Initiating access procedures...
kitten   August 25, 2002

Tonight, she was crouched in the shadows behind large rolls of wrapped black plastic leaning against a wall. In thirty seconds, if her timing was right - it always was - her target would be walking home from his office. Her muscles tensed as she checked her grip on tonight's weapon - a cheap Chinese knockoff of a Walther, disposable and light and utterly deadly.

Twenty seconds. Her breathing slowed as she relaxed into her State, the odd clarity and precision that seemed to guide her, almost without her conciousness being involved, into performing these tasks with the smooth precision necessary to carry them out.

Ten seconds. And she could hear the vague footsteps of Italian leathered shoes on the pavement, approaching, and the swishing of fine silk of the pantlegs of his suit.

And there he was, casual and confident, strong jaw, dark suit, moving past her field of vision behind those rolls of plastic. He was followed by a younger looking man, taller but of a slighter build with a messy crop of straw-colored hair, carrying a metallic case in his right hand.

Her dossier had said nothing about an apprentice. But this did not concern her. She would adapt, as she always did, and this was nothing more than a minor alteration in her premeditated course of action.

Adaptation was yet another reason her skills were so highly sought.

She ticked off ten after they had walked past, and then stepped out into the cool November night, moved in behind them, carefully avoiding the most obvious areas of light cast by gaslamps along the street, instinctively seeking shadow.

Closer now and closer still.

The safety on her weapon was off. The safety on her guns were always off. She didn't like using the safety; she felt it gave one a false sense of security. If a gun was loaded, it was not safe, and should be treated as though it might fire at any time, for any reason. There was no such thing as a 'safe' loaded gun to her.

And if a gun was loaded and in her hand, it was anything but safe for the one selected for her.

She moved in, close enough to almost make out the verticle herringbone pattern on the younger man's jacket, her footfalls muffled by sound-dampening aerorubber in her boot soles. The younger man, though, he was not her target, and he would live.

She raised the gun and held it at arm's length, the sight picture containing only the back of the man's head. Absolute clarity and absence of thought. Only her State dictated her actions now.

She felt detached from what she saw herself doing, as she always did during these tasks. She watched her finger tighten round the trigger, watched the back of the man's head come off as his lifeless body crumpled into the sidewalk, his face like a trainwreck. She saw the apprentice whirl around--

--and he saw no more than a brief glimpse of a dark lithe figure disappearing around a corner. The young man dropped his case, abandoned the body of his teacher and gave chase, hurtling down the sidewalk, back the way he had come, and turned into the alleyway he had seen the figure vanish into.

She was gone.

It wasn't possible, but she had gotten away somehow - from a narrow brick-sided alleyway cordoned off by a high chainlink fence topped with razorwire. He snapped a penlight off his belt and checked the only hiding places he could see, behind some rolls of gritty plastic neocrete leaning against a wall, and around a refuse container. Nothing.

The sound of a fire escape retracting caught his attention and he looked up, just in time to see the sillouetted figure of his teacher's assassin skim over the raingutter and onto the rooftop.

The apprentice, despite his teacher's - his friend's - death, managed a grim smile. The problem with escaping to a rooftop was the limited number of places to continue, and from here, the killer could only go across to the adjoining building, in which case the apprentice would see, or down back to the ground. Foolish.

In a matte black holster strapped to the apprentice's thigh, there was a .22 calibre modified to project an unorthodox payload: six small cylinders of a heavy-grade sedative. Like tiny hypodermic syringes they would inject their contents on impact, neutralizing the largest adversary in under a second, but leaving him intact, to be interrogated - or disposed of. It is this gun the apprentice drew; he snapped the first cylinder into the chamber, and circled around to the other side of the building. If the killer was intelligent, he or she would linger on the roof for some time before coming down. The apprentice could afford to wait.

The night was clarifyingly cold.

...

She awoke in a daze and her gun was gone, her vision blurring what little there was to see in the somber and darkened room. Her body felt heavy on the cool temperfoam, and she could hear the humming of machinery, muted as though in another room.

She swung her legs over the edge of the foam and tried to stand, realizing what a mistake this was as her temples protested by pulsing in pain, so she sat, her head between her knees, breathing in through her nose, out through her mouth, trying to calm herself.

Where the hell was she?

It looked like a compound of some kind, completely foreign to her, yet naggingly familiar in some respects. The room she was in had a high and vaulted ceiling which seemed much more cavernous than it was, by virtue of the subtle breeze produced by an overhead fan she could barely discern. The walls had a faint oily sheen; she reached out two fingers to touch the bulkhead closest to her, smooth and cool to the touch, and felt a subtle vibration thrilling through, as though the entire compoud were in motion. A ship, then.

How did she get on a ship? And who brought her here, and why?

There was a sound like a doorbolt being thrown back by a solenoid, and a door that she hadn't previously seen was opened, dim blue light pouring into the room and glaring off the walls. A figure appeared in the hatchway and stood there, backlit by the ambient light from the corridor, his features indiscernable.

He remained there a moment, as though confirming her presence and lack of threat, and then entered the room. Overhead lights sputtered and flickered to life, casting a dull white glow that hurt her eyes and made her squint. The figure approached her, tall and with a great deal of dignity about him. His demeanor, his posture, his eyes - everything about him thus far suggested a sort of all-pervasive calmness borne of knowing who was in control of the situation, yet completely without malice or malevolence. His face was slightly worn with age, yet somehow this only added to his presence, and his short white hair was brushed vaguely backwards across his scalp, as though he had better things to do than give too much attention to his hairstyle.

"Welcome," he said, a rich authoritative tenor. He took another small step towards her, and offered his hand to assist her in standing. Her eyes turned to meet his, and she extended her hand to grasp his, struggling to her feet. It did not escape her notice, even in these conditions, that his hand was adorned with a single ring of simple platinum, upon which the insignia of the Asps was engraved.

The static in her head was fading fast and she was feeling stronger by the minute, able now to stand unassisted; the pain in her temples was gone as well. She gave the room - her cell? - another brief glance, her head swinging round and her short red hair cutting an arc across her shoulders. Aside from the temperfoam mattress and blanket, there was not much to see.

"Or should I say," the man continued, "welcome back."

Her head snapped back to face him, level with him now, azure eyes smoldering, her expression betraying exactly what she thought of this sort of welcome.

"Who the fuck are you?" she snarled.