Then, that last one had to go badly. She'd brought in other Metros before, but this one? He'd been insane to boot. She'd had to tazer him twice before he'd even lie down. Her throat was still bruised from the spot where he'd tried to choke-slam her. He hadn't expected Adrian to know that little maneuver, had he? No. He'd expected someone to play by the rules. Like the first two who'd been sent after him. Ari hadn't played fair, and he'd ended up with a ruptured scrotum.
Only one, though. If they'd wanted to breed him, he still had one of his balls.
And now, this. She'd been waiting for it. Obviously someone would be unhappy with her level of performance on that last assignment. Now she was being called to Commander Hawke's office.
She dressed herself carefully, in uniform. The high collar mostly hid the bruise on her throat, and the coat's sleeves covered the bruises on her arms, but nothing was going to cover the parallel scratches under her right eye. Bastard had tried to claw her eye out. It would heal, though, likely without scarring.
The streets of Marseille were busy at this time of day, but Adrian was in the uniform of an Echelon officer, and so a wide berth was granted for her. She arrived at the Commander's office in due time, five minutes before when she'd been told her 'appointment' was scheduled for.
She was ushered in, exactly on time.
Hawke was behind his desk, two thick folders sitting in front of him. He was still intimidating, even after years of working under him; the normals who made up the Echelon's ranks had the power of life or death over the Engineereds, and even though it was rare for an Engineered to be terminated without just cause, it was still a fact that the Commander could mete out any punishment he felt necessary for sloppy work, poor performance or just because he decided she needed it.
There was someone else in the room, which was unexpected. The other woman was shorter than Adrian, with long blonde hair neatly tied back in a French braid, wearing the same uniform as Adrian, although hers was personalized with a gauzy grey scarf around her throat. She was oddly familiar.
"Ah, Four-Six-Four, sit down," Hawke said, gesturing to the spare seat in front of his desk.
Adrian sat where she was told, sparing only the briefest glance at the other woman. Familiarity. It was there. She'd seen this person, knew the sound of her voice. Why?
"Do you know what they're going to do to me?"
The memory clicked in place, and it was only sheer obedience that kept Adrian from pausing as she took her seat.
"You're not half bad, Metro. Catch you on the other side."
Yes. She remembered Psi Delta Two-One-Four Helios. Nicolette, aka Nick. She remembered the girl's easy, unsettling attitude.
But here, in front of the Commander, she gave no sign of it. No sign of anything but obedience.
"You're being reassigned, Four-Six-Four. We've recently received word of two escapees in Madrid, and we need them detained as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, they're also very dangerous, which is why we're sending two of you. Two-One-Four Helios will be your partner for this assignment."
Nick gave her a brief nod, turning her attention back to Hawke.
"Your targets are Epsilon Delta Two-One-One Alpha, calling himself Byron these days, and Metro Delta Two-Seven-Nine November, calling himself David. Two-One-One Alpha is to be considered highly dangerous, as he is one of the few Alphas to possess projective empathy as well as receptive. Two-Seven-Nine November may have undergone some level of psychosis; his diagnosis was unstable at the time of his escape. You have the usual resources at your disposal."
She knew there was no point in arguing. That was the kicker. Judgment had come, and been set. She was being reassigned. Still on the same job, yes, but with a partner? And one as flimsy as a reconned PK?
Her jaw tightened, and her eyes narrowed, but all the words that escaped her lips were "Yes, sir." She extended a hand to accept the files on the targets.
One bad mission. She had an excellent record, until now. Damn it.
Hawke slid the dossiers across the table to her.
"All the information you'll need is in there. Two-One-One Alpha escaped during the Empath Riot in Port Arthur; Two-Seven-Nine November is a more recent escapee. They've evidently joined up. We want them found and brought back in alive. Dismissed."
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."
Adrian picked up the files, eyes impassively flowing through her new partner as she stood and walked out of the office.
Alpha. I'm going to have to track an Alpha. Ari let out her breath in a sigh, and paused for a moment to look over the dossiers. She rolled her eyes at the sound of footsteps beside her.
"They're nasty pieces of work," Nick said cheerfully, leaning against the wall. "And Alphas are never easy to track. Empaths are the worst of the lot, really, they can tell when something's off. We'll have to be extra careful. I'm Nick, by the way."
"Yeah," Ari said, glancing at the woman for a moment before looking back at the dossier. "So I've heard."
She snapped the folders shut, tucking them under her arm. "So what's the deal? You here to make sure I don't kick another target in the balls, or what?"
What did reconditioning do, anyway? Was there a chance Nick remembered her? If she didn't now, would she later? Wonderful. Too many sodding loose ends.
"You're to take on the Alpha," Nick told her. "The November's mine. Psychokinetics are best utilized against healers or empaths, but the Alpha's more physically adept than most empaths, so he's yours." She smiled. "I don't think we should be as lenient with him as you were with me, though. Research is showing a higher instance of jacker genes in empaths, and that means he can get out of handcuffs if we're not careful."
Adrian smirked. So there was her answer. "You were easy," she said. "I can draw and fire fast enough that you wouldn't have gotten five feet without getting burned."
But Nick was a psychokinetic. A Helios. Her physicality was such that Ari had the advantage. She still had the advantage. "I just have to ensure that mine is a bigger advantage than the Alpha has. If not, I have to cut his down."
"A psychokinetic against a Metro? Of course I was easy. And don't take him too complacently, Alphas are tricky bastards. I should know, I ran with one for a while."
"You ran with one? Not this one. What could he do?" Ari had never seen an Alpha. She didn't have much experience with the empaths. "What are they like?"
"No, I never ran with Byron, but I met him once." Nick smiled. "He's... intense. They never turn their empathy off, did you know that? The way it was explained to me, it's like a defense mechanism. Empaths aren't as stable, mentally, as other people, so they keep this level of white noise in their heads from everyone else, to drown out their own thoughts. They can sense emotion and motive, which makes them ideal manipulators. Some can project, as well as receive, and they're the ones to watch out for. They can make you feel anything they want to."
"So he'll be able to sense my motives before I even get close to him?" Ari frowned. "Do you know what kind of range they have?"
"It's difficult to say; empaths vary in range. The strongest I ever knew was a Bravo called Jack. The best way to get them is when there's a lot of people around; their senses get confused in crowds. Unfortunately, that means more contact than might otherwise be optimal."
Adrian nodded. "Crowds are... less than optimal, but a special case requires different thinking." As for the jacker gene... maybe sedation would be best."
She look one more look at the dossiers. "We're going to Madrid. We can work out a plan on the train. Get changed into something else, get whatever supplies you need, and meet me at the station for the 0215 to Madrid."
She looked back at the woman. "I'm Adrian."
"I'll meet you there," Nick said cheerfully, giving Ari a salute. "Esther May cobalt underthings and all," she added teasingly, before turning on her heel and heading for the barracks.
True to her word, she was waiting at the station at 2:05, dressed in a long dark blue coat with her hair loose, looking the picture of upper-class beauty.
Adrian was dressed for travel. She had fitted black slacks, a dark green blouse, and a long black coat. Her hair was pulled up into a respectable twist, held by a silver clip. Her weapons were still hidden on her - she didn't quite feel right without them. There was one bag over her shoulder that she was insisting on carrying herself.
She approached where Nick was waiting. "Ready, then?"
"To Marseille is it," Nick said, smiling, and led the way onto the train.
The attendants didn't give them any trouble once the Echelon permit was shown, although a few of the more flirtatious passengers made remarks about pretty young ladies traveling alone. Nick ignored them, and ignored everybody, until they were safely in their private carriage, where she sat down on the edge of the bed.
"Men are such boors," she said exasperatedly, flipping her hair back. As it had six months before, it drifted into place of its own accord.
The men had stopped commenting after receiving a Look from Ari's eyes. She didn't think they would come knocking.
"Are you prepared to take down the November on your own?" she asked, looking at Nick. "I know you were reconned. But I don't need another one of you coming at my throat." She pulled back the collar of her trenchcoat, showing off the dark bruises from the day before. "It's bruised enough." She released the coat, letting it settle back comfortably. "So what I want to know is, can I trust you?"
Not that she would. Not completely. But could she be trusted to get this job done?
Nick hissed sympathetically at the bruising, settling comfortably on the bed with her feet tucked up beneath her.
"The Echelon wouldn't be sending me if they didn't trust that I was theirs. I made mistakes when I was younger. Psychokinetics often have a period of emotional instability before they settle; mine was more intense than most. But I'm well beyond that now."
"Good. Then, are you capable of taking the November on your own?"
The hissing, sympathetic or not, was ignored. Ari hadn't felt much pain. Metros were bred against it. During training, they were conditioned to recognize it, and ignore it. Pain was just a series of nerve impulses, alerting you to a point of damage. Beyond that, it was useless.
"Should be fine. He's probably gone a bit bonkers since he left; Novembers aren't the most stable bunch out there. You think the empaths have it bad, you should see what happens when a healer goes nuts," Nick said cheerfully. "They're bred to like pain, did you know that? It shorted out their brains, in most Novembers; turned them into a bunch of masochistic schizophrenics. No reconditioning for him; we'll be taking him back to an interrogation and termination."
Adrian was quite thankful that her new partner wasn't an empath herself. The Metro shrugged, her mask of blank calm over her face, and said, "That's not my territory."
She didn't want to know what happened to those she turned in. As long as she brought them in, she was doing her job. Her job didn't extend past those few moments when custody was transferred.
It was how you did the job. Just your job, don't do anyone else's for them. She didn't give her name to her targets. Maybe she made the train ride a bit easier for them, but that was so they were less inclined to try and escape. If you were getting rest, food, and drink where you were, why would you want to run away from that, back onto the streets where you didn't know when or where your next meal would be coming from? If they still wanted to be stubborn about it, then she took what measures she had to in order to ensure they arrived in custody.
Adrian was proud of her record. She'd had no escapes so far. If she went after a target, she brought them back. Some took longer than others, but she did her job, and did it well. Sometimes it involved going outside protocol, but they didn't need to know that.
"It's protocol," Nick said simply, lying back on the bed. "We should be in Marseille by dinnertime. According to the dossiers, they've been living rough. We'll have to look in the slums."
"I hope you have something more suitable to wear."
Their upper-class threads weren't going to get them anywhere in the slums. Ari would be changing into her hunting uniform shortly. All that required was the proper accessories to suit which class she needed to mingle with.
Adrian liked practical attire.
"Sure, because looking like an untouchable's really going to get us anywhere. Honestly, Adrian, have some imagination. They're working the streets. High-class girls pick up male streetwalkers all the time in the cities. Nobody'll even think twice. And we've got Echelon permits, so nobody will even question us fucking with untouchables."
"Oh, right. Because flashing Echelon permits is really going to help us track down the ones we want."
Sarcasm. One of the few emotions she could permit herself.
"The classes talk to one another. They gossip. You blend in, you get accepted. You get information." It wasn't the method that protocol found acceptable, but Adrian had found subtlety to be more effective than throwing your weight around. You didn't want to bring attention to yourself.
"I wasn't planning on flashing it around," Nick said calmly, gazing up at the ceiling. "You jump to a lot of conclusions, did you know that? But after we've bagged them, there might be questions; you know the law about fucking with untouchables without permission. Having the permits means we won't be, oh, arrested for having taken them. And sure, the classes talk to each other, but the untouchables aren't a class. You've never lived in the real world. I have. This is my circus."
It was like listening to a child. Adrian bit back her retort. "You have your methods," she said, tone coldly neutral, "and I have mine. Just keep in mind that I caught you before you criticize."
Never lived in the real world? There is no 'real world'. There's only your point of view. Hunting is my world, little girl, and you're just along for the tourist season.
It didn't matter that the Helios was two years her senior. Adrian still thought of her as delicate. Fragile. She honestly doubted the woman would be up to this.
Nick smiled, crossing her legs at the ankle.
"Shall we make a competition of it, then? See who can catch their quarry first?"
Adrian rolled her eyes. "I think we have enough competition with our targets. Speed isn't the qualifying factor. What matters is getting them back to the train and to the Echelon without damage, and without causing a stir."
"Do you even know how to have fun? Or isn't that allowed, for you mighty Metros?" Nick made a face. "They're not going to be easy to catch. And you, much as you might hate to admit it, don't know as much about their world as I do."
"I do the job that is given to me," Adrian said. "The ones who don't, are the ones we end up hunting."
After a moment of heavy silence, Adrian let out a sigh that bordered on a growl. "Why don't you educate me, then?"
"They're living rough, as untouchables. That means we really only have two options: try to take them out without talking to them, or hire them and then bag them. I'd frankly go for the latter; the slums are crowded enough that there'll be enough white noise to stop the Alpha from getting a sense of our motives, and nobody will look twice at a couple of upper-class girls slumming it for a night of fun. You do know how to look like you're having fun, don't you? Anyway. Did you look at the photographs we were given? Boys as pretty as these two have an easy option on the streets, and it's a better one than being a drug mule."
"Yes, I know how to look like I'm having fun," Adrian snapped back.
And, she hated to admit it, but the girl seemed to have a pretty sound plan. Different from how Adrian would have gone about it - leagues different - but it had a certain sensibility.
"Fine. We can try your way. I'm willing to see if you know what you're doing."
Nick laughed, lacing her fingers together behind her head.
"Now we're talking. You're too touchy, Adrian. Maybe that's why they paired us up. It's not good for a soldier to be so snappy with her coworkers."
"I don't need a partner. You're just here as a damn protocol issue. One asshole, and they give me a babysitter." Adrian grunted, annoyed that she was letting Nick get under her skin. "I do what I'm told. That's all they want a soldier to do."
"Someone hasn't been listening to the psychs," Nick said in a sing-song voice. "Or is it just we poor, fragile little psychokinetics who have regular evaluations? No, it can't be, I know the others do, too. Internalization and depersonalization aren't healthy, you know."
"Sounds like someone can't get their way through a basic psych evaluation," Adrian shot back. "Having a breakdown isn't healthy. Sometimes terminally so."
The psych evals were mandatory, of course, but there were plenty of ways to get around that. Field work was one. And Metros weren't as carefully regimented as the others. Metros were mentally stable, for the most part. They hadn't had their brains fucked with. Just their bodies. Adrian's mind was more solidly together than most of her so-called "co-workers". She'd figured out years ago how to get through the evals with a stamp of approval.
"Metros don't have a history of cracking at the seams. We were built a little better."
Nick raised an eyebrow. "Who's talking about a breakdown, sugarpuss? A psychotic episode does not a breakdown make, not by the Echelon's definition. You have the same sanctimonious superiority as all you Metros; I've lost count of how many of you I've talked to, always the same 'we're better than you because we're stronger'." She smiled, brightly. "You ever gone up against a chameleon? Now they're better than us. Beautiful way of sparring, they've got. I watched three of them once, it was like a dance. You ever want a challenge, hunt a chameleon. Then we'll see who's superior."
"Call it what you like. It's still a break. The name you give it doesn't change that fact."
Sanctimonious superiority. Was that what it was? Adrian shrugged. She was confident, sure. And the facts strongly supported her case in this matter. Metros had fewer psychological issues than other Engineereds. She didn't think it had anything to do with her physical strength. It was her mental strength that gave her that.
"I have," Adrian said, with a smirk. "Tricky buggers. But take a bit of rope and some electrical current, and that sparring advantage goes away pretty quickly. I will admit, it was quite pretty to watch."
Adrian had gotten full marks in her improvised weapons course. Training only took you so far; it was knowing when to use the training and when to use your brain that kept you alive.
Nick smiled again, this one darker and somehow secretive.
"Well, we'll see, won't we?" she said enigmatically, stretching. "I wonder how far gone Byron is. The Alpha design was retired after the problems they had."
Adrian had been somewhat flippant about her encounter with the chameleon. They had been tricky buggers. Tough as nails, and more flexible than a snake. The rope trick had been mostly luck with the first one, but it had continued to work on others.
An Alpha, though. She was quiet. This was the first empath she'd been sent to reclaim, and it was an Alpha. One of the first of them. There was something wrong about it, going after someone like that. But if he was dangerous, then she needed to bring him in. The Echelon had reasons for doing what they did. It wasn't for her to question them.
But an Alpha. Shit. It was hard to ignore the flicker of respect she had for them. Like being proud of a grandfather who'd survived the Great War. For one to have managed this long on the outside...
He'd be a hard one to catch. That's what Adrian settled on. He would be a challenge. But she would do the job she had been given to do.
"He'll be tricky," Nick continued, apparently unaware of Adrian's discomfort. "He was one of the first ones sequenced, according to his dossier. Two-One-One. Lab Two, Sequence Eleven. One of the oldest of us. He doesn't look it. He'll be clever, though. Veterans always are."
"Do you have to talk so much?" Adrian snapped. "Or does your brain not have any kid of border between what it thinks and what it says? I know what's in the dossier. I read it. I happen to think quietly, not aloud."
And, inexplicably, Nick laughed.
"One for me," she said, before relaxing on the bed. "I'm taking a nap. Catch you on the other side."
Adrian glared at her for a bit longer, resisting the urge to storm over there and kick the girl. She doubted she could properly explain the use of 'reasonable force' on her partner.
Then she settled into her seat, pulled the dossiers into her lap, and began to review the Alpha's profile with the utmost care, searching between the lines for a weakness.