The Literary Assassin

Fiction, fashion, and hand-to-hand combat by Holly Messinger

This story is special to me, for three reasons.

It's not my best story—there are some worldbuilding issues that date back to my days as a baby writer and will probably never allow this series to be commercially viable. However, it's the first of the stories I wrote after the circle finally closed in my mind and I began to understand how to build a point into a story, to satisfy the reader instead of leaving them hanging. There are some nice scenes in this, especially the last one with Master Tan.

This story is special to me also because it's about Quinn. She was my muse and my alter-ego for a long time, and I finally reached a level of ability at which I could tell her story without resorting to triteness or self-consciousness.

The third reason it's special has to do with my tai chi chuan studies. I started taking tai chi in 1999 because I wanted to understand how Quinn would use it, but it ended up changing me, and my writer's mind, far more than I could have predicted. Fabulous things were happening to my mind during the summer of 2004 when I wrote this. The tai chi and the kung fu were beginning to merge in my understanding; so too were the nuances of character blending with the structure of plot. Tai chi infuses every layer of this story, from the growth of Quinn's character to the arc of the plot to the structure of the fight scenes to the shape of the phrases. Even Master Tan's speech patterns come from my Sifu.

It was a hard story to write, and took far longer than I thought it should have. But looking back on it, I know this was the place where I became Enlightened as a writer.

Galatea

by Holly Messinger

July 2004
all rights reserved

"Again," Master Tan said. "Same speed, more relax."

Relaxed, my ass, Quinn thought darkly. She was dripping with sweat, muscles tensing in an effort to compensate for flagging strength. Her temperature-regulating, moisture-wicking, custom-fit workout clothes felt like a hair shirt, she had been tossed into the straw so many times.

Master Tan lashed out; she blocked and clung--soft hands, soft feet, keep the energy hidden--swung back at him, felt the jolt of his block through her forearm all the way to her diaphragm. He closed in to sweep her feet, but she skipped out of the lock, barely, caught a glancing blow to her chin and bit her tongue. Stung, she struck at him full strength, both fists--

…and he simply curled aside like fog and she ended up in the straw again, her hip throbbing where he had thumped her. Somewhere in the garden, the peacock screeched--although it might have been her ears ringing.

"I make you mad, huh?" Master Tan chuckled as he squatted and began to rub her bruised hip with the heel of his hand. "You doing fine until I hit you, then you lose all everything. You gotta learn to relax. I get past your blocks because you too tense."

"I think I'm relaxing," Quinn grumbled, getting to her knees with some difficulty. "I still think you're cheating."

"Is no cheat. Is no secret to it. You think in your head, is difficult. But instead of thinking, "Relax," think, Less tension. Less energy. Every day, little bit less. Is just habit."

She knew that. He said it to her on a daily basis. She was even almost ready to believe it, because she knew Master Tan was nowhere near as strong as she was, and he could put her on the ground without even breathing hard.

"You so strong," he said, "you get used to using force all the time. The doctors who made you know, appearance of weakness is an advantage. That's why they made you, instead of a man. Somebody see a small woman, they think, is no threat. If you can defend yourself with using less force, you still have the advantage, because the enemy don't know how much strength you have. Besides, you get tired, then your strength not make so much difference, right?"

He patted her shoulder. "Believe me, you getting better. Much better control now than when you start. Good precision, good control, good focus. The yi is the last thing. Is just habit. Your mind learn to be soft, your arm learn to be soft."

Quinn tried not to scowl. She heard that on an hourly basis, in one form or another. Master Tan told her to yield, to be soft. Mr. Zoja told her to smile, for God's sake, quit looking so hostile all the time. The elocution teacher told her to relax her soft palate more, so her vowels came out rounde and fulle instead of hard and flat.

It still felt foreign to her. She had grown up in a hardscrabble colony on the Rim, done hard time in a federal prison. Life was hard and so was she. If she was proving to be less malleable than Justin and Mr. Zoja had expected, well, they could find another dock rat to dress up.

***

Mr. Zoja had left a note on her dressing table. A handwritten note, not a voice or a video message. Mr. Zoja liked doing things the old-fashioned way, especially when he wanted her to pay attention.

We will be having a guest for dinner.

Quinn wondered what that meant. They nearly always had guests for dinner--wealthy, cultured, important people from all over the galaxy, and she was expected to converse with them and be pleasant, watch her language and her accent and her manners. She had found these dinners excruciating during her first few months on Natoshi, but these days they were something of a bore.

This must be someone special, then. Someone she was supposed to make a particular effort to impress. There was only one person it could be.

Justin. Mr. Lightburne. She never knew what to call him--her ostensible employer, whom she had not seen in four months. He didn't live on Natoshi, but he and Mr. Zoja were friends, and she was a favor--she understood that much. She still didn't know what Justin did for a living. Not drugs, but nothing legal, either.

She'd met him on Blue Haven orbitdock, en route to her parole assignment, nearly a year ago. He'd said he needed a courier, and she had accepted, fully expecting he had something else in mind for her. It was the pattern of her life, since she was thirteen: some man got a look at her eyes and decided she might be worth something. It kept her fed most of the time.

She dressed with more care than usual, in a russet silk gown ("You're not old enough to wear black, Angel," Mr. Zoja always told her) and let the servo-stylist sculpt her mahogany hair into a soft drape of waves.

Then she stood examining herself in the mirror for many minutes, debating whether to put in her contact lenses. Her catlike eyes were the only visible manifestation of her altered physiology, and Mr. Zoja expected her to keep them concealed when she was around company. She thought that was being a bit paranoid--the artists he patronized did far more bizarre things to their bodies in the name of fashion--but it was his house.

If it was Justin Lightburne . . . would he want to see the total transformation, or would he be more appreciative if she left that feature alone? It was her eyes, after all, that had first caught his attention.

She left the lenses behind. A small rebellion.

***

"And here she is," Mr. Zoja said, as she entered the small dining room and found the two men laughing together. They were a study in contrasts: Stephen Zoja was an aging man of Japanese genetics, barely taller than Quinn, and quite round. Justin, on the other hand, was young and slim, with golden curls she envied, and cool blue eyes that caressed her as she crossed the floor toward them.

She quelled the flutter in her stomach and offered her hand. "Mr. Lightburne, how nice to see you again."

Amusement lit his eyes, which she found slightly insulting. "Surely not," he said, squinting at her. "You're telling me this is Quinn Taylor? Didn't she have a buzz cut? And a tattoo on her arm?"

"Tattoo," Mr. Zoja snorted. He'd had all the distinguishing marks lazed off her body within a week of her arrival.

Quinn felt her smile harden; she had forgotten how Justin liked to remind her of her place. "Yes, well, prison chic doesn't carry off well on Natoshi," she said, which earned her a raised eyebrow from Justin, and a chuckle from Mr. Zoja.

The two men carried the conversation during dinner. Justin did a lot of traveling for his work. He'd been to Earth, Bridgeport Station, even Ariston. She itched to ask whether he'd been to Ariston City, and who he'd seen there, but she didn't. Justin Lightburne simply did not move in the same circles as her old barrio.

And of course, he watched her. Didn't quite undress her with his eyes, but examined her face, hair and hands in minute and approving detail. She had remembered that he was a flirt, of course, but he had never before directed his attentions so strongly at her. And she didn't remember him being so attractive.

Damn, it had been a long time since she'd found anyone attractive. She'd thought she was cured of that.

"So how are you two getting along?" Justin asked eventually. "Haven't killed each other yet, I see."

"She's been a delight," Mr. Zoja said, and Quinn smiled at him. He had always been nice to her, even though she'd overheard him accuse Justin of being out of his mind, that first week--an assessment she'd agreed with at the time. Zoja winked at her. "Liang Tan takes most of the vinegar out of her."

"Well, I have to say, you look like a whole new woman," Justin said. "You look like a woman, instead of a kid."

"Thank you."

"Your accent's changed, too. That whole week I was out on Ariston, I kept hearing that flat Rim accent--‘Ken eyee teke that fore you, seenorrr'."

"I wasn't born there," Quinn said lightly, although inside she was seething. "I only lived there for a few years. I learned to talk like the locals so I would seem like less of an outsider."

The humor in Justin's expression narrowed to a still, watchful look. "Good girl." He contemplated her for a moment. "All fun and games aside, Quinn, I am amazed at how far you've come in a year."

"Mr. Zoja's a good teacher. And he hired good teachers."

A mood of expectation had arrived along with the dessert and coffee. She sensed this visit had been a kind of test, and she guessed she had passed it--she had seen nothing but positive glances and nods exchanged. But now things were about to get interesting.

"So are you getting tired of this place yet?" Justin asked.

"I've been too busy to get bored."

"That's good. I did an update to your parole record last week, before I came here."

"Oh?" She tried to appear nonchalant. He was supposed to be falsifying her parole file--whatever he did for a living, it involved a lot of computers--to show that she was officially completing her debt to society on Persephone, under the watchful eye of one Willis Hake. She had no idea whether he was actually doing it.

"Yes. You're two-thirds of the way to being a free woman."

"That's reassuring."

Justin slid an amused glance toward Mr. Zoja. "She's a cool one, isn't she?"

"Oh, yes." Mr. Zoja smiled.

That she found flattering, because normally she was only ever told to watch her temper, or lower her voice, or stop fidgeting. She smiled ever-so-slightly, almost vibrating with the effort it took to maintain her outward calm.

"Here's the deal." Justin put his elbows on the table, steepled his fingers together. "I have to go to Galatea to meet a client. Normally I bring along one of my netheads to a meeting like this, to show what resources I've got, but this is going to be a swank party and I think it would make a better impression if I bring along a beautiful woman."

It took a moment for Quinn to realize he meant her. She gave a nervous little laugh. "Er--I appreciate that I've come a long way, but I'm not exactly arm candy."

"Of course you're not. You've got a brain, and that's why I want you. But the fact that you look like dessert means they'll underestimate you. Didn't you tell me Ladron had you do that sort of thing?"

Quinn dropped her gaze to her tiramisu, wishing she'd never told him about Seth Ladron. She still had subcutaneous scarring on her left arm, where his tattoo had been. Ladron was dead and gone, but Justin made sure to resurrect his ghost now and then, to remind her how much better she had it.

She did have it better now, she reminded herself, pleating the silk of her skirt between her fingers. "I used to accompany him places," she said neutrally. "I think I remember how to watch and listen. Can I ask what type of client you're going to meet?"

"'May I,'" Mr. Zoja corrected gently.

"May I ask?"

"Of course." Justin held out his cup for the footman to pour more coffee. "To put it simply, Miss Quinn, I sell information. I find it, I collect it, and I sell it to whomever wants it. Sometimes people come to me and ask for specific data from a specific source, and I get it for them, for a very high price."

"You're a hacker?"

"Some of what I do involves hacking, yes."

"Are you hardwired?" She didn't think he was; she could usually smell any wetware in a person's body chemistry--one of the advantages of being a freak.

"No. But I have staff who are."

"If you're just sending data around, why do you have to travel so much?"

"Some of the data I collect is tagged--It can't be shipped via netlink or ASR without leaving a trail. Sometimes the client is just paranoid and doesn't trust the lines. Sometimes I have to meet with a client in person, to satisfy somebody's curiosity. Even as sophisticated as VR communications are, holos and sense-nodes still can't give you a feel for whether a person is lying or not."

"I just assume that everyone is," Quinn said.

Justin grinned. "That includes me, no?"

"Yes," she said.

There was a little pause. She toyed with her dessert fork.

"Will you do it?" Justin asked.

They were both looking at her. "Do I actually have a choice?" Two years of parole left. And who knew whether he was really updating the records?

"Of course you do," Justin said, surprised. "I don't want you thinking I own you, Quinn. I'm not that bastard Ladron. I won't force you to do anything that makes you uncomfortable."

"It doesn't make me uncomfortable," she said, mostly telling the truth. There were degrees of discomfort, and mere distrust was a level she could live with. And if he tried to push her, she could always kick his ass.

***

Galatea was a moon around Neptune, in the EMPR's Central ring. The moon itself was nothing to brag about, but the resort that had been built on it was a marvel of luxury and engineering, with a spectacular view of the planet above it.

Quinn hadn't been inward of Bridgeport Station in nine years. She'd left the Sol system in the galley of a cargo freighter, granted a place to sleep on the floor in exchange for keeping the rat population in check. She was returning in a private stateroom, adjacent to Justin's, with a brand-new wardrobe, a brand-new passport and a brand-new name to go on it: Tabitha Morris.

"How many aliases do you have?" she asked Justin.

"I lost count," he said. "Are you going to wear that?"

"What's wrong with it?" She liked the sleek navy suit.

"It's too dark. I want you to wear something bright when we arrive."

"Mr. Zoja told me not to wear bright colors."

"Well--brighter. What about that gold thing?"

"You want me to wear gold when we go through security?" Even she had better taste than that.

"Galatea isn't like other stations. We got security clearance when I booked our rooms. This is a very exclusive resort--that's why the client wanted to meet here. The security's tighter than probably anywhere else in the galaxy, except maybe Natoshi. You come off the ship and walk right onto the promenade deck, so we'll be making an entrance, and I want you to attract attention."

Quinn made a gagging noise under her breath.

"And take out your contact lenses."

"What?" She was shocked.

"Yeah, leave ‘em off. Gold dress and green cat's eyes. It's kind of sexy. This place is pretty wild, you'll see."

Sexy. She tried the word on the tip of her tongue. It tasted strange, exotic. A little scary.

She felt naked, in the antique-gold silk dress, sans contact lenses, clinging to Justin's arm in a death grip as they swept out of the airlock onto the promenade deck of Galatea Resort. The promenade was a wide and snaking catwalk, halfway up the high dome of the commons arena. The carpet was plush and bronze; the railings and trim work were gold. Embedded mood lights sparkled like stars in the walls.

The people were overdressed and overblown: cling dresses on hefty middle-aged women, skintights on potbellied men. Artificially smoothed and softened skin on aging bones. Young--or young looking--men and women who were masterpieces of hormone manipulation and surgery. Androgynous individuals who were such works of art they no longer looked human. Way too much jewelry. Quinn's pocket-picking nerve began to itch.

And yet… aside from the display of wealth, the place reminded her of the docks on Ariston. A certain cant to the body language: the turning-aside of shoulders, speaking behind raised hands.

Strong smell of cybernetics. She hadn't smelled so much silicon since leaving Ariston City.

"Guess they don't scan for nerve-jacks and muscle boosters here," she murmured.

"You're starting to catch on," Justin said.

She was indeed. This was a place where people came to do things they shouldn't. She began to feel more comfortable immediately.

"The Makido family owns this place," he told her, low, as they walked. "Bought it from the EMPR thirty years ago, when it was a research and refueling station. Made it over into a resort. Neutral turf, as it were. Rim patrol's got nothing on the security staff here."

"I bet." Mob rule was far more efficient than federal law enforcement, for all their methods were the same.

They checked into their rooms and let the servomechanisms unpack, then went down to the lounge for drinks and appetizers. Quinn was surprised to find how hungry she was, despite her nerves. Justin offered to buy her champagne, but appreciation for alcohol was one thing Mr. Zoja hadn't been able to teach her. She had fruity virgin drinks. Justin had a little wine, but he too stayed sober. He seemed to be in a cheerful mood.

"I've been trying to set this up for three months," he told her. "Antonia doesn't deal with people she doesn't know, so I had to call in favors to get her to meet me."

"Why do you want to deal with her?"

"She's buying what I'm selling. More to the point, she can afford what I'm selling."

"Which is what?"

"Government stuff. Classified." The ever-so-slight rise of his voice told her he was lying, but she let it slide. "It's rare and it's hot. Plenty of people would love to get their hands on it, but I'm not letting it go for less than eight million. That's where you come in, kitten. I need you to protect me."

"Didn't you take precautions? I thought you said the data was encrypted."

"It is, and I don't give them the code until we're out of there and paid, but sometimes big bosses get twitchy."

That they did. She nodded to show she understood.

"This goes smoothly," Justin said, "and we'll start thinking about putting you on a regular salary. Stephen says you're doing great, you could probably handle yourself alone by now. I can't put you on commission, like my codebreakers, but I might give you a cut of what we make off this deal."

That sounded like a worm with a hook in it. "If you think that's appropriate."

He took a swallow of wine, pursing his lips to draw air through the flavor, studying her. "Stephen didn't make a dent in that armor of yours, did he?"

She gave him a polite, bewildered look. "I'm sorry?"

"Don't give me that. You talk prettier, you say all the right things, but underneath the varnish you're still waiting for somebody to screw you."

She lowered her eyes to her plate for a moment, then raised them to his, fighting hard to keep the defiance out of her face. "Is that what you have in mind?"

"Screw you?" He ran his tongue over his lower lip. "I think we'd better define that term first. Are you afraid I'm going to betray you, or afraid I want to make love to you?"

The words, the seductive drop of his voice, hit the pit of her stomach and spread like honey. He knew just how to get her--she was used to crudeness, but his fancy way of talking cut the knees from under her. Quinn lowered her lashes. She knew she was out of her depth, but she wasn't going down without a fight. "I just wondered what you had in mind for this trip."

"Oh, I definitely prefer the lovemaking." His eyes were mocking. "But you told me you weren't any good at sex--back when we met, remember? Did Zoja hire somebody to, er, train you in that, too?"

Quinn had thought for years that nothing could embarrass her, but she felt herself flushing and desperately hoped the restaurant was dark enough to hide it. "He offered." Very decorously, once he'd noticed that she was avoiding the male guests who showed interest in her.

"But you declined." Justin smiled slightly, taking another sip of wine. "So there is something you respect, after all."

"I respect myself," she said tersely. "And I told you--also when we met, if you remember--that I wouldn't trade my body for work."

"That's a shame. Because your body's what I need for this job. And I'm not talking about your derrière, charming as it is. It's your muscles that I'm interested it, those hard little fists of yours."

Quinn nodded, her eyes on her water glass. Had she read him wrong, then? Was his interest only a ploy to keep her off-balance? It was working. She was humiliated to think he and Mr. Zoja had been discussing her lack of a sex life. Did he think she was saving herself for him?

The thought made her angry, but she couldn't really blame him. To all appearances, he was turning her into a highly-polished mistress. Plenty of women would be grateful for the chance, but she wasn't the type men chose to fill that position, new hair cut or not.

So. Bodyguard, as he said. And amusing himself with her in the meantime. She hoped she wasn't dumb enough to sleep with her boss.

Not again, anyway.

"Ah," Justin said, raising his eyebrows in greeting. He stood up, and Quinn looked up, as a man approached their table--an ordinary-looking man: brown hair and swarthy skin, hard eyes and a strong smell of silicon. At close range, she could see the fine web of circuitry, under the skin of his temples and across the backs of his hands. Surgemonkey, they called his type, where she came from.

"You Lightburne?" the man said, ignoring the hand Justin had extended.

"I am," Justin said, instantly going languid and guarded, settling back in his chair.

"Antonia's ready to see you." The thug's gaze slithered across the table toward Quinn. "Who's this?"

"My courier," Justin said.

"She the freak?"

"She's my courier," Justin repeated, a layer of frost under his voice, as Quinn looked at him in slow amazement. The freak? Antonia's thug was expecting a freak? And why, pray tell, would he be expecting that--unless Justin had told them what he was bringing with him?

"Yeah, whatever," the thug said. "Come with me."

"Certainly," Justin said. He held out a hand to Quinn, and when she rose to her feet he tucked her hand securely into the crook of his arm. "Not a word," he breathed as the thug turned his back and started out of the restaurant.

"What's the merchandise?" she hissed through her teeth.

"Hush."

"What's the merchandise? "

"Don't worry about it," he muttered.

"If you think you're gonna sell me to some low life--"

"Don't be ridiculous," he snapped under his breath. "If that were the plan I'd have shipped you here in cold storage. Now close your mouth and keep your eyes open. You say one smart-ass thing up there and we're both dead, got it?"

She locked her teeth together.

***

Lady Antonia turned out to be a mature woman of African genetics--she looked her age, or at least nearer her age than she probably could afford to. Her hair was gathered in long dreadlocks, elaborately coiled, with a touch of graying at the temples. She was solidly built, like an ancient fertility goddess, and her eyes were obsidian--hard points of light that raked over Quinn's face, arms, and body.

"This is the child?" Antonia said crisply. She gestured, and one of the men hovering nearby approached, reaching for Quinn's hand.

"The only viable one, that I've been able to find," Justin said. "I have code sequences on some others, that didn't survive."

"Put your finger in here," the man said to Quinn, holding out some kind of bio-reader.

She thought of resisting. She calculated the odds if she decided to bolt, or tear Justin's lying tongue out of his head. Not in her favor. She slid her middle finger into the device and twitched as her skin was punctured.

"Thank you," the man said, with a polite and utterly superficial smile. He glanced down at his reader and the smile was wiped clean by surprise. He looked quickly up at her, then at the reader again. "Unusual," he said, over his shoulder to Lady Antonia. "Definitely unusual. And she has interesting eyes."

"Those can be done cosmetically," Antonia grunted.

"They're fully functional," Justin said.

"Are they?" asked the man with the bio-reader.

Quinn shot Justin a look of loathing. He jerked his chin at her to answer. "I can see in the dark," she said sullenly.

"As well as low-light goggles?"

"Well enough to read print," she said.

"Where did you find her?" Lady Antonia asked.

"By chance," Justin said. "Pure luck. But once she gave me the details of where she came from, it was easy enough to trace her origins."

"Which are?" Antonia asked.

"Which are… part of the information you'll be paying for," Justin said, and suddenly Quinn realized what he was doing. He must've found the lab, or Dr. Meyers, and acquired the records from the project. All those questions he had asked, months ago: What were the doctors' names? When they moved you to the juvie center, where was it located, what city? Come on, you must remember something....

But the project had been a failure, and Justin knew that. She herself had been sent away because of lost funding. Whatever data Justin had, it was most likely worthless, but Antonia would probably burn through a few dozen volunteers before she realized it.

Antonia's sharp black eyes slid to him, thoughtfully, then beyond him. She nodded at someone--the thug who had fetched them from the restaurant. He came forward, approaching the spot where Quinn stood before the godmother and it wasn't until the man with the bio-reader backed away that Quinn realized she was about to get thumped.

Justin realized it a second later. "Excuse me--?" he said sharply as the thug raised his arm.

Quinn had plenty of time to get out of the way. After a year with Master Tan, even the surgemonkey's nerve-jacked reflexes looked slow to her eye. She had time to take in the whole room, calculate the expectations of everyone watching, and make her choice.

She took his fist full across the face, only turning her head at the last instant to spare her eye. The blow still knocked her sprawling, feet tangled up in gold silk and ridiculous little shoes. The pain rushed in a second later, as she was pushing herself up on hands and knees, and the thug closed one big meathook around her upper arm and hauled her upright.

She blocked his second blow, but square and stiff, the way an amateur would. The force knocked her arm aside and his fist struck her ear. She shoved herself out of his grasp and landed on the carpet again. He kicked at her and she rolled with it, but not fast enough. She lost half her wind and his foot got caught in her dress. It ripped away from her shoulder as he recovered his footing, and she grabbed for her chest, to preserve what dignity she had left.

"Enough," said Lady Antonia.

The surgemonkey withdrew his foot, as if extracting it from a mudhole, and backed away a couple of paces. Wheezing, Quinn shot a glance at Justin, through the eye that wasn't already puffing shut. He was as white as cheese.

Antonia's nostrils flared with delicate distaste as she rose from her chair. "Show them out," she said, and excused herself from the scene.

***

"Lean your head back." Justin lifted the towel to her face, settling the ice inside gingerly over her cheekbone. She hissed and he winced. "I am so sorry about this--Antonia said she wanted a demonstration but I never guessed they would just jump you…."

What the hell did you expect, then? she said to herself, but only grunted. Her ribs were aching but she didn't think they were cracked. No teeth lost. Eye swollen shut but only from the bruised flesh--the eyeball itself was undamaged. It could have been a lot worse. It didn't even hurt as much as she was letting on, but this contrition of his was interesting--she wanted to see where it led.

"Here. Take a couple of these." She heard the rattling of a bottle and slitted open the good eye to see him shaking pills into his hand. His hands were trembling noticeably.

Not used to things getting physical, she thought, which didn't surprise her. He didn't have the look of a fighter. And he talked too much. "Can't," she said. "I'm allergic."

"Ah. Sorry. I should've thought. What can you take?"

"Cephenine. Morphine." Both illegal, of course.

Justin muttered something and tossed the bottle aside. "How about some brandy?"

"Ugh. Just leave me alone. I've had worse than this."

Justin stood, looked around himself helplessly. "I thought they'd at least give you fair warning--and I've seen you handle bigger guys than that. I thought…."

He paused, and she lowered the ice pack, waiting for it. He wasn't stupid. He had been shocked by the suddenness of it, but now that data-collecting brain of his was going back over the scene, piecing things together. "Did you just let that guy hit you?"

Quinn didn't answer right away. She hadn't thought about what she would say, how she would handle him if he called her on it. Manipulation wasn't her style, and she was no match for him in any case. But blunt confrontation didn't seem like the right approach here, either.

"You little bitch," Justin said after a moment.

She almost laughed. "You should have told me the plan."

"Are you out of your mind? "

"I don't like being used. And I don't like people knowing I'm a freak."

There was a stunned moment of silence. "Wow. This is--I don't even know where to start. Quinn… these people want you because you're a freak. This technology--do you realize you are probably the most valuable bio-commodity in the galaxy right now?"

"The technology doesn't work, Justin. There were probably twenty other kids who died of it before I came along. I'm a freak because I survived, not because of what they did to me. Where the hell did you get this data, anyway? What exactly did you offer Antonia?"

He inhaled strongly, looking at her with dislike. "What I said before--I took what you told me and tracked you back to Earth. Your Dr. Meyers is dead, but some of his students are still following his work. The feds are interested in this technology. Antonia's not the only one who'll pay for it. And it does work--you're proof of that."

"What is she going to do with it?"

"I don't know--who cares?"

"Maybe I do. And I'm thinking that's why you didn't tell me."

Justin ran his hand down his face. He turned away, paced a few steps in a circle, raked his fingers through his golden curls. "Yeah. All right. I should have told you, at least. For what it's worth, I'm not used to dealing with people who have any brains. But you have a gift, Quinn. You're special because of what those doctors did to you. You're tough, you're beautiful, you're talented, and we don't even know what this technology could evolve into, the applications that could be used to improve people's lives, once the bugs are worked out--"

"Oh, just stop," Quinn groaned. "You don't care whether the technology is going to save humankind, you just want to know who'll pay the most for it."

Justin put his hands on his hips, lips pursed, watching her. Looking for the leverage, she thought; he'd changed tactics three times in as many minutes. "All right," he said finally, a harder note in his voice. "So I'm not a humanitarian. And I'm sorry for what you suffered, but you should keep in mind, I'm the one keeping you in the lap of luxury. So you'd better get concerned about where the money comes from."

"Screw you. The last sugar daddy I had got me sent to prison."

"This is a business relationship, Taylor. I don't give a damn what your boyfriend did to you, if you're going to work for me, you do what I tell you!"

"Then why don't you tell me what you want me to do!"

"How many brain cells does it take? I tell you to stand there and look decorative, you smile. If somebody asks you a question, you answer it. If some jumped-up wire jockey takes a swing at your head, you duck. Antonia could have had both of us killed, if she thought we were trying to play her. You could have been killed. You had no idea how strong that guy was--"

"Oh, please. Did you see any of those scars Zoja had taken off my body? This is nothing." She pointed to her face. "I knew that guy was hardwired, and if you knew, you should have told me. Maybe you're used to dealing with idiots and keeping all your cards hidden, but where I come from, you tell your partner where you're going to be and where the snipers are hiding. I can help you, Justin, and I will, I just--" she stopped, frustrated, thinking of all the years she'd spent blindly obeying Seth Ladron's orders, responsive to his every signal and twitch, every desire, and how in the end he had simply run out of uses for her and thrown her away. She had thought she would cease to exist without his will to direct her, but she had survived prison and survived Mr. Zoja's dinner parties and somewhere in the last year she had come to think of herself as a person, rather than a tool. She couldn't bend herself to that kind of blind obedience any more. "I need to know what it is you expect from me, and I want to know what you're going to pay me. Otherwise… you got your data. You can still sell it, without me as a visual aid. We'll call it even and I'll take my chances out on the Rim."

"And go back to gun-running?" he sneered. "Playing bodyguard to some Rim-job punk like Ladron? I thought you were better than that. I thought you had enough sense to recognize a good deal when it was offered to you."

"You haven't offered me anything. You're dangling treats in front of my nose, just like the doctors did."

Justin threw his hands in the air and began to cross the suite toward his bedroom.

"And don't treat me like I'm the yokel, here," she said. "I don't know who you're used to dealing with, but only an idiot would walk into a den like that with no backup and no firepower."

He stopped, turned back. "You haven't learned a thing, have you?"

"I've learned plenty about you."

He stood there, calm, faintly disappointed, until she began to feel uneasy that perhaps she had missed something. "What?" she said indignantly. "Educate me, then."

"Quinn… look. You remember you told me once, if you threaten your enemy, it puts them on their guard? It's the same thing with Antonia and her type. If you go in there waving guns and talking trash, they think you're a phony. This isn't like Ariston, where everybody carves out a little piece of turf and defends it. When you're in the big time, you respect the other person's turf. You have to be a negotiator, not a bully--make them think you're there to help them. It's a dance. You ask them if they want to take a turn and then you follow their lead."

Same speed, more relax.

She felt very gauche all of a sudden. She leaned back and put the ice pack over her face again. "Shit."

"No kidding. You just pissed away several people's reputations up there."

She licked at the cut on the inside of her cheek for a minute. Then she took the towel off her face. "I'm still not going to help you sell that data. I can't ask you not to sell it, but don't expect me to help."

"Primadonna," Justin said. "I bring Zoja a dock rat and he sends me back a bloody primadonna. So you wanna let me in on what you are willing to do for your keep, your highness?"

She hesitated. It wasn't a long shot; she had been thinking about it since she'd seen the surgemonkey, and the security up at the penthouse, and wondered why somebody like Lady Antonia would be so eager to get her hands on somebody like Quinn. "I think we should ask Antonia," she said.

***

Quinn took the elevator back to the penthouse, alone. You've got some nerve, Justin had said, with equal parts admiration and alarm.

Seth Ladron would have called her a fool and a half. But she wasn't playing his game anymore.

The surgemonkey was in the guard booth when she stepped off the elevator. His eyes raked from her slicked-back hair, to the bruises on her face, to the sleek navy suit and no-nonsense boots. "Back for more?"

"I'd like to see Lady Antonia. If she's available."

The surgemonkey almost smirked. He glanced at his partner, who shrugged. "Stay put," the surgemonkey told her, and slipped into the penthouse.

Quinn stood quietly, hands behind her back, waiting.

After a minute the door opened and the surgemonkey gestured for her to enter. He was smirking, now. She ignored him.

He took her to a dining room. Lady Antonia sat at the head of the table, a wine glass in her hand, laughing graciously at something her nearest companion was saying. There were three very handsome men of various ages and genetic backgrounds clustered at her end of the table.

"Oh my," one of them said as Quinn came in. "She's no more than a mouthful, darling. Hardly enough to go around."

"You can share her," Antonia said. "I suspect she has quite a threshold for pain. Come here, child."

Quinn went. She stopped beside Lady Antonia's chair, just out of arm's reach. She bowed, as she would to Master Tan, very deeply. "Lady. I won't take more than a minute of your time. I came to apologize for the misunderstanding earlier. Lightburne didn't mean to mislead you, I misled him. The information he offered you wasn't as valuable as I let him think."

"Obviously." Antonia's obsidian eyes traced over Quinn's body. "And he sent you along as compensation?"

Quinn smiled at the three men, who were watching her with all the avarice of a junkie in need of a hit. She smiled, and lowered her eyes demurely, thinking how surprised they would be if they tried her.

"If I can be blunt," she said, "why did you want the data?"

Antonia's eyes narrowed. "Why do you ask?"

"Well, I can understand why someone in your position would, er, value enhanced employees. I noticed your bodyguard here has strength-enhancing implants."

"Your point being?"

"As I'm sure you know, most muscle-boosting implants are banned. And many persons in positions such as yourself know to scan for them, so it would be very difficult for an employee like your surgemonkey here to get into a competitor's lodgings without raising alarms."

"Surgemonkey," one of the men at the table chortled. "Did you hear?"

Lady Antonia raised a staying finger. "But you can."

"I have."

"And what would you do, once you were inside my competitor's lodgings?"

Bingo, Quinn thought. "I'll leave that to your imagination, Lady. And if I may point out the obvious, even if Lightburne's data were good, it would be at least five years, maybe more before you had a viable subject. My alterations took nine years to complete."

"Your alterations." Antonia looked down her nose imperiously. "That seems to be the point in contention, child; what exactly are your gifts, that Lightburne was charging so much for the blueprints?"

"Could we repeat this afternoon's demonstration?"

Antonia looked amused. She shrugged, and jerked her chin at the surgemonkey.

He had been waiting for just such a signal. He reached to grab her.

She moved.

He tried again, both hands. She dodged, and took his knee with her heel.

She heard it snap. He staggered, let out a grunt, but caught himself on the other leg. If it hurt, he didn't show it. Pain-dead, she guessed; a lot of them were.

It made him mad, though. He wheeled about on his good leg, feinted with his left hand, and swung at her head.

She blocked it, but barely--he had been holding out on her before. His full strength was too much and she slid out from under, but the hesitation cost her. He got a grip on her jacket and punched at that same spot on her ribs--the blow was glancing but she hissed and twisted away; made a complete circle and flipped him over her shoulder onto the floor. He took her jacket with him.

Quinn backed away, shaking her arms, cool air touching the sweat on her skin, through her thin camisole.

"Well, perhaps this will be entertaining, after all," one of the dinner guests drawled.

Stupid, she said to herself--although the voice in her head sounded a lot like Master Tan. Stop trying to fight him head on. He's stronger than you are. Loosen up!

He was up again, which was impressive, considering. He slung the jacket at her and then charged. She stepped aside, smooth and fluid, just like Master Tan, put her knee in his sternum and her elbow in his spine. She felt his lungs compress with a whoosh, but he didn't go down. He clawed at her back, got an arm around her shoulder, tried to grab her throat. She went completely limp, extracted herself from his grip like a cat, took two handfuls of his collar and bashed her knee into his face. Twice. Three times. Four. His body went slack and she dropped him. Backed away, clutching her ribs. Gasped for air.

"Finish it," one of the guests said, annoyed. "Antonia, tell her to finish it."

She met the Lady's eyes across the table. Antonia gave the barest of nods.

Quinn looked back down at the surgemonkey. Amazingly, he had risen to his hands and knees, and was rocking there, shaking his head, and suddenly the reality of the situation broke through her battle-fog: Antonia's cold black gaze, the amused but feral eyes of her friends, the broken man at her feet--and she was still standing. Unbidden, her muscles recalled the moves she had made, just so: soft hands, soft feet, smooth and fluid, put him on the ground.

I did it right--Master Tan said I'd run into somebody stronger than me some day--and I DID it. I let it flow, just like he said. Excitement began to boil up in her, but she sidestepped it, just as she had her opponent. It doesn't matter, stupid, you're not done yet. Finish it.

She stepped over the surgemonkey's back, took his chin in her palm and twisted his head right around over his shoulder. His neck let go with a pop: the body slumped, heavy, and she dropped it.

That's two, she thought, and backed away, back of her hand pressed to her lips, not sure whether she was going to puke or laugh out loud. A hard surge of emotion heaved her diaphragm and she fought it down. I did that! Me! I beat him! No! Antonia! Justin! Money. Be soft. Relax. Calm down, dammit!

The elation passed, but not the giddiness. Almost staggering, she walked to where her jacket lay on the floor, picked it up, shook it out. It was silk, so it had survived the tussle with only a little wrinkling. She put it on, barely feeling the pain in her side. The fabric clung to her arms, where a fine sweat had broken out. She turned and looked at Antonia.

The men were watching, slyly, waiting to see what their mistress would say next.

Lady Antonia pursed her lips. "If you gentlemen would excuse us," she murmured.

They pouted, but they left. So did the other bodyguards. Nobody moved the surgemonkey, even though the stink of his relaxing sphincters was beginning to permeate the air. Quinn stepped over him on her way to the table, picked up a water glass and drained its contents. She set it back down and looked at the older woman, not bothering to hide her contempt.

Antonia did not speak for a long moment. At last she said, "You've been trained to fight."

"Yep." Her mind was leaping up and down screaming, I did it! I did it! I did it RIGHT.

"And that wasn't your first kill, was it?"

"Nope." She remembered the first--the panic, the nausea--and dismissed it. This was nothing like. I guess it really does get easier.

"You are very young," Antonia said. "Are you sure you want to continue down this road?"

Quinn looked her in amazement. When it felt this good? Was she feebleminded? But it wasn't concern she read in the other woman's eyes, it was challenge. "They're trash. One more or less, what's the difference?"

"This one makes a difference." Antonia spoke a name.

It meant nothing to Quinn; she shook her head.

"Lightburne will know. This man is one of my competitors, as you put it. He's secluded in a high-security palace that's impervious to most technology, including anyone with strength-enhancing implants." Antonia's obsidian eyes looked her over shrewdly. "Still, he's not worth eight million; I could hire twenty of you for that price."

"But there aren't any more of me."

There was a pause. "What is your price, then?"

Quinn had no idea what a reasonable fee would be. She didn't even care. "Work it out with Lightburne. He's my agent."

"Yes. I'll arrange to contact him. You may go now."

Quinn's bow was a bit sarcastic. "Thank you, Lady Antonia."

She let herself out, swaying like a drunk. The guard at the man-trap let her pass unimpeded.

She got into the elevator, pressed her forehead against the cool glass window, looked down at the people on the casino floor. They looked so small and insignificant--to think that she had ever felt inadequate among them. She was gifted. She was special. She was dangerous, and if anybody tried to push her down again, she was going to show them who Quinn Taylor really was.

She got as far as the hotel floor before she threw up in the waste basket.

***

"Maleke Hambani." Quinn twisted, spreading her palms to sky and ground, following Master Tan's lead. "Justin says his base of operation is Bridgeport Station--so no wonder Antonia couldn't get anyone close to him."

"You going to do it?" Tan said, shifting his weight forward, rotating his hands.

"I guess so," Quinn said. She felt weird about it. She felt weird that she didn't feel weird about it. Maybe it was too far in the future, too abstract. "Mr. Zoja doesn't want me to. He said he can farm it out--he still knows people who do hits." She paused for a moment, to muse over the silliness of that expression, as well as to follow Master Tan through a complicated turn-and-strike. "Justin says it's up to me--although if I do it, it'll be the first time I make money for myself, instead of getting a cut from someone else."

"That important to you?"

Quinn stopped in the pattern, stood there in a horse stance, arms dangling. "Yes." She paused, and Master Tan stopped, too. They faced each other, in meditative stances. "Did you ever do it? For money?"

"For job. To protect my master. Not much different."

"Did it… did you enjoy it?"

Bitter amusement hardened Master Tan's expression, a rare show of emotion, but it only lasted a second. "You did, huh?"

"I don't know. It made me sick. But not like the first time."

"First time you fight for your life."

"Yeah. This time, too, but I walked in there knowing what I was getting into. And when it was over, I felt good." Like I'd just had sex, she thought, but she wouldn't say that to her teacher.

"Because he dead, or because you alive?"

"Because I won," Quinn said simply.

Master Tan nodded, a flicker of approval in his eyes. "That the right answer."

But it was no answer at all. She thought of the aftermath--Justin demanding an account of what happened, she pacing the suite and telling him in jerky sentences: skin prickling, nerves singing with adrenaline, and Justin sitting on the sofa looking all golden and edible--it had been all she could do not to climb on top of him. She thought of how she and Ladron used to screw like rabbits after a street fight, and all the neighborhood bullies swung wide of her after she went to work for him. She had thought it was his reputation that warned them away, but now she thought otherwise.

"You teach me all this stuff--Mr. Zoja asked you to. Did he--is there something about me…?" Something predatory? Something that makes people want to fight me? Something Justin saw when he picked me up on the orbitdock? "Am I built to be a killer, or did you just assume I would be, because of what I am?"

Master Tan looked at her for a long moment, completely placid. At length he said, "You the type always going have to fight. What your genes made of got nothing to do with it. You so angry at everybody. Mr. Zoja think, if I teach you, it help you calm down. I think, you better learn defend yourself. But whatever in you, is in your head. This first time I see you relaxed. You liked killing that man."

"But I threw up."

"That just nervous--the tense situation. You not do that again." He pointed with his chin. "He here for you."

She turned; Justin was making his way down the path through the garden, up to the training field. She made a hasty bow to Master Tan and descended the cedar steps on bare feet to meet him.

"Hey," he said amiably, hands in his pockets. "Nice toenail polish."

"Thanks." She grinned at him. He looked younger, today, she thought, and reminded herself that he was only a few years older than she. It was just the way he carried himself that made him seem older.

"I got that info you wanted," he said. "About Hambani. Do you want to come look at it?"

"I'm still in a lesson."

"No hurry." He paused, looking her over. She was wearing her hair up today--not just in a bland ponytail, but twisted and arranged in a sexy, messy style. She knew she was flushed from the workout, and sweat was trickling into her cleavage, but for once she didn't care and he didn't seem to, either. "I figure I'll hang around here until you go on that job. May even go with you. It'll be good cover."

No, it wouldn't, she almost said, but stopped herself, staring at him in bemusement. He was making a pass at her! What had brought that on?

But she knew, even as the thought occurred to her. She had seen it in her eyes, the last few mornings in front of the mirror. She was brighter. Lighter. She felt good. She supposed she felt what was referred to as confident. Mr. Zoja had said she looked pretty when she came down to breakfast that morning, despite the fading bruises on her face.

She felt a twinge of elation, a curl of that same power that had filled her in Antonia's dining room, but slower and more sure of itself. I'm special. Dangerous, even. And he likes it.

"Maybe, yeah," she said casually. "Depends on how it plans out."

A faint line of speculation appeared between his brows, as if he were trying to remember where he'd met her before. "You did good, this week."

"Well, yes," she said, with a hint of arrogance. Then she relented. "I've had good teachers."

"Are you including me in that, or not?"

"I am." She tilted her head, just so. Mr. Zoja was right: when she met someone interesting, the body language came naturally. "I'm sure there's plenty I could learn from you."

His eyelids lowered. So did his voice. "So… you want to go over that file? After dinner, maybe?"

"Maybe." She rubbed the tips of her fingers together, thrilling to her newfound power. "I'll let you know."

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