She interrogated the transit for targeting information and slid across the gravel surface on her stomach. The targeting spot hung in her visual field like the afterimage of a bright light burned into her eyes. It was a purple spot that appeared to smear a door on the building at the opposite end of the court. The structure looked like an old mansion or hotel. It was a refurbished multi-room Reaganian with tall white columns framing the front door.

She pawed at the ground in front of her and pulled herself forward across the half-moon driveway. The keflon suit moved silently over the rocks as it adjusted itself holographically in response to data telemetered from base. Had there been anyone in the courtyard they would see only a ripple like a thermal disturbance in the air as Adenna passed. A tiny distortion like a drinking glass passed before the field of vision. But there was no one in the yard, and that's the way they'd planned it.

"I'd like to see the objective," she said silently as she moved.

Gerhard replied before the last syllable of Adenna's request faded. "Not yet. When you get closer. Stay low until you clear the refraction sensor. We're hitting the optical limits on your pads already. It knows something is there but can't get a conjugate lock on you. Can you move a little faster?"

"Quiet or fast, Gerhard. Make up your mind," she said. The transit image got brighter as she approached a set of stairs leading to the entrance of the building. The target grid appeared in the doorway. Above the door a phase-conjugate detector gimballed toward her and scanned back and forth. She could feel the heat of the laser through her suit.

"It's getting hot. It must know I'm here."

"We're not showing an acquisition on this end. You have time. Follow the transit onto the grid and we'll guide you through--just don't make a big target for that detector. How are you doing on environmentals?"

Adenna mentally queried the pads statistics. Temperature and optical were at their limits. As the detector played a UV laser over her she began to sweat. She climbed the stairs on her hands and knees, crawled across the small concrete porch, and slid through the opened front door.

"It's almost if they knew we were coming," she said to herself.

"What was that?" Gerhard replied. "Your environmentals are telemetering they're railed. How do you feel? Can you keep going?"

"There's gotta be a way to think to yourself with these pageless implants. Maxed. Everything is saturated."

"Were showing you the floorplan now," said Gerhard.

Adenna stood. A grid appeared as if from within her own eyes and superimposed itself on the room around her. Sensors within her battle pads detected the motion of her head and telemetered the data in encrypted to a broadcast 3DE system in low earth orbit. The data was parasitically implanted onto the broadcast entertainment signal. Hundreds of millions of unaware viewers received Adenna's signals while watching their daytime soap operas. For them, the data was digitally filtered by their viewing ports as atmospheric interference. Tuning the broadcast transmission with a common viewing port, Adenna's handlers decrypted her transmission and fed it into a node of their processing network. It tracked her movements, provided her tactical information, and monitored the status of her equipment and her vital signs. As she turned her head, the transmitted grid rotated with her sight providing a perfect mapping. The signal travelled to the implants imbedded in her cortex and provided her a virtual image in her own eyes. Gerhard's seemed to come from within her head.

"Something's not right about this," she said. She was in a hallway. A stairway led upward ahead of her. A lighted crystal chandelier hung from the ceiling. Two doors lined the walls to either side of the stairway. One of the doors to the right of the stairway was opened. The grid directed her through the door.

"What's the problem?" came Gerhard's voice.

"I don't like this. I think it's a set up," Adenna said. She tried to calm herself against the burst of adrenaline that hit her blood stream. "I don't want to be in here."

"Follow the transit," said Gerhard. "Stay with me. You don't have far to go."

She took a step forward. The pads tingled against her skin as they adjusted their index of refraction in response to the change in lighting. She inched forward quietly as the tension within her rose to the surface of her skin like static. When she was close enough to the open doorway she saw a dining table and six chairs in the room. The chairs were askew, turned outward from the table at random angles. Plates, glasses, and the remnants of a meal lay on the table like the inert subjects of a still life photograph. A small black box sat next to one of the dinner plates. The hair on her neck bristled as a smooth electric pulse ran down her spine.

"Someone left in a hurry," she said.

"We show nobody in the area. You're free. Calm down."

She closed her eyes and tried to steady herself trying to tell herself she was safe without Gerhard overhearing her. But she was not safe and she knew it.

"Show me the objective," Adenna said, staring at the box.

The box appeared to duplicate itself as she saw the telemetered image along side the real object. She hesitated and dropped to her knees.

"What's the matter?" said Gerhard.

"Just wait, will you?" she answered. She took a breath and held it. She saw a the air ripple to her left, a flicker like the shimmer of heat rising from the pavement in the summer.

"Who else is here, Gerhard?" she said. Her eyes darted back and forth across the distortion. There was clearly a distortion. The straight frame of the doorway to her left took a slight bend outward, then inward again.

"No one," came the reply.

"Fuck you. There's someone to my left. I've got him in plain sight. Decode the reflection and let me see who it is."

"For Apollo's sake, Adenna. There's nobody there. Get the objective and get the hell out of there."

The last word hit her in the back and knocked her face down to the floor. There were heavy footfalls around her. Instantly, she took stock. The kevlon suit had distributed the blow. She rose to her hands and knees and rolled, avoiding a blast that tore a hole in the wooden floor where she had been.

She heard Gerhard shout, "What's happening?" but ignored him as she faced her attackers. Four men in green camoflauge, keflon helmets, and thick black boots swarmed through the doorway from the outside bearing automatic rifles. Two fell to their chests and fired ahead. The others stood behind them firing over their heads.

The sound deafened Adenna as she rolled toward the wall closest the attackers. Plaster and wood flew through the room thickening the air as the walls disintegrated under the gunfire. Adenna slid against the wall toward the opened door beside the soldiers. They stopped firing. One of the soldiers lifted a device that hung around his neck and held it to his eyes. He scanned the room.

Adenna held her breath as she tried to slide around the soldier to his rear and out the door. "They're tracking the telemetry," said Adenna.

"I'm breaking the connection," said Gerhard.

"Wait. Just five more seconds...." she said. "I'm almost out."

She bolted passed the standing soldiers, brushing past one as she dove over the patio and rolled onto the gravel courtyard below. The soldiers turned in confusion and fired into the courtyard.

"I have to break the connection," said Gerhard. "Adenna, they'll trace us..."

Adenna ran through the courtyard. She could hear the phase conjugate detector gimbaling behind her, then the heat on her back as it tracked her and pulsed its ultra violet laser. Bullets kicked up stones and dust around her feet. There was an impact in her leg. She fell to her knees, then got up again. A shock like a fist hit her between the shoulder blades and she fell again, face first in the dirt.

"Adenna," she heard Gerhard say. Then the light behind her eyes went out as the telemetry link was broken. She rolled onto her back as the soldiers stopped firing and walked casually from the building into the courtyard toward her. The pads heated up as the laser primed for a more powerful pulse. The detector had switched to offensive mode. The heat in the suit became unbearable. She knew she was visible. Without the telemetry from base, the articulating plates of her kevlon suit would look deep black against the white gravel driveway.

She sat up and pulled off her helmet. Her hair had come loose in the excitement and now fell in tangled mats about the shoulders of her black exoskeleton as the cool air caressed her face.

"Well well well," said one of the soldiers advancing. "Now they're sending children. Little baby black bugs. Your commander must be desperate."

The laser whined on its mountings behind the four men. Adenna closed her eyes and shook her head.

"You guys," she said, "are really idiots."

The soldier aimed his rifle toward her head. "Get up," he said.

There was a crack and a scream as the laser discharged, broiling the living viscera of three of the soldiers that stood in the path between it and where it had last sighted Adenna. The fourth soldier turned his back to watch the bodies of his dead compatriates crumple to the gravel. The laser wound down and Adenna stood up.

With her right hand she pulled the hidden weapon from its mount on her left shoulder. The bow was no more than a foot long. It's polymer string curved around an intricate set of pulleys designed to dynamically maximize tension. She knocked the arrow and placed her fingers against the electrical contacts on the string with the arrow between them. When the soldier turned to face her again, Adenna sighted along a shallow arc from the tip of the arrow to the man's chest. There was a sound of voices and footsteps approaching from within the building.

"Put the gun down," Adenna commanded.

The soldier smiled and shrugged his shoulders. He unslung the rifle from his shoulder and held it at his waist.

"What do you think you're going to do with that toy? Come on, bug baby, give it up. Come to Mario. Mario treat you real good. I take you out of that bug suit. I keep all the other guys away from you. I promise. You'll be mine. I take care of you real good."

The footsteps got louder. Adenna took a step backward and resighted.

"Drop it," she said. "Now."

Mario swung the gun so the barrel opened into Adenna's eyes.

"Maybe your bug suit is bulletproof, but I think your head is not," he said.

Two more soldiers appeared in the doorway to the building and stopped. They laughed and shouted to Mario. The sound of footsteps faded. Adenna slowly lowered her bow and took a deep breath. The soldier lowered his gun and turned toward the men in the doorway.

"You see how good she listens? She's going to be a good one, and I got her first. You boys have to wait."

Adenna lifted the bow and released the arrow as soon as she could see the whites of Mario's eyes turning toward her. The polymer string reacted to the electrical stimulus and contracted into its resevoirs, propelling the arrow to speed with a crack. The soft tip shattered Mario's chest and exploded in a puff of mist Adenna felt against her bare face. She pivoted and grabbed her helmet from the ground as she ran from the courtyard toward the tree line.

Adenna slapped her bow against her left shoulder and it clicked into its slot. As she ran, she pulled on her helmet and resecured it. Tufts of dirt danced around her feet, kicked up by the impacting rifle fire. As she retraced her path through the trees she tried to forget the origin of the iron smell in the close confines of the battle pads. There was no time for considering the consequences.

The bike was where she left in the shadow of a great oak. She kicked her leg over the seat, secured her feet in the pedal bindings, and cranked. The air afternoon temperature approached the lockout range on the bike's polymer drive. There was little leverage from thermal power. She would have to provide all the power from her own body.

The torque converter chose the correct gearing as she widened the gap between her and the band of soldiers hacking their way through the thick forest underbrush. She threaded a tortured line between the trees, picking up speed as she pedalled. Nothing could track the human powered vehicle. Their satellite survellance systems couldn't differentiate her through the brush. The battle pads would obscure her body's thermal signature. The bike relied on the torque from her pedalling and the temperature difference she could create between the bike's sprockets and the outside air. It was invisible to their orbiting spies.

When she was far enough away she engaged her beacon. Within seconds the suit electronics confirmed a lock. The heads-up display superimposed itself on her vision. Home base had acquired her.

"Adenna? What the hell happened?" she heard as she pedalled uphill.

"Where the fuck is Gerhard? It was a setup, Francois." She panted between words as she fought her way up a dirt path, finding a clear line in a field of smooth gray bolders.

"How far out are you?" came the voice.

"About 20 minutes to the downtown drop. What's my path look like? They set me up, the fuckers. Where's that pageless idiot Gerhard?"

There was a delay, then the reply. "I'm showing you on a clear track inward. A little problem with the population a block from the drop. Late afternoon traffic from the tram. I'm generating a route for you. Follow your transit grid."

The grid of lines appeared before her. A purple spot hung in the air in front of her. She rode as if to drive herself into the purple hole that always remained at arm's length.

"I'm on it," she said.

"Adenna, we're getting some distrubing reports from the target area. We've intercepted several communications from the troops garrisonned there. They claim four casualties--three due to tactical error. One due to direct confrontation with the intruder. Can you amplify?"

A gully opened in the dirt before her. She stomped on the pedals, yanked up on the handle bars, and guided the bicycle into the air over the ditch.

"Adenna, did you get that. . .?"

"Yes, I got it." She grunted as the front tire pounded into a tree root. Adenna managed to pull the front tire over the obstacle before losing control.

"Can you amplify on the casualties?"

Back on the smooth track she had nothing to divert her from the questions. The polybow hung on her back like molten iron. It seared into her consciousness. They would know from her body chemistry the question disturbed her. She would need to tell them what happened.

"The crew are a bunch of pageless clock-skewed fuck-ups, Francois. Three of them stood in front of their own UV gun while it targeted on me. They were so interested in figuring out how to divide me up between them they took the hit. I hope you can explain to the client that torture at the hands of the challenger isn't in the contract."

"Chivalry isn't dead after all," said Francois. He'd know she was telling the truth. Perhaps it would be enough.

"The client asked for a clean acquisition. We assured him of our results. That means no injuries. It says here we've had four. . ."

"I'm telling you, something was wrong. We were set up. The doors were all open. As soon as I reached the target they were all over me, firing. They tore the place up trying to get me."

"It was obviously something they wanted to protect," said Francois.

Adenna glided from the dirt path in the trees to a deserted road. Weeds grew tall through cracks in the old asphalt. Chunks of black macadam sat aside the holes that had been torn up by adventurous city dwellers in all terrain vehicles. She pedalled around the potholes following the spot on the targeting transit.

"They left it out on the lunch table. How important could it have been? What the hell was it?"

"We don't know," Francois answered. "We were assured it wasn't harmful to its bearer. That's all I know. Adenna, what happened to the fourth soldier?"

"I don't know," she said quickly, trying to keep her thoughts stable. "Another grunt probably shot him while they were after me. You'd think ammunition was free the way they spread it around."

"Try it again," Francois said, flatly. "Or do you really want me to log that answer."

Brown haze of the city loomed on the horizon ahead of her. Though it was bright daylight, she wouldn't have to worry about being seen pedalling her way in from the forest. No city dweller would leave the confines of his self-imposed quarantine. Society people would never leave their buildings or cars. The gai-jin would roam around the streets looking for scraps and prey. She would enter the metropolis on what once was a major automobile artery. She would go completely unobserved. Society's apathy would protect her.

Adenna considered Francois's question. "No, don't log it."

"I thought not. So, what really happened? Were you close to the killing?"

"I had to take my helmet off. They saw me. They saw I was a woman. "

"Adenna, do you have a weapon?"

She swallowed the answer and let the silence speak. Through the ether, her transmission existed as the statistical superimposition of intelligence upon the natural noise of the earth's ionosphere. Adenna let the truth ride on bits of solar wind.

"The battle pads wouldn't have worked if you had harmed someone."

"It was too damned hot. I had my helmet off, Francois. The telemetry was down," she struggled to speak as she slid into town on the line between tall buildings.

"Do you have a weapon?" came the question again. They couldn't read her vital signs clearly. She wondered if she was confused enough to give indeterminate readings. How did she feel about it?

"They would have killed me. They would have. . .I'm not going to go through that. Not for anyone."

She rode into the alley and stopped the bike next to the concrete wall. She touched her gloved hand against the wall at the correct space and the door opened. She pushed the cycle inside. Francois hadn't said anything.

"I'm here. I've got to shut down now," she said.

At first there was no answer. As she pressed her hand against the release on her helmet she heard Francois.

"I'm not questioning your motives. You know the risks. The client expects a certain degree of integrity. There has to be a line somewhere. We don't take lives, Adenna. Apollo, why am I preaching to you?"

Adenna sighed with her hand against the helmet clamp. "Fire me," she said.

"We'll be in touch," said Francois.

Adenna said, "Link down," and released the helmet clasp. The lights in her eyes went out. Her vision returned to normal. It took her several seconds to dissassemble her battle pads and stashed the suit in it's resting place. She put on her city clothes. With a flip of the wrist she closed the closet in the concrete wall and pressed her hand against the wall an arm's length further down. Another door slid opened and her car appeared.

She opened the door and got into the modest piston powered automobile. Without thinking she started the engine and injected herself into the stream of society. It wasn't until she reached her flat on the west side of town that she ran her hand abscentmindedly across the back of her neck. When it came away speckled in Mario's dried blood the possible consequences of her action solidified in her mind, dominating her thoughts.

The first part is Mercenaries of the oracle: part 1 The next old story is Fragile Animation The first old story is The cheshire woman

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