"Fuck." Nick Tsyplakov flipped the catch on the harness and stopped his decent from the roof of the warehouse. The strange creeping sensation that was crawling up his spine was not unlike some several-legged creature suffering from hypothermia looking for a way inside his body to warm itself up. Every time it seemed he had gotten used to the cold chills that preceded his visions, the cold got colder and creeping got creepier. And it always seemed to happen at the worst possible times.
In his ear, Nick heard his partner, Kitsune, say, "What the hell are you doing?"
The chills faded. Nick shut his eyes. They were glowing so brightly he could almost see the sparkling blue light they gave off. In his mind, he saw the rope he was attached to unwinding and dumping him to the ground fifty feet below. "The rope's breaking," he said.
"Shit. I just checked that damn thing. Are you sure?"
"Yes. I'm sure."
Kitsune didn't answer. Nick could almost hear her biting her lip or tapping her fingers against her chin. She would know by the tone of his voice what he meant. "Are we expecting anyone?" she asked.
"Did you invite anyone?"
"Two expensive looking black vehicles just parked in an alley two streets down. Five guys got out of one. They look like they wanna hurt something."
"I had a feeling this was going to go poorly. Get off the roof."
"But - "
"Kit, just go. We won't leave here empty handed. Have I ever let you down?"
She didn't answer again. He had asked the wrong question.
Nick put his right hand on the rope. He could feel it beginning to unravel somewhere above him. He dropped a few inches. About a foot below him was a window. If things had continued to go well, he would have simply opened the window, dropped in, taken the light gems they were after and climbed back out through the window. He was going to have to make more noise than he wanted to and was pretty sure he didn't have time to get back to the roof. He wasn't fond of going through front doors. There always seemed to be someone waiting outside a front door, someone he didn't want to have to deal with.
Before Nick could get to the window, the rope snapped. He caught the edge of the window as he fell past it. He unbuckled the harness and let it fall. He pulled himself up to the top window ledge, and then swung himself feet first into the window. It broke easily. He covered his face with his arms as he went through it and felt a few cuts open up on his forearms. He hit the floor harder than he expected and rolled into a stack of boxes that fell down on top of him. When he got out from under the boxes, he listened. If he had set off any alarm, he didn't hear it.
The owner of a jewelry store called Glittering Treasures had been foolish enough to leave a shipment of light gems in the warehouse for more than one day. Light gems were harder and more beautiful than diamonds and were only found very deep within the Eye of Isis on Lost Tree. The owner should have taken the light gems to his home. Nick and Kitsune might have been inclined to avoid a job like that, but as soon as they learned that the light gems were to stay in the warehouse for at least a week, they scraped together every penny they had for passage from Walden City to Brandenburg. It was an insanely expensive trip, but a mere handful of light gems would more than compensate them for the loss. If they got the whole shipment and sold them in the right places, they might have even considered retiring from their lives of crime.
But even as they planned the trip, Nick had begun to feel uneasy about it. He hadn't had any visions about it, but his dreams seemed to be foreshadowing something bigger. In one dream, he had seen himself with a small, tear shaped jewel in his hand, but he was absolutely certain that he wasn't the one seeing that image. It was someone else's vision. He thought he knew who's vision it was, but he hadn't been able to figure out why or what it meant, if anything. Of course, there was no way he could ask, not without causing himself more trouble than he thought the answer would be worth. The botched job was going to be the beginning of a journey that would answer not only that question but the whole laundry list of things he had had in his head since he was fourteen. Seven years was a lot of time to come up with questions.
The light gems had come to the warehouse in a crate about three feet wide, five feet long and two feet deep. It had no special security measures, except for the fact that the owner of Glittering Treasures had hired the craziest pilot he could find to make the delivery in no time flat. Nick felt himself sneer involuntarily as he read the pilot's scrawled signature on the bill of lading. Holden Konstantine. If Holden knew that Nick was stealing his shipment again, Holden would probably decide not to keep it a secret this time. If Holden told his parents, then they would tell Nick's parents, and that wouldn't be very good at all.
Nick smashed open the crate with his fist. Light gems poured out. The crate was stuffed with them. He picked one up. Like moonstones, light gems picked up the colors of the wearer's clothing. Like opals, they turned those colors into fiery rainbows. The one that lay in Nick's gloved palm was turning a painfully bright blue. As he watched it, the blue began to radiate from the uncut stone. Where the light touched the walls and the ceiling, Nick could almost see through the concrete and steel. It was a good thing, too, because he saw the men at the front door just before they busted it down. Nick shoved the light gem in his pocket and started to look for a back door, only vaguely wondering why the rock had turned blue when all his clothes were black.
There was no back door. Nick crept through the shadows between the wall and a high stack of boxes opposite from the window he'd busted through. He listened to the two men walking slowly down the center aisle, looking between cracks and hoping to catch a thief. Nick paused as a chill squirmed down his neck and a voice whispered, "They don't work for Glittering Treasures." Almost at the same time, Nick heard Kitsune's voice in his ear.
"Nick, where the fuck are you? I saw two go inside. Are you in there? Damn it. The other three are waiting outside. The second vehicle left. Nick? Damn you, you're gonna make me waste shells on these fuckers, aren't you? I will hurt you later."
The two men had found the opened box. "Wow, look at those things!" one of them said.
Nick heard the stones click as the man scooped up a handful and let them spill from his palm.
"Leave them there. Ghostshadow wants the thieves, not the gems."
"Well, he didn't say I couldn't take a few for myself."
The front door was within sight. Nick couldn't see the three men who waited, but he knew they were close enough to the door that he wouldn't be able to sneak out unseen. He flexed his fingers and walked out.
The three men closed in on him almost immediately. They were large and well trained. They threw punches and kicks with precision and grace. Someone had obviously spent a lot of money to find the best fighters in the universe and train these goons to fight like that. It was almost good practice for Nick. He had the three in a groaning pile before they even realized he was fighting back.
"Nick! Behind you!" Kitsune screamed in his ear.
Cringing, he turned around and saw the other two running up the aisle. Both held thick black sticks that were about a foot long. At the end of each stick were two prongs. White-blue lightning danced between the prongs. Nick heard the chunk and click of Kitsune's shotgun, and the knee of one of the men exploded in a spray of red. The man screamed and went down.
Nick sidestepped the rushing thug, grabbing the man's empty-handed arm as he did. He twisted the arm until something tore and flipped the man to his back. But the other three had had time to recover, and despite torn shoulder ligaments, the thug with the lightning stick managed to catch Nick's shin between the prongs.
The jolt rode through Nick's bones like fast ice. He couldn't move for a second, and his sight slowly faded to black. He felt a meaty fist plow into his jaw. His sinuses buzzed. A war drum began to beat. Tiny voices swirled around his head. He felt hands gripping his arms. He felt the impact of a brick wall against his back. He felt his teeth snap down on his tongue. He let his head drop. He began to see clearly where each of them stood. Two holding him against the wall, one in front of him. The two with the lightning sticks were still rolling around in pain. A long, sleek black vehicle was pulling in on the right. The goon in front of Nick cocked his fist to take a swing. Nick grinned. Blood dribbled from the corner of his mouth.
It might have taken five seconds, but for Nick, the whole fight was in slow motion. He pressed his back into the wall, lifting his legs up to his chest. He plowed both feet into the chest of the goon trying to punch him. He heard something snap. The man put his hand on his chest and didn't try to get back up. The other two tried again to slam his back into the brick wall. Nick pulled them away from the wall instead then swung them around in front of him. Their heads cracked against each other, and they let go of Nick's arms. Nick backed off to get his bearings. The buzzing and the drum stopped. His vision faded to black and then was normal. "The ghost will tear your wings," a little voice whispered.
The door of the vehicle hissed open. What stepped out looked human, but the energy around it was so negative and its aura so black that Nick almost thought it was some kind of demon.
Kitsune cocked her shotgun. The man, or whatever he was, turned his head towards her and smiled. He was directly in front of her before she could fire, and he shoved the barrel towards the sky. "Don't do that, fox," he said. "I don't want to fight."
Kitsune bared her teeth and tried to kick him, but in an instant, he was behind Nick with a knife at Nick's throat.
"Don't make me cut open the pretty," the man said. "He's already bleeding too much for my liking." He rubbed the blood from Nick's chin with his thumb. He licked his thumb. "That's nice. You're a good vintage."
"Let him go, you fucking psycho," Kitsune said.
"That's not very nice. You don't even know me, and you're calling me names."
"What do you want from us?" Nick asked.
"I don't want anything. My boss would like a few words with the two of you. Now do we get in the car all nice and friendly, or do I take pieces back to Aria?"
"Who's your boss?"
"You'll find out when we get there."
"I'm assuming there's a job offer in this somewhere."
"It's not so much an offer as it is a demand. Do you get many job offers at knifepoint like this? Do you like it that way? I bet you do. I can tell by the way you smell that you like the pain."
"Let's say I do. That doesn't mean I like you giving it to me."
"Oh. Okay. Get in the car."
The man let go of Nick and shoved him towards the open door of the vehicle. There was no one else inside, save the driver. Nick looked at Kitsune. She shrugged and put away her shotgun. Nick got inside. Kitsune followed. The man with the black aura got in after them, pulled the door shut and tapped the driver on the shoulder. No, it wasn't that his aura was black, Nick thought. It wasn't really an aura at all. It was just a void.
"My name is Robyn Chartrand," the man said. "My boss gave me the code name Ghostshadow. I prefer that. It suits me better than my given name, don't you think?"
"I think you're insane," Kitsune said.
"You would be, too, if you lived your life with one purpose and never got to do anything about it."
"That's a lame excuse."
"All I ever wanted to do was kill an angel. I joined the military. I was trained as an assassin. I let them change me, all in the hope that one day, I'd get my hands on his neck and squeeze until his pretty little eyes popped out, but by the time I was out of the labs, the war was over."
"Kill an angel? What the hell are you talking about?"
"He's talking about Talon," Nick said.
Kitsune laughed. "Like you ever had a chance even if you did get your hands on him."
Ghostshadow frowned. "I guess not. I might have been able to kill him, but then I wouldn't have walked away from it. That was part of the problem. He had too many friends."
"Why aren't you still going after him?" Nick asked.
"I'm very well paid to follow orders these days, not like it was when I was in the military. My boss won't live forever. I might have another chance. Or something else even prettier might come along."
Nick tried not to shudder, but he couldn't help it. Ghostshadow laughed.
"So what are you?" Kitsune asked. "Besides a cold blooded, psychotic killer."
"I'm human. Half anyway. The rest of me is Slider. And a bit tweaked. I could ask you what you are, but you wouldn't have an answer for me, would you?"
Kitsune leaned back in the seat and said nothing.
Ghostshadow reached into his pocket and took out a small gold box. He opened it. "I'd share, but I really don't think you'd like it," he said. He dumped the contents into his mouth and swallowed.
"What is it?" Kitsune asked.
If the vehicle hadn't been moving so fast, Kitsune would have opened the door and jumped out.
There was a small shuttle waiting at the Moonwine Space Port. Ghostshadow shoved them through the open hatch, strapped them tightly to their seats then went to the front of the shuttle.
Kitsune pulled at the restraints. "Nick, what are we doing?" she asked.
"Getting ourselves into a mess," Nick said.
"What kind of mess?"
"I don't know."
"No visions? No psychic insight?"
"No. Not yet."
"Did you get any light gems?"
"We need to take this job, don't we?"
"We've never been contracted before. Whatever the job is, we can pull it off, or at least Ghostshadow's boss thinks we can. It might pay well. Maybe not more than the light gems are worth, but more than enough to make up for what we spent to get here."
"It damn well better. We had a lot saved up."
"I think there's more to this than a job."
"Must be for the bastard to tie us up like this."
"We always have the option of refusing."
"And have that freak after us for the rest of our lives? I don't think so. We need the money. How are we gonna get home?"
"We'll worry about that when we get closer to actually being able to go home."
"That sounds like you think we're not going home for a while."
"I felt that way when we left. And I don't think Walden City is the home I'll end up in."
"You think you'll end up at the home you ran away from?"
"I hope not, but I don't know. This just all seems like it has some purpose other than what we can see in front of us."
"I don't think I like the sound of that."
Ghostshadow came back from the front of the shuttle and sat down in the seat next to Nick. He leaned over, putting his hands on Nick's arm. "We're off to see the wizard," he said. He grinned, his smoky green eyes flashing with a nasty light. "If you're good little children, I'll have a treat for you when we get there."
Nick felt his muscles start to tighten. It was a good thing he was strapped to the seat. He didn't really want to start a fight on a small passenger shuttle. There wasn't enough room for him to beat Ghostshadow the way he wanted to.
Ghostshadow leaned closer to Nick, letting his lips brush against Nick's ear. "You'll get your chance, pretty," he whispered. He sat back in the seat and buckled himself in. He laughed as the shuttle pulled out of the dock. He laughed as it broke through the atmosphere. He was still laughing when the shuttle reached the chute that would take them to Aria. He stopped laughing when the shuttle entered the chute and gathered speed. He gripped the armrests hard enough to leave tiny tears in the vinyl. When they were through, he reached into his pocket for another gold box and pulled out three empty ones before he found his next dose. Even after he swallowed the gunpowder, he was shaking and didn't seem quite like the same man he was before. Going through the chutes did something to him, and whatever it was wasn't very nice.
Ghostshadow still hadn't fully recovered when they docked at a small private port in the city of Opera. When they got off the shuttle, two other men were waiting for them. "Take them to the office," Ghostshadow said. "Tell Archer I'll be back tomorrow." Then he slid away.
Nick could see the tiny ripples left in the air where Ghostshadow had stood. It was almost as if Ghostshadow had ripped through layers of other dimensions, fraying the edges of each one he passed through. The longer Nick looked at the spot where Ghostshadow had stood, the more he thought he could actually see where Ghostshadow was. He saw the aura of void and the frayed edges curling like they were burning as the void touched them. Ghostshadow then stopped, realizing that Nick could see him. He looked over his shoulder and smiled. Then the whole thing was gone. Nick blinked and turned his attention to the two men in whose care Ghostshadow had left him and Kitsune. They were staring at him as if they couldn't quite tell what was wrong with him, just that something was horribly wrong.
One of the men wore a dark grey suit in which he looked good but uncomfortable. The other didn't look to be more than sixteen, wore loose clothes and had pink hair and a green diamond shaped mark in the center of his forehead.
The man in the suit smiled. "Poor Robyn. He'll never get over that thing that happened with the chute. I tried to help him," he said with a shrug. "Oh well. My name is Taylor Chantz, or Chaos, whichever you please. This is Zero."
The pink haired boy smiled but said nothing.
"I take it the trip was uneventful," Chaos said.
Kitsune rubbed her wrists. "It was a little tight," she said.
"Robyn can be a bit overzealous at times, but you should count yourselves lucky he didn't bring you here in pieces."
"He threatened to do that."
"He has this thing with pieces. I don't know why."
"He's fucking insane, that's why."
"Well, there's that. Please, follow me."
Chaos turned and started to walk up a path that led to a large building of steel and glass. Nick and Kitsune followed, and Zero fell in behind them.
The first thing they noticed when they entered the building was how cold it was. It was right at freezing, if not below. Chaos opened a closet and pulled out a heavy coat and gloves. Zero put on earmuffs and a scarf.
"You'll have to excuse the temperature in here," Chaos said. "Mr. Esterhazy's condition requires it, though. If you'd like to grab a coat, please do."
Kitsune rushed over to the closet. Her teeth chattered as she pawed through the coats. "What the hell kind of condition requires this kind of cold? Is he gonna spoil or something?" she asked. "Ooh, that's nice." She pulled out a long coat of black fur and wrapped it around herself.
"Actually, yes. He's decomposing."
"Decomposing? Ew. Is he dead?"
"You'll understand in a moment."
"He was a test tube baby, wasn't he?" Nick asked. "His father died well over a hundred years before he was born."
"Yes. How did you know that?"
"I remember hearing something about it when I was younger."
"There was quite a bit of talk about him and others like him after the war ended and the resolution against genetic experimentation was passed. But it was also because of the things that were done that Konstantine wanted a law like that. Two of his closest friends were born in the same lab Mr. Esterhazy was born in. And not even the best doctors and healers in the universe ever figured out what was done to Konstantine during his captivity. The problem now is that more experiments are needed so those of us who were tweaked way back when don't suffer later in life, like Mr. Esterhazy."
"So why aren't you trying to get a new resolution passed?"
"Because Mr. Esterhazy doesn't have that kind of time. Are you sure you don't want a coat, Mr. Tsyplakov?"
"No, thank you. I'm fine."
"This way please."
Chaos led them to an elevator and pressed a button marked 24. They got off and entered a large reception area where a tall vicious looking woman in a white lab coat was waiting for them.
"Is everything all right, Miss Leto?" Chaos asked.
"I'm afraid not. He's had a bad spell. Take them to a room. We'll meet in the morning. He says to get them anything they want. Where's Ghostshadow?"
"He took off. The chutes didn't agree with him again. He said he'd be back in the morning."
"Very well. Off you go."
Chaos led them back to the elevator and pressed the button marked 30. He took them to a large room with a single large semi circular bed, a Jacuzzi and a spectacular view of Aria's twelve moons, which were scattered through the dark sky like pearls from a broken necklace. "If there's anything you need, please, let me know. That communicator on the dressing table is a direct link to my office," Chaos said.
"Dinner would be nice," Kitsune said. "I'm starving."
"I'll have something sent up right away. Good night."
Chaos smiled and pulled the door shut as he and Zero left.
Kitsune went over to the window and pressed her hands against it. "Wow. That's beautiful. I could stare at the sky all night."
Nick sat down on the bed and pulled up his pants leg. There was an angry red mark where the lightning stick had hit him. He twisted his torso slightly and winced. "I think I have a broken rib or two," he said.
Kitsune turned away from the window. "Let me see. Take off your shirt." She crawled across the bed to him. He couldn't take off his shirt so she pulled it over his head for him. His back and his shoulders were covered in nasty bruises and scrapes. She pressed her hands to his back. She felt two tiny cracks in his ribs, one under each shoulder blade. She noticed the cuts on his arms. "Do you want to call for a healer?" she asked.
"No. I'll be all right. It's just sore right now."
She ran her fingers down his spine. "Nick ... " She watched goose bumps break out over his back. A faint blue light circled his head.
"Don't let him have it," Nick said.
"What are you talking about?"
"The piece of paper in your pocket. Whatever it is, don't show it to Esterhazy. He can use it against you."
"It's just - "
"I don't need to know. Just keep it safe."
"I think I'm starting to be just a little bit nervous about this."
The blue glow faded, and Nick took a deep breath. "There's nothing to worry about yet. Like I said, we can always refuse."
"What did you see when Ghostshadow left?"
"I thought I saw where he went."
"How? He just vanished."
"Sliders don't vanish. They move through dimensions humans can't see."
"Then how did you see it?"
"I'm not sure I did. I don't really know what that was."
"Jack was right. You're not a normal psychic."
"Being normal and being psychic are mutually exclusive anyway. But I'm not anything special."
"How do you know?"
"Because I went to Lost Tree, and nothing happened."
Before Kitsune could argue her point any further, there was a knock on the door. Nick got up and answered it. A woman with blue hair and light blue fur covering her body pushed in a cart containing several trays and two bottles of wine. She touched her fingers delicately to the top of each cover as she explained what the dishes were. She smiled when she finished and said, "Will you be requiring anything else?"
"No, thank you. I think we'll be fine," Nick said.
"Breakfast will be served at seven a.m.. Will you be requiring anything in particular then?"
"Lots of coffee," Kitsune said.
"There will be plenty of coffee. Anything else?"
"No. Coffee's good."
The woman smiled again and left.
"Are we sure we don't want to work for Esterhazy full time?" Kitsune asked. "I could get used to this."
Nick pushed the cart over to the bed. "If I'm wrong about how this goes, it's something to consider, but do you really want to have to work with Ghostshadow?"
"Do you want the red wine or the white wine?"
"I'll take the red."
After they had eaten and gone through both bottles of wine, Kitsune decided to try out the Jacuzzi. She tried to get Nick to join her, but he fell asleep instead. She was worried that he was hurt worse than he was telling her, but she had known him long enough to know that he wouldn't say anything. He could lose all his limbs and tell her he was okay. The problem with that was that she tended to believe him. She got out of the hot tub, dried herself off and put on the fur coat. When she lay down next to Nick, he turned over and put his arm around her.
"Are you awake?" she asked.
He didn't answer, so she snuggled against him and closed her eyes.
Shortly before nine the next morning, after Nick and Kitsune had had plenty of time to work on the coffee, Chaos and Zero came to the door.
"How was everything?" Chaos asked as they walked to the elevator.
"It was fine," Nick said.
"That wine was really good," Kitsune said.
"I'm glad you enjoyed it," Chaos said. "The rest of your stay may not be as pleasant."
They rode down to the twenty-fourth floor in silence. When they entered the reception area, Miss Leto was again waiting for them. "Follow me," she said.
She led them into a large conference room, where the temperature was slightly colder than in the rest of the building. Ghostshadow was sitting at the end of a long table with his feet up. He looked only slightly calmer than he had the night before. Towards the back of the room was a gurney tilted at a forty-five degree angle. Strapped to the gurney was a woman with pink hair and a green diamond shaped mark on her forehead. She looked as if she had seen better days and was lucky just to be alive.
Archer Esterhazy sat at the head of the table. He looked like he had died last month. His skin was grey and sagging. There were spots that had been sewn back on. His suit had been designed to hold him together and keep him cold. Even with the room as cold as it was and the suit cooling him further, the smell of rotting human flesh was noticeable. And though he looked dead, his mind was far from gone. He stood up when Nick and Kitsune walked in.
Behind him, the woman on the gurney opened her mouth. Her big blue eyes tried to focus. "Sha ... " she mumbled. She frowned. "Wrong ... star ... who ... "
Pain ripped up the back of Nick's head, closing his vision down to tiny pinpricks. He felt Kitsune's hand on his elbow. Then the pain passed, but he felt dizzy and had to sit down.
"Are you okay?" Kitsune asked.
"Yeah. It must be the wine," he said.
Miss Leto went over to the gurney and began to adjust several instruments attached to one side.
Archer smiled. "Well, that wasn't the way I was hoping to start," he said. "Do you need anything, Mr. Tsyplakov?"
Nick shook his head. "I'm fine," he said. The dizziness was fading slowly, and as it went, Nick was sure he knew who the pink haired woman was and that she knew who he was. She was confused, though. He wasn't who she expected him to be, and he didn't know why she knew anything at all.
Archer sat down. "First of all, I do appreciate your cooperation in coming here. I don't normally do business that way, and I don't like doing business that way. However, I'm in a desperate situation. I didn't have the luxury of the time it would have taken to contact you by other means and making a request for services. A face-to-face meeting was the only way I could ensure you'd be fully aware of the situation and fully of aware of the kind of force I employ."
"So you're not giving us a choice," Kitsune said.
"Oh, you have a choice, Miss Kitsune. You can do what I ask of you or you can be hunted."
"I like to hunt," Ghostshadow said. He pulled a gold box from his pocket and poured gunpowder into his mouth.
"What do you want us do to?" Nick asked.
"I want you to steal the Shikkongou," Archer said.
Nick looked down at his hands.
"Whoa. That's a major job," Kitsune said. "The Museum of Antiquities has one of the best security systems in the universe."
"I have faith that you will get past that system. I've already gathered quite a bit of intelligence on that front. I can get you anything you need to complete the job."
"What do you plan on doing with it?" Nick asked.
"You would want to know that, wouldn't you? Well, let me just say that it's the start of my survival. Once I have the jewel of blind vision in my possession, I can find ways to continue living. It will grant me enough power to do so, and it will possibly give me leverage with the Senate to initiate a program to help the people who are suffering from the effects of genetic experimentation. All of us here have been changed in some way, except you, Mr. Tsyplakov. But you have the potential to be something far more dangerous than any of us."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"I'm sure there are certain members of your family who know exactly what I'm talking about."
"Perhaps, but why would they concern themselves with a common thief?"
"They would, if they knew."
"So tell them."
"That's the wrong way to go about getting you to agree, isn't it? I figured as much. Now, your partner won't be nearly as difficult, will you, Miss Kitsune?"
"If he says we don't do it, we don't do it," Kitsune said.
"Before you make such a hasty decision, let me inform you that I can get answers for you."
"You don't know much about your early years, other than the fact that you were, for a time, in a lab. If I had something to go by, parents' names, what planet you were born on, something like that, I'm sure I could find out exactly which lab it was and what they did to you there. And I could possibly find your parents, provided they're still living."
"That would be nice." Kitsune looked at Nick. He had gone back to looking at his hands. She thought of the piece of paper she carried in her back pocket and his warning. "But I don't have anything. I don't even know my real name."
"That's too bad. I do have one more argument to make in my favor."
Nick looked up. "If you do anything to her, I'll kill you right now," he said.
Archer laughed. "So that's the weak spot. I should have started with that then and saved some time." He nodded to Ghostshadow.
Ghostshadow pulled a knife from his boot and stood up. He started to walk towards Kitsune.
Nick got up and put himself between Kitsune and Ghostshadow. "Keep your hands off her," he said.
Ghostshadow grinned. "She's not the one who needs to worry about my hands, pretty," he said. "Zero, get him out of my way."
Nick turned to face Zero, but he wasn't fast enough. He felt at least three blows before he was knocked half way across the room. His back slammed into the window. He wasn't sure if the crack he heard was his spine or the glass. When he finally managed to get to his feet, Zero was standing in front of him in a fighting stance. Ghostshadow was behind Kitsune with his knife under her left breast and her shotgun under her chin.
"Your move, pretty," Ghostshadow said. "But if it's the wrong one, I'll cut her heart out so we can all see how she really feels about you."
Nick didn't move. He waited for the buzzing and the drum or at least one of the little voices to help him out, but nothing happened. He felt the pain in the back of his head again. It wasn't as heavy or as sudden. It felt sort of like a timid knock on a door.
"You're broken. Please don't fight them," said the voice of the woman strapped to the gurney. "Broken stars don't fight well."
What the hell are you talking about? Nick thought.
She didn't answer.
"So what's your answer?" Archer asked. "Please keep in mind that I do intend to pay you very well if you succeed."
"You're not taking no for an answer, are you?" Kitsune asked.
"I will, but it could cost you your lives."
"All right," Nick said. "We'll do it."
"A very wise decision, Mr. Tsyplakov. Very wise indeed. Zero, please let him know just what kind of impact his decision has."
Nick thought he was ready that time, but Zero was still too fast. He somehow managed to take most of the blows on his arms, but he still ended up getting slammed against the window. That time, he was sure that the crunch he heard was something in his back. The sound of the breaking glass was much louder and brighter. He felt himself falling. A sudden stop sent jagged jolts of pain across his back and down his arms. He felt an impact, though it seemed like something that hadn't happened yet. After that, there was only darkness and the hollow sound of air rushing around his head.
Nick felt soft, gentle hands gliding just above his flesh and the prickle of static. He tried to lift his head and couldn't. The pain was a distant, throbbing thing. He couldn't tell how hurt he really was. There were seconds when it didn't seem so bad, and seconds when it was so unbearable he wanted to scream.
The hands stopped hovering and touched him. Gentle waves of lightning rippled through him, knitting his bones back together and mending his torn flesh. The vision started slowly, shifting from grey to colors that were too bright. He couldn't tell what he was seeing, but whatever it was, it was coming apart. Pieces were breaking off; layers were flaking away; whatever he could see in front of him was cleaving, first into two, then four. It continued to multiply until everything stopped suddenly, leaving the world fragmented and strange. It was a long time before things began to look normal again.
The hands pressed down harder, the fingers digging deep into his shoulder muscles. "You see it, but you don't know what it felt like," Ghostshadow whispered in his ear. "I was used to taking myself apart. That's what sliding does. It was harder for me, but I could do it. My father told me I couldn't leave. He told me Sliders couldn't go through the chutes. I thought I'd be okay because I was half human. I was right, though. That's the only reason I didn't die. Or I guess I'd still be alive, just pieces strewn across the dimensional planes."
With an effort that probably wasn't worth the outcome, Nick managed to turn his head towards Ghostshadow. He tried to move his arms but that was harder. Most of the damage was healed, but he still felt bruised. He squeezed his eyes shut and gritted his teeth. If he could ignore the pain, he could get up and get away from Ghostshadow. But it wasn't going to happen.
Ghostshadow's hands stroked his shoulders and back. The touch was still soft, almost affectionate, and Nick wondered how anyone as cold blooded and insane as Ghostshadow could be so gentle. Then he thought of Ryan. But that was different. Ryan had a better excuse for being crazy.
"Don't try to get up yet," Ghostshadow said. "You'll rip something. Zero went easy on you this time. You're lucky your spine's not in splinters."
"That was easy?" Nick asked. He opened his eyes and looked at Ghostshadow, surprised to find the Slider smiling.
"Well, the kid's damn good at what he does. He's been tweaked to be faster and stronger. It feels like getting hit by an iron gauntlet."
"What about the woman who looks likes Zero?"
"That's Seren. She's a leftover from the war. They tweaked her bad. She can track psychics, but she seems to be keyed to one in particular."
"Is she related to Zero?"
"She's his mother. Sort of. He was made in a lab, long after the resolution was passed."
"Esterhazy's been running illegal experiments ever since the war ended, hasn't he?"
"He's dying. Through no fault of his own. He has a right to want to live, doesn't he? And you don't need to be passing judgment on the illegal activities of others, now, do you?"
"I suppose not."
"That jewel inside the Shikkongou, how much do you think that's worth?"
"So is life. And some people will do anything to keep hanging onto it."
"The Shikkongou doesn't belong to him. It shouldn't be there."
"So who does it belong to?"
"How should I know?"
"Something in your voice tells me you know who it belongs to and you know why it is where it is. Don't get any bright ideas, pretty. Don't take it back to the angel. You bring it right back here. I would hate to have to break you again after I've been sitting here fixing you."
"There's too much at stake. I know when I'm on the losing side."
"Good boy. Sit up. I think you're done."
Nick tried to move his arms again. That time, there was no pain, and he sat up.
"Does anything still hurt?" Ghostshadow asked.
Nick shook his head.
Nick felt Ghostshadow move but didn't quiet see where he went. The room seemed darker all of the sudden. He stood up, thinking he could make it to the door before anything happened. He made it about half a step. Ghostshadow's arms snaked around him from behind, pulling him back towards the bed. He tried to fight back and felt the point of a knife dig into the hollow of his throat. When he stopped resisting, the knife went away. Ghostshadow ran his hand through Nick's hair. He pressed his mouth to Nick's and bit down hard on Nick's bottom lip. He licked and sucked at the blood he drew. Nick got his arms free and reached out, hoping to find the knife. Ghostshadow looked up and drove the knife through Nick's hand.
"Shit. Look what you made me do, pretty," he said. He pulled the knife out and tossed it to the floor. He grabbed Nick's hand in both of his. The healing lightning prickled, but it didn't feel like the gentle touch it had been. It hurt almost as much as the wound itself.
When the bleeding had stopped and the wound had closed, Ghostshadow let go of Nick and stood up. "I think you should go now," he said.
Nick got up and stumbled out of the room. He leaned against the wall for a minute, clutching his hand. It was a while before he realized it didn't hurt any more. He found the elevator and made his way back to the room he and Kitsune were staying in. Kitsune was asleep, so he crawled into the bed and tried to make himself do the same.