"Mmmph!"

Victoria stirred. A far off desperate screech somehow reaching her through a tunnel of darkness. Her eyes, felt sticky. There was a throbbing in her head.

"Mmmmmph! Ehhhhake Urrrrruuup!"

Something jabbed Victoria hard in the ribs, and her eyes shot open. Her eyes met terrified looking blue ones only about six inches from her. Those eyes softened in a moment of relief as they realized that Victoria was awake. Victoria's mind struggled to piece together the puzzle of where she was.

She was hanging about three feet off the ground, bound with duct tape in the same manner as the woman now staring wide eyed at her. She was hanging from the same pipe as Charlie, but rotated in mid-air independently. The chord holding her aloft pressed hard under her arms and into her rib cage, and she fond as she continued to wake that her fingers had no feeling in them. Victoria felt embarrassed, and as she cursed her carelessness she realized that even though she was suspended vertically with her wrists duct taped painfully to her ankles, at least she was not gagged with more tape and a handkerchief like her blond companion. She tried to stay calm and confident.

"Charlie, she'll be apples," she said as she started to slowly rotate away from the woman. If she could just get a hand free enough to reach into her boot, she might be able to get to the knife concealed there. "Just try to stay calm. I'm going to get us out of this."

"Mmmm mmmmph!" Charlie said shaking her head vigorously. "Mmmbbmmmb!"

"What?" Victoria asked, cold dread starting to swell in her belly. "Did you say bomb?"

Charlie confirmed with a rapid nod of her head. "Mmmboomb!"

Charlie gestured with a jerk of her head for Victoria to look past her. Her fellow contestant struggled to get herself rotating further away, and Victoria followed her gaze. Indeed there was some kind of wired contraption set just below the security panel on the wall at the end of the row of mainframes. It was jury-rigged to be connected to . . . what? The device was too crude to be a timed explosive from what Victoria could tell, and there was no fuse, which meant if it were a real bomb there would need to be a detonator or trigger.

A remote trigger by radio signal was possible, but if that were the case, why hadn't their assailant detonated the device as soon as he was clear? And why had the bastard bothered with the theatrics of hanging her and Charlie from the ceiling? It wasn't as if that made escape any more difficult. It would have been much wiser to keep them separated and completely unable to communicate. And there was one more very troubling thought.

Why are we both still alive?

She looked around for a possible trigger as she began to wiggle her wrists, struggling to free a hand enough to reach into her boot. Charlie completed a full rotation and caught Victoria's eye again, making desperate noises.

"Mmmmmph, mmmmmm-mmmmm!"

Her eyes flicked downward as she tried to speak through her gag. Victoria had a hard time making out the words this time, but in following Charlie's gaze again one word instantly made sense—lasers.

Directly below them was a criss-crossing web of security lasers that were barely visible in the gloom of the smoky room. Victoria also realized that the maze of lasers she had seen earlier were now moving about the room in sporadic patterns. The web of lasers below them had about a five foot radius in every direction. Now Victoria understood why Charlie hadn't wanted her to try anything.

"Charlie, are you trying to say if we break the line on any of these lasers the bomb will detonate?"

Relief flooded Charlie's face and she nodded slowly. Victoria freed a few fingers and dug into her boot, pulling free the knife. A moment later and her hands and feet were blissfully free from each other, but still bound. Victoria was careful not to let her feet touch the floor, pulling her knees into her stomach as she began the work of freeing her wrists from the tape. The web of lasers below left no room to put a foot down.

"I take it the bloke who attacked us explained all this to you?" Victoria asked Charlie.

Charlie nodded and her eyes narrowed as they flashed with pure hate.

"Mmmmko."

It took a moment for Victoria to register that Charlie was speaking a name, but when she understood she repeated it with the intensity of the foulest of four letter words.

"Mako."


The cumbersome piece of Japanese baggage began to drool on his shoulder. Mako frowned at the spot on his suit, and then spoke his blond tour guide, who was now dressed in much less than half a wedding dress. She had discarded the nonessentials and most of the cumbersome material back in the kitchens, and was now in a frilly white one piece that wasn't much more than a swimsuit. She looked stunning as usual.

"Are you sure you still need this pathetic load, Devocthka?" Mako asked casually as a few shots from her gun into random space cleared the laundry room of maids and minimum wage workers, sending them scattering and squealing. "Even if you keep them their dreams will be much more guarded against little dream reading toy."

"Dammit Sasha," growled the leader of the Black Devil Sisters. "How many times do I have to tell you not to call me that? You know very well how much I hate it."

"Is only term of endearment . . . baby."

She stopped for a moment after rolling a maid cart out of her way, and trained her gun on him. He could only smile thinly at her. He loved it when she was ruthless.

"You are calling me simply 'woman' with that little bit of Russian. I swear to god I'm not in the mood right now. I will totally shoot your happy little red Soviet ass where you stand if you keep it up."

"Shoot Japanese businessman instead," Mako suggested. "Will make you feel better."

She smiled and sauntered up to him, the gun staying dangerously under his chin.

"You're right, it would make me feel better," she purred, her lips almost, but not quite, brushing against his. She pushed away.

The tease.

"But because of that simpleton Carlo I can't! Now I have to kidnap these pathetic fools and pretend to hold them for ransom until we're finished with them. Not to mention we have to stop the bald idiot from taking off for China, get rid of him, and move up our own timetable. Son of a bitch!"

She turned and kicked a pile of towels on the floor sending them flying before she stalked forward again. She continued her rant. Mako knew it was best to just let her carry on.

"I mean really? The best he could come up with for a frame is that we wanted to embezzle money and stock through marriage? Of all the ludicrous, cockamamie, fucked-up stories! How could anyone believe that we were stupid enough to think that would actually work? I'm totally insulted, Sasha. Insulted! And do you know what happens to people that insult me?"

Mako shrugged. He knew of course, but the question at this point was rhetorical.

"They die!"

Mako took his handkerchief from a breast pocket and wiped drool from his shoulder as he walked. He frowned at the back of her head. When she stayed silent for a few moments, he decided it was safe to talk.

"Jessica . . ."

"Sasha dear, call me Dawn. There is no longer any need for that cover and I'm totally sick of the alias. Did you know he was calling me Jessica Alba just to remember our name?"

Mako smiled. "Da. Which make me remember, how are communications? Are Mariah Carey, Angelina Jolie, and Scarlett Johansson on schedule for new rendezvous?"

"You totally want a bullet in the head don't you dear?"

"I want drop load of sushi from my back more. So I give you hard time."

She glared at him briefly over her shoulder as they passed into an employee and maintenance hallway. A few more hallways like this and they would come out into a parking lot where the special cars would be waiting. Mako had been forced to arrange it all on the fly, as soon as he had gotten Carlo's email about moving early. Dawn was right about one thing. Carlo was a fool.

"Everyone is on schedule at last check. But I can't raise Mariah. I was about to request an update but you keep whining about your load."

"Maybe you carry him for a while. OK?"

Dawn stopped again as they rounded another corner and gave him an exhausted sounding sigh before explaining things to him if she were a kindergarten teacher.

"Look just because we have the weapons does not mean Blackfire can reproduce them for us whenever we need. Your bosses should know that. You should know that, dear. We have to know how the security protocols at Groom Lake will be upgraded and we need to make sure the parasite hack we left behind stays active and undetected for as long as possible. We still need their dreams. So do quit your bitching. Dear."

She wasn't quite right in her assessment, but it was good that she wasn't. Blackfire had everything they would need already, and even Blackfire was simply a front for a much greater ambition. If he were to explain why this was to her, however, it would only complicate things and he'd be forced to find another way to cater to the woman's idealistic view of their mission.

Dawn was simple to understand really, as far as understanding women went. A California gun control activist that had been a witness to some terrible massacre where a gunman had walked into the school where both her parents taught, she had eventually moved out of the United States to England. She had been an easy recruit since she had become weary of the failures and slow pace of peaceful activism. Deweaponizing the world through superior firepower must have been an attractive ideal. Her vision for the world was utter nonsense of course, but Mako still admired her resolve. So he went along with her for now.

He was rocked from his thoughts by a low rumble that shook the walls of the hotel, even down here in the basement level. Dawn raised an eyebrow at him.

"You're handiwork I presume?" she asked.

"Sorry about you're little CIA friend you were trying to recruit. I will miss my other Devotchka too. She was much like you."

Dawn simply shrugged.

"I hated that self-righteous bitch anyway. Now come on. We have a plane to catch."


"Get down, Grace!" Steve shouted.

Instinctively, Grace obeyed. Maybe it was the sound of his voice. Maybe she was just too scared to think straight. Wasn't Steve their "contact on the show"? She hit the floor with a squeal as Steve's gun barked three times. There was a shout of pain from behind her and another loud pop as Hugo returned fire, followed by the sound of shattering glass. Grace squeezed her eyes shut and covered her ears as she crawled under her desk—praying to somehow wake up and find this was all just a nightmare. She dared open her eyes, and found the masked brute Hugo lying face down in front of her a pool of blood spreading outward from where he had been shot in the chest. She looked away and curled into a ball as an exchange of gunfire rang out above her.

"Stay there, Grace!" She heard Steve shout. "You'll be safe!"

BLAM! BLAM! BLAM!

Another volley from Steve, somewhere close. He must have been using the desk for cover too. She pressed her trembling hands to her ears, but the sounds were deafening. People were screaming. Someone was yelling for everyone to get out. Grace wondered if anyone else was wounded or worse. There was a new sound in the return fire from below. Automatic fire. A softer sound, but the whine and thump of the bullets splintering wood was somehow even more terrifying than Steve's loud weapon. Grace could even hear the sound of dozens of shell casings clinking against the concrete floor below. After a moment the screams and panicked commands stopped.

Oh God, Grace prayed inside her mind. Please tell me that means everyone else got out. Please tell me. . . Someone was talking. No, they were shouting. The voice was female. Was it the insane woman in the pit below? Grace remembered her hands were clamped tight over her ears and slowly removed them to listen.

"Give it up, Mariah!" Steve was calling out in reply now, and from below her. How had he managed to get down the stairs through that automatic fire? She remembered the sound of shattering glass. Had he jumped from the second floor? She dared creep out from under the desk to peer over the top of it. "You're hostages all managed to escape. You were sloppy. Should have brought out the big guns earlier instead of that costume prop. Now you have no leverage left."

"Ha! What are you and the three or four bullets you got left going to do? I'll just kill you and your little whore up there and do it all myself!"

Grace could see Mariah, ducking down behind solid unified table line that made up the first row of computer stations. A girdle with pouches lay discarded on the floor nearby, as well as her disguised gun. She now held at the ready small versions of the Uzi submachine gun in each hand. She had torn her white dress along the seam, allowing for easy access to more clips of ammunition. The woman was armed to the teeth, and she crept quietly to her right, staying below Steve's line of vision in an attempt to flank him.

"You're running out of time, Mariah." Steve said, his warning tone almost friendly. He had indeed leapt through the broken window pane to the floor below. A row of grey metal lockers had been set up along the wall to her left for people to keep their work materials and professional gear in. Steve was now taking cover in a standing position behind the last locker, his gun aimed at the ready should Mariah's head pop up.

"They're going to leave you behind if you're not careful. They were already on their way out last I saw. Tell me. What are you so all so afraid will be shown on this footage?"

"Enough talk!" Mariah snapped.

She leapt up, releasing a burst from each gun as she ran to her right. Steve reacted by ducking and rolling from his cover toward the last row of computer stations, where he came up on one knee. Computer screens shattered and shards of glass swirled around the room as Mariah's guns continued to spew havoc.

Steve's return shot went wide, piercing the central plasma screen with a neat hole and sending a shower of sparks down on Mariah as she ducked back into cover. Steve was breathing hard, his back pressed against a section of metal drawers in between the computer tables. He looked up and noticed Grace watching him from above. He waved her away furiously mouthing the words "go" and "get out of here". Then he called to Mariah.

"Careful not to shoot all the computers, my dear," he mocked. "Otherwise how will you access what you want?"

"I said shut it!" Mariah shouted as she began a new assault, this time vaulting on top of the first row of computer tables while firing another long burst from each gun simultaneously. She continued firing as she sprang to the next row, and Grace gasped as she realized that Mariah intended to keep Steve pinned until she could get an angle on him from above.

Steve turned to his right and shot a fire extinguisher on the wall. The cylinder ruptured in a spray of white gas and foam right across Mariah's path while she was in mid leap. She screeched in surprise in rage at the distraction. The next few bursts from her guns were unaimed and erratic, and wrecked even more havoc upon the room. Steve was up, firing two more shots through the spray at Mariah, but his view of her was blocked as well, and Grace saw that she had managed to roll off the table back to her right. She had hit the ground hard dropping, one of her guns.

Steve tried to fire again, but his gun clicked, useless and drained of ammunition.

Mariah gave a wicked laugh, and as she stalked forward out of the haze Grace saw that she had in fact been hit in the shoulder. She clutched tightly to her wound, pressing something to it with one hand as she trained her weapon at Steve with the wounded arm. He tossed his gun down and raised his arms in surrender as she rounded the last row of computers and aimed at Steve at point blank range.

No! Steve! Grace thought frantically. She had to do something. But what could she do? She could perhaps make a noise, be a distraction. Maybe Steve could use the moment to get away or overpower her. She could throw something or . . .

The thug called Hugo had dropped his gun when Steve shot him. It lay within her reach, if she were to just crawl forward a few feet towards the window, through broken glass and shell casings. Mariah was taunting Steve. Trembling, Grace went for the gun.

"Now," Mariah was saying with a cackle. "You almost had me. Pity your bosses at the CIA couldn't spring for another clip. Are you always so lightly armed?"

CIA thought Grace as her fingers closed around the gun. It was so light it surprised her, but it looked a lot like Steve's—sleek, black, with an easy grip handle that housed the ammunition clip. What the hell kind of shit am I knee-deep in now? She stood slowly and pointed the weapon at Mariah, who had her back turned to her.

"We're doing a lot more with less these days," said Steve with a grin. "We're not expected to shoot up whole rooms to hit our targets. Oh wait. Did you hit your target?"

"I won't miss now," Mariah growled.

"Hold it right there!" Grace shouted.

Two heads snapped up to regard her.

"Grace, I told you to get out!" Steve blurted in exasperation.

Mariah simply giggled, looking at Grace from over her shoulder, her weapon still trained unsteadily on Steve. "Well, well, well! What have we here?"

"I'm warning you," Grace said, trying to sound confident. "Drop your weapon."

Mariah laughed and, stepping away from Steve, slowly turned to face grace while keeping the weapon trained on Steve.

"Or what, little whore girl?" She said with a sneer. "You gonna shoot me? Please. You can't even hold the thing steady. Come give me the files I asked for and maybe I let your boyfriend live."

"Shoot her Grace!" Steve barked. "She'll kill us both."

This earned Steve a swift kick to the side of his head, knocking him over. Grace cringed but held her weapon steady. She aimed at the ground at Mariah's feet and squeezed the trigger. A loud pop and jerk of the weapon startled her as the bullet ricocheted harmlessly away. Mariah froze. Grace had her attention now.

"That was a warning shot," Grace called down. Her mouth felt dry and her palms were so sweaty she doubted if she could hold the weapon much longer. Could she really do this? Could she really kill? Grace begged the woman to just put down her gun in her own mind. Out loud she said, "Next time I won't miss. Don't fuck around with me, bitch. Now drop it."

"Fine," Mariah said. "Let's see if you have the guts."

The blood stained Leia whirled, bringing her gun up.

Grace squeezed the trigger without thinking. She saw the first bullet its target, and a spray of blood erupted from Mariah's chest. Grace felt a terrible rage take her at the site of the blood, at the sound of the woman crying out in pain. She remembered the terror of the young woman, of Robert still lying lifeless on the face first in his own blood on the other side of the room. She fired three more times, each pull of the trigger fiercer than the last.

Mariah staggered backwards, her gun firing uselessly into the air. Her enraged cry of pain cut off with a gurgle as a bullet went through her neck. Grace saw another slice into the woman's belly, and a final, life ending shot pierce her between the eyes. Mariah slumped awkwardly to the floor and lay still.

"I told you not to fuck with me," Grace said as she let the gun fall from her fingers.

She fell to her knees and covered her face with her hands as the tears began to flow. She could feel glass slowly cutting into her shins, but she didn't care. Hurting reminded her she was still alive. That she had lived through this nightmare. In a few moments Steve was at her side, helping her up.

"You did good, Grace." He said gently. "Come on, I'll take you someplace safe."

Grace nodded absentmindedly and let him lead her, but a low rumble and shake of the building startled them both. Steve had a worried look on his face.

"What was that?" Grace asked him worriedly. "Was that a bomb? It felt like an earthquake but that was a fucking bomb wasn't it?"

He sighed and nodded. "Probably meant for Victoria."

"Who?"

"Never mind that for now. I'll start at the beginning. There're some things you need to know about your show."