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Lorena's Evolution

(6,700 words)

Author's Note: This story is actually a sequel to "Lorena's Mission," which I changed half-way through and haven't finished writing yet. LOL!

The limosine that picked her up from the San Jose airport drove recklessly through the winding California foothills in the waning daylight. Lorena smoothed her shimmering black evening gown and fingered the diamonds at her throat. She pressed a hidden touch sensor and in response, a voice murmured in Chinese from the discreet earpiece hidden by her oversized diamond earrings. "We hear you loud and clear, Dream. Visual also coming in clear."

Lorena Fong, undercover agent for the Ziang--a covert group of the Hong Kong Secret Intelligence Service--leaned back against the leather seat. In her isolated life before joining the Ziang, she had always depended solely upon her own skills, intelligence and luck. But now, hearing her partner's voice, it comforted her--with an novel but strangely welcome weight against her heart--to be reminded that she wasn't going in alone.

She looked out the car window and watched the rolling hills swallow the setting sun. Brightly lit, palatial homes dotted the skyline like diamonds on a necklace--the exclusive neighborhood of the Silicon Valley upper crust. Awaiting her at her destination was a house filled with wealthy investors gathered at the request of Avram Nikolas, a middleman for a highly secretive organization dealing in stem cell therapy.

The Ziang weren't after Nikolas. They were after his bosses.

Lorena blinked as the dark shadows of the foothills were suddenly chased away by blazing lights from the newly-built mansion. Ionic columns flanked the double-doors, and diamond-paned windows dazzled like lighthouse beacons. As she exited the car, the doors swung open and a footman ushered her inside.

A butler removed her mink coat while another footman offered champagne on a silver tray. Waving away the crystal flute, Lorena scanned the marbled entry hall, lined with priceless ancient busts and washed with light from the radiant chandelier overhead. She moved quickly, purposefully toward the open doors to her left.

Only a dozen or so men and women wandered about, sipping champagne, studying the luxurious drawing room, participating in desultory chatter. Obviously, no one was here for social purposes. Lorena recognized all of them from photos in her prep packet. An international crowd, from nearly every continent.

And then Avram Nikolas entered the room with a dashing flick of his wrists against the handles on the molded double doors. A tall young man, impeccably dressed, with a pleasant smile and shrewd eyes. "Welcome, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for joining me tonight. Before we begin, may I offer you anything else?"

Impatient negative responses, in several languages. Nikolas nodded graciously. "Then let me start with a tour of the house."

Curious, frustrated glances gave way to enlightened surprise as he crossed to the far end of the room and opened another set of double doors. Scattered about a second drawing room were women of every ethnicity, all in various stages of pregnancy.

Lorena's jaw clenched. This was a complication. She hadn't known Nikolas kept the women on the premises.

"These are the foundations upon which our business venture is built," Nikolas announced proudly, gathering a buxom redhead in his arm. The girl smiled at the investors, her other hand smoothing the silky dress draped over her protruding belly. Nikolas tenderly relinquished her to a chair before turning to his audience.

"My superiors founded Salvador Foundation to provide alternatives to life-threatening illnesses and injuries that would not normally be available. They are committed to saving lives and improving quality of life."

Lorena smiled amicably and bit her tongue to keep from retching. Salvador paid these women to be impregnated by in vitro fertilization. Each fetus was scheduled for a specific stage of abortion, for use in stem cell therapy of very wealthy clients suffering from various diseases. Mothers and sperm were paired by specific client needs and ethnicity, and both fathers' and mothers' family histories were meticulously screened for genetic diseases before being accepted into the program. Some fetuses would be used in research at Salvador's South San Francisco biotech company, a false-front corporation supposedly doing umbilical cord blood research.

"Saving lives." "Improving quality of life." They were a baby factory, creating and killing specifically for clients wealthy enough to pay for fetus cells that might reverse their Alheimer's progression, that might repair their autoimmune systems. Salvador was playing God. Performing illegal surgeries and cell therapy procedures, using babies conceived and aborted only for their cells, body parts and organs. Making money off of human harvesting.

Nikolas had invited them here to accept bids for investment. Their business was already lucrative, but Salvador desired expansion.

Nikolas continued his selling pitch, enhanced by a dramatic Powerpoint presentation that appeared from hidden projectors in the walls and discreetly lowered screens. Lorena glanced around at the expectant mothers, dressed in elegant gowns, but many showing signs of fatigue. Most became pregant as soon as possible after the last abortion.

She closed her eyes, remembering another room, in a white, sterile facility, hidden from the eyes of the world. Filled with pregnant women, stolen from the streets of Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan. Impregnated with test-tube babies not their own. Most of the children born would be killed by their 5th year, due to failure at rigorous physical tests, intelligence tests…

Nikolas was concluding the presentation. Lorena touched her necklace again. "All info received, Dream," the voice hummed in her ear.

And then suddenly the lights went out.

Several women screamed in surprise. The man standing next to Lorena dropped his drink; she felt the fizzing champagne sprinkle her arm, drip down her elbow. Heads swiveled in confusion. Mandarin tattooed in her ear. "Dream! What happened?"

Lorena's eyes adjusted to the dimness, aided by the sliver of moon shining through the ceiling-to-wall windows and French doors that formed one entire wall of the drawing room, unhampered by drapes or sheers. In the distance, the lights of a neighboring house glinted like stars against the darkened hills. Then abruptly, those lights went out too.

A red dot appeared and danced upon the white shirt of the man next to her. Glass cracked with a grating splinter of sound and a soft "Oomph!" rushed from his lips as he recoiled and fell.

Lorena dropped, cursing the uncovered windows. The only protection was the furniture scattered around the room. A woman saw the man fall, and she let out a horrified shriek as she turned and stumbled toward the double doors--which she would never reach.

Another wink of flirtatiously dancing red light. Another pop of cracking glass. Another body on the floor.

Amid more screams and cries, Nikolas hit the ground near Lorena. "What do they want?!" he gasped. She searched his eyes, inches away from her face. Terror stared back at her. She turned away and crawled toward a long sofa.

Other bodies crowded in the lee of the hulking overstuffed divan. Babbling voices sobbed in the background. More scattered shots whizzed overhead. Her Ziang contact screamed through her earpiece, "Dream! Report!"

Lorena scrabbled toward the far side of the room, crawling under a delicate Chippendale table. She ripped her skirt off to reveal the skintight pantsuit she had worn under her evening dress. "Shots fired," she reported. "Snipers in the neighboring house. Possibly with night vision. They have us trapped in the second drawing room."

"Where are you?"

"Under a table against the north wall."

"Along that wall is a baize door next to a hanging tapestry. It leads to the servants' hallways. It should be screened by a table and lamp."

"See it."

She dove for the baize door as a round of shots pierced the windows and felled a few hysterical women running toward the double doors at the other end of the room. She pried the baize door open a faint crack, and slid through like an eel.

"Dream, we're sending in a team."

"No, stall if you can. We don’t know who or what they want. They don't know I'm here; I'm going to try to get to the neighboring house."

"Don't be stupid. We spent months creating your cover--"

"We need Nikolas, but this is unexpected. There's more involved here than just Salvador."

"It's suicide. You don't know how many--"

"I'm not an ordinary agent," she reminded him, her voice neutral, without arrogance and without rancor.

She heard a sound like nails on a blackboard--his teeth grinding--but no verbal response.

Abnormal. She felt a fist of lead settle in her stomach as she scooted down dark corridors, remembering her way from the diagrams given in her ops prep. She shoved aside the feelings of grim solitude that settled around her. She had to focus. But the roomful of women had triggered memories she only saw in her nightmares--memories she normally suppressed during her waking hours.

Lorena had not grown up as a normal child--she had been grown, in a private facility in the South Seas. For twenty-five years, Dr. Einar Garrick had run the Facility, where his geneticist cohort Dr. Oswald Herric impregnated unwilling mothers by in vitro fertilization, like a gardener breeding prize roses. Each child was selectively conceived from sperm and ova bought or stolen from athletic, intelligent men and women.

Lorena's father had been a martial arts instructor from Hong Kong, and was paid handsomely for his sperm sample. Lorena's mother had been a mathematics professor in Barcelona, but had not been so amenable. So she had been kidnapped and held for several weeks so Herric could hyper-stimulate follicle maturation, and surgically remove her oocytes. She had been dumped in front of her father's villa, and died three days later.

Herric mixed and matched his huge library of sperm and ova samples. Only a small percentage of the resultant children passed the rigorous tests for above-average athletic ability and intelligence. They had been highly educated, and trained in martial arts and weaponry.

Assassins to be sold to the highest bidder.

Lorena had learned to survive. In the Facility, an environment without moral values, and only enforced discipline to keep order, some kids were mean and nasty characters, others submissive, or loners like Lorena. There was no kindness among them, since they could not learn it from each other. They obeyed only so they wouldn't be punished or killed.

And then there were the surgeries…

Lorena blinked; she'd reached the end of the corridor. Stupid, pay attention! She eased open the back servants' entrance door. She knew there were enough trees and ornamental landscaping to cover her as she snuck to the neighbor's house…


Lorena reached the opposite property without incident--awkward in her heeled shoes, but unable to lose them because of the rocky terrain. Orange and tangerine trees decorated the lawn in artful clusters, allowing easy access to a stone patio ringed by a balustrade, dotted with urns of flowers. She reached a pair of French doors only partially obscured by velvet drapes. Through the crack between the fabric she saw a fireplace, heavy leather furniture, and bookshelves--a library.

The house lay still and dark, as if the owners had gone to bed after a tiring night of revelry. Lorena pressed her ear to a pane of glass, listening, willing her body to feel for movement. Satisfied, she put her fist through the pane.

Unlocking the doors, she slipped inside. And tripped over the body.

An older man, wrapped in his paisley smoking jacket and the lingering smell of a fine, aged cigar. A bullet hole neatly between winged grey brows.

Lorena heard a muffled pop. Upstairs, on the other side of the house.

She discarded her heeled sandals and crept out of the door standing ajar into a paneled oak hallway. She now heard voices--a low, conversational tone--from the far end. Eavesdropping would be more useful than bringing down a sniper. She headed down the corridor, stopping to kneel beside a bronze-handled door.

They spoke in French. A low, gravelly voice muttered, "When? I'm getting antsy."

A lighter, younger voice replied, "Not long. They think they saw movement on the grounds."

Lorena froze. Alarm bells clamored in her head. Her heart started to pound faster, rushing the blood to her ears in a roar. She willed her lungs to breathe evenly, if not calmly. She eased back from the door--

--into the point of a gun barrel.

"Welcome. We've been waiting for you," a familiar female voice purred.

Lorena rose slowly, hands above her head. That voice belonged to a face she ripped to shreds with her bare fingers in her most vivid nightmares.

Dr. Yinghui Li prodded the gun point between her shoulder blades. "Lorena, you--like the others--are too predictable."

Lorena took a deep breath, trying to loosen the hatred squeezing her heart tight. She had to focus her ki. She only had one chance...

She suddenly pivoted 45 degrees, a split second before Yinghui reacted and pulled the trigger. Lorena felt a searing burn against her back where it brushed the side of the gun barrel, but the bullet lodged in the wall rather than in her spine. She didn't pause--she continued her pivot another 180 degrees, bringing her raised arms down sharply in a swooping movement. Her hand knocked the gun out of Yinghui's hand, and Lorena grasped Yinghui's forearm, shoving it down, then pulling it up and backward to tip Yinghui onto her heels.

Lorena jabbed her left elbow into Yinghui's eye socket. The woman crumpled just as men rushed from various doors in the corridor.

A low sweep kick toppled the first two. She rose in a spinning high side kick that connected with another man's temple. As her foot touched ground, the other came up in an arc that smashed into a man's ribcage. Lorena felt bones break.

She heard a gunshot whistle past her to slice through the cheek of the man she had just hit. Keep moving, don't present a target...

She brushed aside a rushing attacker with a flick of her wrists on his forearms and a neat sidestep. Her elbow smashed into the jaw of the man behind him. More bones crunching.

A sharp back kick sent the gunman slamming into the wall. A giant of a man stepped in with fist raised, but she unleashed a swift roundhouse kick that slammed into his cheek. She sent two lightning right jabs to his stomach and head, and he dropped hard to the floor.

Luckily she kept moving fast--another shot from behind her sailed under her raised arm just past her ribcage. She sent a low sharp back kick into his knee. It collapsed as he howled, the sound ringing down the corridor to the beat of feet pounding down the stairs.

Lorena leaped over her attackers' incapacitated heaps as she ran into a wide panelled entry hall. The granite floor chilled her bare feet as she faced the three men tripping down the steps, fumbling for their weapons.

Before they reached the foyer, she ran an aggressive barrelling shoulder attack into the first man's knees, sending him head over heels. She heard the sound of splintering bone.

She leaped backward from the wooden steps to avoid swish! of the next man's knife blade arcing through the air. She twisted in a sudden spinning kick into his chest. The third man had jumped down the remaining stairs and now lunged in a sweeping roundhouse punch. She backflipped out of the way, but a knuckle lightly grazed her cheek.

As she righted herself, another attacker from the hallway surprised her with a sudden rush at her. Without time to think, she raised her right fist, then sent an arrow-straight punch into his face.

It was as if a lead pipe slammed end-first into him. His head cracked back with the sounds of vertebraes popping.

The remaining attackers halted, facial expressions registering amazement, confusion…fear. The blow had sounded like metal hitting bone.

Lorena couldn't take her eyes from the downed attacker, and she paused too long. She heard guns cocked.

She was used to the abnormal effect of her right punches, but for the first time she felt a strange ache in her chest, and her jaw clenched. Staring at the young man, flat on his back at her feet, she saw the terror and pain in his glazed eyes, the soundless gaping of his mouth, the unexpected tear trickling down his cheek. He was paralyzed from the neck down.

Her fist tightened. She reminded herself that it wasn't her fault. She remembered the months of agonizing physical therapy and muscle building, the constant bone-deep pain in her shoulder and elbow and hand, the nauseating effect of the analgesics she would take for the rest of her life.

It wasn't her fault. It was the fault of the woman emerging from the depths of the corridor.

Dr. Yinghui Li, brilliant and beautiful arthroscopic surgeon, had enthusiastically joined Dr. Garrick for the chance to perform her notorious surgeries on Garrick's assassins. She replaced the bones of their right arms and shoulders with bones fashioned of Garrick's experimental metal alloy. Of the five men and five women she experimented on, only four men and one woman survived past the infections and immunological rejection.

"Lorena. Still bringing down the house with a single punch." Yinghui's smile glittered with malice, as if promising Lorena she would pay dearly for her swollen eye.

Lorena answered her with silence. Yinghui held the pistol trained on her.

"Upstairs," Yinghui ordered. Lorena complied.

The bedroom they shoved her into boasted two occupants: a tall, dark man with a ferret face and bright brown eyes, and a tall woman with straight blond hair and a nose that had once been broken.

The man she recognized as Michelle du Lac, a captain in Zed-ought-six, a wealthy, secretive terrorist organization with various international backers. But her eyes flickered over the woman with unease. There was something eerily familiar about her, but for once Lorena's memory failed her.

A gurney, propped and stabilized in an upright position, had been set up with special reinforced restraints…especially along the right side.

They hadn't been after Salvador, or Avram Nikolas. They'd somehow found out--probably a mole within the Ziang--that Lorena had been going undercover. They'd set up everything just for her.

Yinghui prodded her toward the gurney, and as she turned around, the doctor reached up to rip the necklace from her throat. Luckily the earrings were clips or she'd have happily ripped her earlobes with the earpieces. Lorena hoped the Ziang had gotten at least preliminary photos of Michelle and the woman.

Yinghui and du Lac strapped her into the gurney, then tightened the metal clasps with clicks of the individual levers. The shackles bit into Lorena's bunched muscles until she was forced to relax them. The clasps tightened further still, uncomfortably snug against her skin.

By the gleam in Yinghui's malevolent gaze, it was obvious she relished Lorena's helplessness. "It's been over a year, Lorena. How lovely to see you like this again."

The last time had been only days before Lorena had escaped Garrick's facility. Yinghui performed the routine physical and blood draw, jabbing and prodding and pulling with rough hands, trying to provoke a pained response, gleeful in her sadism. All during the physical, Lorena trained her with baleful eyes and a face set like marble. Yinghui retaliated by leaving her strapped on the exam table overnight.

Days later, Lorena fought her way through the guards toward the back exit door, and she imagined each man she brought down bore Yinghui's face.

That face now sat suspended before her in the flesh. Lorena spat.

Yinghui's jade-green eyes flashed, but the smile remained frozen in place as she wiped her cheek and brow. Lorena ignored the smile. Yinghui had always loved getting a response.

"My thanks to you, Dr. Li," du Lac interjected. Yinghui leisurely rotated around to face him, and Lorena shifted her gaze to the man's feral one, which was fixed somehow…possessively on her.

Stepping around Yinghui, du Lac stood before Lorena with hands loosely clasped at his ample waist. His odd, V-shaped smile beamed down on her with benevolance. Confused, Lorena remained silent and impassive.

With a sidelong look at him, Yinghui murmured, "I'll be back," before striding briskly from the room.

"Let's talk business," he opened. If he expected a response, Lorena disappointed him. His smile gleamed. "How much do they pay you?"

She was silent now in bewilderment. Perhaps the rumors of du Lac's mental instability were true…

"I will triple it," he announced in a voice of triumph. Lorena felt she should applaud.

When he still elicited only silence, du Lac's brow creased in irritation. "Name your price," he insisted. "I will meet it. I eagerly anticipate adding another genetically-selected assassin in my organization."

It took all her willpower to keep her face from reacting in shock, to keep her eyes from sliding to the woman standing silently behind him. Amina Chan. A year younger than Lorena, she had been with her "in there," at the Facility. Amina had straightened her luxurious auburn curls--inherited from an unknown mother--and dyed them blonde, and her broken nose changed her face dramatically.

Du Lac was offering Lorena a position as another paid assassin in Zed-ought-six.

Lorena's head whirled. Had Yinghui tipped off du Lac solely so he could hire her for his organization? Perhaps he thought so, but that wasn't the Yinghui she knew.

And Yinghui had completely ignored Amina. That was also unlike her. Yinghui never lost a chance to belittle the assassins with the physical prowess she fervently desired but lacked--she had become a brilliant surgeon as if to make up for her ambivalent health and the pacemaker in her weak heart.

Unless…Yinghui didn't recognize Amina.

Or Amina was secretly working for Yinghui.

Du Lac brought Lorena's thoughts back to his offer with an exasperated huff. "Speak!" he demanded. "Any price you name! It shall be done."

Muffled gunshots peppered his words. His head swiveled to the closed door. With a jab of his sharp chin, he ordered Amina out of the room to investigate downstairs.

"You fear retaliation?" he continued their one-sided conversation. "Zed-ought-six will ensure your safety. The Ziang will never be able to find you, much less arrest you."

Lorena finally spoke. "Does Yinghui know Amina is an assassin?"

Her question obviously surprised him, but he answered readily enough. "An assassin like yourself? Ah…no. Dr. Li did not seem to recognize her, so we did not think it necessary to enlighten the good surgeon. After all, there are so few of you--it would not seem fair to her other clients if it seemed she was playing favorites, no? But we are paying her quite well for her information and assistance."

Several assassins from the Facility had already been sold to Garrick's wealthy clients, and they apparently served their employers well--considering the astronomical salaries required to keep their loyalties. But Lorena couldn't imagine any of her fellow assassins willing to give up the chance to rip Yinghui's throat out at first sight. Amina must be employed by Zed-ought-six, but secretly working for the doctor, then. Obedience was guaranteed--Yinghui's standard procedure was to surgically implant a tiny device at the base of the neck that she could trigger to explode and sever the spinal cord.

The door suddenly whipped open with a cracking bang! against the wall. Du Lac's startled glance toward the sound was his last as Yinghui sent a bullet between his eyes.

Warm blood sprayed Lorena's face, and she smelled the metallic tang in her nostrils. Du Lac toppled like a tree at her feet.

Yinghui still wore her feral smile. Through the open doorway, fainter gunshots were heard at sporatic intervals. Yinghui ignored the battle downstairs as she approached Lorena with crisp steps, her eyes doing a visual check on the restraints.

She knelt to tighten and double-check the shackles and straps. Conversationally, she mentioned, "Dr. Tong will be happy to see you again. After all, he never got the DNA sample he wanted when he captured you last time."

A year after escaping and being rescued by the Ziang, Lorena had infiltrated the Facility again to rescue a mafia lord's daughter who had been mistakenly kidnapped for the experiments. Captured, she'd discovered that all the assassins had been moved to a new location, but she had managed to escape her carelessly tied restraints and force Garrick and his new geneticist cohort Dr. James Tong to also evacuate the premises for the new location.

At mention of Tong's name, Lorena suddenly understood part of Yinghui's interest in recapturing her. "You need my DNA? Why?"

Yinghui's mouth pursed--as if she belated realized what she had revealed--but then uncurled into a dazzling smile. "Tong wants it for further study. I wanted you, darling, for more bone surgeries."

Yinghui had apparently intended to frighten her with more painful surgeries, but the barbed words instead gave her away. Lorena prodded slyly, "Now why would you need me when you have so many other younger assassins at the Facility?"

Yinghui's smile snuffed out like a candle. Annoyance and embarassment burned from her snapping eyes. Her nostrils flared and she gave a particularily vicious tug at a restraint. Lorena grunted, but smiled and chuckled. "You performed more surguries after I left, but no other woman has survived them, have they? Tong needs my DNA because you need to know why."

Yinghui suddenly shoved her face close to Lorena, her jade eyes burning into hers. Lorena felt the woman's warm spittle splash her face as she hissed, "I might change my mind and just take the sample."

Lorena laughed.

Yinghui's backhanded blow would have hurt from a stronger woman. Lorena felt the sting on her cheek but retained her smile. "You need a laboratory-quality sample, and you haven't the equipment here to do that. And the Ziang is on their way even as we speak."

But at Lorena's words, Yinghui suddenly relaxed. The small, bony shoulders rose and fell in a deep, chesty sigh. "Ah, yes, the Ziang. I've already thought of that. Where's your necklace?" She whirled to search for the surveillance piece she had taken from Lorena and thrown onto a sofa. Returning to Lorena's line of sight with the necklace in her delicate hands, Yinghui spoke clearly into the large pendant centerpiece.

"I have a bomb planted in the home of Avram Nikolas. It is triggered by a remote detonator linked to my new heart pacemaker. If my heart stops beating for any reason, the bomb will go off and Nikolas will not be giving you any information on his Salvador bosses. You will allow me to escape with Lorena Fong, without incident. There is no negotiation."

The necklace clattered to the floor and Yinghui threw Lorena a brilliant smile. "Wait here, darling, while we clean up the rest of du Lac's crew." She exited the room, closing the door behind her.

Lorena strained frantically, wildly, violently against the bonds. She began to feel warm blood smeared down her arms. Good--if she could get enough lubrication, she might be able to rotate her wrist and rip that leather strap loose…

The door creaked.

Lorena watched as a blond head eased around the edge, scanning the room with darting eyes, followed by the rest of her body slipping inside. Amina shut the door and advanced on the gurney.

Growing up in the Facility, the assassins hadn't been friends, any of them. But Lorena remembered Amina--a year younger, and half-Chinese as Lorena was. Taller than Lorena but with a slighter frame, Amina was whipcord fast but not as strong. She had never been selected for Yinghui's surgeries.

Lorena watched her approach with wary eyes, but couldn't control her start of surprise when Amina began to undo the bonds.

Lorena only needed her right arm free. As the leather strap fell away, her hand snapped up and clamped around Amina's throat.

Amina met her gaze with eyes that were unsurprised…and unafraid. "You need my help, Lorena."

"Like I need a kick in the pants."

"I'm undercover for MI6."

"Try again. Garrick never sold anyone to MI6."

"Four of us escaped, after you did. We overtook the guards and fought our way out. We were rescued by a fishing boat, and we sought amnesty in the British embassy in Singapore."

"That's highly convenient, don't you think? Convenient that you 'escaped' from Garrick, but that the incident isn't in the records captured from the Facility. Convenient that you turn out to be a double agent in a group who 'happened' to be tipped off by Yinghui as to my presence here. Convenient that you get away just as Yinghui's agents start to kill off du Lac's gang. Convenient that Yinghui leaves me alone. What's your real agenda? Or rather, what's Yinghui's real agenda?"

Lorena felt Amina swallow under her steady choking grip. The metal alloy bones in her hand would snap her neck with very little effort, but Amina's eyes were still calm.

"Think logically, Lorena. Of all of us, your surgical advantage makes you the strongest woman. You could kill me in seconds--why would I make myself vulnerable to you if I’m working for Zed-ought-six? Or especially for Yinghui? Each of us are valuable pieces of flesh--selected from hundreds of babies, and aged to a 'useful maturity', in contrast to all the children she still has at the Facility. She wouldn't risk me that way.

"You have to trust me, Lorena."

She made sense but Lorena's grip tightened. Suddenly, she felt a fluttering in her chest, a nausea in her stomach, a shaking in her hands that she tried to hide from Amina. She felt as though she were exposed and defenseless in a barren, unknown place. She hadn't felt fear often in her life--strange that she should start to feel it now, at this moment, facing this type of choice.

Lorena took a deep breath and set her jaw. "I trust no one. None of us did. In there, you died if you trusted anyone."

Amina's eyes then gleamed with an emotion Lorena had never seen before. It surprised her, and frightened her because it was so unfamiliar.

"Life is different out here." Amina spoke each word slowly, as if savoring them. "You don't have to be alone anymore. In there, everything was familiar, but the familiar isn't family."

Family? Lorena didn't know what the word meant.

No, that wasn't true--she did have a shred of a memory: She was very young. She had passed the last of the athleticism tests, and was walking through the medical room where the pregnant women gathered for their physicals.

One dark Malaysian woman saw her. The woman's eyes followed her until Lorena passed close by her bed. The woman reached out a tender hand--a whisper-soft, fleeting touch on Lorena's head--and then withdrew. She had never been touched that way before.

Lorena's thoughts returned to the present, and she was discomfited by Amina's knowing look. "We have a chance for a family out here," Amina continued. "It's what I wanted all my life and didn't realize it…You probably want it too."

Lorena's mouth went dry. She swallowed; Amina's eyes flickered on the movement of her throat. She pinned Lorena with a fierce gaze as she told her, "But you have to learn how to trust. So start with trusting me."

Trust? The word was as foreign to her mind as to her mouth. She never trusted anyone. In the Ziang, she trusted her partners because there were consequences ensuring their support. She never acted without a safety net. She had no one close enough to her, no one she needed to trust.

A spurt of anger rushed from her stomach to burn around her heart. Who was she to tell her these things? Lorena had escaped alone. She would always be alone.

"You're full of it," Lorena spat. "Spouting family to me while your group dies downstairs and Yinghui plans to start experiments again."

"I'm not just 'spouting' family. You know exactly what I'm talking about. You need to trust me."

"I can kill Yinghui myself."

"But there's a bomb planted in that house. Yinghui convinced du Lac it was insurance--but I figured it was to allow her to get you away without interference. You can't save Nikolas and the women in the mansion, too."

Lorena was about to demand why she should care…but the words wouldn't leave her mouth. The Ziang desperately needed Nikolas--and she felt a strange loyalty, a desire for this mission to succeed. The drawing room full of elegantly dressed pregnant women seemed to meld with the sterile medical room of pregnant women lying on rows of cots. Where she had once been alone, now there were nameless shadows behind her, dependent upon her.

She tried to shake the disturbing feelings away, to find once again that quiet, cold place she knew. I owe nothing to the Ziang. And the women at the Facility had been kidnapped, forced to bear those babies…The women at the mansion are paid handsomely...

Amina's shrewd eyes studied her face. "You've started to learn how to care, haven't you? You can't let all those women die, and you can't let the Ziang's only intel source die, either. You can't do your job unless you learn to trust."

The truth was, Lorena had experienced new, frightening, alien feelings ever since she escaped. Like cracks in her frozen heart, as it slowly thawed. She tried to stop up the cracks, hold herself together, hold onto who she had always been before. But maybe she needed her heart to thaw. Maybe she needed the ice to become flowing like water.

"You're not in there anymore. It's time to evolve, Lorena."

Lorena's fingers slowly detached from Amina's throat.

Amina made swift work of the rest of the restraints. Lorena shook her foot as painful prickles washed over her leg in waves. She reached down and grabbed her diamond necklace. "Toss me the earrings.

"This is Dream."

"Dream, we just received official confirmation that Amina Chan is an MI6 agent."

They had gotten the picture before Yinghui ripped the necklace away. They'd apparently ID'd the photo and contacted Great Britain while she was incommunicado.

"Dream, bomb squad on it's way to the house. ETA 3 minutes."

Bomb squad…but a part of Lorena strained against her duty--What about Yinghui? She couldn't let her escape. She was so close. She could almost feel her fingers crushing the breath from Yinghui's throat…


Lorena took a deep, heaving breath. The only reason she'd be after Yinghui was vengeance. The women at the house--and the Ziang--needed her more.

Vengeance? Or what was right? She'd never had to make a decision like this before.

Time to evolve, Lorena.

"Amina, the detonator is linked to Yinghui's pacemaker. Be careful when you capture her. I'm after the bomb."


The bomb squad found the bomb easily. But two agents were downed by gunfire as they attempted to breach the mansion's dining room.

"Don't shoot! Don't shoot!" Orders in Chinese overlapped each other as screams filled the echoing room. Screams from Avram Nikolas.

A man in evening dress stood barricaded behind the upended dining table--one of Yinghui's agents, undercover among the investors. Beside him, his right arm shackled to the explosive device, Nikolas stood quivering like Jell-O.

"Don't shoot! You might hit Nikolas!"

Lorena shoved her pistol into her waistband, shoved away from the wall she crouched against, and raced toward the kitchen at the back of the house. She remembered the blueprints had shown a discreet side door and corridor for carrying trays of food to and from the dining room.

She kicked off the boots the bomb squad had given to her, then slipped soundlessly into the deserted kitchen, through a dark open doorway. The corridor was short and narrow, with smooth wooden floors additionally muffled by a thick carpet runner, and a swinging door at the end.

She cracked the door open with aching slowness and peered through the sliver of light. Yinghui's agent had set his back to a corner of the dining room with the bomb, away from the windows and facing both the main double doors and Lorena's kitchen door. But at the moment, the confusion milling around the open double doors captured his attention.

While Nikolas stood against the wall, Yinghui's agent crouched behind the upended dining table, which covered him almost completely. The Ziang agents took a few careful shots. Lorena waited for him to present a target, any target…

His hand crept over the edge to fire his gun, but Lorena fired first.

A small spray of blood spurted above the edge of the table as he snatched his hand back and disappeared behind the table. A clatter skittered along the far wall as his gun danced against the molding. "Don't shoot!" She warned the stunned Ziang agents of her presence as she swung the door open and approached his barricade. The last thing she needed was a zealous bullet in her head or Nikolas's.

The agent leaped out at her, knocking her gun aside and slamming his elbow in her face. Her head recoiled and she swayed backwards, but shot her leg out in a sharp side kick that found his side. But her balance was tipped; she landed face-down on the carpet, breaking her fall with her hands.

She rolled onto her side and snapped her leg out, catching him below the knee as he approached to attack. But he cocked his elbow and dropped it into her face as he fell beside her. Breathless and blind, she rolled way from him.

They reached their feet at the same time. She immediately moved in with a blurred combination jab to first his stomach, then a back fisted blow to his chin. Even though she used her enhanced right arm, her attack only stunned him; he took a single step back as she followed with a cross punch, but surprised her as his leg swung out in a kick that caught her side.

She saw the kick and managed to deflect part of it with her elbow clenched close to the side of her body, but the force of it sent her staggering sideways. She used her sideways momentum to move into a backspin roundhouse kick in a solid blow to his temple. His head bounced down.

Landing on her feet, she pressed her attack by raising her other leg in lightning-quick kicks to his chest, stomach, collarbone. Still on one leg, she sent a front high kick into his jaw.

He staggered, bending slightly at the waist. She sent a metal-alloy elbow into his forehead, a cross-jab into his stomach, then a right hammer blow to his shoulder. He fell to one knee, and Lorena sent her hardest punch to his temple. He finally crumpled.

Ziang agents moved in while Lorena caught her breath and rubbed a distracted hand over her cheek where his elbow had caught her. He'd been so strong--her right arm ached from the strength she'd needed to exert. She then vaulted over the table to where Nikolas stood.

Yinghui had planned well. The explosive had been built with a special shackle connecting Nikolas to the device. Yinghui had wanted a guarantee that Nikolas would die if she were killed trying to escape.

They hadn't the time to fiddle with the shackle. They needed to deactivate it before Yinghui either died or, alternatively, was able to detonate apart from her pacemaker. Anything was possible.

Lorena didn't feel a great deal of remorse as she swung a mighty roundhouse punch into Nikolas' temple.

She caught his dead weight as he collapsed, easing him to the ground so he wouldn't disturb the bomb. She sat him against the wall, slightly apart from the device with his arm suspended out, his hand resting gently on top of it.

Grimly, she ordered, "Get a medic and a hacksaw."


Once the medic rolled Nikolas away, with the stump of his right wrist swathed in bloody gauze, the bomb squad moved in. There was indeed a second remote detonator, probably for manual activation aside from the automatic signal that would have been sent by Yinghui's pacemaker, if it had failed.

Lorena met Amina on the lawn outside the open drawing room doors. Power had been restored, and the house blazed like a torch behind her. Amina limped toward her.

"What happened to your leg?"

"I captured Yinghui alive and kicking."

"You didn’t knock her out?"

"I was tempted, but didn't want to risk it until the bomb was defused."

Silence fell between them, awkward but not unfamiliar. Amina broke the silence with a sudden comment. "I'm married."

Lorena felt her mouth opening and closing, but no sound came out. Married? It was an entirely foreign concept to her. But it explained why Amina had pushed her so hard. And why she'd been so calm while doing it.

Amina smiled faintly. "He's MI6. At the British embassy, they didn't know what to make of us, and we were too frightened and distrustful to talk. He told me to trust him or die. And then, I suddenly and fully realized I was truly 'out here,' and I wasn't trapped 'in there' anymore."

Amina turned and walked away.

Time to evolve, Lorena.