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datatime: 2022-10-06 11:36:11 Author:jMlzrmir

"My name is Hood," said the tall man with no face. "I advise."

He shrugged. "Something like that. You need every advantage you can get in the Arena. The regeneration device can work miracles, but you have to live long enough to reach it."

"No," said the hog. "It doesn't." Its voice was deep and harsh and seemed to echo on in Finlay's bones. "There are always spies and traitors, seeking to destroy us from within."

"No," said the hog. "It doesn't." Its voice was deep and harsh and seemed to echo on in Finlay's bones. "There are always spies and traitors, seeking to destroy us from within."

She nodded briefly, because she didn't trust herself to speak, and led the way into the elevator. The doors slid silently shut behind them, and Evangeline hit the down button with her fist. The elevator began its descent, and for the first time Evangeline relaxed a little. They were committed now.

"I'm Finlay Campbell, or I was. Not really entitled to the name anymore, I suppose. Are you part of the underground, too?"

She still didn't look round, but her hand was in just the right place to receive his when he reached out to her.

Finlay didn't blame them. A waterfall splashed down from high above, gurgling and splashing. An abstract pattern folded in upon itself endlessly. A giant hog with bloodstained tusks glared at him with tiny crimson eyes. And a ten-foot woman wrapped in shimmering light looked down on him with cold disinterest. Evangeline had warned him that the leaders hid their true identities behind illusions for security reasons, but he hadn't expected them to seem so... real. He swallowed hard, and held his head high.

Finlay looked around the meeting place with interest. An abandoned workstation by the look of it, bristling with half-repaired, obsolete equipment. Dangling cables hung from the high ceiling, and battered viewscreens lined the walls, hissing with static. Evangeline had said he'd be meeting the esper leaders here, so that they could check him out, but as yet there was no sign of them. There was no sign of anyone, and Finlay didn't blame them in the least. The place was a dump, and filthy beyond belief. He had a strong suspicion he was in danger of catching something unpleasant just by being there. If this was typical of the subsystems, he'd have to think twice about staying. There were limits, after all.

"What about your honor and your Family? We could have just left and let Robert and his people fight their way into the tower, but you couldn't allow that. You'd rather make a deal with the father you detest than let armed men from another Clan run loose in your Family home. It would have been wrong, and you knew that. Please, love, don't let's argue anymore. Let's just go. There's nothing keeping us here now."

"Very. Can your cousin handle a little pressure?"

"No," said the hog. "It doesn't." Its voice was deep and harsh and seemed to echo on in Finlay's bones. "There are always spies and traitors, seeking to destroy us from within."

And then the esper leaders appeared suddenly in the chamber before him, and for a moment his poise vanished as he stared with open eyes and mouth. He realized he was gaping, and pulled himself together. He had a strong feeling a good first impression was going to be important. Remember the code of the aristocracy: dignity at all times. He hoped no one had noticed his lapse.

"I don't know if I am going back. You're going to need me in your new life with the underground. And dear Daddy can go to hell. I would have disappeared into the subsystems long ago, if it hadn't been for you. And if I hadn't been such a useful contact for the underground. I think that part of my life is over now. Whatever happens from now on, we'll be together. And that's all that really matters."

"No," said the hog. "It doesn't." Its voice was deep and harsh and seemed to echo on in Finlay's bones. "There are always spies and traitors, seeking to destroy us from within."

He shrugged. "Something like that. You need every advantage you can get in the Arena. The regeneration device can work miracles, but you have to live long enough to reach it."

Evangeline looked at him. "Another implant?"

"My name is Hood," said the tall man with no face. "I advise."

"I don't know if I am going back. You're going to need me in your new life with the underground. And dear Daddy can go to hell. I would have disappeared into the subsystems long ago, if it hadn't been for you. And if I hadn't been such a useful contact for the underground. I think that part of my life is over now. Whatever happens from now on, we'll be together. And that's all that really matters."

"I'm Finlay Campbell, or I was. Not really entitled to the name anymore, I suppose. Are you part of the underground, too?"

"There's a place along the way where we can get fresh clothes," she said, looking straight ahead at the closed doors. "Neither of us are in any state to meet people. Are you badly hurt anywhere? There'll be first aid stuff there, but that's all."

He shrugged. "Something like that. You need every advantage you can get in the Arena. The regeneration device can work miracles, but you have to live long enough to reach it."

"Shut up, Finlay," Evangeline said quietly, forcefully. "You're here under sufferance. The underground has no use for the Families. They've seen too many good men and women killed by the powers that be for daring to struggle to be free. The only reason you weren't shot on sight was because you were with me. And they're not always that happy about me. Now be quiet, and let me try and put in a good word for both of us."

She still didn't look round, but her hand was in just the right place to receive his when he reached out to her.

"I'm fine," said Finlay. "I heal quickly."

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