Grace watched her father’s image vanish and the screen go red. It began to stream with white multilingual phrases and access codes.
A blind bang.
Grace was surprised. Blind bangs were rare. It meant there was a compstate security incident in her area. Whoever sent out the yelps could summon any number of protectors, usually three to eight, their identities held in secret until they coalesced. The group would be ordered to arrive at a location where a lead protector would be waiting.
The message advised Grace to be prepared for anything. She must be armed and ready to kill.
Grace threw off her blanket and dashed for the kitchen. She grabbed her holstered weapons from the table and clipped them to her belt, cursing under her breath. She hadn’t drilled for combat since the academy. She felt stiff and unrehearsed.
“Noodtoestand!” she shouted, running out the door.
In moments, Grace arrived at the lift. She drew Ronnie, fingering a tiny button to release the trigger guard. The lift door snapped shut, barely missing the nose of Martin, who had been sprinting down the hall from the opposite direction.
Grace pressed a few buttons ineffectually, then shrugged. A blind bang required her immediate action. Martin could either catch up or talk to her later.
Her ptenda displayed the destination. It offered to hail a transport, but Grace wanted flexibility. She tapped the screen and checked the fastest route by foot. Estimated arrival time was similar, but she’d have to book it.
Grace ran down Main Mall. She jutted and swerved through the tight gaps between pedestrians, imagining herself a wind-swept leaf. Hidden speakers along the walkway blurted out personal advertising messages as she hurried to the job site. She caught a word or two as she passed each one. The menagerie of disconnected and truncated blurps began to knit together into a unified message for Grace as it calculated her speed.
“Donner...suit...fun now... payments...personal agent...operations...Donner...ice...ops...Cantonese...reports and advises...trip...four confirmed armed terrorists at loc. Lead is in the pocket and the enemy is closing. T’s are semi-pro. Possible Aposti. South on Main Mall.”
Aposti. That surprised her. She had been expecting to hear of a steelback riot, given the current political climate. Aposti made no sense. Aposti were secretive, forming shadow brotherhoods dedicated to combat without weaponry. Some few had become protectors—Grace had known one Aposti in the academy—but to attack as terrorists? There was no grand terrorist-type of idea holding them together. Unless someone had hired them.
Corporations had that kind of money.
More facts flooded through the blurps. The protector summoning them had come under heavy fire. Lost communication. Communication up. Scooters moving down the mall. Scooters converging on Fourth and Sixth. Scooters denied: all were on foot. Perimeter established on the mall. Go left. Right. Grace stopped. The messages were breaking into pieces. She looked down to get her bearings on the ptenda, and then snapped her head up.
Something familiar. A face. Not a generic face, but a blank face. Pale, with staring eyes. It was gone, now, but she had just seen that face, two blocks back.
She tensed at the sound of a distant explosion and began running again. Faces didn’t matter—she had to get to the hot zone. Another explosion, closer. They were grenades. One, two—
A boot swung into her vision. It struck her on the neck, snapping her head back. She fell hard against the pavement.
Grace saw stars and her vision tunneled. She rolled right toward the street, choosing to take her chances with oncoming traffic. She needed room to stand and spot her assailant.
Movers swerved noisily. Grace wished they would stop trying to avoid her. She could account for them better if they stayed on a straight trajectory. And stopped blaring their horns.
It was the blank face again: white and gray, with staring eyes. Mechflesh? No, it was a holomask to conceal the bogey’s identity. Grace rapidly cataloged the rest: a black leather jacket and dark blue khaki pants. The jacket wasn’t mimic, but the pants were. Black hair poking out from the reach of the mask, and a long black ponytail. Nearly two meters tall. Male? Definitely trained.
Grace felt calm descending amidst the horns and screams and explosions. The bogey’s mission was not to kill. Else why engage her in pointless street combat? It was to delay, or maim. To keep her from meeting with the other protectors.
Grace decided on something her attacker did not expect. She ran. If the bogey wanted a piece of her, he would have to chase her down the middle of a large thoroughfare, against speeding traffic.
Grace sprinted down the road. There were no more explosions and no directives in her dermal, so she ran for the nearest cloud of smoke. The screeching transports on either side made her feel like she was in a mini grinder. No shots came from behind. She smiled.
Smoke was thick now, and traffic was thinner. She dodged a final taxi and found herself in an intersection, clear except for two movers. One of them was balancing on its side and another had smashed windows and smoke pouring out of the passenger compartment. A crater in the street testified to one of the explosions Grace had heard. Four bodies lay nearby. Bystanders gasped and cried.
She looked behind her for the bogey. Nothing.
Grace turned back to the bodies. All four were civilians, no weapons. Two were young men. They lay near the mover on its side. Another body lay on the sidewalk—an elderly woman who had died from shrapnel wounds.
Grace recognized the roundness of the fourth body. It was the corpse of the Vice Minister of Patents, Rendilon Gobi. She knew his patterns. The vice minister shopped for fresh fruit and vegetables at the nearby market every Sunday.
His body lay separated from his balding head.
Where was his protector? A gene addict as paranoid as Gobi would always have a protector.
Grace looked up from Gobi’s body to see a man sprinting toward her. He was wearing heavy blast gear, his phasewave drawn. Her ptenda pinged recognition of another protector, but it wasn’t until he was two meters away that she recognized his face. Martin?
“Randgarten-8989-Gamma. Grace, be sharp!”
“Donner-0016-Alpha. What the hell?!”
Martin’s brief smile changed to shock as a phasewave blast caught him from behind, knocking him away from Grace. He tumbled to the pavement.
Grace tracked the blast back to its source. It was the bogey, and he was aiming at her.
Grace squeezed a shot from Ronnie as the bogey’s phasewave blast sent her flying through the air. She strained for consciousness, her insides tight and the wind in her lungs gone as she hit the pavement. She watched the bogey’s corpse fall to the street in a crimson and black heap.
Her vision blurred. She heard a voice say, “her alive,” and Grace wanted so badly to stay conscious. She remembered Instructor Pembril’s technique and with effort bit down hard on her tongue. The tangy taste of blood filled her mouth and she hoped for twenty more seconds of sentience. Her sight cleared: in a tunnel of vision she saw a woman’s face. Red hair. Her arm screamed as she aimed Ronnie. So close. One shot.
Maud smiled at Grace and kicked Ronnie from her quavering hand. The tunnel of her vision collapsed. Grace felt a tug as Jonnie was pulled from its holster.
“Say goodnight, Donner.”