Prologue


Lightning flashed. Thunder crashed. Rain mashed on the window. It sounded like the incessant bark of a small dog.

Mouse's cheekbone throbbed where they had whacked her with the pistol. She had stopped trying to struggle out of her bonds after that. Now she just sat and stared at her lap, hands bound behind the chair back. Her butt was getting sore.

She muttered a curse.

"What's that, little girl?" The punk with the bandana leered at her.

"I said fuck you!" she spat. "And your butt-buddy over there, too!"

The one with the shades laughed his whiney laugh. "Now, that's not th' kind of language I'd 'spect from a lady. Mebbe we should teach her t'be more of a lady, Mort?"

Bandana sat forward and looked at Shades. "Nah. I think she's gonna get enough of that when the Domino guys show up, Jack. Unless she quits bein' a good girl that is."

Shades flicked out his switchblade. "Yeah, she got 'nuff of this." He stood up, examining the knife. "But after th' Domino goons finish with 'er, there ain't gonna be much left t'be a good girl... Mebbe we should give 'er a good time while we's got 'er, if ya know what I mean, Mort."

There was a pause as the implication of this statement soaked through Bandana's skull. Then Bandana grinned.

"Y'know, even though she's put us through hell'n'all," said Bandana-goon as he clambered to his feet, "I can't help but feel sorry for her."

Mouse felt her heart stop. She franticly scrambled for words as Shades casually lumbered over to her position across the room.

"If..." she said, "If you do, I'll bite my tongue and bleed to death!" She closed her eyes and stuck her tongue out. She jerked back as she felt the knife blade tap the bottom of her chin.

"Do it, little girl. It'll be better'n what those Domino guys'll do to you." Again, the whiney laugh. " 'Sides, I don' think you have the balls to kill yerself."

Mouse opened her eyes and met Shades' sunglasses. Bandana, next to Shades was undressing her with his eyes.

" 'N'furthermore, I think ya might enjoy-"

Flash of lightning. Mouse's heart jumped into her throat. Out of the corner of her eye she though she had seen the silhouette of... someone outside the window...

Crash of thunder, the window imploded, and the goons exploded - all over Mouse.

She prolly shrieked. She knew she kicked her legs and fell on her back, nearly breaking both her wrists. She also knew she was covered in a sticky mess that she didn't want to contemplate. Something fell on her stomach.

"Marian Crouse?" asked a calm, tired voice.

She opened her eyes and saw a black demon with flight goggles for eyes. He was unclipping himself from a cable dangling from outside the window. It crossed the room to her, holstering a pistol - a revolver - in the small of his back.

She opened her mouth to scream.

He knelt beside her and clicked her mouth shut.

"No time for that." He removed the goggles with his free hand, revealing icy blue eyes - human eyes - behind a ski mask. "Marian? I'd hate to have gotten the wrong room..."

Mouse nodded weakly, not wavering her eyes from his. Something sticky was cooling on her cheek. She must look horrible.

"Good, good. No more screaming, all right? I'm here to get you out of here."

A rescue? Mouse was filled with hope, pain and doubt. Pain, mostly because she was still lying on her wrists. Maybe she had broken them...

The man-demon pulled the ski mask off and a shower of cold water fell on her. He had shaggy blond hair and rough stubble around the edges. He rubbed his chin, grumbling.

"I'm called Six and I'm with SIGHT, a private organization - works with the government." He plucked Shades' switchblade off of her stomach with one hand and place the goggles on his forehead above his eyes. Then he grabbed her knee with a gloved hand and flipped Mouse on her side. She felt her bonds break, and she activated her millimeter-wave radar and frantically scanned the room. "Now I want you to-"

Mouse scrambled away from the dark demon-man, grabbing the late Bandana's former sidearm, a tiny 9mm Glock, and brandishing it at him. "How do I know you're not with Domino?" She heard her voice crack. She scanned Six with the radar. Several text balloons came up around the goggles, little arrows pointed out each individual bullet in his bandolier, and a question mark popped up where he carried his gun. "Or Cryotech?"

Six sighed. He dropped the knife with a fluid flick of the wrist (it stuck into the carpet, perfectly vertical), reached up behind his ear and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. He put one between his lips. Rain blew in through the remnants of the window, diluting the mess on the carpet.

"While the Domino Corporation isn't above shooting its hired goons to cut expenses, they wouldn't try to put on a face and lie about being a government organization just to get you out of here. They would have just konked you out and dragged you out like a sack of potatoes."

He gestured with the pack of cigarettes. "Smoke?" When she didn't respond, he put them back.

"On the other hand, Cryotech's agents are so cybered up they're legally dead. I know you've got gear cranked into that head of yours. Scan me. I'm a clean, one hundred percent human." Mouse already knew this. Her hands were beginning to shake. Wet, cold air was blowing in from the gaping hole that was a window. It smelled like rain and copper.

Six stood up. He reached around to the small of his back, his hand brushing the question mark. Mouse screamed and pulled the trigger, squeezing her eyes shut, bracing for the shock.

Nothing happened.

The Glock was plucked from her hands. "The safety's on."

Something large and soft ploomped down into her lap. She opened her eyes. It was a backpack. She looked up at him. He was unrolling something.

"Those are new clothes, Marian. You should take a shower. We've got twenty-one minutes."

Mouse unsteadily got to her feet. She was having trouble adapting to all this. She stepped with a trembling foot over what was left of Shades. She was pretty sure that this Six man-demon was telling the truth, but she couldn't trust this SIGHT organization more than any other. She couldn't trust anyone that she didn't program herself.

Six was having a muted conversation with a voice in his head, and Mouse heard the name "Marion Crouse" mentioned. She hated that name.

"Mouse."

Six met her eyes and cocked an eyebrow.

"M-my friends call me Mouse."

He responded by producing a lighter from somewhere and lighting his cigarette.

Numb, Mouse closed the bathroom door behind her and started the shower running. She was cold and couldn't stop shivering. She caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror, ragged around the edges and spattered with blood, a gob of someone on her cheek. Then she promptly threw up in the toilet.

While she bathed, Mouse connected her nanocomputer, Inquisitor, to the Net. She found a passing mention of the organization known as SIGHT on a page from a Seattle-based corporation, but no more. She wondered just what the acronym stood for. Prolly something to do with spying or espionage, she supposed.

The clothes in the bag were typical teenager wear. Tight blue jeans, white t-shirt, black hooded sweatshirt, rainbow wool toe-socks, strawberry printed panties, and a baseball cap with and anarchy symbol on it. She frowned. She used to dress like this, years ago. Where had this life gone, she wondered, glancing at her bloodstained shirt which had a picture of a llama and the name of an obscure programming language on it. She was only sixteen.

Her radar display popped up with a bubble pointing to the cap. There was a tracking device in the brim. Surprisingly, the rest of the clothes were clean. Something from Cryotech would have been made out of bugs. SIGHT was putting a lot of faith in that cap.

She put the clothes on, but held the cap in her hands. She looked in the mirror again. A stern-faced young woman whose strawberry blond hair flipped out above her ears looked back. She wrinkled her freckled nose and pouted a bit. There - she was still a teenager.

Six was leaning against the wall near the door. He tossed his cigarette butt into the chaos of the floor and some sparks fizzed and died in the rainwater. He was wearing a beige trenchcoat, which, coupled with the flight goggles on his forehead (and the pack of cigarettes that had been slipped under the goggles' strap behind his left ear), made him look more like an incredibly dangerous street thug instead of a demon - or a demon disguised as an incredibly dangerous street thug.

"Ready, Mouse?"

She drew herself up. "I said, my friends call me Mouse."

He studied her, one eyebrow cocked. "You're an odd girl. Two men were killed in front of you, and you hardly panicked. How long has it been since you were in school? Since you had friends? How long have you been on your own?" He straightened, Mouse stiffened. "Look. I'm going help you. Not because I was ordered to, but because I want to."

Friends...

She thought of the guys back at the lab in Cryotech. She liked Nels and Fred, but she wouldn't consider them real friends. The only one she really cared for was Saea...

"I'll let you in on a big secret." He picked the cap from her hands and pulled it down on her head, then he looked side to side with shifty eyes and said in a whisper, "My friends call me Dirk."

Mouse met his eyes. "Dirk?"

This was important. Six was obviously a code name of some sort, but when he said Dirk... yes, he looked like a Dirk. And from what she knew of secret agents and spies (mostly gleaned from movies), a real name was a Big Secret.

Dirk opened the door. Mouse went out, into the strikingly normal hotel hallway.

Mouse felt Dirk's hand on her shoulder.

"Slouch a bit, don't meet anyone's eye, and gloom a little more."

Mouse kicked him in the shin. "Shut up, dad."

The elevator dinged open and they got inside the mirror-lined car. Mouse saw that she had been captive on the twenty-third floor. Dirk pulled down his goggles and scrutinized the area.

"Domino's grunts are scheduled to show up in ten minutes," said Dirk, "but they may be early, just this once. Best be on our guards."

"Dirk? Promise me something."

Dirk lifted the goggles to his forehead and raised an eyebrow.

"Promise me you'll be there for me, no matter what happens."

The corner of his mouth twitched. "Sure thing, kiddo. Here." He handed Mouse a small metal object - Bandana's Glock, cleaned and ready. He winked. "Promise me you won't shoot me with it."

"I'll try." Mouse stuck the weapon in her pocket.

Dirk pulled the thing Inquisitor had tagged with a question mark out from behind his hip. It was a huge silver revolver, with a barrel over a foot in length. Dirk flicked the cylinder open and removed a single, empty case. Engraved just above the cylinder was the word Aura.

"Can I ask you a question, Dirk?" said Mouse. "Why is your codename Six?"

"Because whatever my target is, it always takes less than seven." Dirk snapped the Cylinder shut.


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