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"We don't know who he is," the director said. "We know it's a he, and we believe he goes by the name 'Drakon.' There are certain unconfirmed reports that he has connections in the Fringe, here in the city. We don't know where he's hiding, if he's working alone or if he has contacts within this very agency."
Aegis Director of Operatives Julia Chan swept the table with her gaze, pausing to search each pair of eyes locked on hers. Phoenix was only one of many, but she felt as if Director Chan were looking into her soul. Weighing strengths and weaknesses. Going over a mental checklist of successes and failures in Phoenix's relatively brief and undemanding career-mentally studying her psych eval, deciding if the agent's abilities and qualifications were up to the task.
No doubt the director was wondering if an agent who was only half-dhampir like herself-only a quarter Opir and three-quarters human-and had never had a major mission in the field, could possibly be capable enough for a job that could mean life or death for the largest Enclave of humans on the West Coast of the former United States of America.
Then the director's gaze moved on, and she nodded brusquely. "You'll have full, detailed reports on your tabs. Study them thoroughly. We're sending only one agent during the initial stage of the search. We're betting that the assassin is heterosexual, and like most Opiri, he'll naturally be attracted to dhampir blood." She swept the audience with a cold stare. "Let me be very frank-you may have to use sex as a way of getting to him, not to mention your blood. As always, if you feel or believe you're not up to the task of using every personal asset to find this killer before he brings down our government, tell me now. You'll receive no black mark on your record for declining, under the circumstances. And, as always, every word spoken in this room is strictly confidential. Any leaks will be investigated and the traitor will face the harshest possible penalties."
She closed her tab, gathered up a few printed notes and left the room.
"Well, that was clear enough," Yoko said close to Phoenix's ear as they rose from their seats at the table. "We always knew what we were getting into when we joined Aegis."
"Joined?" Phoenix said, shaking her head. "Since when did you dhampires have any choice in the matter? You can't be left to run loose in society, half-vampires that you are."
Yoko took Phoenix's arm, her catlike pupils dilating. "You talk as if you don't think you're one of us. Just because you look fully human "
"I inherited my looks from my mother, eyes and all. And she didn't go through what most of yours did. She wasn't taken during the War by some bloodsucker against her will."
"No. But she married one of the first dhampires ever to be identified," Yoko said, her round face suddenly serious. "Even the people who adopted him as a kid before the Awakening had no idea where he came from. At least most of us knew our real mothers."
"But not the Nightsiders who made them pregnant," Phoenix said, brutally blunt. "Who abandoned them as soon as they were done with them. I had a complete family to begin with, even though no one outside a few in the old government knew my dad was working against the bloodsuckers during the War."
"And kept on working for us after," Yoko said, "even when he could have retired with honor."
"Do you really believe that?" Phoenix asked, unable to hide the bitterness that never quite went away. "In the end, he left us like any true dhampir's 'father.'"
"He died on a mission. He was a hero, and everyone knows it."
A hero, Phoenix thought. The kind she could never be. And all her anger, all her hurt couldn't change that fact.
"Aegis was everything to him, more important than his own wife and child. I'd rather have a live father than a dead hero."
For once, her voluble friend had nothing to say. It wasn't as if this were the first time the subject had come up between them, but sometimes-when Phoenix least expected it-the anger came boiling up again.
Oh, Aegis had provided well for the widowed wife and fatherless child. And once Mother died, the agency had become Phoenix's only family: deciding, after much evaluation, that the half-dhampir child was worth training, though her abilities were constantly tested and weighed against those of every full dhampir, the agents sworn to maintain the Armistice between humans and Nightsiders by every means possible. Unauthorized combat, ambush, deceit, submission, sex. Whatever it took.
Because only dhampires, with their almost catlike eyes, could see by night like full-blooded Opiri, could move nearly as fast and were nearly as strong, could meet Opir operatives in the Zone with some hope of survival.
But this wasn't the Zone. An Opir assassin was inside the walls of San Francisco Enclave, ready to kill the mayor and foment chaos in the city at a time when the volatile politic situation could be set off by the smallest spark. The forthcoming election had the two factions- the mayor's and Senator Patterson's-at daggers drawn. And every report confirmed that the bloodsuckers were preparing for a major offensive.
And yet the mayor insisted that peace could be maintained and renewed. Mayor Aaron Shepherd. The man Phoenix had once loved. And had thought loved her.
Yoko seemed to read her mind. "I know," she said. "This is kind of personal for you."
Phoenix didn't encourage further conversation on the subject, so Yoko moved on. "'Contacts within this agency,'" she quoted Chan. "If they think that's even possible, it's bad. Could make this job a suicide mission."
"So what's new?" Phoenix asked as she and Yoko stopped by the mess hall for coffee and sandwiches. "I'd go in a heartbeat if I thought they'd pick me."
Yoko grabbed a steaming mug and chose a table. The room was nearly deserted. Once they were seated, Yoko looked around and leaned close to Phoenix again.
"Maybe you didn't notice how long Chan stared at you," she said. "Maybe they haven't sent you on any really dangerous missions. They haven't been able to look past their prejudice. But you're still Titus's daughter."
Titus's daughter, Phoenix thought. That was the thing, wasn't it?
"I don't want any lives in my hands," Phoenix said, sipping the nearly scalding coffee and welcoming the almost painful burning on her tongue.
"But you don't have to cut yourself off from everyone," Yoko said, laying her hand on Phoenix's wrist. "I worry about you. You don't go anywhere or see anyone. Except me, of course."
Phoenix smiled. "Stop worrying, Yoko. I keep busy. I don't feel deprived."
"Look, Shepherd was one guy. There are guys who don't care what we are, whether it shows or not. They won't try to keep you hidden. Like Abdul we're happy together. Might not last forever, but almost nothing does."
No, Phoenix thought. Nothing does. Not even life.
"Not interested," she said. "I don't like having those kinds of ties to weigh me down."
"Because no matter how much you may complain about our being forced to join Aegis because of what we are," Yoko said, "you live for the work, like your father. That's another reason why Chan didn't leave you off the list."
"Or they just think it would be safer to send in someone who doesn't have dhampir eyes. A lot easier than performing surgery on one of you."
Yoko bit her lower lip. "It all depends on their tactics. A full dhampir could really tempt the assassin, and the Agency doesn't seem to think your blood would be addictive. But if Aegis wants to keep a low profile."
"I guess we'll have to wait and see," Phoenix said.
Uncharacteristically quiet, Yoko gazed into the depths of her cooling coffee. "Phoenix.can you be objective if they assign you to this mission?"
"Whatever my past relationship with Shepherd," Phoenix said, drawing herself up very straight, "I know what he means to the Enclave. He's holding everything together, giving the people courage and hope. He wants to end the mandatory deportation of minor lawbreakers to Erebus."
"Which the bloodsuckers will never agree to," Yoko said. "They have to have serfs, after all."
"But he's against it, and that's a very popular position now that the Enforcers are scraping the bottom of the barrel to find citizens to deport," Phoenix said. "I respect him for that."
"And the alternative is Senator Patterson, who wants to crack down on so-called 'offenders' even more."
"What else can you expect from a guy who used to be commissioner of the Enforcement Bureau?" Phoenix asked.
"The elections are going to be ugly this year, no matter how civil they try to be."
"That's why they have to choose just the right operative," Phoenix said.
"You may not think you can do it, Nix, but I have faith in you." Yoko covered Phoenix's hand again. "I hope you're the one."
Yoko got her wish.
Chan called Phoenix into her office the next day. The spring morning was sunny but cold, with a brisk wind off San Francisco Bay.
"You read the report?" Chan said as Phoenix took the seat on the other side of the wide and very valuable cher-rywood desk.
"I did," Phoenix said.
"What were your thoughts?"
"I assume you chose me because I look human."
"That was indeed a major factor, Agent Stryker. It was not the only one. You also have no need for blood or a patch to help you digest human food like all full dhampires, though your protein requirements must be met to the best of your ability. Any further thoughts about this mission?"
"I can get him," Phoenix said, half-afraid of appearing so much more confident than she felt.
The director looked at Phoenix as if she were peering over the tops of old-fashioned reading glasses. "You will have a great deal of personal discretion in this, but your job is not to 'get him.' It is to watch and listen, try to make contact with someone in the Fringe who knows Drakon, locate his headquarters if possible and report back without being caught. That is more than sufficient."
But not for me, Phoenix thought. Dad died for this city. If I have any way to bring this assassin down myself
"The question is whether or not your former relationship with the mayor could in any way compromise the mission," Chan said, shaking Phoenix out of her thoughts. "Do you believe there is any chance it might in any way affect your performance?"
Phoenix knew she couldn't avoid the issue now, as she had with Yoko. The affair was supposed to have been secret. Aaron had convinced Phoenix that it would be a good idea if the then vice mayor kept his personal relationships private. He didn't want to be seen as having possibly influenced her acceptance as an operative for the Agency.
"It's different with us," Aaron had said. And Phoenix had accepted, because she'd been hungry for love, for acceptance by those who couldn't decide where she fit in.
They'd parted "friends." At least from Aaron's side of the equation. It was easy enough for him. He didn't have to think of her at all. She saw his photo on her tab nearly every day. Mayor Shepherd, one of the most successful and beloved leaders in Enclave history.
Phoenix sat very straight and held the director's gaze. "No, ma'am," she said.
"No resentment of this Agency for sending your father off to die?" Chan asked bluntly. "No undue hatred of the Opiri for killing him?"
"No, ma'am. No more than any dhampir operative would have."
The director cocked her head. "Honest, at least. Is there anything else you wish to say?"
"I know the mayor must be protected at all costs for the sake of our survival."
"All costs," Chan said, looking down at her tab. "Including the possible seduction of whomever seems likely to assist in your locating Drakon. There are several known Bosses in the Fringe you might approach in your search for him. You'll find a list on your tab, but our preferred candidate is a Boss called The Preacher." She paused. "Are you up to that, Agent Stryker?"
"You don't forget how to ride a bicycle," Phoenix said.
For the first time, the director smiled in apparently genuine amusement. "You're beautiful, Agent Stryker. Most men would consider you very desirable, regardless of species. You wouldn't have been considered if you didn't have most of the advantages dhampires possess. And your blood shouldn't be addictive to Nightsiders, ei-ther.which could be a mixed blessing."
"But it'll still attract them," Phoenix said. "And I can use that."
"It'll be at your discretion whether or not you wish to reveal your dhampir heritage at any point during the mission," Chan said, "but remember that you are not to engage Drakon or his followers unless you have no other choice. If the enemy recognizes what you are and fails to believe any of your cover stories, there won't be anyone to get you out."
"And you have to remember that though you're still stronger and faster than humans, you're at a disadvantage in a head-to-head with most other dhampires and certainly all Opiri, with very few exceptions."
"Yes, ma'am. I'm grateful for your confidence in me."
"Frankly," Chan said, chewing on her stylus, "I was against it. I think you still have something to prove. You were an orphan, mother dead by suicide, no other living relations. Your father's legacy is all you have to define yourself. During this mission, you have to put all that behind you."
"Ma'am, I've always-"
"You're not out there to be a hero, Stryker, only to complete the mission as outlined in the briefing."
"I understand completely, Director Chan."
"I hope you do." Chan sighed. "The committee believes you can handle this. But again I must ask, are you prepared to carry out this mission with every asset at your disposal, without qualms or emotional involvement?"
"If there are any doubts," Phoenix said stiffly, "perhaps it would be better if another agent is assigned."
"No. The committee has faith in you, and I'll have to do the same." She typed a quick note on her tab. "There'll be a more detailed report, your eyes only, waiting for you in your quarters, outlining your cover stories and the support you'll receive from the Agency. Not to be shared with anyone, is that clear?"
"Yes, ma'am. Very clear."
"Then you're dismissed. Be prepared to move out at 0100 hours tomorrow morning."
"Yes, Director." Phoenix rose, turned and walked out of the office. Her heart was pounding, but not with fear. She'd have a chance to show them again. She wasn't that weakling orphan anymore, and she would never stop proving it.
No matter what it took.