Authors: Charlee Allden
© 2015 All rights reserved.
Lily Rowan stood on the roof of her apartment building. The city spread around her like a menacing maze, a childhood friend whose grown-up face didn’t quite fit her memories. Or maybe it was her that didn’t yet fit.
Her doctors said,
give yourself time
Her therapists said,
give yourself time
Her brother said,
give yourself time
Hell, in the beginning, even her unit director had told her to take some time before going back to her position on the special tactics squad.
Time was up.
One last psych evaluation to prove she could cope with the memories of a training op gone terribly wrong, with the panic attacks that followed, with a job that left no room for hesitation, no room for indecision, no room for fear.
Lily stepped to the roof’s edge—the toes of her boots jutting over the precipice. Standing there, four stories up, wasn’t the dumbest thing she’d ever done. Not even close.
Face your fears.
She owed that bit of advice to her father.
The enormous alloy barrier a dozen blocks east ringed The Zone and kept the Ormney settlement out of view. It might hide the unfamiliar structures and keep the Ormney sequestered during the night hours, but it couldn’t wall away her memories.
Face your fears.
That’s what she’d been trying to do when she decided to live in The Mixer—so close to The Zone and one of a handful of places where Ormney and Earth natives worked side-by-side.
Face your fears.
Her brother’s voice in her ear jerked her out of her thoughts. She traced a finger over the slender com-link wrapped over her right lobe. The missed call signal flashed in one corner of her com-lens.
Her love for her brother gave her the will to push a little cheer into her voice. “You’re supposed to wait for me to answer the call.”
Brian chuckled. “What good is it to be a hacker if you can’t use the skills when your sister is being a pain?”
A grin tugged at her cheeks as she stepped back from the edge. “You’re not a hacker. You’re an electronic security expert. There’s supposed to be a difference.”
“Yeah, yeah. And you’re supposed to be easier to reach now that you’re on medical leave.”
The message indicator still blinked urgent at the edge of the lens in her right eye—code STU. Special Tactics Unit. Deepwater Security and Protection Services. Her employer. And it could only be about her appointment. She let the message scroll across her com-lens as text.
“Oh damn. Bri, I promise I’m not trying to avoid you, but I’ve got to go.” She ran through her mental checklist for anything she might need then engaged her apartment security remotely. “They just changed my evaluation appointment and now I’m late.”
“Don’t sound so worried, Lil. You’re going to do fine.”
“Love you, baby brother.” Lily disconnected the call and jogged across the catwalk stretching across the narrow alley between the buildings. If she kept to the rooftops, she could make it to the glide-rail station faster than if she went down to the ground.
Halfway across the second catwalk she heard the scream.
She froze. Unable to move.
For three sickening seconds she stood on the narrow walkway, trembling, trapped in memories of blood and pain and death.
The last time she’d heard a voice that full of agony she’d been the one doing the screaming. But that was in the past. After months of rehab and hard work she’d learned to push through the fear, use the adrenalin.
She sucked in a breath, held it, then started the measured breathing she’d been taught. Oh, she’d been dosed with the appropriate drugs to prevent the stress of the trauma, but too many transfusions equaled not enough of it staying in her system in the critical hours after…
Another scream tumbled from a broken window on the third floor of the next building—this one mixed with the shouts and crashing thuds of a herd of wildebeest trapped in a tea shop. Her brain screamed in protest when she tried for a better explanation of the sound that crackled across her nerves, fueling her memories and raising goose bumps along her flesh.
Lily activated her multi-com and linked to the emergency response net. A cool artificial voice responded. “State the nature of your emergency.”
“A woman screaming. Being attacked.” It didn’t say enough, but no more words bubbled up.
“Acknowledged. JAX Metro Domestic Dispute Resolution and Medical Emergency Units en route.” Emotionless, efficient, cold. “Please stay clear of the area. Estimated time to scene is ten minutes.”
Too long. Her heart gave a thud. Far too long.
Lily sprinted across the catwalk and headed for the building’s rooftop entrance. Already reaching for the mini-pulser in the pocket of her well-worn leather coat, she wished for something with range and accepted that she was going to miss her fitness evaluation. Whatever coil of fate had caused the psych team to change her appointment at the last minute had made the testing redundant. Fit or not, she was it. “Inform Metro units, off-duty civilian contractor on scene. Deepwater International ID Tango-Lima-One-One-Three.”
She yanked open the door and pounded down the stairwell. She could see residents filing into the stairwell below. As she got to the third floor landing, Lily shouted out a warning to clear a path as she hugged the wall and eased into the hallway. She stopped at the first corner and listened. A guttural growl rumbled from somewhere around the corner. A resounding thunk and a hoarse groan followed close behind. Different victim. This one sounded male and hurt, but not yet dying.
Wrapping her hand firmly around the slim cylinder of her pulser, she eased around the corner. A woman leaned against the bare polyplast wall, blood dripping from her busted lip. Crimson streaks splashed across her lemon yellow jumpsuit.
Lily met the woman’s eyes briefly before edging past her.
,” the woman warned, her words liquid with her own blood.
Shock hit Lily like a blow, low to her belly. A
. An Ormney.
A holo-perfect image of Kiq, the first Ormney she’d ever met, flashed through her thoughts.
His tall, broad frame towering over her, his features almost human. Almost. His Ormney eyes nearly hidden in the striped bands of his face. Elliptical pupils wide, eyes wild. Claws razor sharp and slashing.
She couldn’t get air past the crushing band of panic that tightened around her chest. Lily fought past the fright, past the memories, past the fear. Fear of the damage an Ormney could inflict. Fear of freezing up and being less than she’d once been. Fear of facing Kiq’s dead eyes again.
her.” The voice, angry and desperate, echoed down the hall and jolted Lily back to the present danger.
She needed to think. She knew as much about Ormney abilities as any Earth native. She licked her suddenly dry lips, keyed in the safety override on her pulser, and boosted the power.
A man, early twenties, chest and feet bare, sprawled across the hallway floor in the shadows at the end of the hall. The flesh of his arms was shredded. He struggled to get his feet under him, to stand, but one leg lay limp and useless. His efforts smeared the plastile floor with blood.
Lily forced her own legs to carry her forward, pushing into a jog and picking her way around the injured man. She lunged into the room—an efficiency with no cover, no place out of reach, nowhere to hide. The Ormney stood steps away, his back to the door. A thick mane of dark hair bushed wildly around his head. He stooped over a still figure stretched across a multi-platform bed. One arm hung low as if the chore of his grim work had fatigued him. His clawed hands dripped with blood. Angry red streaks painted the room as he struck the woman again.
Lily’s muscles burned with the need to run.
She couldn’t. She was stronger than that.
Ignore the blood. Ignore the woman. Focus on the threat.
With his Ormney physiology, a stun pulse from across the room would never take him down. She strode forward and reached for the center of his broad back, but he was already turning. She adjusted her angle, going lower to avoid his shoulder as he spun around.
She discharged the pulser, but the Ormney
. He blurred into a hazy ghost-like image, but he didn’t disappear completely. Something made him think better of attempting the
in the too small space.
He snapped back to
before the charge had fully dissipated, catching only a fraction of the effect and leaving him strong enough to take a swing at her. Instinct overrode training and she put an arm up to block him. The scratch of his claws against the leather of her coat wound her tighter as the force of the blow knocked her off her feet.
She braced for his attack, for debilitating pain, but the massive male went for the open window. He crashed through the too-small gap, smashing the frame, heedless of the scrape of mangled metal and glass against his thick Ormney hide.
Lily grabbed for the edge of the platform bed and pulled herself up, trying to ignore the wet, sticky gore beneath her palm.
Damn. Damn. Damn. Her breath shuttered as she batted her bloody hand against her pants leg. She spared only a glance for the woman lying silent and broken. She wasn’t moving and her still form was drenched in crimson. It coated her ruined flesh, soaked the carpet, arced across the walls. Not good. Not good at all.
Lily headed for the window and leaned carefully through the battered frame. The Ormney had made it a block down the alley. She had little hope of catching him, but she could keep him in sight. Make sure Metro would have a chance of catching the bastard.
She shoved the pulser into her pocket, climbed through, and reached for the emergency glide-pole attached to the side of the building. Damn thing looked a year behind any sort of maintenance. With a shiver, she stepped off the ledge then activated the glide. The aging mechanism clattered against the building as it dropped her in a controlled fall.
Seconds later her feet hit the ground. The jarring impact radiated upward, forcing the air out of her lungs. Momentarily unable to breathe, she forced herself into a protective crouch. An angry roar jerked her attention to the end of the alley. The Ormney swung around and headed back toward her. His bellow died abruptly as he blurred, then disappeared.
She hadn’t anticipated that.
Why would he run, then come back at her?
Damn his Ormney hearing. A human would never have heard her on the glide from that distance.
Lily shoved to her feet and sprinted. Kiq had taught her that any
followed a pattern with a semi-predictable set of outcomes. While the bastard could reappear anywhere, there were three most likely positions. She chose instinctively, stopping an arm’s reach from where—if she’d chosen right—he’d reappear.
A subtle disturbance rippled in the air in front of her. Lily tightened her fingers on the pulser’s trigger pad. As the Ormney
he got the full force of the charge. His body jerked, and his bowels released, sending a foul odor wafting from him. Somehow he managed to maintain some muscle control. He struck her hard, throwing her against the alley wall. The impact robbed Lily of her senses. Her knees crumpled. She landed hard on the pavement. The certainty that she would die if she didn’t get a second charge off formed in her thoughts as everything around her dimmed.
She wasn’t dying. Not today. Lily tapped every scrap of strength left in her body and thrust the pulser out in front of her. He slammed into her. Her arm buckled.
He was too close.
His smothering weight forced the pulser too close to her own body.
No way to avoid getting transfer from the pulse.
She gripped the weapon tight and braced for the jolt as she squeezed the trigger pad.
Lightning flashed through her, setting fire to her nerve endings. The world outside her body ceased to exist. A moment later it snapped back in place with a flash of agony.
She blinked hard, trying to focus. Where was he? She could no longer feel the weight of him crushing her down. She struggled to sit up, dull pain lashing her senses. The hum in her ears made her want to shake her head. She knew from experience that would be a bad move. When her vision cleared, the Ormney lay in front of her in an unmoving heap.
The welcome shrill of sirens ringing down the alley drove Lily to her feet to wait for Metro. She kept her breath shallow determined to push away the ache in her ribs.
She couldn’t push away the consequences of her actions so easily. Lily looked down at the body.