The Literary Assassin

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

An old, old piece of history, from Quinn and Black's backstory. I'd had this in mind for years before I actually wrote it; I might've saved myself some fumbling around with backstory inconsistencies, if I had just written this at the outset, but it wouldn't have been as tight. The multiple POV's at the end are tricky.

The title was inspired by the song "Insomnia and the Hole in the Universe," by the band Live.

Insomnia and the Black Hole of the Mind

by Holly Messinger

July 2004
all rights reserved

Seth Ladron has one of his headaches again.

His vision has gone gray around the edges, and the gray is laced with red cobwebs of pain. If he keeps his head very still, eyelids half-lowered, the red fades into the gray and is tolerable. But the interns will not let him sit still and hide from the migraine.

"Please focus on the card, Black. We're almost finished here. What impressions are you getting?"

Ladron hates that damn code name, but the interns insist on using it. The pseudonyms help depersonify the test subjects, who have been dying like flies over the past eight months. Ladron blinks his gritty eyelids and tries to concentrate on the white placard before him.

He is supposed to be "receiving" a psychic image from the intern, who is staring at a line drawing of a house and thinking about how his girlfriend's cat pissed in his gym bag. Ladron's eyes water at the phantom scent of ammonia, but the images that surface in his thoughts are a mishmash of domesticity---his closet full of clothes, the blackened spoon his sister overdosed with, the big leather chair in his suite back in Ariston City, Quinn curled up in that chair with a book, twisting her hair around her finger. Ladron never lived in a house, even as a child, and the concept of "house" is too flat and simplistic to contain all of these associations. It won't translate, and even if it could, Ladron is too afraid of the power to let it. This is why he has migraines.

The wires attached to his temples, neck and forearms vibrate from the power sparking in his nervous system. The surge marked on the cerebral contact monitor is impressive, but as yet it has no focus, no channel. It simply builds, like static. The other intern, the one watching the monitors, notes the sudden increase in body temperature---he has seen this in the other latents. Their brains surge with electricity, their blood heats their skin, but their heart rates don't budge---and some of them actually drop.

Dr. Flenning calls this upswing in neurological activity the psionic plateau---the initial measurable evidence of psionic activity---and he instructs the interns to watch for it. All of the latents will reach it eventually, according to his theorems.

So far, his theorems haven't charted the distance between the psionic plateau, and the precipice of sanity.


By the time Seth left the testing room he felt like his brains were swelling out through his eyesockets. One of the nurses offered to help him back to his room, but the buzzing in his head got worse when someone was touching him, so he shook off the well-meaning hands and staggered along the halls like an old man, crippling from doorway to doorway until he reached the commons area of the habitat and had to sit down in the nearest chair.

After several eternities, the buzzing cleared and Seth half-opened his eyes. The commons was nearly empty. Churchill paced the narrow space between the sofa and the netscreen, muttering to himself. Angel sat cross-legged on one of the tables, thin arms wrapped around herself, thin face rapt with delight at something only she could see.

They were all getting weirder by the day. Last week Seth had seen Socrates sit talking to a tree for three hours. He claimed the tree liked living inside the facility but it was less happy about the new insecticide they were using on the grounds. Goya was scrubbing the skin off his hands with the incessant washing. Angel had gone from a sweet, sunny, outgoing girl to a sweet, vacant, wispy shadow, staring into space like she was counting the air molecules.

Seth hadn't developed any new neuroses---that he knew about---but he was having blackouts more and more frequently. Back there in the testing lab---he knew he'd been in there three hours, by the clock on the wall, but he didn't remember getting the wires put on, or which of the interns had been there---usually there were only two, but today it seemed like someone else had been there….

Arms slid around his neck from behind and a sticky hot tongue dipped into his ear.

"Damn it---" Seth recoiled and yanked at the wrist he could reach. Not surprisingly, Mian slithered from behind him and managed to drop into his lap. Seth gave her an irritated shove but she clung to his neck and twined her bony legs around his. Before the treatments started Mian had been drab and shapeless. Now she was gaunt and pasty. They all were, from too much time strapped to beds in dark rooms.

"Ah, ah," she said. "You left this morning without giving me a kiss. That's going to cost you."

"I'm not in the mood, Mian," he said, attempting to disentangle himself.

"That's what you said last night, too." She leaned close, nibbling at his jaw and throat. "And the night before. And the night before. . . I think I like it when you're not in the mood."

Seth could have thrown her off, but the static in his head cleared somewhat when he was touching her. It was that way with the other latents, too. Being around the "normal" people in the lab drove the test subjects crazy, but being close to the other latents was soothing, as if the power found a way to run to ground and quit building up in their individual brains.

Mian's hands slid down his body to his groin. Seth grunted and gripped her arms, lifted her bodily off his lap and dropped her. She fell into an angular pile of limbs and lank hair, pouting but not discouraged. She walked her fingers up his thigh. "Who's Gwen?"

Quinn, Seth corrected automatically, and squashed it. He didn't want to even think her name around all these latent psionics who might be able to read more than anyone was letting on. "How should I know?"

"You were calling for her last night."

Seth didn't remember sleeping last night. He wondered again what was happening to him during those periods of blackout. "I don't think so."

"I think so. You kept saying, ‘I'm sorry.'"

"I am. Damn sorry I ever signed up for this trip." Seth hauled himself out of the chair and went to his room.


The young girl, Angel, reminds Ladron of her. Ladron does not quite realize this---the two girls do not look alike---but the long hair and the youth, the gamine quality, arouses a familiar protective feeling in him. The others think her bizarre, a little frightening. The burgeoning power in her is considerable, and she has embraced it fully; it is threatening to consume her. The others recognize this without realizing it---all except Nero.

Nero crouches on a chair in the testing room and names the cards, one after another, as soon as the interns turn them. Nero eavesdrops on the interns and orderlies---sometimes through walls. Nero can hear better, deeper, than anyone realizes, and he is eager to keep his status as the star pupil.

So Nero waits, and listens, because he is jealous of what Ladron may become---what the doctors think he will become. The other test subjects are too old or too inflexible and the transition is breaking them down; all the doctors can see it. Only Angel, Nero, and Ladron are unknown quantities; it remains to be seen whether they will integrate their new abilities, or self-destruct from the strain. And Nero doesn't intend to reveal himself until he knows about the other two.


"---the Leviatech corporation suspended exports from its production colony on New Greenland today, after EMPR environmental engineers detected abnormally high radiation levels in the atmosphere. Leviatech, which supplies seventy percent of the Embassy's fluid gasses for space travel, claims that the radiation surge is due to solar flares and is not expected to contaminate its exported products. . . ."

"And the wrath of the Lord shall be as a fire scourging the earth," Churchill intones. He lights another cigarette.

"Put that shit away!" Goya sits on a plastic sheet, draped over the chair, a barrier between him and other peoples' germs, and rakes his arms with an exfoliator brush. "I told you I don't want my lungs coated in your tar."

Churchill's eyes glint with malice as he breathes out smoke. "And the unrighteous shall be visited with plagues, and diseases, and leprosy."

"Hey, shut up, will you?" Seth mutters, although his protests are merely token. Goya and Churchill are endlessly at each others' throats, and tonight tempers are especially high. The test subjects have reached the end of the eight-week recovery period; a new round of radiation treatments will start tomorrow. No one can bear to sleep, or to be alone, however much they hate one another. All eight of them---eight, out of the thirty-two they started with---are gathered in the commons to watch the netscreen and torment one another. A bitter comfort, but it is all they have.

Mian stirs her head drowsily upon Seth's thigh. "Let's go to bed, darling."

"I'm not tired." Seth's head is against the back of the sofa, his eyes closed. He aches for sleep, for his own bed, for Quinn's arms around him, protecting him. He feels he hasn't slept a solid night since leaving Ariston. Before that---since Gerry was killed, and Quinn was arrested---

A stab of pain lances Seth's temples, jolting him to blurry consciousness. His eyes roll open and turn instinctively to where Nero had been hunkered like a vulture on one of the armchairs, but Nero is no longer there.

Nero is hovering behind Seth's right shoulder, crackling with static and malice. "It's just me, chum," he whispers. "Got a few secrets in there, hmm? Keeping a girl on the side?"

Seth sits up sharply, disturbing Mian and causing Shiva to yelp as her coffee is jarred. She curses at them in Punjabi and flings the scalding liquid at Seth and Nero.

It never reaches them. It stops, as if colliding with a stiff breeze, and curls back on itself. The spray spins into a tiny brown typhoon. The latents all freeze, arrested by fascination and envy.

"Who's doing that?" Mian cries.

Seth feels the draw of power, but unconsciously. He tells himself he only follows the gazes of the others to where Angel sits straight on one of the end tables, her head tilted to one side, a dreamy little smile on her face.

"The power has come upon her," Churchill proclaims. "She has been blessed!"

"Blessed my ass," Goya says. "She better not spill any of that!"

"How is she doing it?" Nero says, low and intense. "Does anyone know?"

"Not me," Mian says.

"I've never seen her do it before," Seth says, but he can almost feel the pattern of it, a tactile understanding of matter and energy that is just beyond his grasp. He dislikes the feeling, like reaching for something over the edge of a cliff, and he retreats from it.

Socrates crawls around the couch on his hands and knees---Socrates who prefers the company of shrubbery to people. He holds out his palms on either side of the whirling coffee microcosmos. The tide of control swings to him, as palpable as a breeze, and the coffee moves with his hands, swirling between them. Socrates changes the pattern, creating first a spiral, then a figure eight, then a Mobius loop. Angel laughs and claps her hands.

"How are you doing that?" Nero demands.

Socrates raises wet and mild eyes to Nero's. "It's easy. You just have to tease the molecules a little. You show them something pretty and they want to be it, too."

"That's stupid!" Shiva is enraged by jealousy. She swings stiff-armed and strikes the side of Socrates' head. Coffee flies in a wide arc, splattering Goya and Mian.

"You bitch!" Goya leaps to his feet, arms spread in disgust, as if he had been hit with liquid excrement instead of a caffeinated beverage. He snatches up his plastic tarp for protection and lunges at Shiva, but Socrates is in his path and Goya falls across both of them. He grabs Shiva and tries to punch her without actually touching his bare knuckles to her face. Socrates thrashes under the smothering plastic and Goya's pounding knees. Angel howls, Mian screeches, Churchill bellows dire warnings about godless behavior.

Seth looks to the doorway: sure enough, the two orderlies on duty are coming out of the nurses' station, stun-guns in hand. "Hey, break it up," Seth snaps, and tries to catch Goya's thrashing shoulders. "Cut it out, the whites are coming. Hey---goddamn it!" He yells as Shiva sinks her teeth into his arm.

Seth has been in enough street fights to know when brute force is the only resolution. He strikes Shiva with the flat of his hand, across the temple. She drops, stunned. He pulls Goya away with an elbow around his neck. Goya goes rigid, clawing at the contaminating hands, and Seth flings him across the room. He is out of shape from these months of restricted movement, but his body knows the mechanics of fighting from his earliest years.

To his surpise, the melee comes to an abrupt halt. Everyone is staring in horror, at him and behind him. He hesitates, noticing their shock, and turns to see where Goya landed.

Goya sits on the floor some fifteen feet away, as stunned as the rest of them but apparently unhurt. The cinderblock wall above him bears the imprint of his hip and shoulder, where his body struck.

Seth looks at his hands---his scarred knuckles, his corded forearms, and the pasty skin that is not his.

He looks at the two orderlies, standing back well out of reach with their stun-guns extended before them. "That's all right, Black, you didn't hurt him. You didn't mean to throw him, things just got out of hand. Just calm down there, Black, sit back down."

Their words, the fearful way they look at him, is terrifying. "That's not my name!" Seth shouts, and they all stare at him. "Goddamn it, don't look at me like that! These assholes started it---let them clean it up."

He goes to his room, feeling Nero's mockery following him all the way. He lies on the bed, in the dark, wishing he could lock Mian out. He doesn't like the way he is shaking. He runs his hands over his arms, legs, chest, neck. The thick, muscular body he has had all his adult life, his pride and his livelihood, feels shriveled, the skin loose. He knows he's lost weight, his clothes are too big, but he is appalled to realize how much mass may be gone. He hasn't seen himself in a mirror in months. The others look sick---he wonders if he is wasting away, as well. Or worse, is the thing they built inside him… eating him? How else could it be getting stronger?


Seth was pissed, but not really surprised, when the orderlies came for him the next morning and took him to the testing room, instead of the surgical suite. This wasn't the first time Flenning had called him to the carpet. Every time there was some dust-up in the class, Seth seemed to catch the flack for it.

Dr. Flenning was a small, spare man, with curly salt-and-pepper hair and a serious demeanor, like an old lady schoolteacher. There was no humor in him anywhere. Seth suspected Flenning had been laughed at too many times as a child, and now that he had a little power, he was going to hold that power over everyone's heads to ensure he got the respect he deserved.

"Good morning, Black," Flenning said briskly, setting Seth's teeth on edge.

"My name is Seth Ladron," he said coldly, dropping into the chair on his side of the desk.

Flenning looked up from the file he was notating. "Ah, yes. The interns mentioned you prefer not to use your code name. Why did you choose it, if you didn't like it?"

"Because they made me choose something, and that was the mood I was in."

"I see." Flenning noted that, too. "It says here you're still suffering from depression and insomnia."

"I haven't been sleeping much."

"But no hallucinations, panic attacks?"


"What happened in the commons area, last night?"

"Goya got some coffee splashed on him. He went apeshit and tried to kill Shiva. I pulled him off."

"Were you angry at him?"

Seth shrugged. "I just wanted to stop the fight."

"You threw him more than five meters."

"I just… threw him. I didn't look to see where he landed."

"He nearly landed in the next room. Through a cinderblock wall."

"Well, you wanted to make us stronger."

"That is one of our goals, yes." Flenning folded his hands. "Of course the reason I chose you and your classmates for the project was because of your latent psionic ability. And unlike your classmates, you seem reluctant to cultivate that ability."

"Because I'm not going crazy, like the others?"

"The behavior of the others seems erratic because their perceptions are expanding. They are beginning to sense things no normal human can perceive, and their brains are adapting to process the new stimuli. But your Psionic Aptitude scores have actually gone down from the first PAT we did on you. Do you have any idea why that might be?"

"You're the expert, you tell me."

Flenning's lips tightened. He was still maintaining the veneer of patronizing amiability, but Seth wasn't being as obsequious as Flenning was used to.

The doctor sat back in his chair and changed tactics. "Ladron means thief in Spanish, doesn't it? Is that your given name, or did you choose it for yourself?"

The question caught him off guard, as it was meant to. The tampering in the latents' frontal lobes tended to dredge up old memories and emotions, make them as fresh as yesterday's pain. Seth remembered angry voices shouting the epithet after him, when he was very small, and grubby, and frightened. He remembered his sister laughing and ruffling his hair, and declaring there were a lot of ladrones in the family. "That was the dominant language in the colony where I grew up."

"Ariston City," Flenning supplied the name helpfully. "Ladron is quite a well-known name there, my sources tell me. In fact, up until you left a year ago, Seth Ladron was considered the man to contact for contraband and black-market goods, isn't that right? You needn't be modest."

Seth stared at him, wondering where this was coming from. They hadn't questioned his story about running a shipping buisness out on Ariston when he'd signed on; he hadn't supposed they'd cared, given the quality of his genetic material. He guessed it made sense that they would backtrack him, make sure no one would miss him.

"I got by," Seth said cautiously.

Flenning pursed his lips. "I know, based on our tests, that you are a very intelligent man, Mr. Ladron. Intelligent people often feel the need to control themselves and their environment---doubly so a man who's used to controlling his environment to the extent that you did. I think you're being stubborn with us, but I'm not yet sure why."

"Maybe because I like it here so much."

"I'm sure." Flenning's nostrils flared slightly, his air of self-satisfaction swelling a few degrees. "You know, when my sources were researching you there was a name that kept coming up in connection with yours… Quinn?---no last name. A young woman who was apparently quite close to you?"

Seth flinched. "That's none of your damn business."

"I only ask because she seems to be related to your depression---you call her name in your sleep."

"Did Mian tell you that?"

"We monitor you twenty-four hours a day, Ladron."

"How can I be talking in my sleep, if I'm not sleeping?"

Flenning drew a permiprint sheet from his file and turned it toward Seth. It showed a grid, marked off in hours of the day, with five colored lines making zigzags across the grid. "These are measurements of your brainwaves, taken by the remote sensors in your room each night. These tell us that you are sleeping---but only two or three hours per night, and nearly all of that is dream sleep. In fact, you seem to be dreaming a great many hours of the day, as well, even when our monitors show your eyes are open and you're moving about. Have you ever been trained in meditation?"


"Mm. I find that surprising, because your Alpha patterns frequently resemble those of a person who is either meditating or in REM sleep. So it seems you've found a way to dream while awake." Flenning's gaze was mild, the patient contented gaze of a man who does not believe himself to be a sadist. "The staff psychiatrist, Dr. Brockleman, believes that this Quinn of yours has become a kind of talisman---you meditate on her, thus removing yourself from the reality of the tests which you don't want to face. Am I at all close?"

Seth shrugged.

Flenning returned the sheets to his file. "I was under the impression you volunteered for this procedure because you hoped to gain something from it. You stand in the enviable position of acquiring a great deal of power, Ladron. Why are you denying yourself that?"

Because I never expected to live this long. "Because I realized you weren't giving me power for my own sake."

Flenning made a small amused sound. "Of those to whom much is given, much is expected."

Seth stood up with a grunt. "Keep it to yourself."


The application of radiation, Flenning tells his students, is analogous to the application of bisulfites to a hair shaft. Just as ammonium bisulfite weakens the hair cuticle and allows it to assume a new shape, so does radiation weaken the cell nucleus, allowing the gene-carrying vectors to penetrate. The risk, of course, is excessive cellular damage, but we've made great strides in regulating exposure with bacterial remediators. As long as secondary infections can be avoided, healing is usually rapid and satisfactory....

Shiva dies during the next round of radiation treatments. All the latents feel her go, even drugged as they are, and some of them cry out at the moment when her brain bursts in a massive hemorrhage.

Everyone else makes it through. For almost three months they lie semi-comatose, doped so deep they should be dead, but twitching with brain activity. Down in the depths of the unconscious, their minds call to one another like the singing of whales: recordable, but incomprehensible to human listeners.

Seth hears it but does not hear. He has learned to block it out, to construct walls around himself that reduce the psionic noise to a distant murmur. Safe inside the walls of memory, he and Quinn make love and talk about the past.

"I had to do it," he tells her. "Believe me, baby, it tore my guts to get up on that stand, but the judge was in Cruez's back pocket and he wouldn't throw out the case."

"You could have told me." She is sulking, but he doesn't blame her. In some ways she is much younger than her years. It took him years to build that trust between them, and he undid all of it with a few short statements in a courtroom.

"I came by the jail, but they said you didn't want to see me."

"I thought you'd sold me out," she admits, raising her eyes to his. Those eyes are the reason he has to keep her hidden---the irises are slitted like a cat's, marking her as something inhuman and unique. She doesn't remember much of what was done to her or who did it, but Seth knows if Flenning ever got hold of her, he would take her apart, a cell at a time, to learn how she was made that way.

"I would never do that," Seth assures her.

She sighs, but it is worried. "You can't keep hiding in here forever. Sooner or later they'll notice you're not on the outside."

Seth strokes her hair. "I'll think of something."


Awakening is like being beaten with a bright light. One minute he was warm and comfortable in the dark, the next he is stricken with thirst and hard cold instruments, skin prickling all over like the tingling of frostbite. He can barely see, his vision is full of white light with shadowy shapes moving through it, and a booming voice saying, "It's alright, Black, just lie there a minute, you'll be all right."

"Not . . . Black . . . dammit." He tries to sit up. Something is holding him down. He sits up. There is a strong screaming noise, tearing metal and fabric. Somebody yells for backup. Their hands sear his skin; the puncture of the needle ripples through his flesh like a drop in a puddle, spreading warmth with it.

His limbs become heavy. He feels himself sinking, but at the same time he has the impression of something massive rising through deep water---something secret and dark that has been waiting down there all this time. Seth lets go, falls past it, and drowns.


Static. Darkness---a crushing sensation giving way gradually to lightheadedness and a peculiar sense of dissipation---as if the molecules of this body are spreading apart and the boundaries of his senses are no longer absolute.

He lies quietly, absorbing, until the involuntary muscles contract, drawing in breath. Air expands the lungs, oxygen rushes through blood vessels made slack by the sedative. This body is long and lean, hard. He flexes his fists, feeling the power in his arms and hands---it is considerable.

"Jesus Christ," somebody says. "He's still not out."

"Give him a second hit."

"No---wait." That is Flenning's voice. Flenning's . . . sound. Flenning's being. The rest of them, too---he can identify them without sight or sound. They are distinct minds, floating like jellyfish in the ocean, oblivious to each other but crackling with electricity.

Other electricity in the room---monitors. Machines. Outside this room---more minds. Strong, familiar beacons, calling him to join them in glorious supernova.

Fingers snap before his nose. He lifts eyelids---he has eyelids.

Flenning is bending over him, spreading those eyelids, shining a puny light into his binocular vision---left/right, left/right. Frowns. "Positive and equal response---Can you hear me, Ladron?"

"No." Interesting: the vocal chords work.

"No? You don't hear me?"

"I hear you." Pause. "I am not Ladron."

A short silence follows this pronouncement. The interns look at each other. Flenning's gaze is direct, unwavering, attempting to penetrate. His mind is detailed, layered, incredibly orderly. He has his own walls constructed around things he doesn't want to remember. "What do you mean, you're not Ladron?"

"I am not the man who calls himself Seth Ladron."

"Who are you, then?"

A valid question. He considers it. "I am . . . the one he chose the name ‘Black' for."

The room flutters with confusion and excitement. Flenning's heartbeat nearly doubles in anticipation. "What happened to Seth Ladron?"

"He's gone."

"Gone where?"

"Away from this body."

"Is he dead?"

No: Ladron has retreated to that closet in the back of his mind, where he is safe. Black knows he must protect that closet, protect even the secret of its existence. That is why he is here, to guard that door.

"He is gone."


That evening, Flenning sends a memo to his contact in Central Intelligence.

Seven subjects in stable condition. Proceeding to training/conditioning phase. If all looks good, plan to schedule first inspection visit in six weeks.

Next, he writes a memo to the project psychiatrist, Dr. Brockleman:

Black seems to have had a major breakthrough. Details in the daily reports. Check him over ASAP and send me your assessment.

Finally, he writes in his personal journal:

Black's cerebral activity off chart. Seemed bored w/testing; all tests perf. correctly & w/out strain. Does not seem amnesiac re classes to this point. Denies being Ladron, unable to say where he went. Refuses to discuss the Quinn issue---seems unlikely she is missing subject of previous project, but could be Ladron's offspring w/comparable genetic qualities. Warrants further investigation.


Seth opened his eyes and wondered where he was.

It was a gym, full of crash mats and tumbling equipment. A dozen men in military uniforms stood a few meters away. Dr. Flenning, in a suit, was addressing them. At the far end of the gym, five black-haired individuals in white jumpsuits were waving their hands around like idiots. They appeared to be playing a children's game of rolling balls and ringing bells, but no one was touching any of the balls.

"Well, look who's back with us," hissed a voice.

Seth turned and looked into Nero's eyes. The sight was unnerving: Nero's skin had gone beyond pasty to dead gray, and his hair and brows had darkened to black. His eyes were a queer non-color, almost silver.

"I was starting to think you weren't coming back," Nero said. "Rather inopportune time, don't you think?"

"What's this?" Seth asked.

"The floor show, obviously. Flenning's patrons dropped by for a demonstration. I think you impressed them."

"What?" Seth said, but Nero moved away chuckling. He had gotten a lot thinner than Seth remembered, and he moved differently, with a strut. He wasn't skulking anymore.

Seth looked down at himself. He was wearing a white jumpsuit like the others, and his hands. . . his hands were as gray as gunmetal. The nails had a peculiar crystalline quality. His wrists were knobby and shriveled, like those of an old man.

Seth sensed movement, heard the whisper of slippered feet, and nearly jumped out of his skin to find his classmates clustering around him, noiseless and staring, leaning close, practically sniffing him in their curiosity.

"You're back!" Angel said, reaching out with two fingers to prod his cheekbone. "Don't sound the same."

"Went quiet all of a sudden," Goya muttered. "Dirty trick."

"The devil may appear in the guise of a friend," Churchill said. "Maybe we should exorcise him."

Seth suddenly realized there was no buzzing in his head. No blurred vision, no migraines. He actually felt healthy---although his skin looked like he'd been dead for weeks. They all did---their flesh had a poreless, sleek look to it, like wet sealskin. He was ringed by gaunt gray specters with bright, mad eyes.

"Well, lover," Mian purred in his ear, sliding her hand over his shoulder as she turned him to face her. "Looks like you found a way to escape from me after all. Did you come back to see what you were missing?"

Mian's face had changed. Her whole body had changed. Her skin, although gray, had become pearly and smooth, her eyes grown larger and her lips fuller. Her limbs seemed to have fleshed out---although she was still very thin, she was now lithe, feminine, alluring. Her hair was a spill of ink down her back. "We learned a few things while you were gone," she said.

"He wasn't gone," Socrates said. "He was dead. Something brought him back. He has unfinished business here."

The others backed away slightly, silently, forming an invisible but palpable barrier between him and themselves.

"Is there a problem here?" Flenning asked, stepping through the barrier. He sounded impatient, but his voice was the high, brisk, ingratiating tone he used when talking to his patrons.

The others looked at Seth. Flenning followed their gaze, met Seth's eyes. And he saw it---whatever it was that the others could sense. He actually took a step back, he was so shocked by what he saw in Seth's face. An expression of sheer fury contorted the doctor's features. "Take him back to his room," he hissed, and turned to leave them---only to meet Nero approaching, with the military men.

"Excuse me, doctor," Nero said, all flattering courtesy. "I was just telling these gentlemen about the self-healing exercises we'd been practicing. Perhaps Black and I could demonstrate?"

"Black's taken ill," Flenning said. "Why don't you and Goya try it---"

"It's basically just manipulating molecules," Nero went on, "as we showed you with the water. Only with flesh."

Shit, Seth thought, as Nero's smile twisted viciously. Something invisible and sharp stabbed into Seth's belly and zipped upwards, tracing a line of fire through his guts, opening up his skin. He heard his sternum crack. Oh, shit.

He pressed his hands over the gushing wound in his abdomen and fell flat on his back---the only thing he could think to do, had to keep the insides inside. It didn't even hurt yet, it had happened so fast, but he felt a scream building up behind his back teeth, horror and terror and outrage that he had survived the death squads and Rim Patrol and the Cruez brothers and the rest of the shit for thirty-five years only to die gutted like a pig on the gym floor of some secret government building---

"Hush," Angel said, kneeling on the floor beside him. Her hands slipped through his, slicked by blood, and he watched her fingers trace along the raw edges of his flesh, knitting them together. The screaming nerve endings were sealed and silenced, leaving behind only a faint burn and a vicious itch. He was watching his guts get sealed away under his skin, and all he could think was she'd better hurry up so he could scratch it.

"There," she said, and spun away, humming happily.

Seth sat up, trembling all over, his breath rasping in his throat. He clutched at his chest, but it was smooth and whole---covered with blood, sure enough, but not even a scar under his fingertips. The military men were looking appalled. The psionics---no longer latent, apparently---were expressionless, except for Nero. Nero was pissed.

"There . . . you see, it's just as Nero said." Flenning's voice was high and artificially bright. "Angel has developed such a fine sense of control that she can heal other people, as well as herself. Now, gentlemen, if you'll just step over here, Dr. Rebauski is going to show you to the testing room."

The military men moved off---rather quickly. One of them cast a worried look at Nero.

"Take him back to his room," Flenning said to the others. "Not you, Nero. I want you in the testing room. And no more of your nonsense."

Nero smiled like a cat, and glided after the military men.


"Why didn't you catch this?" Flenning demands.

"I did warn you it was a possibility," Dr. Brockleman says. "The others went through personality changes, too, but theirs were gradual. I put it in the report when he first dissociated---any change that sudden was bound to be unstable."

"Assuming it is a genuine dissociation. He could just be playing with us."

"It's the most genuine I've seen in twenty-three years of practice. For the last four months he's shown no signs of depression, he's answering to the ‘Black' pseudonym, he refers to ‘Ladron' in the third person---he changed handedness, for God's sake!"

Flenning barks laughter. "He said weapons are designed for right-handed people."

"Obviously he's constructed a persona that can give you what you want. For whatever reason, Seth Ladron couldn't conform to the demands you were making of him. He invented someone who could."

"Resourceful," Flenning says sourly.

"Well, yes. That's why you wanted him." Dr. Brockleman prides himself on being one of the few who can speak to Flenning as an equal. He would never admit how much he fears Flenning's drive, his vindictive nature---his obsession.

Flenning rubs his chin in frustration. "Central Intelligence won't be amused if he has a meltdown every few months."

"Linus, the military is used to dealing with soldiers with a short shelf-life. We've got three more months with them. We can find out what his trigger is---or we'll invent one for him. If the core personality is completely amnesiac, it could actually be an asset to Central---a prisoner can't tell what he doesn't remember."

Flenning contemplates this. He suspects that patience and psychology will bring Black around, but in the most secret corner of his heart---and he would never admit to such primal excess---he wants to punish Ladron for defying him. He says, "I know what his trigger is."

"You do?"

"Part of it. Nero found out."

"Nero." The psychiatrist shudders. "You made any progress with those psionic inhibitors you were working on?"

"They're my top priority, these days." Flenning is no fool. He knows the monsters he has built are dangerous---there is an unfortunate correlation between psionic ability and emotional instability. Nero had sociopathic tendencies even before beginning the treatments. But Nero, unlike Ladron, is a simple creature: he wants power. As long as that carrot can be dangled before Nero's nose, Flenning believes he can control him.

Flenning pulls a sheet of paper toward him, scratches a few words on it. "I want you to repeat the full psychological battery on Ladron. Question him about these points." He taps the paper. "If he resists, neuro-tap him. Either we'll pry that secret out of his head or we'll bury Ladron so deep he'll never claw his way out again."


"I want to revisit something you told me in a session last month," Dr. Brockleman said. "You said you volunteered for the project because it was an appropriate punishment."

"I did?" Seth didn't remember that.

Brockleman peered at his palmscreen. "Your exact words were. . . ‘Ladron volunteered for the project because he felt he deserved to be punished. This seemed an appropriate means.'"

"Huh," Seth said.

"What did you do that you feel deserves punishment?"

Seth laughed. "Pick something. Murder. Arson. Racketeering."

"You don't feel remorse for any of those things."

Seth shrugged.

"Does it have anything to do with Quinn?"

Seth steeled himself not to flinch, but Brockleman was sharp; he saw the hesitation. "I realize you're reluctant to talk about her, Ladron, but it's not healthy for you to keep these negative feelings---"

"Oh, bullshit. Don't even try that routine, doc."

Brockleman's gaze did not waver. "You had a cartel back in Ariston City, right? A gang? People working for you?"


"Say there's a lieutenant of yours. He's acting jumpy. Forgetting things. Telling you contradictory stories. Now, wouldn't you'd think he was hiding something? Maybe skimming from you?"

Seth gave an ambiguous tilt of his head. Gerry Cruez had always been up-front about his skimming---that was their tacit arrangement. It had worked fine until Gerry got greedy.

"And what would you do about it?"



"How long I'd known him. History. Circumstances."

"Would you confront him about it?"

"Maybe. I'd watch him first. But you already do that." Seth lifted his gaze briefly toward the mirrored back wall.

"And suppose you got hard evidence that he was cheating you? What if you found out he was plotting against you, personally?"

"I'd kill him," Seth said.

Brockleman sat back in his chair, slowly turning a stylus between his fingers. Just sat there, with the threat hanging in the air. Seven left of the original thirty-two.

"Is that what happened to Quinn?" Brockleman asked.

Seth ground his teeth, preparing to say… something, but the room. . . shifted in his vision.

Once as a child, he'd tasted his sister's stardust, thinking it was sugar. It tasted terrible, bitter, and he'd spit it out, but enough of the drug absorbed through the membranes of his mouth to dull his senses and make reality go dim and insubstantial. It had frightened him then, and it frightened him now, because he had the same sense of his soul peeling back from the shell of his body: of coldness, of sounds coming from further away, of peering through a pair of binoculars instead of his own eyes.

He felt his mouth move, and the voice that came out was his own, but lower-pitched and devoid of inflection: "Do you think I'm plotting against you, doctor?"

Brockleman went very still for a second. He resumed the twirling of his stylus, but with a definite tension around the eyes and throat. "Are you?"

"If I were, I wouldn't be foolish enough to tell you," the voice said with Seth's mouth. He wanted to raise his hand to feel his lips move, but his hand wouldn't seem to obey him. "In Ladron's business, he learned not to make threats. It gives your enemy a warning. Puts him on guard."

Brockleman's expression did not change, but his eyes were bright, greedy. "That's fine for you, Black, but how do we know we can trust Ladron? He keeps trying to undermine your progress."

Damn it, I am not Black! Seth shouted, but his throat only made a rough grunting noise. "Ladron doesn't want to be here any more than you want him here. Let him go. Let me handle him."

Sweat shone on Brockleman's lip. "Is there any way we can… call you, if we need you?"

No, Seth thought. No, no, no! He struggled, as in a dream, to sit up, to move, to force himself back into the mask of his own face. You don't live here!

Abruptly his ears popped open, as if the air pressure had changed. Seth stood up, fast, just to make sure he could. He looked quickly back down at his chair, half-afraid to find his body still sitting in it.

Brockleman pursed his lips, both eyebrows raised. "You all right, Ladron?"

"How do you know?" Seth said.

"Know what?"

"How do you know when I'm not me! " Christ---now he'd said it: it had to be real.

"When are you not you?"

Seth's hands were shaking, badly, but he made them into fists and planted them on the table between himself and the shrink. "Look. If you're going to cull me, then do it. Obviously I'm not doing you any favors."

"What's obvious, Ladron, is that you're not as eager to die as you claim to be. None of you are under tight security---four of your classmates found ways to dispose of themselves after the first round of radiation treatments. But you're still here. So who's talking bullshit, huh?"

Seth ducked his head, pressed his knuckles tighter against the tabletop for a moment. Then he eased off, backed up, sat down. "Stop asking me about Quinn."


"Because it's private."

"You have no privacy anymore. You signed it away when you signed your body into our custody."

Seth glared at him.

"Did you kill her?" Brockleman asked.

Seth let his gaze falter. He looked down at his hands; knit them together. "Yeah."


"He's lying," Nero says, from his observation point behind the mirror.

"Of course he is," Flenning replies. "Can you pick out the truth?"

Nero shakes his head. "He's blocked---it's like there's a mirror behind his consciousness. It just reflects back at me. Rather like your mind does, these days." He gives the doctor a sly, speculative look.

"My mind is not one you need be concerned with," Flenning says. He is wearing a test set of his new psionic inhibitors, implanted under his scalp, but he sees no reason to tell Nero this. To the intern, he adds, "Schedule a neuro-tap for Ladron, Thursday morning."


"Angel," Seth said in an undertone, "why don't I remember this stuff, what you said about me learning psionics with the rest of you?"

"You left," Angel said, as if surprised she had to explain it. "Black took over for you. He learned the psionics."

The garden was bright and sunny, absurdly normal. Seth and Angel sat in the sun, while a few meters away, Socrates huddled against his tree. Seth glanced through the open door into the habitat. Mian and Nero, Goya and Churchill sat in the center of the ravaged commons area, a hail of broken glass from the light fixtures glittering on the floor around them. The four of them twitched and hissed as cuts opened and closed on their flesh. They had made a game of testing who could inflict the most damage on the others, while closing up the wounds in his or her own skin.

"But Angel, Black is me. He's---it's the name I chose when I signed up for the lab---Like Angel isn't your real name, either, right?"

She smiled and didn't answer. She had taken to healing little wounds on the interns: paper cuts, strained hamstrings, the occasional ulcer. Pancreatic cancer. Little things. "Black is you---he's just not all of you. He's a---a reflection. A copy."

"Then why can't I remember the last four months, when you were calling me Black?"

"Because you weren't here. Black takes care of you when you're gone."

"But where did I go?"

Angel reached forward to touch his forehead. "In there. Somewhere. You've got a mirror back there. A door with a mirror on it. I can't see behind it."

Seth remembered that sensation he'd had in Brockleman's office, of being pulled down a dark corridor with the only light at the end of it. "Can the others?"

"Doubt it. Socrates, maybe." She frowned toward the tree. "But he doesn't like doing it. It hurts him. They made him rape someone yesterday."

Seth glanced at the huddled figure across the lawn. Socrates had been missing from breakfast yesterday morning; the interns said he was out on a field test. He had returned shortly before dinner and gone directly to the garden, to his tree, and remained there all night.

"That's why Black comes out," Angel said. "To protect you when they make you do those bad things."

Seth looked at the tiny girl with new compassion. "Do they make you do those bad things?"

"Not yet." She sighed. "They say I'm special---I can heal people. But they bring me all these people who are hurt. . . some of them I can't help. I can make it better for a little while, but it makes me tired."

"You are special."

She wrinkled her nose. "Nero likes hurting people. He hurts the interns sometimes, when they don't know it. He makes them sick. And he wants to hurt you, to make you tell about Quinn."

Seth winced. "Does everybody know about Quinn?"

"She's all you think about," Angel said. "And she's all Dr. Flenning thinks about, when you're around. But Black wouldn't tell him. Nero thinks he can make you tell."

"How much does he know about her? How much do you know?"

"That you love her, and you hurt her, and you came here because you felt bad. Dr. Flenning thinks she's special---that she's got good genes, like us. That's why he wants to find her."

Seth touched the back of Angel's hand. "You won't tell them where she is, will you?"

"Oh, no," she said. "I don't know, anyway. You keep that stuff behind the mirror. Black guards it."

Relief eased the tightness in his chest. It wasn't much, against the fear that he was losing his mind, but it was something. The most important thing. "Guess Black's good for something, huh?"

"He's good for lots of things." A sad look crossed her face. "He'll have to stop Nero."

"Stop me from what?" Nero said, sounding amused. He was lurking in the door of the habitat, wearing Mian around his neck. Churchill and Goya flanked the doorway. They had all taken to dressing in black, to match their hair---although Goya had shaved his head. They looked, Seth thought, like a street gang without any turf.

"Stop you from interrupting conversations that aren't about you," Seth said.

"Go away," Angel added.

Nero slipped Mian's grip and sauntered toward Seth. "Everything's about me, you stupid git. I am everything. Alpha and omega, even." He ran a hand through Seth's hair. Seth slapped him away and Nero laughed. "Maybe we'll just crack open that thick skull and see what we find."

They had all acquired a new way of moving, silent and predatory. The other three slipped into a semi-circle around Seth and Angel. He looked at the coldness on her elfin face, the non-expression in her eyes, and reckoned she could take care of herself. As strong as this new body was, and with his experience at brawling, he could probably take the three men alone---but four crazed psionics was something else. Damned if he was going to run for help---he'd been hoping to die when he signed up for this project and if this was the time, he'd make it memorable.

He stood up, nose-to-nose with Nero---who he would have sworn used to be shorter.

"So stubborn," Nero said. "All you have to do is tell us where she is."

"And then what?" Seth said. "You let me live? Don't do me any favors."

"You're already dead, Ladron. We're the ones who are alive." Mian and Goya giggled. Churchill rumbled low in his throat.

"You're crazy," Seth said. "Flenning picked out the biggest losers he could find so you'd think he made you special. He made you into performing dogs for the feds."

"Give me your hand," Angel said.

"Not now," Seth said, without breaking Nero's gaze.

Nero's eyes glinted mockery. "How predictable. You've found another little girl to protect you. Does she know what you did to the last one?"

Seth hit him---palm-struck him in the nose, hard enough it would have killed anybody without their new reinforced bones. Nero's head snapped back and Seth smashed his heel into Nero's knee, then whipped around to take down the other two.

But it was two late---they had him. Three pairs of narrowed silver eyes fixed on him, seized his limbs and pulled them out rigid, stretching him on an invisible rack. He stood tiptoe on the grass, tendons going taut, unable to move anything except his neck, while his joints screamed protest and his left shoulder left its socket with a sickening pop.

"Stop," Angel said, and she might have screamed or whispered, Seth couldn't tell---all he knew was suddenly the pressure slacked off and he fell limp on the grass beside Nero. Through a haze of pain he saw Angel holding up Goya and Churchill with the merest grip on their wrists---the two men slumped on either side of her like puppets, and Mian stood by with her mouth open.

Angel let the men fall, and turned toward Nero. Even Seth could see the power crackling in her---her pupils were dilated to black, and as she passed by he noticed the hairs on her arm were standing erect. She walked to where Nero crouched, bleeding and furious, but wary.

She extended one hand, fingers bent together as if to pinch, and a fat blue spark crackled between her fingertips, visible even in the bright sunshine. "You want power, Nero?" she said softly. "How about theirs? They're not using it for anything good."

"How did you do that?" Nero hissed. "Where did you learn to do that?"

"If you quit being so greedy and sneaky all the time and paid attention, you might learn something," Angel said, and brought her fingers together. The spark jumped from her fingers to his forehead. His body twitched once, as if jolted with a tazer, and he flopped back onto the grass.

Angel turned and looked at Mian, who backed away. Then she reached out to Seth and gently touched his dislocated shoulder. Numbness spread from her hand, making him gasp in relief. She gripped his tricep and popped the shoulder back into joint with no more effort than pulling on a sweater.

"What did you do to them?" Seth asked. Goya was rolling around and moaning. Churchill had sat up, but that was as far as he could get.

"Took their power," Angel said grimly. "I was going to use yours, but. . . " she looked around her and shrugged. "This worked out okay, too."


Seth let Angel sleep in his room that night. Not that he could have stopped her, at any rate, but he was glad for the company. It felt right, having her light weight curled up at the foot of the bed. Familiar. Comforting enough he managed to find a light doze, hovering on the edge of real sleep while his mind chewed over his situation. Much as he hated to give Brockleman any credit, the man had a point: he didn't want to die. If he had really wanted that, he could have stayed in the Ariston colony. Without Quinn to watch his back, it was only a matter of time before Gerry's supporters got to him, and they knew it---that was why they'd had to get rid of her.

He had joined the project looking for penance, not death. And the best punishment he could think of was the one Quinn had described to him: genomorph therapy. Skin burning and senses disabled and muscles aching from long disuse---not to mention the attendant infections and indignities. But he had never really expected it would kill him, despite the odds. Quinn had been the sole survivor of more than a dozen. Seven of his classmates remained, out of the original thirty-two.

He had three months of treatments left. After that, he suspected he would be put to work for the military, probably in intelligence. He guess it would be some time before they let him see daylight again, but he would be alive. And Quinn's sentence had been light---he hadn't been able to get her off, but he had bought her some leniency. She would be eligible for parole in less than a year.

Maybe he could still come to grips with this psionic stuff. Angel said he knew how to use it---that Black knew how. Could he embrace that new power without going crazy, like the others? Angel seemed to have pulled through it well enough. Socrates was fairly stable, too, but they were trying to bend him into something he didn't want to be---

Light footsteps in the hall lifted him out of his doze. He opened his eyes to see Socrates walk past the open door, arms held out wide from the shoulder as if he were being crucified.

Angel lifted her head, looked sharply toward the hall. "Oh, no," she said.

Seth moved quickly off the bed, to the doorway. The only light in the commons area was from the netscreen; Nero and his ghouls were watching contestants stalk each other on Contender and cheering when someone was eliminated.

Socrates picked a path though the broken glass and demolished furniture, between the prone bodies of the other psionics, and stood before the netscreen, arms extended, swaying a bit. Tears streamed from his eyes, but his face was slack, expressionless.

"Yes, Socrates?" Nero sounded amused. "Do you have something to say?"

The tear tracks on Socrates' face turned black. In the flickering blue light of the serial program, it looked like he was weeping oil. More black trickles spilled from his nose and ears, then from his hairline. When it began to drip from his fingertips, Seth realized it was blood.

"What the hell?" he exclaimed, but Angel caught his wrist, holding him back.

Black flowers bloomed on the white field of Socrates' jumpsuit. Blood spread from the armpits and groin, met up with the pool saturating his chest. A dark puddle began to expand around his feet.

"Christ!" Seth wrenched his arm free and ran to the nurses' station, banged on the window. "Hey! Are you asleep in there?"

The orderly looked up, startled. He looked past Seth in the window and his eyes widened. "What the---Jack, we got trouble!"

The two orderlies grabbed for injectors, for stun-guns, for radios, but in the fifteen seconds it took them to reach the commons, it was finished. Socrates shivered, like his tree moving in the wind, and then collapsed, into a still-spreading pool of his own blood. The orderlies shouted at each other and into their shortcoms, tried to get a vein up, wiped out the dead man's mouth and did CPR, even administered a shot of adrenaline to his heart, but Socrates remained flaccid and nonresponsive.

Someone brought emergency lights. Someone called for a heart-lung machine. Somebody else said to call Dr. Flenning. The last two arrived more or less at the same time.

"What happened here?" Flenning demanded, while the interns ran tubes into Socrates' throat and arms, to force oxygen to the all-important and self-destructive brain.

None of the psionics answered. The interesting part was over; their attention had rediverted to their program. Flenning turned to Seth, who was trying hard not to vomit. "What did they do to him?"

Seth shook his head, swallowed hard. "He just---he did it to himself."

"And you just let him?!"

"He was tired," Angel said sadly.

"Turn it up," Goya said. "I like this commercial."


Cold hard mattress, smell of damp. Shadowy corners and white plasteel---clear barrier door. Small body in an oversized jumpsuit, bare feet and bruised wrists, shaved scalp bristly against scraped palms. No more sweetness, no more trust---just a slow-burning hatred with his name on it.

I'm so sorry, he tells her, but of course she doesn't hear.

Leave her alone, Black says. She'll survive. Worry about yourself. They're coming for you.

Screw them. If they were going to kill me they'd have done it by now.

Don't delude yourself. Angel won't be around to protect you much longer. Either wake up or go back under and let me handle them.

You'd like that.

I don't like it or not. It's for me to do, if you won't. I won't let them kill us both.

The door opens. Seth rolls over, groggily awake, and scrubs a hand over his face as they talk at him. Tests; always another test. He doesn't care, most of him is still asleep. He hasn't slept in months, and nothing they do makes any difference, they don't need his cooperation, just his body. He hauls himself out of the bed and nearly falls. They catch him and fold him into a wheelchair.

Ladron has been drugged. A quick check of the sensory memories and the lung sacs confirms this; they pumped in sedative gas while he was sleeping. Angel is curled at the foot of the bed, as doped as Ladron. She doesn't even stir as they take him away.

Seth's eyes keep rolling back in his head, but he is just conscious enough to keep a grip on his senses. Stay down, he says savagely.

You're a fool. They're going to neuro-tap you.

About damn time. Get you out of my head for good.

They take him to one of the surgical suites. He offers no resistance as they strap him into a chair and attach wires to his body. Restraints inflate all around his limbs, padding him into position.

Only after he is fully cocooned does Dr. Flenning approach. His is the one mind in the room that can't be accessed---whatever means he is using to obscure his thoughts, it is effective. Listening to him is like listening to voices in another room; the cadence is there, but the words are indistinct. His emotions, however, are clear and strong. He has a distinct taste of satisfaction.

"Well, Ladron," Flenning says pleasantly. "I suppose this is our last resort."

"At least give me the reach-around," Seth mutters.

Flenning smiles slightly, because he recognizes this for the helpless defiance it is. He turns away, addressing the students in the gallery. "Neuro-tapping," he says, "is a collective term to describe the application of several different treatments in tandem---electroshock therapy to induce an altered state of consciousness, Alpha-wave resonance to maintain the hypnotic state, and cerebral contact monitoring both to stimulate the memory centers and suppress the motor and cognitive functions. The subject's mind is rendered defenseless, stripped of inhibitions or the ability to dissemble. When you're ready."

"Clear," says the intern at the controls.

The orderly slides a guard between Seth's teeth and then steps away. "Clear."

"Charging." Electricity swells in the room, a bright blue hum of power not unlike psionic energy.

Step down, Black says. Let me handle this.

Fuck off.

"Trigger one."

Seth's body surges as the voltage hits him. His teeth clench deep into the mouth guard. He cannot scream---his vocal cords, like everything else, are paralyzed by the current. His senses crackle with static.

Five seconds pass and they cut the power. Seth falls back limp in the restraints, panting, water streaming from his eyes.

"Trigger two."

Again the surge of electricity, the static, the agony of clenched muscles, the gasping release. Seth's breath leaves his throat with an involuntary harsh whine.

Flenning clucks his tongue. "We can stop any time you say."

Seth sucks in a deep breath, and says through his teeth, "Again."


"Trigger three."

The current seizes him again, and this time the seizure sparks in Seth's brain: tendrils of lightning chasing down pathways of thought, burning away ego and restraint, blasting through walls and down corridors of memory, scouring out any hope of secrets.


The door to Seth's room flings open with a crash. Quinn wakes with a cry of alarm, automatically reaching for weapons, but Seth extends a hand to hold her back. She waits, taut but trusting him, as he squints at the black doorway. He can see nothing in the corridor beyond, but he knows what is out there.

"Grand mal, both hemispheres," the intern reports. "Cutting power."

Ladron's body shudders in the heavy restraints, his eyes rolled back in his head. The cerebral contact monitor swings into the red and hovers there, while the EEG's needle whips across the page in violent arcs. Gradually, the EEG calms and drops back to near-zero readings, except for the Alpha bar, which remains abnormally high.

The CCM needle comes to rest at a point slightly above center. Flenning looks at it, thoughtfully. "Black?" he says.

Ladron's head twitches. It's hard to make out the movement, as restrained as he is. The CCM needle does not react.

"Ladron?" Flenning asks.

The CCM jumps. "Like blowing in a microphone," Flenning tells his students, who chuckle. An orderly removes the mouth guard from Ladron's teeth.

"How are you feeling, Ladron?"

"… shit."

"Do you know where you are?"


"And do you know who I am?"


Flenning makes a single huff of contemptuous amusement. "As you can see, the subject's sense of propriety has broken down."

"Who's out there?" Quinn asks, bewildered.

"Stay here," Seth says, in the tone he knows she will obey. He slides out of bed, unarmed and wearing only sweatpants, skin crawling away from the cold drafting in through the door. He can hear voices out there, far away, and there is a light at the end of the corridor. A tall, gaunt figure is silhouetted in the gloom.

(Hello, little girl, Nero hisses, and Angel's eyes open wide to find him hovering over her.)

Seth flinches. "Nero?" he whispers into the dark.

"No," the familiar cold voice replies. "You know who I am. And if you don't want Nero in here next, you'd better acknowledge me."

The CCM needle jumps a bit. "Reading psionic activity," the intern says.

"Ladron, are you still there?" Flenning asks.

"Yeah." His speech is slurred.

"Ladron, where did you grow up?"

"Ariston colony."

"And you were something of a self-made man, there, weren't you?"

"Guess so."

"Was there anyone you trusted to watch your back?"

"Quinn," Ladron answers, and Flenning smiles.

"Alpha activity increasing," an intern reports.

"Psionic activity, also," says another.

(Nice trick, Nero sneers. But you made a mistake, angelface, you used it on my boys. And they remembered how you did it.

(I knew you'd figure it out eventually, Angel says, groggy from the sedative. You have to have whatever somebody else has. )

"What do you want?" Seth asks.

"Listen to me," the shadowy figure says. The corridor is growing lighter, and the din of voices growing louder. Seth can see the gleam of his companion's silver eyes, like light reflecting off a mirror. "Quinn never told you the names of the doctors who worked on her because she was too young to remember them. Flenning was one of them. He's suspected all along that your Quinn was his subject Q. He wants her back. You can't let them know about the trial."

"Tell me about her," Flenning says.

"She. . . ." Ladron is drooling. He slurps his lips, messily. "She's my girl. She kicks ass."

"Your daughter? Your lover?"

"Everything. My li'l girl."

"Where did she come from?"

"Dunno. Runaway."

"Runaway from where?"

"Earth. Doctors."

"Doctors?" Flenning's voice rises in excitement, but otherwise he is calm, controlled. "How old is she?"

"Twenty. ‘Bout. Older now."

"What do her eyes look like?"

"Cat's," Ladron answers, and Flenning's emotions surge with certainty and triumph.

"What am I supposed to do then?" Seth demands.

"Make some reparations, instead of looking out for your own interests."

"My interests? You think I came here for my health?"

"You came here out of guilt," Black says---the corridor is light enough now, Seth can see him: gray as Nero but without the manic spark. Black is heavy, solid, as devoid of personality as a robot. "You wouldn't get rid of Renee because Quinn wasn't good enough for your image. You didn't put a bullet in Cruez's skull because you wouldn't admit you couldn't control him. You let Quinn get arrested because you didn't want Cruez's supporters blaming you for his death."

"They would have killed her," Seth protests. "I tried to buy her out."

"You tell yourself that. Do you think she'll ever see it that way?"

Seth remembers the way she looked at him in the courtroom---as if he had his hands around her heart and was squeezing the life out of her---and shudders. "I should have taken her and run. Got out of the colony, off the planet. I had the money to do it."

"But you wouldn't give up your place there," Black says. "You spent too many years building your little empire and you didn't want to start over."

(Oh, I think this is going to hurt, Nero says with relish, as Angel goes rigid in his hands.)

"Where is Quinn now?" Flenning asks.

Ladron begins to sob, harsh wracking gasps that quake through his frame. "My poor girl. I'm so sorry."

"Where is she?" Flenning insists. "Did you kill her?"

"No. No. She killed Gerry. Didn't tell her to. She saw Renee and me… she ran away."

"Quinn killed someone?"

"Only good thing I ever had---threw her away."

"What did you do to her?"

"Cheated on her. Lied to her. Told them she did it…."

"Told whom, Ladron? Where is she now?"

"She'll be up for parole in a month," Black says. "She's a smart woman---she won't go back to Ariston. She'll find a way to disappear---but I can find her. And I can keep her hidden until then."

A freezing gale blasts through the corridor, nearly forcing Seth back through the doorway. He grips the frame, wedges his body against it and braces the door with his leg.

Black watches him; impassive, immobile. "You can't hold against it. I can."

"And then what?" Seth demands. "If I go under, do I ever come out again?"

"You're not out now, " Black says, with the first indication of passion. "You haven't been alive in almost a year---you've been hiding back there with her while these slags beat you down. Why else would I be here?"

Angel's agonized cry echoes through the corridor.

"Ladron," Flenning says sharply, "who did Quinn kill? Where is she now?"

"You built me to protect her," Black says. "Let me do my job."

Seth passes a hand over his eyes, and draws a deep, shuddering breath. "All right. All right, goddammit. Just do it."

"Do what?" Flenning demands. "I asked you a question, Ladron."

"Close the door," Black says. "Don't open it again until I tell you."

"Door?" Flenning says. "What door?"

The door slams shut hard enough to crack the mirror on the outside. Black gets a glimpse of his face for the first time---black hair and brows, eyes like grim death, skin the color of pewter---and then he turns toward the light at the end of the corridor.


"Whoa," the intern said, as the CCM leapt into the red. "Um, Doctor---?"

"Not now," Flenning hissed. "Answer me, Ladron---"

A shower of sparks flew up from the cerebral contact monitor. "Shit!" the intern exclaimed, jumping back.

Plastic popped like gunfire as the pneumatic restraints exploded. The metal latches on the chair ratcheted open like vertebrae cracking. Wires launched themselves from the gray skin and pelted Flenning's coat like a hail of snakes.

Flenning shielded his face with his arms, falling back as the orderlies rushed forward. A gaunt gray arm rose from the chair with a sweeping gesture and the orderlies flew against the walls, crashing down on top of expensive equipment.

Black stepped down from the chair. His bare feet gripped the cold floor for a moment, finding his balance. This body was healthy and very, very strong. It would be useful.

People in white coats cowered on the floor around him. Their minds were chaotic and terrified, except for one. That one was quiet, controlled, and furious. Black approached the doctor, where he crouched, and waited while the man drew himself erect.

"Are we going to have many more repeats of this performance?" Flenning demanded.

"No," Black said. "Ladron's dead. Your project was a success. Notify your patrons and leave Ladron's past alone."

Flenning ground his teeth, torn in his ambitions. Black noted, dispassionately, how such violent emotions could make one careless. They had certainly been Ladron's downfall. He turned away.

"Where are you going?" Flenning demanded, but Black ignored him. He left the surgical suite and went to the habitat, while Flenning gestured impatiently for the orderlies to follow him.

Mian, Goya and Churchill were in the commons, watching a foolish netscreen program and making objects whirl about their heads. They felt him coming and turned in surprise as he entered. He ignored them, sweeping the glass and debris from his path as he crossed the commons. He was aware of the interns following, and orderlies converging on him, but they did not concern him.

His door---Ladron's door---was open and half off its hinges. The interior of the room was dark and quiet, no signs of a struggle except for the small limp body strewn across the bed. Angel's eyes were open, her chest rose and fell shallowly, but she was simply not there anymore. Her mind was as blank as a newborn's---only the idiot lower brain still functioned.

Black stopped in the doorway, while the small humans gathered around him, and Flenning bleated to know what had happened.

"I couldn't help it," Nero purred, from the corner where he was draped over a chair. "It was like eating ice cream from the carton---you just keep having one more spoonful, and next thing you know, it's all gone…."

Black went to Nero and picked him up by the throat, slammed him against the wall. Orderlies shouted at him to stop. Nero crowed with glee, not even trying to escape, giggling like a naughty child, until Black allowed the orderlies to pull him away. The white coats put themselves between the two psionics, who made no moves toward each other---there was no need. Either of them could have swept the crowd aside like litter, but the puny humans around them were afraid; any alarming displays of power at this point could cause them to riot. Better to wait for privacy.

"You're so predictable, Ladron," Nero said, grinning and volatile under the orderlies' hands. "Couldn't take the pressure, could you?"

"I'm not Ladron."

"Oh, pooh-pooh. You think this changes anything? You're a shell, regardless of what name you go by."

"Get out," Black said, as if he and Nero were the only two in the room.

Nero unfolded himself from the chair, dragging the orderlies along with him toward the door, still giggling. "Best learn to sleep with one eye open, chum."

Black ignored him. He sat down on the bed, careful not to disturb Angel's still form, while the interns fluttered around her body. He stared coldly at Dr. Flenning until the doctor averted his gaze.


"What the hell was that all about?" Quinn asks, wide eyed.

"Nothing." Seth slides under the covers, writhes into the comfortable spot in the mattress, and pulls her into his arms.

"Aii," she says. His skin is chilled from the cold air. "You're shivering."

"I'll recover." He brushes silky hair away from her cheek and kisses the corner of her mouth. "Lie back down here. Go to sleep."

"Mmm." She pillows down in the crook of his shoulder, heaves a deep sigh and then another, relaxing by degrees. "So everything's secure?"

"Mm-hm." He is already forgetting why he was so worried. He's got everything he needs here---a soft bed, his little girl in his arms, and nobody to disturb him. He feels like he hasn't slept in a year. "I set out a guard."

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