Claire leaned back. The Security Forces Database would be under a layered protection protocol of at least level three or higher. Cutting into it would be a nightmare.

"You are asking me to break into a security instal ation.

It will be very well protected. There are defenses to be overcome. The precise manipulation of data will require time. It's a lot harder to alter data than to erase it."

"We've col ected credits," Charles said. "From the families. We will gladly pay -"

He saw the look on her face and clamped his mouth shut.

"We have insulted you," Doreem said. His sharp eyes stabbed at her. "We ask forgiveness."

"Apologies," Charles bowed his head.

They thought that because she had left the building, she wouldn't understand. They thought she only cared about money. She understood. Every refugee from the building had conspired to save the children. That's what a community did in times of trouble.

"Please continue," Charles asked.

"Think of the data as being guarded by a pack of dogs," Claire said. "The AI defenses. If the pack sees me, they will attack and bark all together, making a lot of noise.

This noise will bring men with guns, the actual psychers. To be able to do what you ask me to do, I will need help. I will need decoys that will draw the pack away from me."

"We have people," Charles said. "They are not combat-grade, but they can move through the bionet."

"They are utility repair people." Tonya said. "They used to check the bionet instal ations for the failing sectors."

Low-level psychers, with the mental talent too slight to be affected by the PPP. She'd encountered their type on the bionet before: they could move through it but they had never fought on it.

Claire sighed. "If we're discovered, every person involved will be deported. The children may survive. We will not. Melko will murder all of us."

"We understand," Charles said. "I'm one of those who will be going in with you. We can't do anything more than run, but we'l risk ourselves for the children. We will do everything we can to help you. If you choose to do this."

In her mind Claire was back in her mother's apartment, sitting by the bed, holding her mother's hand. The medic had given her less than twenty-four hours, and Intel igence permitted her this last visitation. She remembered everything in crystal clear detail. The dark spray of black marks on her mother's face. The smile on her mother's lips.

Her mother's hair, clean and braided away from her face.

Her mother's voice. "I'm content, sweetheart. I'm tired, and it's time to go. Don't cry. I didn't suffer. They say the passing will be peaceful."

Logging into bionet meant risking everything. Her job.

Her life. Other lives she took with her.

The debt had to be repaid. If she succeeded, she would give three children another chance at life. If she failed...

She had to succeed.

"When was the dagger taken for testing?"

"Last night," Charles answered.

"What time last night?"

"At the end of the school day," Tonya said.

"Take the credits you gathered and rent a large hotel room in the largest hotel you can find," she said. "If asked, tel them you are having a meeting to welcome new refugees in the community. If not asked, say nothing. Pick someone who can pass for a native and have them purchase a portable liquid interface hub, Grade Five or higher. We will need the bionet cognizance units as well. If asked why, say that you are planning a game party on the bionet. We will need a medic and we will need protection for our bodies while we're logged in. Don't involve anyone who can't be trusted to stay quiet. This needs to be done tonight, before the lab personnel return to work on Monday."

*** *** ***

Claire walked down the polished tile of Hotel Aldebaran's sixteenth floor hal way. Charles had chosen well - the three towers of Aldebaran catered to businessmen and families. People strol ed back and forth, parents with children heading toward the hotel's pools, tourists going out to explore the city. Nobody paid her any mind.

She approached the door marked 1672 and rapped her knuckles on the plasti-steel. It swung open and Charles let her inside. The suite's main room was wide and devoid of furniture. A three-foot tal hub sat in the middle of the room, an ornate metal pedestal in a shape of three nude women, each supporting the container of dark-grey liquid interface with her left hand and fondling herself with the right.

Claire raised her eyebrows.

"It was on sale," Charles said.

Doreem sat in the lone chair in the corner. He nodded to her. To the left of him stood a young man with a strong resemblance to Karim, one of the children in trouble.

"Kosta," Charles said. "He's Karim's brother and one of your team."

Kosta looked barely eighteen.

"This is Zinaida," Charles said, bowing slightly to an older woman with startling blue eyes. She nodded back.

"Nonna." A young nervous woman with pale brown hair.

"Saim." Charles pointed at a thin dark-skinned man in his early twenties.

"Mittali." A young woman with very dark hair and light olive skin.

"This is our medic." A blond man in his mid-thirties raised his hand from the portable medi-bot. "Tonya will be assisting him."

Tonya inclined her head.

"Thomas, Sergei, and Helen will watch over us while we're under."

The two men and a woman raised their hands.

They had brought everything she'd asked for. Claire took the bag off her shoulder, removed her sandals, and sat on the rug before the hub. "Join me."

The five members of her team sat in a circle around the hub.

"How many times have you connected?" she asked.

"Seventeen," Charles said.

"Twenty-two," Zinaida said.

"Eight," Saim said.

"Eight also," Mittali added.

"Four," Nonna said.

"Twice," Kosta said.

"Any connections in the hostile environment?"

No answer. She had expected as much.

"Bionet can be overwhelming," Claire said. "However, our minds do their best to cope by transforming it into a familiar environment. Our mind interprets things for us and you must listen to your instincts. If something gives you a bad feeling, it's likely a trap. If you see a monster, it's likely an AI defense or an enemy psycher. You will see strange things on the bionet. Creatures that grow blades. Plants that shoot lightning. You must remember to trust your instincts. If something feels dangerous, it is. Be afraid and be cautious, and you will survive."

Tags: Ilona Andrews Kinsmen Science Fiction
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