Today's Reading

A cop? Luce couldn't be a cop, could he? With his social deficits?

Official directives crawled the posters: remain in place! wait for instructions!

Rubi had risen to her toes, prep for rolling left if he attacked.

Heart slamming, she scanned for weapons.

Like what—a crossbow? Holy water?

Two cameras and a pacification bot drifted over her radishes. "Stand down, mademoiselle! Stand down now!"

Rubi lowered her fists. Of course this policeman wasn't Luce. He was a stranger.

Handsome stranger, noted an inner voice.

Dammit, stay on task! "Complying as ordered."

He was tall and olive-skinned, with flyaway hair the color of charcoal and forbidding features: sharp nose, steely eyes. A protective vest, over the base layer of nanosilk he wore as a primer garment, left her to imagine the details of his physique. His bot was armed with a joy buzzer, third-gen Taser tech. Dad claimed that a good jolt would make you wish you'd died.

He would know, wouldn't he?

@Interpol must have a warrant, because the building hadn't warned Crane he was coming.

As this thought gelled, a badge resolved on the wall.

@Interpol Special Ops, Agent Anselmo Javier

Pronouns: he/him'

Cloudsight Respectability Rating: 59/100%

Agent Javier checked under the old hardwood table, then peered inside a closet filled with folding chairs. "I'm going to search the rest of the floor," he said. "Wait here, s'il vous plait."

He left Rubi alone with the drones.

Feigning calm, she peered beyond the radishes to the street. Zoom views from other cameras let her clock a half-dozen meandering residents and tourists.

So, civilians weren't being diverted away from the scene. Still, there were at least a dozen drones lurking in the shadows. And...

...her mouth went dry.

An autonomous sniper, bristling with tranq darts, was tucked into a balcony across the street. It had its sights on her. As she clocked it, the nanotech primer on its exterior changed color. It blended in with a building pediment covered in anti-pigeon spikes.

As it all but vanished, Rubi felt goose bumps coming up on her arms. A gun. An actual gun.

Crane murmured, "Isn't this how that 1942 simulation started out?"

"That was a game," Rubi said. Still, she let the memory raise a smile. Wild with exhaustion, she had torn through a VR sim of Occupied Paris, meeting contacts, passing messages, and setting garlic traps for Vichy vampires.

It was the only time she had let life in Sensorium swamp her studies, had ignored school and all her surface obligations. She should have been memorizing social infraction case precedents before her next law exam unlocked. Instead, she'd stayed online for eighteen hours, sabotaging trains and stealing bomb plans.

The dealbreaker had been her so-called archnemesis. Gimlet Barnes had been brought in by Risto Games in a last-minute twist, to lead a team of German necromancers hunting her resistance cell.

Rubi had lost big in their previous battle, a superhero thing. She'd apparently lost perspective, too. Once Gimlet was in, there was no chance she'd stop, not even for a better shot at leveling her mash-up of careers into a single permajob as a public defender.

Thrill of adrenaline, 'rat-a-tat' of machine guns, crossbowdriven stakes. Sim blood spraying as buildings collapsed. Players and audience tooning in by the tens of thousands.

Stone tumbling to drive a pall of dust skyward, thick enough to curtain the moonlight. Howling werewolf choruses. Boneshaking blasts of shellfire, stripping the air to gunpowder-laced sandpaper.

But..."Never again, Crane."

"If you say so, miss."

"I mean it." She couldn't fail any more exams without falling off the law school leaderboard.

Materialists would insist it had never happened, anyway. Manufactured gamer dreams had no meaning in surface reality. But Rubi remembered it—remembered the bombed-out terrain of mid twentieth century Paris—as if it was her own nursery.

Meanwhile, that camouflaged sniper lurking in the crannies, here and now, prickled at her consciousness.

...

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