Authors: K.M. Ruiz
“I won't be any good at shielding,” Kerr said, his teal eyes bloodshot. He cleared his throat, words riding a heavy Scottish accent. “You'd do better to put me on offense. I can handle a few quick and dirty strikes. I can't hold up any shields right now but my own.”
“What about your empathy?” Jason asked.
“If you want an empath, use Kristen.”
Kerr was a dual psion with Class II telepathy and Class IX empathy and was worn down like everyone else. His empathic power was newfound, but nowhere near Kristen's level. The younger girl graced him with a teeth-baring grin. Her dark blue eyes had lost some of their sick silver sheen with the dubious onset of borrowed sanity.
“Is that admiration you're feeling?” Kristen asked.
Jason eyed Kristen contemplatively. “If we can get her inside, she'll get everyone else outside for us. We can handle the quads and Warhounds better if we can see them rather than wondering if they're trying to call for reinforcements. It'll be a bloodbath, and we can't let the fight get drawn out, but the odds are in our favor if we keep the element of surprise.”
“They're in our favor even if we don't,” Lucas said. “We aren't failing here.”
“Do we know how many targets there are?” Threnody said, scratching at peeling skin on the underside of her jaw. She couldn't seem to sit still. “Any previous reconnaissance records to extrapolate off of?”
“The World Court posts five quads up here at any given shift,” Samantha said. “Regular check-in happens at oh six hundred every day.”
“So we hit them ten minutes after. Plenty of leeway for them to finish checking in, and we've got hours after that to break into the seed bank. What's the terrain like?”
“The ruins are overrun with sparse vegetation, but there are a few buildings that the government has taken care of. It'll be a clearer line of sight than what we had when we fought in the bunkers,” Lucas said. “The mountain isn't habitable and they've got a weapons system surrounding it for defense. It'll be cold, but no major radiation risk.”
Threnody nodded, brow furrowed. “Our best bet is to drop down right on top of them. We'll have to go in shooting, so to speak.”
“That's a brilliant way to die,” Samantha said. “We're all burned-out. How do you expect us to function when our range is so limited?”
“Do you have a better idea? No? Then shut up until you can give us something useful.”
Samantha glared at Lucas. “Are you going to let her talk to me like that?”
“Yes” came his calm reply. “I am. You've never organized a plan of attack on this scale. You only led them on Nathan's orders. Threnody is better at this than you are.”
Samantha abruptly stood and went to the only place for privacy in the shuttleâthe head. The door closed behind her with a faint hiss and she locked it. Leaning against the sink, she took in a deep breath and struggled to calm her nerves. With slightly shaking hands, she turned the cold water on and used a little to wash her face and ease her dry eyes.
Her skin itched everywhere the acid rain had touched it back in Buffalo. That annoyance would fade, given time. The swirling nausea in her gut would probably stay with her for a little while longer. Pressing a fist to her middle, Samantha stared at herself in the tiny mirror above the sink and gave her reflection a smile that was more snarl than anything else.
The door to the head slid open.
“That was locked,” Samantha said flatly.
“I know the override,” Lucas said. “Are you regretting your decision already?”
“Sercas don't do regrets.”
“Glad to see you've kept the arrogance.” Lucas stepped inside and let the door slide shut. His presence made the space feel even smaller.
Samantha turned her head fractionally to keep him in her sights. “What else did you let me keep?” she demanded, voice harsh. “Sanity, obviously, but you function like Nathan at your most basic level, Lucas. You use people the same way he does. You're just better at rationing our lives.”
Lucas pinched the bridge of his nose, eyes half-lidded as he gazed at her. “You're alive. Be grateful.”
“You haven't given me a reason to be.”
Lucas smiled. It was the only warning she got. Lucas's hand wrapped around her throat too fast for her to block, then he was slamming her head against the mirror. Samantha choked on a scream, biting it back. The edge of the sink bruised her hip. Lucas had a death grip on her throat.
Agony ripped through her skull. “I won't beg for you.”
“I don't want you to beg,” Lucas said. “I want you to work with me. If we're going to survive at all, I need you on my side, Sam.”
“My mind should be my own.”
“You're a Serca. Your mind belongs to whoever inherits the Syndicate.”
“Gideon won't accept me after what I did.”
The loss still hit like a sucker punch, that emptiness in her mind where her twin once resided through their bond. It was as if she still had a body, just no vital organs to make it live; a hole at the bottom of her mind with no way to fill it.
Lucas eased his grip, letting her go. Samantha shoved him away, putting as much distance between them as she could. It wasn't enough to make her feel safe. She curled her hands over the edge of the sink and glared at him. Lucas didn't seem bothered by her animosity.
“You knew when I ripped apart your mind in Buffalo that you had no other options but this, but me,” Lucas said, flicking his fingers at his chest. “I expect you to obey, Sam.”
She raised her chin, defiance in every line of her body even as she licked her lips. “And if I don't?”
“Then Kris can change your mind for me. Or at least your loyalty.”
“She was always yours, wasn't she?” Samantha said, remembering those moments in Buffalo when Lucas spoke through their youngest sibling.
Lucas nodded. “Always.”
“How did Nathan never know?”
“If Nathan fears anything other than death, it's insanity. He feared losing himself in hers. I never did.” Lucas shrugged. “Kris was the perfect tool. I wielded her as needed.”
“I needed you sane and I need you to be on my side. I saved your mind over the years because I can't do what needs to be done alone.”
“What if I refuse?”
“We've gone down that road many times before. It never ends well when you choose Nathan over me.” Lucas's gaze was steady. “There's too much at stake, Sam. We both know that. Surviving this fight starts here.”
She looked away, seeing their reflections in the mirror. They were both a mess, but still alike in their resolve.
“What's in it for me?” Samantha said.
“Your life and the ability to live it in a changed world.”
“Never knew you were such a humanitarian.”
“We aren't human, Sam.” Lucas passed his hand over the control panel to open the door at his back. The sound of everyone else's conversation filtered inside. “I won't be anything less than what Aisling promised.”
“And that would be?”
Lucas didn't answer as he stepped out, but she didn't need him to. If the Sercas had one thing in common, it was their belief in themselves and what they could accomplish. Samantha lifted a hand to scratch off a tiny flake of dried blood she had missed in her washing. She flicked it off her finger, wondering how much blood she would end up losing to reach her brother's goal.
Longyearbyen lay north of the arctic circle, a frozen graveyard of a time when almost every last coastline in the world had communities thriving with people, even a tiny, wintery archipelago. Currently, the town center was surrounded by buildings eaten away by the cold and disuse, time having made inroads on a place only twenty people inhabited on any given day. Richard Cuellas had spent the past five years on sentry duty in the far north, drinking his way through gallons of coffee and whiskey. It was a lucrative, if boring, post.
Richard was one of those who didn't mind the isolation, along with the rest of the people assigned with him in the north. Up here at the top of the world, there was space to stretch out, land that wouldn't kill you if you stayed too long in one place, and air that smelled better than in any other place on earth. Their mission was to monitor bioscanners and a security grid that encompassed a quarter of the island. The computers could do this well enough on their own, but the government still required a human mind to interpret the data that ran across the vidscreens.
Sipping at steaming black coffee, Richard tilted his chair back on two legs, balancing there as he called up the log for the past ten hours. It was shift change, and despite its being a post where nothing ever happened, they stuck to protocol. The government expected full protection of what was buried in the ice and volcanic rock of Plataberget. Neither he nor his compatriots knew what was so important up here, and they weren't stupid enough to ask. Their mission was to guard Spitsbergen. In the entire time that the government had manned the islandâ250 years and countingâno unauthorized person had ever set foot on it.
That morning, the long-standing record was broken when Richard saw the image of a civilian girl on one of the security feeds in a place she shouldn't be.
Choking on his coffee, he let his chair fall back to the floor and swore as some of the hot liquid splashed over his bare fingers. He set the cup aside and reached for the controls to magnify the security feed, but the girl had disappeared. Richard swore again, wondering if the madness that came from being cut off from society was finally getting to him after five years of duty. He commed the rest of his quad.
“Graham, get your ass up here, I need a second sign-off,” Richard said as he leaned forward and squinted at all the various angles he could call up on the security feed.
He found no sign of the girl, and replays of the feed didn't show him a damn thing. It was as if she'd never been there. Five seconds was a long time for it to be a glitch, and he knew for a fact that the last shipment of entertainment bodies had all been dumped in the water a month ago. It wasn't some government-supplied whore.
The door behind him slid open a few minutes later. Richard looked over his shoulder at the man who came into the control room, his second-in-command, bundled up against the cold. The environmental system kept the place warm, but heat could stand up against the elements for only so long before the arctic chill seeped into everything.
“I'm on break,” Graham said irritably.
“Yeah, and I don't care.” Richard stabbed a finger at the vidscreens. “Got a glitch. Security feed showed some blond-haired girl outside.”
Graham frowned and leaned over the console to bring the feed up in a quick loop, showing him every angle of their tiny settlement. All he saw was barren land and decrepit houses that were once part of the ancient town. The airfield a kilometer away was empty and the waters of Isfjorden were placid against the icy shore.
“You drink too much at last night's poker game, Rick?” Graham asked as he let the security feed revert to its default circulation mode.
Richard scowled at him. “Do I fucking look hungover? Do a recon of the area with the others. I want it cleared by a live report.”
“You're kidding, right?” Graham laughed. “Hell, there's no one up here but us.”
“If there's no one here, it shouldn't take you long to confirm that fact, right? Now get out there.”
Graham left the control room. Richard didn't doubt that the other man would follow orders, but Graham was a lazy son of a bitch who'd been packing on weight over the past two years. He'd take his sweet time getting it done.
Sometime later, Richard could see Graham and some of the other soldiers posted up here wandering around outside on the security feedâalong with a shuttle that dropped down out of vertical, coming within camera range nearly on top of the small outpost. Richard didn't recognize the make, and it was completely off schedule. He flipped open the plastic cover that protected the emergency button and slammed his hand down on it to trigger the alarm. The piercing sound nearly ruptured his eardrum, catching everyone's attention in the connected buildings.
“We've got a breach!” Richard yelled into the system's local comm frequency before moving to switch it into an outgoing uplink.
The press of a gun barrel to the back of his head made him freeze.
“No bioware net.” The voice sounded young, her words riding on a soft laugh. “They should have given you one. Hands up. Turn around.”
Richard complied. He came face-to-face with a tall, thin teenage girl who smiled wide enough to show all her teeth. Her bony face was dominated by gleaming dark blue eyes, and her smile made Richard's skin crawl. The girl stared at Richard over the barrel of her gun, and Richard thought about reaching for his own weapon, but he couldn't remember why he needed it. Standing there, breath coming in rapid bursts, he tried to remember his duty, but it was difficult to think around the fear flooding his body.
“Whoâ,” Richard choked out, one hand clutching at his chest. His heart was beating so fast it felt as if it were going to beat right out of his body.
She lowered the gun, smile still in place.
Scared to death wasn't how Richard wanted to die, but Kristen didn't give him a choice. She dug her power into his emotions, twisting them beyond anything he'd felt before. Fear, yes, but also pain, both of which incited panic. The body could be made to feel anything, and what Kristen made Richard feel stripped him of all control. His heart burst seconds later, the sound a muffled pop in his chest.
Kristen pulled the body off the chair. Taking the dead man's place, she spun around a few times in the chair before finally settling down to face the monitors. The security feed was framed in every vidscreen, showing her the entire outpost. Empathically, she could sense everyone's position, and she put faces to psi signatures using the security system.