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The Eyes of the Republic are Everywhere...
Having sacrificed his wings in a bid save humanity, fallen angel Armand has a bold plan to assassinate presidential candidate Maximilian Blackstone. When things go awry and his partner Baruch is gravely injured, Armand fears that he will fail in his task and forever lose the chance to rejoin the angels in Heaven.
Theodora is a wraith, a woman who officially doesn't exist. She lives in the shadows, taking risks to earn the bounty placed on dangerous assassinations - bounty that buys the chance at a new life for those she loves. Captured when her latest hit goes horribly wrong, Theodora finds herself the prisoner of a strong, arrogant stranger.
Soon enough, these two solitary souls find their missions-and their hearts-entwined. But in their desperate attempt to save the world, will they be able to save each other?
Chicago - September 18, 2100
Solitude was the key to success.
At least to the wraith Theodora.
Relying upon others always introduced the possibility of betrayal.
That there were others who relied upon her was a detail.
Perhaps that isolation was the reason for Theodora’s success. She was reputed to be cold, even unfeeling, which was an accomplishment within the ranks of the wraiths, themselves notorious for their lack of emotion or ethics.
Wraiths lived outside of the system, frequenting the perimeters and the shadows of the Republic. Their identities were recorded in no databanks, and their actions invisible to the many eyes of the Republic. They were the lost souls of the world. They should not exist. Technically, they did not exist.
But they were everywhere, their numbers untallied.
Amongst themselves, the wraiths commented upon Theodora’s clean motivation, her commitment to cred and cred alone. Highest bidder always claimed Theodora’s services, and everything had a price. That made her reliable, more reliable even than most wraiths.
Which was how she had gotten this job.
Theodora waited in the best vantage point within the Convocation Hall at the Institute for Radiation Studies. The contract was for assassination, and the price was high.
The target was none other than the recently revealed Oracle of the Republic. Theodora wasn’t particularly interested in the buyer’s motivation, only in the proof he supplied to the wraiths of his ability to pay.
The location Theodora had selected for the deed was perfect.
Even if it did terrify her. It was no small thing to enter any corner of the Institute for Radiation Studies without official authorization or documentation. It was said that no barrier in the Republic could stop a wraith, but the Society routinely - and secretly - sucked wraiths into its maw, never to release them from the confines of the affiliated Institute’s research labs.
Theodora would never have risked it if the location hadn’t been ideal and the reward so very rich.
But then, perhaps all the world was gambling with Fate. The Oracle herself took such a chance in accepting this invitation that her decision was the talk of the Republic. Theodora did not believe that there could be any goodwill between the Society and a former shade condemned by that Society’s edicts, but perhaps she had become cynical. No one would be surprised if the Oracle’s choice ended in disaster - and every soul in this hall would be a suspect. The imagesnatching crews were here to document whatever happened.
But they’d get a surprise. The entire Republic would know immediately of Theodora’s deed. The money would be paid - or collected - without delay.
Theodora had prepared with the thoroughness that was key to her success. She had investigated the hall while the Institute had believed it empty and locked. She had chosen her location and secreted her weapon inside, long before the security protocols had been initiated. She had chosen a narrow room above the mezzanine, once used for spotlights for the stage. Those lights had been replaced by brighter smaller lights mounted on the ceiling, and this abandoned space left for the mice. Theodora found the thick layer of dust in the room reassuring.
She had arrived very early the day before, long before the first janitors and stagehands came to prepare the stage. She had slipped into her targeted space as quietly as, well, a wraith. She had disguised her passage and settled down to wait in silence.
An eternity later, the hall began to fill with excited spectators. Theodora rose and moved to watch. She remained in the darkness, at one with the shadows, as she surveyed the auditorium.
She was not surprised that there were no shades in the audience. She hadn’t expected any to willingly enter this place - and any who had tried would have been turned away by the Institute.
Shades only entered the Institute in shackles.
Shades were those human children who had failed the Sub Human Atomic Deficiency Evaluation, abbreviated as S.H.A.D.E., which gave rise to the colloquial term of ‘shade’. They were children who had been assessed as defective as a result of exposure to radiation, typically in utero, often mentally challenged and thus condemned to labor for the good of the Republic. Traditionally, they had remained in underground netherzones, generating power or performing services fit for no citizen.
The Society for Nuclear Darwinists, being at the forefront of research into the biological impact of the detonation of nuclear warheads - an oft-repeated incident in the Republic in the early twenty-first century - had defined the S.H.A.D.E. and worked actively to harvest shades from the population.
That had been the practice, until the Oracle’s selection. Delilah, the current Oracle of the Republic, had been condemned as a shade at birth and had spent her life in labor until her gift for prophecy had been revealed. She had risen from obscurity the previous February, with the aid of the charismatic vid-evangelist Billie Joe Estevez, and her story had seized the public imagination.
In that month, President Van Buren had locked down the netherzones throughout the Republic. The Oracle had unlocked the netherzones of Chicago and released the shades from their captivity. In so doing, she had compelled the Republic to remember those who might have been forgotten and compelled a re-examination of the Republic’s moral climate.
In Chicago, the shades remained at large. The city had been plagued by mobs of shades each night, as those shades foraged for food. There was no public will in the windy city to confine these shades, because of their lack of violence, perhaps because of the Oracle’s explicit role in their release.
The Oracle’s popularity remained high, while Van Buren’s had plummeted. It was clear that the populace blamed the administration for the problem.
It was clear that public opinion was with the Chicago shades.
Theodora suspected that the public’s adoration of the Oracle was behind this contract for assassination. There were always people who disliked change and were prepared to pay to stop it. She could have guessed who was funding the bounty she intended to collect, but it was not her business to speculate.
Theodora was not without her own connection to the Oracle, for she had aided Delilah in her escape from the authorities the previous February. It had not been a sentimental choice - the credit had been in the Oracle’s favor, then.
But no longer. And Theodora ensured that everyone knew that cred was the only thing of importance in her world.
Even if it wasn’t.
As the hours passed, she waited and watched from her vantage point. The noise of the audience grew greater with every passing moment, their excitement rising in anticipation. Finally, she heard a distinctive sound and touched the amplifier on her ear.
Theodora smiled. A helicopter was landing on the roof of the building.
The Oracle was arriving.
Theodora checked her palm. Her prey was right on time.
* * *
As the opening music began, Theodora quickly fitted together her high-powered laze. It was ferociously accurate and illegal for anyone except those elite members of the Republic’s S.W.A.T. teams. She respected its capabilities, which came courtesy of the sighting mechanism with its artificial intelligence subroutine.
The ritual composed her, focused her, drove all other detail from her mind. There was only the weapon and the mission.
The lure of the cred.
When her laze was ready, Theodora watched, as still and emotionless as a machine. She might have been watching a vid, not live people. On the stage below, the guests were introduced. The Board of Governors for the Institute for Radiation Studies were first, followed by the Board of Directors of the Society for Nuclear Darwinists, Professors Emeriti, then past president of the Society, Ernestine Sinclair. The new president Blake Patterson. The applause was steady and polite, the names so much nonsense to Theodora.
Until the Oracle Delilah and her Consort, Raphael, were announced.
The hall fell into uneasy silence. The lights from the vidcams brightened and more than one attendee raised a hand above the crowd to create a personal vidcast with his or her palm.
How interesting that even within the Society and Institute, the Oracle had fans.
Without musical fanfare, the Oracle herself strode on to the stage. Theodora took a good look at her intended victim.
Delilah had changed since last their paths had crossed. The Oracle stood taller and moved with a confidence she hadn’t possessed just months ago.
It didn’t hurt that she was dressed in flowing white, with the shining star of the Oracle bound to her brow. Her dark hair hung loose to her shoulders and her eyes were so brilliant a blue that they might have been cut from sapphires.
That red kiss on her forehead, the mark of the angelic endorsement, was almost burgundy.
A port wine stain of favor. She seemed a creature apart, a gleam of angelic radiance, a woman who was more than most.
The hall fell silent.
Perhaps it was the power of the Oracle’s presence. Perhaps it was the challenge in her stance. Perhaps it was her words.
“I come, as invited,” she informed the audience, her tone resonant with conviction. “I come with the confidence of the angels that my person shall be safeguarded.” She surveyed the audience, her eyes glittering. “And I thank the Society for the opportunity to contribute to the creation of a bright new future for the Republic.”
The new president, Blake Patterson, a tanned blond man sleekly dressed in black and white, was the first to applaud. “I thank you for accepting my invitation and gracing us with your presence,” he said, apparently sincere.
The Oracle smiled at him, then blew him a kiss.
Blake’s smile broadened as he crossed the stage to shake her hand.
A tentative applause began and at first Theodora couldn’t place the source. Then she realized that the shades working in the hall were applauding the Oracle, stepping out of the shadows to honor her. The response was cautious, as one would expect from those silenced for most of their lives, then gained in volume. Ernestine Sinclair’s expression turned sour as she glared at the shades.
Her look didn’t stop them.
A few students joined the applause, then the sound grew louder, the ripple of approval passing through the ranks of the hall. Some older individuals, possibly shade hunters, folded their arms across their chests and looked grim. The journalists moved through the hall like bees, capturing the array of responses on vid.
Things would only get more interesting, Theodora knew.
She looked through the sight of the laze, wondering whether the red kiss on the Oracle’s brow was as fake as the temporary tattoos worn by her many fans. No matter how she increased the magnification, the Oracle appeared to be the genuine article. Delilah was radiant.
Lit by angelfire.
But Theodora knew that nothing was genuine. The world was tainted and twisted, a trap in which there was no truth.
Only greed. Selfishness. Ego. Illusion and manipulation. There was no angelfire and Theodora believed any divine force had long ago abandoned the unfortunates of the Republic.
If it had ever existed.
Survivors were those who took care of themselves, those who had enough cred to ensure their safety and that of those they loved.
She focused on the prize.
Theodora surveyed the Oracle’s official consort, the only true obstacle to her success. In contrast to his partner, Raphael Gerritson had changed little since the previous winter. He was still tall and tanned and muscled, his broad shoulders and determined expression making Theodora’s heart skip.
Theodora accepted the lack of intimacy in her life, although there were moments when she regretted the necessity of denial.
She treated herself to another look. Rafe was more than handsome, a fine specimen of masculinity, even though she was not attracted to fair men. His blond hair and his golden skin made him look otherworldly.
The story was that he had been part of the angelic host, but Theodora knew good PR when she heard it. He was a man, a mere man, albeit one in better shape than most. It was cred that made his good health possible, nothing more than cred. She told herself that it was only his vigor that attracted her - she saw so many sick and weakened humans that it was easy to forget how powerful and attractive the human body could be.
She peered through the sight of the laze. Raphael, to her surprise, was armed even on the stage. Had this been a term of the Oracle’s appearance? Theodora felt a new respect for the Oracle’s - or her Consort’s - understanding of this weary world.
Unless Theodora was mistaken, both lazes Rafe carried - one on each hip - were the same as the one she aimed at his partner. He’d replaced the laze she’d confiscated from him, replaced it with better hardware.
Twice. Cred spoke again.
Theodora already knew Rafe was a crack shot. Her heart skipped a beat in trepidation.
At least she would have the benefit of surprise.
The Oracle moved to her position at one side of the stage, waving to her supporters as the applause echoed through the hall. Theodora let the display slide over the Oracle’s body, her concentration complete as she chose the best target.
Three shots, she’d decided, three programmed for rapid succession. That would leave no opportunity for resuscitation.
Theodora sighted the laze once in the middle of that angel kiss.
She sighted the laze the second time between the Oracle’s breasts.
She made to sight it the third time, just above the Oracle’s pubis, but froze when the Oracle turned slightly to the left.
With the magnification of the sight, Theodora could see the Oracle’s rounded belly through the white fabric.
Delilah was pregnant.
Of course, that had been in the news. How had she forgotten?
The reminder unsettled her, though, made her hands shake. A child! A child was innocent and should stand - however briefly - outside the world’s chaos.
Theodora glanced again at Rafe. He would intervene after the first shot - he would shelter the Oracle and his unborn child with his own body as he fired back. She’d witnessed his selflessness, his commitment to his partner. Its rarity made his tendency impossible to forget.
The second and third programmed shot would hit him.
But she didn’t want to kill Rafe. She told herself that her hesitation was because he wasn’t named in the contract - there was no cred in it - but recognized the lie.
He was another survivor, kin of a kind.
She didn’t want to kill his unborn child either.
It seemed that Theodora had boundaries after all.
But the cred, the cred, she needed that cred.
Ferris needed that cred and what it could buy.
The child would likely die if the Oracle died, but Theodora chose not to think about that. She had to complete her mission. She had to think of the greater good, of the others relying upon her, of the surgeries this bounty would allow her to buy. She had to think about the future of those she was determined to protect.
What would Ferris think of her eliminating the Oracle? Theodora refused to consider it, refused to have doubts at this late point. She hadn’t told him where she was going, and clung to the belief that she’d never have to confess her deed to him.
The death of Delilah might break his heart.
The retrieval of his voice would make it possible for him to live as a norm.
Choices. This world was about choices.
And only cred permitted choices to be made.
Theodora cleared the laze programming and resighted it, setting it for one shot, the shot that would shatter the mark of the angel’s kiss. Her hands trembled ever so slightly, but she attributed it to a last minute change of plan.
She knew what had to be done.
She knew the greater good that had to be served.
Theodora took a deep breath and set the laze. The Oracle smiled at Rafe, eyes shining, and Theodora’s finger slipped to the trigger.
She hesitated for an instant.
And it was too long.
©2009 Claire Delacroix, Inc.
1992 - 2013 Claire Delacroix, Inc.