Excerpt for 10th Anniversary: Shades of Gray #2 From Moscow, With Love by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Shades of Gray


From Moscow, With Love

10th Anniversary Ebook Edition

Kristie Lynn Higgins

SHADES OF GRAY: From Moscow, With Love

Text Copyright © 2007, 2018 by Kristie Lynn Higgins

Cover Art Copyright © 2018


10th Anniversary Cover Edition


The Lone Wolf painting created by Alfred Wierusz-Kowalski

A Saint painting created by Briton Riviere

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Start One Of These Series

by Kristie Lynn Higgins

Shades Of Gray


From Moscow, With Love

10th Anniversary Edition

In 2006, the Shades of Gray series launched with Shades of Gray #1 as a limited trade paperback edition and in 2007, Shades of Gray #1 was released as an ebook and in that same year, Shades of Gray #2 was also released. This ebook is the ten year anniversary of the book's release. Enjoy.


This series uses a mixture of omniscient past tense and first person present tense to tell the story of Shades of Gray. I have used bold to separate the first person from the omniscient. Enjoy the series.

I have glimpsed into the future and seen a world of darkness and sorrow. It was a place where the clouds hid the sun and human machines walked and terrorized the land, but there was nothing darker or more horrifying than the hearts of those who lived there.

Will no one save them?

Translated from the Assembled Works

Ginn L. Irynkissgthie

525 B.D.C.

Chapter One

The Raven And the Wolf

The year 32 A.D.C...

October 22...


6:23 A.M...

Hellenistic Sector, Residential Vicinage...

The blackness of night hung over the early morning as mile-thick Dry Clouds shrouded Noir's sky, and they hung over the city like a sleeping dragon. They were a sleeping dragon that the Earth feared one day would wake and devour them, and so far, no magic of science could stop the beast. Purple lightning lit up the heavens, but the density of the barriercumulus muffled the thunder as a Common Raven flew below the clouds, dove into a park, and landed on a branch of a Transgenic Maple. Scattered lamps lit up the dark empty paths surrounding the tree as a cold wind rustled the hybrid maple's leaves and the blades of the spongy Transgenic Grass that surrounded the truck's base. The breeze suddenly died. The large bird heard a twig snap and tilted its head, staring at a bush as a pale-white Tundra Wolf emerged and looked up with its golden-yellow eyes at the raven. Their gazes locked.

Across the street from the park...

A black Cadillac stopped at a curb, and Nikolai, wearing a white pinstriped gray business suit and a WM-A, got out of the driver's side. He placed a gray Fedora hat on his head, smoothed its rim, straightened a white tie, and shut the door.

Natasha exited the passenger's side also wearing a filter mask. Natasha, a Life Closer like her twin brother, inhaled through the triangular filter over her nose and exhaled through her mouth. She looked at the old apartments in front of them and then to the park across the street which was mostly empty. Natasha removed her white fur-lined, long, black coat, revealing a tight-fitting red leather outfit. It consisted of pants, a vest, and high heel knee boots. She threw the coat in the back seat, grabbed a black leather satchel from the front floor, and closed the door. She checked on her throwing knives' sheaths that were velcroed to each wrist.

"My Sweets..." Natasha spoke as she caressed the blades on her left wrist with her index finger. "Ready for some action?"

Natasha made her way to the back, joining her brother as Nikolai popped the trunk with a remote, lifted a case, and set it on the sidewalk.

He removed his mask and asked, "How does it look?"

His sister glanced up and down the deserted street and then answered, "It is clear."

Natasha replaced the WM-A to her face. He set his mask in the trunk, holstered a Glock 25, grabbed the mask, closed the trunk, and picked up the case.

She motioned to the case and spoke, "I cannot believe you are going to use that thing." Her Russian accent clung to every word as she added, "It is ancient."

Nikolai patted the case as he said, "Tasha, I like it for this kind of job."

"You mean the kind of job where it does not matter how messy it gets. Remember my brother, this is still a Life Closing so please be professional."

"I always am."

Nikolai winked at her and started up a gravel path, crunching over rocks with his black cap toe shoes. He made his way to the apartment's entrance and entered the glass front door and once inside, they both removed their WM-A, he handed his to his sister, and Natasha placed both of them in her satchel. He waited by the door as she continued in, and he watched over her as she neared the security desk.

A security guard in his early thirties looked up from the desk and stood, seeing the tall woman, and his gaze slowly ran up her tall leggy figure before he asked, "Can I help you?"

He adjusted his pants and his belt and holster, made his way to the front of the desk, and approached her. Natasha leaned to him and whispered something Nikolai couldn't hear, the guard grinned as he spoke back to her in muffled words Nikolai couldn't understand, and then he saw his sister giggle. The guard leaned on the desk and continued to talk as Natasha glanced back and saw that her brother was watching them intently, and then she placed her hand on the guard's arm. Nikolai noticed the lustful eye the guard gave his sister and scowled as his body ignited with rage. He put the case down, marched forward, pulled his Glock as jealousy spurred his hand, and fired once, hitting the man in the knee and then with gleeful pleasure, he watched the guard fall and grab his leg, squirming in pain like the worm he was.

"Brother! What are you doing?" Natasha asked as she folded her arms, knowing that once his temper erupted there was no stopping him. She would have to talk him down before they could proceed and so was her duty as his sister and partner. "We were not ordered to kill security."

"Did you see how he looked at you?" Nikolai questioned her as he marched to the man like a crazed bear. "I will gouge out his eyes and rip off his bollocks!"

She ran her fingers through her long hair, continuing to talk him down, but not before she teased him into a frenzy. It was already too late for the guard, so she might as well enjoy his death.

"I am a beautiful woman." She grabbed both of her breasts and massaged them with her hands as she inquired, "What do you expect? He only wanted to fondle me, he said so, and he also said that he wanted to take me to plains of ecstasy."

"He said that?" Nikolai yelled as his sister slowly walked over to him, he fired a round into the man's heart, killing him and then he turned, looking for others he could murder as he stated, "No one will look at you like that or say such things to you!"

Natasha looked at the dead man. His death had been a little too quick for her taste. Maybe the Closing upstairs would satisfy her morbid lust, and she said, "The guard never said that to me." She ran her fingers up her brother's massive arm to his back and then wrapped her arms around his waist, gripping him tightly in the front as she whispered, "How many times must I tell you that you cannot kill every man that glances at me?" She moved to the front of him and placed both her hands on his face, then Natasha saw his eyes bulge out in rage as they searched the area for more vile men he could kill, and she said, "There will be many, and you cannot kill all of them."

"But he..." Nikolai started till his sister leaned in and kissed him on the lips. The rage seething in him lessened, and he relaxed as he adoringly looked at his sister and kissed her back. She finished, and he told her, "I am sorry. I lost myself again."

"It is fine but do not let it happen–"

A second guard exited an elevator, interrupting her and when the guard saw that Nikolai had killed his partner, the guard dropped his coffee and pulled his Python 4 revolver as he blurted, "Hold it right there!"

As the guard covered her brother, Natasha reached for her left wrist, pulled a knife from the sheath, threw it, and hit the man in the throat. The guard fired as he grabbed at the steel in his windpipe, and the wild shot hit the glass front door and shattered it. Shards rained, pinging to the tiled floor as the guard dropped his weapon and collapsed to his knees. He choked on his blood as he pulled a radio.

Natasha walked over to him and kicked his revolver away as he tried to use the radio but only made gurgling sounds. He was lying on his back, so she sat on his stomach, looked at him with pity, covered his eyes with her left hand, and told him, "Do not look. The pain will be over soon." Natasha leaned to his ear and whispered, "From Moscow, with love. Now I will give you the Executioner's Adieu."

She moved to his lips as blood bubbled from them and French kissed him, tasting a mixture of coffee and metallic saliva. He fought her erotic oral assault and dropped the radio to grab her arm and push her off but before he could, she removed the knife from his windpipe. Blood spurted her face and neck, and she arched back stimulated by the red gore and uttered a soft moan as her body tingled. Aroused by the blood, she watched as the guard held his throat, trying to prevent his own demise.

Natasha waited till he died, wiped the knife on his shirt, cleaning off his blood, and sheathed the blade, and then she leaned to his ear and whispered to him as uncalloused as she could, "I am sorry. You were not meant to die, but you should know that I did enjoy your death." She stood, took one more moment to look at the man, walked to her brother, and berated him, "Look what has happened. We will have to file extra reports, and you know how I hate excess work. Not only that..." She glanced back at the second guard and then turned to her brother, questioning him, "How are we going to explain your actions to Voice and the Assassins Guild? You needlessly killed the first guard. He would not have stopped us from going up."

He hung his head like a scolded child, and then he replied, "I do not know."

"We will say the guard tried to stop us and that you had to shoot him and the second guard saw us kill his partner and we had to kill him also. But you cannot keep doing this. Voice will find out."

"If that happens, we will become marked for closing like the Phoenix."

"Yes, like the Phoenix," Natasha repeated as she smiled at her sulking brother. "Now cheer up. You still have your new toy to play with."

"You are right." He went, picked up the case, and said, "Come, Tasha." He entered an elevator, pressed button thirty-one, and added, "Let us go blip off the bird."

Puzzled by what her brother meant by his statement, she raised a black eyebrow, followed, and said, "Remember the Closing File states we keep collateral damage to a minimum."

"A minimum, not zero."

"Please do not kill anyone outside of the apartment," she told him as the elevator started up, and then she removed a gold compact and a white silk handkerchief from her satchel. She looked into the mirror and wiped some of the splatter from her face and neck as she said, "If we go out later, I will have to clean up. The guard is all over my face." She placed both items back into her satchel, the cab opened, and the two of them walked out as she asked, "What apartment number are we looking for?"

Nikolai removed an H.H.C. from his suit pocket as they walked from the end of the hall, and he looked at the numbers on the doors before they passed them and stopped. "This is the one."

She noticed a dark crack beneath the door and whispered, "The lights are out, so they are probably still sleeping. Do you want to knock?"

"Knock? No, not with this heat," he spoke as he patted the case, set it on the floor, opened it, and removed a Thompson Submachine Gun. "This bean-shooter announces itself."

"Of all the people to idolize, you had to pick 1930's gangsters."

"Every gink needs a hobby. I happen to be good at two."

Natasha said, "Half the time, I do not know what you are saying."

Nikolai winked at her, made sure she was safely away, then stood back, shot several rounds into the frame near the knob, and kicked in the splintered door. Light from the hallway rushed into the apartment as he proceeded down an entry and an armed man appeared at the dark end. Nikolai fired, dropping the man and headed into the pitch black living room. He heard two men whispering, and Nikolai yelled like a maniac and wildly shot in their direction as gun blast lit up his smirking face. The men who were hiding behind a couch fired a round apiece and missed him before the Tommy sliced through the sofa and cut them down. Nikolai flipped on a light, retrieved his case, and reloaded, then he headed down a hallway, and kicked in the master bedroom door. The light was on, and a man was in bed with two women. The man had pulled an Olympic 6 revolver from a nightstand.

"I'll blow your head off!" the man threatened.

The women squealed, covering themselves with the sheet, and one of them asked, "Vicky, is this another one of your sick games?"

"No, babe, not this time," he answered as he aimed the revolver, and then he cursed, "Puck! I don't know who this guy is." He snarled and yelled, "I'm Vic the Vulture. You don't know who yer messing with! I've got a contract with the Valhalla Corporation." The man shot at him as he yelled, "I'm under their protection!"

The bullet grazed Nikolai's shoulder and in anger, he grabbed the gun from Vic and pistol-whipped him. One of the women screamed and covered her face with her hands as Nikolai continued to hit the man. He finished and threw Vic's gun across the room.

Nikolai pointed the Tommy up, put one foot on the bed, and leaned toward Vic as he spat, "Here's the wire, lug. Your Chicago overcoat has done been fitted."

Vic grabbed his bloodied cheek as he asked, "What are you blabbering about, you mother-pucker? What you're saying doesn't make any sense. All I know is yer dead! Dead when the corporation finds out you messed with me!"

"Shut your trap! Your yap's why I'm here. Your so-called friends at Valhalla found out that the trade secrets you were supposed to be brokering for them you've also been selling off to other corporations." Nikolai's demeanor changed from one of a wise guy to a serious Life Closer as he spoke, "Victor L. Boons also known as Vic the Vulture, on behalf of Valhalla, I am terminating your contract."

"Wait! You can't! They can't! Puck! It's a mistake. I've only sold to Valhalla!"

"It is no use lying to me. They have audio evidence that you did it."

"I... I can explain. Let me get their Vice President on the phone."

"Did you not read your contract with them?" Nikolai questioned as he shook his head, irritated by the man's ignorance, and then he said, "You should have read it more closely. By signing, you agreed to the Life Closer Clause should you violate the contract and there are no second chances." He glanced at the two hookers and said, "It is a pity these two women are here. They would not have to die if they had not seen my face." Nikolai opened up one last volley, and the women screamed. White goose down flew up from the dozens of bullet impacts in the mattress. The feathers fell like snow, landing on the three bodies, and blood slowly tainted the down as Nikolai added, "As stipulated, your employment has been terminated."

"My turn has finally come," Natasha said as she walked into the bedroom behind Nikolai. She had already secured the rest of the apartment. Natasha watched as Vic gasped, clinging to life then she walked over to him, bent down, and whispered in his ear, "From Moscow, with love. Now I will give you the Executioner's Adieu." Natasha French kissed him and as she intertwined her tongue with his, Vic died, and then she straightened, wiping the blood from her lips with her index finger and said, "The Closing was most enjoyable." Natasha turned, saw her brother's wound, and scolded him, "Look at you. I hope you are happy." She examined the minor shoulder graze as she said, "See what you get for wanting to play with your toy. You could have used a handgun with a silencer." She glanced at the man in bed whose glassy eyes stared up at the ceiling, and then she spoke, "If you had, Vic the Vulture would not have even known you were here, but you wanted to go all Al Ca-put."

Nikolai pointed the Tommy gun up again as if posing for a picture, and then he informed her, "He was named Al Capone, and it was worth it, my sister. I do feel like a gangster." He smoothed his fingers across the rim of his Fedora as he spoke, "Place our calling card so we may leave before Noir Civil Police Force is called in. Dealing with the N.C.P.F. could be time-consuming so let our calling card talk for us."

She nodded, walked over to Vic, and placed a business card of a wolf and a raven on his chest. A barcode printed on the bottom of the card included the Life Closers' information, and the N.C.P.F. would use this card to verify the killings were Life Closings and not murders.

"We only have one more assignment to complete and then we can leave this wretched Dark Half."

"Yes, my sister. We only need to bop the Phoenix and we can return home to Mother Russia."

"It will not be so easy," Natasha said. "We do not know what the Phoenix looks like. Is this Life Closer a man, woman, or child? All we have is an appointed time and place for the Closing from Voice to find the Phoenix," she paused and then added, "And I do wish you would stop talking that way. Honestly, I do not know what you meant when you said you want to bop the Phoenix; it kind of had a sexual connotation which I hope you did not intend."

"No," he spoke as his face reddened. "I did not mean–"

She put her hand under his chin, reached up, kissed him on the cheek, and said, "Come then, I am famished. We will clean up, and I will tend to your shoulder and after that is done, we can see what fine delights Noir has to offer."

Chapter Two

A Past Mistake

Nineteen days earlier...

October 3...


6:01 P.M...

The Light Side...


The end of the day swept across Moscow's Red Square as hundreds of tourists visited St. Basil's Cathedral, GUM department store, the Historical Museum, and many other attractions. The clear western sky exploded with hues of orange and red as the sun started its descent. Twilight approached this part of the Light Side of the planet, and it was a place where the sun existed, separating day from night. Dry Clouds didn't pollute the air or obscure the heavens and darkness didn't rule the land. Eventually, even this part of the world would be covered if the Dry Clouds were not stopped; they spread about an inch every week.

Ten days before meeting Kat, Kim walked out of GUM department store and put on sunglasses before stepping out into the early evening to protect her eyes. A native of the Dark Half of the planet, the sun's light hurt her even near the twilight hours. She pulled back her blonde hair, tied it in a ponytail, buttoned up her long dark gray coat, and pulled on black gloves. Kim straightened a black knapsack slung over one shoulder as she noticed a woman holding a little girl in her arms and grinned. She had fond memories of her own mother that was until Kim turned eighteen. Her mother had left her and her father without a word nearly twenty years ago. At this time in her life, Kim hadn't yet discovered the truth about Theresa.

Kimberly's view...

I make my way out of Red Square, then hurry to Kalancheveskaya Street, and rush to the rooftop of the Leningradskaya Hotel, making sure no one sees me. I reach the rooftop just as the sun plunges over the horizon, and I pause, taking in a little of the life around me. Darkness starts to flood the sky as I remove my sunglasses and place them in the pocket of my coat. The beauty that we who live on the Dark Half miss, you don't realize its splendor until you witness it in person. The sun's so beautiful, and the colors that break across the horizon as it disappears for the day are mesmerizing. I inhale deeply, fill my lungs with the brisk air, exhale, and my hot breath appears as mist. The air smells clean unlike Noir's, and it energizes me and makes me feel more alive. The chill in the air tells me Winter will soon overtake Fall.

The sun completely disappears, and this world on the Light Side of the planet, even as night spreads across it, is so wonderfully different. I glance up at the cloudless night and notice the stars are so bright. I can't even imagine that Noir's sky looked like this once.

I pull on a knit mask to hide my identity, not that I expect anyone to come up here and see me. I wait for two hours near the ledge, keep to the shadows, and monitor the lit sidewalk below with binoculars. I came up here earlier than I had too, but I like to get the layout of the land before I take out a Mark. I place my knapsack near the ledge, move to a different part of the roof, and pull out a large case a Guild Prep/Cleanup Crew hid the day before. I remove the sections of an M24, put the sniper rifle together, then move back to the ledge, and peer down the block through the scope. My target's supposed to leave the tea house within the next hour. Many people go in and out of bars, eateries, and stores in the area. I glance at my watch, see it's time, place a silencer on the rifle, and kneel beside the ledge. I peer through the scope and aim at the entrance of the tea house. I remove an H.H.C. from my coat pocket, open up the Closing File on the touch screen, and study the picture of the Mark one more time. Voice told me the Mark will receive a phone call around this time and draw her out, so all I have to do is wait.

A minute turns into ten, and soon the woman walks out of the tea house along with four armed bodyguards. I aim for the woman's heart, waiting for a clear shot as people walk by her on the sidewalk. A limo pulls up, and one of the bodyguards moves to the vehicle and opens the back door. I put my finger on the trigger ready to pull it when the target pauses and turns back. A little girl runs out of the tea house and takes the woman's hand. The child holds something in her other hand.

I glance up from the scope. Voice said nothing about the woman having a child. Hades! It should have been included in the Closing File. I peer back through the scope, taking aim again, and I place my finger back on the trigger. The woman and the child walk forward to enter the limo and pause as the little girl kneels to tie her shoe. The child lays an object on the sidewalk, grabs her laces, and ties them.

My hands tremble, so I remove my finger from the trigger. Hades! I don't know what's wrong with me. I'm acting like this is my first kill but that happened years ago, and I have long since hardened my heart to my work. I take several deep breaths till my hands stopped shaking, and then I place my finger back to the trigger. I can't let whatever's affecting me to get in the way. I need to take the shot.

The child laughs and after finishing with her laces, the child picks up the object. She glances up at her mother with adoration.

I berate myself as I delay. It's my job. I have to kill the woman. For Ares' sake! It doesn't matter if the child's watching. My usual calm heart pounds with indecision. I can't let the thought of the child seeing her mother murdered affect me. Even in the cool air, sweat speckles my brow beneath the mask and absorbs into the material. I aim again and this time, I won't hesitate. A street vendor approaches, selling glowing balloons as I still struggle with the shot.

Hades! Pull the trigger! Who cares what happens to the little girl? I look up from the scope, thinking of my past. Look how I turned out without a mom. I shake my head to erase the feelings of abandonment, peer one last time into the scope and with shaky resolve, pull the trigger.

A balloon pops...

Chapter Three

Picking Up From Where We Left Off

Present time...

October 22...


12:56 P.M...


Hellenistic Sector, Commercial Vicinage...

Katharine's view...

A dim light illuminates a back alley as I glance around a corner of an old brick building and peer at the end of a deserted road. A ten-foot chain-link fence surrounds the back entrance of our destination. The wind blows a newspaper along the bottom of the barrier, changes direction, and flattens the debris against the diamond mesh. The newspaper flaps in the breeze before the wind tumbles it further down the road. I look within the fence and see an S.C.M. sitting in a guardhouse. He's reading a Guns&Knives magazine and drinking coffee and every ten minutes or so, he looks up from his reclined position. I imagined this place having better security as I glance at a scrap piece of paper; it's the address the hologram Theresa Griffin gave us. I sigh, disappointed with the defense and the rundown appearance of the building. It has to have some information about the Pandora Project. I couldn't have gotten my hopes up just to find nothing.

Kimberly stands beside me and peers through night vision binoculars. She wears her all black work outfit consisting of thin gloves, a tank top, jogging pants, running shoes, and a zipped up hooded sweatshirt. I'm wearing my usual white t-shirt, a gray-black athletic jacket, and gray-black pants.

"What do you see?" I ask her.

Kimberly's view...

"Considering who you are, I thought you would have supervision," I tell her, referring to her being the Pandora Project.

I reluctantly partnered with that strange woman four days ago, and I'm still uneasy about the collaboration. There's something about her... There's something I can't put my finger on. Hades! I hate this. I was told she's the key but never what she was the key of. I glance up from the binoculars, thinking about the Rogue. It claimed that she was organic-mecha, a robot that can completely pass as human. I think that would be worse than being some sort of messed up human experiment and considering the organic-mecha dilemma, I can't trust her or her motives for wanting to partner with me, not that I ever trusted her.

Katharine's view...

I see the mistrust in Kimberly's face and know the snide remarks are her way of keeping herself at arm's length. I don't know if she'll ever believe in my sincerity to help her. I glance at her again. Maybe something else is putting her on edge. It could be what the Rogue told her and if that's it, she has to see me as a freak. No wonder she can't trust me if she thinks I've been deceiving her.

I examine our time together so far, and I know one thing... our partnership's going nowhere.

I finally answer her, "No, I don't have supervision. All I see is the soldier."

"There's nothing else to see," Kimberly says as she hands me the binoculars.

I peer through them and look at the S.C.M., the guardhouse, and the loading dock behind the small building. He wears a dark green uniform and his shoulder patch has the Sphinx Corporation Emblem with the Council's Crest. On the top part of the large building is written "Etna Toys Distribution Station Bravo". The S.C.M. confirms it. This place belongs to the Council. We just need to figure out what sort of place it is. I hand the binoculars back.

"Let's go to work," Kimberly tells me as she places the binoculars in the knapsack, removes a metal object, pulls her gun from a shoulder holster, and screws the silencer on her PPK.

I ask, "What are you doing?"

Kimberly's view...

"For Ares' sake! What does it look like I'm doing?" I snap as I glance at that woman.

I don't see anything special about her. She's plain looking with hazel eyes and short brown hair but maybe that in itself is a disguise. I just can't figure out if she's a weapon or one truly messed up person and why one of the departments in the Sphinx Corporation wants her. All I know is if she's important to them, they won't let her go so easily. Maybe I should end our partnership before it causes me any more grief. I can't let anyone live who knows I'm the Phoenix. Anonymity is life, so I shouldn't wait too long to eliminate the one who has seen my face and who knows that I'm a Life Closer.

I consider it a few seconds more and decide if I want to investigate the building, I'll need that woman, so I'll allow her to live a little longer until her negative points outweigh her usefulness.

As if my actions are a normal everyday thing, I point at the guard with my gun and answer her stupid question, "I'm going to take out that S.C.M. and go into that building. I'm going to see why this address was in the file labeled the Gorgons."

Katharine's view...

"You can't," I say, keeping my voice down so not to alert the S.C.M. "Killing's wrong. Everybody knows that."

"For Ares' sake... Of course, it's wrong," Kimberly whispers. "But how else are we going to get in? Hades! I can't believe we're arguing about this. Actually..." I see and feel her anger increase as she takes a step towards me and states, "I can't believe I'm letting you stop me from doing what I normally do." She pushes me up against the wall and tells me, "Now listen... I'm a Closer and this is what I do."

She releases me, starts around the corner, but then I grab her arm, and she turns and glares at me. I feel her stare bore right through me as if it's a laser. I want to shrink back and run away, but I stand my ground.

I release her wrist and say, "That doesn't make it right. Please, don't kill him." In a gentler tone, I add, "There are other ways."

Kimberly scoffs my idea as if it's too childish, and then she points toward the corner and demands, "Show me then." She dares me as if it's some sort of game, "Show me how you're going to get us in without him sounding an alarm."

"Watch me," I reply as I take on her challenge. "Maybe you'll learn something."

I remove my single strap backpack, open it, and pull out a Gel-Taser; it's a device that resembles a mini TV remote. I also remove a dog collar and then drop the backpack to the ground. I tuck the oblong silver Gel-Taser in my back pocket, walk around the corner, and start whistling.

"True! Here boy! Come here! Mommy's looking for you. True!" I walk right up to the gate and speak meekly, "Excuse me."

The S.C.M. sees my approach, so he puts his magazine and coffee down, grabs the XM8, and comes out to the entrance. He keeps the assault rifle at the ready and peers through the chain-link fence.

I act hopeful as I question, "Have you seen a dog?"

He relaxes his grip on the XM8 as he answers me, "No, I haven't seen one." The S.C.M. eyes me and must decide I'm not a threat and slings his assault rifle. He removes his cap and runs his hand through his short hair as he suggests, "Maybe you should try around Joe's Diner. His dumpster attracts hungry animals."

Back at the corner...

Kimberly's view...

I can't believe it. That woman walked right up to him. I let my amazement fade away. It doesn't matter if she's able to talk with the soldier without setting off any alarms. The real question is if she can get us in.

At the fence...

Katharine's view...

I glance at the dog collar, then back to him, and say, "I don't know where the diner is located. Could you give me directions?"

"Yeah. Hold on," he says as he goes back into the guardhouse and comes back with a Hellenistic Sector, Commercial Vicinage map. The S.C.M. points to the paper and gives me instructions, "We're here. Joe's up there. First, go back down the alley you came up, then..."

I step closer to the fence, scratch my mid-back, and slowly remove the Gel-Taser and with my thumb, I flip off the safety at the bottom of the weapon that's below a large red button. The soldier continues to talk as I palm the small device and move my hand to the fence. I carefully aim, press the red button, fire a green jelly string through the diamond mesh, and hit the man in the neck. The end of the gel substance clumps on impact, it forms an acorn size circle and adheres to his skin, and the rest of the string dangles still attached to the Gel-Taser. I press the large red button again as the S.C.M. grabs at the string, and 1,500 volts surged through the jelly. He cries out, convulses, and falls to the ground unconscious as I look around, making sure no one saw me, and then I hit a blue button that recoils the string. I set the safety, tuck the Gel-Taser back in my pocket, and climb the fence.

Back at the corner...

Kimberly's view...

I can't believe it! She actually did it... I holster my gun and run up as that woman buzzes the gate open, and I hand that woman her bag. I'm still quite amazed. I thought she would get captured. I might have lost out on finding out what's in the building but my Pandora problem would have been solved.

"Have you done this before?" I ask as I help her drag the man into the guardhouse.

"Actually, a couple of times," she replies as she takes his keycard, then places the Gel-Taser in her backpack and the keycard in her back pocket, and adds, "He'll be out at least two hours."

I glance at my watch and say, "Let's get inside and see what we find." A little impressed by that woman's tactics and excited to continue our game, I state, "See how far we can go without killing someone."

Chapter Four

The Council

1:19 P.M...

Hellenistic Sector, Unknown Vicinage...

The new Sanctum...

Within the Chamber...

"Come on people!" a male supervisor barked. "You're behind on your one o'clock reports. Let's get them in." After a few minutes, he scanned an H.H.C., moved to one of the twenty-four Chamber Analysts, and said, "You're the last one. What's the holdup?"

"It's these readings from the new project. There was so much to compile that–" the male analyst started, "–I didn't leave enough time to write out the report. I won't make the same mistake again."

"The Council doesn't tolerate inefficiency or errors."

"I know but like I said I discovered my miscalculation," the analyst restated as he sent in his report. "It won't happen again."

"Make sure it doesn't," the supervisor said as he went back to walking the line of workstations.

In the center of the Chamber...

The Council sat at a long rectangular table that was the darkest point of the room, and the laptops and H.H.Cs. were the only things that illuminated the immediate area. The Council monitored many black projects and on this day, they monitored one experiment in particular. Mr. Morta a tall man with a stout built sat at the head of the table.

The door to the Chamber opened and light from the hallway revealed Ms. Nona was a slim lilliputian and dwarfed Mr. Morta's frame. She sat to his right on a specially designed chair that raised her to the table.

Ms. Nona turned to her laptop and stated, "We are receiving a report from Cerberus." She typed across the keyboard with her cherry-red nails as she continued, "Vulcan Station is now in our hands. Two of our squads of Sphinx Corporate Military have already arrived in Antarctica, and the S.C.Ms. have taken over the base."

"Good, good," Mr. Morta said. "Vulcan Station was the last Factory facility in operation, and now the acquisition of our sister department's assets is complete." He paused and asked, "What of the two scientists at Vulcan Station?"

Mr. Decuma was a meager man of average height, and he sounded disappointed when he replied, "Cerberus did not kill them as instructed but–"

Mr. Morta demanded, "But what?"

Mr. Decuma answered, "Well..."

When he hesitated, Ms. Nona replied, "Dr. John Gelid and Dr. Robert Seeker were injured."

"How?" Mr. Morta questioned.

"Cerberus tortured them with a laser cutter," Mr. Decuma answered. "Both men have severe burns. They have been flown back and are recuperating in our medical facility."

Mr. Morta stated, "It would appear we need to be more precise in our instructions. We did want the cooperation of the scientists." He paused and questioned, "Where is Cerberus now?"

"It is flying back to Noir," Ms. Nona answered as she scanned the clock on her laptop. "Cerberus should arrive within a few hours."

Mr. Morta thought for a moment and asked, "How is Argus? I would like him to monitor Cerberus."

"He is still receiving care," Mr. Decuma said. "The injuries he received from the T-3s when they tortured him were not life-threatening. He should be ready to return to work in a few days."

"Did he give up any information about our work or the Sanctum?"

"He says no," Mr. Decuma replied. "He said that they were rescued before he broke."

"They?" Mr. Morta repeated, puzzled for a moment. "Ah, yes. The two Factory technicians we acquired. Tech One-eleven and Tech One-twelve. What are their names?"

"Peters and Maxwell," Mr. Decuma answered. "We never did find out who rescued them. The men are closed mouth about it."

"Do you believe Argus divulged any information?" Mr. Morta asked.

"No," Mr. Decuma replied. "We did condition him to withstand pain. The T-3s may have broken him with time but not in the short span that they had him. They had him three days to be precise."

Ms. Nona questioned, "What intel do we have on the T-3s?"

"The operatives we had following them turned up dead," Mr. Decuma answered as he scanned another H.H.C. "The last report we received from them stated they had left the Hellenistic Sector of Noir."

"Create a new team," Mr. Morta commanded. "The T-3s must be found. We cannot have these machines on the loose. One Rogue is enough."

Mr. Decuma went to work on the task and pulled up personnel files and after several minutes, he started compiling a new team.

Ms. Nona's laptop beeped, she opened the incoming message, and then she relayed, "I have received a new report. Cerberus has stated its excitement."

"Over what?" Mr. Morta questioned. "Cerberus is experiencing a full range of emotions, and I believe this is good."

"Over tracking and eliminating the Pandora Project," Ms. Nona answered and then bit her left thumbnail as she continued to study the data.

Mr. Morta sounded concerned as he inquired, "Does Cerberus understand it is not to terminate Pandora?"

"Yes," Ms. Nona answered as she moved her hand back to the laptop. "Cerberus anticipates the order will be given to take out Pandora, and it indicates it will study Pandora, so it will be better equipped to eliminate the old project."

Mr. Decuma questioned Mr. Morta, "Why do you hesitate in giving the termination order?"

"The Pandora Project's tracking beacon was destroyed, but we still receive bio-data from Pandora," Mr. Morta spoke, sensing Mr. Decuma was suspicious of his recent actions, and he tried to put his mind at ease by explaining it away with a question, "Do you remember what happened two days ago?"

"Yes," Ms. Nona answered. "We received an influx of data, indicating Pandora reached the Delta Phase of its metamorphosis; it indicated that it had reached the Knowing."

"The data cannot be correct," Mr. Decuma insisted as he tapped the table with his finger and added, "There is no possible way the old project reached the Delta Phase without first achieving the Gamma, and its bio-data indicates that phase was never achieved."

"Do you both agree then?" Mr. Morta questioned, hoping to change their minds or postpone a negative decision. "We should suspend Pandora's termination. We must analyze the bio-data and once we have the correct information, we can decide whether or not to destroy Pandora." He rested his elbows on the arms of the chair, folded his dark brown hands, and then continued, "If the readings are corrupt, it is one thing but if the readings are true..." Mr. Morta hoped to give his favorite project some more time, and he said, "We should investigate it further. We did want Pandora to reach all of its phases, and we want it to become the killer we programmed it to be."

The other two glanced at each other and nodded.

"I have one condition," Mr. Decuma insisted. "We will terminate Pandora even if the information is inconclusive."

Mr. Morta nodded reluctantly and said, "It is agreed. Cerberus will observe Pandora. We will hold off termination until we have had enough time to study the data."

He had bought Pandora a little more time, and he hoped she would find the answers she was seeking.

Chapter Five

The Rogue's New Focus

1:41 P.M...

Near the Hellenistic Sector's boundary...

Within the shambles of the Factory...

The Rogue repaired the artificial epidermis covering its pale face as it stood in one of the many rooms the Factory devoted to bio-mecha research, especially, the assassin line of Un-Men. The room was labeled Bio-mecha Research Seventeen or BR17. The area under its left eye had been damaged two days ago in a battle with Pandora. It stared at a table mirror with its red artificial eyes, then the Rogue noted its eyes looked more like red ringed spheres, and it also noted the dingy brown business suit it wore had black oil covering its left jacket's arm. It went back to work and used a soldering iron to melt patches of skin to its damaged face. The skin was made from a manmade substance known as X-74.

The Rogue's view...

I pause from my work and set down the solder, thinking Pandora did a number on me. I came close to ending her existence, but she reached the Delta Phase of her metamorphosis and stopped me. Pandora shot me when no one else could.

I consider the past year and wonder why out of all my programming I cannot disobey the one to destroy Pandora. I find pleasure in hunting her, but I am an Un-Man, and I appear to be showing feelings and have self-awareness. This should not be.

I also consider in great depth the other thing that happened to me. Even though I tried to kill Pandora, she spared my life. She had the power to take it, yet she fled the room. She showed me mercy as if she knew something that I did not. Is there another purpose to my existence?

I think back to my discovery. After our encounter, I stumbled across the hidden chamber in the back of the Gallery and then later after I had gone through some of the Factory's research on the tablets, I found that archaeologists believe they were chiseled by Ginn L. Irynkissgthie around the year 525 B.D.C. and archaeologists also believe the words spoke of future events.

I process all this data, and I believe they are about Pandora and that they are some sort of prophecy about her. Right now, I do not know their true meaning. One of the tablets is broken, and I do not know how much of the text is missing. I do not know if the two tablets go together or if they are part of a separate message. I return to the table. Pandora could be the Rushlight mentioned in the one and if so, she is some sort of destroyer.

I consider the warning about the destroyer and my suspicions that she is an organic-mecha. Is she a machine completely composed of lab-grown parts or is she a human with unique abilities? My new objective will be to discover the truth and once I find the truth, I will terminate Pandora.

End the Rogue's view...

The Rogue picked up the solder and continued the repair of its face and after some time, the Rogue turned its head side to side, examining its work. It was pleased with its repair and glanced at its left arm. The Rogue needed to fix the shoulder, so it removed its jacket, picked up a pair of needle nose pliers, inserted the head into a bullet hole, and clasped a 9 mm round. It pulled the bullet out, dropped the slug to a tray, and the parting gift from Pandora clanged on the metal. Black ooze ran down from the wound till the Rogue used the solder to stop the oil leak, and then it waved a scanner over the hole and examined the results on an H.H.C. Nothing more was damaged; it only needed to patch the hole, so it placed a piece of X-74 over the wound and soldered it in place. Once done, the Rogue moved its arm up and down. The repair wasn't bad, but its skin coloring was all wrong; it was too pale for what it needed.

It removed its Coffin Handled Bowie, placed the knife and sheath on the table, took off all its clothes, and stepped into a specially designed shower. The Rogue set a color knob on the wall to olive and turned it on, and dark dye sprayed from the shower head, darkening its skin and hair. The dye ran for several minutes until the coloring covered its entire body, and it turned off the shower and stepped to a drier in the back. The machine roared as hot air rushed over its body, setting the new color. The Rogue stepped out and studied itself in a full-length mirror, and then it studied its artificial eyes and the blood-red dot-light of its I-Link sensor. If it was to pass as a human, it would have to do something about them, so it removed the eye cover to the sensor input compartment by screwing it off. The Rogue placed the cover on the table, picked up the needle-nose pliers, and carefully removed the orange bulb from the compartment so that it would no longer blink and betray its true identity. It screwed the eye cover back on, walked over to the table with all the equipment, opened a container filled with lenses, selected brown, and inserted them.

The Rogue's view...

A question crosses my processor, so I go back to the bulb and study it. I remember in the past the dot-light blinking blood-red. The bulb is orange, so it could not possibly blink blood-red. It does not make sense, actually, a lot of things do not make sense, but time is short, and I will have to consider this mystery later.

End the Rogue's view...

It looked at its shabby business suit on the floor. The Rogue needed a change of clothes. It had to look the new part if it was going to investigate the stone tablets. It streaked its way to a locker room, used a master keycard it took off the body of a dead manager, opened lockers, and searched through clothing and personal items till it found what it needed. It put on a pitch-black business suit and studied itself in a full-length mirror. No one would know that it was an Un-Man, and it had one last room to visit before company showed up, so the Rogue made its way into the hall and down several passages. Hundreds of dead Factory techs and S.C.Ms. filled the war zone laden hallways. It had been over a week since the T-3s malfunctioned and killed almost everyone at the Factory. The Rogue searched several manager offices until it found one with a functioning computer, sat at the desk, and woke up the computer.

At the Factory's main gate...

Lieutenant Creed held up his hand as a convoy of eight trucks approached. He wore a jet-black uniform, and a handful of soldiers stood behind him. His men were armed with an FN SCARs (Fredricks of Noir's Sphinx Combat Assault Rifle). He and his men were part of the Third Branch Office's corporate military. The armored S.C.M. vehicles that had just pulled up belonged to the Council. The lead truck halted, and the driver who wore a dark green uniform looked over the Latino man in his late thirties with a black goatee. The driver noticed Creed's name on his uniform and his rank, and then he handed an H.H.C. to him.

"Lieutenant, I'm Lieutenant Walters." The red-headed man had a pale complexion and sported a high and tight crew cut and trimmed beard, and Walters spoke, "The Council will be taking over the Factory. You and your men are to return to the Third Branch Office for your new orders."

Creed slung his assault rifle over his shoulder, scanned the H.H.C., and told him, "Use caution. All of the T-3s may not have left the Factory. They're like the Rogue now, and they no longer follow orders."

"Thanks for the heads-up."

Walters slapped the side of the truck, and four Council S.C.Ms. jumped out of the back to guard the gate. The four men removed barricades from the back of a truck and set up a roadblock.

Walters ordered over the truck radio, "Move out!"

The convoy traveled down the long stretch of road toward two large buildings. The trucks halted, and Walters turned off the engine, opened the door, and jumped down from the vehicle. His men unloaded from the eight trucks, lined up in eight rows of ten, and stood at attention, holding their assault rifles across their chest.

Walters walked up and down the line, stopped, faced the men and women, and ordered, "Team leaders, move your soldiers out. I want the Factory secured and if you encounter any active Un-Men, do not engage. Radio in and wait for backup. Is that understood?"

"Yes, sir," the eight team leaders answered.

Chapter Six

Mr. Pinchbeck

2:16 P.M...

The Rogue worked on the computer with inhuman speed as the printer behind it spat out document after document. The Rogue took an ID badge from a dead body out in the hall, removed the card from the plastic covering, scanned it, and printed out a version with a black square instead of a photo. It snapped a picture of itself with a digital camera acquired from a locker, printed out the photo, pasted it to the ID, and put the new card back in the plastic covering. The Rogue clipped the ID to its pitch-black business suit. It finished its work, signed a few of the documents with the Sphinx Corporation President's signature it had copied from a document, placed them all in a folder, and then it made digital copies of all the documentation and placed them on an H.H.C.

All that was left to do was to set the stage, and it looked at a Sphinx Corporation credit card it stole from one Mr. Frank Bygone. It had all of its props but one, and a quick phone call from it would fix that. It picked up the receiver, heard the dial tone, and dialed a number it found on the internet.

"Hello," the Rogue said. "Yes, I would like to rent a limousine for the day. Yes, I will be paying with Corporate Credit. I would like to be picked up from the corner of Limit Street and West 1000 Avenue, and I will be there in three hours. Very good. Let me give you the Corporate Credit number."

The Rogue hung up once it was done; it would need to get out of the Factory without being spotted and make its way to Limit Street.

About four hours later...

The limo pulled up to the Factory's main gate. Two yellow and black striped barricades stood, blocking the entrance, and a Council S.C.M. approached the passenger's side door, keeping his XM8 at the ready. The Rogue would see if all its hard work had paid off, rolled down the tinted window, and waited to see what would happen; it was ready to draw its hidden knife at the slightest hint of failure.

The S.C.M. glanced around the limo's interior, then looked at what he believed was a man, and asked, "Can I help you?"

It had passed, and now it needed to start its performance, so the Rogue said, "I am Mr. Pinchbeck, and I am to take over management of the Factory for the Council. Here is my documentation."

It handed the S.C.M. an H.H.C., and the S.C.M. looked through the docs on the device and tapped his headset.

"Lieutenant, a Mr. Pinchbeck is at the gate. He claims he's the new manager of the Factory. Yes, sir. His paperwork is all in order. Yes, sir." The S.C.M. turned to the new manager and said, "Lieutenant Walters says for you to proceed in. He'll meet you at Building G, and he also wants me to ride along in case there are any Un-Men on the grounds."

"Certainly," the Rogue said. "Sit up front with the driver."

The S.C.M. relayed his orders to the remaining three, walked around the back of the vehicle, and entered through the front passenger door. The other S.C.Ms. removed the barricades blocking the entrance to the side, and the limo pulled down the road and after a short time, the vehicle stopped in front of Building G. Walters with a few of his men waited outside.

The Rogue got out of the limo, walked to the driver, and said, "You may return, and I will call if I need a ride."

The driver along with the S.C.M. still in the front headed for the main gate.

Walters walked to the new manager, offered his hand, and spoke, "Mr. Pinchbeck, welcome to the Factory." They shook, and then Walters removed an energy bar from his vest pocket and unwrapped the chocolate snack. "The Council sent you in a bit early." He took a bite and then said, "The dead have not been removed or the grounds secured."

"I am aware that cleanup has only started and know full well what to expect inside," the Rogue stated, then opened a folder on its H.H.C., and scanned through some of the files. "All I request from you is two of your soldiers till my own report in." It closed the folder and said, "I will not get in your way. I want to set up my office and begin work. There is so much data to catalog in the Factory. It will take us years to go through everything."

"I can loan you some soldiers," Walters said as he waved two of the S.C.Ms. forward and ordered them, "You two, go with Mr. Pinchbeck and stay with him until his people relieve you."

"Yes, sir!" the two men replied.

"This way gentlemen," it stated.

The Rogue headed into the Factory. The first part of its plan was complete; it had the Factory at its disposal. Now the Rogue must begin on the second part, and it would uncover everything the Factory had on Pandora and Ginn L. Irynkissgthie. The Rogue would determine if its drive was more than programming, unravel why it was fixated on killing Pandora and if that was its purpose in existence, it would destroy her.

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