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    “Pay dirt!” Tess said. “This stuff is moving.”

    Nadia ran her index finger around the rim of her coffee cup. Late-afternoon light bathed the office. Soft and gentle, it stung in her eyes.

    “And here’s another deposit,” Tess said, pacing behind her. “I haven’t even put it all up yet.”

    “You’re selling it already?”

    “Sure, why not?”

    Nadia rubbed her temple with two fingers as she squinted at the coffee. She took a tentative sip and jerked back. Still too hot.

    “People are already bugging me for more, and I haven’t even finished going through it all,” Tess said, her fingers twitching at her sides as she typed. “Internal memos, password files, site directories…it’s all good stuff.”

    “Who’s buying it?”

    Tess shrugged, her eyes distant and flickering. “Weirdos on the dark web.”

    “Dark web?”

    “It’s like the deep web, for people who aren’t cowards.”

    Nadia shook her head. She didn’t plan on trying to fence any of the jewelry she’d stolen—had never bothered, honestly. But if she had, she wouldn’t have made as much money as Tess was making for them this very moment.

    “I still don’t understand why people are paying money for a bunch of corporate e-mail.”

    “Most of them are probably proxies for news sites. They snap up info by the pound, I swear,” Tess said. “Plenty of data brokers out there too. They’ll give it to the government or resell it back to Auktoris. Who cares, though? Their money is real.”

    “As long as you’re happy,” Nadia said, shrugging and blowing across the top of her coffee. She took another sip. Much better.

    “It’ll taper off later today,” Tess said. “Once it’s out there, it makes the rounds pretty quick. Probably worthless by tonight.”

    How much money? Was it worth the effort? The risk? Nadia was about to ask, felt a brief flash of curiosity, but quickly realized it didn’t matter. Even if they hadn’t made a cent, she’d still want to try something like this again. At any rate, from the thrill in Tess’s voice and the bounce in her step, they were making quite a profit.

    “How are you doing?” Tess asked.

    Never felt more alive, dear.

    “Tired,” Nadia said instead, suppressing a grin. She took a gulp of coffee. “Getting better.”

    “That got kind of scary at the end, huh?”

    Nadia rubbed at the faint bruise on her wrist, saw in her head the smear of bright red on her glove. “Nothing I couldn’t handle.”

    In truth, she was disappointed. Such an embarrassing moment—all her painstaking plans almost crashing down because she couldn’t escape the grip of some uniformed oaf. So undignified.

    Not enough to ruin her night out, but still.

    “I’ve been working on something for next time,” Tess said. “Come look.”

    “Didn’t you sleep?”

    “Pfft, no. Are you kidding? I started combing through this stuff the moment you got back. Come here. Look!”

    Nadia grudgingly followed her to one of the many mannequins strewn about the workspace. It had thick black bands on each forearm, like bracers.

    “All right, so check it out,” Tess said, holding up a simple grabber, a claw on the end of a long pole. The kind of thing you bought only if you were too old or disabled or short to reach a shelf.

    “Why do you have that?”

    “Irrelevant,” Tess said, sniffling and wiping her nose on her sleeve again. She carefully reached for the mannequin, then leaned away. “Oh, no, I’m a security guard. All right, Nadia, you’re under arrest!”

    She closed the grabber around the mannequin’s wrist, exactly as the guard had grabbed Nadia last night. The moment she did, a loud snap rang out. Nestled spikes shot out of the bracer, unfolding like spider’s legs.

    “Countermeasures!” Tess said.

    Nadia frowned. “Hmm.” The arms of the grabber were bent—tangled in the jointed, savage spikes of the bracer.

    “We can integrate them into your sweater without too much trouble, I think,” Tess said. “Maybe at the shoulder and hip as well? That should cover most scenarios. I doubt anyone’s going to grab you by the ankles.”

    Nadia wasn’t convinced. “Couldn’t it…I don’t know, push them away? Shock them? Something a bit less bloodthirsty?”

    “Ooh, electrical pads!” Tess perked up, her eyes glazing over with light. “Might take me a bit longer to work up that prototype.”

    Nadia smiled. She downed the rest of her coffee, ready to bring up the words that had jumped out at her earlier. “Next time?”

    “Huh?” Tess said, lost in her private screens, not even looking at her partner.

    “You said ‘next time.’ Are you sure you’re comfortable with more of this?”

    “Oh.” Tess paused, her eyes returning to normal. “Well, yeah, I mean we’ve been calling this the pilot run, right?”

    “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about stealing the jewelry.” She meant every word.

    “Yeah…that…” Tess shrugged as though it were nothing. “I guess I’d be madder at you if you were in prison right now.”

    “I’m sure the scads of money you’re making aren’t helping either.”

    “I’ll get over it,” Tess said, grinning.

    “Just let me know if there’s anything I can do to redeem myself,” Nadia said, with a hand on her heart. She gave a dainty little bow. “I am at your disposal.”

    “Okay, relax,” Tess said, rolling her eyes. “It’s definitely not even the worst thing you’ve ever done to me.”

    Nadia winced. “How heavy are these countermeasures of yours?”

    “Depends on how much damage you want them to do,” Tess said, her pupils filled with light again.

    The answer she wanted was “none,” if possible. There was nothing exciting to Nadia about hurting someone, causing pain and injury, no matter how justified. In her mind, she saw the smear of blood on her glove again.


    But there were unpleasantries she would have to face. She’d finally seen that last night. In all her plans, she got in, did what she pleased, and got out, undetected and unhassled. That, however, was unrealistic. Like making clothes only in sizes meant for fashion models—no one but the relatively small community of anorexic women would buy them.

    Not that anyone ever bought anything she made, but still.

    She had been very lucky last night; she would not rely on being lucky again. She and Tess had spent so much time fussing over the tools of her new trade that she’d completely neglected the most important one: no one countermeasure could cover every contingency. But she herself…her body was something she worked hard on, was proud of, for reasons that were entirely wrong now.

    She looked down at herself, wearing yoga pants and a tank top calculated to look casual but still put together, making a statement even in the privacy of her own home. She was in good shape, she supposed, trim and petite and nothing but tasteful feminine curves.

    But soft. Weak. She could put on all kinds of wonders created by Tess, and she’d still only be a little girl playing with grown-up toys.

    “Tess?” she said.


    “Can you search for anything in this area having to do with combat training?”

    Tess froze, her fingers stopping their nearly constant twitching. “Excuse me?”

    “You know, boxing gyms, martial arts…er…schools, that sort of thing.”

    “Like a dojo?”

    “Yes,” Nadia said, not knowing at all if that was what she meant.

    “Is there a reason you can’t search for it?”

    “You’re so much better at it,” Nadia said, playfully bumping into her with her hip. “We should take a look around at some places tonight.”

    “Are you planning on kicking the guard’s ass next time?” Tess said, just this side of mocking.

    It did sound ridiculous. “I’m not trying that again without some kind of training. It’s different for you, sitting here behind your proxies or whatever.”

    “No, I get it,” Tess said, crashing back into her seat. “I was scared half to death just watching.”

    Scared. Nadia had been avoiding that word. She had been many things in that moment, but she was sure scared wasn’t quite one of them.

    “Oh, hey,” Tess said, throwing a hand at the screens on her desk. “You’ll like this.”

    The displays shared a feed from one of the big news-streaming sites, showing the jewelry store. Nadia stared, drinking it in. “Breaking News,” it said. “Stunning Robbery,” it said. “Brazen. Bold. Audacious.”

    A crowd was gathered out front, held back by security barriers. A crowd.

    Nadia’s eyes were huge, lit up with glee. She managed to control her mouth, holding back the huge grin fighting to be free.

    It didn’t last long. A picture of a hefty older gentleman in a security uniform appeared on the screen. Minor injury. Expected to recover.

    Guilt and relief washed over her in equal measure. That was all right. Nadia was no stranger to hurting people, only a stranger to getting her hands dirty. The man would be all right.

    Finally an image of the suspect. Nadia just about swooned. A daring rogue stared out at her from the screen, a mysterious thief with sharp, clever eyes. The suspect looked fierce, dangerous, nothing like what she saw when she looked in a mirror.

    No leads at this time.

    Tess hovered at her side. “I’d call that a successful pilot run.” She held out her hand. “Partner.”

    It was her prosthetic hand. Nadia tamped down any distaste she might have shown and took it in her own, not shaking it but giving a tender squeeze. There was no give to the artificial limb, no feedback at all.

    “I should say so,” she said. “Partner.”

    *     *     *

    It had been a complete waste of an evening. Nadia revved the throttle on her scooter, feeling the poor girl struggle with the extra weight; Tess was crammed onto the seat behind her, holding on tightly, her arms strangled around Nadia’s abdomen.

    Tess’s fingers were still twitching.

    “Really? You can’t just stop and enjoy the view?” Nadia yelled over her shoulder, although they weren’t passing anything worth looking at. Skyscrapers surrounded them, as always, lined with clean sidewalks. Drifting by on their left was a line of purists, unshaven people with long, scraggly hair. They stood silently, holding handwritten signs reading “Submit” and “Regress.” Pedestrians frowned as they squeezed by, trying not to make eye contact.

    Nadia frowned as well. Perhaps Tess had the right idea after all.

    “I’m reading reviews,” Tess said. “‘I take my nephew here every Saturday. He loves it! Very fun, not condescending. Good self-esteem booster. He now has a great tournament record.’”

    Nadia scowled. If she was going to pay just to be given belts of different colors, she could very well go out and buy them herself.

    “‘Excellent strength training,’” Tess read on. “’Awesome atmosphere, extremely welcoming.’”


    “This one’s for that last place.”

    “Oh.” Nadia scrunched up her nose—it still sounded completely wrong. She’d felt very welcome, in all the wrong ways. A dark, loud gym full of angry men pumped full of testosterone, and who knew what else, screaming and grunting and choking one another out. It had advertised what they’d gracelessly called a “rape defense class,” but she was the only woman there.

    “‘So fun! Great music! Perfect workout. Not boring at all.’”

    Nadia didn’t have to ask which one that was. It had been the biggest waste of the night so far. At least the other schools and gyms were pretending to teach you how to fight. Aerobics were for doing alone, in your apartment, following a video stream of an instructor.

    She parked in front of one of the endless rows of office buildings, tall and clean and nothing but sterile glass with giant displays embedded inside. The scarlet Auktoris “A” scrolled onto the screen above her, the legs pouring down into a double helix.


    It flickered out, replaced by the fanged cartoon cat again. HUMAN RESOURCE AGENTS ARE NOT YOUR FRIEND, it said this time.

    Tess shook her head. “That guy. What a dork.”

    “I saw our friend Cheshire earlier too,” Nadia said. “I thought you were a fan of his?”

    “There is no him. I told you it’s a—”

    “Collective, yes,” Nadia said, rolling her eyes.

    “Any chump with a connection can hack a board and say ‘Look at me, I’m Cheshire,’ and all the news mouthpieces shit themselves and do scare pieces on big bad Cheshire,” Tess said. “It’s just preachy vandalism.”

    “What? You could hack billboards like him?”

    “Pfft, in my sleep.” Tess swept her human hand up, wiping Cheshire’s face off the screen in an instant. It was replaced with CHESHIRE IS A POOPY BUTT.

    Nadia rolled her eyes once more, letting them fall lower on the building. A small sign on one of the side doors announced it as the home of a dance studio. She never would have noticed it if they hadn’t been looking for it.

    “I wasn’t sure about this one,” Tess said, clambering and dumping herself off the scooter. “I’ve never even heard of La Garrud.”

    “It can’t be any worse than the others,” Nadia said, dismounting with practiced grace.

    “You’re going to pick this one because it sounds French, aren’t you?”

    Va te faire foutre,” Nadia said, her nose high in the air. “Come on. Let’s get this over with.”

    They entered and opted for a narrow, empty staircase instead of the elevator. Barely any sound came through the door above them, no crowds of children kiai-ing away or dull slaps of fists on heavy bags. Nadia could almost swear she heard string music.

    Something was very familiar about all this.

    They entered into a small waiting area that opened into a large room. Ladies in leotards and slippers, some wearing leg warmers, were holding on to a wall bar and doing basic exercises.

    Of course… Plié, plié pulse, arabesque…

    Ballet was one of the many hobbies she’d been forced into as a child. Although it hadn’t stuck, she had resented it somewhat less than the others.

    “Ugh, more dancing. Looks like a pass. Right?” Tess said, pawing at the back of her neck with her prosthetic hand. Her eyes darted around at nothing. “Let’s go. I’m starving.”

    “Wait.” Nadia left her side, drawn toward rows of pictures in frames on the back wall of the waiting area. They were real photos, black-and-white and printed on paper. All of them showed dowdy women, in billowing skirts and huge floppy hats, squaring off in combat stances. Some of them held clubs that looked like bowling pins.

    “Photoshop much?” Tess said.

    Nadia didn’t think so. The last one showed a woman, still in ridiculous dress, still in ridiculous hat, pinning what could only be a police officer to the ground. She had him trapped in an arm bar, a small, sure smile showing on her face even through the age and blurriness of the picture.

    “This place looks promising actually,” Nadia said.

    “Ugh, we already tried pretend dance fighting earlier tonight. All this stuff is just for girls trying to lose weight, and that is not you.”

    “Was that a compliment?” Nadia said.

    “Shut up.”

    “You’re such a tease, Tess. When are you going to stop leading me on?”

    “Oh my God stop.”

    An older woman in a black leotard stopped hovering at the edge of the dance floor and interrupted them. She was severe and lithe and tall, carved wood in the shape of a woman, with fading dirty-blond hair. “I’m Valery, owner of Odporność Dance Studio. Can I help you?”

    Nadia couldn’t place her accent. Something Eastern European. “We’re interested in the La Garrud class.”

    “Not we,” Tess said, waving from a standoffish distance.

    Valery ignored her. “Good timing. You may observe tonight’s class if you will wait a moment.”

    “Actually I was wondering if you could answer some questions,” Nadia said, phrasing every word delicately. “Is it an actual fighting art or—”

    Valery cut her off. “Or just for show? You are thinking this is a game for children, yes? Or a social club for the bored young lady, that her bottom does not grow too large?”

    Nadia clicked her mouth shut. “Yes, something like that, I suppose.”

    Valery flashed her a look that would be disdain, but for the utter indifference in it. “La Garrud is not for such ladies.”

    “Are you saying it’s not for me?”

    “Do you wish to learn to defend yourself?”

    Sort of.

    “Yes,” Nadia said. “I don’t care about trophies or rules or getting in shape. I just need…I want to learn how to fight. A bit. Enough to defend myself if someone comes after me.”

    Something changed in the woman’s eyes. “Watch, then,” she said, nodding toward the studio floor. Ballet practice was over. Some of the dancers scurried off to a changing room, replaced by a few women in plain gym clothes. Most of the dancers stayed. “La Garrud has roots in the suffrage of old England,” she explained. “Today it draws from many things: jiu jitsu, savate, krav maga.”

    The women were warming up, stretching, all quiet and calm. It looked like they were about to break out into lethal yoga at any second.

    “The only central tenet of La Garrud is to use what is most effective,” Valery said.

    A man emerged from the changing room, large and imposing, covered from head to toe in bright-red foam armor.

    “Wow, the only guy here,” Tess said, scurrying up next to Nadia. “Way to ruin the vibe, dude.”

    “Shh,” Nadia said, not even blinking.

    The women lined up. The man in armor stood before them. A younger instructor barked something in a language Nadia didn’t recognize. The woman at the front of the line—a middle-aged blonde wearing a leotard—stepped forward.

    She looked so calm standing there, perfectly normal. No kung fu stance, no bunched fists. Just a regular woman.

    The armored man was nearly twice the blonde’s size. When he moved, Nadia gasped—it was real, full force and speed. He darted forward and threw a punch that should have knocked the woman across the room.

    It didn’t. She did something—she dodged the punch, and then she was on him, looping a leg around his arm, then sitting on his shoulder, then using her weight and her hips to throw him to the ground, her hand pinning his face firmly to the floor.

    The whole thing took less than a second.

    “Holy shit,” Tess said, slapping her hands over her mouth. “Oh…sorry.”

    “What…just happened?” Nadia said.

    “The woman is, in general, smaller than the man,” Valery said. “Frailer.”

    “Uh, that’s not, you know, actually the case,” Tess chimed in. “I mean…ow, ow, ow!”

    Nadia stopped stomping on Tess’s foot. “How did she do that?”

    The next woman in line stepped up. This one flipped the man clear through the air then slammed him to the floor with a ferocity Nadia found herself deeply, deeply envious of.

    “How did she do that?” Nadia asked, no longer trying to hide her excitement.

    “A female must use her natural advantages,” Valery said. “Agility, flexibility, cunning. Use the man’s brute strength against him.”

    A teenage girl stopped the man’s punch with a rough block and swooped his legs out from underneath him, toppling him with a brutal strike to the throat.

    “Mmm.” Valery frowned. She nodded at a younger female instructor, who took the student aside. Something about the block had displeased them, it would seem.

    A minute later, another student stepped up. An intricate takedown, a high swooping kick leading into a chokehold. It was lightning quick. It was graceful.

    Above all, it was gorgeous to watch.

    There was no question in Nadia’s mind, no hesitation.

    “I would like private lessons,” she asked. “From you, if possible.”

    That earned her a raised eyebrow. “This is…irregular.”

    “Whenever you are available, as often as you are available.”

    “Surely you are a bit overeager, yes?”

    “Cost is no object,” Nadia said, scowling as Tess mouthed the words in perfect unison, shaking her head.

    “Ah.” That seemed to put her at ease. “Very well then, Miss…?”


    “Tomorrow morning then,” Valery said.

    They shook hands, and Nadia knew she was making the right choice. Valery’s hands were like smooth steel, her handshake brusque and firm.

    Nadia would have demanded nothing less.

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