Baen books by mercedes lackey



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Get a grip. This is now, not then. They’re just people. People here for groceries, nothing more.

But her palms were sweating now, and her short hair was damp with sweat, her mouth was dry, and as she turned off the ignition, her hands and arms were shaking and she had to force herself to reach for the door handle, then to pop the door open. She was hot and cold by turns, her stomach so knotted that she was getting sick and regretting that cup of coffee and morning toast…

It would probably take her two hours to convince herself to leave the car.
Atlanta, Georgia, USA: Callsign Red Djinni

I Minus 01:58:27 and Counting

In a perfect world—well, in my perfect world—things would still be chaotic. I know I’m in the minority here. If you’re one of those people who strive for that great secure job with regular cash showers in your ten-acre estate, I’m sorry, I just don’t get you. I can’t think of any place more boring than the common perception of paradise. To have everything you want when you want it, when would you ever feel your blood rushing through your veins with the bit caught in your teeth, riding the razor’s edge with a wind of flames at your back, or any other dozen clichés for the extreme life?

See, I need the rush, but I wouldn’t say I’m a thrill-seeker. It’s a trait that gets a lot of people killed. I’ve seen it happen, believe me. Heh, I once knew this crazy bastard called Gash. Big guy! Loved movies with midgets, dainty blondes he could pick up with one arm, and he had this weird thing for…badgers.

Don’t ask.

But what Gash loved most was speed. He’d get into anything with propulsion just to see how fast he could go. This one time, he got some booster rockets, right? Don’t ask me how, but he did, and then he…

Wait, sorry. That’s a long story, and the stuff about the badgers will haunt you.

So…thrill-seeking. I don’t think it applies, not to me, not entirely anyway. Risking your neck for nothing more than thrills can get real old real fast. There has to be more, there has to be…well, yeah, there has to be women. And pardon me for saying it, as women make up a good part of why I’m alive, but even that’s not enough. Fame? Yes, that works for some. Money? Definite bonuses there.

Beating the other guy? Oh man, nothing gets it done like competition.

So that’s where you’ll find me—high risk, high stakes. It brings out the Masters and I am a Master, if I do say so myself. I never got caught, not until that day. And I don’t even think that day counts. I know, a Master doesn’t let his surroundings or the situation get to him. He stays on the job, he keeps focus, and he wins his prize. But you have to understand, that day was the worst day. Ever.

Who am I? Red Djinni at your service. Chameleon, acrobat, mercenary and lover.

Let me paint you a mental picture. Three men and a woman get out of a dark, sporty sedan. Something has their attention. They are watching a group of masked idiots with guns running into a bank.

Notice the four people are wincing.

They’re not wincing in fear. Together, these four have run gauntlets of jagged metal rain and poison gas. Combat, while avoided when possible, is second nature to them. The last time they were here in Atlanta, they were forced into an open-street battle with an OpTwo and her flunkies. It cost them months because it forced a retreat into the labyrinths of America’s metahuman underground.

They’re not wincing in disbelief. The idea of robbers holding up a bank in broad daylight, and in one of the most Echo-populated cities in the world, might seem absurd—but let’s remember something. In every demographic, from world leaders to the criminal element, you’re going to find some really stupid people.

So no, not fear and not disbelief. These people are wincing in anger. For about a month now they’d been planning a job of their own. A heist like this in Atlanta had to be done carefully. You had to get in, grab the goods, get out, and get away without anyone even knowing you were there. If so much as a brief physical description got out, Echo would be on you within a day, a week, tops. Say what you want about the showmanship and flash of Echo agents, they were damned good at their jobs. Countermeasures had to be taken. This crew had learned that lesson once the hard way. To do this job, they had to be invisible.

And that’s where I come in. If you haven’t already guessed, I’m one of the four. Not the short man drowning in muscles, and not the man who’s as thin as a rail and sporting a long beak nose, and obviously not the gorgeous brunette with legs that go up to her neck. I’m the elderly driver with the withered, beaten-down-by-life expression, with the beer gut hanging over a cheap imitation-leather belt, and sporting a worn polyester security guard uniform bearing a cracked plastic name tag for a “Walter Semsdale.” Not what you expected, huh? Well, that’s the point. If you know how, you can be invisible in plain sight.

We had planned and trained and waited for the day of the All-Star game, the day that the majority of security forces in the city would be concentrated on the other end of town. We had charted rapid routes of escape, memorized the full layout of the bank, and more importantly, of the secret bunker underneath where items of immeasurable wealth and importance were often kept. Simply nicknamed the Vault, this was the most secure facility in the city after the main Echo headquarters, hidden beneath a façade of a medium security investment group and banking outlet, and we knew the place cold now. We had studied this job from every angle, and we realized it could only be done one way, just the one, if we were going to get out with no fuss.

This had to be an inside job.

Like most high-security places, the design is to keep people out and not so much in. Study any blueprint of a vault or fortress and you’ll see it. A group starting at the heart of the place can work their way out, disabling alarms, taking out cameras and incapacitating armed resistance with just a little coordination. But the worst-case scenario, whether you’re heading in or out, is an alarm being triggered. Once the entire place is up in arms, the odds of surviving, let alone reaching your prize, are slim. Hey, I love a challenge, but I hate suicidal runs. The object is to live to tell the tale, you know? So we needed an inside man, but the last thing we needed was another person to siphon off a split of the take.

Enter Walter Semsdale.

Walter’s one of the senior security staff at the Vault, and while he doesn’t hold top-level clearance, he can walk in through the front door, descend from the public bank above and into the Vault’s inner sanctum. He has access to the main monitor room. He’s also a 49-year-old divorcé who suffers from regular bouts of gout, indigestion, and epic levels of halitosis. His sense of humor matches his diligence to personal hygiene. I know all this because I just spent the last two weeks getting to know Walter at his favorite watering hole. Didn’t take much. A few stories about loose women, buying the first few rounds, and I became Walter’s new best friend. I even got to like him a little. Pathos, I guess. Walter is a world-class loser, and I tend to root for the underdogs. Studying Walter—his mannerisms, his own bawdy stories and taking in one whore joke after another—I found him an easy mask. Walter proved to be one of the simpler people I’ve studied to impersonate. Probably the hardest part of this job was learning to grow Walter’s face. He has that look of a beagle, with folds that droop from his eyes and mouth like his skin is trying to escape. Growing that much skin is a pretty tedious task, even for me…

Guess I should have mentioned it before. I’m a meta. Don’t need to get into all the details right now, but let’s just say I’m closer to my skin than anyone else alive.

So…Walter. Right now we’ve got Walter strung up in his home. I’m wearing his uniform, sporting his less-than-dapper looks and I gotta tell you, this fake beer gut I’ve got strapped on is hotter than hell.

The inside job is the easiest, the safest and the stealthiest job you can perform. Still, when your mark is a fortress like the Vault it requires a lot of time and energy to plan out. So when we watched these rank amateurs, toting some cheap-ass, dime-store-bought hardware, rush into the bank, we knew what would happen next. They would get the people cowering on the floor, they would take out what superficial security there was in the bankfront, and by doing this, they would trigger the alarm that would put the whole facility, including the Vault, on alert. The Walter guise was now useless. I wouldn’t be able to get where I needed to, to knock out surveillance and communications, and while we had contingency plans, the one thing we absolutely needed was for me to get in undetected. A whole month of preparation, wiped out just like that.

Still got that picture of the four of us, mouths open, watching our plans go up in flames? Good, hold onto it for a second, it gets kind of funny.

I’ve had maybe four perfect jobs in my life. The rest can range from “we’re twenty seconds behind schedule” to “where did that OpTwo come from?” In each case, we’ve dealt with it. At times, I admit we’ve been damned lucky. But this…this was beyond a mere glitch. This was every god in the heavens looking down and saying “we’re sorry, but today we will make you our bitches.”

The beak-nosed man is Duff Sanction, probably my best and oldest friend. In this game, you need people you can trust, and Duff has pulled more jobs with me than anyone else. He is simply the best safecracker and demolitionist I have ever met. Oddly enough, he’s also a craftsman who makes the most delicate works of crystal and glass. So yes, here we have a man who has the patience and meticulous touch of an artist, but loves to blow things up for his day job. He has an odd, hot-and-cold temper to match. A moment before, I’m sure he had been calculating oxygen balance percentages and composition priorities in his head. These sorts of jobs often called for on-the-fly explosions. Unbelievably, Duff preferred to make some bombs on the spot. To do that, you need to think fast and with complete certainty, two feats that require a level head. On the other hand, when his temper did go off, the results could be spectacular. I once watched him collapse a building using forty sticks of dynamite, rigged in under ten minutes, really!

It was awesome, and all over a pet peeve.

Wait, sorry. That’s a long story. Let’s just say that those pigeons will never poop on anyone ever again.

By comparison, I’d say Duff took this setback rather well. He wasn’t blowing anything up, just smashing his fist repetitively against the side of the car.

“When I catch up to these jerk-offs, I’m going to make them choose between deep-throating TNT or getting bunged up with nitro enemas!”

He’s so gosh-darned cute when he’s angry.

The leggy brunette leaning against the car is Jon Bead. It might look like she’s nodding enthusiastically with Duff’s harsh and colorful words, but really she’s just trying not to scream. Too bad, this girl is a great screamer. No, I’m not going to tell you what that means, you already know. Jon is our artillery unit. I’ve lost count of how many times we’ve just stood back and let her go to work. A one-woman army when situations get tight, you want someone like Jon on a rooftop providing cover fire.

The short, muscular man sporting the tan duster and lighting a cigarette is Jack. That’s the only name he seems to have, and we gave it to him. Jack and I handle information gathering, and we both plan the jobs, but in the field he calls the shots. I’ve never seen him angry, or frustrated, or even crack a smile. He’s ice, and always knows what to do. God knows how many of our jobs have needed some weird exotic skillset, and wouldn’t you know it, Jack always seemed to have the know-how. Hence his nickname: Jack of all Trades.

“Back in the car.” Jack’s voice was as gruff as he was short. “Red, drive us around, we’ll find some cover and park. Once there we’ll suit up.”

I wasn’t looking. I was still watching the bank, but I could feel Jon and Duff stare at Jack in disbelief. He was proposing to hit the Vault head on, not by the easier route of guile through the bank front, but a full frontal assault on the heavily guarded rear-access blast doors, the one thing all of our scheming and preparation had worked to avoid. Maximum security, and even if the place wasn’t now on high alert, getting in would be tantamount to a defiant act of suicide.

“He’s right,” I remember saying, cutting off any protests they would have. All of them reasonable, I might add. But this time, we had dug ourselves in as deep as we could go. “We’re committed; we have to do this. Get in the damned car.”

A pause, with just a moment of temerity, but all Duff did was mutter and climb back into the rear seat. Jon did the same, but she did it with sass. It had taken them a moment, but it was dawning on them. Jack and I were not asking them to go all Butch and Sundance. We were proceeding with the only course of action that allowed a hope of survival.

You see, we were on Mr. Tonda’s dime.

You’ve heard of Tonda, you must have. He’d gotten so successful as a crime kingpin that his name had escaped the whispered, frightened tones of the underground and into modern pop culture. There were songs written about him, and at the time the latest craze in TV villains were barely concealed imitations of his rumored existence. Most consider him an urban myth, but trust me, he’s real. Echo knew about him too, but this man had managed to stay out of their reach for over a decade. He was just that good. If you happened to be good enough to land a job for him, your reputation was made. He had his favorites and didn’t hire new blood that often. Still, every once in a while, one of his favorites would screw the pooch, and Tonda’s got this zero-tolerance policy. You don’t mess up. Fail and you’re dead. It was just that simple: one of the secrets to his success. Fail in a spectacular fashion and he would see you live just a little bit longer. You just wouldn’t want to. Keep in mind, his assassins and torturers were under the zero-tolerance policy too.

I was the one who pushed for this job. Working for Tonda was only for those at the top of their game. I had been working for this for ten years, and I knew we were good, maybe even the best. Still, it took a lot of fast talking to get Jack and the others to agree to it. Tonda’s rep is about as unsavory as you can get. We approached Tonda, and that wasn’t easy either, I can tell you. He seemed impressed that we had found him, and landed us this job.

So here we were. The brass ring had been dangling in front of us for a month, and wouldn’t you know it, just as our fingers were almost on it, the ring had grown some pretty scary looking teeth.

I shared a brief look with Jack. “Told ya,” was all he said. So much for fun. The game had turned into the ultimate contest, our lives on the line, and with little hope for success.

“All right,” I said, guiding the sedan around the facility. “Let’s get to work.”
Moscow, Russia: Callsign Red Saviour

I Minus 01:18:05 and Counting

Drenched in the crimson rays of a setting sun, the crowd of Muscovites roared for blood in Red Square. Militsya in riot gear corralled the protesters. The largest of the signs they hoisted into the warm evening air were legible to the sharp eyes of Natalya Nikolaevna Shostakovich from the window in the hallway of Block 14, the Presidium.

we don’t need a saviour, one read. Spasskaya for “Saviour” was written and underlined in the red of the Soviet flag.

The Spasskaya Gate, Saviour’s Gate into the Kremlin, had been shut to the crowd, a sign that the militsya expected trouble. That was because Ivor Triganov was popular, and Natalya Shostakovich, Red Saviour…was not.

Ivor Triganov was a glorified thug, a rich oligarch who flaunted his wealth, yet contributied to charities and cavorted with celebrities while his empire played fast and loose with the tissue-thin laws of the new capitalist economy.

Triganov armored himself with lawyers and powerful friends. When Natalya kicked down his door, he only laughed at her as though she were the evening’s entertainment.

“Come to beg for opera tickets, Red Saviour?” He asked with a smirk, making his fellow partygoers titter like characters at a Tolstoy ball. “I would offer you balcony, but I think you’d prefer my private box. Wouldn’t you, my dear?”

A broken arm and bloody nose later, Triganov had stopped laughing. His eyes promised equally bloody revenge, in his own way. Now the smoke of two packs’ worth of her Proletarskie cigarettes wafted in the hallway outside the council chamber where Director Yvegeniy Murov and the rest of the leadership of the FSO—the Federal Protective Service—grilled the militsya detective who accompanied her on the bust.

“You’re like an American rock star,” a deep voice said behind her. “Your fans await you.”

She didn’t turn around. Supernaut had removed his immense helmet. He stood too close to her. The man was seven feet tall without the bulky scarlet armor that made him into a giant walking flamethrower. Natalya was used to being taller than most men she met; with Supernaut she was reminded of her childhood…and the bullies she used to plot revenge on.

Turning only enough to blow smoke at his face, she said: “Shut up, Vassily Georgiyevich.” Supernaut narrowed his scarred eyes.

Da, leave your Commissar alone.” Molotok—the Hammer—nearly two feet shorter than the giant, chimed in as he walked up at Red Saviour’s left. He craned his neck to meet the huge man’s gaze. “Right now the last thing she needs is your insubordination.”

“Fine. Horosho. I’ll just keep my mouth shut until a vacancy in CCCP leadership appears.” He smirked at Molotok. “That mob is as ready to kick out the Communists as I am.”

Red Saviour waved off Molotok’s angry retort. “Enough, tovarisch. If you ignore him, he wanders off to find somewhere else to boast.”

The Moscow contingent of the CCCP—Super-Sobratiye Sovetskikh Revolutzionerov, or Super-Brotherhood of Soviet Revolutionaries—had come out in force to support her during this hearing to determine her future as Commissar. Her father, the original Red Saviour, had led the team in the 1950’s during the early stages of the Cold War. Everyone had thought that the beautiful, charismatic daughter of the famous war hero would surely lead the CCCP back into the hearts and minds of the Russian people.

Yet her tenure had been a litany of one public relations disaster after another. Breathless news stories of the lovely new Commissar were supplanted by news bulletins of brutal raids on drug labs, accusations of backroom interrogations, and finally the arrest of the popular billionaire Triganov. Many hard-liners lauded her heavy-handed methods; many more politicians cried out for censure. Some questioned the need for a metahuman branch of the Federal Protective Service at all.

Their garish dress uniforms could not have looked more out of place in the elegant neoclassical corridors of the Presidium. Supernaut resembled a red fire engine tipped onto its end; Molotok contrasted him with a crisp black suit with red piping. Petrograd’s armor had been styled after the MiG fighter plane; trapped inside it because of the clumsy machinations of 1940’s Soviet superscience, he sat like an awkward, isolated teen on a divan. Soviette, as elegant as ever, read from a children’s book to the stony Chug, who came up to her shoulder but seemed to fill the space with his squat bulk.

Legs crossed in a lotus position, Natalya’s friend and mentor Fei Li, whose callsign was Meng Dao Ye—People’s Blade—seemed at ease in the alien environment. The diminutive Chinese girl housed the two-thousand-year-old spirit of a legendary general, Shen Xue, and wielded his deadly sword as well. The serene smile on her face diffused some of Natalya’s anxiety. Beyond her the rest waited, in varying poses of unease.






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