Rose didn’t like breaking rules, despite her fourteen years so far teaching her rules only existed to circumvent. Not so much broken as sidestepped. Evaded. Such thinking was a way of life on Meridian, particularly among the scions of the merchant houses. Rules were things to be manipulated, to be turned to your advantage. They were never to be allowed to restrict one’s own actions, but used to restrict the actions of one’s enemies.
Her father’s success in the game came at the price of ethics and scruples. She knew this. It was how he took a relatively minor house and even now came very close to breaking into the top thirty. Ruthlessness she understood, even admired. But a lack of concern for innocent people put in harm’s way? That level of dedication unnerved her.
Maybe she remained naïve, despite everything he’d done to teach her otherwise. But her passion, the very thing that drove her to do what she’d done, required rules to even exist. Without those rules, she’d be a killer. Or a corpse.
Most of the children of the merchant houses trained in the combat arts, as well as other athletic and artistic pursuits. Athleticism itself was admired. Anything that sculpted the human body, perfected it without the use of artificial means, was looked upon with great favor.
But they weren’t supposed to become obsessed with these divisions. Scions didn’t become dancers, or artists, or musicians. They were enfolded into the work of their house, becoming accountants, lawyers, traders. Their own passions were of no consequence in the end.
She’d heard the lecture when she’d objected to their dismissal of her ambitions. How scions did not enter the combat arena, that such things were for the plebes. They might pretend the arena served some valuable cultural function, but they weren’t ever to engage in such activities themselves. It would be demeaning.
The combat arena gave the plebes, the nobodies, an opportunity to strive for something, to believe they might achieve. It was a narrow achievement, to be sure. No more valuable in the grand scheme of things as those who performed similar amusements in the virtual universe.
Yes, because torturing my body for years so I could fight is the same as a kid plugging into a VR realm and turning himself into a warlord because he thinks faster than his opponents. The comparison offended her, but she hadn’t said so aloud. In his youth VR had been her father’s passion. Today he seemed to hold it in as much contempt as anything else that didn’t directly benefit the house, but she’d caught the nostalgic gleam in his eye when the subject arose.
But while actual rules and laws, the very things that their society structured itself around, could be taken as ultimately malleable, the unspoken social contract—it couldn’t be. No, she couldn’t possibly strive to excel at something the plebes typically dominated. It wouldn’t increase their status. Maybe not. But maybe she cared about more than their status. Maybe she wanted a chance to define her own success. A hell of a goal at fourteen standard years of age, but Rose Anise Grady hadn’t been raised to think small. She’d simply slipped her leash along the way.
Explaining precisely how she came to be standing outside the Keystone shuttle port, having fraudulently authorized her own entry into the arena, as well as the shuttle ticket and accommodations in the hotel sponsoring the event.
Once finished with the initial sign-in, she retired to her room only to find a glitch. She’d paid for a shared room, not a private suite. As much as she wanted to believe this to be nothing but a fortuitous fail, an error on the hotel’s part, she knew better than to accept unsolicited privileges when she didn’t know the price tag.
She crossed to the com and opened a channel to the front desk. The screen resolved into the placid face of the young man who’d helped her initially. “There’s been some kind of mistake,” she told him. “This isn’t the room I booked.”
“Your request was upgraded by management,” came the bland reply. This did not make her feel better.
“Why? I can’t pay for this.”
Technically she couldn’t pay for any of it, but she had no intention of admitting that to him. Her father would likely block payment once he figured out what she’d done. That would be several days from now, if everything went according to plan. Far too late to stop her. If she won, it wouldn’t matter. If she lost… it wouldn’t matter either, if for different reasons.
“I’m afraid I’m not privy to that information, miss. If there’s nothing else…?”
Someone recognized her name, made the connection. This unknown intended to use her for some kind of leverage, but to what purpose? How did giving her a better room achieve anything? She hadn’t asked for it, she didn’t really want it, and she certainly wasn’t going to trade anything for it.
If her parents weren’t off-planet this wouldn’t have been possible in the first place. Someone might have realized what the confluence of circumstances might spell. Her parents gone, Rose signed up for a competition they were very unlikely to have condoned.
A message? ‘I know what you’re doing but I won’t interfere. For future consideration.’ Made a certain kind of sense. They wouldn’t even have to contact her directly. The room upgrade was a message both direct and subtle. If someone came to her later and said “I arranged for that room,” it would serve to identify them quite well enough for their purposes.
But why? She’d all but set herself against her house. They had to know that. In violating her parents’ direct wishes, in stealing from them and faking her authorizations, she’d quite likely ruined any likelihood of them trusting her for many years to come.
It made her a rather feckless agent, when it came to it. Unless the favor this person wanted came far in the future, or didn’t involve her parents at all.
Now that set her back on her heels. What else could she possibly have to offer?
The fact she’d entered a combat arena tournament suggested one thing, but there were plenty of combat arts experts out there. What made her so special? Only that she happened to be a scion, if of a relatively minor house.
Reason enough to be suspicious.
At 25:30 her roommate still hadn’t arrived. Unsettled, she tucked her luggage beneath her bed and walked down to the lounge at the end of the hall, where several kids lounged watching holo. She ignored the program, focusing on the people. Only two she recognized, former opponents in an earlier round. Not that surprising, given how much promise each had shown. The younger one, Franklin Ponds, glanced up and risked a tentative smile. He’d taken some kind of a neural injury and one side of his face tended to droop a little, but it didn’t affect his fighting. Something about not being able to get it fixed while still in competition because it might affect his status as an unmodified human.
Beside him sat Janice Myles, flaxen hair pulled up in a ponytail. She turned a sidelong glance at Rose but didn’t say anything. Rose couldn’t recall if they’d ever had a positive interaction. Unlikely, then. She might like Franklin, but doubted she’d ever be friends with the blonde girl.
Too bad. Everyone could use a few more friends. Not that she practiced what she thought. Most of the times she didn’t let people close enough to call them friends. People at arm’s length find it harder to land a punch.
You had to trust your friends, didn’t you? Where in the hell would she have learned that? Her mother’s friends were backstabbing, social-climbing piranha birds. And her father’s were, as he explained entirely too many times to count, at best allies who might not remain so in the long term. Every relationship temporary, friendship a matter of expedience alone.
No wonder her parents often seemed so lonely. Not like the other was all that much company. Most days they barely seemed to like each other. Their alliance held, though, because that’s what merchant houses did. They held together against outsiders. Even if they loathed each other, and retreated to opposite ends of the house to communicate only through servants for their rest of their lives, that would be their business and not anyone else’s. It would not, under any circumstance, be allowed to affect the house’s fortunes.
She watched romantic holos about love and usually ended up restraining a bitter laugh. She’d seen damn little of it. Mostly she imagined it some artistic phantasm, invented by poets and playwrights to tempt people with things that never were and would never be.
Friendship seemed a tentative enough position. Imagining romantic love made her shudder. She knew girls addicted to that drama, and she sensed in her blonde would-be rival an element of the jealous animosity it could breed.
Girls like that wanted first claim to whichever boy suited their fancy, and resented the other girls in on principle. Rose couldn’t speak to the others, but she wanted no part of that nonsense.
Boys. Ugh. She liked them as sparring partners, though. You could hit them as hard as you wanted and they were bound by their pride to pretend it didn’t hurt. In the arena—they could be tougher opponents than a lot of girls. But she knew how to inflict pain, and do it well. The effort of pretending not to feel it drove more than one opponent past all restraint, delivering him right into her hands.
The Sensei’s words floated out of her subconscious. The trick isn’t just to find one weakness… it’s to find them all. If one’s protected, hit another. Keep them too busy guarding their weak points to attack. Do not relent. Do not pause. Move from one attack to the next, stealing the time they need to recover.
Her mother’s social climbing worked to her benefit that particular instance. She heard of Sensei Greenbalm from some of her friends and simply had to commission his services to teach her daughter. So she’d learned from an acknowledged master, one who taught two different styles at the same time and taught his students to firmly draw the line between when to use either.
His arena combat tended toward the pragmatic and traditional. He eschewed leaping attacks and flashy moves, except in occasion where they’re used as a distraction. And then sparingly, since overuse renders them pointless.
His ground work principles hung on sensitivity and speed. Control the opponent, find their weaknesses and keep on them.
So far so good. Her record, the record her mother had so disdainfully sniffed at, was 12-2. And one of those two was a straight robbery. The other, a TKO from a cut over her eye. She’d never lost a fight.
She’d taken everything thrown at her and kept going.
The others she didn’t know, but most of them seemed at least friendlier than Janice. The other two girls didn’t wear hostility like a fashion statement and after a few moments she had the feeling they not only knew each other, but might have been lovers.
Not that she cared, though some of the boys here would be disappointed in that case. Why so many of her peers had to use these opportunities as excuses to pair-bond she’d never understand. Who wants to smooch a boy—or a girl, for that matter—when you could be pounding a bag, or taking a swim?
Too late to try to do either right now. Best to go back to her room and get ready for lights-out at 2700. She’d brought a few books assigned by her Earth Lit class. Maybe she’d get a chance to read one of them in the dead spaces.
Somehow when she returned to her room, she found her roommate had come and gone. How she—still hoping it’s a she—made it in and out without Rose noticing. She’d been keeping an eye out, after all.
Until the window flew open and a small, slight form flew in. Well, maybe not flew, but it looked a little like that. Wrapped entirely in some form of white linen robe, head covered with some kind of a scarf, the question of gender wasn’t answered by its appearance.
Not, at least, until the headscarf was swept aside to reveal a pretty, suntanned girl with flowing copper hair, freckles, and a wide smile. “Hey there.”
Rose stared. “How are you here?” was all she could think to ask.
“Mostly through an absolutely tedious series of misadventures you wouldn’t believe if I told you,” the girl replied. She jabbed out a hand. “Jasmine Carmine Cole—but my friends call me JC.”
“I know who you are,” Rose said numbly, “I’m wondering why you’re here.”
“To compete, of course. Why else? At this point it’s usual to introduce yourself in return,” she suggested helpfully.
“Huh? Oh. Yeah… I’m Rose. Rose Anise Grady.”
“Grady? Of those Gradys? Girl, what are you doing here? And what color kittens is your mother going to have when she finds out?”
“You know my mother?”
“Of course I do, my dear. I’m invited to the best parties. So is she, surprisingly.”
Rose blinked, missing the jibe for a moment. “Heh. Fair enough. I’m not sure why she’s invited either.”
“The question gets around,” the other girl replied. “If you want my autograph,” she said, but not if she really meant it, “I suppose I could manage that.”
“I don’t want your autograph. Sure, you’re a famous holo star and all, but I don’t really care about that. I thought your last holo sucked.”
“Well, you’re a brassy one, aren’t you?” She smiled. “I like that. And to be fair, I thought ‘Rogues of Winter’ was sappy and melodramatic. Some of my lines were simply awful. I could only get them out by remembering that it wasn’t really me saying them, but that idiot character.”
“What were you doing out there? We’re on the twelfth floor.”
“Oh, I know. This building only has fourteen, so I’ve been hanging out on the roof.”
“And you rappelled from the roof to the window?”
“Yeah. I’ve got it set up so I can go back and forth in case it gets stuffy. I don’t like small rooms.”
“About that… why don’t you have a private room?”
“Didn’t want one. I wanted a roommate, someone to hang out with. I don’t get a lot of chances to meet kids my own age. This tournament will have several, with the added bonus of a mutual interest.” At Rose’s blank gaze, she laughed. “I’m going to attribute your slowness to shock, not some sort of pre-fight concussion. You didn’t know I did combat arts?”
“Well… I knew you studied some, for your role in Space Marines 2, but I didn’t realize it was a passion of yours.”
“I actually started when I was ten, while still on the show that started my career.”
“Danny the Doormat! I remember that!”
“Stupid show, but I had a lot of friends there. I thought me and Drake—the kid playing Danny-were going to be together forever. Hah.”
“No kidding.” She slanted a mildly curious glance her way. “You’re not into girls, are you? I don’t care if you are, but I’m not…”
“No. I’m not really interested in anyone like that. I’m just here to fight. And win, if I can.”
“I’m just happy to be competing,” the other girl said, lying back on her bed with her arms crossed behind her head. “This wasn’t exactly easy to arrange.”
Hah. Tell me about it. Rose said nothing aloud, though.
Lights out came upon them faster than they realized, and even afterward they lay in the dark and chatted about everything deep into the night. The first day’s activities were mostly be in weapon exhibition, leaving Rose at loose ends until nearly 1400. And then she’d only do her thing for about ten minutes, hang out to watch a few of her competitors follow suit, and then she’d be done for the day.
She had plenty of time for napping. It wasn’t as though they had to attend other weapon exhibitions. She considered it long enough to ask JC what weapon she specialized in before falling asleep.
The staff followed her into her dreams. Odd that JC’s first weapon was her second. Another link between them, she supposed. Maybe she had found a friend after all. Of course, with that thought came a second. Is that a vulnerability I need?
Morning. Birdsongs? No. JC whistling. Rose sat up, yawned, stretched, and glanced over at her roommate. “You’re upside-down.” And whistling.
“Yoga.” She unfolded from the wall and rolled neatly to her feet. “You ever try it?”
Rose shook her head. “No. Can’t whistle.”
JC snorted. “You should try it. Helps me focus and keeps me limber. You don’t have to whistle. The whistling’s just for fun.” She pulled her elbows up and rotated her hips a few times, stretching her whole upper body—first one way, then the other. Then she stretched down to touch her toes, once on each foot, then repeated with the other arm. From their she launched into a few slow katas, more limbering exercises than any real drill involving serious muscular involvement.
“Not enough room for anything serious. I’m heading for the pool. You want?”
“Yeah—I can get a shower down there. Give me a sec. Let me grab my bathing suit.”
Her relative lack of sleep didn’t seem to be dragging her down when they were finished in the pool, so she trailed JC to food service for some breakfast. One of the reasons she’d been able to do this was because it was all-inclusive. Food provided, as well as housing. If she’d been forced to try to juke her father’s accounts every time she needed something, her story would have quickly come apart. The single expenditure wouldn’t ding their account the way a whole string of them would have. Off-world or no, she didn’t want their bank sending emergency security message drones hunting for them because his account went crazy.
Nope. This would work. By the time her parents knew anything about the deal the weekend would be over and she’d have either won, or lost. On her own terms.
They didn’t stuff themselves, both girls deciding to eat light in respect to the lateness of the hour and the upcoming exhibitions. They’d at least be able to support each other in the staff competition, even if they were technically rivals.
It wasn’t as though they were fighting one another. Not yet, anyway. And that outcome seemed rather unlikely. One of them would surely fall first, before they ended up fighting for the arena combat championship.
Reasonable or not, this was Rose’s argument to herself. She didn’t want to consider this new friend an adversary. Not yet. Not if she wasn’t forced to. More and more she grew to appreciate her parents’ lack of support in this particular case. Her father’s competitiveness would have made their friendship unlikely from the onset.
To her father, everyone fell either under the heading of ally, or adversary. No allies in a competition where only one can come out on top. Thus, she’d be best off ignoring everyone and minding her own business.
He didn’t have to be present for her to hear his voice, or at least some strange echo of it. And her mother was no better, though, in this case, she might have found reason to encourage the friendship. Being friends with a holo star could be socially advantageous, after all.
Probably worth whatever punishment they could dream up, having this opportunity all to herself. She’d be damned if she would regret a single moment of it.
She cheered for JC as she performed her staff routine flawlessly, the kata itself a combination of traditional staff movements, real combat techniques, and flourishes added simply for flash. Technically, JC was probably better than her. But for all their perfection, they lacked emotion. Even her exhalations, the explosive grunts initially imagined to harness ‘chi’ or ‘ki’ energy, had an almost mechanical quality to them.
When she stepped up, two contestants down from JC, she resisted the temptation to alter her practiced routine in some futile attempt to match or exceed what her friend had done. Instead, she stuck to the sweeping, swooping, truly aggressive attack formation katas she’d practiced into her very nerves, muscles, and bones.
She landed on one knee, arm and staff extended as far as she could reach, arm and staff still vibrating from the impact against the mat. The applause broke over her like a wave, leaving her spinning like a surfer swept beneath a curl.
She came to her feet, bowing, and exited the stage. It took a while for the applause to die down. She risked a glance at JC beneath lowered eyelashes, afraid there’d be anger there. Instead, the girl radiated joy like sunshine. “That was amazing!”
“Yours was quite good too,” she had to announce.
“Well, sure it was,” JC said. “But my work with a staff isn’t anywhere near as truly inspired as yours. You looked as though you might actually take flight.”
“Spent a lot of time with weights on my ankles, doing floor work. Some heavy gee practice to go along with it.”
“Heavy gee? How heavy?”
“Wow. That’s Ubuntu mass.”
“My sensei is from Ubuntu,” Rose explained. “His dojo uses grav boosters.”
People had many reasons to be thankful for artificial gravity, but few more than heavy-worlders and spacers. Only artificial gee (R-G) allowed them to maintain musculature and bone density integrity. It also enabled light-worlders to make up for planetary lack in this regard.
The machines to generate an artificial grav field didn’t come cheap, especially since the same machines were in high demand for skip ships, as the grav fields were what held a ship together in transition. Without the fields to maintain existential integrity there proved little effective difference between ‘everywhere’ and ‘nowhere,’ or uncertainty and dispersal.
The timing worked out for her to attend JC’s other exhibition, deciding on the spot that what she lost in ordinary staff work, she more than made up with the three-sectional version. Three lengths of wood with interconnecting chain, whirled around her body at astonishing speeds—so quick that they blurred into near invisibility—snapping out in vicious arcs capable of tagging enemies nearly four meters out.
On her way back from their room, having collected her own personal weapons for her next exhibition round, an explosion rocked the building with enough force to throw her to the floor.
Pushing herself up off the carpet, Rose raced to the lounge area where she’d intended to meet JC. To her relief, the other girl was there, and not alone. Franklin and Janice stood by her side, both vibrating like a couple of plucked guitar strings.
“What the hell was that?” Franklin asked her, as she trotted up.
She shrugged. “Sounded like an explosion to me. Any more than that your guess is as good as mine.”
In the distance they heard the chatter of machine gun fire. Where? The stairwell? The vators? The hotel had newly installed grav chutes but people hadn’t quite grown comfortable with them yet. She certainly didn’t want to use them.
“The roof!” JC’s words cut across the animal panic threatening to overtake them. They raced together to the room, where a quick introductory lesson gave the two wide-eyed neophytes a faint understanding of how they were going to get up there.
“I rigged this so I could take other people up,” the holo star explained, as she helped Franklin into one of the two climbing harnesses in the room. Janice, watching carefully, shrugged into the other. Guiding the boy to the window, she clipped him in, grabbed the belaying line, and shoved him out the window. To his credit, he didn’t even yell.
Once Franklin reached the roof, she repeated the process with Janice. A short moment later the harnesses returned via the rope and the two of them began strapping them on even as the heard the stairwell door down the hall slam open and booted feet rush within. “You first,” said JC. “Go.” She moved closer to the door, head cocked, as Rose clipped herself to the line and climbed out the window.
Attaining the roof, Rose allowed the others to help her up, turned to see JC clambering out the window. She seemed to fly up the side of the building, vaulting the ledge without help and pulling the rope up behind her. “I got a look at them. Basilisks.”
Janice said something snarly, then, “You must have got out of there just in time.”
JC’s response whipped away in the wind as she double checked her harness and gear, draped a part of the anchoring line around a vent cover to move the whole thing slightly to the left, and jumped off again.
Rose scrambled to the edge on hands and knees, gripping the ledge and peering over. JC dropped back down to the level of their window, but over about a meter, where she hung gripping the belaying rope in one hand while gently pulling herself over to the window with the other.
“What the hell is she doing?” From Franklin, who didn’t deign to approach the edge.
“Spying on them, I think...” Rose replied, though she couldn’t be certain. Seemed a good bet. Then, to her shock, the girl kicked off the wall and swung herself in through the window. An instant later she leaned back out, attached a large dark shape to the line and started hauling it up. Announcing what she seemed to be about, Rose rushed over and helped draw up the burden. The heavy burden. Getting it to the lip, she grabbed the handle of a large chest, which they pulled up together.
Rose quickly unlimbered the rope and tossed it back down. A moment later, JC reappeared and crossed to where they’d tucked the trunk, around the side of the rooftop door. Out of immediate sight, anyway.
She pressed her hand to the read panel and the device scanned her palm before opening with a whoosh of air rushing in. Franklin let out a low whistle. “Vacuum sealed.”
Inside lay several different weapons, including a bundle Rose recognized as a very nice three-sectional-staff fashioned out of an intricately carved, pure ebon wood. “Blackstaff? How…?” Rose couldn’t help but run her fingers over the ornately scrawled surface of the weapon. “It’s not quite prohibited, but…”
JC shrugged. “Helps to know the right people. About ten thousand kilos of dead wood is processed off the planet a year. I just found a way to reserve some of that.”
Next to it lay a war fan of the same black wood. Janice, pushing in beside them, let out a cooing sound as she ogled it. “How much of it?”
“Several month’s worth,” JC answered cheerfully. How much did holo stars make? “Not sure if you need anything, Rose,” JC continued, “but there’s a stave/sticks combination at the bottom, if you look. You can either use it as a short staff or separate the pieces and use them that way. Up to you. Janice, take the war fan. I know that’s your secondary weapon. Franklin, you have a choice between the sais or the tonfa.”
“Prefer the tonfas,” he said. “Especially when they’re theoretically unbreakable.” Within a couple moments they’d not only chosen their main weapons, but found themselves loaded down with an assortment of accessories. Caltrops, throwing spikes, shuriken.
“Hatchets?” Clearly not made for hewing wood, these slim, weighted hunks of chrome looked far more innocent than they actually were. When JC hung them off the sides of her belt, Rose knew then the axe work on Three Kill Station hadn’t actually been staged. The girl could throw hatchets along with everything else?
Now she began to feel a tad inadequate. By the looks of it, Janice had similar thoughts, as she’d transferred some of her barely hidden envy-driven hostility toward the young holo-star, who either didn’t notice, or didn’t care.
“Isn’t blackstaff interdicted?” Franklin asked, frowning over the two L-shaped weapons in his hand. A slim, round piece attached to a longer, wider rectangular piece as a handle, the flat piece meant to either fit tightly against the arm as a shield, or could be swung out as a kind of club. He went through a series of quick drills, showing that it was, indeed, his preferred weapon for a reason.
“Depends on what you mean,” JC said. “I have dispensation for ownership and use of blackstaff weapons.”
Sure she did. Rose didn’t believe that. Or didn’t want to believe it. That someone could get that dispensation didn’t surprise her. But a celebrity? Her father would birth small domestic animals to hear that. The image made her grin. “So now what?”
“I’m thinking they might make it this far up. Might as well sweep the whole hotel, after all.”
“I don’t get this,” Franklin moaned. “Why are Basilisks attacking us?”
“We don’t know if they are,” JC replied. “They may be responding to someone else’s attack.” Though she didn’t sound as though she believed it.
“I don’t understand why anyone would attack in the first place,” groused Janice. Her stiff stance and folded arms didn’t strike Rose as a good sign. This was not someone prone to cooperate.
“Yeah, well… there are plenty of possibilities. Arena combat isn’t exactly a target on its own, as far as I know, but one way to get attention is to steal someone else’s.”
Janice’s brow furrowed as she considered this. “You’re saying someone attacked us to steal our stage?”
“Sure. Lot of potential subversive and/or terrorist groups who can’t get media attention any other way. This would do it.”
“Not if it works,” the other girl replied. “They’re sure to check the roof. I have an idea, but it’s going to take a lot of nerve. We’re going to try to get to that building over there.”
“What?” Janice’s eyes flew wide as she took in the thirty meter gap between the two buildings, as well as the ten meter drop to the roof. “You’re crazy.”
“Not if it works,” JC repeated with a smirk. She began gathering up the line they’d used for their ascent, rolling it up on her arm. Rushing to the side facing the building in question, she eyed it, Rose assumed, for somewhere to anchor the grapple. Once she’d determined that, she twisted the rope around, spun the grapple, and launched it toward whatever spot she’d picked out below.
It took a couple of tries, but finally she wedged it between two very solid pieces of the roof’s architecture, and pulled the line taut before spiking it into the roof to keep it that way. “This is going to be scary, but you can do it.” She gave all three of them a quick once-over. “I’d say you’re pretty equal in strength, though Franklin might have a slight edge in upper body muscle mass. Makes him weigh more too. So—Janice and Franklin, you get the harnesses. We’re going to send you down together, with Rose suspended between you with both clips and your grasp to keep her there.”
Now it was Rose’s turn to goggle. “What?”
“We don’t have a choice. And no gakking time to argue.” In an instant, she transformed from a supportive friend to an authoritative fiend. In no time her chosen ones were strapped into their harnesses and perched on the edge of the roof, Rose grasped between them.
“Wait!” Rose cried. “If you just slide down behind us they’ll know where we went.”
“Don’t worry about that,” JC snapped. “Just go!” She shoved them off the edge and Rose felt a moment of horrifying free fall before the clips caught and held, and then were sliding down toward the roof below at rapidly increasing speeds.
“Bend your legs,” Janice shouted, and as they cleared the edge of the other rooftop, she reached up and disconnected her clip as Franklin did on the other side. They fell two meters to the roof, tumbling and rolling along the papered gravel to grind to a halt in a meat pile against what appeared to be a solar collector.
They clambered achingly to their feet, and peered back toward the taller building. They watched as the holo-star wrapped first one arm, then her torso, then her other arm in the rope. “What is she doing?” asked Franklin, but Rose realized with a sick feeling exactly what JC was up to. She was going to hurl herself off and hope the impact didn’t kill her when she reached the end of the rope’s swing.
It was either utter insanity or the bravest thing Rose had ever seen. She couldn’t say which.
They rushed to the edge as JC leaped out into the empty air, dropping like a stone until the rope caught on the ledge beside them and snapped tight once again, whipping the girl back toward the building beneath them.
“She’s going to…”
Legs extended, JC hit a window and blasted through, vanishing from sight. The rope went suddenly slack. All three of them exchanged shocked and terrified glances, then rushed for the door into the building.
It was locked, but, to their surprise, Franklin produced a small electronic device and diddled the mechanism. It popped open and he grinned up at them before tucking it away and pushing himself to his feet. “This isn’t what it looks like.”
Janice frowned back at him. “No? It looks like an illegal security evasion kit.”
“Ummm…yeah, I guess it is.”
“I’m not going to ask what kind of antisocial things you intended to do with such a device,” Janice told him firmly. “At least, not until we’re safe.”
“How big of you,” he muttered. In an aside to Rose, as the other girl opened the door and stepped within, he added, “what’s her deal?”
“In general, or specifically?”
“Oh, I can tell what her problem is with you,” the boy replied. “She’s not sure if she wants to be you, beat you, or sleep with you.” He sighed, and nodded toward the door. “I’m okay with taking the rear,” he admitted. “You two are fierce predatory females. You take point.”
“Hah,” Rose replied. “Are you sure you’re from Meridian?”
“Yeah. From the cowardly quarter,” Franklin replied. “Oh, don’t get me wrong. I can fight, I just don’t like to. I think you do.”
There’s truth to that, she thought, as she started to descend the stairs behind Janice. “Hold on. I’ll be right back.” She rushed back upstairs and gathered up the grapple and rope. No reason to leave the clues out here when anyone could find them. Or spot them from the other rooftop.
They might notice JC’s chest up there, but since they’d be unable to open it, it wouldn’t really tell them anything. Or so she hoped.
“How many floors down is she?” she heard Franklin asked. The lights in this stairwell seemed unusually dim. Surely this was some kind of safety hazard. Had the whole block gone on backup generators for some reason?
The hotel hadn’t, at least not before they left.
They crept down the staircase, stopping on each landing to listen. Some plumbing noises, and similar sounds, bounced up from elsewhere, but they heard very little signs of actual life. “They might have evacuated the nearby buildings,” Rose observed, when Franklin murmured his concerns aloud. “I wouldn’t panic yet.”
“I recommend panicking immediately,” he replied instantly. “That way you avoid the rush.”
About four floors down Janice paused and said, “I think she hit on this floor.” She slowly pried the door open, ear pressed to the widening crack.
Was that crunching glass? One by one they slipped inside, passing through a cubicle farm, the traditional corporate drone spawning ground. No corporate drones were in evidence, though they found JC at the far end, using a first aid kid to apply artificial skin to an assortment of small cuts. A larger gash on her arm dripped blood, needing something a little more substantial than gel-skin to patch it up.
Seeing them, she lifted her arms, trailing an awkward tail of white bandage over her shoulder. “It’s really hard to bandage your own arm, as it turns out.”
“You could have been killed! That was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen. And I’m a boy!” The three girls blinked back at him in bemusement and he continued, his smile growing a bit sheepish. “None of you have brothers?”
The three girls exchanged glances. “Only child,” Rose admitted.
“Same here,” said Janice, slanting a look at her Rose couldn’t parse.
“Two sisters,” said JC. “I’m the eldest. I think my parents are officially terrified.”
“Well, I had brothers. Six brothers. Older brothers. When they weren’t tormenting me, they took turns daring each other into trying some of the most terrifying stunts you can imagine. The only reason none of them have pulled that one,” he said to JC, “is because they’re not allowed in the city without supervision. And that’s by city request.”
“Uhhh… I see.”
None of this explained his ebullience. As if realizing that himself, he laughed. “My brothers are going to hate that a girl did something they can’t. I just wish I had it on holo.”
JC snorted. “Well, you can send them some of my stunt reels. They will squirm with envy.”
“I know.” If he grinned any wider, he’d have split his face.
“We need dat. Someone gig one of these consoles, see if we can get a news update.” JC gave the order in Franklin’s direction, but it was Rose who moved to answer it.
“I can do that.”
She moved to the desk, took a look at the digital control panel arrayed along the right side of the desk. What kind of a place was this? Mere fingerprint ID log-ins? Might as well use passwords attached to the side of the desk.
She sighed. “Idiots.”
In seconds she’d bypassed the fingerprint lock and opened up outside channels, bringing up a media feed.”
A newscaster, looking entirely too cheerful about the whole thing, stood outside the Hotel they’d just escaped, the flashing lights of emergency vehicles bouncing off the glass storefronts around here, giving the whole thing a decidedly and unfortunately festive air.
Add some music and a few dancers and they’d have a party going.
Rose snarled something foul.
The woman brushed a lock of flame-red hair out of her eyes and gave her camera her best sincerely distressed look. “We’re outside the Keystone Candlewick Hotel tonight, the site of this year’s Combat Arts arena championship. Roughly an hour ago, a hostile force took control of the building, reportedly wearing the uniform armor of the Basilisks.
“The Basilisk Corps officially denies any involvement, and is even now reportedly seeking information regarding stolen armor.”
“Not real Basilisks!” Franklin’s words burst out in an almost violent expulsion of relief. A moan, a sigh, and half a laugh all in one. “Oh, god. I almost peed my pants for nothing.”
“If they had Baz armor,” Rose pointed out, “They had Baz weapons. That pee would have been more than warranted.”
The look Franklin shot in response didn’t exactly bathe her in gratitude. Oh, he was one of those. Mocked himself so no one else would. Okay. It suited her to leave her companions tender spots alone.
JC hushed them as the newscaster continued. “According to the few witnesses who escaped, they believe to have less than ten men inside, and they’re holding most of the hostages in the second floor ballroom.”
“Second floor makes sense. A little harder to launch a massive coordinated attack without alerting them in the process.” JC chewed her lower lip. A suspicion Rose hadn’t even been aware of suddenly went from bubbling in the back of her brain to fully boiling over. She resolved to ask the other girl about it at her first opportunity. Without anyone to overhear.
“My guess,” she continued, “was that we barely dodged their final sweep collecting all their hostages. My god, they’ve ten men watching how many people? Nearly five hundred trained martial artists of multiple styles?”
“Without the armor it would be impossible,” Janice said, nodding.
“Precisely. Which explains the armor. It doesn’t explain anything else. The theory about using our stage and microphone still holds, though. Someone wanted attention. They have it. But why us? Because we were handy?
“It’s a tiger by the tail. They have to understand it. The longer it goes on, the worse their chances become. They’ve the regular authorities to deal with, but every minute increases the chances the Basilisks will get involved. Unless,” she added, “they already are. Are we sure they’re not?”
Rose shrugged a shoulder. “Ten suits of Baz armor would make for plausible deniability. Fifty, no. Ten? Sure. One shipment could have been hijacked, or a secondary storage facility raided. But fifty would suggest direct involvement.”
“That doesn’t tell us anything. Just adds more questions.” This time Janice’s voice held no trace of anything but weariness. Whatever barb she might have placed earlier didn’t seem to be in evidence. “What could the Basilisks do even if they showed up?”
“That’s anyone’s guess,” JC answered. “They don’t really give away their secrets, not even to the holo industry. I know a few people have wanted to buy rights to tell their story, but they don’t want to give up their secrets. Not even in trade for fame. That’s a bit weird, if you ask me.”
“Can’t imagine why,” said Janice in an arid tone.
This elicited a snort from the holo star. “Yeah, well, thanks to my mother, I was on my way to being famous by the time I was five. I didn’t choose this life. It chose me.”
“Or your parents chose it for you.”
“Or that,” JC acknowledged with a shrug. “It just makes me wonder what kinds of secrets they’re hiding. Some tech, maybe. Their paralysis fields and the like are proprietary tech. I know that. But what if there’s something else?”
Franklin scowled. “What else could there be?”
“I don’t know. But I’ll bet one of those guys over there could tell us. Whether or not they’re actually Basilisks themselves.”
“Yeah, well,” Franklin put in, “they might as well be on another planet now.”
“Not exactly,” JC said. “I can get back over there.”
“Why would you want to?” the boy nearly wailed. “We got away. Fooled them. Haha. We win, they lose.”
“Because we have people still over there,” Rose said, surprising herself. Where had that come from?
“That’s not an answer,” Franklin said, whirling on her. “We got away. Nobody killed us, paralyzed us, or took us hostage. And you want to go back?”
“You don’t have to go,” JC said softly.
Franklin flushed. “You think I’m afraid?”
“Well, you’re right. And you should be too!”
“Who says I’m not?”
That shut him up. He stared at her for a moment, then said “I don’t understand.”
“Someone taught you that bravery was the absence of fear. It’s not. It’s doing what has to be done even if you’re scared. Hell, maybe especially if you’re scared. Being scared is smart. It keeps us alive. But not if it paralyzes us. Then it’s as dangerous as the enemy.
“I don’t mean to be paralyzed. I don’t mean to sit here and just wait it out. My sifu is over there. Her sensei. I assume your teachers as well. We’ve got a few advantages. They’ll never see us coming. Even if they catch us wandering around, they’re going to be relieved instead of on guard, thankful we’re not the cops, or even the real Basilisks. We can use that.”
“You keep saying that.”
“It keeps being true.”
“She’s right.” Rose’s whip-crack tone cut through the argument like a laser cannon. “We can do this. And you don’t need to come. In fact, maybe you should see what help you can be to the authorities down below.”
“You’re all crazy.” He shot a glance at Janice, who stared back blandly. “Don’t tell me you’re joining this insanity too.”
She shrugged. “I’m no good at sitting around waiting for someone else to do something. It’ll be like an itch I can’t scratch.”
“That’s a stupid reason to…” He paused, taking a deep breath. “Fine. But, no, I’m not going to go help the authorities. I’m not running out on you. I just want you to know that I think this is a bad idea.”
JC eyed him skeptically. “Such a bad idea you can’t help but come along?”
“To see if I can keep you out of trouble. Be the voice of reason.”
Janice smirked. “How’s that working so far?”
“You stay out of this.”
JC bent a ferocious scowl at him. “No, dammit. I’m not going to have you along, second-guessing every decision I make. You either do what I tell you and shut up about it, or you stay here.”
That’s it. “JC? Can I talk to you?” Rather than waiting for an answer, Rose gently took the other girl by the upper arm and led her some distance down the main avenue through the cubicle farm. “Enough gakking us, JC. You know too damn much to be just a holo actress.”
“Actor,” JC corrected. “That distinction was passé centuries ago.”
Rose ignored that. “I’m serious. You sound like you know things you shouldn’t, and I either take you at your word, or assume you’re just spinning stories and hoping we’ll believe you. If I do decide to follow you, it’s because I think you know what you’re doing. That means we hash this out here and now. Who are you, really? I mean, besides this…cover identity?”
One side of JC’s mouth curled up in a bemused sort of smile. “Aren’t you the clever one? Okay, fine. You’ve got me. I’m more than just a holo actor. I’m also a modified and qualified agent of galactic operations.”
“Whose galactic operations?” Rose asked suspiciously. Sure, JC was from Meridian, but in those circles Meridian tended toward the conventional. Female agents wouldn’t really interest them, except in very specific ways and circumstances.
That meant… “Ubuntu.”
Of course. Had their hands in everything, some said. Her father always had some venom he could spit in their direction, some blame he could lay at their doorstep. But right now Rose’s only thought was that Ubuntu allowed women to do things like this.
And then the girl’s words caught up with her. “Modified?”
“I’m not going to tell you how. Not right now. What you don’t know, you can’t be forced to share.”
At the thought of what she meant by ‘forced to share,’ Rose shuddered. More than anything else, it illustrated the ultimate stakes involved. There might be worse things than death, after all.
Would working with an agent of Ubuntu somehow compromise her? Was it treason? Her father might think so, but at the moment she found she wasn’t all that concerned with what he’d think. Her sense of his scope, the width of his vision, had clarified itself a great deal. Her father obsessed over the things just outside his grasp, and generally ignored anything beyond that. He was a slave to his hunger for acquisition, and beyond that his curiosity waned quickly.
He wanted ideas and products ready to market now, not years from now. He only saw what it might get him, not what it might grow into. And now she saw that philosophy reflected in his treatment of her.
She was a product he intended to market to his advantage. And she didn’t want to be a product.
She’d risk anything first. She’d risked this. And she’d risk more, if it came to it. “Fine. But when this is over, we’re going to have a long talk.”
“If we’re still breathing, you’ve got it.”
Optimistic sort, wasn’t she? As they rejoined the others, all Rose said was “I’m in.”
And then they set about making a plan.
Rose couldn’t say if the others guessed something about JC as well, but whatever happened, the holo star relaxed into a far more authoritative voice as they sketched out what she could remember of the building layout using a program on the gigged desk console.
“Can’t we just pull up the plans from the library or whatever?” Franklin asked after a moment or two of this.
“Crap. Hadn’t even thought of that.”
Janice threw her a razor glance. “So you’re not perfect? I’d begun to wonder.”
“Heh. Not perfect. Just determined.”
“Well, little Ms. ‘Determined.’ Let’s see what we can manage here.” Rose’s fingers flashed across the interface, bringing up a holo display, which she continued to manipulated through screens until—“Here it is.”
It sprang up in wire work display, then in different colors various systems were highlighted. Plumbing, security, power, communications. “You know they’ve got someone in security by now, right?”
“Maybe. They hadn’t gotten in by the time we left. If they had, they’d know about us. The internal monitors would have caught us.”
“Wouldn’t that have been their first target?”
“Sure. Which is why they’re hardened. Not the first time someone tried to take over a hotel.”
“What are these? In shaded gray?” Franklin’s finger traced a short piece before it shunted off another
direction. “They look big.”
“Air vents. They are big, but not as big as you’re thinking. Even if we fit inside them we’d make more noise than a running chainsaw dropped in a steel barrel.”
“Ehr. Bad idea then.”
JC frowned. “Not necessarily. Air ducts are a terrible idea. But do you see these? In light blue? They’re utility maintenance tunnels between floors. Looks like the owners didn’t want to have to rip up floors if they had a problem with any of their connectors or conduits. Something shorted out, whatever. They wanted to make it so these things could be worked on without interfering with the hotel guests.
“And while they’re not exactly secret, my guess is that they’re also not open knowledge. If the guys in the Baz armor don’t know about it, we have a way to get around without them ever even knowing we’re there.”
Franklin nodded. “That could come in handy. But sneaking around isn’t going to do us a lot of good. We need to be able to strike, to take some of them out if we get the chance. How are we going to maneuver them into situations like that? I’m pretty sure the maintenance tunnels don’t provide a way to spy on the rest of the hotel.”
JC shook her head. “No, that’s what security’s for. I wish we could use this to get into security, but the designers weren’t stupid. The most we could do was cut off the feed to them, if we had to. I don’t see any reason to, if the hostage takers aren’t in control.”
Franklin ran blunt fingers over his bare chin, as if stroking an imaginary beard. “But we might be able to tap into it. From one of the junction boxes. Here.” He poked at the holo. “There’s a lockout, but I think I can bypass it.”
“Where’d you learn all of this stuff?” JC asked him.
“My old man is a system’s engineer aboard a freight hauler. He does everything except maintain the engines themselves. All the systems but grav generators.”
That explained his skill with hardware. Rose had gained most of her skills juking computers by messing with her own. She could make them do things she’d heard people called impossible. Seemed Franklin was the hardware version of that.
Not for the first time she was glad that real AI seemed to be a fantasy, something people had expected to evolve out of their computer systems. But, no, the only way to make a computer truly think like a human was to merge the two.
Starships used such people. At least some of them did. Rose was fairly certain planetary chain hotels didn’t have those sorts of requirements. If it had been a casino, on the other hand, like in Pageantry? Different story. Needed a meld-mind to keep the gamblers honest. Or the house dishonest. Or however that worked.
Her father despised that sort of gambling. His vice was the stock market. “Gambling establishments have every reason to curtail how much anyone is able to manipulate the game. The stock market, on the other hand, may be manipulated by anyone with a hand in it and the sense to jump right or left when the situation calls for it.”
From his perspective, that stood as a net positive. Rose wasn’t so sure. Which pretty much described about everything involving her father these days.
“Then that’s our goal. We get over there, get into the maintenance tunnels, and tap those security feeds. They’re on every floor?”
“Yeah. Only problem is we can tap them, but we don’t have any way to access what we’re tapping. Unless someone brought communications tech in in violation of arena policy.”
“No,” JC admitted. “They’re too good at ferreting out those who do. I didn’t dare.”
No pocket computers, no wearables. Whisper mods were already against arena rules, so none of them could be modded out with anything like that. Whisper mods could be programed to do nearly anything, including taking over the human body in combat situations. Not something you wanted to allow into a
combat arts competition.
Their screening for such things left nothing to be desired. It worked. Every time. Thus none of them had any communication technology of any kind, nothing portable with which they could access the data stream from the security room. Whatever enhancements JC had, on the other hand, they’d clearly missed.
What else had they missed?
“What is this place?” JC asked, looking around. “What do they do here?”
Franklin followed her gaze and shrugged. “Hard to say. Looks like an average no-frills office building to me. All the com panels are integrated into the desks. Not like we can drag a desk around with us. They also make them so you need special tools to remove them. I don’t think we have that kind of time.”
“Start opening drawers. Maybe someone’s got something tucked away we can use. An old unit. Anything.”
It took ten minutes, but she’d been right. There’d been a last-generation stylized digital armband in a desk drawer. It slid easily over Franklin’s forearm, activating at his touch. It wasn’t even secure. “Someone wiped the ownership data… broke it wide open.”
“Perfect. Why would do something like that, though?”
“Probably getting ready to give it away. Erase all the personal information off it, restore it to factory settings, and clear any ownership data. Pretty standard, really.”
Rose hadn’t thought about what happened to her old devices. Simply throwing them away was frowned upon, since most of the materials could be reused, if nothing else. Most were resold down the economic ladder.
This was a fairly high end model. It would serve nicely, according to Franklin.
They set out to return to the hotel. When Franklin saw the rope and harnesses come back out, he whitened, but despite this he went along with the program without a squeak.
“That’s a long way to throw a grapple,” Janice observed, staring up at the other building from the broken window. If the height bothered her, she didn’t show it.
“I’ll be throwing it from the roof,” JC pointed out.
“If you say so.”
Twenty minutes later JC proved it by casting the grapple up and over the ledge of the other roof. How far, no one could really tell because of the angle. JC tugged, tugged harder, then spun and put her shoulder into it. The grapple didn’t budge.
“Okay. I’m first this direction.” She slashed her gaze around as if expecting argument. They all just stared back. “Fine. Good.” She set a spike into the roof, drew it taut, and began a slow and painstaking ascent.
She’d withdrew a pair of gloves that gave her grip friction it wouldn’t otherwise have had, and used her arms to drag her upward along the rope, secured by the harness and clip. Franklin shivered by Rose’s side, but she pretended not to notice.
All in all it took another half an hour for the whole party to make it the hotel rooftop once again. By the time Rose climbed over the ledge, the others looked fairly comfortable. Even Franklin, who’d been white as a ghost as he set out to traverse the span.
“One thing’s for sure,” he observed, as he balanced on the edge of the roof and began to push off. “I can’t exactly call the rest of you crazy anymore.” At about the three meter mark he called down, “and my brothers can eat their hearts out. I’m recording this.”
She couldn’t quite wrap her brain around the notion of sibling rivalry. She thought brothers and sisters would stick up for each other. And in some instances they did. But it sounded like the dynamic wound up being far more complicated than that.
Another illusion down the drain. She’d thought she’d have had allies if her parents had deigned to give her a sibling. Her parents would have probably played them off against one another on purpose.
Another half an hour saw them in the tunnels, Franklin linking up to the data feed, dodging security protocols, and then, “Got it.” A little bit of fiddling and then “Ten guys. Four in the ballroom with all the hostages. Three on the bottom floor watching the entrances there.” He flicked through some more holo files. “Here we go. Numbers eight and nine are… hold on. That’s the vault. Safe storage for guest valuables.”
“So this is a robbery?”
“It might be a lot of things at once,” JC answered. Catching Rose’s look, she shook her head and Rose wondered if she’d actually recognized the question Rose had meant to ask. Did you know this was coming?
Rose couldn’t believe she had. The girl’s decisiveness and skill at improvisation certainly impressed, but it had a completely different quality that it might have had if she’d been forewarned somehow. None of it had seemed preplanned.
Leaping off one building only to come slinking back a little while later seemed to be going above and beyond simply selling it. Like Franklin said. The girl was crazy.
She was more. Modified, she’d said. Major mods were unusual on Meridian, if only because a select few industries even called for them. Outside of those specific circumstances, people considered such mods gauche. Why would you alter yourself unless someone required it of you?
Right. Meridian. If someone else forced you to turn yourself into a freak, that was business. If you decided for yourself, something must be wrong with you.
It made her wonder about JC though. What kind of mods? Why?
“So where’s number ten?”
“Number ten is in the lav. Looks like number ten ate something that didn’t agree with him.” Franklin grinned. He’s been in the stall for like ten minutes, and I won’t try to describe some of the noises emerging from it.”
“No cameras in the stalls? That’s a relief.”
“No cameras in any of the rooms or suites, as far as I can find. None in the restrooms or the locker room by the pool.” Men and women shared the locker room, but they mostly stuck to their own sides. A respectful distance. Screens blocked both areas from the others’ view.
“Damn well better not be,” Janice said in a growl. “Can we just get on with this?”
“Fine. I’m going to go deal with our incapacitated friend here. Wait here. When I get back, we’ll go deal with the two trying to break into the vault. Maybe we can figure out a way to turn the Baz suits to our advantage.”
“If she’s crazy,” Franklin said, a bit wistfully, as she climbed out of sight along one of the access ladders.
“Then again, maybe sanity is overrated.”
“Simmer down,” Rose told him. “She’s way too much boost for you.”
Franklin sighed. “Yes, but what a way to go.”
Toilet guy was having an awful day, apparently, and they saw as it failed to improve as they watched via the monitor holo projected from Franklin’s arm.
JC entered the lav with a cat’s tread, utterly silent. And, standing to the side of the stall, she tapped on the door with one end of her three-sectional-staff. At his angry question, she merely paused and waiting for him to grow entranced in what he was doing again.
Given the grunts emanating through the pickup, it would seem that their toilet terrorist had eaten something that blocked him up. As the room didn’t seem permeated by unpleasant stench, at least by the expression on JC’s face—annoyed rather than outright disgusted—this seemed to back up her theory.
JC tapped the door again. She repeated this whole thing twice more before there came a guttural roar and the occupant exploded out of the stall, only halfway bucked into his armor.
His mistake. He had just enough time to recognize who—or what—was in the restroom with him before her first swipe unsnapped the buckles holding up the whole lower body assembly. Girdle, thigh pads, greaves, all tumbled to the floor at his feet.
His face twisted in consternation and humiliation, he barely got a single syllable of what he meant to say out before the end of one of the sections caught him in the side of the head. He sat down, hard. JC leaned over him, poking at him with the butt of her staff. “He’s out.”
“Can’t imagine why,” Franklin said. “Now peel him out of his armor…”
“I know what I’m doing,” JC replied tersely.
“Sorry. Just getting nervous. One of his buddies might come looking for him any minute.”
“Are any of them moving?”
“No. Not for now. Seven in the ballroom, two by the vault.”
In much the same way one might dig through the trash for a lost item, JC stripped the fellow down to his skivvies, then gave the armor the once over. “Really nice stuff. Modular, but it fits together well. Looks like there’s some kind of mechanism for adjusting size built into the straps.”
Straps? This sounded lower tech than Rose had expected. Franklin looked puzzled too. “Are we sure these are real Baz suits?”
“How would I know?” came JC’s reply. “Makes some sense, though, doesn’t it? Fake everyone out with the suits, they don’t fight back because they expect to be shut down instantly.”
“Was he even armed?”
JC leaned over and picked up a small pistol. “Just with this. Looks like a 7mm holdout gun.”
“Nope. This looks like a bunch of amateurs with a good scam. No wonder they didn’t pick up our thermal scans originally. They didn’t have any of the tech we thought they did.” She picked up the armor and started putting it on, grumbling under her breath the whole time. “Figured this would come in a lot handier,” she griped. “Not a uniform, it’s a goddamn costume.”
“Well, the costume should work long enough. Good thing he wasn’t much bigger than you.”
“Isn’t…I didn’t kill the guy. He isn’t much bigger than me.” JC winced as she put on the chest plate. “My girls are not happy about the tight squeeze.” After some consideration, she put the pistol where he’d kept it, in a holster tucked within the armor’s stomach plate. “Should be able to get to it quick enough in a pinch.”
Once finished, she stood facing the video pickup. “So how do I look?”
“Like a Basilisk,” Rose answered. “Have to say, that’s really well made fake armor. It still looks real.”
“I hope so. Because this is going to be a trick.” She snatched up her three sectional staff and headed for the door.
Franklin had already panned out. “Crap. I missed one of them. He’s on the move, heading your direction. Probably decided finally that you were taking too long.”
“Where is he?”
“Coming up the hall from the ballroom. Maybe he’s just going to use the facilities himself.”
“He’d better hope not. He’s not going to get the chance.”
True to her word, as this second faux Basilisk stepped into the room, she gave him just enough time to see her and start to say something when one end of the staff caught him in the side of the head with a loud crack. He staggered sideways and she folded him with a thrust kick to his midsection. Before he could even think about drawing breath again, she followed up with a couple of shots with the blackstaff staves that left him lying in an unconscious puddle beneath one of the urinals.
“He’s really going to be embarrassed if he pees himself,” Franklin said, sounding on the verge of giggling.
“Well, wouldn’t you be?” Janice asked him. “Hush. Make sure there’s no one else coming.”
He panned out again, scanned back down to the ballroom. “Nope. Six contestants still in the ballroom, plus the two treasure hunters below.”
“Great. I’m out of here.” Rose stood. “You stay here with him,” she told Janice. “Just in case.”
The blonde girl didn’t ask “Just in case what?” which was just as well.
She climbed slid the ladders to the maintenance tunnels between the second and third floor, then accessed the ceiling crawlspace that dropped her down onto the floor with JC. She looked a little flushed as she grinned over at Rose, then motioned her over. “Took care of the two numbskulls in the basement. They didn’t even bother to post one to guard their backs.” She didn’t bother to hide her disgust. “They’ll have a pair of headaches to remind them to be smarter next time. Assuming they ever get out of prison.
“There are three entrances to the ballroom. The main one, down this hallway,” she pointed down the main corridor leading to the open ballroom doors,” and the one leading from the second floor kitchen, which we can get to this way. Head down here, then to the right, and we’ll come up from the other direction.
“The other way is a hallway to your right about thirty meters closer to the ballroom doors. It leads off to the backstage area. It’s probably the least watched, but we’re going to have to be careful. If we’re seen, this will get nasty in a hurry.”
Rose nodded. “I think it’s worth the risk. They’re not keeping line of sight on the door. At least, I can’t see any of them.”
“No. Just a clump of hostages, who also don’t seem to be paying attention.”
Without another word, they walked swiftly up and turned the corner. JC leaned out and peeked around and sagged against the wall in what Rose took for relief. “All clear.”
“Good. C’mon.” They headed down the hall and found their way to what looked to be a few unmarked dressing rooms, for when the hotel occasionally booked specialty acts. The orchestra clearly didn’t use these. They must have had their own area somewhere else.
A quick look around revealed two stage doors, one on each side. Against the left door had been stacked several rolling clothes racks, filled with costumes. “Check this out.” She held out the sleeve of a robe as richly appointed as one of her father’s. The material wasn’t quite as good, but the general cut and appearance hit the mark.
JC raised an eyebrow as if to ask ‘Are you done?’ She saw stuff like this all the time. Of course she’d be jaded. They checked the right side door and it was clear. To Rose’s surprise, the door came equipped with a rather oversized keyhole, seemingly designed for peering through.
Rose shrugged. “Some cues are visual,” she whispered, as she bent to look through. “They’re a cheerful bunch,” she added. “No, not really. They look as miserable as the captives.”
“What the hell are they after?”
“Maybe we should have asked one of the guys we knocked unconscious.”
“Maybe. Too late now. We’ll have to ask them. How many shots do you have in that thing?”
“Five, I think. Range is probably crap. Three meters—maybe four. Short barrel.”
“We’ve got five bullets and six terrorists?”
“I don’t like that kind of math. I like the kind where we have a lot more bullets than bad guys.”
“What—you think we have an option?”
“Depends on what the rest of them are carrying. Let me see. Yeah, they’re not carrying openly. Can’t, as that would reveal they’re not really Basilisks.” She pushed the pistol into Rose’s hand, reached down and unlimbered the two hatchets from inside the faux armor. Looking around, she spotted a narrow, open box she then placed the hatchets inside, wedging them in place as she also took out a handful of throwing spikes. “Hopefully the armor will fool them long enough. As long as they don’t realize I’m a bit too short to be the guy they lost.” She shook her head. “Good thing this stuff is adjustable.”
Once she’d lined up the weapons the way she wanted, she turned to Rose. “Are you up to this? You’re going to have to back me up with that. If you hesitate, I’m probably dead.”
Rose stiffened. “I’ve got your back,” she said. “Don’t worry.”
“I’d be stupid not to worry,” JC replied. “But don’t take that as an insult. If I had my way, I’d be going in with another agent at my side, not a bunch of inexperienced kids.”
“You’re not really that much older than the rest of us,” Rose pointed out.
“Shhhh,” said someone else. And, to their surprise, they found both Franklin and Janice in the doorway through which they themselves had entered.
“I thought I told you to stay put,” Rose bit out, as quietly as she could, yet with as much force as she could put into it.
“You’re not the boss of us,” said Janice, with a sweet smile belaying none of the bite behind her words. “Or, anybody, really.”
Franklin grinned appreciatively. “Nice. That was a scorch worthy of my brother Fitz.”
“Your brother’s named Fitz?”
“It’s a nickname. My parents aren’t jerks.”
“Try not to kill anyone,” said Janice. “My father is one of the people who’ll probably be investigating this and he’d appreciate us not leaving to big a mess.”
“Your dad’s a cop?”
Janice shrugged. “Uh, yeah. So?”
“Do you have any idea how many laws we broke tonight?” Franklin asked.
“Probably a better idea than you,” she pointed out. “None of that matters if we pull this off. Success is our best defense.”
“And if we fail?”
Their gazes locked for a long moment, then Franklin nodded. “I rigged up a wireless link to the controls. I can throw the lights anytime you want, if it helps.”
JC nodded. “It might. It helps that the hostages are all down on the floor and their captives are all standing. If we do this quickly, we might be able to take them all out before they even think about grabbing one of the hostages to keep us off.
“Can you give us a current image?”
The requested holo representation sprang up out of the wrist unit, showing the real time placement of everyone in the room. “Okay. I’m going after these two, on the far end of the ballroom. Kill me a two count as I go through the door, then kill the lights. Then another five count and bring them back up. There’s one on each side of the stage, then another over here in the corner. Rose, you take the one on the right, then go for the one in the corner when the lights come back up. Like Janice said, try not to kill anyone.”
“I wish we had real Baz armor right now,” Franklin murmured, a sentiment pretty much everyone agreed with, based at least on the dark looks he received.
“Just make sure to keep count and do as I said,” JC told him.
Janice stirred. “Where’s the sixth guy?”
“I’ve got him. He’s down the short hallway to the kitchen. See him?”
“Okay. Count of three. One…two…three…go time.”
No matter what the hostage takers intended to accomplish with this bold attack, they weren’t in any way prepared to deal with the intercession of four of the tournament’s contenders, the four kids who’d slipped their net.
Franklin, of course, recorded the whole thing, and for some time afterward it became a study on small unit tactics using non-standard weapons, one used by several different groups across the cosmos. The fact that it was a group of children, most of them girls, performing this nearly perfect operation rarely entered into the conversation. Where they saw nothing surprising about it, no one bothered to comment. Where they found such notions distressing, they simply refused to discuss the matter.
JC bolted through the door at a run, the box cradled against her chest. She bounded from the edge of the stage, the leap carrying her a couple of meters as she snatched the first hatchet. Her initial target had just enough time to recognize the danger when the lights went out.
Rose rolled around the doorframe in a crouch, legs driving her towards her so far unaware target, hitting the ballroom floor in a low roll that brought her up within his defenses. As he pivoted, she popped up inside the sweep of his arms, hammering a massive uppercut into his chin and following it up with two vicious blows to his floating ribs—one shot to each side. As he staggered back, she finished with a hopping sidekick to the sternum that connected just as the lights went out.
She heard him hit, gauged his position by his grunt, and the squeak of something—his shoes?—skidding on the wood paneled floor. She launched herself back at him, sliding across the floor on her knees and smashing down on him with her forearms.
She heard something crunch but clenched her teeth and ignored it. She popped back to her feet, staying low, and then flipped over her now stunned target. Landing in a squat, she duck-walked forward, drawing the gun from the pouch at her side.
This whole time she counted counting in her head, so she was ready when the lights came back on. The second fake Baz clawed inside his armor chest plate, presumably for his own clutch piece, and barely had time to flinch before she shot him in the armor’s knee joint.
As he crumpled, crying out, she swiveled to take in the rest of the room. Once she determined everyone had accomplished their objectives, she turned back to the fallen terrorist. Gasping, he still tried to drag his own weapon out. She kicked it out of his hand. Hard. It flew some distance and slid into a vacant corner.
At a glance from her, one of the hostages closest to it got up and chased it down. She then turned her attention to the first one she’d taken down. He seemed a little too distracted to worry about his gun, she decided, she’d broken his arm and his collarbone with that desperate shot.
The one she’d shot moaned piteously, while simultaneously glaring up at her. She regarded him blandly over the barrel of the little handgun. “Oh, quit complaining. You’ll live.”
Probably. Her experience with guns, up until this moment, had been limited to a single foray into the wilderness with her father when she was ten. Whatever he’d been about, she’d never caught on. Everything she knew about guns she’d learned then.
Part of her thought he might have hoped it would capture her attention over the combat arts? Or just give her some other potentially more elite skill to wow potential husbands in the future?
Hardly mattered now, she decided. But she thanked him for the lesson regardless. It might have just helped save all these people.
One by one the hostages gained their feet, either by their own power or with help from their companions.
Rose noticed her sensei standing with a group of similarly attired men and women, a large chunk of the event’s trainers. He met her gaze and gave her a single approving nod before returning to whatever conversation they’d been having.
Time seemed to skip somehow as the adrenaline rush dissipated. Before she knew it, she found herself sitting against one of the walls as the police—and real Basilisks, she noted—appeared and began moving through the crowd.
A group of medics arrived, began doing checks on some of the elder folk among the former hostages. She barely noticed as JC slid down the wall to sit beside her. “So. That was…interesting.”
Rose took a deep breath. “That was terrifying.”
“That too. How are you?”
“I’m alive. That’s a start. How are you?”
The other girl smiled and tossed her head, her black curls bouncing. “Oh, I’m fine. We saved the day, didn’t kill anyone, didn’t get anyone killed, and didn’t get dead ourselves. That’s a win cubed, as far as I’m concerned.”
“Probably doesn’t hurt that this makes you look really good to your employers.”
“True. So… you wanted to know about my mods.” She glanced around, made sure no one stood within hearing. “Not many people know this, but I had a really bad accident while filming ‘Manslayer.’ If I hadn’t had a good medical team on hand, it would probably have killed me. But it did more than that. It turns out that the entertainment business is a great cover for intelligence services, and the production company I work for is a front for an Ubuntu operation.
“Turns out they’d anticipated this happening, and had something ready. They offered me a choice. Either go to regeneration and spend the two years necessary to regrow and then rehabilitate, or agree to a not-quite-experimental procedure that would fundamentally change me, but allow me to be up and around in a matter of weeks.
“I won’t get into the gory details. Let’s just say they rebuilt me. Not cybernetics, exactly. They did things to my bones and musculature. Reinforced them. Diddled my genes too, I think. I heal really fast now.
“I’m scheduled for brain mod implantation after this tournament. Wanted a last chance to compete before I couldn’t anymore.”
“Your modifications don’t already disqualify you?”
“Technically they should, but since they’re top secret and don’t show up on scans…” She shrugged one shoulder. “I wouldn’t have tried to win the whole thing. I just wanted a chance to compete. For once.”
Rose couldn’t really blame her. This was supposed to have been something she did on her own, something just for her.
“Rose Anise Grady!”
Uh-oh. The triple name threat. The only reason her father didn’t bellow was because he considered it unbecoming. The vicious edge to his voice, however, underscored his tightly controlled rage.
Rose glanced up warily, into her father’s iron gray eyes, the depth of his scowl nearly swallowing his whole face. His eyes looked positively murderous. “I don’t know what you thought you were doing, little girl, but it’s over now.” His tone conveyed more snarl than careful diction, as if the effort of maintaining his temper challenged his very humanity. “You’re coming with me.” He reached down and grabbed Rose’s wrist in a shockingly painful grip.
“Let go of her,” JC said, her own voice deceptively mild.
“Who are you?” Rose’s father barely spared her a glance, despite the question, making it quite clear he didn’t care. The glance elicited a double-take, however, and a hooded, puzzled look came over him as the holo star climbed slowly to her feet.
“Doesn’t matter who I am,” she told him. “I’m the girl who’s telling you to let go of her.”
“I’m her father, I can do—”
And almost by magic a Basilisk stood at his elbow, laying an arm casually on his shoulder. “Sir? Your daughter is a material witness and as, such, remains in police custody until we ascertain that she is not now the target of anyone associated with these men.”
His father whirled on the man, probably intended to let him have it. He hadn’t bothered to notice the Basilisk armor, and upon the realization his face darkened to the color of a bruise. “I’ll be talking to your commander about this.”
“Please do,” the Baz said with no particular intonation. Snarling wordlessly, her father spun on a heel and stalked away, throwing up his hands in melodramatic surrender.
Then, to her shock, the Baz reached up and removed her helmet. Up until this point, Rose would have said the jaw drop was merely descriptive license, but she found herself having to consciously snap her mouth shut. A female Basilisk?
The woman’s mop of curls, similar to JC’s, but platinum rather than ebon, tumbled about her shoulders as she shook it free of the helmet’s embrace. Tucking the helmet under one arm, she extended one gloved hand. “Maddie Howe.”
Rose took it. “Rose Grady.” She couldn’t help adding, in a single breath. “I didn’t know there were any women in the Basilisks.”
“Most people don’t. There’s a reason for that. Well, probably several reasons. Most don’t want to know. That’s the most vital, I suppose. Girl, I’ll tell you. Based on what we’ve heard so far, I’d recruit all four of you in a heartbeat if it were up to me. We could use that kind of initiative on the force.
“My superiors, on the other hand, don’t exactly feel the same way. They want to go with the notion that you endangered everyone by going it alone, acting like vigilantes. They have a serious problem going forward with that, though. You succeeded. Hard to argue with that.”
“I’m sure,” JC drawled. “Is she really a material witness?”
“Oh, yes. You both are. All four of you, actually. And until we have a chance to figure out what these guys are about, it’s probably safer to assume they might have friends out there. So you’ll need protected.”
Her storm cloud eyes glittered with barely concealed amusement. “But because you’re heroes, they have to treat you better than they would otherwise. Right now they’re wondering whether to put you up in a different hotel with better security, or take you to a safe house.”
“Safe house,” both girls chimed in unison.
“No more hotels for me for a while,” Rose said. “Give me a holo, an unlimited supply of pizza and ice cream, and access to a gym.”
“Tacos for me. But, yeah… everything else, I’m with you completely.”
“Well, it’s nice you two are such good friends,” Maddie told them. “You’re going to be spending a lot of time together.”
Things didn’t return to anything approaching normal for another three months. Keystone was in the middle of monsoon season when the data about the hostage takers finally began to flow back the other direction.
The Basilisks didn’t have media leaks, so no one had any real idea what the investigation produced until they decided they’d pried out every last little secret.
The speculation as to their motives for taking the hotel had been right on, as they’d meant to use the whole thing to advertise their cause. They’d never intended to actually hurt anyone, or so they claimed, but they wanted the visibility of the tournament to boost their own profile.
Their cause? Blocking the creation of so-called ‘humanzees,’ or human-chimpanzee hybrids. Apparently some few lobbyists were advancing that goal in response to the successful program on New Canaan.
Perhaps a worthy cause, in the end, but a really stupid way of promoting it. It did serve to place the subject before the people, who let their own disgust with the idea put an end to it for good. At least on Meridian.
With Maddie and JC’s help, and leaning on her own heroic public profile, Rose sued her parents for emancipation and won. Her father’s outrage in court at being deprived of his sole heir, and his subsequent tirade against the judge, resulted in massive financial penalties and a contempt charge that put him behind bars for almost a week.
That was when JC introduced Rose to Jacob Price, a local producer looking for a companion, combat arts tutor, and bodyguard for his rather wild teenage daughter. Getting certified as a bodyguard took a single petition to the right administration and suddenly she had a whole new life.
For the first time, Rose found herself in control of her own destiny, and she meant to make the most of it.
The End (for now)