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Jade Dancer
by Darrell Whitney


Chapter One

Music surrounded Malcolm Tane as he stepped into the club, hard, driving industrial-techno that seemed to distill the spirit of the world he lived in. After all, he was one of the residents of the colony spaceship Pioneer 2, an artificial world of metal and plastic, electricity and Photon. And as a Ranger, a member of the Hunter's Guild, he was all too familiar with the dark side of modern society, the hard machine beneath the pretty surface just as the surging metallic beat underlay the electronica of the melody.

The bouncer at the door was a large blue-sheen android, a cheap version of the Hunter models with their strength and mass but without the advanced suite of combat programming that made them so lethal. Tane paid the cover charge in cash; he didn't want the club's name appearing on his credit tab. The truth was, he felt dirty just for being there, like a thin film of sweat covering his body but far more difficult to wash away.

At the main stage against the far wall, three girls cavorted in a mechanical exhibition of sensual poses. One, Tane noted, was an android; he supposed there were some people who went for that. Two more stages, small platforms in the midst of the tables, each held an additional young woman performing a semblance of intimate acts with a floor-to-ceiling pole. As might be expected, the crowd was largely male, and the majority of the females in the audience were as scantily clad as the dancers, having joined the men at their tables, sometimes as company and sometimes to enter negotiations that would lead eventually to the row of smoky amber panels along the side wall leading to the privacy rooms. Vanity Dreams did very well as a combination of strip club, hostess bar, and brothel; it was one of Downtown's business attractions.

Tane hated the place. It turned sex, intimacy, and romance into saleable commodities, which to him they were not. Business, however, was business, and Vanity Dreams's owner dealt in other commodities as well, such as information.

Tane made his way through the crowd to an open table. Almost as soon as he sat a blue-haired girl in a black-lace lingerie parody of a maid's outfit approached.

"Would you like something, sir?"

"Just tell Vanis that Malcolm Tane wants to see her."

"Oh. Very well, sir."

She vanished. Knowing that he'd probably be waiting ten minutes or more, Tane entered a drink order on the table's menu. One thing you could say for Vanis was that she didn't water the drinks, at least the ones served to the patrons. Nor was the service slow; the square-cut glass tumbler was placed by his hand in less than a minute. Tane sipped. It wasn't bad.

About a minute after the drink came, the stage lights dimmed. The music fell silent, and the house lights went down as well. There was a quick buzz of conversation, the underlying tone pitched to indicate excitement rather than apprehension. That kept Tane's hand from reaching for a weapon; whatever this was, it was an expected event.

Over the main stage only the lights came back up, faintly tinted yellow-orange like torch flames. A single figure stood there, unmoving. Music rose again, a plaintive call of traditional flutes.

The woman had golden-bronze skin and wavy jet-black hair that tumbled past her shoulders. The tips of pointed ears thrust up through the hair, marking her as one of the genetically-crafted Newman race. She was tall and lithe, with lush curves, nothing unusual in a female Newman but still worth a second (or third) look from an unattached male, especially when those curves were covered in something other than the usual leather, lace, or nothing, but a satin dress in lush emerald green edged with gold braid. It was sleeveless, with a high neck, completely covering her torso but narrowing to front and back panels that fell to ankle-length while revealing all of her sleekly muscled legs. Her feet were in small, flat-heeled slippers, and a scarf of the same material as her dress was around both wrists with several feet of slack between them.

The effect was outlandish and unusual, and made even more so by the fact that her face was entirely covered by a porcelain mask. It showed a composed, serene face with a cupid's-bow mouth, and it pulled the eyes irresistibly. What did it represent? What did it hide?

Just when Tane had had time to take in all of those facts, the music changed. The flute was replaced by drumbeats, sharp but slow-paced, and the dancer began to move. Her motions were steady and sinuous, as if driven by the music but not enslaved to it. This was not a striptease with its bold, defiant strut, but something else entirely. Even Tane kept his eyes on the slow curve of arms and legs, and from what he could tell out of the corners of his vision, everyone else in the club did as well.

The dancer's hands flickered, and two ornate swords appeared in them, snatched from who knew where. They were not combat weapons, both were two feet long in the blade and so thin that they were almost needles, but Tane knew weapons, and he could tell that the points and edges of those blades were honed to deadly sharpness. Her dance began to incorporate the weapons, using them as an extension of her arm, bright silver points to catch and guide the eye. Every movement was precise, controlled, perfect.

Then came the third change to the music as the pace increased, the flute returning with strings joining in, and its energy communicated itself at once to the dancer. Her movements increased in pace, blades flashing while her arms and legs extended in swirling movements and high kicks. The scarf around her wrists slid back and forth, extending when it had to yet never coming free, presenting a gentle hint–a tease–of restraint. The swords were like magnets for the eye; the dancer used them throughout the whirling dance to draw viewers' gazes to breast and hip, thigh and calf throughout particular movements. At times the steel seemed to flow over her body with such speed that Tane could not believe she could do so unhurt. It was an astonishing exhibition of artistry and agility, one which Tane found more arousing than the crude carnality of the strippers. They he could ignore if he wished; this Newman he could not.

She finished with a flourish, descending to a split position on the stage, then bowed deeply at the waist to her forehead brushed the ground. The lights dimmed again as thunderous applause broke out, and when they rose again the dancer was gone.

The girl in black lace returned to Tane's table as the more usual music and show resumed.

"Mr. Tane, Miss Vanis will see you now. If you would come with me?"

Tane rose and followed her out, still a bit shaken by what he'd seen.

"That last act was something new," he commented. The subconscious urge to say something was too strong to be fought, the emotional impression the dancer had left could not simply remain untouched.

"Oh, yes; Jade has been dancing only for the last six months now. She's very talented. She only performs three or four times a night, but she brings the customers in like never before. I'm surprised, though. Her turn wasn't supposed to be for another twenty minutes."

Vanis, you tricky witch. Tane would have bet money that Jade's dance had been pushed ahead right after Vanis had been informed of his arrival, with the hope of leaving him off-balance in their negotiations. Anything for an edge. He almost had to admire her for it.

Almost.

* * * * *

"Team B is in position."

The voice was faintly tinny and unnatural over Ralin's headset. Subvocalized communications did that; the equipment did a bad job of transmitting the subtleties of emotion. Not that he gave a damn.

"Good. Leon?"

"Ready here, too."

"Do it."

Vanity Dreams was plunged into sudden and complete darkness as the power to the building went offline. In less than five seconds emergency lights came up as secondary power restored essential functions, but that didn't matter. Ralin wasn't after darkness.

The burly Hunter plucked the eight-inch cylinder from his hip and triggered it. A bright blue spike extended three feet, the blade of his Photon brand. He was through the door in an instant and moving on the bouncer, slashing once, twice, then a third time, reducing the android "muscle" to sparking chunks of debris.

The rest of Ralin's team knew the plan. Elysse stepped out from behind him and with a wave of her hand detonated a Rafoie technique in the middle of the audience floor. The panic was total and instantaneous; the exploding fireball conjured up by the elegant Force injured many and jolted the crowd from self-indulgent lust to terror at once.

Ralin switched the brand for a longer, heavier weapon, a sword with a pole-like "blade" that was quickly surrounded by a green Photon aura once he activated it. He strode towards the panicked crowd, swinging the weapon in great two-handed arcs. He didn't particularly care if he hit anyone; the point was to clear a path as fast as possible through the room and whether the people got out of his way on their own or had to be cut down was merely a detail. He kept his eye out for more of Vanis's bully-boys, but did not change his approach when he spotted two coming at him from the bar area. That was why he had a team, after all. A moment later they lived up to his trust, Zayora and Type: D gunning down the security goons with sniper rifle shots, human and android Rangers working in tandem.

Alarms squealed and another bouncer met a quick end, this time as Elysse electrified him with a Gizonde tech. She'd had to chain the shot through about four patrons to hit the secman, but the multiple-target technique had insured that she'd make sure to get the one she wanted instead of having to carefully aim a single shot. Ralin liked that about the FOmarl; she was as efficient and ruthless as he was. They all were, really; he didn't work with street-fighter drek the way some hunters who took shadow-side jobs often did. They reached the door to the back section easily enough, and Ralin led the way in. If Team B had been having the same success, they'd have that bitch Vanis just where they wanted her.

Trapped like the rat she was.

* * * * *

Tane's gun was in his hand the moment the lights went out. Pioneer 2 didn't have accidental outages; there were double- and triple-failsafes in place. The emergency lights that came on in an instant were part of that. He could think of only one reason to cut the primary power to Vanity Dreams, and it didn't bode well.

"Get to cover," he ordered the girl, pushing her clear.

"What? What's going on?"

The soundproofing in the corridor muffled the explosion, but the squeal of the security alarm was loud and clear.

"They knocked out the Photon suppressors. Go get your neck out of the way!"

Tane suited his actions to his words; he didn't know who "they" were or if it had anything to do with his own job, but he wasn't going to get caught in the middle of someone else's firefight. Back to the club was right towards trouble, so he turned and ran down a side corridor. His best bet was to get away from the club and the offices, out to a side entrance.

He ended up inadvertently barging into the section of the block where Vanis's girls slept. Ordinarily, security androids would have been there to keep out any "tourists," but they were obviously responding to the threat.

No, responded, he corrected himself as the door slid open. Definitely past tense. Screams rang out from the hall ahead, together with the humming sizzle of Photon weapons. A man who looked like a living piece of rawhide–hard and thin, face weathered to bronze–ripped through the body of a bouncer android like the one out front with a pair of Photon daggers. A side door disgorged a screaming girl just to the Hunter's left, and he swept up the dagger in that hand. That made Tane's choice clear for him; his gun was already up and it took only an instant to center the sighting laser on the HUmar's skull and pull the trigger.

There was no hum of Photon energy when Tane fired, only the sharp crack of explosive propellant. Without the benefit of knowing the suppressors would be cut, he'd brought a gun that would work despite them, just in case. The slug from his Yasminkov turned the side of the Hunter's head into a red ruin and saved the prostitute's life. She screamed again and fell back through her door.

Smart move, Tane thought. The attack had come from multiple directions, no doubt with advance knowledge of the block's floorplan. They were closing in like a pincers on their target, whatever it was. Vanis herself? Some object or data in her possession? Some third party known to be here at this time? Irrelevant! Escape was the goal for Tane, and that would mean evading or fighting his way through the remainder of the attackers who'd crashed the back door.

Since the Photon suppressors were out, Tane took a moment to compose himself and raise the Shifta and Deband techniques around himself. Their mystic effect would enhance his attack power and the defensive qualities of his armor, respectively. It wasn't much–he was no Force; techs were strictly an emergency function for him–but every little bit helped, and he could be sure any team as smooth in the execution of its place as this one would be overlooking it on their own side.

As ready as he could get, he raised his gun and advanced down the passage.

* * * * *

Jade had been very satisfied with her performance. Sometimes, it didn't go so well, either because of some lack on her part or because the audience was in a mood to see flesh, bared breasts and thighs, and the rest of her dance was nothing but an ineffective tease. Tonight, though, had been good. Her energy had been up, her movements precise, and the crowd had followed along like a dog on a lead.

It wasn't just satisfaction that made her happy as she stood under the shower, letting the hot water wash away the sweat and massage the aching-but-pleasant feeling of exertion out of her limbs. There was relief, too. Jade was a headliner, her dancing bringing in customers all by itself, and so long as that happened Vanis let her pick who (and if) she took to bed. Business was business, and exotic mystery paid better than cheap sex–particularly if the sex was there anyway. Vanis often mentioned that the other girls generally did their best business right after Jade's performances.

And besides, she thought, fingers gently brushing the left side of her face, just above the cheekbone, just how much is a deformed whore worth anyway?

The power outage cut through satisfaction and self-pity alike with the sudden plunge into darkness and the stopping water. The shower came back on, together with the pale strip over the door, but the mood was gone. Jade stilled the water and reached for a towel; she was rubbing down her hair when the alarm went off.

Fire? she thought with a moment's panic. No, that's the security alarm. Jade let the towel drop and ran into the main room, slapping the lock button by the door. That done, she grabbed one of the swords from her dance routine. It was only a prop, too light for real combat, but it was genuinely sharp and she supposed it would put a nice hole in someone. Jane wanted a weapon in her hand if there was no trouble. Only then she dressed, covering her sense of vulnerability. She hooked the straps of her eyepatch into place, settling it in, then slipped a short, shiftlike dress over her head. Then she waited, nervously clenching the needle-like sword. Sounds came to her from out in the hall, screams and shouts mingling with the sizzling hum of Photon weapon discharges.

What's happening? Oh, Heaven, what's happening?

Jade's heart nearly stopped as her door-lock beeped, signaling that someone was trying it.

"Aw, hell, it's locked."

A moment later came the sizzle of Photon energy interacting with metal and circuitry and the door hissed open. A short, thick-bodied man with a visor over his eyes and elaborate torso armor strode into the room.

"I've got another one here."

Jade didn't understand at first, but the sight of the Ranger lowering the handgun in his right fist towards her drove everything else out of her mind. She struck with the sword, and her heart swelled as its tip cut the man's gloved hand and made him drop the gun.

"Bitch!" he cursed, but he didn't slow down; his left hand plucked a Photon saber from his belt even as the curse left his mouth. Its bright green blade speared at her stomach and only Jade's enhanced Newman agility let her jump back in time. The next strike was a slash downwards that she somehow blocked with her sword, but the Photon saber blasted right through the inferior steel.

Jade pitched the hilt of her sword at the Ranger's face, buying time, and dove for a weapon. The Ranger's gun was behind him on the floor, out of reach, and she had no idea how to use one, anyway, so she went for the bathroom door instead. Just inside and on the left...

Got it!

The towel bar there was a solid piece of metal, and Jade had loosened it in its mount just in case a nasty situation came along. She yanked it free and spun just in time to parry another swipe. Sparks flew as the saber bit into the metal, but the bar was thick, unlike the sword had been, and it only took a shallow nick.

She parried a second stroke. The third was easy, almost instinctively flowing from the second block, and it surprised Jade. The riposte, though, when she continued the motion and slammed the bar into the Ranger's side just below the built-up torso armor, nearly left her gaping.

Then Jade got it, which was a good thing, because her attacker wasn't surprised at all, just hurting and not at all happy about the fact. Her training! The sword-handling practice she'd worked on for hours on end to make her dancing something different. That old fox Yoshida had been teaching her real moves, not demonstration exercises.

Either that, or she was just damned lucky.

There was really only one way to find out, and Jade tried it, striking as she would have in the practice ring. The Ranger's guard was high so she brought it higher by feinting a cut to his head, then swept in under it with a thrust to the belly just up and under the torso armor. Her attacker gagged, staggering back, and only then when he was momentarily stunned and defenseless, did she bring the towel rack down across his face. His visor shattered and blood spurted from his nose; he fell back against the doorjamb, then stumbled out into the corridor. Jade did not let up, taking another quick step forward and smashing the bar to the side of the Ranger's head. He wouldn't be getting up from that. Maybe not ever, if someone didn't get to him with a Moon Atomizer soon.

She'd done it. She'd saved herself, taken out the attacker. But what now? She couldn't just step back into the room. Jade needed to find someplace to hide. She turned, and found her path blocked by a tall, lean man with sand-colored hair cut flat on the top and sides, worn in a ponytail in the back, with narrow, square-rimmed spectacles.

And with the barrel of an enormous handgun pointing squarely at her.

Chapter Two

"Get down!" Tane shouted at the girl in the green minidress. Amazingly enough, she obeyed at once, dropping prone. Maybe it was because she thought he was pointing the gun at her, but for whatever reason it worked. His line of fire cleared, he pumped three shots into the male Force at the other end of the corridor. Bloodstains blossomed on the front of his elaborate brocade jacket and he dropped, whatever Photon frame he was wearing evidently unable to stand up to the Yasminkov.

The Newman girl turned her head in surprise to see what Tane had been shooting at, then back at Tane.

"You're not...with them?"

He shook his head.

"Just an innocent bystander."

She breathed a sigh of relief.

"Thank Heaven; I thought you were..."

He nodded.

She was shaking as she got to her feet, looking not at him but at the dead RAmar she'd finished off just as Tane had rounded the corner. He knew the signs; the rush of battle was wearing off and the realization of I just killed someone was starting to set in, shock replacing adrenaline. He grabbed her shoulder.

"Don't think about it now." He pushed, turning her body so she faced him. "Don't. You did what had to be done. These slags are killing anyone that crosses their path."

"This one..." she stammered. She had a pretty voice, Tane noticed, a bit deeper and richer than most Newman females, and the emerald-green dress suited her bronze skin and dark hair. "He forced his way into my room and tried to kill me."

"Then it's damned lucky you know how to swing a mean bar." How had she done that, anyway? A trained Ranger wielding a Photon saber beaten by a whore with a two-foot metal bar. "What is that, anyway?" he asked, partly out of curiosity but mostly to distract her.

"Towel rack," she said sheepishly. "I'd loosened it in its mount in case someone bribed a bouncer to let him come back here and try something."

"Smart you." "Who are these people? What's happening?"

Tane shrugged.

"Search me. They're pros and they're after someone or something, and they don't really care how they get it, that's obvious. We've got to get out of here before we become collateral damage." He looked at her again, then at the fried lock plate next to the door. "I'd tell you to hide, but if they're blasting open doors, who knows what's safe?" Tane sighed. This was crazy. He was here on business, and other people's problems kept getting in his way.

Tane bent down, picked up the dead man's saber, and handed it to the Newman girl.

"Here, take that and stay behind me. And you might want to take off that eye patch. You're not going to get a chance to play yo-ho-ho-and-a-barrel-of-fun with whomever you were expecting, now, and you're going to need your depth perception."

She glared at him furiously.

"It's not for playing pirate games, you idiot!" she snapped. "Or do you think you can see out of this?" She grabbed at the patch and yanked it up. The eye socket was about thirty degrees off horizontal, the skin around it knotted and twisted, the eye itself blank white without iris or pupil. She tugged the patch back down into place, covering up the injury.

"I'm sorry," Tane said quietly. "I didn't realize."

"Well, why would you?" she said, still angry. "Who'd think a pretty-body Newman whore was a deformed freak who has to cover her face to do business?"

"You're not a freak," Tane said, "That's stupid talk and you know it. I made a bad assumption based on who you were, I admit; if you'd been a hunter I'd never have made the crack." Though he had known a hunter or two who'd actually worn an eye patch as an affectation, it wasn't generally the case. "But you don't need to go off on self-pity because I acted like an ass. Especially not now. Okay?"

She nodded. Her visible eye was wet and bright. Smooth one, Tane, you made her cry, he told himself angrily, even though he knew it was as much stress and fear as his own stupidity.

"Okay." She took the saber. "Can we get out through the club?"

"No, there's another bunch coming that way. At least we know there's three down in the group that came in the back."

"Three?"

"These two, and I gunned one earlier."

He checked the Yasminkov's ammo. Sixteen shots left out of twenty. That was the downside to non-Photon guns; they needed physical ammo which had to be reloaded much more often than a Photon pack. Tane didn't even had an extra clip. He'd prepared for minor trouble, not an urban war. "What's your name, anyway?" he asked the girl.

"Jade. You?"

"Malcolm Tane. Now, since you know this place's layout a lot better than I do, how about you point us to the back door? I don't want to have to take out the rest of these goons."

* * * * *

"Team B, status?" Ralin subvocalized over his commset. "Status, Team B? Jast, where the frak are you?" When no answer was forthcoming, he cursed audibly.

"What's wrong?" Elysse asked.

"Team B's gone silent. Either their commsets are out or they are."

"Think Vanis had something waiting for them?" Zayora asked. She was always the nervous one.

"Probably. Keep an eye out."

They'd only had to dispatch two more of Vanis's security people on the way to her office, which implied that Team B had at least occupied the rest of them. The armored door was sealed and locked; since it was clearly a security door, blasting the lock place would just confirm the lock status. A good electronics specialist like Leon could have wired it open, but that would have taken time, so Ralin had made different plans.

"Type: D, blow the door."

The hulking android made no reply, but instead unhooked a heavy tubular gun fitted with a screw-tip conical shell. The others stepped back and the RAcast fired the Drill Launcher into the door. The screw-tip penetrated the armor plate, making the shell stick, and the Photon explosive inside took care of the rest. A moment after the door fell in, gunshots sizzled through it into the hall, but Type: D's armor, backed by Elysse's Deband tech, handled the impacts with minor effect. Zayora fired into the room, using the android as cover, and the gunfire stopped abruptly. Ralin led his team through the door, ignoring the corpses of the two guards as thoroughly as he did the stylish decor, concentrating only on two things: the plump woman with silver-gray hair behind the U-shaped desk, and the computer console with free-floating holographic screens on that desk to her right.

"Give it to me and you get to live," Ralin snapped.

Vanis made no pretense of misunderstanding.

"Don't make me laugh. I was a dead woman the moment you came through the door."

Ralin nodded.

"Give it to me and you get to die cleanly."

Vanis's lips curved in a half-smile.

"That's better," she said wryly.

Ralin didn't like it. She was too calm, the calmness of one who has accepted death. From what he knew of her, that didn't make sense. Not in the few seconds since they'd blown open the door.

"Computer," she said, "run Omega."

The desk vaporized into white-hot flame, taking the rest of the room with it.

* * * * *

The saber felt weird in her hand, Jade thought as she pointed out the path through the halls to her rescuer. Because she wasn't used to thinking of swords as a weapon, she didn't understand at first, but once she imagined using the saber as a dance prop it made sense. The Photon blade, being energy, didn't have any weight, and it threw the expected balance off. The idea of applying what she'd been taught to actual battle was new enough by itself; the idea of coping with an all-new weapon while doing it made it all the worse. The thought that she might live or die based on those skills was a cold knot of fear in her belly.

There was no getting away from it, either. Not while they passed two wrecked security androids along the way, saw more than one girl cowering in a corner, weeping, and even corpses as well. Daana, a tall human woman a little past her prime who'd acted as a kind of den mother for the younger girls, lay carved open in the middle of the hall. Tane had had to drag Jade past that one with a terse, "Don't look; you can't do her any good now." A bald-headed bouncer was sprawled halfway through a door.

"Any idea why they went after you?" Tane asked her. "We've seen a couple of girls left alive so far."

"I think," Jade said, "that he thought I was security. I'd locked myself in my room, and was holding one of the swords I use in my act. He was going to shoot me, and after that, we were fighting."

"You're the sword-dancer?" Tane asked, surprised. "The one who wears a mask?"

"Uh huh. The eye patch would spoil the effect, so I cover my whole face instead."

"You're really good; I saw your act right before the bad guys made their–hold it." He held up a hand. She heard it too, the distinctive hum of a Photon weapon coming from around the corner up ahead, the one that led to the rear exit.

"Is there another way out of here?"

"No; the back door's right there."

"Crap. They left someone to guard the door. We'll have to fight."

There was a wet, gurgling sound that made Jade's gorge rise. She wanted to turn and run away, but Tane was right. There really was no other choice. They burst around the corner just in time to see a tall, sapphire-finish android flick away the corpse of a bouncer by the neck. There was blood on its fingers to match the body's crushed throat. Two other bodies lay at its feet, these seemingly having been dispatched by more conventional means.

"Oh, hell," Tane cursed, his oath nearly lost in the boom of his gun. The shots ricocheted off the android's armor, two off its broad torso plate and one off its helmetlike head.

The android then moved fast, springing at its enemies. With a swipe of its powerful arm it crashed the violet-bladed Photon saber in its right hand at Tane, knocking him out of the way and into the wall. Jade struck at it, but it parried with its built-up left forearm and sparks flew. Then it was striking and she almost overcorrected with the weightless saber blade. The android hacked viciously at her; its strength was enormous and every time she was forced to block an attack directly instead of being able to guide it away a jolt of pain shot up her wrists and arms.

There was no way she was going to beat this enemy. It was a highly trained killing machine, far more skilled than the Ranger she'd beaten in her room, and that wasn't even factoring in the powerful armor built onto its body. Malice seemed to burn in its pale white "eyes."

Two more sweeps of its buster were more than Jade could handle; her saber was knocked free from her hand and bounced off a wall. She sprang away as it reached for her with its bloodstained, empty hand, apparently intending to finish her off as it had the bouncer, so it prepared to cut her down with its weapon, instead. Perhaps its programming only allowed it one attempt to kill in a "fun" way before it gave up and just finished the job.

Suddenly, a spasmodic twitch jerked the android's body, and it stood stiffly erect. There were two sharp cracks, followed by two more spasms, and then the android fell over forward to crash on its face on the carpet. Behind him, Tane lay on his back, gun extended in a two-handed firing grip. There was a nasty gash across his abdomen, his shirt ripped open and a bloody wound showing through.

"Sometimes I wish I was an android," he muttered. "They can walk around fully armored without raising any attention, but people like us, just going about our business, have to make do with ordinary clothes. That HUcast would have sliced me in two if I hadn't had Deband in effect. Thanks for tying it up, though. I'd have never gotten a shot at a vulnerable spot if it was concentrating on me.

"Um...you're welcome?"

Tane grinned.

"I know you weren't doing it on purpose, but thanks anyway. You did well; I know plenty of hunters who couldn't stand up to a combat android like that for as long as you lasted, especially without armor or a barrier or even a familiar weapon. For the first couple of seconds I was just twitching on the floor, stunned. You don't keep its attention, and I'm dead."

Jade flushed with pleasure as she realized that Tane was sincere. He made to sit up, then winced.

"I don't suppose you know Resta?"

Jade shook her head.

"I don't know any techniques, Tane."

"Okay." He held his left hand, palm down, over his injury, and his jaw clenched slightly in concentration. Showers of golden light sparkled momentarily in the air, and the wound healed over, leaving only a narrow line of new pink flesh. There must have been some kind of residual effect from the healing technique, because the soreness in Jade's wrists and arms vanished at once. Tane got to his feet, shaking his head.

"My brain wasn't wired for this," he said with a sigh. "Two many techs always gives me a headache. Let's get out of here."

Gun at the ready, he tabbed open the door, which slid back to reveal the empty street outside. No one was waiting, no further hunters or thugs tried to stop their escape, and relief washed over Jade like a sluice of icy water.

Suddenly, from behind them came the thunderous boom of an explosion. The sound was muffled, probably from being several rooms away through the block, but it was still dramatic, clearly something big at a distance rather than something small close by.

"What was that?" Jade yelped.

"Bad news for somebody," Tane told her flatly. "Thankfully, not us. This job is shot to hell, so I'm just glad to be out of the free-fire zone and heading somewhere safe and quiet."

It was then it occurred to Jade, the kind of thing that the immediacy of combat had pushed aside.

She didn't have somewhere safe and quiet to go.

She didn't have anywhere to go.

Chapter Three

Tane caught on fast that something was wrong. Jade didn't say so, but he could tell from the blank, stricken expression and her body language.

"Hey, we're okay now. You'd better get going, though. Who knows what'll be next out of that door?"

"I...I don't have anywhere."

"What?"

"I don't have anywhere to go. I lived there, at the club."

"I know, but a friend's, maybe, a residence motel."

She shook her head.

"There isn't anyone, and everything I had is back inside."

"What, even your money? You don't have a deposit account?"

Again she shook her head.

"Look, we have to get going. Come with me, I'll give you a ride and we can figure it out on the way."

They walked to the next building and Tane took her up to the fifth floor, where he'd docked his aerocar; he wasn't confident–or stupid–enough to dock at street level in Downtown. Jade said nothing until they were in the air, apparently going along with his decision to talk about it "on the way." Tane saw a couple of milipol cruisers and a tactical unit aerovan descending towards Vanity Dreams as they flew off.

"Great response time in this section, as always," he grumbled. People didn't start minor land wars in well-policed areas. Still, he supposed that human nature made areas like Downtown inevitable. A city that had been in existence for less than two years, on board a colony spaceship heading to another planet, and it had promptly grown an urban-jungle slum in the base levels of the same skyrakers where people lived and worked in their ordinary, day-to-day lives.

Depressing thought, that.

Tane entered a traffic channel and set the autodrive. He had a feeling some of the explanations Jade might give would be the kind to provoke really bad driving.

"All right, Jade, so talk to me. Tell me why a skilled dancer, who obviously brings Vanis in meseta hand over fist has nothing to her name."

She didn't answer at once, instead looking straight ahead at the city lights moving by. It was hard to read her emotions, even more so because her left side was towards him and that denied him the clue of her eye.

"Does your gun have a meseta account, Tane?"

"My gun?"

"Does it?"

"No." He didn't bother with a sarcastic comment, figuring that she was going somewhere with this.

"It makes you money, though? I mean, you need it for your job? And you spend money on it, give it what it needs–maintenance, ammo, holster to carry it in?"

"Right."

"But it doesn't own the ammo, even though it uses it, because it's just a possession.

"True."

"So am I."

"Jade, I know you're not in the cleanest line of work, but–"

She shook her head.

"That isn't what I mean. You've seen those old-model androids, haven't you? The ones without an independent AI?"

"You aren't an android, though. You're a Newman."

"So?"

"You're talking about slavery."

He'd heard the whispers. Tane had spent too much time working shadow-side not to. Organized criminals dealing in people. He hadn't really believed them, though; if nothing else the nature of Pioneer 2 made slave labor an irrelevancy, and the population registration, supplies rationing, and the like would make it impossible. But that was a flaw in his own thinking. The word "slave" conjured up images of dozens or hundreds of people working in plantation fields or some giant construction project, but that wasn't apparently the point. Slaves didn't have to be a work gang.

"How?" he asked. She could tell him to frak off, of course. It was none of Tane's damn business. It had been raised, though, and it was the kind of thing that, once out, couldn't be ignored. The genie was out of the bottle. He wanted to know. Maybe he had to know.

"I was tank-grown," Jade said, "one of a first-run set by Halvas Corp. On Coral." The Newman race was created by artificial genetic manipulation; while Newman children were starting to be born naturally, the originals were all created in a laboratory. New genetic strains were regularly being tested by biotech corporations and government labs alike. "It started all right, but the rapid-maturation process"–no one wanted to wait eighteen years for experiment results, so tailored drugs were used to bring Newmen to late adolescence or early adulthood in a year–"didn't go so well."

She gestured at her covered eye.

"Two of us died outright; the other four were 'defective product' and had to be dealt with. Selling us to the Black Paper syndicate just was a way to recoup some of the project costs. Vanis was leaving with Pioneer 2 and she had plans for Vanity Dreams even then, so she bought me."

"So all of the girls there...?"

Jade shook her head.

"Only two of us. Well, and the androids, but they weren't independent models. The rest were just, I suppose, the usual fare, girls who were down on their luck or just wanted some easy money. Even on Pioneer 2, there isn't really a shortage."

"I should have put a slug through her when I had the chance," Tane said flatly.

"Who, Vanis?" Jade asked in surprise.

"Yeah."

"That isn't fair, Tane. Vanis always treated me well. Better, really, than her other girls. She figured her responsibility to them ended with paying over their meseta, but she made sure I had an education, training..."

"While forcing you into stripping and prostitution?"

She looked up at him.

"And just what do you think would have happened if she hadn't bought me? Black Paper would have demanded pretty much the same thing, only they wouldn't have been anywhere near as nice about it. Or if I hadn't been sold to Black Paper in the first place, I would have been dumped out in the streets. Or, more likely, Halvas would have just had me killed. They didn't have anything to gain from a defective product."

"You're not defective," Tane said reflexively. Jade's mouth curved into a wry smile.

"Gallant, aren't you? But by their standards that was exactly what I was. There were a lot of bad people in this chain of events, Tane, and Vanis definitely wasn't the worst of them. In fact, she's been better to me than anyone else who's had power over my life."

That was a hard one for Tane to swallow.

"Okay, maybe there's a point there. It still doesn't make it right. There's no excuse for slavery, in any form."

"For a hunter who had some kind of business with Vanis, you're pretty idealistic."

"Most of life is made up of gray areas; usually, you just get to choose your shade. Some things, though...they're all the way over the line into evil."

An uncomfortable silence settled over them both, broken only by the sound of the aerocar's engine, which was muffled to a quiet hum by the cockpit insulation.

"Hey," Tane said, mostly just to break the ice, "how did you learn how to fight like that, anyway?"

"Would you believe, I didn't?"

"Those moves weren't pulled out of thin air."

Jade nodded.

"It's like this. Vanity Dreams was doing very well, and the truth is, as a whore I wasn't necessary. Oh, I know that clients aren't really interested in a girl's face, but if you have a choice of a girl with an eye patch or one without, more than likely I'm going to be the loser." Tane wanted to say something, but he knew she was right, especially in a place like Vanity Dreams as opposed to a low-rent, no-frills brothel or a street corner. "So, Vanis looked to see if there was something I could do that was different."

"Your dancing."

She nodded.

"Uh-huh. As a Newman, I have superior agility, flexibility, and coordination. I honestly think I'm above average even for a Newman; maybe that's what the scientists at the Halvas labs were trying to improve in my strain's genetics. Vanis thought I might be able to handle something a little more upscale, more arty than a straight striptease. Tyra had done something like that already and her act had gone over well. I'd read about sword-dancing in some of my history files and thought it would be different and appealing–a play on the whole sex and violence thing. Only, swords are dangerous, so Vanis arranged for Master Yoshida to teach me how to handle them without hurting myself and to do it fast and accurately enough to be effective in the performance. Until today I never realized he was actually teaching me how to really fight!"

"So you've never had an actual fight before today?"

"Only sparring with Master Yoshida, and that was just training in how to handle the weapon...I thought. I choreographed my dances myself; I used what I'd been taught but I designed the specific movements for artistic effect. It never occurred to me that I was being trained for combat, until I was attacked by that man in my room and I realized that I knew what he was doing and what I had to do to stop him. It would have been a surreal experience if I hadn't been so scared."

Jade shuddered, obviously recalling the fight, her thoughts and feelings as it had happened. And the killing. Killing changed people. Some took to it, some couldn't deal and broke down, and some came to accept it–usually after a struggle–and moved on. Tane had years ago gotten to the point where the killing itself didn't matter, only the reasons and circumstances. He'd lost the part of himself that held life as sacred, leaving that just another gray area.

Would Jade deal with it? Maybe. She'd stayed functional in the club, but that had been under pressure, driven by adrenaline, fear, and the survival instinct. Her life had been chock full of bad dreck to this point, so maybe having to kill in self-defense was just more of the same. Or maybe it was the last straw, instead. One crappy thing too many for her to take.

"You said a man named Yoshida trained you?" Tane said. It was mostly just to keep her talking, keep a human contact open instead of letting her pull back inside herself. "Is that Aaron Yoshida? About sixty, short blue hair?"

"Yes, do you know him?"

"Not drinking-buddy know him, but we've met a couple of times. He's a master of the Yoshida Rising Moon style of swordsmanship. The Miyama style is a little more famous because of Great Sword Zoke, but people talk about Yoshida too. Those katana styles aren't so common because everyone uses Photon weapons these days."

"Katana?"

"A full-length metal sword with a single cutting edge and a chisel point. It doesn't use Photon technology the way we know it, but the really famous swords, made by the great masters like Tengai or Dousetsu have magic in them that work kind of like Photons." Tane grinned at her. "I'm kind of a pre-Photon weapons geek, you see." He patted the Yasminkov's butt. Jade grinned back, as he'd hoped.

"So, that leaves us with two problems."

"I suppose I'm one of them," she said.

"Uh-huh. I suspect Vanis is probably dead now, and even if she isn't, I wouldn't give you back to her. Nor am I going to put you out on the streets." He chuckled self-consciously. "You know, Jade, there's an old proverb that says if you save a person's life, you are obligated to take care of that person forever. I never really understood that until now."

"What," she said, "if I don't want to be taken care of?"

"Then we'll probably argue, and if you stand firm, I'll dock this crate and you can walk off into the night. The offer's on the table. If you don't want it, it just gives me more time to deal with problem number two."

"Which is?"

"Business. I wasn't there for fun; your act was the only thing there that did a damn thing for me. I had a deal going with Vanis, it's shot to hell, and I need to find out how much damage control I need to do."

"Is it going to be a lot of trouble?"

"I don't know," Tane told her honestly. "Maybe it means I go to bed and forget I'd ever heard about it. Or, it might mean that I have to go fix the problem or my own client flatlines me for general incompetence. But if I had to guess, I'd bet on the latter."

Chapter Four

Malcolm Tane's residence unit was about what Jade had expected to find. The decor was very simple and utilitarian, but there was something in its placement that, though she wouldn't call it homey, didn't have the impersonal feel of a workplace, with the exception of half the main room. The large benchlike table contained a number of tools, tubes, and bottles which she guessed were used in the maintenance of his weapons. The guns themselves were secured in plastiglass wall cases; some looked like Photon weapons while others did not, though Jade couldn't identify any by name. Two sheathed swords with curved blades and chisel points were the only weapons not secured; they were hung one above the other, convex side up, on the wall. Jade had seen a similar arrangement in Aaron Yoshida's training hall.

She looked back at Tane, and then in one voice they said, "I'll take the couch."

"Tane, I'm already taking advantage of you," she said. "I'm not going to throw you out of bed on top of that."

"You're not. I've got work to do out here, and I probably won't get to sleep until late. I can see from here you're bone-tired, though."

It was true. She was tired from dancing, tired from the fights, but most of all tired from emotion. The stark fear of the Ranger's attack, the horror of killing and of seeing death all around her, the struggle with the android, and then opening up and spilling her whole twisted life story on Tane, it had all added up to wearing her out.

"All right," she said reluctantly.

"The bedroom's back there, the bathroom off that little connecting hall, and if you like you can swipe a robe. Take the one in the linen closet, though; it's clean."

"Thank you."

She took a long shower, not because she really needed it but because there was so much on her mind. She had no idea what she was going to do with herself, what her status was, and what there even was to be done. Everything she'd known was gone. Always before there had been someone else wielding control over her life, giving her direction. That control had often been unpleasant, especially early on, but in a strange way it had also been reassuring. At least her life had had certainty, a weird, dysfunctional security. Now, even that was gone.

Now she had freedom, and not much else. She had a life to lead, and nothing to lead it with besides the charity of a man she hadn't even met two hours ago. What were his reasons? Did he want something from her? If so, what? She didn't have anything to offer--well, anything beyond herself, of course. There was always that. Jade dismissed that at once, though. Tane was putting way too much of himself into this if that was what he was after. No, either she had some specific value to him--perhaps concerning whatever his business with Vanis was?--or else there was something deep and psychological going on. The first she could accept. Value for value, fair enough. The second...

That idea scared her more. She'd never been indebted to anyone before. She'd felt like it with Vanis in the past, when she'd given Jade some kind of special consideration, but even then she'd had the awareness in the back of her mind that she really didn't owe Vanis anything. Their respective positions negated that.

This was different. Tane had saved her life in the hall, cutting down the Force. Maybe she could dismiss that as an extended self-defense, but she couldn't escape what had happened after. He'd helped her get away from the club, offered her his expert skills and high-grade firepower. She'd helped him against the android, yes, but the truth was Tane might have been able to win on his own and Jade definitely would not.

So, he'd saved her. He'd gotten her out of a death zone that was none of her own making. He hadn't abandoned her afterwards, either, but had instead taken her with him. Malcolm Tane was her only lifeline to the future, any future.

If it was because he had something to gain, she could accept it. Their arrangement would be settled.

But if it wasn't, could she deal with it? Could she handle charity?

Yet if it was, then what was left for her? How could she face the huge blank space that was her future?

There were too many questions and not enough answers. Maybe some of the questions weren't even the kind that could be answered.

It was no surprise that when she finally did drop off on Tane's bed, her sleep was less than pleasant.

* * * * *

"This is a foul-up of epic proportions," Ralim summed up the situation as he looked over the remains of his operation. Leon, a male Newman with short, spiky dark hair, was the only intact one. That was because he hadn't been on-site, but in charge of shutting down the power to Vanis's Photon suppressors. The powerful devices, similar to those used in and around the Hunter's Guild deck, completely negated the release of Photon energy into the open environment, including from weapons and techniques both. Leon, though, was a wizard when it came to electronics and circuitry, and though it had taken nearly two full days to sleaze out the system installation details so he could know how to shut it down he had pulled it off to perfection.

Ralin supposed that Leon could be forgiven a little resentment so long as he didn't push it--and so long as he recognized that it was his tail on the line as much as anyone's.

Ralin and Elysse were considerably the worse for wear. While the Force's Resta technique had healed their injuries, it hadn't patched up their scorched and torn outfits, nor repaired Ralin's armor, which had been wrecked in the blast. Still, they were lucky to be alive; they had dived behind Type: D in the instant they realized what was coming and the RAcast's bulk had served as a blast shield, saving them. Zayora hadn't been as lucky; she'd been exposed and even though she'd been at the edge of the office she'd still been left on death's door. She'd have died had Elysse's Reverser tech not plucked her back from the edge and she still looked drawn and pasty from the shock to her system.

Reverser worked on machines as well, so long as they were Photon-powered like a modern android, but there were limits. Type: D had been basically scrapped by the explosion; he'd gone over the edge and there was no coming back from that fall.

Then, of course, there was Jast's Team B. Four-for-four had been the body count there. Ralin didn't feel anything resembling grief for them, but he had plenty of regrets for blowing the job. His intel had been that Vanis's security didn't bother with Photon weapons with the suppressors in place, and Ralin's own fights had verified it. He'd have never gotten to the boss-lady without going through her best, and that best had been barely adequate. A few scrappy androids and club bouncers, though, would never have taken out a hunter team. So who had?

"What are we going to do?" Zayora whined. That wasn't surprising; the RAmarl was a wuss--except when actual fighting was going on, when she was as cold as ice.

"Our employer has a very low tolerance for failure," Leon echoed.

"We don't have the data," Elysse said. "Plus, Vanis is dead, and that isolates the seller. We don't even know who he or she is, so there isn't any way to recover."

"Which means, we're dead," Leon concluded. "We hosed the objective, and the job was so public it will bring down all kinds of heat on us and our employer. Taking us out provides cover."

"Obviously, we need a new employer," Ralin spoke up. The others turned to him in surprise.

"Someone took out our second team. Who? Not Vanis's people. Probably a competitor. One who might be very interested in some of what we have to tell."

"If we can find him."

"Elysse, he's probably looking for us."

* * * * *

Malcolm Tane's desk unit was similar to that found in most of Pioneer 2's residences. It combined the functions of computer and data-link, with visiphone capability and access to Net broadcasts. A hacker colleague of his had, however, enhanced his software to resist most standard probes and traces. It wouldn't turn aside a hardcore attempt by a net-dancer to hack his system and listen in, but Tane figured that he'd probably know if anyone was getting that serious about his activities.

The net result of it was that he felt relatively comfortable discussing business over the link, as opposed to insisting on face-to-face meetings or resorting to BEE-transmitted simple mail, which was considerably harder to tap.

He had a couple of calls to make. Professionally, he had a report to give his client on the night's activities, with a request for further instructions. His client probably had contingency plans, backups, and Tane might figure in them.

Despite that, the city directory listing he accessed was entirely different. Personal matters were coming first.

Why is that? he wondered.

"Aaron Yoshida."

The face on-screen was of a man around sixty, with bright blue hair cropped short in military fashion. His features were sharp and angular, his eyes almond-shaped and an unusual shade of gold.

"Good evening."

"Do I know you? No, wait...ah, yes. Malcolm Tane, is it not? One of Garthan's students, the one with the interest in antique weaponry?"

Tane nodded.

"You have a good memory, Master Yoshida."

"Not Master to you. That's for the training hall only, and it would hardly interest you anyway, being a Ranger as you are."

"I know I'm not your student, but it seemed natural to use the term anyway. I'm calling because of one of your protegees."

"Oh? Whom?"

Tane grinned.

"I hear you're giving up the sword and teaching Newman girls to dance," he joked.

"Ah, Miss Jade. I am surprised she mentioned my name. Or was it Vanis?"

"It was Jade. The topic came up after I watched her take out an armed and armored man while wielding a towel rack."

Yoshida chuckled softly.

"I wish I could have been there to see it. Is she all right?"

Tane nodded.

"I got her out of the fire zone, with some help from her in doing that. Just how good is she?"

"Better than you might expect. Her mastery of katana technique is well-advanced. Of course, she lacks even elementary combat seasoning or training in fieldcraft or tactics. One-on-one, she..." He paused, then smiled broadly. "In practice, she occasionally scores a point off me. Then again, I'm not so young as I was." He winked. "Why, I haven't made a single pass at her, and with a girl that pretty, I must be getting old!"

Tane didn't respond to the jest, and Yoshida's next words held no humor.

"Now, Tane, are you going to explain your interest in Miss Jade's level of skill?"

"Protective of your student?"

"The relationship implies a measure of responsibility for her well-being."

"If that's the case, then why the hell didn't you report that she was a slave?"

Yoshida didn't try to deny his awareness of the fact.

"She is an unregistered citizen."

"Meaning no legal existence, and no legal rights."

"You understand me, then."

He did. A colony spaceship on a two-year journey didn't play games with the population count. A genuine stowaway could get bounced out an airlock easily enough. Although Jade's history--with witnesses to back it up--would keep any sane court from treating her as a spy or the like, there would still be a denial of all legal status. The government could be extremely draconian about that kind of thing.

"You thought she was better off at Vanis's than without anyone to protect her."

Yoshida nodded.

"The choices were not good ones."

No, Tane thought, they weren't. Security and safety, but in captivity, or else freedom, but with uncertainty and suffering. In truth, only Jade herself had the right to make that choice for herself.

"Tell me, Yoshida, why did you teach Jade real swordsmanship?"

He shrugged.

"Why not? What will teach better control of a weapon than actually learning to use it? Besides that, there was always the hope that...but I think you realized it already, or else you wouldn't have been quite so curious about her skills."

Tane nodded.

"I thought of it, and so I'll say it straight out: is she good enough to stand on her own as a Hunter?"

"As I said, she knows nothing of how to work in a team, or to deal with questions of terrain in the field. However, I believe her personal competence is good enough to overcome that in the examiners' eyes."

"Good. That solves one problem at least."

"How are you going to arrange for her entry into the Guild?"

"That's a different problem. One at a time. I'll let you know if it works out, though."

"Good luck then, Tane."

He nodded again, then hung up.

"What are you planning to do with me, Tane?"

Chapter Five

Tane nearly jumped out of his shoes at the sound of Jade's voice; her barefooted entrance had been silent.

"The Hunter's Guild? What would they want with me?"

He wondered how long she'd been there, how much she'd heard, but then he realized something else. The robe she was wrapped in, hem scraping the floor and sleeves ruckled up because of Tane's greater height, was blue--meaning, she'd picked it off the chair, not gotten out the fresh one. He tried to think about what that meant and his heart nearly broke at every conclusion.

He took a deep breath.

"Couldn't sleep?"

"No, and what were you and Master Yoshida talking about? Why the Hunter's Guild?" Her voice trembled a little. She didn't understand what Tane was doing, and probably suspected betrayal.

"I wanted to save this for when I had my ducks all in a row, but we might as well do it now. Have a seat." He gestured to the couch, and she warily went over and sat. Tane leaned forward in his seat.

"You have a big problem when it comes to getting on with your life, Jade. Unless I very much miss my guess, you're not only not registered on board Pioneer 2, but not with any home government either. Normally, a tank-grown Newman is registered by the lab once growth is complete, but from what you told me, I doubt that happened."

She nodded, slowly.

"You're right."

"That means you have no official identity. There's plenty of jobs you could do, but no legitimate business would hire you. There would be too many bureaucratic hoops to jump through. That means your only employers would be people with under-the-table cash to spend. In other words, someone in the underworld. I suspect you already know what that would mean."

Another nod.

"I doubt many of them would be as nice to me as Vanis."

"The Hunter's Guild is a different story, though. It enjoys complete extraterritoriality within the Guild; it's not the arm of any government."

"What does that mean?" Apparently, the Guild was an area she hadn't studied.

"Before the ten-nation-alliance, national governments on Coral would often put restrictions on immigration, on weapons laws, and on other activities that burdened Hunters, especially if times were tense. It gets complicated, and you don't want a history lesson now, but it boils down to the fact that the Guild was treated as if it were an independent nation of its own and its offices as foreign territory within the country. Guild hunters have legal rights even today which other people don't, because of that status."

"How does that help me with my identity?"

"If you become a duly registered Guild hunter--and Yoshida says you have the ability for it--the fact that you didn't officially exist before that is irrelevant. The Administration can't make any inquiries into the background of a hunter. If you get in, it's instant legitimacy--and so long as you keep up your dues and yearly skill review, you wouldn't even have to work as a hunter if you didn't want to."

Tane took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. It had been a long night.

"I..." Jade began, then broke off and restarted. "Tane, why would you do that? Why go to this kind of trouble for someone you just met?"

"Probably for the same reason Aaron Yoshida taught you how to take care of yourself for real."

"Why? Pity?" He doubted she meant it, but a bitter twist crept through in the word. When all you have is your pride, taking charity could be very hard.

"So we can sleep at night."

* * * * *

Targ glanced around himself at the other four members of his crew.

"You guys ready or what?"

They all nodded eagerly, one after another. They'd run together in the depths of Downtown for over a year now, and they all knew what was at stake. This was their big chance to move up, to put petty street crime, strong-arm jobs, and bag runs behind them and to take a step up. They did this right, and they were in with the big boys, the real power on the street. Gethric, the huge, animal-like Newman with the body hair so thick it looked like fur, Jackknife Johnny with his trademark blades, T-bar with the mechgun she'd scavenged off a dead corporate secman, and Jarl, who'd had steel fangs implanted in place of teeth. There was no tougher crew on the streets, but this was where they proved they were more than just street tough.

"Do it," Targ ordered, and Gethric slammed his boot into the door. Cheap wood veneer couldn't stand up to the blow, and the door flew open. The crew stormed in, blades and guns out. The plan was simple: bust in and take out everyone. They hadn't noticed the minicamera tucked above the doorjamb its fisheye lens angled to cover the full five feet before the door.

They learned fast that things don't always go according to plan. Gunfire greeted their entrance and Gethric went over, gut-shot. The woman in the fancy, full-length dress waved her hand and a massive ball of flame engulfed Jarl. The fast pam-pam-pam of T-bar's mechgun sounded--once. Its shots didn't even slow the tall, powerful man who moved in and then cut her and Johnny down with the massive sword he carried. In seconds, Targ was the only one left standing.

"Cheap street trash," the swordsman sneered. "Is that what he thinks we're worth these days?"

Targ wanted to protest. In the street, you didn't let yourself get low-rated like that, but he knew it was true. These were professionals, probably hunters. He was out of his league, way out. Yet he wasn't going to go out with a whimper. He swept up his big head-cleaver, a machete-like metal blade three feet long stuck into a wooden handle. He went down an instant later, torched by the FOmarl's Foie technique just as Jarl had been.

Ralin spat on the head thug's corpse.

"Street fighters. He sends street fighters after us. That's a frakking insult."

"Insult or not, they got here fast," Elysse said.

"This safehouse is blown," Ralin agreed. "Grab your gear and get moving."

The first part of that was easy; none of the four took more than fifteen seconds, tops, to get ready to leave. The second part wasn't as simple. The Photon round turning a quarter of Zayora's skull to red mist was pretty clear about that.

"Cover!" Ralin snapped. The street fighters hadn't been meant to take them out, but to flush them so more experienced operatives could take them down at minimal risk. No one wanted to lose valuable people in sending a message.

Ralin hunkered down behind the junked-out remains of an aerocar and got out his lockgun in case he had a return shot. He probably wouldn't get one--a sniper rifle was meant to be used at long range. Elysse had moved nearly as fast and was soon crouching next to him, but Leon, fundamentally a noncombatant, was too slow to react. Two shots punched through his torso and down he went.

Elysse could probably Reverser him, Ralin thought. In this situation, every ally was valuable both to assist him in an escape and to provide alternative targets for the enemy. The trick was to get to him in time, which meant neutralizing the sniper. The shots at Leon had given Ralin a pretty good idea of the sniper's position, and the junked aerocar actually provided adequate cover. The sniper would have to move to open up a shot at them, and that was when the hunters would make their countermove. Surprising, really; a sniper with a skill to make the shots he or she had ought to have had the experience to pick a better overwatch position.

The precise flaw in that reasoning hit Ralin at about the same time as the explosives planted in the junker went off. This time, there was no convenient android to hide behind; he and Elysse were annihilated by the trap's second stage.

From his position on the sixth level of a building two blocks away, the sniper put away the remote detonator and powered down his weapon, then made a PDL call. No image appeared in the screen; it was a message relay only.

"Gekigasky here," he said. "Four for four."

* * * * *

Jade stared at Tane, not quite believing or understanding what she'd heard. Her life hadn't exactly accustomed her to altruism or charity. A small kindness was one thing, but the idea that someone would go well out of their way in terms of time, money, and personal convenience all for someone else's sake, without even ties of friendship, family, or love to motivate them...it just didn't register.

"Look," Tane said, replacing his glasses, "I don't really know how to explain it. If you'd just scurried back into your room after I shot that Force in the hall, I would have gone on without a second thought."

Jade nodded her agreement.

"But it's different now," Tane went on. "I've taken the trouble of learning something about you as a person. What I do now is a choice with known consequences. I point to the door, tell you goodbye, and I know you're going to be dead, imprisoned, or working for some underworld outfit, maybe on your back and maybe by knocking other people onto theirs. I can't do it. Do you see what I mean?"

She sighed, letting out some of the tension, both her own and that building up in the room.

Jade didn't believe in saints, in people who went out of their way to seek out others in trouble without a fee. The closest people came to that was tossing some meseta mindlessly at a charity and letting the charity's paid employees do the real work of actually helping people.

But there were people, basically decent people, who wouldn't screw over an innocent with their own hands. Put the screws to an enemy, sure--and the definition of enemy could slide a lot with some people--but not some random stranger who happened to be there.

Maybe Tane was taking it farther than that, taking on more responsibility for her than he had to, but it was an extension of the same principle.

"Thank you," she said quietly.

"So we're all right, then?"

"I think so. But, just so that we're clear, I'm going to pay you back every last meseta you have to lay out to help me."

"I'm glad to hear it. I have to have ammo for the Y2kH custom-made, and Vezner charges me an arm and a leg," he replied easily.

"There's just one thing."

"Oh?"

"I need to know what happened to Vanis."

He studied her face for a moment.

"Don't you mean, who happened to Vanis?" he said, understanding perfectly. "Revenge?"

"I can't walk away from it, Tane. Apart from Master Yoshida, and now you, Vanis was the only person in my life who was ever good to me. Yes, she used me, too, I know," she quickly added, holding up a hand to forestall the response she saw coming, "but she also gave me opportunities to improve myself and showed me kindness, neither of which she had to. That didn't profit her, and so I owe her for that. Maybe if she was alive it would be different, but if she's dead, like we both think she is, then that death bought my freedom. She's paid for her sins with her life."

Tane frowned at her. He didn't get it, not really. "Slaveowner" was, to him, an unforgivable sin, least of all from the slave's perspective. His feelings were obvious to Jade, but hers weren't coming through to him in return. It was no surprise, really. Some things could never be understood by those who hadn't been there. Tane could know intellectually, and he could empathize, but he couldn't step into Jade's shoes.

The tension was back in the room, because this was the acid test. Thus far, Tane had had things his own way, making plans, doing things for Jade the way he wanted to. Now let's see, she thought, if you can take me on my terms, or if you're just a nicer version of Halvas-Black Paper-Vanis.

She'd picked a hard one, too, something that clashed against whatever his moral lines were, but it was probably better that way. Without a genuine obstacle to overcome, what was the point of any kind of test?

"They might not be easy to find."

"I have to try."

Slowly, he nodded.

"We'll do our best, but there's a problem with that."

"What?"

She expected some moral objection, something about revenge not being right or healthy. She was wrong.

"There's someone else out there who's very likely to get there first."

Chapter Six

Mace Redmond was a big man, the kind that despite himself always looked somehow messy. His hair and moustache were neatly trimmed and groomed, and his clothes expensively tailored and immaculately pressed, but these things made no difference. His skin was oily and slick moments after washing, and he sweated profusely even in climate-adjusted rooms. In a way, these traits had become assets, because no matter how cultured or urbane he seemed, there was always that suggestion of the inhuman, the bestial in his appearance. It made people wary and nervous in dealing with him. A poor quality in the trader he professed to be, but a good one in a crime boss.

Protection rackets, prostitution, and black-marketeering were Redmond's major areas of expertise. He'd anticipated that an area like Downtown would form on board Pioneer 2, and had quickly stepped in when it did, ready to fill a need. Advancing through the rackets on Coral had taught Redmond an unshakeable lesson: you could never lose betting on humanity's bad nature. He took his cut from every shopkeeper, every brothel, every pimp, and every fence in an area ten blocks wide and four levels up from the base.

Except Vanis.

Her club had been right on the edge of his turf, just far enough out to be construed as a challenge without being in his face about it. Vanity Dreams was too successful, too upscale to bow to him. The bitch had run his goons off, all but laughed in his face, and studiously ignored him from that point.

She wasn't laughing now.

Then again, neither was Redmond.

"Idiot."

It was said crisply and cleanly, without bluster. No need for emotion, just a logical, methodical assessment of the facts. A one-word, contemptuous dismissal of him and his side of the story.

It reminded Redmond of Vanis.

"Ya-ya gotta listen to me!" He heard the whine in his own voice and it sickened him. That tone in others always made him want to lash out, snuff their pathetic sniveling.

"I've already listened. Mr. Mujo has been generous to you. He's let you keep your little street-level operation in existence, in exchange for a measly percentage of your profits. He could have dusted you off like a speck of sand on his boot, but he was compassionate, even gave you access to something better than yourself. And yet, when he asks a simple favor, what did you do? You let him down."

"I--I did what Black Paper asked!"

A heavy sigh signaled the response to his whining.

"No, Mace. Mr. Mujo discovered that Vanis was brokering a deal to sell a copy of some confidential data that had been relayed from Ragol here to Pioneer 2's Lab. He graciously requested that you obtain this information. Instead, you chose to see this as an opportunity to punish a rival. You used Mr. Mujo's funds to hire hunters because your own people were inadequate for the task you requested--which should have been the first clue that you were on the wrong path. You staged an incident that focused official and media attention squarely on Vanis, and you didn't even get the data."

"It wasn't my--"

A slender hand grabbed Mace's short hair and yanked his head forward, slamming his face against the desk.

"I said I was through listening, Mace. Having failed, you decided to take your anger out on your employees. To do this, you ordered skilled hunters killed, hunters who had proven themselves sufficiently flexible in their morality to be of future use."

"It had to be done!" Mace protested, his speech muffled by his position. "They didn't just foul up. They coulda led the milipol back to me and to Mr. Mujo!"

"The Hunter's Guild has the privilege of extraterritoriality. Contracts cannot be revealed under force of law, nor used in evidence. That is why the Guild was able to function internationally and reliably. All you accomplished was to vent your frustrations and try to shift blame."

She let him go.

A little Newman girl with short pink hair shouldn't have been so intimidating, Mace thought. He was bigger, stronger. He was toughened by years on the streets. Yet she scared the hell out of him, not just because of who she represented but because of what she so obviously was: a professional.

"The blame," she told him, "has not been shifted. Your hunters did what they were told to do, and they did it to the best of their ability. The flaw was in their orders. Now, Mr. Mujo will not obtain the data he desired."

"Look, we can still fix this. The hunters killed at Vanity Dreams--no security goon did that! Someone else was there! It must have been Vanis's buyer, and I can still hunt him down and get the data!"

"No, you can't. Even if this person's presence was not just a coincidence, and even if you can somehow find him or her, and if the deal was completed before your hunters arrived, he or she will have already passed the data on to his or her client. A professional wouldn't waste time waiting, especially since your very public announcement that there was an interested third party."

"What about the original seller? If the deal didn't go down, then the data's still out there?"

"We could have tried that except for you. The only link to the seller, whom we only know as some anonymous Lab worker, was Vanis. What do you think the official reaction would be if someone started poking into Vanis's life, asking questions about recent contacts, or otherwise showing interest in her? Mr. Mujo does not want to be associated with this incident in any way. Do you understand me? We cannot pursue anything directly associated with Vanis. Indeed, we can only hope the milipol and the media don't discover the connection on their own. You have not only failed, but you have done so in such a way that it prevents us from attempting to correct the failure."

It was the death knell. Like the echo of a tomb door slamming shut, her words were the end of Mace Redmond's hopes. With despair, though, came courage, the strength to fight back.

"Look, bitch, if I've screwed up so damn bad," he roared, "then snuff me and get it over with! I won't need to know any of this when I'm dead!"

"I'm not talking for your benefit, Mace. This is an educational lecture for him." She pointed to Redmond's intercom. The green light was lit. Someone was listening in. "I think that's all I had to say, though. From this point, a word to the wise ought to be sufficient."

A moment later, the door to Mace's office slid open and a man entered. He held a Photon handgun fitted with a suppressor that quelled the gun's auxiliary power and channeled it back into the standard attack, reducing the noise of the shot as a side effect. A quiet, efficient weapon for quiet, efficient killing."

'Gekigasky?"

The Ranger shrugged, though his aim didn't waver by so much as a fraction of an inch.

"What can I say? After this fiasco, Black Paper made it clear you were no longer acceptable. On the other hand, Mujo would keep up his contacts with this gang under new leadership."

"It's always been easier to promote from within," said the Newman, "and your lieutenant has already demonstrated that he can think and plan tactically."

"Damn it, we came up from the streets together! You'd be nothing without me!"

"I admit, you were tougher than I was, nastier, but this is a different game now, Mace. One in which you have to have a brain, not just a pair of big brass ones."

He pulled the trigger. There was no point in building up to an announcement of the execution which would have been nothing but a signal for Redmond to try a last desperate move. Desperate moves occasionally worked, and Gekigasky did not want to permit one.

The Photon round punctured Redmond's skull, exited the back of his head, and gouged a furrow in the neowood desk. Gekigasky put away the gun.

"Personally," he commented, "I always liked Vanis's club. Since it suddenly finds itself without an owner, maybe it's ripe for a buyout and takeover."

He clapped the corpse on the shoulder.

"Guess you beat her in the end, eh, Mace?"

* * * * *

"You look...ready," Tane told Jade, his eyes taking in her appearance. He'd never seen her dressed in her Hunter's outfit, even though he'd paid for it, and his reaction definitely pleased her. He tried to keep it cool, and he did a pretty good job of it, but Jade was an expert at gauging men's interest and the way Tane's eyes lingered just for an instant in certain places said that at least the male part of him was very interested.

That was good, she thought. She hadn't picked the outfit just for the color. While the array of suitable clothing suggested that female Newmen weren't overly fond of heavy, confining wardrobes, Jade had picked out one of the more provocative styles: a sleeveless emerald top, split from neck to waist in front and back, held together by a strip of mesh under cross-lacing. This was combined with short, tight shorts and mesh stockings. She wore a single glove to past the elbow on her left hand and arm; a wrist-mounted nav system and PDL was part of a hunter's typical gear. A collar around her throat accentuated her neck and would hold her Section ID badge...if she passed. The only area where appearance had lost out to function was on her feet, where her boots were flat-heeled and sturdy.

Apparently, Tane liked the look. It gave her a pleasurable buzz alongside the knot of tension in the pit of her stomach.

"As I'll ever be," she agreed, then met his gaze seriously with hers. "Tane, I'm going to pay you back, and I mean every last meseta you've spent on me."

"I know." He pointed to her wrist unit, the weight of which was still unfamiliar for her. "I already simple-mailed you a bill."

"Tane, I don't have an account yet."

"You will. I have faith. Besides, if you don't pass and you don't get an account, I'm not likely to get paid anyway, so there we are."

He grinned boyishly at her, making it obvious he was teasing. A moment later, the grin went away.

"This, on the other hand, is a gift."

He reached back and unslung a long sword in its sheath from where he'd worn it over his shoulder. Jade recognized the design of the hilt and sheath from Tane's wall.

"This is the Orotiagito--well, not really. It's actually a copy of that legendary katana, made in AUW 1983 by the master Dousetsu. Even as a copy it's still a first-class weapon in its own right; it was forged with all the artistry of that long-ago age and is far better than most anything you could find by way of standard Photon sabers. I want you to have it."

"Tane...I can't, this is..."

"I insist." He thrust it towards her again. "A katana is supposed to carry the soul of the warrior who wields it, but for me, this is a toy to play with in the practice ring, or a prize to be shown off on my wall. If any weapon carries my soul, then it's got a clip and a cartridge ejector. This Agito deserves better. It was made to be used by someone who can appreciate it."

"I understand, but this is a valuable antique, a collector's piece. It must be worth thousands of meseta. It's worth more than...Tane, you could have bought me for what this costs!"

He didn't lower his arm.

"In the era the Legendary Katanas came from, I've read that there was a custom. When offered a gift, a person refused it twice, making the giver think up more and more clever reasons why it was appropriate to accept. All I've got left is that I like pre-Photon technology too much to see it rusting uselessly on a wall. You'll do better with a weapon that fits your training, and it'll do better in the hand of someone who cares."

He pushed the katana towards her again, and this time she let him give it to her. It was perfect in shape and weight, and she almost felt she could feel the spirit within it, or at least a thousand years of history.

"Tane, I don't know what to say," she floundered helplessly. "Next to this, 'thank you' would almost be an insult." They both knew she wasn't just talking about the Agito.

"Oh, I don't think so."

Jade reached out and placed her bare hand flat against his chest, over his heart.

"I'm serious, Tane. You gave me my life."

He shook his head.

"No one can do that. I just cleared some of the debris out of it."

Tane reached out and ruffled her tousled hair, then pointed to the Guild office door.

"Now go on and live."

She didn't move, though.

"My life, and my choices, then?"

"Of course."

"Good. So long as we're clear on that..."

She reached up, cupped the back of his head, and before he could react, hauled his facedown to hers, where she proceeded to kiss him hard, deep, and expertly. When she let him go, Tane looked as if someone had cracked him over the head with a club; the eyes behind his spectacles didn't quite focus.

Only then did Jade turn and head towards the Guild office, and whatever waited.

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