Synamen minced along the cracked sidewalk, trying to look vulnerable. Her wrist comm chirped urgently. She glanced at it, recognizing the caller’s ID. Birch again. She touched a button, shunting the call to her message queue and shutting off the comm. Nine calls in the last four days. She was working. What more did he want?
Ninth Street was dark; two of the overhead lights were burned out and city maintenance was mostly indifferent due to budget cuts. The shadows actually helped hide the flaws in her disguise. She had chosen her outfit carefully for this evening stroll. Tall, black boots clung tightly and accentuated her muscular legs, difficult to see in the darkness, but the mere suggestion was enough. The hem of her leather miniskirt rode up with each roll of her hips, an enticing invitation. She wore her thinnest leather jacket in the cool fall air. Not the most appropriate item to complete her attire, but it was difficult enough hiding her tools in the skimpy clothes she was wearing. She swung a small bag casually from her hand and gazed around at the darkened office buildings in the most naive manner she could muster.
Her act must have been convincing because the two men were still following her. She had picked them up three blocks back on Grand Avenue and they were doing their best to avoid coming to her notice. Until they had her cornered, of course. Then they’d move in for their own brand of evening fun. Her surveillance had only taken three days before she knew their routine and the best way to encourage them to approach her. Their lazy habits would serve her well.
Thug One was tall and heavy-set, relying on his bulk to intimidate others. Thug Two was short and slight, and overly fond of the long leather coat he wore everywhere. He had serious fashion issues. She could hear them, heavy-footed and clumsy, drawing closer. Such amateurs. They needed serious instruction in proper stalking. They were making her job far too easy.
She reached the alley, pre-selected two days ago, and turned into it, walking faster. The far end of the dead-end alcove was darker and better suited for delivering this particular message. A noise from her right startled her and she whipped around toward it. A pair of feet shifted under a flattened cardboard box — a street person napping behind a rotting bag of garbage. Synamen paused, gauging the timing of her two followers. She still had a few seconds.
Swiftly she withdrew a tiny vial from her purse and pulled the cardboard cover aside. She pressed the vial against the man’s neck. The spray self-injected when it touched his skin. He jerked once and then lay still as he slipped further into unconsciousness. She arranged the cardboard over him again and pushed the bag of garbage over his feet. That should keep him quiet and unnoticed. She stepped into the shadows.
The two men walked around the corner, grinning at each other, then halted when they realized their prey had disappeared. Exchanging glances, they advanced slowly into the alley, neither drawing their weapons.
Neither saw the dark figure that stepped out behind them. A hard blow from her hand across the vertebrae at the base of One’s neck dropped him to the ground, unconscious.
Two spun around, whipping out his gun and received a hard blow across his face and another that numbed his arm. His gun dropped and he brought his other arm up. She blocked his swing and he fell to his knees under several heavy hits, his long coat tangling about his legs.
Synamen yanked his head back by his hair and rested her knife blade against his throat. She could see him clearly in the blackness with her enhanced vision. He was not very old, early 20’s maybe, with light colored hair. His eyes were frightened. This was really too easy. Didn’t people take pride in their skills anymore? She jerked his head back again to be sure she had his attention.
“Tell Mr. Gello that he is not welcome in town. He is to cease all activity and leave immediately. I don’t need to explain the consequences if he decides to stay, do I?” He shook his head, trembling visibly. She eyed him, holding the knife very still at his throat. A few broken bones or a deep knife wound would be a better demonstration of the seriousness of the message, but he was so young. Not this child.
A sudden burning pain lanced across her thigh. She let go of his hair and lurched back. He held a knife, probably pulled from his boot and he staggered to his feet. The infant had actually cut her. Clever move, but it wouldn’t save him from a severe beating now.
She blocked the pain from her mind and watched him carefully, circling around him. He was still slightly dazed from the head blows and he was certainly not in her class, but he had shown initiative with that slash. He feinted and lunged, but couldn’t get close enough to touch her. He had courage, but she would have to end this soon. She could feel the blood running down her leg. The nanobots weren’t capable of sealing such a deep wound. Her only option was the Boost. Curse Birch for forcing her to rely on more technology.
She took another evasive step and Boosted. A sharp pain in her chest stole her breath and numbed her left arm. She gasped, trying to find air, then jumped back clumsily as he swung his knife. What was happening? The pain was paralyzing in its intensity and she fought to clear her head, staggering. Sweat beaded on her forehead in the cool night air.
The young man seemed to recognize the difficulty she was having. He grinned and moved in closer. His knife gleamed briefly in the dim light before she lost sight of it from the watering of her eyes. I was going to spare you, she thought hazily through the incredible pressure in her chest. Another step back and she tripped, landing painfully on her right elbow but still keeping her grip on her knife. The squeezing in her chest increased and she closed her eyes. No time to ask for divine intervention and she doubted she would receive it anyway.
The sound of a grunt and thud forced her eyes open. She lifted her head to see the young man lying in the alley a few feet away. A tall broad shape stood over him. It turned toward her.
“Adrik?” She forced the name out through lungs crushed and twisted by pain. He dropped to one knee at her side, examining the wound in her thigh. He withdrew a flexi-bandage from his pocket and wrapped it around her leg.
She tried to gasp as he tightened it, but there was no air available for her to breathe. Her chest pain intensified again and muscle spasms cramped her left arm. Her vision began to darken. Panic whispered that this might be her last moment of life.
“Stupid.” He pulled a single-dose hypo from an inside pocket and moved her jacket, positioning the hypo over her heart. She barely felt the sting and then the incredible pain started to diminish. He helped her sit up and waited until her breathing eased.
A sound from behind him caught their attention. The boy stirred. Adrik stood, reaching inside his jacket. His hand reappeared with his knife. A quick stride put him next to the young man. He reached down, gripped the young man’s hair and jerked him up a few inches.
Synamen thrust out her hand. “No, wait-!”
Adrik drew a single red line across the boy’s throat and dropped him. The body flopped back limply, the blood almost invisible in the shadowed alley. He stepped to One’s unconscious form.
Another quick slice and the second body soon lay in a widening pool of blood.
She glared at Adrik. “Was only message delivery!” Her voice was harsh, her breath still raspy.
“A stronger message.”
“Fool.” He yanked her to her feet and walked her into the shadows.
* * * * *
Synamen opened her eyes in the med lab. The beige walls and matching bland cabinets concealed the equipment and advanced technology that the Agency forced on its employees. She felt across her left thigh and found a bandage. Doc had patched her up again. The slash would mean another scar, but one more among the many would not be noticeable. She pulled herself upright on the gurney as the door opened. A short, rounded man with a white goatee walked in. She nodded to him.
“Thanks for the repair job, Doc.”
“You were lucky that his aim was bad. It could have crippled you.”
“You would have enjoyed putting more tech into me. What about the chest pain?”
“That happened because you ignore your comm,” said a middle-aged man with plain, almost forgettable features as he walked through the door. Adrik followed close behind. “Don’t you ever check your messages?”
“I check the ones that are important. I work at my convenience, not yours, Birch.”
He settled into an empty chair. “Your convenience almost got you killed.”
The doctor stepped forward, closing his e-pad. “You’ve not had any chest pain prior to this, have you?”
“According to our records, you had the Boost enhancement 29 days ago.” She nodded. That had been a particularly painful upgrade followed by a week of reaction retraining to integrate it fully into her skill set. She’d had a fierce argument with Birch over the procedure.
“Have you not been working in that time period?”
She frowned slightly. “I only work messenger duty and it’s been light for the last month. Tonight was the first message with complications.”
Doc nodded. “That explains it then.”
“The chest pain was a heart attack.”
“A heart attack? How is that possible? I have enough tech in me to run the city and I’m in excellent condition.”
“It’s a complication of the Boost enhancement, one we did not foresee during the clinical trials. The Boost chemicals interact with the body’s natural production of adrenaline. If you Boost during an adrenaline rush, the combination overloads the heart. Left untreated, the heart eventually bursts.”
“The shot that Adrik gave me?”
“It countered the adrenaline allowing the heart to slow to a normal rhythm.”
“You’re lucky you aren’t dead,” Birch said.
“This has happened to other agents?”
“Several. We didn’t catch the first in time.”
“Why wasn’t I informed of the risk?”
“Several comm messages were sent to you.” Birch’s voice was bland, but she could hear the accusation in it.
She humphed under her breath. “What’s the treatment?”
Doc leaned against the wall. “Surgery to remove the adrenal glands.”
“Don’t I need them?”
“Technically, no, not with the Boost enhancement. The only other role they play is emotional and in this field, well…” Doc spread his hands. She understood. The Agency counted emotions as a liability. She considered Doc’s words.
“Wait. You’re saying I won’t have any emotions after this ‘fix’?”
“Forget it.” She swung her legs off the table. “I’m not gonna be a machine.”
“Without the surgery, the next adrenaline rush, however minor, could kill you. A child’s balloon pops, startling you, and you die.”
“Give me the counter-adrenaline hypo’s. I’ll use them as needed.”
Doc shook his head. “Repeated use will kill you just as swiftly. The heart can’t take repeated overloads.”
“Then I’ll take the risk without the hypo’s or surgery.”
Adrik stepped forward. “It doesn’t feel any different.”
She looked up at him in surprise. “You’ve had it done?” At his nod, she shook her head in disgust. “That explains the alley. The answer is still no.”
Birch looked at her for a long moment. “Leave us.”
Doc swiftly left the room. Adrik held her glance, then shook his head and followed. The door clicked shut behind them.
“No.” She locked her eyes onto his, refusing to look away. “Hear me, Birch. I will not consent to the surgery.”
“I have given you more freedom than any other agents under me, but you conveniently forget the realities of your situation. You are a tool of the Agency, a well-paid and valued tool, but a tool nonetheless, to be used as the Agency sees fit. To preserve its investment in you, you will undergo the procedure.”
“Don’t try to force me.”
“Don’t make me. The day you could call your life your own is long past, despite the pretty fictions you spin for your sister and her family.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Leave them out of it.”
“They were never in it. The Agency doesn’t deal with civilians as long as you keep telling them the happy little lies of your made-up life. The Agency is concerned with you. As an asset, your value is declining. There is scant call for vanilla messages these days. Our clients prefer more definitive statements.”
“I don’t do wet work.”
“And therein lies the problem. You are of little use to the Agency with your sentimental hang-ups and a Boost system that could kill you at any time. After the procedure I could use you on other assignments. Wet work pays much better than messenger duty.”
“No. If the Agency doesn’t want me anymore, I’ll retire and take my chances with the Boost.”
He examined the nails of one hand, perfectly manicured of course. He cared more about such things than Synamen did. “Have you ever met a retired agent?”
She frowned. “No.”
“You won’t. The Agency retirement plan is swift… and final.”
Air gently shushed through the overhead vent as the air conditioning system cycled on.
“We are all tools, Syn, measured by our usefulness. A hammer has no feelings for the nail it drives. It is merely performing its job.”
Her mind raced through her options. “I need a day to think about it.”
He stepped to the door. “Don’t take too long. The Agency is anxious for resolution on this matter.”
* * * * *
“Lights, full!” Her pre-set illumination setting activated and her eyes auto-adjusted as the room blazed. The door whished shut and automatically locked behind her after she stepped inside her apartment. She stomped to her sleeping area and rummaged under the platform, withdrawing a duffel bag. She rapidly selected a few pieces of simple, multi-purpose clothing from a pile on the floor and threw them in the bag. A quick hand swipe across the top of the bedside cabinet and a tangle of bright, gaudy jewelry landed in the bag. The credit chips she’d hidden inside the faux-jewel pieces would come in handy.
She cursed Birch under her breath as she continued her quick pack. Try to force her into becoming a machine? Good luck finding me, she snarled at him in her mind. I’ve given you all of my life you’re gonna have. Watch what I can do with the skills you’ve given me. Just a tool? Send your best, Birch.
The door chime stopped her internal rant and she kicked the duffel under the bed reflexively. She glanced at the security panel beside the door and punched the unlock code. The door slid open and she glared at Adrik.
“Birch send you to babysit me?”
He just looked at her. She turned away, leaving the door open and after a moment, he stepped inside. She dropped into a chair in the living room and stared at him. He stood just inside the door.
She raised her empty hands in the air, palms up. “I’m not running, I’m sitting.”
“Don’t do it, Syn.”
“I have no intention of getting the procedure done, count on it.”
“You always were stupidly sentimental.”
“Maybe I value my humanity over a paycheck.”
“He’ll send me. He always does.”
“Killing your co-workers will be easier now that you are a machine.” She wanted to scream at him for giving in so easily. He’d always been her best friend at the Agency and they were often partnered together. His cold distance now felt like a betrayal.
“I’d regret your retirement.”
“Regret’s an emotion, Adrik, not one of your luxuries anymore.” She stood up. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to get some sleep. It’s been a long night.”
He nodded shortly and left. She secured the door behind him and retrieved her bag from under the bed. She continued packing, considering his visit. It wouldn’t be easy to best him. Adrik was rigid in his techniques, but very good. Possible, but not easy. Her best chance was to avoid him altogether.
She paused at her bedside table, then reached down and pressed the button on her holoframe. Images of Jophy and Sheetal laughing filled the air between the poles. She would have to leave it behind. She couldn’t take anything that would link her to this life. She sat on the edge of the bed, watching them play. Not to see them again…
She turned off the frame. Better they grow up with an absentee aunt then with an aunt who was a monster. She’d say her goodbyes tomorrow at dinner.
* * * * *
The next day Synamen strode down the hallway of the apartment building underneath the flickering fluorescent lights. A strong smell of garlic mixed with tobacco smoke rolled down the hall and wrinkled her nose. Birch had said her family wouldn’t be involved. With their guaranteed safety, she could disappear. Adrik could hunt as long as he liked. He wouldn’t find her.
She stopped at apartment 714 and pressed her palm to the print plate next to the door and waited. After recognition and permission from inside, the door opened. She stepped into the small apartment and two children launched themselves at her legs.
She grinned and awkwardly leaned down to hug them both, glad for the heavy-duty painkillers Doc had supplied. “Hey, sweet things! Miss me?”
“Come play, Auntie Syn!” Jophy ran over to his nano-block set and then back to her, while his sister, Sheetal, continued to hug Synamen’s leg and looked up with a big smile.
“Synamen Jones. A month away from your family and you don’t have a hug for your sister?” Synamen looked up at the replica of her own face, light skin, gray eyes, and burgundy-colored hair and gave her twin sister a fierce hug.
“Let go, you’ll hug all the goodness out of me.”
“Not a chance,” Synamen said with a smile.
The kids clamored for attention, dancing around them.
“Jophy, Sheetal, you let your auntie and I talk. We’ll see if she has some time to play after we eat.” The two women stepped into the kitchen, leaving the children engrossed in their toys. Spyce rounded on her sister when they were out of earshot.
“So what’s the excuse this time? That job again?”
“It does keep me busy. Fashion changes daily. I’ve been traveling a lot lately keeping up with the styles.”
“They shouldn’t take you away from your family so much. The kids really miss seeing you.”
Synamen listened to the kids’ chatter from the other room. “I miss them, too. How’s your job going?”
Spyce paused in stirring the contents of a pot on the cooktop. “It’s not. They laid me off last week. Found a way to automate the entire division.”
“Oh, honey, I’m so sorry. What did Franck say?”
Spyce sat down at the table, her gaze focused on its surface. “He’s sorry, too. At least he sounded that way when he called two days ago to tell me he wasn’t coming home.”
“Seems he’s developed a fondness for one of his co-workers. Decided that married life doesn’t suit him anymore.”
Synamen cursed softly.
Her sister held up a hand. “Nothing I haven’t thought of and even said myself after the kids are in bed.”
“Have you told them?”
“They know he isn’t coming back. I was vague about the reason. That can wait until they’re older.”
“I’ve made a lot of acquaintances in my travels, sis.” Syn looked into her sister’s eyes. “I could find him, make him come home.”
“What for? Don’t want him here if he doesn’t want to be here. Not gonna force a man to stay with me.”
“Did he say anything about the kids? Is he going to send money for them?”
“He said he’d send money when he could. That means never, of course. Always was a self-centered sonofa.” Spyce straightened a stack of brochures on the table.
“Things were going so well last week. I’d actually heard rumors I was getting a raise, so I found a new school for the kids. A good one, away from the neighborhood, with programs to ‘foster their creativity’,” she read from the top brochure. “I was going to register them for classes next month.” She laughed, short and pained.
“Do you have any money put away?”
“We did. Franck cleaned it out.”
Synamen swallowed another curse, thinking black thoughts about her brother-in-law. “What are you going to do?”
Spyce looked up, her eyes empty. “I don’t know. Tried applying for welfare, but Franck’s income is still counting against us even though he isn’t around. Stupid, messed-up system.” She stood up and stepped back to the stove. “Hope you like macaroni and cheese. It’s about all we have left in the place.”
Synamen moved to the doorway. She could see the kids playing in the other room. Jophy made a face at the alien figure he had created with the nano-blocks and Sheetal giggled at him. She watched their happy antics for several long minutes before turning back to the kitchen.
“I’ve been offered a promotion at work.”
“Congratulations! Will you get to spend more time at home now?”
“Actually, no, it means a lot more traveling.”
“Oh, Syn, we don’t see enough of you as it is.”
“The pay raise will take care of you and the kids.”
“No. We’re not taking your money. We’ll get by somehow.”
“You just told me there aren’t any options. I’m not going to watch you starve.”
Spyce shook her head. “It isn’t right.”
“Family takes care of family. Give me your account number so I can set up the transfer.”
Still shaking her head, Spyce recited the number. Synamen recorded it into flash memory with a mental command and hugged her sister, eyes averted. “You and the kids will be fine. Listen, I need to make a quick call. I’ll be right back.”
Out in the corridor, Syn dialed Birch. He answered almost immediately, a look of surprise on his face.
“Schedule me for tomorrow.”
“I honestly thought you’d run. You’ve made the right-“ She broke the connection and stared blindly down the hall as the lights flickered overhead. After a moment she stepped back into the apartment.
“Who here needs to be tickled?” The children squealed with delight and scattered around the room, running close to her legs and then darting away.
“Syn, don’t you want something to eat?” She looked up to see Spyce standing in the kitchen doorway with a slight frown on her face.
“Not hungry.” She glanced around the room with a mock scowl. “Here comes the tickle monster!”
* * * * *
Six months later, Synamen waited for the city bus to pull into position. It pulled even with the limousine parked at the corner of the schoolyard and she triggered the bomb attached to the bus’s fuel tank. The explosion shook the pavement under her feet and shattered the windows of the houses across the street. Synamen slipped an Emergency Services jacket on and stepped around the corner into the midst of the settling debris and desperate screams.
The limousine had flipped over from the shockwave and was lying upside down between a burning seesaw and spinning merry-go-round. She wrenched the warped car door aside and bent to check the occupants in the back seat. The target, Mr. Leland Aronsen, was dead. Birch would be pleased. It had taken three months of careful surveillance and planning to remove Aronsen. His security was very tight. His only weakness had been his habit of taking his son to school every morning. Her eyes shifted to the corner where his eight-year-old son lay dead, broken and bloody. Aronsen’s sentimentality had given them their opportunity.
She straightened and turned away, eyes searching the wreckage of the vehicles and schoolyard for any observant witnesses. The few people moving through the dusty haze of smoke seemed dazed and unaware of her presence. Bodies littered the schoolyard. There was quite a lot of collateral damage, but Birch had authorized the mission profile. Acceptable losses, he said, in light of the need to fulfill the contract on Aronsen and the difficulty in reaching him. The media would blame the bombing on terrorist activity and the contract would be discharged at last.
A familiar figure caught her attention. She skirted the back end of the limo and knelt beside the body of a woman apparently thrown from the bus. Smoothing the bloody hair back from the face, she recognized Spyce. Her sister’s arm was outstretched toward two smaller bodies. Turning them over, she found Jophy and Sheetal, eyes gazing blindly from faces surprisingly unmarked by the explosion.
She stared at them, shrill screams and acrid smoke unheeded. Memory recall brought up the text of a letter Synamen had received two months previous.
The kids love their new school. There are so many fun activities; they can’t stop talking about them. They chatter non-stop on the bus ride there and home each day. I can’t get a word in! They both love their art class and the apartment is filled with their masterpieces now. They’re anxious for you to see what they have made. Will you be able to visit soon? It’s our turn to pamper you with some home-cooked food and lots of love. Family takes care of family, remember? We miss you, sis. Love, Spyce.
Synamen wiped her hands on Jophy’s jacket, removing most of Spyce’s blood and then stood. Stepping over the bodies, she made a mental note to stop the automatic bank transfer.