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The blast echoed much farther and faster than the sound waves alone could have.

* * *

Level 17 was to State Standard Floorplan, a sixty-meter circle crammed with almost five hundred desks. The computer was guided by psychiatric profiles and performance analyses to the same instant decision a human director would have made by gut reaction: Lacey's mastoid implant rang him to alert.

This one was too big to be dropped.

"Ready," Lacey said by reflex, swinging away the counterweighted scanner helmet under which he had been hunched at his desk. He was a squat man and as grim as a wolf, dark except for a jagged scar from his right ear to his collarbone. His expression was that of a hunter who had seen much of the world and found little humor in it. Over his net jumpsuit he wore a jacket, opaque and slightly unfashionable; it pouted to hide the needle stunner holstered high on his right hip.

"Bomb explosion in the Follard Tower," said the voice behind Lacey's jawbone. "A car and driver are assigned to you. There are currently three dead." After a pause that would have been meaningful in a human, the computer added, "One of the dead has been identified as Loysius Follard."

Lacey was already moving in a quick shuffle that took him around other U-shaped desks and their occupants, men and women sexless under their enveloping scanner helmets or staring blank-eyed beyond the circular confines of the room. A few chatted low-voiced with their neighbors. Few took notice of Lacey's haste: to these investigators, "private" business was no more interesting than naked skin to a Turkish bath attendant.

Over the door to the pad a light panel was flashing the number of the car assigned to Lacey. He ignored the six-digit display, knowing that on a priority run the car would already be swinging toward the doorway to pick him up.

It was, lift fans shrieking as it hopped a row of stationary vehicles to get to him. The driver was a blob of orange in a crash suit, loose fabric that would inflate at a 10-g impact, and a polarized face shield. The passenger compartment behind him was an open box with low bulkheads, a bench, and a scanner helmet for the occupant. The vehicle's own single camera was on a meter-high pole above the nose, a vantage that caught both driver and passenger and was legally adequate so long as they faced it except when grounded and thus in the field of other scanners.

Lacey leaped aboard, slapping the driver on the shoulder as he hit the seat. The car's quick acceleration urged the agent back as, helmet already settled over him, he willed an upward twitch of his ring finger. The nerve had been cut and rerouted to trigger his implant for his commands to the Crime Service data net.

"Explosion site," Lacey directed. In his helmet screen smoke eddied in what had been a ten-meter cubicle before the explosion had blown out the two partitions separating it from the greater office of which it had been one corner. Two of the dead were victims of a wall fragment which had cartwheeled through the banks of desks in the main office. The third corpse lay across the cubicle's own gleaming console of polished mahogany. Incredibly, the dead man had been the only occupant of the smaller room despite the fact that it had the full complement of three scanning cameras and the heavy tax burden that went with them. Lacey realized why the computer had singled out the third man. "Loysius Follard," he told his implant, "Economic highlights."

Instead of an immediate answer, the link made a faint clicking noise like lock tumblers clearing and asked, "Access code, please."

"Access code" from the computer because Lacey had just requested information proscribed even to Crime Service personnel unless they had a particular need. The data were available in a special bank, probably that of the Security Police, to which outside access was rigidly controlled. And the computer had added "Please" because it is easier to program in politeness than it is to defend its absence to people of the stature that sometimes queried the Sepo net.

Blocks like that were unusual, though Lacey had suspected power when he saw Follard's office. Flipping the helmet away from his eyes, Lacey punched his code, B-D-Q, M-E-Z, O-P, on the plate built into the driver's seat back. It was the one portion of the car deliberately hidden from the scanner, just as desk code plates were shrouded from room cameras—one secret in a State dedicated to eradication of all others.

Another faint clicking. Then, "Loysius Follard, controls Kongo Holding Corporation, controls—"

"Cancel," Lacey said. Kongo Holding was, for all practical purposes, the nation of Argentina. He had hoped knowledge of the primary victim's business would be a line on the assassin. Business at Follard's eminence opened, literally, the whole of Earth's seventeen billion people as potential enemies.

It also explained why economic data were on the Sepo list. The omnipresent scanners recorded every act and cut through the sham of straw men and proxy voting. Even a man of Follard's power could not avoid them, but he could arrange that availability of the data be sharply restricted. There would always be friends, contacts, favors. The Thirty-first Amendment and the Open Truth Act implementing it had not been what many saw them to be, an abandonment of the fight for individual privacy against the flood of technological intrusion. Rather, they were an attempt to utilize and control the information-gathering which eighty years of unsuccessful prohibition had proved to be an ineradicable part of American life. When everything became open to a few, much could be forbidden to the generality.

Lacey dropped the helmet over his eyes again. His blocky face was tightening with concentration and the scar had tensed to a line of white fire. On the internal screen appeared the private office at the moment of explosion, images recorded by the scanning cameras and recalled for Lacey from the huge electronic vaults beneath Atlanta. Follard was sprawled across the smooth intarsia of his desk top. His eyes were open and the lighter skin of his right palm was visible through his half-clenched fingers. The bubble of flame which wrecked the room burst from a ventilator duct just as the louvers began to quiver to signal that the fan had switched on.

Lacey requested the scanner on the outer wall, three minutes before the explosion. Follard was slumped even then, a message capsule visible beneath his shoulder from the new angle.

"Give me the third scanner," Lacey said, "explosion minus four." The camera behind Follard's desk should have displayed the capsule's contents when it was opened; instead there was nothing. The camera was out of order, had been out of order minutes before the blast might have damaged it. No object is eternal, but scanning cameras were Man's nearest present approach to that ideal. Lacey switched to the first scanner and a sight of Follard speaking a quick affirmative into a wall microphone—sound simulacra could be developed by the net, but no investigator of Lacey's experience needed them when the subjects' lips were visible. The desktop burped the thin 10-cm-square container, examined in the bowels of the Tower for concealed dangers after a courier service had delivered it. Follard touched the tab of the stiff foil capsule with his signet. The radioactive key within the ring caused the tab to roll back without incinerating the contents as any other means of opening would have done. Then Follard collapsed across his desk.

Lacey's face spread in a grin that bared his prominent eyeteeth. "Technical request," he directed his implant. "I want a desk print-out on lethal gases, instantly fatal and explosive in low concentration."

"Define 'low concentration'," croaked the computer link.

"Bloody hell!" Lacey spat, then considered. "However much an unreinforced 50-cc message capsule could hold, distributed in a . . . twenty-five-cubic-meter office."

The driver's hand touched Lacey's forearm, "Sir, we've got the site—but there's a Sepo on the pad and—"

Lacey cocked up the scanner helmet, glaring past the half-turned driver to the roof pad of the Follard Tower. The massive block of concrete and vitril was of standard design, a landing pad on the roof for the top executives—those with air cars—and fifteen floors beneath linked by open stairs. Rank among chiefs would go with altitude, an inversion of that among the lower orders who entered at ground level and climbed stairs to their desks. Follard's top-floor window gaped emptily instead of reflecting from a polarized surface. Seven private cars with closed cabins and luxurious appointments were ranked about the open stairhead. There, one hand on the stair rail and the other holding a modulated-laser communicator, stood a drab, weedy man who had pulled the blue skullcap of the Security Police from his pocket to assert his authority.

Three news-company cars were in sight but keeping a respectful five-hundred-meter distance from the Sepo. Lacey snorted, knowing that if only Crime Service had been present the reporters would have been swarming over the site. He had once knocked a pair of them down with his stunner when they ignored his demand to keep clear. The microscopic needles and their nerve-scrambling charges had done no permanent harm to the newsmen, but Lacey had been threatened with the Psycomp if he ever did it again. It was surprising that the Sepos were already at the scene. It was almost as if—

The security man raised his communicator and aimed it at the pickup cone on the nose of Lacey's car. The microphone shroud covered the Sepo's lips and the beam itself had too little scatter to be intercepted. The message rumbled out of the car's loudspeaker perfectly audibly: "Shear off, you! This area is under Security control."

The vehicle hesitated in the air, ten meters from the Sepo and slightly above him. The driver was balancing his fans as best he could, but the frail craft still wobbled as Lacey leaned forward with no attempt at secrecy and shouted, "Keep your pants on, friend, I'm from Crime Service and a murder site damned well isn't closed to me."

The Sepo lowered the communicator from his convulsing face and snarled, "I said shear off, bead brain! Don't you know what 'Security' means?"

"Set me down," said Lacey tightly to his driver. His face was gray and dreadful. Without hesitation the driver canted forward his twin joy sticks. The Sepo's communicator fell as his right hand slashed down to his belt holster. Lacey's driver tramped the foot feed, sending the car howling straight at the blue skullcap. The Sepo shouted and ducked as the screaming lift fans plucked away a bit of his jacket which billowed into their arc. The car hit the pad. It bounced from excess velocity but Lacey had timed the impact to leap clear at the instant steel scraped concrete. The Sepo was on his knees, scrabbling for the weapon he had dropped. Lacey took a half step forward and kicked. The gun was a silvery glitter that spun far over the roof edge and away.

"Oh dear Lord," the security man blurted, sitting back and in his nervousness wiping his face with his skullcap. "If some civilian g-gets that—don't you know what it was? That was a powergun!"

"No it wasn't, friend," said Lacey, satisfaction beginning to melt his face back into human lines. "Powerguns are approved for military use in war zones; not for police, not even for Sepos. And I sort of doubt that anybody's going to use your toy after it fell thirty meters, anyway." Then, with the same precision as before, Lacey's toe caught the Sepo in the temple.

The stairs were open-work which scarcely interfered with the cameras in the big room below. The three hundred workers, mostly clerks and minor supervisors, were crowded into the western half of it while two technicians and the Tower's medical unit worked hastily on the score of living casualties. The line of demarcation was not chance but another blue-capped Sepo whose nervousness evaporated when he saw Lacey and mistook him for a superior in the same organization. "I'm Agent Siemans, sir," he announced with a flat-handed salute. "Kadel and I took over right away and kept everybody off the—him."

Sieman's gestures indicated the desk and body visible through the torn partition. Lacey nodded crisply, quite certain that "everybody" in the Sepo's mind had included Crime Service investigators too. Sieman's cross-draw holster was visible through his unclipped jacket. It held a fat-barrelled powergun.

Lacey quickly covered the private office with his hand scanner. The blast had seared everything in it so that the synthetic fibers of Follard's suit had shrunk over his limbs and left the uncovered skin of his face and hands crinkled. The routing slip on the message capsule was clear, however, protected by the body which had fallen across it. Lacey flicked it upright to record the sender-recipient information. The name of the former—Lyall Mitchelsen, within Richmond Subregion—meant nothing to Lacey. Presumably it had meant a great deal to Follard or the magnate would not have opened the message out of sight of even his personal staff.

Out of sight of the scanning cameras, too—but that had to be a chance malfunction.

Heavy shoes clattered behind Lacey. As he turned, a savage voice cried, "Freeze!" His scar again beginning to flame but a quizzical smirk on his face, the investigator rotated only his head toward the newcomers. Two of them were big men capped with Sepo blue and crouching over automatic powerguns. The third, stepping daintily across a flattened wall-panel, was slim and glittered in a suit like cloth of gold. His hair was white or blond, a determination which the smooth pallor of his skin did nothing to aid. Skin like that meant wealth as often as it did youth, and the slim man radiated wealth.

There was another aura as well: he was unarmed, but he was deadly in a way neither of the gunmen flanking him could equal.

"Good morning, Field Agent Lacey," he said with a smile. His delicate fingers—the nails perfectly matched the sheen and color of his wrist-to-ankle suit—raised the needle gun far enough from Lacey's holster to be sure it was no more than it seemed, then slid it back disdainfully. "I am Sig Hanse, Agent Lacey. I am of the Security Police."

Hanse's tone, his smile, both implied a great deal more than the words alone said.

"You're in the presence of a major Security offense" Lacey said. At Hanse's quick blink he added, "Lethal weapons in non-military hands."

The Sepo's fingers trembled. "Get out of here, Lacey," he said softly. "You've been recalled. This isn't a wife-stabbing, a drunk with a chair-leg bludgeon. It's a Security matter; and if you aren't too stupid to grasp this concept, try to realize that you aren't cleared at a high enough level to be told exactly why. I might add that there is now a Security block over all the records of this crime. No data will be released without my code—just to remind you of your duty to the State."

"I can be expected to do my duty under the Constitution and the Code, Citizen Hanse," Lacey said. He took an easy, unconcerned step between the two gunmen and then glanced back at their leader. "And you? The powerguns?"

"A needle can bounce from a stud, can fail to discharge when it hits—can just not stun a man instantly unless it gets a ganglion," Hanse snapped. "Our targets are too dangerous—to the State!—to allow that."

"Good hunting," Lacey murmured as he walked out of the room. His shoes whispering on the stair treads were the only other sound his exit made. His eyes were as empty as those of the Sepo now lying among the blast casualties as the technicians and their computer worked to repair the skull fractured by Lacey's foot.

Two new vehicles squatted on the roof: an open car like Lacey's with a blue-capped Sepo on the driver's saddle, and an older but luxurious closed car of a quality equal to that of the private ones already parked there. Lacey jerked a thumb at the Sepo. "Hanse says take your car down and block the front entrance, friend."

The Sepo blinked. "Hey, but how about the roof?" he demanded.

Lacey climbed into his own car. "Well, what about it?" he mimicked. "He's your bleeding boss—you go grill him about it."

The Sepo grunted as though punched in the stomach. He booted his fans to life and sailed over the parapet as soon as their double whine had begun to lift the car. "Hold it," Lacey said to his own driver. He jumped back out and crossed to the superb car beside it. Hanse's vehicle seated three, but he had taken his bodyguards down with him to confront Lacey. There were no loose objects within the cabin. Its design was unusual for a police vehicle in that the scanner helmet was pivoted for use only by the front seat passenger, not for the one on the soft leather bench on which Hanse himself surely rode. That was ostentation of a sort which Lacey, who viewed the helmet as a tool and not a symbol of punishing drudgery, honestly could not understand.

There was a code panel, too, built flush with the seat back. Lacey's hand scanner recorded the banks of letters from several angles. Then he swung quickly back aboard his own assigned craft.

"What're your orders, anyway?" he asked his driver's back.

"Just to remain at your disposal, sir. This was a first-priority call."

"Bleeding right it is," Lacey said. He tried to blank the rage from his voice before he added, "Look, find an empty pad somewhere—an office building too run down to get air traffic, something like that. Set down there and let me think."

As the car rose smoothly, Lacey said to his implant, "Run me life stats on Lyall Mitchelsen, Richmond Subregion."

There was a pause, followed by a crunch of static and a metallic voice stating, "The information you have requested is under Security block. Please punch your access code."

"Cancel," Lacey said so sharply that the syllables clicked. He paused a moment, then said, "Technical request."

"Ready," replied the implant.

"I ran a code board on my hand scanner two minutes ago. Retrieve that and analyze the buttons for wear patterns by group." Using the alphabet rather than Arabic numerals gave more than 2 x 1011 possibilities in an 8-digit figure, hopelessly beyond the realm of chance discovery; however, the buttons would wear with use. If the board was used only by one man, that left 64 combinations to eliminate. Assuming, of course, that the Technical Section had not been programmed to alert Security when a request like Lacey's was received. It was the first time Lacey had tried to break a Security code, but he had gotten where he was by his total unwillingness to stop when he had started something. He wasn't going to back off now.

"Degree of wear is as follows. First group, S. Second group, A-E-G-H-I-N. Third group, remaining buttons, with no significant wear."

"Now—" Lacey began. He planned to set up a dummy query through the CS net to insulate his identity from Security when he began running his potentially 63 incorrect access codes. The pattern of the seven letters—S doubled—struck him suddenly. Barking a laugh of vicious triumph, he keyed his implant and repeated, "Run me life stats on Lyall Mitchelsen, Richmond Subregion."

Crunch. "The information you have requested is under Security block. Please punch your access code."

Lacey's index finger picked out S-I-G-H-A-N-S-E. It would not have been ease of recall that possessed the Sepo to pick that code—no one with trouble remembering eight letters would have risen to Hanse's level. But it could well have been the silent joke of arrogance between Hanse and the computer; proving that he, alone among the .8 billion people of Southern Region, the State-ruling Sun Belt, had not lost his identity.

"Lyall Mitchelsen, 56, industrialist, murdered 4-28-02 in Greater—"

Yesterday. "Method of murder?"

"Air car crash. Controls locked at 500 meters when a rogue circuit was triggered by a tight-beam radio signal."

"Bleeding martyrs! How did a circuit like that get into Mitchelsen's car?"

"The circuit was designed into all 01 and 02 Phaeton Specials. Investigation has as yet failed to identify the member of the design team actually responsible. There is an increasing possibility that it was somehow imported from beyond the team."

The computer had halted, but it added as a seeming afterthought, "The murder technique was discovered through analysis of seven identical accidents yesterday within a 21-minute period. The other victims were . . ."

With the scanner helmet down, using it and his implant simultaneously, Lacey continued to run his data oblivious to his external surroundings. The Security computer had already linked eighteen assassinations in the Southern Region during the past day and a half, Follard's being the most recent of them. Aside from their style of death, the only known factor unifying all eighteen was their enormous private power. None had been in government directly—bureaucrats and elected officials both could be scanned at public booths by any citizen at any time—but the wealth of these men and women had given them influence beyond that of all but a handful of those in open authority. Their lives were open to licensed reporters, but reporters—or their superiors—were amenable to pressure unless an incident was too striking to ignore.

And of course, even the most powerful of men could be scanned from all angles by investigators like Lacey, except when a camera went out.

"Give me office scanner repair records for all victims," Lacey demanded with a non-flick of his ring finger.

"The information you have requested is under Security block. Please punch your access code."

Lacey paused, shocked for the first time in the investigation. That the Security terminal had again come on the line meant that the data was covered by a block not associated with the assassinations—which would have seemed absurd, had he not already begun to realize that Security—at least for the Southern Region—had been involved in something very strange which the deaths had begun to make public. Lacey lifted his helmet in order to punch the unfamiliar letters of Hanse's name. He caught the eyes of his driver on him.

"Bleeding idiots!" Lacey screamed, "They know I can't work with women!" He fell back against his seat, his body trembling and his complexion a sudden yellow-green. She had touched him, hadn't she? Though her sexlessness beneath crash suit and mirrored visor had kept the act from immediate impact, memory now sifted nausea through Lacey's body. He leaned over the side of the halted car. After a minute he got his blurring vision focused on the asphalt of the landing pad without having had to vomit first.

"Will you please put your visor down?" Lacey asked in a small voice. A thump indicated that he had been obeyed. It had been an attractive face in many ways, high cheekbones and blue eyes framed by jet hair. His mind still superimposed it on the hard plastic of the helmet.

"Why?" the driver asked. Her throaty voice was slightly camouflaged by the shield, but Lacey could no longer understand how he had imagined it to be masculine.

He turned to the now-blank visor. "I want you out of the car, please. I'll have them send another with a male driver and you can switch with him."

"No, I'm your driver and the people who determined that won't be overruled," she said calmly. "But why does it matter?"

"Why?" whispered Lacey, his face as hard as a headsman's axe. "Because my brain got wet-scrubbed, friend. Because I was frozen in a nutrient bath for three months while a Psycomp made sure that I never raped another woman. Never willingly touched another woman, as a matter of fact, though that may have been a little farther than the computer meant to go." He had the trembling of his hands under control and the bright sun was baking the sweat off his face now.

The driver considered him silently. After a moment she said, "I'm the best in your section, you know. I can do things with a car that none of the others can. Or would try to."

"You dropped us on that Sepo like you were reading my mind," Lacey agreed. "But I still don't want to share a car with you."

"Look, you don't have to touch me, you know." There was an odd tension in her voice, a need that went beyond anything the situation seemed to call for. "Can you work with a driver who drives and who takes orders like nobody else you'll find?"

He looked away, up at a sky that had become blue and pleasant again. Belatedly he punched Hanse's access code. "Do you have a name," he asked, "or do I just call you Fireball?"

"You can call me anything you please," the girl said quietly, "but my name is Tamara Damien."

The data began to fire out of Lacey's implant and he let it carry him out of his personal situation. Of the fifty-four cameras in the victims' offices, only one had ever malfunctioned up to five years before. After that, one after another, brief failures began to show up in the maintenance records. Two to five minutes at a time, ten or a dozen times a year. Long enough to read and memorize a note, enough even to scribble one off. Three victims had no scanner failures at all until Lacey followed up with records of their vehicle units.

"Okay, what other scanners have similar malfunction records?" Lacey asked, his voice still a flat purr with only a trace of hoarseness.

"Vehicle unit, Southern Regional Pool Car 138814; vehicle unit, Southern Regional Pool Car 759541; vehicle unit, Southern Regional Pool Car, 294773. No other units."

Lacey touched his tongue to his lips. "Who were the cars checked to at times of malfunction?" he asked.

"Alvin Hormadz, Director for Security, Atlanta Subregion; Willa Perhabis, Director for Security, Richmond Subregion; Sig Hanse, Security Coordinator, Southern Region."

Which by that time was no surprise.

"Uh-hmm," Lacey sighed, showing his teeth like a satisfied tomcat. He blinked, seeing Tamara for the first time since the data had begun coming in. She was as tense as he had been when he faced the guns of Hanse's bodyguards. "Oh, hell," he said. "Take your helmet off. We're going to be here a while."

She unsnapped the chin strap and slid the gear away from hair that sweat had stuck to her cheeks. It fluffed in the breeze as she freed it. Lacey's stomach roiled but he grinned wider. If he had not been able to laugh at the irony of the situation, he would have committed suicide within days of his psychic remake.

"Can I ask you a personal question?" Tamara said, her eyes on the helmet as she placed it on the seat beside her.

"Sure," Lacey agreed unconcernedly.

"Why did you commit rape? You aren't . . . you aren't cool, but you seem to act as though you were. How did you come to lose control like that?"

"Oh, my," said Lacey, kneading the back of his neck with his eyes closed. "The people I pick up talk about losing control, as if that could make me feel sorry for them. I raped the bitch because it was the only way I could punish her as much as I thought she deserved. For this—" he touched his scar—"for a lot of things. I had to find an empty, unfinished dwelling unit with doors I could wedge against the Red Team that was going to come as soon as the scanners picked up what I was doing. You aren't going to successfully rape anybody nowadays if you just lose control, my friend."

Tamara's face was blank. "And you kept your job as an investigator?"

"No, that's not quite what happened," Lacey explained. His grin interrupted him by turning into an open chuckle. "I sold insurance before they got into my mind. The Psycomp seems to have decided that single-mindedness and an ability to plan could be useful to the State—in the right channels, that is."

He nodded at the scanner helmet. "Trouble is, it's not something I can turn off because somebody decided to change the rules. I think I've already gotten deeper in this channel than some folks are going to like, both Hanse and his bunch and the folks who are knocking them off."

"I don't see why the Sepos haven't already arrested you this morning," the girl said. She was facing Lacey, the scanner staring over the top of her head like a one-eyed crow. The sky beyond was empty: Tamara had set them on an older building, designed for elevators and individual offices. When power for the elevators became prohibitive, the upper floors were left untenanted. The view from the room was clear and had because of its stability an emotional impact unequaled by that of an air car at the same height.

"Would you rather I didn't ask—?" the girl said awkwardly.

Lacey blinked. "Sorry, I was drifting," he said with a nicer smile than before. He scratched his ribs where his jumpsuit clung to them. "No, I can explain it. Hanse wasn't going to arrest me for disarming his thug, he had too much to explain on that one himself. What he was doing here in person, for instance. Given the timing and the fact his office is in Atlanta, I'd bet that he was on his way to warn Follard that somebody had gotten onto whatever game they were playing. . . ." The smile broadened, then faded. "There was a chance that he might have had me shot, of course. That would have been a little easier to clear."

"But you searched his car, you broke his access code," Tamara blurted. She was using both hands to gesture toward Lacey, too agitated to notice that he slid back away from them. "I saw you, the car scanner saw you, the three roof scanners saw you. Why are you still loose?"

"Maybe when Hanse gets around to checking me, I won't be," Lacey said, motioning the girl to calmness. "But the things you're talking about don't flag the computer automatically, friend Tamara. Certain patterns will be kicked up to a human observer by the circuit that watch-dogs all scanner inputs—a room exploding, a CS investigator kicking an armed Sepo in the head—that sort of thing. But Loysius Follard falling asleep at his desk didn't set any lights flashing, and neither did a fellow opening the door of a car, then closing it and walking away. The data's there in the vaults under Atlanta; but until somebody retrieves it, I'll still be walking free.

"Riding free," he corrected with another smile. "And I think I'm ready, now, to ride back to the State Building. There's some data there for me, and I've had my dose of open space for the day."

* * *

He had lied about his purpose. He walked into Level 17 from the landing pad but glanced at the print-out without great interest. The lethal agent had almost certainly been PDT, a volatile liquid explosive/toxin supposedly in military hands only. Anything that exists can be had by a man who knows what to offer the right people.

"Support request," Lacey said to his implant.


"I want a check on PDT stockpiles. Track down any losses and report the results to me."

"Accepted at third priority."

Lacey unlocked the lowest drawer of his desk and took a cylindrical package from it. His face was set but looked ready to explode like a Prince Rupert drop if touched by anyone's glance.

17 was the roof level—government offices were built a little higher, on the average, than new private ones (complaints about "the hogs at the public trough" continued to be useful campaign rhetoric) and Crime Service had to be alongside the pad. Lacey walked the sixteen flights to the ground through offices of identical size and equal crowding. The stairs were a broad helix, thin-railed and with treads which were almost freestanding. They were supposed to deaden sound, but the material creaked. In late afternoon, Lacey was alone on the staircase and drew occasional eyes. None of them remained on him long.

He had over a kilometer to go but he did not take a bus. It was easier to feel that he was anonymous, stepping into a doorway from a sidewalk—there one moment, then gone—than it would have been when getting off a bus at an address that other passengers might recognize.

Ground floor of the old building which was his destination held a food bazaar that smelled frowsty and sweet. It was unpartitioned with its internal load-bearing pillars replaced by transparent myrmillon, but a greasy coating had opaqued them and no one seemed to care. The second through eighth levels were housing of poor and successively-degenerated quality. The ground plan was marked off into eighty dwelling units by waist-height vitril panels on the lower floors, rusted hog-fencing on the upper ones. The center of the big room was a bank of coin-operated hot plates. Other furniture depended on the whim and wealth of the units' occupiers: chairs and frequently a table, beds on floor-spread mattresses, and occasionally an electric light to supplement the dozen glow-strips in the ceiling. These would go on at sunset and out promptly three hours later, rain or shine. The only sight barriers in the room were the sheets fronting the latrines at either end, so placed that the stools were shielded from viewers in the belly of the room but were swept by one of the three scanners. Need for the law to make that concession to privacy was thrown in doubt by the unrepaired damage to several of the screens, ignored both by users of the latrines and the others in the room. Lacey climbed through the wretched dwelling levels without expression and, just possibly, without notice.

The ninth floor was empty save for a browned, youngish man on a stool at the base of the winding stairs. "Hey, back already?" he cackled, his grin combining cameraderie and condescension. A woman and three men, one of them well-dressed and very drunk, clattered down the stairs together.

Lacey moved aside. He held out three large bills to the doorman. "Which stall?" he asked.

"One a these days you'll want the Honeymoon Suite and I'll fall right off this chair," the seated man chuckled.

"Which stall?"

The doorman blinked up at dark eyes and a neck bright with scarred lightning. His hand twitched toward the length of pipe behind him, but wisely he controlled the motion and took the proffered money instead. "Sixty-one's empty," he said, looking away. "I'll mark you down for it."

Lacey turned without nodding and began to climb the last flight of steps. Under his breath the doorman muttered, "Bet I don't see you many more times, buddy. Ones like you they don't let walk around very long."

The tenth floor was sweaty, stinking bedlam, far darker than the lower levels because the canvas cubicles spaced around the walls blocked most of the windows. Studding the ceiling at two-meter intervals were 150 separately-controlled scanner units. They stood like the sprinkler heads of an earlier day in which fire had been thought a greater danger to society than privacy. Beneath them, divided by narrow aisles, were arrayed the cribs that bumped and swayed to the activities of their occupants which the cameras impassively recorded. The accommodation house catered to those who did not want their neighbors in their own dwelling units to learn what they were doing, or who they were doing it with.

In Lacey's case, what he was doing it with.

"What stall?" boomed the floor boss, a huge albino with Negroid features who stood in front of a control panel.


"Right, sixty-one," the albino echoed, checking the panel. "Two hours of scanner time. You want company?" His doughy fingers indicated the north wall, the Mourners' Bench, along which waited apathetically a score of haggard prostitutes of both sexes.


"S'okay, sixty-one," the bigger man repeated. "We rent you four walls and a private scanner. What you do with them's between you and the data bank."

Lacey strode down the jostling aisle to the crib marked 61 in red numerals on the tile floor. He stepped inside and drew the curtain shut. The scanner above him beeped and an orange telltale came on, indicating the unit was in operation. The cubicle was dim enough that the supplementary infra-red system was probably on. Without haste, Lacey stripped off his coveralls and folded them, laying his pistol on top of the garment. He opened the package he had brought and removed the artificial vagina from its foam nest. He switched it on, sat down on the cot, and affixed it to himself.

Lacey's eyes were as empty as the lens of the scanner they stared up toward as his body shuddered. Beneath the emptiness was a rage that bubbled like lava-filled calderas.

* * *

He walked back to the State Building, this time from a desire for walking rather than from shame. The shame had drained out of him along with some of the other emotions he was trying to void. Lacey's mind was working again, using the rhythm of his feet to shuffle patterns in the information he had collected. The dusky street was quiet enough and as clean as is only possible in a society in which all litter has value to someone. At alternate blocks stood uniformed police with gas guns and banana-clipped stunners, ready for their computer links to direct them to trouble. For the most part they appeared as bored and logy as the vagrants with whom they shared the evening. There was infrared for the omnipresent scanners, but no power was wasted for men to see by. The night is an irksome companion.

The squad at the gate of the building passed Lacey without hesitation. Several of the red-hatted men recognized him, while the rest ignored him because their implants told them it was safe to do so. On several floors only the stairway was lighted by glow strips, since government offices tended to close at nightfall like everything else. Level 16, where uniformed monitors wore helmets to direct squads to trouble spots, was a bright exception; and Level 17 was about a quarter occupied also. An investigator could run his subject at any time—the data bank would wait—but many of the hunters were like Lacey. They stuck to the unusual criminal who had eluded the first rush of a Red Team; stuck with him until they had drunk his blood.

Lacey sat at his desk and pulled down the scanner helmet to begin checking back the message capsule. In all likelihood the assassin had not believed that would be possible. In general his assumption would have been correct; but this case had been handed to Lacey. The capsule had popped onto Follard's desk from the Tower's security system, hidden from the scanners as it ran past a battery of useless fluoroscopes and radiation testers. For his own reasons, Follard had not allowed a subordinate to open the capsule; he had paid for secrecy with his life. Lacey picked up the capsule where it had entered the system, delivered ten minutes before then with a mass of others like it in the hold of an air car. Lacey switched to a roof camera showing two bored guards with batons and the green uniforms of a private message service standing around while the white-haired driver dumped armloads of capsules into the chute. Lacey magnified by ten, then by a hundred, as he focused the image on the tumbling rectangles.

And then the computer took over. With time and even greater magnification, Lacey might himself have been able to catch the routing slip on the metal and identify the death capsule. The precise machinery of the police net scanned the object for tiny imperfections and for details of the routing slip so slight that even the corner of a letter in a camera field would be an identification. Lacking that, the capsule's albedo alone could identify it where the light intensity was known. Technology made practical a job that was otherwise only a theoretical possibility. It was like giving a bloodhound an escapee's sock to sniff.

The capsule had been in the morning's delivery. Had it not been, Lacey would have traced through the Tower looking for the point at which an insider had slipped it into the normal flow. He gave quick directions to his implant and the delivery car jerked backward across the city in a series of ten-second jumps in the helmet. They stopped when it had run back to its loading point, the internal dock of a regional distribution center.

All but three floors of the huge granite building were lifeless, filled with sorting machinery and endless belts studded with hundreds of thousands of capsules of identical shape and size. Odd-sized packages were handled by humans on the two lowest floors, and the charge for such service was enough to guarantee its use only in cases of necessity. The third level received packages by dumbwaiter and capsules by chute, integrating them into the bins from which the delivery cars were loaded.

The computer needed further guidance at that point, for the chutes themselves were inaccessible to men and thus unscanned. The conveyors on each floor, however, with their complex system of shunts, feeds, and crossfeeds that sorted each capsule toward its proper drop chute, were as open to cameras as any other room. Lacey moved floor by floor, focusing each time on the aperture which dropped capsules into the Follard Tower bin. His voice had grown husky with giving directions and his fingers stiff from flexing on his chair arms, but if anyone could have seen his face behind the helmet they would have cringed back from a smile more fitted to a tiger than a man. Even a man like Lacey.

Mail to the Follard Tower was delivered at twelve-hour intervals. Lacey ran each floor back to the time the previous load had gone out, then switched up one level. The speeded up, reversed flow of images would have driven mad anyone less used to it than he was; and perhaps—a possibility that Lacey had never denied to himself—he withstood it only because he was already mad.

On the eighth floor he picked up the capsule again, part of a shipment brought from Richmond Subregion by high-altitude airliner. It was not too long afterward that Lacey's helmet focused on a Petersburg street and a man, slim and fiftyish with tight-rolled hair and a skin so black it looked purple, who dropped the capsule into a collection box and then thumbed in coins until the postage light glowed green.

"Name and data," Lacey croaked to his implant.

"William Anton Merritt, age 54, on dole for past thirty-seven months. Eight years Chief of Operations, Security, for Southern Region. Previously—"

Lacey cut off the flow and returned to his man. It was without surprise that he back-tracked Merritt to a counter in the General Delivery room of the Petersburg mail depot where he had peeled off a routing slip addressed to him and replaced it with the one that would carry the toxin to Follard. There was no reason, after all, that the murder device should have been prepared in the subregion from which it had to be mailed in order to pass as coming from the conspirator Mitchelsen. Back a step further, then; Merritt punching his I. D. on a code board and waiting the few seconds for the capsule to drop into the delivery slot. From there back through a mirror image of the previous routings—no less arduous, but no less possible to follow—for they led straight back to Greensboro Subregion in which sat Lacey hunched under his helmet and the body of Loysius Follard lay on a teak slab with a thousand torchlit mourners howling around it like the damned.

This time, Lacey did not need the data bank to identify the girl who jumped from an air car to mail the capsule to Merritt in Petersburg.

For the moment he did not trace the capsule to the point at which it was filled with explosive and sealed, or back even earlier when the PDT had been removed from some government stockpile. That information was safe in the data bank until he chose to retrieve it, and the people concerned—the scores or perhaps hundreds it had taken to bring off so many simultaneous assassinations—would be just as easy to find a few hours or days later. Only death had ever saved a target from Lacey. Instead of searching for other names now, he twitched the finger no wedding ring would ever grace and said, "Give me a current location on William Anton Merritt."

Information that far-reaching required a delay for computer time to check literally hundreds of thousands of scanner images in a pattern of concentric probabilities; but for Lacey it was only seconds before the data squeaked back into his mastoid. He grunted as he considered it. "Estimated time of arrival?" he asked.

"Forty-three minutes."

How does an ex-bureaucrat, supposedly on State Subsistance Allowance, come to be piloting a private stratosphere craft from Toronto to Greensboro? Friends, doubtless, like everything else Merritt had arranged. Lacey gave a few specific instructions, then asked, "My driver from yesterday—Tamara Damien. Is she on duty?"

"She will report at 0700. Do you wish another driver assigned or should she be given an emergency summons?"

"Hmm. What time is it?" The windows were, Lacey noticed as he swung up the scanner helmet, beginning to pale.


"Fine, I'll be in the target range. Tell me when she gets in."

The range was a quadrant of Level 15, separated by opaque partitions despite the added scanner cost. Experience had proven that peripheral images of men raising guns destroyed the efficiency of the clerical unit sharing the floor, even though a myrmillon divider would have been more than adequate to stop the tiny needles.

There were already a dozen shooters using the 20-meter range, standing with their backs to the outside windows and firing inward toward the point of the wedge where the target screen stood. Jacket open, Lacey took a vacant station. His stance comfortable and his fingers curved loosely on his thighs, he announced, "Ready."

A target image visible only from his station flashed, a tawny woman raising what might have been either a length of pipe or a shotgun. Lacey's weapon was in his right hand, then locked with his left as he crouched and fired three shots so sudden they appeared to have been fully automatic.

The target disappeared and a silhouette of it formed on the spotting screen just above Lacey's head, red dots at right wrist, right elbow, and right shoulder identifying his shots. His implant said, "Time, point three six seconds. That is exceptionally good. However, your accuracy continues marginal with no hits in the central body mass"—the silhouette's torso pulsed red for emphasis. "In a true firefight, you may not be lucky enough to get limb hits if you are so far outside your aiming point. Speed is less critical than accuracy."

Computers have no sense of humor, so Lacey avoided even the edge of a smile when he heard it refer to what it imagined had been his aiming point. He had raped, openly and with deliberation, and had forever lost his capacity for a similar act. He would not make the same boastful error if he ever found it necessary to kill: that must look to be an accident.

He was a violent man in a world of arrogance—of Sig Hanse and his Sepos, of the sneering Red Team which had taken him into custody years before, of the myriad counterclerks and bureaucrats taking their frustrations out on the nearest target. Lacey avoided an actual explosion only because he knew his hand had the power of life and death over every one of them individually. If the Psycomp had noticed that murderous streak, it had weighed it against Lacey's depth of control and usefulness—then passed him as acceptable to the State.

Targets continued to flash. He sprayed the edges of five more—on one he hit a swinging medallion three times and got zero credit since, of course, a real medallion would have deflected the needles which grounded themselves only after penetration. Finally his implant announced, "Chauffeur 5 Damien has reported to her car."

"Patch me through to her," Lacey said, slapping a fresh magazine into his gun before he holstered it. He turned to the nearest window. For cleaning purposes the whole two-meter vitril panel pivoted inward.


"Morning, Tamara. I'm in the target range, Level 15. Drop down and pick me up, will you?"

The girl's voice was deepened by the car microphone and Lacey's implant. "No landing stage on fifteen, sir."

"Sure, but the windows open."

"On the way."

Lacey swung the vitril off its catch. The gush of air as the car dropped past it, then rose and steadied, brought a startled protest from the shooter beside Lacey. He ignored the other man, set his left foot on the sill and stepped into the back of the car. The slightest queasiness in the vehicle would have catapulted Lacey thirty meters to the pavement. Tamara kept it rock solid until he was seated, then moved off a few meters to where she did not have to fight the eddies around the building.

"You didn't do that to save yourself a walk," she chided. "Trying to prove something to me?"

"That's right," he agreed. "That I can safely trust you with my life." He leaned forward, grinned up at the scanner, and said, "We're going to the airport, friend Tamara, to arrest a man named William Anton Merritt for multiple counts of murder. He wasn't in it alone, Lord knows, but it'll be simpler for a Psycomp to dig out his accomplices than it would be for me and a scanner."

She moved the car off smoothly without apparent emotion, gaining speed and altitude as she headed west. There were no lane markers in the sky, but cars were few and almost all drivers professionals. On balance it was safer than street traffic had been fifty years before.

"You are good, aren't you?" Tamara said at last in a jerky voice. Lacey made no reply. "Don't you even wonder why a, a citizen like Bill Merritt would start a p-plot like this?"

"Wonder?" Lacey repeated. "Not really. He was, is, a very damned able man himself. The killings, the planning for them, proved that. Hanse could and did shunt him out of the service, of course, but Merritt's own contacts must have been nearly as good. As Chief of Operations he could have . . . not seen it, I think, because Hanse's a sharp boy too . . . but felt it when some members of his own organization got together with rich men, men with connections outside the country where arms could be stockpiled and soldiers trained. You could take over this State, I think, with a few men in the right place and not too many more scattered around to look menacing. You could do it because damned few of the rest of them care. Of us care."

"Bill cares. He found—a lot of us who do."

"Sure he did, friend Tamara. And he killed not just eighteen people but likely two or three others standing too close to each of the ones he aimed at, too. I won't arrest him for caring, just for the murders; because it's my job and I'm better at it than he hoped."

She turned toward Lacey at last, her eyes full of tears and fire. "Do you know how many thousand they'd have killed if they took over? How many Hanse will kill if he gets away to Argentina this morning? Do you call that justice?"

"Justice? What's that?" Lacey demanded. "But they pay me to enforce the law, and yes, that's damned well the law!" He took a deep breath. "Now, mind your flying. If we go down, there'll be a Red Team around Merritt before the echoes of the crash have died. Believe me, he'd rather I take him than those animals in uniform. . . . Believe me, I've been there."

She obeyed but the tears gurgled in her voice. "Don't you think you owe anything to society?" she asked.

"This society?" Lacey repeated with savage incredulity. "The society that made me what I am?"

Tamara said nothing more for a minute, concentrating on the thickening traffic as they approached the huge concrete slab of the port.

"We've got a priority clearance," Lacey said. "You can set us down on the terminal building."

"We couldn't get close to Hanse," the girl said, as much to herself as to her companion. "When he flew it was in his own CT-19, and he always carried his own car with him. He didn't trust anyone, anything. We delayed, hoping he would slip up; but we waited too long. And so their plans were so close to ready that if Hanse gets to Parana now, he may be able to bring it all off even with Follard and the others dead."

A heavy cargo aircraft lumbered aloft a hundred and fifty meters from its painted bay on the great field. Three seconds later a private supersonic, incredibly expensive to own or operate, streaked skyward with its wings folding even as it climbed. Short takeoff and landing requirements made full runways a thing of the past, but the congestion and varied speeds near the port still demanded rigid control.

Lacey had noticed the girl start as the supersonic shrieked away. "Merritt's in one like that?" he asked. "Don't get excited, it wasn't his that time. I've put a hold on him, blocked his controls through the port computer. He'll be waiting for us."

Tamara angled for a slot on the crowded roof of the terminal building. A closed car sped up to reach the same parking space, then spun away as Tamara hammered it with the draft of her fans. Lacey, gripping the bulkhead tightly, grinned over at the furious red face visible through the cabin window of the other craft.

Tamara cut the drive and they ghosted to a halt. She looked back at Lacey. He said, a trifle awkwardly, "It'll be ten, twelve hours before they start dragging actual names out of Merritt. Somebody who'd gotten out of the State before then—used Sig Hanse's access code to fake exit privileges to Munich, say—would be gone for good."

The girl stared at him, her eyes an acid blue and her hair springing up like a cobra's hood as she doffed her helmet. "Bill had me assigned driver to whoever got tapped to investigate Follard. He pulled a few strings, nothing major for somebody who has as many friends as Bill Merritt does. There was a chance that by giving him a nudge in the right direction, we could get a CS agent interested in what Hanse was doing. You didn't need the nudge—or care about what you learned without it.

"But I'm not going to use the position Bill put me in to, to save myself."

"It's your life," Lacey said, breaking eye contact as he climbed out of the car. "The Lord knows I'm not the one to tell you what to do with it."

"I'm coming along," Tamara insisted, swinging into the narrow aisle between their car and the next one over. Lacey shrugged and walked toward the stair head.

Hanse too would be somewhere in the port. Lacey had said he did not care about the Sepo conspiracy, and in a way that was true; but the scar on his neck throbbed like molten steel at the thought. He jostled his way down the crowded stairs, Tamara an orange shadow behind him. At the ground floor he followed the directional arrows toward a balding fat man serving one stall of the console marked transportation to aircraft. There was a line but the investigator stepped to the front of it with a gruff, "Excuse me."

To the clerk he said, "Priority. I need a car to Slip 318," and he cocked his ring finger. The fat man's display obediently lit red in response to an authenticating signal from the CS net.

"Door 12, then," the clerk said with a nervous shrug. "But look, buddy, we're short today, there won't be a driver for seven, eight minutes."

"I didn't ask for a driver." Lacey turned, took the twenty long strides to the indicated portal without speaking. Half a dozen ground cars were lined up on the concrete beyond; nearly a hundred would-be passengers stood beside them docilely, waiting to be taken to their flights.

A big man, one of the pair of guards with Hanse the day before, stepped out of the crowd. It rippled away from him like sheep from a wolf in their midst. He had dropped the poncho which had cloaked the weapon along his right thigh, an automatic powergun with a drum magazine and a flask of liquid nitrogen under the barrel for cooling and ejection. "That's far enough, Lacey," he said with a smile. "You must have known we'd check what you were doing yesterday. So. . . ."

The bodyguard swung up the muzzle of his weapon. Lacey drew without hesitation, shot the Sepo twice in the trigger hand. A fist-sized chunk of concrete blew from the field as the Sepo spasmed off a shot, but his paralyzed body was already twisting into the ground.

"Lacey!" the girl screamed. He spun, his gun leading his body around in a glittering arc—too slowly. Tamara was leaping for the second guard, his eye as black as the bore of the powergun it stared over. Lacey heard the sudden grunt of the shots, saw the cyan glare catch Tamara in mid air and use her own exploding fluids to fling her backward with her chest a slush of blood and charred bone. A cloud of ice crystals hung at the Sepo's side and his plastic empties were still spinning in the air when Lacey shot him in the right eye.

The charge that would have stunned elsewhere blasted the optic nerve and ripped down that straight path to the brain. The Sepo arched in a tetanic convulsion that broke his neck and back in three places. The powergun spun into the building, cracking the vitril and ricochetting to the pavement.

Lacey did not look again at the girl, but he had seen her face as the burst slashed across her. Holstering his needle gun, he mounted the driver's seat of a twelve-passenger crawler and threw it into gear. The numbers on the empty slips were hard to read, scorched and abraded by the lift fans, but Lacey had his implant to guide him across the baking concrete. Once a huge CT-19 freighter staggered aloft just after he had passed its bow, but either luck or the watchful Terminal Control preserved Lacey while his quarry, a spike of silver fire, grew in front of him.

"Status on Merritt?" Lacey asked his implant.

"Three minutes ago requested permission to lift, destination Buenos Aires. Placed on safety hold by Terminal Control on orders of the Crime Service net."

"Umm. Status on Sig Hanse?"

"Cleared for Parana in a CT-19 with five crew and seven passengers, one air car declared as cargo. Estimated lift-off is three minutes thirty."

"And it'll have a battalion aboard when it and a thousand others come back," Lacey muttered, but he did not trigger his implant.

Close up, the craft that looked so slender among the cargo haulers was a study in brutal, wasteful power. Its turbines were spinning fast enough to raise a whine but not dust from the concrete. Lacey pulled in close to the port side, in between two of the ducted intakes. As he did so the cockpit canopy three meters above sprang open. The aging black man Lacey had seen only on the scanner before began to climb down the rungs which had extended from the ship's side.

"Citizen Lacey?" Merritt said as he reached the ground. He stretched out his hand, as dry and unyielding as a cypress knee. "Now I understand why Terminal Control froze me for a circuitry check. I don't suppose they were going to isolate the problem quickly, were they?"

"No, not till I gave the word," Lacey agreed disinterestedly.

Merritt shook his head with a faint smile. "Of course, of course. You're a very able man. And I can almost admire your singlemindedness, since after all that's the way I am. Well, shall we go back and meet your team of brain-wreckers?"

Lacey ran a hand along the stress-rippled skin of the aircraft. "What would you have done if Control hadn't held you?" he asked. "Lifted off in a few minutes?"

"Something like that."

"And you'd have laid your throttle wide open wouldn't you? Put it right through the middle of Hanse's CT-19. Wouldn't that be pretty? You and twelve other people falling out of the sky like shaved meat? You know, I don't ever remember meeting anybody who liked to kill as much as you seem to."

Merritt bit his lip. "Citizen Lacey," he said, "I've lived in this democracy 54 years, worked toward its safety for 31. I would be less than a man if I weren't at least willing to die for it; and to keep it and the world out of the hands of Sig Hanse and his sort—yes, I'll kill."

The emotion behind Lacey's smile was not humor. "Must be nice to know what's best for the world," he said. "I've got enough problems deciding what's best for Jed Lacey, and that's the only thing I've tried to worry about. Figured it was mostly me I had to live with."

"No doubt," Merritt said flatly. "Then if you have nothing further to say, shall we get on?"

"Sure," Lacey agreed. He triggered his implant. "Release the hold on William Anton Merritt," he ordered. "Clear him for immediate lift-off." He stepped back to the ground car alone, waving a casual hand back at the older man. "Have a good flight, Citizen Merritt."

Lacey's car was half a kilometer away when he heard Merritt's turbines shriek up to full power. From further across the concrete came the deep thunder and subsonic trembling of a CT-19's beginning effort to stagger skyward. Lacey's implant cut out both sounds when it announced, "Reply to support request, theft from PDT stockpiles."


"Four hundred liters removed from Redcliffe Arsenal, Toronto Subregion, on 4-23-02. Currently believed being transported in reserve fuel tank of private aircraft number—"

Lacey had anticipated the next words, so he was out of his seat and diving toward the concrete when the concrete rose to meet him. Twenty meters above the field, Merritt's aircraft had collided with Hanse's. The supersonic caught the CT-19 abaft the starboard wing, stabbing through the bulbous cargo hauler like a swordsman seeking the heart. The first microsecond of rending metal was lost in the bellow of the engines; then the PDT went off.

All sound ended as an orange fireball devoured the merged aircraft. The blast that followed was like nothing heard since the end of nuclear testing.

Alive but uncaring, stripped by the winds and hammered by the bucking concrete, Lacey lay on the field. He could let the tears come now.

In his mind, back-lighted by the afterimage of the fireball, was the vision of a girl with blue eyes, jet hair, and a smile of love and triumph.


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