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Found 7 results

  1. Xiao Lok stood up from where he’d been kneeling, the ruined corpse he’d been examining still sprawled on the ground at his feet, and turned his gaze out towards the township of Chengxiang where it lay spread out in the valley far below him and several kilometers away. His partner Gu Bolin glanced up briefly as he rose but then turned his attention back to the desiccated corpse where it sprawled on the ground at their feet. Xiao had no idea what his partner thought he was going to find there, but figured he’d leave the older man to it; he much preferred the view he was seeing now. Though getting here had been enough of a workout to make him glad – yet again – for his status as a nova. Xiao Lok was one of SASA’s newest agents. He was a nova, even if he was what the Westerners called a ‘blip’, a low-powered nova only moderately more capable than a ‘baseline’ human. Sometimes being a member of SASA thrilled him and sometimes it galled him. Before his eruption he’d worked as a member of Chongqing’s police force and had worked many a long, hard hour to earn his way up the promotion ladder, achieving Detective status at a much younger age than was the norm. Then he’d erupted and had been immediately transferred into SASA, where he’d had to undergo rigorous training of the kind that made his days back at the police academy look like a vacation. Working for SASA was far more prestigious a career than working for some local police force – even the Chongqing local police force – but he’d still gone from being one of the fastest rising stars in the municipality to being just another greenhorn in a much larger organization. Gu Bolin was his first partner in the State Administration of Super-human Affairs, and this was only their third case working together – and if events so far were any indication it was shaping up to be an unpleasant one. Granted, SASA agents didn’t generally work cases that were dull or mundane, but Xiao hadn’t yet worked any that had been quite so inconvenient to investigate yet, either. Gu had assured him this was nothing and he just needed to give the job a little more time. Xiao wasn’t sure he believed that, but knew the case was even less pleasant for his partner – one of SASA’s baseline agents – than it had been for him, so he held his tongue. For starters, the victim – one Dengfeng Sun, a Buddhist priest – had died (cause of death and motive, if any, still undetermined) at a small temple just outside of the town of Chengxiang of Wuxi county, in the far northeastern corner of the Chongqing Municipality. For Xiao and Gu, based as they were out of the city of Chongqing proper, this had meant several hours’ drive along the Hurong Expressway, followed by a few more hours’ drive on the 102 Sheng Dao up into, and then back down out of, the mountains that Chengxiang and the upper tributary of the Yangtze river it sat next to were nestled in between. Then had come even more driving as they’d gone right on through the town of Chengxiang itself, crossed the river, and ventured out into the tiny townships of the surrounding area. An hour of this had finally brought them to the end of Provincial Road 102, after which point they’d actually had to hike on foot up what had to have been at least several thousand steps (at least!) before finally reaching their destination: Yuntai Temple, perched, at more than 1200 meters above sea level, atop Yuntai Shan. The view was spectacular. Needless to say though, this had totaled out to quite the trek. For Xiao it had mostly just been tedious and, at times, annoying (though the views, as they’d ventured further up into the mountains, really had been quite lovely), but for Gu Bolin, baseline (and older than Xiao by several years, too), it had been a veritable marathon. And, having finally arrived at the temple atop its mountain, they’d been confronted with a true mystery. Dengfeng Sun had been a Buddhist priest, of advanced age and some authority, from nearby Chengxiang. He’d been at the Yuntai temple to inspect progress on work being done there. “A temple” had been at Yuntai for more than 600 years, but the current temple, as well as the nearby bell tower and the large church building on the next hill over, were all recently built and were only the tip of the iceberg. The State-run Buddhist association had big plans for Yuntai, and once all of the plans for construction were completed the temple would be a sprawling complex draping itself over much of the mountain’s northern face and covering more than 3,300 acres. But for now it was just a small temple, a bell tower, and a (admittedly large) church building, all sitting at the very top of the mountain overlooking the river and the nearby townships thousands of feet below. According to what Xiao and Gu had been told so far, the priest, Dengfeng, had come up to the temple to inspect some recent additions, had done so, and had then exited the temple building itself, gotten about 10 meters, and had then died. In a most… unusual fashion. What, precisely, ‘unusual’ was supposed to mean in this context was not something that had been made immediately clear to the SASA agents, but they’d certainly understood what it meant once they’d arrived on the scene. Dengfeng’s corpse was emaciated – almost mummified. In fact, if it weren’t for the eyewitnesses who could verify the man’s death, Xiao and Gu would not likely have believed the body on the ground in front of them had been alive anytime in recent history. But then, that was why SASA had sent them to investigate; it wasn’t everyday that they received eyewitness reports of a man dying from on-the-spot, real time mummification while others watched in horror. Xiao Lok turned from admiring the river valley below them and looked towards the small gathering of Buddhist priests gathered nearby. “What did you say he was doing just before he died?”, asked Xiao, emphasizing the ‘just before’ part of his question and looking to the young priest who’d been acting as their chief guide so far. “Inspecting the alters inside of the temple”, was the young man’s simple reply. They’d gone over this with him before, but something about the chain of events was bothering Xiao. According to the facts they’d been given, Dengfeng had performed a perfectly routine, if very thorough, examination of the interior of Yuntai temple and, having finished with this, walked outside where he’d promptly begun screaming in apparent agony and had literally shriveled up and died while the horrified Yuntai priests attending him had watched. Bearing in mind that nothing in the case made much sense yet, these facts weren’t adding up for either of the SASA agents. Something was missing. Just then Gu looked up from where he was, still crouched next to Dengfeng’s desiccated body, and said, “Xiao, take a look at this.” Xiao Lok crouched down next to his partner and allowed the older man to point out what he’d found. “Look here and here”, Gu said quietly, pointing with a pen to some easy-to-overlook abrasions on the old priest’s clawed and shriveled fingers as well as to some kind of sediment or powder dusting the robes just underneath those hands. “It looks like he was holding something, doesn’t it?” Xiao took a moment to examine Dengfeng’s fingers and robes, then looked up to meet Gu’s expectant gaze and nodded silently in agreement. He gave the man a single pat on the shoulder and stood up again, turning back to the gathered priests. Xiao took a few steps until he was standing next to their young, priestly guide and asked, in a quiet tone of confidentiality, “Was the priest carrying anything when he left the temple? His hands look as though something’s been torn from their grasp.” While Xiao had pitched his voice in a quiet and seemingly confidential tone, he’d still – intentionally – spoken just loud enough for the other priests gathered nearby to hear. He’d observed them from the corner of his eye as he’d done so and, as he hoped, his question had gotten a reaction. A few of the priests were now nudging and whispering to each other, eyes bouncing surreptitiously between Dengfeng’s corpse, the two SASA inspectors, and the temple building behind them. “Care to share with the rest of us?”, Xiao asked them. This time his voiced was edged and hard, and made it clear that it would be in their best interest not to dissemble. Gu Bolin had finally stood up by this time and was now bearing down on the enclave of whispering monks with a glower that was something of a trademark of his firmly affixed to his face. In exchange for their services and loyalty to the Party and the State, SASA agents were given broad authority with relatively little oversight and they had already developed a reputation amongst China’s population for having a rather imperious and haughty attitude. Xiao Lok was hardly an exception, but Gu Bolin could really take it to another level when he wanted to. “Out with it monk!”, snapped the older SASA agent, having apparently chosen one of the two priests in the middle of the whispering group to bear the brunt of his indignation. “What aren’t you telling us? Or is it you we should be investigating here?” “No sir!”, the young man exclaimed and somehow managed to point at the corpse and wave both hands simultaneously. “I swear to you, I had nothing to do with this!” Gu Bolin covered the remaining distance between himself and the unfortunate target of his ire and, his glower still marring his already less-than-appealing features, jabbed a pointing finger into the poor trembling monk’s chest to emphasize his words. “You, and your companions – No! Your co-conspirators! – are hiding something!”, the SASA agent shouted. Personally, Xiao thought his partner was overdoing it, but he’d learned a long time ago that while liberal Capitalists in the West might not approve of such ‘bullying’ the truth was that it got people talking. “Just tell us what you know”, Xiao demanded, backing his partner’s play (though his own tone was noticeably less imperious). “We only want to determine what caused this poor man’s death. Once we’ve solved that mystery our superiors can ensure that such a tragedy does not happen again. Helping us helps the State.” “Yes”, Gu continued, catching his partner’s cue and running with it, “and if you lie to us you work against the State. Keep it up and I can personally guarantee that you’ll lose all of your funding for your precious temple!” As previously mentioned, Yuntai temple was to be the center of a massive rebuilding effort by the State-run Buddhist association with a final estimated cost in the millions of Yuan. Work on it all had barely begun, and to have all of that funding cut would leave the priests living and ministering here with little or nothing except a mark of shame for such a monumental failure that would haunt the rest of their priestly careers. The frightened young priest that Gu Bolin had singled out was still just staring wide-eyed at his tormentor, but one of his associates was a bit quicker to take initiative. “The Hēi Long!”, he exclaimed, “Dengfeng Sun was trying to remove its effigy from the shrine inside of the temple!” “What?”, asked Gu, his tirade cut short by this unexpected revelation. “The effigy of the Black Dragon”, declared another of the monks, “Dengfeng declared it unsuitable for a place at our shrine, saying that it hadn’t been cleared or approved by our head office in Chengxiang. We told him that couldn’t be, that the effigy’s inclusion at the shrine was one of the conditions given by our largest contributor of funds for the temple’s construction, but the elder brother wouldn’t listen and insisted on removing the Black Dragon’s effigy at once. He was carrying it when he… died.” Xiao Lok thought the monk sounded as though he’d been about to say something different and had thought better of it at the last moment, but before he could ask him about it his partner interjected loudly. “He was carrying a statue when he died? In his arms?”, Gu demaned. A few of the priests nodded in the affirmative. “Then why did you remove it?! You’ve tampered with the scene of the crime! With evidence! Explain yourselves at once!” The young monk that Gu had initially targeted for his tirade appeared to have gotten his wits back again, and this time it was he who answered first. “Pardon us, sir, but we couldn’t simply leave it there!” “Of course you could!”, Gu countered angrily, “It’s easy, you just don’t pick it up! There, simple! Problem solved!” At this the gathered monks began shifting anxiously and exchanging sidelong glances of discomfort with each other. The young monk who’d answered Gu did so again, “Oh no, sir! To do so would be absolutely unacceptable.” “What nonsense are you speaking?”, Gu lamented, “It would have been the opposite of unacceptable. In fact, I’d have commended you for it, if you had. Right, Xiao?” Before Xiao could comment, the monk corrected Gu. “My pardon sir, but I did not mean you. I meant it would have been unacceptable to the Black Dragon!” The other monks were nodding at this, and it was Xiao’s turn to ask, “What?” “Isn’t it obvious, sir?”, the monk asked him, “Our venerable brother, Dengfeng Sun, was struck down by the Black Dragon for his disrespect towards its effigy and for attempting to remove it from its rightful place at the shrine.” Xiao and his partner were both stopped up short by this remark and they exchanged a long look with each other while each tried to determine where to go from here. The Chinese Communist Party had had to pull its fellow countrymen out of the mire of superstition and religious dogma by its collective bootstraps, but even so it was not terribly uncommon to hear superstitious comments in this country. Xiao’s own mother had been fond of visiting a local fortune teller to have questions of finance and home troubles answered for her. But to hear someone – even a Buddhist priest whose religious beliefs were, presumably, much stronger than those of most of his countrymen – make a claim that was as flatly outrageous as the one that some minor god had struck a man down dead in broad daylight simply because he’d dared to move that petty god’s statue was – well, it was outrageous. “Where is the effigy now?”, asked Gu Bolin, “Back in place at the shrine, I take it?” One of the priests nodded silently. “Show us”, said Xiao. As a group the monks all turned and began walking back towards the temple building, which was not far away to begin with. As they walked Xiao fell into step next to the monk who’d suffered the brunt of his partner Gu’s wrath and who had revealed to them why it had been deemed necessary for the dragon-god’s effigy to be moved. Xiao asked him, “What did your fellow priest mean when he said that the effigy’s inclusion at your temple’s shrine was a condition of the funding you’ve received?” “Well not all of it”, answered the young man, seeming to have recovered already from his fear and now speaking in a mild tone and with a slight smile on his lips. “But the source of most of our temple’s funding was very specific in her desire that the Black Dragon have a place here at Yuntai.” Xiao nodded a little impatiently at this unnecessary clarification and asked, “And who was the source of this funding, exactly?” The monk’s eyebrows rose at the question and he seemed to hesitate momentarily, and so it was that they were passing through the temple’s doorway and the shrine and effigy in question were just coming into view as he began to answer. “It is Madam Wu herself who has provided the bulk of the funding for the building project here”, he finally answered, finishing just as the group came to a stop before the shrine. Xiao Lok stared at him. Madam Wu, he thought, well this adds a whole new dynamic to the investigation. Madam Wu, real name Wu Zhilan, frequently referred to by those who knew of her as Empress Wu, was the most powerful woman – indeed, the most powerful individual of either gender – in Chongqing’s municipality. In fact she was rapidly becoming one of the most powerful individuals in all of China, and it was rumored that one could feel her influence all the way to Beijing itself. Her husband, Wei Keung, had been the party chief of Chongqing’s municipality until his untimely demise (that some said was caused by Madam Wu herself). Wu Zhilan’s nickname, the Empress Wu, was a reference to China’s first (and, so far, only) female Emperor, Wu Zetian. It was also a reasonably accurate indication of just how powerful the woman really was, too. “The Empress” was known to have strong ties with the Communist Party’s liberal wing and had been kicking up some controversy lately because of her support for many religious activities, shrines, and temples. (This was to say, rather, that she had been kicking up more controversy than normal, as the simple fact of her being a woman who wielded great amounts of power within the traditionally male-dominated Communist Party made her the center of an ongoing controversy as it was.) Personally, Xiao admired the woman for her savvy in providing such support. The truth was that religion and superstition – in a variety of forms – was making a comeback in China. In some of the more backwater portions of the country it was more accurate to say that the Party was in retreat in the face of this religious resurgence. Madam Wu was very effectively forestalling any such occurrence in Chongqing by doing what most of the Party was too afraid to do, except in the most half-hearted of ways, and her own power and policies were now inextricably intertwined with religious and superstitious belief in the municipality. And that was all well and good, but now Xiao Lok found himself caught in the middle of what had suddenly become a very delicate situation. They would need to examine this “Black Dragon’s” effigy, and to run some tests on it as well in order to properly conduct their investigation, but doing so would make it difficult for the priests here and could potentially be seen by the Empress as a challenge to her power. And speaking of that; if rumors started to spread that a man had been struck dead on the spot simply for removing one of the Empress’s favored deities from a shrine of her choosing, the entire situation could quickly get out of hand. Gu Bolin had not heard the conversation between his partner and the monk, and so he remained completely ignorant of the Black Dragon’s exalted status as one of Madam Wu’s favored little gods. He stopped before the temple’s shrine and, his frown still very firmly fixed in place, demanded loudly to know which of the effigies before him was the Black Dragon. One of the monks pointed and Gu found himself regarding the statue of man seated, and dressed, in a manner fairly typical for such “honored ancestor”-style statues. As was typically the case for Chinese dragon deities, the “Black Dragon” was here represented as a human being, dressed in appropriately regal robes and with appropriately sage-like facial hair. All in all the Black Dragon didn’t look that impressive to Gu Bolin. “This is it?”, he demanded to know, looking from priest to priest with an expression of incredulity. “I’ve seen more impressive effigies at the family shrine in my father’s home!” The gathered monks chose, wisely, not to respond to this taunt. “Well you wasted your time”, Gu declared, turning his frowning countenance back to the Dragon’s statue. Leaning forward, Gu poked at the statue with the same pen he’d used to examine Dengfeng’s corpse, eliciting small gasps of dismay and disapproval from a few of the watching Buddhist priests. The SASA agent threw them a withering glance at this but he nonetheless pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and, using that, shifted the statue this and way and that as he gave it a thorough looking over. This seemed to appall the gathered priests just the tiniest bit less than poking it with a pen had. When Gu examined its base he immediately saw more of what appeared to be the same powder that had he’d noticed on Dengfeng Sun’s robes outside; though it appeared to be just some powdered clay worn lose from the statue’s bottom, the power and the statue would still need to be analyzed properly. Gu looked back to the monks and finished his sentence from a moment before, “we’re just going to have to move it again”, he said, “and hope your meddling hasn’t hopelessly contaminated any evidence we might have pulled off of it otherwise.” “You mustn’t do that”, said the priest who Xiao Lok had been speaking with as they’d entered the temple. “That effigy was placed there and blessed by the holy woman Plum Flower Sika herself.” “Even if I knew who that was”, pronounced Gu Bolin, adding quickly, “and I don’t – it still wouldn’t make a difference. I promise you that your statue will be returned to you as soon as our people are done analyzing it.” “Please”, entreated the young monk, “you cannot do this. The Black Dragon’s presence here brings our temple great good fortune, and if you remove it you can only bring calamity on yourself.” “Are you threatening me?”, demanded Xiao’s partner. To this the young priest could only shake his head in the negative and, bowing at the waste, say that he begged the inspector’s forgiveness for his rudeness. Gu was looking appropriately huffy about all of this, but was somewhat distracted now, as he had his cell phone in his hand and was regarding its display with a look of disapproval. “Reception up here is lousy”, he muttered. Turning his attention back to the priest before him he said, “You and I aren’t done yet. I’m going to step outside and, assuming I can get any reception on top of this mountain, I’m going to find out what’s taking our forensics group so long to get out here. Once they get here we will tear this place apart and you’ll wish it were just a ‘divine’ calamity you were dealing with. Then we’ll see how uncooperative you all are.” Gu Bolin threw one more disparaging look at the Buddhist priests before him and then he turned and walked out of the temple. Xiao Lok watched him go while debating within himself. He knew that his partner might not be so eager to mistreat the priests or their idols if he knew that it was Wu Zhilan herself who’d installed them all here, but he also knew that Gu was right about needing to go over everything forensically, and that that would mean moving the Black Dragon’s effigy – and probably carting it off to a lab somewhere for at least a few weeks, too. This was one apple cart that was going to be disturbed no matter what, and if Gu wanted to be the one doing the disturbing then so much the better. A part of Xiao wanted to tell his partner what was at stake here on Yuntai mountain, but the other (larger) part of him saw an opportunity to navigate a tricky situation with his career still intact and, frankly, he was inclined to take advantage of that opportunity now that he’d seen it. These thoughts were still passing through Xiao’s head when the screaming started.
  2. [Four years ago] "How old did you say this kid was?" Joe Horst flipped through the file the colonel had handed him as they waited. In the bunker, the only natural light came from the heavily-screened viewing slits the two men were standing before. Several sets of high-powered binoculars were on the ledge ready for use, and dim red light permeated the rest of the bunker as aides and technical personnel quietly intoned into various microphones. Kinda like a church, Horst mused as he turned back to the summary page and looked at the picture of the youth there. But for what religion? "Sixteen now. He was fifteen when we picked him up. Seems he popped when the Refugees first came through." The colonel tapped one of the technicians monitoring the range's sensors on the shoulder. "How long?" "Ten minutes, sir." "Let me know when it's one minute till." "Yessir." The colonel looked back at the man who, if rumor was right, was going to be the newly-appointed head of the newly-formed Department of Superhuman Affairs. Horst looked up from his reading. "Says here he killed his stepfather." the bureaucrat said levelly. "Accident." The colonel tapped an attached psych report. "The kid's really cut up about it still. It took nearly six months just to try and get him to practice his powers. And he's a long way from comfortable with it." "Hmm." was all Horst said as he looked back down at the page. Then he looked back up again. "So... magnetism?" The one-word question was loaded with all sorts of meaning. "I know, sir. But comic books aside, he's no supervillain." "It's more than magnetism!" The excitable tones of the white-coated woman nearby intruded on the calm discussion. "Our Mr Mitchell can tap into the very currents of the Earth itself." The dirty-blonde hair was piled up in loose disarray, a pencil stuck in it over the ear as she focused on the readout of one of the monitors. "Explain that to me, Doctor...?" "Yurgen. Anna Yurgen." she turned towards Horst long enough to shake his hand. "I'm the project lead on the Mitchell boy. He's quite extraordinary, which is why we've had to work to make his environment as ordinary as possible." "His environment?" "Home, school, friends. It's manipulative to a degree, but we need to keep his feelings of alienation down. Because otherwise, Mister Horst, we are looking at a supervillain." "Oh come on, Doc." the colonel started in a tone that told Horst that this discussion was an old one. "The kid's a nice guy." "Of course he is!" Dr Yurgen said defensively. "But if you try to use him for military purposes, a supersoldier, you'll take that away from him." "He'd be trained to follow orders-" "Until he decides he doesn't have to!" the doctor argued vociferously. "His mind is already faster and more powerful than a Cray supercomputer, colonel. You'll be left with a super-smart young man with the power to cause earthquakes and rip cities apart, and with military conditioning to respond to threats. Maybe you should read more comic books. That scenario never ends well." "The Department of Superhuman Affairs is not, and never will be, a military organisation." Horst said firmly. "It is the considered opinion of the White House that, as Doctor Yurgen says, novas are not suited to being soldiers. We may aid peacekeeping actions - though that's not certain yet - but we aren't in the business of fighting wars." That seemed to satisfy the doctor, and the colonel merely nodded aquiescence. "Now explain to me about the earthquakes thing, Doctor." "Mr Mitchell can manipulate gravity, electromagnetism, rock and minerals. He's not so much Magneto as the mythical figure Antaeus, who drew his strength from the Earth. Though we've been told by the Refugees that there was an Antaeus on their home world, so we're not using that codename. The best analogy we can give you is that Rob taps into the telluric currents that run through this planet - and the universe generally." "So do all novas." said the colonel curtly. "The quantum forces: they all tap into those." "In Rob's case, it's simply more direct." Dr Yurgen explained. "He can make himself stronger and more dense, or reshape metal, or raise huge walls of earth and rock. We think his mental and hand-eye acuity is due to electromagnetic enhancement of his brain and neural system. And yes, he can cause earthquakes. Or, theoretically, stop them." "And the gravity?" "He uses it to fly, and can affect the gravity of an area by either increasing or decreasing it. He's also capable of a form of telekinesis with it, altering the microgravities around an object to lift and move it. Oh, and he can shield himself with it." "Shield himself?" "Oh yes. An intensely strong gravitic forcefield. We've scanned him when he's shielding at full strength, and it even distorts our sensors. EM energy, gravitic anomalies... it's fascinating." "You'll get to see that in action, sir." the colonel supplied. "Wait. Are we going to be shooting at a sixteen year old boy?" Horst demanded, looking from doctor to soldier incredulously. "Oh, don't fret Mr Horst." Dr Yurgen said with a laugh. "He enjoys it." * * * * * [A little over one year ago] "This sucks." The young man in the chair with his sandaled feet up on the table said with brutal honesty, as he levitated the last doughnut over to his hand. The Director scowled at him, and the various technicians, doctors and other officials wore expressions varying between annoyance and sympathy as they glanced down to the end of the table where Telluris sat. "I mean, seriously guys. Novas aren't a big damn secret. But you've got me running around doing sneaky disaster relief, for crying out loud. C'mon, Director! When are we gonna unleash Telluris on the world stage?" "You've been 'unleashed' enough." Horst growled at him, waving a large photograph of the naked rear-end of Rob as he flew off into the sky. "We told you to keep the speeds down below two hundred, but you had to go faster, didn't you?" "So get me a new supersuit." Rob shrugged and bit into the doughnut, wolfing it down in three bites. "What about that new inventor-brain you guys are bringing in? Karrie Diner." "Dineh. And yes, one of the first things we will be getting Ms Dineh to design is something that allows public decency laws to be observed by supersonic idiots." Horst said acidly. "'Gee, thanks for saving that Airbus, Telluris.' 'I don't know what we'd have done if the plane had crashed, Telluris'." Rob said in an affected growl, then smiled at Horst. "See, that's what it sounds like when people appreciate me speeding to the rescue. Those folks on the plane didn't care that my ass was bare." "Oh, judging by the number of snaps on the Internet, they did." said an official, trying not to smile. Rob grinned. "Okay, so there's some publicity. So let's counter it with awesome publicity. Take me off the bench, coach." he told Horst. "You are staying benched until your clothes stay on, and that's final." Horst scowled. "Now lets move on to the training review." "Boring..." Rob sighed, slumping down more in the chair.
  3. Sham Shui Po Park, Hong Kong Scene for Hāṅgakāṅga kī Ghaṭanā (The Hong Kong Incident) “I still feel weird about this.” Harley frowned at her tall, utterly gorgeous sister, feeling dowdy and short next to her. Which totally wasn’t fair, because Harley was smoking. Like Kat, Harley was a leggy blonde, with curves where society demanded they be and trim elsewhere. She was a dancer by desire and it showed in her well-muscled form. “I mean… I feel wrong.” Kitty rolled her eyes. “Harley, I repeat: I didn’t get you this job. I got you an audition. It was your dancing that got you this job.” Harley crossed her arms, frowning. “Yeah… but with my last name? And how much I look like you? Was it really a fair audition?” “I told Jadjit to treat you fairly.” Kitty shrugged. “It’s hardly your fault if he didn’t.” Harley groaned. “See?! I totally got this job because I’m your sister!” “Then enjoy it.” Kitty refused to rise to her sister’s drama. “Everyone gets their big break somewhere. Just because yours came from connections doesn’t mean you’re not a good dancer. You are. Believe me, even if you were my sister, Jadjit’s not risking his movie over bad casting. And dancing makes and breaks these productions. So relax.” Even though she was a newcomer to the scene, Kitty had done her research on Bollywood and knew how the industry worked. She’d wanted to do one of these movies for a long time. Indian film had a bad rap, but Kitty had seen that they could produce quality. She was eager to add her name and influence to that region. There were some that threatened that this could sink her career. Kitty was getting ready to prove them wrong. “Ugh. You just don’t get it!” “And you are overreacting.” Kitty’s critique was harsh, but her tone wasn’t. “This industry is built on who knows who. Take advantage of it, because the next dancer definitely will.” Harley pouted some more but stopped arguing. Instead, her attention settled on the dance director, Rani. The pretty Mumbai native was a veteran of Bollywood movies and had won awards for her choreography. She was also a slave-driver, demanding absolute perfection from all her dancers. Harley knew she needed to be paying attention, so that when Rani called for them, she’d be ready. “Kitty!” Both of the women turned as Jadjit, the director called her name. “Kitty, there you are.” As usual, the older Indian spoke in a mixture of Hindi and English. That wasn’t uncommon but Harley was lost as the director said, “We’re getting ready to shoot the dance scene. Are you ready?” Kitty smiled and nodded. “Let me put my face on.” She focused her internal quantum and blackness stained the golden strands of her hair. Her pale skin darkened to a cinnamon brown and her blue eyes turned hazel-green. “I’m ready.” “Beautiful as always.” Jadjit smiled at her, his brown eyes gleaming with pleasure. “Come, take your place.” Rani was yelling for the dancers, never seeming to have to lift her voice. Yet they all heard and men and women alike rushed to take their spots. Kitty was more sedate and dignified in her pace; they wouldn’t start without her, nor would anyone begrudge her for taking her time. Her co-star Harinder smiled as he took her hand and they settled into their starting positions. “Ready?” he asked. “Oh, yeah. I’ve been looking forward to this.” Kitty’s grin was excited as the music started and the director yelled, “Action!
  4. Horst was worried. He wasn’t concerned because Karrie was getting a dressing-down. She got yelled at all the time; the girl thrived on getting told to sit down and behave. She never listened – except to Rob but that was only because he was almost as crazy as her. That almost was key; even Karrie knew that when Rob was cautioning her, it was serious. Horst knew that the Navajo nova loved to push her limits. That’s why he set ones for her; so that she’d have something to rail against. But if real limits were set for her and the consequences were grave enough, he was sure she’d leave. Coyote had the option of walking; any company in the world would snap her up in a heartbeat and cater to her every whim. Horst didn’t want the DSA to lose her brain. But the president was going to try to contain the mad scientist; try to talk “reasonably” with her. Horst had already gotten his dressing-down, for not “controlling” Coyote, as if such an insane creature could be controlled. Horst liked the girl for the most part; she was funny and brilliant and did great work. She was also a good person, if not quite as obviously generous as Telluris. If one wanted the results of her insane genius, one had to accept that she was insane. The president seemed to think he could lay on the charm and convince her to “settle down”, to “play ball” and magically manage her where Horst had not. “Manage”: like she was some kind of errant child who needed to be shown the proper way to be. Horst almost wished Carlson flubbed this, just to show the President that Horst wasn’t a moron. Carlson had talked on and on about having a firm hand with her and Horst’s assertions that Coyote would not react well to that were not well-received. The President thought that Horst was being too soft on her and didn’t want anyone else to show him where he’d been wrong. This was all political, of course. The EuroZone was bitching about Karrie’s little stunt; they hadn’t stopped giving the president shit about it. Yes, she’d been trespassing. Yes, she’d technically violated EU law. However, all she’d done was talk to someone; when arrested, she’d cooperated – though he’d heard stories that she’d given them lip the entire time, which sounded like something she’d do. And yes, she should be punished for trespassing; Horst agreed with that. However, how you punished someone like Karrie and kept her working for you was the question. The president was going to lay down the law with her and it was probably only going to be a warning from him. But she’d go out and do what she was ordered not to do, just to see if the President would actually follow through on his threats. And when she was actually punished, truly disciplined, for that – because she’d have to be – she’d leave. Horst sighed and shifted in the chair, watching Karrie sitting in the Oval Office on the small camera. He was currently in the White House security office, waiting for this mess to be over so he could start damage control – or maybe just take Karrie to lunch, if she wasn’t talking about quitting. The Secret Service agent in the next chair glanced at him. His name was Carl Eastman, and he was the head of security today. Horst liked the older man; he seemed competent and respectful. “Sir, are you sure you want to stay? We can make sure that Ms. Dineh gets back to the DSA.” “No, I’ll wait.” Horst didn’t add the reason why. Horst wanted time on the drive back to convince her not to quit. He was sure she would, if she felt like she was being constrained too much. And if he couldn’t do it, he’d get Rob to work on her. Horst wasn’t sure how much influence Telluris could have on the young woman in this case, but it would be more than his. Frankly, there were times he didn’t know how he would have been able to have as much sway as he did over Karrie without Rob; the kid was a stabilizing influence on her. It had been a true boon for Horst in his dealings. Also, dealing with Rob had been great practice for dealing with Karrie. Horst was about ready to authorize Karrie for full field work. That could be a carrot I could offer to convince her to stay, he mused. Of course, then she’d think he’d done it just to keep her. In truth was something he’d been considering for a while now. She’d done well in Germany and if she had a touch more training, she’d be a good field agent. And if she were paired with Rob, he could keep her in line and watch her back. They’d be a good team; Rob was smart enough to not slow Karrie down and he could protect her – and protect others from her. -=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=- The two Secret Service agents moved through the West Wing of the White House, their steps unhurried. Though they were relatively new, having been here for less than a year, they were known to the staff. Nods were exchanged; in one case, the cuter of the two gave a pretty staff member a wink. She giggled and turned red before ducking into a room. Behind the two men trailed four more. They were wearing overalls and carrying electrical equipment; one of them pushed a cart filled with bigger tools. Their two-man escort showed them to the electrical room just behind the Roosevelt Room, following the technicians inside and shutting the door behind them. As the agents watched, the four began to set up their equipment. After five minutes of work, a box-like container had been set up by one of the men; it looked to be a cube about the size of an air conditioner. It had only a single button on it. There was no need to adjust the settings; that was already prepared for the team. Meanwhile, the other three were opening a secret panel in the box and pulling out firearms. They passed them around to everyone, including the two traitorous Secret Service agents. The technicians had removed their overalls to reveal Kevlar vests covered in various equipment; the “agents” were shedding their jackets and white shirts to reveal the same. “We ready?” the leader asked, his cold blue eyes sweeping over his team. “Is POTUS were he’s supposed to be?” “Yes. We’re ready.” Their technician reached out and pushed the button. It immediately began to hum. Moving quickly, the six men exited the room. They quickly broke into three groups; one went for the office of the Vice-President, one group went to collect the other staff and the third went to the Oval Office.
  5. “Something’s getting in the way, Something’s just about to break, I will try to find my place in the diary of Jane As I burn another page As I look the other way I still try to find my place in the diary of Jane So tell me how it should be.” Karrie paused in mid-eyeliner application. Her iTunes had a very creepy habit of pulling up songs that applied to her life in some way, and a song about a boy trying to work his way into a girl’s life rang close to her own efforts tonight. “Desperate, I will crawl Waiting for so long No love, there is no love Die for anyone What have I become.” “Skip!” she shouted, gripping the sink a little tighter. Her computer obligingly cut off Breaking Benjamin in mid-beat and shuffled to the next song – What If We Could. “Oh, god damn it! Just stop!” iTunes killed the song, but not fast enough. Karrie didn’t believe in omens, but her people did, and she’d been raised with just enough superstition for that doubt to twist around in her brain. “It’s going to be fine. Remember what Rob said? Lots of kinds of awesome. You’ll be fine.” Carefully, she leaned back in and finished her eye, then leaned back to see how she looked. Connor’s last article in Vogue said that he liked it when a woman didn’t wear a lot of makeup. Kitty’s primping lessons on the boat now helped Karrie to still Kitty’s ex away from her – forever! “Oh yeah, when this night is done, I’ll so be Connor’s girl!” Karrie tried to put complete confidence into that statement but it came out a little flat. She just hoped she was dressed right – expecting dancing to be casual, she’d worn a gray denim skirt combined with a turquoise top. The top was too dressy for the skirt, making it look dowdy, and her black sandals were a little too dark for the outfit. Karrie didn’t seem to notice. The ringing door bell made her jump, sending her large silver earrings swinging. “Oh, god. Oh, god, oh, god, ohgod! That’s him!” Karrie took a few deep breathes and fanned herself, then went to open the door. Unfortunately, she was too excited and ended up whacking herself in the forehead with it. “Ow!”
  6. Sometime last summer… The buzzing of her phone interrupted Karrie’s writing. “Damn it,” she growled, shoving the laptop further down the couch and kicking her feet over it. She’d really been in the grove; Shadows of the Endless Night, the latest installment of her Endless Night fanfiction series, was just reaching its emotional climax. The glance at the caller id didn’t help her mood: Mom. With a groan, the girl rolled her eyes. “‘Karen, do you have a boyfriend yet?’” she squeaked in a high falsetto. “‘Karen, are you still collecting that stupid anime?’” She punched the connect button with a sharp tap of her thumb. “Hi, Mom.” “Karen?” The sound of her mother’s voice wiped away all her anger. “Something’s happened. We need you to come home.” “What’s wrong Mom?” Karrie asked, her fingers tightening around the phone. “Is Dad okay?” Oh, please… not his heart… “Karen… Sami’s dead.” -=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=- “You can’t catch me!” The girl scurried up the rock face, her nut-brown skin scraped and dirty. She wore ragged jean-shorts and a thread-bare hand-me-down Power Puff Girls t-shirt. “Samantha, wait!” the other girl called. She was just as dirty and brown as Sami, but where the older girl moved with grace and confidence, young Karen moved less certainly. Still, she gamely followed her cousin up the rock face, pulling herself up as rapidly as she dared. Her own t-shirt was an oversized tee that proclaimed her a diva. Like Sami, her shirt had come from the local mission. The two girls went higher and higher, the world falling away behind them. It was only twenty feet, but to two children less than four feet tall, it was as high as the world. Karen was panting by the time she’d pulled herself up onto the top, but even she had to admit that it was worth the climb. Being on top filled her with an exaltation and sense of success rare in her life. Her house was below them; other buildings dotted the area. Sami was sitting on the edge, looking out over the sparse beauty of their ancestral land. “You can see all the way to New York,” she told Karen, who believed her because Sami’s eyesight was better than hers and she had no idea how far away New York was from the Four Corners. “What’s it look like?” young Karen asked. “It shines in the sun and everyone’s smiling,” Sami said, her gaze faraway. “No one’s hungry, and everyone’s happy. The children play all the time, and adults laugh at least once a day.” Karen knew that wasn’t true, but even at that age, she understood the necessity of dreams. They were free, and that was all most on the Rez could afford.
  7. Some things are too painful for words; the stigma of those terrible things linger in the mind long after they are gone. This trauma in particular echoes through the subconscious until there’s only a memory of the pain. But even as it fades, the year turns and it has returned, fresh and strong. It was the Annual DSA Science Convention. In theory, gathering scientists from around the world wasn’t so bad. But the people who thought it was a good idea were 1) masochists or 2) not there. The problem was summed up nicely by a Cal Tech professor who formulated a theory that every scientist had a certain level of smug. Most levels of smug were undistinguishable to the human senses, but if you brought them together in a small space, the smug actually increased exponentially. And the Annual Science Convention always had a lot of scientists there. Physicists tried to impress biologists who lorded their knowledge over chemists who snubbed the physicists. The astronomers kept to themselves while the engineers tried to be friendly to everyone and were largely only tolerated. The in-betweeners – the biophysicists, chemical engineers and their ilk – drifted between the islands of people, seeking to find their place among ‘purer’ scientists. Karrie Dineh wove through the room, trying not to openly laugh at people. To her, this ridiculous one-man-up-ship existed solely for her entertainment. She was pondering spiking the punch – that could only improve the party in her point of view – as she eased through the crowd. That was looking more and more like a very real possibility if she remained this bored. Being a mechanical engineer – technically, though she didn’t have a degree even – meant she wasn’t very popular. Well, she was popular in that she was kinda attractive, but no one wanted to talk to her. It was really annoying. Bored and annoyed were two very dangerous combinations for Coyote.
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