Third, called ‘Kitten’ by the women she shared an apartment with, kept her attention on the wooden blocks stacked on the dining room table. She wasn’t sure whence the game had come, but Janni had left it, not Raleigh—Third could read that much in the wood.
Third and Janni were technically the same person, just from different universes. Different lives. Janni had made Naming, for example, without ever being Nameless.
But they had their similarities, too. Logic and coordination puzzles helped them both. Settled them. Helped them focus on whichever somewhen they were in at a particular moment.
Janni lived more linearly than Third was used to, jumping universes when she needed a break from whenever she was living. Third could jump universes—that was how she had escaped her own, after all—but she preferred living sequentially, skipping around linear time. That was dangerous, though, because time jumping was more likely to get her noticed by Shadow Corps. Shadow Corps feared escapees from her kind of universe, because they were usually Nameless, like her.
Nameless weren’t much liked by anyone.
And sometimes time jumping let her learn things she didn’t want to know—like how Second was dead and First didn’t know yet and Third would have to tell him.
She froze, remembering the cage she would be in—how Second’s body would self-immolate, as Nameless were designed to do at death, to dispose of their bodies.
Thanks to a slip ahead, Third had seen it once already, from across the room, but she hadn’t been the girl in the cage yet—who had been Third herself, not some alternate universe version of her—digging the governor chip out of her flesh with her wristwire. That was something she’d only dare do if absolutely necessary. She was so close to surviving long enough to warrant a name, and she had the governor chip for good reason.
She would have to experience it all again, up close, as the girl inside that cage. In a day, no more than three, she would witness what her sister actually did to kill their sister-in-law. Poison, maybe. Nev was good with those, and she wouldn’t want to risk combat with a Nameless. Later-Third had looked unwell, probably from gamma exposure. Jumpers—especially mergers, like her—were more sensitive to gamma radiation than most primes, enough that Second would be slowed by them, too, though she was navigator class and therefore not as sensitive as Third was.
Of the two of them, Third was more dangerous, anyway.
Nameless were created to be cannon fodder. A Nameless who survived long enough ended up Named, but that was more manipulation than kindness, because it gave Nameless something to work towards, so they wouldn’t give up and let themselves die. As the youngest of her particular clutch of Nameless—and as one who was usually sent without any backup, because her clutch had an odd number—Third was very good at killing. Better than other versions of herself, and Janni knew it.
Third didn’t let herself sigh—she’d been Fourth, once, but the previous Third of her clutch had died due to an ill-timed grunt—and pulled another block from the tower game without toppling it. The game wasn’t hard—basic logic, physics, coordination—but it was solid, and that helped her focus.
Getting too deep in the memories could make her Jump, and she knew better than to let her instincts take over like that. She’d likely hop over to the tenement building across the street and slaughtering the thugs before any of the gang’s hostages realized they were being freed. She did things like that, sometimes—forgetting that she wasn’t in her own universe and a threat would only hurt the locals, not her or any Named from her universe. That confusion was how Janni had convinced her to stick around.
After all, who better to keep her steady than an alternate version of herself?
Surrounded by the tenement buildings that towered over the street, Raleigh glanced at the wannabe mugger’s dagger, then met his gaze. “You’re kidding, right?”
The man snorted, baring his teeth in a way that he doubtless intended as threatening but that reminded her of a death grimace. “No joke, little lady. Just hand over the cred, and nobody need get hurt.”
He had the ‘nobody’ right.
“I don’t carry a credit chip,” Raleigh said mildly, activating the internal macro that would check if the guy had backup. Not that it would make much difference if he did. She wasn’t as lethal as Kitten, but she wasn’t hapless. She wasn’t even all that little, but the guy was big enough that his genetic code would’ve been stripped of growth commands, back home. Too much risk of sizing mix-ups with nutritional allotments and vac suits.
The guy scowled and drew himself erect so he loomed over her as well as outweighed her. “Everyone carry cred.”
Her enhancements detected another male behind her, but that one was leaning casually against a wall. He also carried a boot knife and a pocket pistol, but both were holstered and were almost mandatory for civvies in their part of town. Just a loiterer, not backup.
“Perhaps I’m broke,” she pointed out. Or perhaps she was delaying him, hoping StretSec might appear—but the public security force tended to avoid these streets. Too little respect for the law, too much violence, too many freaks like her.
The guy pointedly ogled her shattersilk trench coat. “You dress too fine to be broke.”
Raleigh sighed and opened her coat so he could see the darkened veins previously hidden by her collar—veins that undulated with something beyond her pulse.
He recoiled with a curse. “Cyban!”
She pulled her coat closed before he noticed anything else, like the gills, which weren’t (yet?) insertable in this universe. “Yeah,” she said, as if her being a cyborg were the only reason her roommates had somehow gotten her the shattersilk.
Raleigh was unusual, living in a universe and time zone that didn’t like oddities. Janni seemed normal, which was what counted, and Kitten… Kitten just acted odd, though Raleigh was pretty sure that girl had some sleeper tech that stayed too far under the skin to be visible.
Raleigh tapped the closure to seal up her coat, watching the mugger in case fear made him lash out. The loiterer behind her wasn’t even curious about the situation—judging from his poise, pulse, and respiration rate—so she ignored him. “How about you hand over the knife, and I’ll forget we met?”
“Cybans can’t forget.”
Her attacker wasn’t stupid, then; just foolish.
“Pretend to forget. And not give your bio-ID to StretSec.” Raleigh wasn’t Janni, to be able to identify someone’s bio-identity without a genetic sample, but people assumed all sorts of things about cyborgs. Raleigh’s chipset was good, marine-grade in her home universe, but Janni’s mods were invisible to her senses and enhancements alike, which was theoretically impossible.
The guy swallowed, his gaze skittering away from hers. “What a cyban need my knife for?”
The male behind them asked, “What, and leave you to mug the next neighbor that passes through?”
Raleigh didn’t recognize the voice and automatically started running it through her vocal recognition software. She turned enough to glimpse him—he looked handsome, if one liked the scruffy brunet type, but his clothes were good, so he was either one of the decent locals or a pimp. Maybe an illegal drug dealer, but dealers tended to wear precious metals, the better to fence if addicts mugged them for a fix. His suit and shoes were quality, but he didn’t even have a timepiece or console.
The would-have-been mugger gulped, flung his knife at her, and ran. Raleigh’s combat chipset activated to twist her out of the blade’s way, landing her in a crouch. The auto-released adrenaline triggered a headache.
She winced and force-quitted the hormone-activation macro, then picked up the blade. The scanners in Raleigh’s hands called it well-made, though she’d blocked most of her own memories involving combat knives. Kitten would probably like it.
But the situation wasn’t over yet. Raleigh turned towards the man behind her and ran his image through her facial recognition software.
He was leaning against a nearby wall, evidently waiting for someone. His forehead looked to be taut from fighting a headache, not from any concern about her oddness, but his wry question to the would-have-been mugger had sounded unstrained, even lax.
Her software wasn’t getting any more hits for his face than it had for his voice. From some other universe, maybe? Raleigh didn’t understand how universe jumping worked, but she’d noticed that her sort of refugee tended to congregate near each other.
“New to the area?” She wasn’t about to ask if he were new to that universe. That would’ve been rude.
He glanced at the door to the place she shared with Janni and Kitten. “Not really.”
“You know Janni?” she asked. He looked capable of handling himself, but not nearly to the degree to which Raleigh would’ve expected him to know Kitten.
He shrugged. “I’ll catch her later.”
As he walked away, Raleigh glanced around the street—the few people still out were studiously not looking her way—then let herself into the rental that was paid for by whichever of the three of them was able to keep a job any particular month. Most folks didn’t dare live on street level, but she and her roommates could handle it.
Any way they spliced it, they were all freaks.
Raleigh entered the apartment she shared with Janni and Kitten. The latter girl was sitting at the dining room table, staring at a tower made of wooden rectangular prisms that Raleigh’s recognition software told her was Jenga—a game that she couldn’t ever remember seeing in that universe. She opted not to ask about it. Janni, at least, would say if she couldn’t answer a question. Kitten…
The auburn-haired girl—who was the youngest of the three of them, and her too-big secondhand sweater made her look younger than she already was—turned her ice blue stare on Raleigh.
Raleigh keyed her software to hide her shiver and gave a little shake of her head. No problems. Not today.
Kitten relaxed enough for Raleigh’s enhancements to notice—and just enough for that. She wondered if Kitten did that on purpose, somehow.
Raleigh took off her trench coat and folded it over a chair, then put the knife on the table—hilt facing Kitten, because she wasn’t stupid—and slid it over.
The girl plucked the knife off the table, eyed it, then stuck it under her sweater to join the other weapons hidden in the bulky clothing. Kitten even kept a garrote somewhere. Maybe that was the wire bracelet on the girl’s left wrist.
Raleigh went to the kitchen. “Can I make you anything?”
Kitten looked back at the Jenga game and precisely removed one wooden block.
She was pretty sure Kitten understood the lingua franca, but she wasn’t sure that the girl was completely fluent, which helped the frustration. “I’ll make enough coffee for you to have some, if you want.”
She froze, despite the quietness of Kitten’s voice. The girl spoke so rarely that getting her to say anything was a challenge. Janni had commented that Kitten was actually doing very well, considering the hellverse she was from, and Janni knew far more about the various universes and time zones than Raleigh ever would.
“Allergic?” she asked. “You’ve been living with us for months, and you just say this now?”
Now that she thought of it, Raleigh was sure the girl even drank coffee. Was that a code word she’d forgotten?
“We like the taste.”
A full sentence. Raleigh felt like clapping, except… “We?”
Raleigh detected air moving behind her, and she whirled to see a person—a man—that her enhancements insisted wasn’t actually there and that she hadn’t heard come in. “What, do some universes have holograms?”
The man’s blue eyes—a little darker than Kitten’s—glanced between them, his stance and manner reminding her of Kitten rather too much.
And suddenly, Kitten didn’t show up to her enhancements, either.
Raleigh didn’t know the details of Kitten’s home universe. That didn’t mean she couldn’t recognize an assassin-from-birth when she met one. “What do you want?”
His stance kept him ready to face her, but he turned his stare to Kitten. “Second?”
Silence answered him for a long moment, then Raleigh heard the Jenga game collapse. She turned so she could keep an eye on both assassins.
Kitten neatly placed a block on the table, beside where she’d been playing the game with herself.
Raleigh sensed more than heard the man’s breath catch, his throat close. He stepped back, against the wall, as if to stay out of the way to take a moment to…mourn, it seemed.
“What’s second?” she asked.
Kitten swiped the Jenga pieces off the table, the movement so fast and vehement that she didn’t like the question, but her stare at Raleigh was as staid as usual.
The girl then got up from the table and approached the two of them. She paused in the doorway, then strode past Raleigh to the man.
He tensed. “Third—”
“She’s a null,” Kitten said flatly.
Raleigh had been called many things, but never that.
The man let out a slow breath, and Raleigh’s enhancements caught relief in the sound. “The…other one is a prime?” he asked.
Kitten shrugged—an ever-so-slight nudge of the shoulders, but shrugged. The sight would’ve made Raleigh choke, had she been mid-swallow.
“She…” Kitten paused, as if rethinking her words. “Her bondmate is a natural.”
Raleigh was reminded of Janni, when that woman went on one of her absentminded rambles that often featured jargon from other universes.
The man gave Kitten a hard look, started to say something, then stopped. He swallowed. “Her name?”
The girl gave him a self-conscious smile. “Jannis Lysacarly. She calls me ‘Kitten’.”
“I thought your name was Kitten,” Raleigh cut in.
She froze, angled as if she expected the strange man to strike her.
The man glanced at the ceiling, then to her neck, making her want to put her trench coat back on to hide the tech, the gills. “Hard mods?” He sounded startled.
“Apex universe,” the girl commented, as if in answer to a question.
Janni had called Raleigh’s home universe that, but Raleigh hadn’t known she’d done so in Kitten’s hearing.
The man relaxed, ever so slightly, and Raleigh felt comfortable assuming that he was from the same universe as the girl. He even seemed to be Kitten’s friend, insofar as an assassin could have friends.
He turned to Kitten. “Lunch?”
The girl nodded once and led the way out.
At the door, the man paused. “If you would, please: Never say my sister has a name.”
Sister? Raleigh blinked. The specific shades of their hair and eyes were too distinct for them to look related. “Why not?”
His wry smile made him look like a civvie—and a rather handsome one, if Raleigh were honest with herself, which she tried to be. He glanced toward the door, and Kitten pointedly stepped out and shut it behind her.
“Because she hasn’t earned a name yet,” he said frankly. “She’s nearing the age for it, and I’d like to see her live that long.”
Raleigh blinked again. “Me saying she has a name could get her killed?”
She suddenly felt very glad that her home universe wasn’t anything like that. Her home universe was messed up—all were, to some degree—but hers wasn’t nearly that bad. She couldn’t imagine still qualifying as a child at twenty-five.
He turned to leave.
“Who was second?” she blurted, realizing as she asked it that their reactions had suggested his mentioned ‘second’ had been a person, much as he called Kitten ‘third’.
The man froze, then turned with a careful precision that again reminded Raleigh of Kitten, who was ever-ready to launch into something terrifyingly lethal. (She’d seen Kitten do it.)
He met her gaze and paused, as if considering how to phrase what he wanted to say for the universe they were both in.
He quietly answered, “My wife,” and left.
And Raleigh realized she had no idea if he planned to bring his sister back or not, or if he even had a name. After what he’d said about Kitten and Second, she doubted she wanted to know the answer to either question.