Sun Garden Mall
Crowds streamed along the sunlit sidewalks. Traffic moved sluggishly through the congested streets. The small, pale-blond girl in the bright red coat moved easily among the holiday shoppers with their bundles and bags. She pulled behind her by the hand a woman bundled in a heavy brown overcoat.
"Stop sulking," the girl said over her shoulder. She spoke with a crisp authority that contrasted oddly with her age, for she looked no more than eight years old. "I have a job to do, and I don't have time for your prejudices."
The woman kept silent, but the corners of her mouth twitched downward. The child's lips tightened, and suddenly the woman gasped and started.
"People remember an angry face," the girl said. "Smile. If you can't smile, look tired. I'm told tired is normal this time of year."
The woman bit her lip. Her face assumed a more neutral expression.
They waited at a corner for the light to change, and the girl let her eyes rove over the crowds. Her nose wrinkled very slightly. :They're like so many sheep.:
:What were you expecting, Winter? A city full of geniuses?:
Winter's lips twitched in a smirk. :Not likely! Have the spotters seen them yet?:
:They're exactly on time.: Susanna's mindvoice held a wealth of sarcasm. :Just what we've been led to expect of Galaxy Ranger Captain Zachary Foxx. They're using the east entrance to the mall. The four Rangers... plus Foxx's two kids.:
:Am I supposed to imprint the kids, too?: The light changed, and Winter stepped forward, tugging her escort, Lucinda, behind her. As they were passing, a tall woman in a red hat looked down at Winter and smiled before glancing at Lucinda.
"Looks like your little girl is very eager to do her Christmas shopping."
Winter let her face round in a beaming smile as she squeezed her escort's hand in a warning. Susanna's voice sniggered in her head.
:Of course you're supposed to imprint the kids. What a cow! That hat is perfect for tossing into the street... There's a truck coming.:
Lucinda spoke at the same moment. "She does like her shopping." Her voice held just the right measure of affection tempered by weariness. She reached forward and stroked Winter's pale hair. Only Winter's telepathic gift betrayed the woman's revulsion; Lucinda was too experienced an operative, Winter knew, to let her feelings show in face, voice, or gesture.
:At least when she's "on.": Susanna's mental voice grew chilly. :I'd have done worse than just pinch her.:
As she and Lucinda passed the woman by, Winter sent the mental equivalent of a shrug. :It did the job. She remembered that there are worse things than touching one of us... Like quietly disappearing.: Winter let her eyes lose focus for a moment. :That woman's heart isn't in very good shape.: She let Lucinda take the lead and open the door of the shopping mall. Warm air billowed out, carrying the sounds of canned music and children's voices. Winter wrinkled her nose again.
:He says remember why you're there,: Minako cut in. :Teacher told him you were prying. And Teacher says be careful. This is very dangerous.:
Winter shrugged again and pushed ahead. She wended her way among more crowds of people, rubbing her forehead absently at the buzz generated by so many minds. The whole place was a nauseating array of color, light, and noise, a jarring contrast to the relative quiet of the training base. :You really couldn't get imprints through the video feed, Susanna?: she asked privately.
:No,: the older girl snarled on tightbeam, :I really couldn't. Patterns of ones and zeroes on a storage medium—there's no mind there to find! If they wanted imprints remotely they should have stolen personal items for you to snoop with.:
Winter flinched. :I'm sorry.: Through the general link, :Where are they?:
:Foxx's kids asked to stop at the chocolate shop, seven doors in from the east entrance,: Susanna answered. :Foxx is inside with them and that woman. The freak and Hartford are just outside.:
Winter and Lucinda moved at a leisurely pace down the mall. From the corner of her eye Winter saw Lucinda, fully in character now, looking about as if considering where to go first. They kept moving at the same swinging stride, in and out of the crowds. Ahead, Winter saw the atrium where the four wings of the mall came together in a cross shape. At this time of year a huge artificial tree dominated the space. As they drew near she saw a line of children and adults, clearly queued up for something. Winter craned her neck to see and realized that the adults were waiting for the chance to put their children in the lap of an old, obese, white-haired man in a hideous red-and-white costume. :What is that? They call these people normals, but they're bizarre!:
:Winter!: Susanna's mental voice tightened. :The spotter thinks the freak's seen him. He's moving on. He wants to know if you can take it from here. The backup spotter says she'll need a few minutes to get into place.:
Winter and Lucinda rounded the crowd of children and parents, and in the distance Winter caught an unmistakable flash of auburn hair.
:Tell her not to bother. I've got them in line of sight.:
She and Lucinda kept walking hand in hand, moving steadily toward the eastern end of the mall. As they approached the group, Winter stared, taking in impressions, sounds, feelings:
The tall, wary blond man in black towered over the graceful woman with waist-length auburn hair who smiled up at him and then turned to accept a chocolate from the leggy brown-haired boy who looked so like the tall brown-haired man whose blue eyes laughed down at the golden-haired, ponytailed girl who held his hand and giggled helplessly at the joke the smiling brown-skinned man had just made...
Through the link, Winter felt Susanna smile.
:We have them. Come home, Winter.:
As Winter and Lucinda passed by, Ranger Niko of no family name looked around suddenly, as if someone had called her name. Winter smiled, already deep behind her shields, her grey eyes as chilly as the season. She looked up at Lucinda.
"Mission accomplished... Mommy."