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Double Feature: Pantheon/Faery Tail By Deborah McNemar

Two great reads for the price of one.

Double Feature: Pantheon/Faery Tail

“Report to the sim room. Stat.”

I pressed my personal com tighter to my ear and closed my eyes, rubbing at the tension those few, simple words evoked.

I’d just gotten back from Hades and a rather nasty op involving the attempted theft of a load of diamonds, not to mention a few spiders I could have done without meeting. I hadn’t even made it home yet. I wanted a workout, not an afternoon wasted at the whim of a bored controller. None of that changed the current reality.

“Mission parameters?”

My boss wheezed for a moment, his obstructed breathing nothing out of the ordinary, but it sounded gravelly in my ear.

“Sniper operation. I’ve allowed for your usual equipment and the run down on the op will be given to you once you’re in the sim.” He paused. “Play nice, Athene.”

“Yes, sir.”

I ended the com and tucked it back in my pocket before closing the door on my locker. Special operations being what they were, virtual operations—or sims—were the best choice for on-the-job training. I hate sims, but Chronos had been a constant in my life since I was a small child and I hadn’t won an argument with him yet. Instead, I headed for the lifts for the upper floors, keying my security code into the panel and waiting with irritation for the few second ride to be over with.

Cobie looked up as I rounded the corner into the sim room, his brown eyes wary, but he remained safely out of reach in the control cube. He shifted, his large body rippling against the soft blue fabric of his shirt. He could do with a workout, too, I though uncharitably. The sim chair waited, the lights on the smooth, silver helmet already blinking green. Someone must have told him I was on my way. Shrugging out of my jacket, I hung it on a peg.

“Why the rush-rush on this sim?”

Cobie leaned back in his chair, lacing his fingers behind his head in an attempt to appear nonchalant. He might have fooled someone else, but I’d known him too long. As one of the few controllers I trusted, he was in a uniquely precarious position. I didn't like being screwed with. And it was his job as a sim controller to screw with me.

“It’s a new training sim. Sniper inside city limits with pedestrians, potential witnesses and all that. Pulse rifle scoped at a thousand yards. Emphasis is on covert.”

I narrowed my eyes at him and watched him shrink.

“Come on, Athene,” he wheedled. “Easy in. Easy out. It’s a new one and we’d really like to see what you make of it.”

It wasn’t as if I had any choice in the matter. Chronos had spoken. Pulling the black lacquer sticks from my hair, I settled myself in the sim chair and pulled the helmet on. I hated this part the most, where the computer recreated my reality. Control issues aside, it was too much like leaping off a cliff and relying on someone else to provide the safety net.

Reality fuzzed gray and then congealed around me into a hotel room. Outside the window, Mexico City spread across the skyline. I found myself holding a duffle and dropped it, eyeing the dingy floral spread that concealed the bed. The smell of dust and sweat permeated the room and I sighed, adjusting one of the black lacquer sticks that once more held my coiled hair out of my face. Another reason I hate sims is that they work on real time. That meant, at some point, I might actually have to sleep on that flea-infested lump they called a mattress. It all depended on how this new sim had been coded.

On the tail of that thought, a black case materialized in the center of the bed. At least this sim wasn’t big on the waiting aspect of the job.

The case opened to my touch. Inside, I found the pieces to my weapon and a portable com with a single file on it. Sitting at the table, I opened the file and quickly scanned the op-scene as I assembled parts of the rifle and stowed them in my duffle. It seemed straightforward. In, out, done.

My shit-to-fan meter rocketed into the red. The only reason it would be that simple would be if they were training in a new controller and they wouldn’t be using me to do it. Cobie didn’t do controller training, either. No, something stank, and it set my nerves on edge.

I memorized the map, deleted the file and prepared to head out to play tourist.

In a dark coat and with the duffle dangling from my shoulder, I garnered a few curious looks as I strolled toward the city center but nothing out of the ordinary. Tall, blond women sporting the unmistakable gold of an off-worlder tan were in short supply down here. Even in a sim, that was an inescapable fact.

I found the target zone easily enough. Taking my time, I walked for several blocks around the area, checking the layout. At this stage, the other pedestrians were window dressing for the op, so I ignored them. There were no strange, dead-end alleys or drug-infested dives that might interest enforcement. No neon signs proclaiming pander-houses. It was a clean, upscale business district.

With nothing concrete to bolster my suspicions, I had no reason to delay and the time clicked ever closer. Back in reality, Cobie had control of the reset button. If I missed the time, he would reset me back and I’d have to wander around all over again. Uneasy, I made my way back to the alley beside the pretty line of storefronts that faced the meeting place and chose my vantage with care.

Using a tumble of boxes and trash as a step, I leaped, grabbing the lower step of the escape ladder rusted to the side of the building, and hoisted myself up. The bag with my weapon banged against my hip, and I shifted it back into place. The ladder for the second story creaked under my first step, and I froze. No alarms sounded and no nosy neighbors came to check things out. Climbing onto the railing, I used the sill of the upper story window to get a hand on the edge of the roof and pulled myself over onto the flat, patio rooftop. A cat hissed at me, dodging between potted plants to escape the intrusion but didn’t knock anything over much to my relief.

Sitting in the shadow of a planter that reeked with the musky smell of tomato plants, I finished assembling my rifle. The oiled glide and click provided a comforting familiarity to my twitchy nerves. The blast chamber hummed under my hands. The world narrowed around me, coming into crystal, calm focus. I settled myself to wait and wondered if I had any reason for concern beyond my normal rampant paranoia.

The sun raked hot fingers across my neck, blistering skin as time clicked steadily onward. I didn’t move. My crosshairs remained steady on a window down the street, second building down, third window from the left. Clouds moved across the sky in a lazy sweep, driven by the rising desert winds. Minutes ticked by turning into hours that faded in the lazy afternoon heat. I didn’t move.

No pigeons came to visit which worried me a bit. Most controllers didn’t have the patience to wait with a sniper and tended to amuse themselves in juvenile and infuriating ways. Even Cobie didn’t usually have this kind of patience.

Over the years, I’d come to realize the more patient the controller, the more I had to be on guard, and this was feeling more and more like a controller switch to me adding an unknown quantity to the equation.

A dark haired man moved into my crosshairs, speaking over his shoulder to someone I couldn’t see. He wasn’t my mark, but the meeting had begun. Adrenaline spiked through me, a heady rush of sensation tracing my spine, and my nerves came alive. I took a shallow breath and forced myself to be patient. My mark stepped to the edge of the window, enough to tag him but not enough for a clean kill shot. He spoke rapidly, his hands slashing the air in angry movements. My finger tightened on the trigger in preparation. He stepped back out of sight. In my head, I pictured him reaching the far wall and turning back, still talking. The dark haired man crossed his arms, shaking his head. My heart sounded loud in the silence. One beat. Two. Over my head, tomato leaves moved, casting ferny shadows over my face. The man protested something, his hand cutting the air viciously. Four. Five. I took a shallow breath and let it out through my nose. Nine. Ten.

The mark stepped into sight again. He appeared agitated, his movements sharp and jerky. With a single, smooth squeeze, I solved all of his problems. The pulse blast burned through his chest and charred his heart to cinders, painting the wall behind him with a fine mist of blood.

“Eres muerto,” I whispered.

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