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Valentine's Day

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Adelle was furious. Outwardly her stern expression was the only indication of her rage; inwardly she was cursing like a trooper and vowing bitter and bloody revenge.

She still wasn't sure how this had happened. The plan had been carefully orchestrated, that much was obvious; her guards all killed or otherwise incapacitated, electronic locks bypassed, security doors opened with ease. The cameras had been tampered with and it was too late for her to be proactive when Valentine Raye stormed into her office, gun pointed at her.

So she'd reacted; had reached for the panic button under her desk but Raye shot her desk lamp, the glass shade shattering into a million pieces, forestalling her movement. Calmly, Adelle had put both hands on her desk.

"Valentine. How nice to see you again."

He was tall and lean with bronze skin and a gold stud earring in his left earlobe. An Armani suit was practically his trademark and the breast pocket held a pair of designer glasses. His hair, jet black, was short and neat.

"Don't let's waste time with pleasantries," Valentine had said. "Come."

So now Adelle was seated with the rest of the dollhouse personnel. The actives and almost all of the handlers were visible. Most of the handlers were cuffed and sitting on the floor. The other staff, art teachers, masseurs, caterers, and so on, were corralled in one corner by a large burly guard with a semi-automatic.

The actives were distressed, both at this unprecedented interruption to their routine, and the violence that they'd witnessed. They were at least allowed to sit on the comfortable furniture, though this privilege seemed lost on them. Boyd was sat next to Echo, the only handler not on the floor. Dr Saunders was on a sofa to the right of Adelle, with one arm around a sobbing Tango. A bemused India was braiding her own hair.

A guard with a black eye was handcuffed to a low table. Mr Dominic, with a bruise on one cheek and a cut on his lower lip, glowered from his seat on a sofa to the left of Adelle. That Valentine had left two men guarding her security chief told her that Dominic hadn't gone down without a fight, at least.

Adelle shifted on the soft, low sofa, and tugged at her skirt hem. She had about six hours before the regular check in that was required by the head of a dollhouse; when she didn't answer the innocuous looking email that dropped into her inbox, the Center would be alerted and help would be dispatched.

Six hours was a long time.

She spotted a dead body – dressed all in black with a red insignia on one shoulder, just like the rest of Valentine's SWAT wannabes – and let a smile touch her lips.

Valentine caught her gaze and gestured with his weapon to Laurence Dominic. "His doing. I take it he is your head of security?"

"Maybe not for long," Adelle said evenly. "Letting the house be taken captive is not something he should have allowed to happen."

"It's not my fault," Dominic snapped. "They've got Juliet!"

"Juliet?" Adelle asked. Surely Dominic would have had no hesitation letting an active die if it meant protecting the house.

Valentine nodded. "Your Mr Early was kind enough to bring her to us."

Early was Juliet's handler; if he'd defected and joined up with Rossum's competitors then that was another matter entirely. An inside job, Adelle reflected. That would explain a few things.

At that moment Juliet herself entered the holding area, dressed in a combat uniform and wielding an Uzi.

"Sir," she addressed Valentine. "There's a problem."

Adelle spotted Ivy, her white coat visible among the other staff, but she still saw no sign of Topher. She was assuming he was the problem. Good. Let him be a pain in someone else's ass for a change. God knew he was brilliant, but sometimes Adelle could cheerfully strangle him – or at least enjoy the fantasy of doing so.

"The lab?" Valentine asked. "It is imperative we gain access."

Juliet pouted. "Rance would not allow me to open fire."

Valentine lifted an eyebrow. "Quite right. We need the lab intact and the technician alive."

Topher wouldn't like being called a technician, Adelle thought. Of course he insisted his job title was "Genius" so he was used to disappointment. Meanwhile, it was reassuring that Valentine wasn't here to destroy the technology, though she was duty bound to do everything in her power to prevent him from stealing it, up to and including destroying it herself..

"Juliet," Victor said plaintively. "Why are you doing this? We are your friends."

Juliet pointed her gun at him. "Quiet!"

Sierra, huddled close to Victor, gave a shriek and Victor quickly reached for her, cradling her head against his shoulder and holding one of her hands in his. He lowered his gaze and, satisfied, Juliet began to pace, weapon at the ready.

"I want to go swimming," Mike said miserably.

"I know," Adelle said. "Maybe later."

Valentine grinned at that and she raised an eyebrow.

"How sweet, Del," Valentine said. "Almost…maternal."

Adelle kept quiet, though bridling at the "Del" nickname". Mr Dominic however had apparently had enough of seething silently.

"You know this idiot?" Dominic snapped.

Adelle nodded. "Mr Raye was once employed by the Rossum Corporation."

Valentine spun around, looking at the interior of the room. "Yes, that's true. All this could have been mine. This is very nice, Adelle, very nice. The wood panelling, the stained glass; it's exquisite."

"I'm sure you're not here to admire the décor," Adelle returned. "I have to tell you, Valentine, if you're here to steal my actives, think again. They are under my protection."

Valentine laughed. "First of all, Del, you are in no position to deny me whatever I want. Secondly, I have no need of your soulless trash. We have our own…volunteers. Thirdly, I find it ironic you talk of protecting them when one wrong word from them could have them sent to the Attic." He glanced upwards and pointed.

"Where you should have been sent," Dominic opined. One of men guarding him hefted their weapon and brought the butt down across his already bruised cheek. Valentine held out a hand in a gesture of calm and the guard stood upright and stared straight ahead.

"As you've apparently reprogrammed Juliet, I'm guessing you have access to some sort of technology based on Rossum's Corporation's designs." Adelle glanced to Boyd. Why was he not with the other handlers?

Valentine nodded and lowered his weapon, tapping the barrel gently against his leg. "It's not as refined as yours," he admitted. "But we're getting there with the imprinting process; the problem is with downloading the imprints in the first place. We've had some…incidents."

There was the sound of a small explosion, a hiss of a gas. Adelle had to force herself not to jump to her feet. Echo looked up, puzzled. Then there was a yell and the sound of footsteps. Topher, propelled by the man Juliet had referred to as Rance, came barrelling downstairs and was flung to the floor in front of Adelle.

Topher raised wide, red-rimmed eyes to her. "They blew the door open," he said and coughed. "There was smoke everywhere."

"It's all right, Topher," Adelle said gently.

Topher nodded, taking strength from her calm reserve, and straightened his chequered shirt over his faded Star Wars T-shirt. He pulled himself to a kneeling position. "I rigged the machinery," he said. "Just like protocol says to."

Warmth spread through Adelle's chest. Darling Topher! Next time she felt the urge to choke him she'd remember this and have no problems restraining herself.

"That," Valentine said, "is very unfortunate. You see, what I need is the imprints."

Topher blinked a few times. "Who are you?" His cockiness was fast returning. It occurred to Adelle that this might be because he had been more afraid of her reaction for his allowing the lab to be breached than he was of the armed men. A thought that amused her, despite the seriousness of the situation.

"This is Valentine Raye," Adelle said. "He's working for one of Rossum's competitors. They've reprogrammed Juliet."

Toper's mouth fell open. "Not. Possible."

Valentine gestured to Juliet. "Tell the boy who you are, Miss."

Juliet saluted. "Sir! Lt Sara Scofield!"

Topher shook his head. "No, no, no, I sent her out as Clarissa Wade, Miss Sunshine, for the client who wanted to screw a beauty pageant winner." He was upset at the thought anyone could have tampered with what he thought of as his art and Adelle sympathized.

"It appears Mr Early double crossed us," Adelle said. "He handed Juliet over to Valentine's hack programmers to tamper with and then used his access codes to breach our security. Believe me, I am just as cross about it as you are, Mr Brink. Don't worry, though. We can hunt him down later."

"No need," Valentine interjected. "His corpse is with those of some of your guards; littering the parking garage. I wouldn't allow someone with his lack of loyalty to live, knowing what he knew about me."

One less problem then, Adelle thought, and returned to reassuring Topher. "We can also worry about what exactly they did to Juliet later. Right now, we just have to listen to Mr Raye's proposal."

"It's hardly a proposal, Del," Valentine said. "You give us the imprints and I let everyone live."

Topher's lip trembled and for a moment Adelle thought he was going to cry. Pull yourself together, she thought, before realizing that he was actually trying not to giggle. After a moment he gave up and laughed out loud. He got to his feet, despite the fact that this made Juliet, Valentine, and Rance all point their guns at him.

"You want the imprints? Seriously? Not only are they locked up and I don't suggest C4 as a means to destroy the locks in case you destroy the data, but they're only readable by our software. You can't just drop a disk into a PC and access the data." Topher flung his arms wide and Adelle inwardly winced and prayed he wouldn't get himself killed.

Apparently oblivious to the danger, Topher walked over to Valentine in order to speak very closely and carefully. "These are people's lives. The amount of data is massive. We're talking terabytes. The files are not only compressed by a software design I improved upon tenfold, they're encrypted. Let me say that again. Encrypted. By me. Trying to hack into them, or unzip them like a win.rar will irretrievably corrupt the data – "

"Topher," Adelle said warningly and he obediently glanced over his shoulder at her and then back at Valentine. That he might be irritating the man with a gun he'd already used with little provocation finally occurred to him.

Swallowing hard and backing up quickly out of Valentine's personal space, Topher said, "The point is, you can't possibly steal the imprints without my help."

Valentine considered this. He gestured with his weapon, making Topher flinch.

"Sit," Valentine said, not unkindly, and Topher did so, not looking where he was going and almost landing in Boyd's lap.

"Sorry, man," Topher apologised reflexively.

Boyd grinned at Topher. "I like drawing," he said happily.

Topher gave him a blank look almost as good as the one Boyd was sporting and looked to Adelle who almost imperceptibly shook her head. Ah, Boyd was pretending to be an active. Maybe he had a clever plan. She did hope so.

Valentine stroked his chin. "In that case, you shall help me. I'm sure my employer will reward you for your assistance."

"Um, I'm not sure you can offer me a better deal," Topher said. "I get perks." That a trampoline and an endless supply of juice boxes might be the deciding factor in his loyalty was an amusing thought to Adelle despite the circumstances.

"Perks can duplicated," Valentine said. "Even improved upon."

Topher looked to Adelle, fear vying with interest in the impromptu job offer showing as confusion on his face. He wanted guidance from her and she was happy to give it.

"Topher, I forbid you to assist Mr Raye in stealing our imprints," she said briskly. "Know this. If you in any way collaborate in the theft or duplication of any of the imprints I will have you killed in a slow and painful manner of my choosing."

Topher looked to Valentine, happy, for once, to have been put in his place. "She would, you know."

Valentine nodded. "Yes, she would. But it's her or me." And he hefted his weapon again.

"Please," Echo said. She was, Adelle had noted, the calmest of the actives. "No-one has to die."

"That's true, pretty one," Valentine said. "But I have my orders. I need some imprints. The one we have is fairly limited." He nodded to Juliet. "She's a soldier and that's all she is. She has no real personality; she couldn't even effectively pass herself off as an actual soldier for very long. Keeps forgetting the details we've tried to embed, such as her parent's name.

"Besides, weapons proficiency is only a small part of what makes someone useful. We need scientists, computer programmers, linguists, analysts. We could have been civilized about this, Adelle. My employers were willing to pay to purchase a selection of the finest imprints. But Rossum wouldn't play ball."

"Our imprints are classified," Adelle said, "and too valuable to be given to the likes of you."

Valentine looked at the ceiling and his lips moved as he silently calculated something. At last he turned back to Adelle. "Give me twenty imprints. A decent selection as I've outlined. No military personas if it will soothe your conscience. Then we'll leave, no harm done."

Adelle shook her head. "I cannot make a deal. You know that."

Valentine gave a sigh of regret. "Then I will have to start killing people." He pointed his gun at Topher.

"You need me!" Topher shrieked, trying to shield himself behind Boyd. "I'm the only one who can work the technology! I said I rigged it and I did! If you touch anything you shouldn't, without my access codes, it all goes bye-bye! Wiped! Blank slate! Tabula Rasa!"

Adelle stood. "Enough," she ordered and Valentine pointed his weapon at her instead. "He's telling the truth. If you kill him no-one will be using the system until a full security reboot takes place and even I can't authorise that!"

Valentine's lip curled in disgust. "Fine. What about one of your precious actives?" He gestured to Boyd. "What's with this one? He doesn't look like the others."

Adelle, knowing this might come up, had a story ready. "He was a custom design," she said smoothly. "A bodyguard for a client's daughter. The client didn't want someone like Victor-" and she pointed to the active, "alone with his lovely young innocent girl. He was afraid she might not remain so innocent given such temptation. After the year long engagement ended, I decided others might benefit from such an active. He has a very reassuring demeanour."

Valentine accepted this without question. "Well, maybe not him, anyway. Maybe I'll let you pick, Del. Which one don't you like?"

"No. I will not choose people for you to murder," Adelle said simply. "Valentine, you can be a ruthless bastard, but do you really think killing people will change my mind?"

"Maybe not," he acknowledged. "On the other hand…" He pointed his weapon at her. "Maybe I'll just shoot you, let your lackey know I mean business. If he's not afraid of repercussions from you, perhaps he will be more forthcoming."

"No!" Dominic got to his feet and tried to put himself in front of Adelle.

"How sweet," Valentine said.

"It's my job," Dominic snarled.

"I hope they paid you well for it," Valentine returned, and pulled the trigger.

Sierra gave a muffled scream. Topher swore. Echo ducked, though trying to keep an eye on what was happening; Boyd and Victor stayed still as statues. Juliet tipped her head as if interested but unconcerned.

Adelle felt the impact as surely as if she'd been hit herself. She stepped forward, saw the red blossom spreading over the pale blue shirt. Dominic seemed stunned as he looked down at the blood and then sank to his knees. She crouched down and put one arm around his shoulders to try to prevent him from falling forwards.

"Adelle," he said and it took every ounce of her self control not to weep.

Saunders prised Tango away from her and got to her feet. "Let me help," she demanded, though her voice shook a little. "I'm a doctor."

Valentine nodded. "Go ahead, doctor. It will give Adelle chance to reconsider."

Adelle let Saunders help her lay Dominic on the floor. While the doctor began her examination, Adelle stood and turned on Valentine.

"Any deal we might have made is now off the table," she hissed. "I said I was responsible for these people and I meant it."

Valentine lifted his shoulders in a half-shrug. "You were unwilling to deal," he said. "But I think I have hit a nerve here, yes? I saw the way he looked at you."

Adelle fought panic and nausea. "He is merely an employee," she lied. "A valued and loyal employee. That is all. But that is enough reason for me to refuse you now. If he dies you will leave here empty handed."

"Just an employee! Ha!" Valentine looked down to where Saunders was crouched, trying to stem the blood flow. "I once accidentally killed a man this way; I shot out a lung and he died very quickly. It was very unfortunate. So now I aim lower; it gives us all time to consider our options. But the blood loss will kill him eventually. That said, there's no need for the wound to be fatal, if you cooperate. He has maybe a ninety per cent chance of survival."

Adelle looked to Saunders. "Is that true?"

Saunders turned sad eyes to her. "With prompt and appropriate care, barring vascular injury, sepsis, or other complications," she said, as if reciting it from a textbook.

"You can do this?" Adelle asked urgently. "It is within your capabilities?"

"There's blood in the infirmary, drugs, a surgical suite." Saunders hesitated a moment.

"But?" Adelle prompted, impatient. Dominic's life was slipping away drop by drop and she didn't have time for any ethical considerations or whatever else was making Saunders dither.

"I need to stop the bleeding and then I can assess the internal damage," Saunders explained, "but I can't operate alone."

Adelle let her gaze move from the bloody shirt to Dominic's face, pale and pinched with pain. She made her decision. It was a gamble of the sort she didn't approve of, but her options were severely limited and despite herself, her emotional balance was off.

"We'll deal," Adelle said, turning to face Valentine, and squaring her shoulders defiantly. "But if he dies, the arrangement is off."

"No." Dominic's assertion was a harsh whisper. "Adelle, don't-"

She knelt at his side once more and took one of his hands in hers.

"Let me handle this," she said. He swallowed hard.

"Wear red," he told her. Adelle shook her head softly.

"There'll be no need." She blinked away tears and forced herself not to reach out and touch his hair. She should never have let herself get involved with him. Then again, she doubted she could have stood by and watched impassively if it had been Boyd who was injured and not the man she'd been having an illicit affair with. She was criticized as heartless where a man would be said to be stoic but she still retained some humanity beneath the cold, professional, exterior. Humanity Dominic had witnessed firsthand, during the events that led to their first ill-advised foray across the professional boundaries, events he was now referring to.