AUW 3086, December

Justine Trent's lip curled as she passed by a cheap holo-display of Santa Claus ringing a bell. The unit played carols from a speaker at its base, but its low-quality equipment was already malfunctioning, changing the music tones to something tinny and irritating.

It was stupid, anyway, she thought. What was the point of a Christmas display in Downtown, anyway? Peace on earth and goodwill towards men were rare enough to be considered endangered species in this neighborhood.

The colony spaceship Pioneer 2 had left Coral in early AUW 3083, designed to join its predecessor in settling the planet Ragol. It had arrived nearly two years later in the fall of 3084, but a disaster had engulfed the Pioneer 1 settlement. Elite operatives called hunters investigated the surface on behalf of the Administration, the military, and the scientific establishment, but no official word had ever been established. In the interim, the people waited, kept in orbit until word would finally come that they could leave. Hopes and dreams of a new life slowly blurred with the waiting, and the city at the heart of the ship began to feel like home for most of its inhabitants. It was little different from a city on Coral, after all: it had residences, an industrial district, corporate presences with a self-contained economy, cultural outlets and entertainment venues...and Downtown.

Downtown was a slum. Unlike in ground-based cities, its name came from the fact that it was literally "down," encompassing the lower three levels of about a half of the city's structures. Here were the dregs: those who couldn't bear up under the pressures of life, those who preyed on them, those who dealt in petty illegality and those who sought their cover to commit more serious crimes. It certainly hadn't been planned; its creation was strictly the spawn of human nature. That it had come to be in time to greet the first Christmas on Pioneer 2, three years ago, told Justine more truths about people then any number of seasonal platitudes could trick her into believing. It had been the first part of the city to adapt to being a "real" settlement, that the rest was now only catching up to at the close of the fourth year on the ship.

At least there isn't any snow, Justine thought. The only thing sillier than Christmas in a nest of criminal gangs and wireheads, flesh mills and dingy bars, street-fighters and e-runners, was snow covering it all up. But there wasn't any weather in the ship's sealed environment except breezes caused by the air-recirculation systems.

If the truth were to be told, though, most of Justine's mood had nothing to do with the weather or with the circumstances of Downtown. The ache in her temples wasn't from badly played music, the dryness of her mouth wasn't from too many drinks the night before, and the slight shake that started in her limbs when she stopped walking and tried to stand still didn't come from sleeplessness. She hadn't ridden the wire for over three thousand beats and it was starting to tell.

She'd tried to kick the habit a couple of times, largely because her mostly-boyfriend didn't like it, but the gnawing at the back of her mind kept returning, the urge to escape the Downtown grunge and the gnawing paralysis of life in the bottle. That she was starting to show more than a mental need bothered her; hotwiring shunted the body's own nerve impulses and instead forced the brain to accept five-sense virtual reality input in its place. The technology was crude and could result in brain damage—wireburn, they called it.

Knowing that, though, didn't stop Justine from wanting more, looking for the next ride. Her usual source did his business up ahead, next to a bar called Falcone's where he would duck inside for a couple of shots of his own intoxicant of choice when the work got too thirsty.

Maybe the thirst had gotten to him already, Justine thought, because he wasn't there. A couple of other guys were, but they looked more like buyers than sellers: a bulky human with a pale yellow eight-inch-high mohawk and a wiry Newman wearing baggy pants and a vest revealing tattoos all over his olive-skinned torso that pulsed with luminescent inks.

She strolled over, figuring she'd wait. The man turned to look; Justine was used to that. She was a blonde Newman with wet-dream curves tightly sheathed in violet leather and chain-mail fishnets, stiletto heels turning every step into a swivel-hipped promise. So yeah, she was used to getting stares and second looks. She wasn't used to this kind, though, hard and flat.

"Chill, boys; I'm just looking for Eddy," she said.

"Yeah, we know. That's why we told him to take a break inside," said the human.

"Huh?"

"We've got a message. Tell your boyfriend to pass it along to his brother, okay?"

Justine edged back, not liking where this was heading.

"What kind of message?"

The Newman smiled at her, catlike, almost feral in the expression's cruelty.

"I think he'll figure it out."

The human's hands dropped into his pockets and came out having slipped into chrome-plated reinforced knuckles. The Newman's hand flickered and the gravity knife he'd been palming spun open.

Running would be best, but in her ridiculous heels Justine could barely manage anything faster than a brisk walk. She'd never get anywhere to hide or find help. And frankly she wasn't likely to find help. This was Downtown, where no one would push into a stranger's business if they didn't have an angle.

The two street-fighters rushed her and she readied herself to meet them. She didn't have a knife or a gun, but that didn't mean she was unarmed, not when her fingernails had been replaced by razor-edged knives anchored to the bones. The human led the way, swinging a roundhouse punch at her, but she gouged along the meat of his upper arm. He gave a sharp cry of pain that made her exult momentarily, but he recovered fast, too fast, coming around with a low left. Justine tried to pivot away—she had the reflexes for it, even while craving the wire—but her balance in the spiked heels wasn't good enough to give her the footing she needed. Her foot slipped, and the punch hammered into her belly so hard it seemed like it made her stomach bounce off her spine. The breath rushed out of her, and in the next instant a jab broke her nose, drawing blood. Pain drowned her world as she felt a cold line trace across her back—the Newman must have cut her. In the next instant she was flung down hard onto the hard street surface, jarring her whole body.

"Stupid wannabe razorbitch cut me," the human cursed. "She's going to pay for that."

"Just remember, if she can't pass on the message, we aren't going to get paid."

"Don't worry, Jehan." His boot crashed down on Justine's forearm, snapping the bone. "Unlike this poser, I know how to do a job right."

~X X X~

Donovan Ryland awoke to the shrill beeping of his Personal Data Link. He'd been lost in a dream where he'd been fighting in No Man's Mines underneath the surface of the planet Ragol, with an unending stream of security robots coming at him, an intruder alarm screaming in the background. The sheets he'd managed to get tangled around his limbs had expressed themselves as a Sinow Blue's deathly grip, and it took a couple of seconds to shake off the illusion and return to reality. It took a couple more for him to realize that the PDL wasn't making an alarm clock or incoming-call alert, but the sound for an urgent simple-mail message.

He fumbled for his square-rimmed, wire-framed spectacles, slipped them into place, and found the button that told the PDL to shut up already. The chronometer function said that it was 213 beats; still pre-dawn if they'd been been on a planet which had a dawn rather than a spaceship with artificial lighting. Ryland was not much of a morning person under ordinary circumstances; he tended to stay up way too late reading until the words started to blue and his foggy brain started reading the same sentence over multiple times. He actually slept better when actively on a job for the Hunter's Guild, because he had something that made him focus on the real world. That wasn't the case now; he'd barely had a hundred and fifty beats' sleep.

Sighing, he called up the simple-mail function. He had only one new message, with the urgent flag or without, so he had no trouble identifying which one was the one he was looking for. The name in the sender line jolted him closer towards being awake.

Curses, Kendric, what have you gotten yourself into this time?

His relationship with his brother had never been all that close; they'd gone opposite ways when their parents had divorced, Ryland with their father and Kendric with their mother. They'd gone opposite directions in life, too—careers, environment, interests, and economics. This past February, they'd worked together on one of Ryland's Guild Quests, which had nudged them a little closer, but that was still not particularly near to "ordinary" brotherly affection.

Not the kind of relationship that gives rise to urgent messages in the dead of night.

Whatever the mail said, it meant trouble.

Ryland opened it.

A little under forty beats later, he stepped off the warp platform from the parking area where he'd docked his aerocar to the lobby of the Medical Center. He was dressed for business, which for him meant flowing green robes reminiscent of a medieval wizard's. The fashion statement was customary for human Forces, masters of manipulating Photon energy through "techniques" that, although grounded in scientific engineering, might as well have been magic from an onlooker's point of view. His bright red hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and his expression was not happy. In fact, it was positively forbidding. He headed straight for the reception desk, intending to ask which room the patient was in, when he was cut off.

"Hold off on that, bro."

He snapped his head to the right, where Kendric's voice had come from. At first he didn't recognize his brother among the people seated in the ranks of hard plastic chairs, before identifying the young man in baggy, blue-gray trousers, a ripped T-shirt with a band's logo on it, and a black leather vest. A knit cap was pulled down, covering his shock of hair as brightly red as Ryland's, and oversized sunshades with a mirrored blue finish acted almost like a mask for his upper face, which was why Ryland hadn't instantly noticed him.

"Is this some kind of game?" Ryland snapped angrily.

"You think I'm joking, that I'd play around about Justine?"

"I don't know what you would or wouldn't do."

"C'mon. I'll take you up to her and I'll explain. Or don't'cha have the guts to face her?"

"Given that I have no idea what you are talking about, or what you said in your message, I have no need of guts."

Ryland winced inwardly when he heard himself talking. His partner Lyon had noticed it first, that whenever he and Kendric were around one another they slipped more strongly into their roles: Kendric threw more street argot into his speech and Ryland started sounding like an uppity, overeducated snob. It bothered him that Kendric had any power over him, even accidentally as a subconscious response.

But then again, being woken from very little sleep by an angry message that Justine had been seriously injured and that it was somehow supposed to be his fault was not the best way to put him in a good mood. Inwardly seething; he followed Kendric to the bank of elevators.

"You check for tails on the way over?"

"Tails? No, why would I?"

Kendric scowled.

"Hell, you got no clue at all, don't'cha, big bro? Just crashing through life leaving everybody else to clean up after."

Ryland stopped in his tracks.

"That's it. I'm leaving."

Kendric's hand flashed out and caught the Force by the forearm.

"Hey, listen here, you're not—"

"No, you listen," Ryland shot back, snapping his arm loose with a twist. He might only have been a Force, but he was still a hunter, and he had hand-to-hand training that could leave his brother becoming a patient here instead of visiting one. The intellectual, in this case, was the better fighter than the street punk.

A whisper of something, conscience maybe, or family feeling, corrected that thought. No, Kendric's not some street-fighter. He uses his brain for his work as much as I do. Kendric was an e-runner, a net-dancer who made his living inside other people's computer systems. Close combat was a secondary skill for both of them, not primary.

None of that affected how he felt, though.

"No, you listen," he repeated. "So far all I've had from you is a lot of attitude and zero information about where it's coming from. You talked about me not having a clue? Well, you're right. All I know is that you woke me out of a deep sleep with a lot of sound and fury and very little concrete information. I haven't so much as thought of you in weeks, let alone concerned myself with your business, so either start making some sense right now or I'm going home to bed."

Angry stares met each other, both brothers glaring into each other's eyes.

It was Kendric who broke first, turning away with a sharp sigh and stabbing the elevator call button.

"You really don't know, do you? Damn, that's really sick, those bastards. All right, I'm going to trust those hunter instincts of yours would have noticed anything off just by reflex, though I'd have preferred to trust that android partner of yours on that. Where is she, anyway?"

"Probably at home in her recharge pod, if she's lucky. Or did you call her in, too?"

Kendric shook his head. The elevator doors swished open and they went inside. The brothers rode up to the seventh floor of the medical center.

"You were concerned about people following me," Ryland mused, adding together the few facts he had. "You're wearing that cap and sunshades. You didn't want me asking after Justine at the reception desk. And you sent me simple-mail, which is considerably harder to hack or trace than a PDL call. What's going on here? Why all the secrecy?"

"I've got Justine here under an assumed name, a false identification so that the people who did this won't be able to get at her again. The problem is that they also know about us, and it's not real smart to hide somebody, then lead people right to 'em."

Kendric led the way down the hall from the elevator and stopped at Room 756. A display on the door read "Alina Branch" in green letters. They went inside to a partitioned room, the bed and monitoring equipment on one side of a barrier field like the kind used in security gates. Ryland barely recognized the bandage-swathed figure.

"What happened to her?"

"A couple of goons kicked her around hard. They were thorough and systematic about it, experts at their job. Broken bones, internal injuries, just enough to stay on this side of being alive."

"Then why is she like that?"

"When she passed out waiting for the ambulance, she lapsed into a coma." He paused, then sighed. "It's the damn wire. She's starting to get the shakes."

"Physical symptoms of hotwire habituation," Ryland said, then summed it up with the street term. "Wireburn."

"The doc said that her injuries were so severe, her brain reacted by trying to jump the wire on its own, without any input. Fixing the injuries is easy enough—well, you'd know that, as a hunter—but the brain's different."

Ryland understood. Photon-based medical technology could do amazing things up to and including healing many injuries instantaneously, even restoring life to the clinically dead, but the brain was different. In many ways, to Photon healing the brain was the person, and too much damage to it made such healing impossible. That was one reason why wireburn was such a menace, because the damage was difficult and in some cases impossible to repair.

"I'm surprised—" he began, then cut himself off. It was a topic he didn't want to visit.

"That given what Mom went through, I'd take up with a wirehead?" Kendric finished for him. "That would be the rational thing to think, right? Maybe some day, Donny, you'll learn that you don't get to choose who you've got feelings for. Justine's not just a bounce I could tell to shove off 'cause she's got bad habits, you get it? And wirehead or not, she wouldn't be here if it wasn't for your business."

Temper flaring, he whirled on Ryland again and grabbed two fistfuls of the front of his robe.

"It's all 'cause you haven't got anyone you give a damn about, so just because we're blood your enemies came after my girl to get to you. She said they told her to have her boyfriend—me—tell his brother—you—to keep his nose out of business that doesn't concern him. Do you get the picture?"

Several different denials came up at once, fighting each other to get out so that he ended up remaining silent. He would argue that he had plenty of people he cared about; just because he wasn't dating didn't make him a friendless social misfit. Most of them tended to be hunters or trained Forces, though, which made for a considerably more difficult target to threaten. That, he guessed, was the real reason whomever it was had gone after Justine, since anyone who knew him well would know he didn't have a good relationship with Kendric. He'd been partners with Lyon for over a year before mentioning his brother to her, and then only because they'd needed his e-skills for a Guild Quest.

The one that was most obvious, though, and which finally won out and was said out loud, was, "Kendric, I'm not working right now."

"What?"

"I don't have any active Guild Quests; we finished our last job three days ago. It wasn't even anything complex, just an escort run for a Lab botanist collecting samples on Gal Da Val Island."

The eighteen-year-old looked like someone had punched him in the gut.

"That doesn't effing make sense!"

"I know, but it's the truth. I'm not working on anything right now that someone would want me to drop, and my last job isn't something that would inspire revenge."

"Your last job, yeah, but you're telling me that nobody at all out there wants payback from you."

Ryland looked at him helplessly.

"I'm sure there's a number of people, criminals I've caught, plotters I've gotten on the wrong side of," he agreed, "but nothing immediate. Besides, when people want revenge, at least when it's more complex than a sniper's shot through the head and involves third parties, it's important to them to make the victim know who is doing it and why." Revenge, after all, was about rough justice, punishment for a real or imagined wrong done to someone. The avenger almost always wanted to make the one being revenged upon suffer and regret the original act. "Unless the person responsible somehow thinks he or she is the only person who wants revenge on me..."

He let his voice trail off, as both brothers could see the absurdity of that idea. Unless the person was completely delusional, that wasn't possible, and if they were that deluded then the revenge might be for anything—accidentally letting his shadow fall on him or her, taking the last sweetener packet at the coffee shop, anything at all.

"What about private stuff, then?" Kendric rallied from his momentary confusion. "You're always doing research into old stuff. Maybe you're poking around where someone doesn't want you."

"If that were the case, I'd like to think there's be some step to dissuade me before resorting to this." He gestured towards the unconscious girl. "No one's ever complained or tried to deny me access to the ship's data archive. And my pet projects are all highly theoretical, anyway, without immediate real-world consequences. That doesn't rule them out, but..."

"Then why the hell is Justine like that?" Kendric snapped at him, stabbing his finger towards her. "What's the point of sending a message if the people you send it to have no idea what it is?"

"I don't know, Kendric." And that might be scarier than what actually happened. If it was revenge, maybe that was the point? To make him feel helpless and confused so he'd suffer more before hitting him with the reasons later?

A piped-in rendition of a Christmas carol was playing over the medical center's PA system in the hall. With a young woman who might never wake up and it looking like the small gains he'd made in his relationship with his brother over the past year were crumbling away, the message of peace and goodwill seemed for the first time in Ryland's life like a bad joke.

~X X X~

A/N: For those who may not remember, "beat time" is the timekeeping system used in PSO, supposedly for purposes of helping players in different time zones coordinate play. An idea poorly executed...but it does work for giving that "alien culture" feel to the ship when the characters use it. In any case, there are 1000 beats in a 24-hour day, so that each beat is 1.44 minutes long (86.4 seconds).