume.”

The woman tittered. “Oh, no, silly boy. My name is Mable.” She extended a hand. “Pleased to meet you.”

“Mercurye.” Her hand was soft, as though it had never done a day of work. “I just assumed…”

“It’s quite all right. I see now why Alex sent you, Mercurye. You live up to your name.” Mable gestured at the body. “Escorting the dead?”

“Hopefully it’s a temporary assignment. Hauling around corpses isn’t what I signed up with Echo for.”

“Oh?” She raised an eyebrow. “Then what? Adventure? Mystery? Excitement?”

“Something like that.”

Mable nodded as if she had made a decision. “Then you’re about to get all three.” She turned and spoke a few unintelligible words to her two companions. One produced a slender, silver rod from his belt and pointed it at the body bag.

The bag floated into the air.

Mercurye gaped. The silent craft, and now these wands—these people, dressed like refugees from a sixties science fiction movie, possessed antigravity technology. Aside from the powers of a few metas and an army of Thule troopers, Mercurye had not believed antigravity was possible until today.

“Who are you people?”

Mable gave him that sweet smile again and wrapped her arm around his. She led him up the ramp into the dazzling light of the flying saucer. “Alex hasn’t told you? We’re from Metis, my handsome young messenger. You’ll be there soon enough, and you can decide for yourself who we are.”

Atlanta, Georgia, USA: Callsign Red Djinni

Every morning the lights come on and that dull electric hum that seems to permeate this place builds to something I can’t ignore. A perpetual hum, a constant buzzing, and my skin feels like it’s being fried. It’s in the floor, the walls and ceiling, it courses through the air itself. I suppose I could have asked for something to shield me from it. I doubt they would have complied, but I could have asked.

But no, I won’t have it. I welcome the sensation, knowing just days ago this would have been torture. And I don’t just mean the invasive humming, but the cell they’ve put me in. To be caged up like this, to be denied simple freedoms, would have been too much to take. But things are different now. I’m different. The pain that courses through my skin forces my eyes to open and the dreams to stop. My dreams are now haunted grounds with faces that I don’t wish to see. It’s only when I wake that I can block them out. Only awake can I find some peace.

So each day I stay awake for as long as I can. Each day is now a ritual of distraction. I know this can’t last, and that sooner or later I’ll have to face some hefty consequences. But at least in here, locked away, I can remove myself from the world. Maybe someday I’ll be ready to pick myself up, to heal and to fly back into the fray. Maybe. Someday.

But the world isn’t ready to give up on me just yet. Someday comes a lot sooner than it should.

I warm up with stretches, push-ups and crunches. There really isn’t room to do any more. As I finish my last set, like clockwork, I feel the telltale footsteps of the guard bringing my breakfast. This is all part of the ritual. Between meals there is nothing, so I have to amuse myself. I try different faces, all from memory. I don’t have a mirror, so god knows what I look like. It passes the time, it keeps my face from reverting to its natural state, and it keeps the mind busy. When I pause, when I falter, that’s when my eyes close. I don’t like it when my eyes close anymore. I don’t like what I see.

As each boot slams rhythmically down on the concrete, I gauge the guard’s weight and distinguishing gait, and I mark his progress. This is now the extent of human contact for me. I’m the only prisoner in this wing. From what I understand, the Nazi Blitzkrieg pretty much cleaned out the prisoner population here at Echo headquarters. The guards have learned not to talk to me. I’m hungry for any kind of diversion, and I’ve said some pretty appalling things just to get them to stay. None of them are very quick. All of them have vulnerable points to provoke. So who is it today? Reeves, the family man? Hollister, the holy optimist? Or is it Falladay and his crusade to bed his way across all of Atlanta?

It’s none of them. Lying flat, I feel the vibrations coming up off the floor and get a better sense of the man. His footsteps are too heavy and too measured to be one of the guards. A big man, and the steady march screams of military. Sitting up, I’m almost surprised when the cell door opens instead of a tray being shoved through the grate at the bottom.

Towering above me is the largest Echo meta I’ve ever seen. He’s got to be seven feet tall, and built like a tank. Stepping in, he places a tray on the ground. I assume it’s my breakfast. My eyes don’t leave his, not until he turns and closes the door. Wait. He turned away. I’ve got a clear shot at driving my claws into his neck, and he doesn’t care. There’s no fear there.

Then the smell hits me, and I glance down. Oh, that is a good-looking breakfast. Baaaacon.

“Red Djinni. I’m Bulwark, Echo OpTwo. I’m here to discuss the terms of your stay.”

You ever hear your name spoken by someone who believes he is authority personified? It’s pretty annoying. As I get to my feet his eyes fall to his clipboard, and they stay there. No, he’s not worried about me at all.

His voice isn’t forced. He doesn’t talk, he rumbles, but it’s quiet and reserved, like speaking any louder would pulverize the walls. His understated movements belie his size. He doesn’t need to project any weight or authority, he just does. I smell officer training here. This is obviously a man who is used to people following his orders.

I don’t like him.

“The terms of my stay? Well, a TV wouldn’t hurt. Can you guys get me a Tivo in here?”

He lets that slide. He doesn’t even look at me. He just stares down at that damned clipboard. At last, he puts the board behind his back and sizes me up. I read nothing from him, not a thing. The cold bastard just stares me down.

“I see you’ve been practicing your faces,” he says finally. “Alex Tesla?”

“Did I get the mole right?”

“Should be a bit more to the left.”

“I’ll have to remember that.”

Still nothing, not so much as a smirk. This guy is stone cold.

“Red Djinni, as a metahuman with no public record save your alleged crimes and misdemeanors, you are a ghost in the system. You are not subject to trial or hearing, nor are you under the jurisdiction of any formal tribunal except those bound by international law. As such, you are the responsibility of any internationally recognized law-enforcement agency that has the misfortune in apprehending you. In this case, that would be Echo. Since your incarceration here, you have remained silent, with the exception of inflammatory statements that have made your guards cry, soil their pants, or scream for your blood. Hardly productive. Do you wish to make a statement now?”

“Gosh, Occifer, you really think I should?”

Bulwark just looks back at his clipboard. “I’ll take that as a no. You’ve been active for a few years now, by our records. Alone or with a troupe of other mercenaries, you’re suspected of committing any number of high-profile thefts, acts of terrorism and assassinations. You have never been apprehended, until now.”

“Alleged crimes? Suspected acts? Anyone ever tell you that you suck at interrogation?”

“This isn’t an interrogation, Djinni. There’s enough on you to suggest you’ve been careful to cover your tracks but nothing we can hold you on, not for long, and you know it. So let’s stop wasting our time and get to the point.”

He pauses only to look up.

“I’m here to offer you a job.”

He’s not looking away. He’s watching to see how I take this. I don’t bother to hide the surprise. Why bother? He’ll take it as shock that Echo would be willing to take on a known metahuman felon, or distrust, or skepticism. Truth is, I should have seen this coming. The world got hit hard that day. It’s all the guards can talk about. Across the globe, the invasion decimated the metahuman population, from both sides, from all factions. There’s a shortage of meta-powered people now, and armies like Echo must be scrambling to fill the void. With me, they think they’re taking a calculated risk. If they’ve done their homework, they know of my brief stint as a vigilante years back. Since then, they have stories of a disreputable thief who’s been hired to off a few crooks here and there. They obviously don’t know the full story. They don’t know about the Vault, or about the blood on my hands from that day. After Jack took off, the only person that could damn me was the last member of Vic’s crew, a trainee meta named Howitzer, and he’s dead. My eyes close, and I see him again, another unwanted face. He’s got a wry grin, appalling since he’s missing both legs now. We were clearing civilians off the highway while OpThrees went to work on a group of Nazi troopers. He almost made it, until one trooper threw that car at him. His legs got crushed. Stupid kid died from the shock while we were waiting for paramedics to show. That last look he gave me, that look…

I had done it again; I had tempted fate and gotten away with it. No one would know what went down at the Vault that day. I read that in Howitzer’s bemused eyes as the light faded from them.

It’s classic Djinni. Everything has to be ironic. The day I finally succumb to that nagging voice of morality and try to do the right thing, I get nicked. What’s more, I wanted to be caught, to be put away and escape. But even a cell in the heart of Echo’s fortress isn’t safe. The prisoners were massacred here just days ago, and my one wish to sit and wallow in my own emotional filth is now shot to hell by a job offer from Billy Bob Jarhead!

“The hell do you want me for?”

“Information, to start,” he says. “Like what happened to you that day. You were seen with Howitzer, the only member of Agent Amethist’s squad accounted for.”

I fight down an involuntary shiver.

“Thanks, but no thanks. I’d rather gargle battery acid.”

“This is important to us, Djinni. To…”

He pauses, and finally lets something slip through his cool military demeanor. He needs something from me. There’s something I have, or something I know, that this man desperately needs. It’s his eyes. It always comes back to the eyes. His look haunted, and I’m struck with the thought of looking into a mirror.

“You’re a demanding jackass, aren’t you, Bulwark? We’re not going to get along, are we?”

“Probably not, but that hardly matters. You’re needed. So what are you going to do about it?”

My eyes close again. I see them all. I see Duff’s headless body fall. I see Jon ripped apart by energy blasts. I see my claws tear into that rookie guard.

And Vic. I see Vic. Not how she died, but that tranquil look of hers whenever she needed to calm me down. That look of trust. Damn her and that look…

Reaching over, I pick up my tray and start to munch on some bacon.

Bulwark pointed the clipboard. “We aren’t stupid. We know you’re a criminal and you’ll steal us blind every chance you get, but just the same, the deal should be sweet enough that you’ll keep coming back. Even as depleted as we are, threats would be pointless, because you know we can pound you and leave you alone in here, at will. You’re a mercenary. You can be bought. And we can help you if you have problems. So…”

“What’s the job?”

“I want you to find a few people for us.”

I crunched another crispy piece before nodding. Good arguments all around and, hey, of course I could be bought. Besides, the world just changed, and if my choice is between being hunted down, beaten up and tossed in a cell in Boredomville versus even a low-paying gig with major medical, well, there’s pride and then there’s dumb-ass foolish pride.

And something more…but I won’t think about that.

“I do love bacon. Tell me more.”

Atlanta, Georgia, USA: Callsign Victoria Victrix

A week after what had seemed like the Apocalypse, the city was just starting to pull itself back together. Vickie’s neighborhood had actually come through in pretty good shape. They had never lost services except for a brief period during the invasion itself. Well, all but the Internet that is. That was down. Vickie wasn’t surprised. And thanks to her folks, she had a backdoor into what remained of Darpanet, which operated on old-fashioned copper phone lines and DoD trunks, so she could still talk to people who had access to the old system. Slowly. But the web, web shopping, deliveries—she depended upon those, and they were gone for now. She would have to go out.

She had managed to crawl…almost literally…out to the supermarket after three days, retrieve her car, and stock up on staples for Grey thanks to the police stationed at the store. They’d looked at her cart oddly to see it wasn’t full of bread and milk. A deputy even loaded the cat food and litter for her. She, damaged goods that she was, actually had human staples stockpiled for herself. She could live quite well for a month on the MREs stored in an otherwise unused closet. They were there against the possibility that she would one day be too frightened to leave her apartment for that long.

Right now, that wasn’t a possibility, it was a probability. She had been threatened twice on the way to get her car by roving hoodlums, and even though she had left both of them under heaps of dirt and asphalt, she had been nearly mindless with panic by the time she’d gotten to the grocery. She had nearly run people down in her haste to get back home, and once there, she had locked the doors and windows and vowed not to leave again.

Then, a week after the invasion, there came a knock on the door. She sat in her chair for a moment, frozen. The knock came again.

Slowly, stiffly, she got up. She forced herself to go to the door. Trembling from head to foot, she peered through the peephole.

On the other side of the door was a nondescript man in a dusty Echo uniform, very much the worse for wear.

Echo? What could they want with her?

“Charles Burns, ma’am, Echo SupportOp. Is this Victoria Victrix Nagy?”

“Yes,” she replied cautiously, and did not even put her hand on the lock.

He waited, and when nothing more was forthcoming, sighed. “Will you let me in please, ma’am?” Without waiting for her to answer, he held up his ID to the peephole.

It seemed genuine all right. Reluctantly, she took down the chain, undid the bar locks, flipped the deadbolts. Finally she opened the door just enough for him to squeeze through.

Then she beat a hasty retreat to the farthest chair in the room, but remained standing. Burns—oh the irony of the name!—stood there looking at her, and sighed.

“Ma’am, you registered with Echo a while back.”

“I was rejected,” she rasped.

“I know, ma’am.” He looked at his PDA. “Says here, you can’t leave your house?” He glanced around the room. “Ma’am, Echo needs all the able-bodied metas we can get. We lost a lot of people a week ago. We could sure use you.”

She shook her head, violently. “I can’t—” she choked out. “I can’t—”

He stared at her. She knew what he saw. Someone young, apparently healthy, nothing outwardly wrong with her. And out there—out there were metahuman and unpowered Ops and SupportOps of Echo, some wounded, some worse than wounded, all shell-shocked, and all of them doing the work of three people or more, because there were so few of them left.

His face grew impatient. “Ma’am—”

“I can’t!” she said, through gritted teeth, bile rising in her throat. “If I could, I would. I…can’t.”

She was drenched with sweat now, and probably white as a sheet. He stared at her, and finally sighed. He put a small card down on the end table nearest him. “If you change your mind…” he said, shook his head again, and let himself out. The moment the door closed behind him, she ran to it, slamming home bolts, chaining it up, locking herself in again. With her barrier against the world sealed again, she put her back to the door and slid down it, landing with a thump on the carpet. She began to cry silently, eyes squeezed tightly shut, tears etching their way down her cheeks.

She felt the pressure of Grey rubbing against her legs. Pressure would be all she would ever feel there. Would he have understood, if she had managed to strip off a glove and show him her hand? Tell him that her entire body was like that, scarred from neck to feet? Would he have understood that the psychological scarring was worse, far worse, than the physical scarring?

And even if he had, were there any resources at Echo left to deal with someone like her? If there were, they surely had their hands full right now.

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