DUANPHEN WATCHED THE BEGGAR AS HE SCURRIED through traffic with his bucket and rag. The boy couldn’t have been more than twelve, small, with a mop of greasy black hair. He picked his cars smartly—shiny ones with tinted windows and drunk passengers. He splashed dirty water on windshields and stretched across hoods to ineffectively clean up, mostly smearing around more grime. Drivers rolled down their windows to curse at him but usually relented, shoved a note into his hand to make him go away, and turned on their wipers.
It was after midnight and Royal City Avenue still pulsed with life. Motorcycles weaved through the traffic. Drunk clubbers stumbled into the street. Neon lights flashed in unison with their bars’ competing bass lines.
Duanphen rubbed the handcuff around her wrist, which attached her to the executive’s briefcase. The metal irritated her. Just like this place.
Three months since she was last here. She hadn’t missed it.
The beggar spotted Duanphen and her limo. Well, not her limo, precisely—it belonged to the executive; she was only watching over it. The black stretch was double-parked obnoxiously in front of a club where go-go dancers gyrated in the windows. The executive had been so excited when he saw the place that he was practically drooling; they just had to pull over. The rest of the executive’s security had gone in with him, but not Duanphen. She was too young.
“Sweet ride,” the beggar said in Thai as he stopped in front of her. He held out his rag threateningly. “Dirty, though. For a few bucks I’ll wash it for you.”
Duanphen regarded him coldly. “Go away.”
The kid stared up at her, as if trying to decide if he should press his luck. At seventeen, Duanphen wasn’t that much older than him, although her steely gaze made her seem it. She stood a shade over six feet tall, her long-limbed body like a switchblade. She kept her hair buzzed and wore no makeup except for some extra-dark eyeliner. Her petite nose was a crooked zigzag; it looked like it’d been erased and redrawn.
“I know you,” he said.
“You’re a hooker,” he said with a laugh. “No! That’s not right. Where have I seen you?”
“Doesn’t matter,” Duanphen said. “Get lost.”
The beggar hopped in the air as the realization hit him. “You’re a fighter!” he said, shaking his rag at her. “I know you! You’re the one who cheats. The one—”
As if by magic, the boy’s bucket tipped towards him and spilled water down the front of his pants. He gasped and shut up, staring at Duanphen.
Not magic. Telekinesis.
“If you do know me,” Duanphen said, “then you know what I will do when I run out of patience.”
The beggar looked at her wide-eyed, then took off into the crowd with a yelp. Duanphen pursed her lips. Calling her a cheater. What did that little idiot know about anything?
Duanphen had been doing Muay Thai fights since she was fourteen, a necessity to supplement the pittance she got working sixty hours a week at the garment factory, all to pay her rent at a roach-infested boardinghouse. Before her Legacies kicked in, Duanphen had lost more fights than she won, often getting her face smashed to a bloody pulp by girls twice her age.
Telekinesis, she discovered after the invasion, made the fights easier. An assisted leg-trip here. A deflected punch there. She went on a winning streak. She began to bet on herself. The competition got tougher, but her telekinesis got stronger, too.
It wasn’t until an opponent managed to get her in a choke hold and Duanphen’s electrified skin unexpectedly triggered that the fight promoters got wise. They called what she’d been doing “stealing” and gave her a choice: work off the debt or die. She considered fighting her way out, but they had a lot of guns, and blocking punches wasn’t the same as stopping bullets.
Word soon got out that the local mob had a Garde for hire. That was how the executive found her. He knew a lot of people. He was a talker. An excellent negotiator.
That’s what made him so valuable to the Foundation.
The Foundation paid off her debt and gave Duanphen a fresh start. They gave her more money than she could hope to earn in a thousand fights, plus clothes and a splashy apartment in Hong Kong. All she needed to do in exchange was watch over this smarmy executive and carry around his briefcase.
Not a bad deal at all, she’d thought. At least until she got to know the executive better. Men liked him, of course, because he was always making gross jokes and buying drinks. But, to Duanphen, he was a middle-aged creep, the kind of tourist she’d encountered a million times in Bangkok. He was always complaining about his cold wife and his kids who didn’t talk to him.
The executive sauntered out of the club surrounded by a phalanx of brutish bodyguards. He had a lot of security—more added in the last few weeks, for reasons no one explained to Duanphen. The muscle cleared a path on the sidewalk, shoving aside gaudily dressed revelers as they escorted the executive to his armored limo. People craned their necks to catch a glimpse of what kind of man commanded such an entourage. The executive didn’t look like much—a thatch of thinning blond hair, short, a potbelly, his designer suit wrinkled from the humidity, his salmon-colored shirt damp with sweat. Not famous, the onlookers probably thought, disappointed. Just some rich jerk. Bangkok was full of them.
Duanphen opened the car door for her rich jerk. He pinched her cheek affectionately and she died a little inside.
“Missed a banging good time, Dawn,” he said, his words slurred from too much champagne.
“Mm,” Duanphen offered noncommittally. She despised his butchered farang version of her name.
The executive interpreted Duanphen’s murmur as encouragement. “One of these days you’ll be old enough to make a proper piece of arm candy,” he told her.
Duanphen smiled mirthlessly and clenched her fist. She slid into the backseat beside the executive, one of the other bodyguards taking the wheel.
“Meant to ask you,” the executive said. “Happy to be back home?”
“No,” she replied. “I hate this place.”
“Really? I’ve always loved Bangkok.” He waved his hand airily out the window. “Although it’s more fun when you aren’t bloody surrounded.”
Duanphen knew the executive chafed at the extra security. His bodyguards weren’t just the average bruisers anyone could hire around Bangkok; they were highly trained mercenaries. The Blackstone Group detachment had been his wife’s idea—or, rather, his wife’s command. She was in the Foundation too and seemed to wield more power than her husband. That, at least, cheered Duanphen.
The rest of the executive’s security piled into two cars, one behind and one in front. The executive sighed as his ungainly security force began the journey through the crowded streets back to his hotel.
The executive checked his watch. “Ah, running a bit late.” He wiggled his fingers at Duanphen. “Let’s get to business, shall we?”
Ostensibly, the executive was in Bangkok to sign some paperwork on a hotel he’d invested in. But while that work had made the executive rich, it was no longer his true occupation.
Duanphen offered him the briefcase. The executive unlocked it with his thumbprint, then lifted out its contents—a sleek tablet computer. This, too, the executive unlocked with his fingerprint, followed by a nine-digit code that he kept hidden from Duanphen. The tablet connected to a secure server via satellite uplink. The executive settled back, waiting to connect.
“A good turnout,” the executive said approvingly. He liked showing off, so he didn’t mind if Duanphen peeked at the tablet.
There were twenty people waiting for the executive in the e-conference. They were represented by icons—an infinity symbol, a snarling fox, a silver-and-blue star that Duanphen thought was the logo for an American football team. The mundane avatars of the very rich people in the executive’s club.
A slithering blob of shadows appeared among the icons. That represented the executive himself. That was always how the auctioneer looked during one of these Foundation events.
“Good evening, all,” the executive said, after unmuting his side of the conference and activating his voice modulator. “On the block tonight, we have the services of Salma G., for the weekend of January third through the fifth.”
The executive called up Salma’s picture and sent it out to the bidders. The girl had wavy brown hair that was long and unruly, plus a thick unibrow that made her look like she was deep in thought. In the image, Salma wore a tangle of scarves that were nearly indistinguishable from her billowy dress, patterns upon patterns. She sat cross-legged, fingers pinched together like she was meditating, her eyes gazing into the middle distance.
He muted the conference so he could smirk at Duanphen. “Nice costume on her, eh? The lads in marketing thought it’d be clever to give her a sort of gypsy fortune-teller vibe.”
“I see,” Duanphen replied.
“Don’t need any of that when you’re on the block, eh? Your face conveys exactly what you’re for.”
Duanphen touched her crooked nose but didn’t reply. The executive had already unmuted the video conference and was again speaking to his international audience.
“The following specs were included in your dossier, but I’ll summarize. Salma is sixteen years old. Moroccan. Speaks fluent Arabic, passable French and passable English. No health concerns. Buyer must provide a halal diet. Salma’s telekinetic control remains middling at best, so, if that’s what you’re interested in, we’ve got better assets available. Her real allure is her precognitive ability. She’s perfect for a visit to the track or the casino, although we don’t recommend attempting to use her Legacies to choose stocks or other long-term investments. Salma is geo-restricted; you’ve already been provided with lists of approved locations. Bidders are also reminded that you are purchasing only the use of Salma’s Legacies and that any behavior viewed by the Foundation as untoward or detrimental to the asset will result in swift expulsion from the organization.”
Duanphen knew that expulsion, in this case, meant death. It didn’t matter how wealthy and powerful the Foundation’s members were; if they broke the rules, they’d be punished.
“Righto.” The executive cleared his throat. “As there’s a great amount of interest in dear Salma, I believe we shall start the bidding at five million euros. Do I hear five million?”
Immediately, a handful of the icons logged out of the conference. The price was too high for some, but not all. The bidding went back and forth. Each time one of the icons pulsed, a little beep sounded and the bid increased by 250,000 euros.
Five minutes later, the auction was over. A weekend with Salma had gone for 10.6 million euros. The executive checked his account. The payment had already come through.
“Bastard’ll probably make that back in a night.” The executive sniffed. He handed his tablet back to Duanphen and she returned it to the briefcase. “We ought to take a percentage of what the girl makes them at the tables, eh?”
“It is a lot of money,” Duanphen said, in awe of the price the Moroccan Garde commanded.
“Eh.” The executive shrugged. “Not so much.”
They arrived at the executive’s hotel. It was a lavish place, where the staff wore silk vests and bow ties and were always underfoot with warm towels and glasses of rose water. The executive loved it. He had the penthouse suite all to himself. Well, not quite all to himself. Duanphen slept in an adjoining room and a handful of the other bodyguards were always camped out in the hallway.
Some of the guards stayed in the lobby to keep an eye on things; the rest piled into the elevator with them. When they reached the top floor, they met two more bodyguards who were stationed outside the executive’s suite.
“Keeping watch on an empty hallway,” the executive groused. “What a great use of our resources.”
But, as he neared his suite, the executive suddenly began to whistle a jaunty little tune. Duanphen raised an eyebrow. The little man was practically swaggering, swinging his arms back and forth like he was in a wonderful mood. Maybe he was drunker than she thought.
“Aw, you lads are just doing your jobs,” he said. “I don’t mean to be such a bastard. I just made a tidy pile of quid tonight, y’know? Ought to spread the wealth, as the poors love to say.” He stopped abruptly in the middle of the hallway. “Come on, ya blokes,” he said. “Gather round, eh?”
The guards did as they were told. Normally, they were a stoic bunch, but now they looked as upbeat as the executive. Some of them grinned as they formed an impromptu huddle. Duanphen arched an eyebrow. The Blackstone mercenaries were usually much more professional.
“It isn’t easy work, what you do. I want to show my appreciation.” The executive pulled out his overstuffed money clip and started slapping high-denomination Thai baht into the outstretched hands of his security guards. “Bangkok’s a damn fine place for strapping bucks like you lot. Take the night off. Go out and enjoy yourselves. On me, of course.”
As if the money wasn’t enough, the executive handed over his Black Card to one of the guards, then tossed his entire wallet to another. He winked and waved them off, watching like a generous father as the hardened mercenaries jostled their way back to the elevator, arm in arm, laughing and cracking jokes.
Duanphen watched it all happen with her mouth half-open in disbelief.
“What . . . ?” She sounded bewildered. “What the hell are you doing?”
The executive grinned at her. “What’s the matter, Dawn? You sure you don’t want to join them? Go on, then. Have fun.” He slapped his pockets. “Afraid I’m out of money, though . . .”
Duanphen stared into his eyes, which had a wide and spacey quality. “You’re—” She gave up on the stupidly grinning executive. “Hey, wait!” she called after the mercenaries, but the elevator was gone. Had they all gone crazy?
“Sir,” Duanphen said, balling her fists. “You’re acting strange.”
“Nonsense,” the executive replied. He swiped his key card and pushed open the door to his suite.
Immediately, Duanphen could sense something wrong. The air was warm and sticky, not meticulously temperature-controlled like the executive preferred. And where was that breeze coming from?
The executive stopped suddenly and pinched the bridge of his nose. He shook his head as if he were coming out of a dream.
“Dawn, what— Did our boys just rob me? Or—what came over me?”
The answer stood right in the middle of his suite.
The young man was slender, his brown hair combed from the side into a meticulously gelled swoop. He wore expensive clothes—gray slacks, a black vest, a white dress shirt. Duanphen thought he looked almost like a magician; appropriate, as he’d somehow slipped in past the executive’s security. The broken glass from the balcony window probably explained that . . . although how had he managed to climb all the way up here?
The executive was frozen. “You.”
“Not easy, putting you in a generous mood while making those Blackstone morons go all frat boy,” Einar said. There were dark circles around his eyes and he was out of breath, like he’d just greatly exerted himself. He held up a finger. “Give me a minute, will you?”
Duanphen didn’t hesitate. Clearly, this Einar boy was a threat. Maybe even the reason for the executive’s added security. She charged towards him, the executive’s metal briefcase held over her head as a weapon.
Wumpf! She didn’t see it coming. A second intruder slammed into Duanphen’s side, trucked her clean off her feet and sent her crashing through a coffee table. A burly and hunched figure in a dingy gray sweat suit, the hood pulled up.
Einar sat down in a plush armchair and stretched out his legs. He smiled at the executive. “You aren’t the only one with a bodyguard. Shall we see how this plays out?”
Duanphen snapped back to her feet, facing down the looming figure in the sweat suit. He was big, but she’d fought bigger. She triggered her Legacy. A field of electricity crackled across Duanphen’s body. One Taser-like blow from her packed enough voltage to put down an ox.
She had longer reach than the brute in the sweat suit and threw a series of quick strikes at his face—a jab followed by a vicious swing of the briefcase. He bobbed backwards on his heels, keeping his distance as Duanphen’s lightning-charged punches crackled right in front of his nose. Duanphen was merely testing him though, gauging her range.
“Ha!” She unleashed a vicious arcing roundhouse kick. The sweat suit barely managed to get his forearm raised in a haphazard block.
Duanphen screamed and flopped to the ground, her shin bent at an impossible angle. She’d broken her leg on her attacker’s forearm. It was like hitting a brick wall.
The pain caused her to lose control of her Legacy. The sweat suit was on her fast. He grabbed Duanphen around the neck and lifted her off the ground with ease, his fist cocked back.
“Stop!” Einar yelled. “Don’t kill her! You weren’t even supposed to break her!”
As ordered, the sweat suit dropped Duanphen. She writhed on the floor, whimpering, body curled around her broken leg.
Einar looked at the executive. “Him, on the other hand . . .”
Duanphen saw it happen. The executive managed, at last, to turn and run. But it was too late. Sweat suit grabbed him by the back of his neck, lifted him up and then—crack—down, slamming the executive spine-first over his knee like a dead branch.
There was a moment that Duanphen knew from her many losing fights, that sensation right before a knockout, when all the pain was erased by welcoming blackness. The pain in her leg was shrieking and intense. Too much to bear. She let herself slip . . .
And then she was being not so gently slapped awake. How long was she out? Seconds? Minutes? She was still in the hotel room, the breeze from the broken window somehow chilling her despite the humidity. With every slight shift of her body, new shards of pain broke free in her shattered leg. Duanphen wanted to retreat from the agony, but she sensed that if she passed out again she might never wake up.
Einar crouched over her. He stopped slapping her once her eyes focused.
“Hello again,” he said. He held up the executive’s tablet. “How do I access this?”
Shakily, she pointed at the executive’s body. “Fingerprint.”
Duanphen felt a sticky heat beneath her, warm and spreading. Was that . . . ?
“Yes, I know fingerprint. We already took care of that.” Einar held up the executive’s severed hand.
Duanphen gagged. She was lying in a puddle of blood swiftly spreading from the executive’s body. In a moment of panic, she checked her own wrists, was relieved to find them intact. They’d simply ripped open the briefcase with telekinesis.
Behind Einar, the sweat suit wiped his gore-stained hands on a bedsheet. There was something wrong with his skin. Duanphen squinted, but Einar snapped his fingers in her face.
“Do you know the code?” he asked.
She shook her head. “Only he did.”
Einar frowned. “Well. Got a bit overzealous, didn’t we?” He stood up. “So here is the situation, Duanphen. Did I say that right?”
She nodded. “Yes.”
“We’re like you. Garde. I’m sure you noticed how your coworkers suddenly started behaving strangely out in the hallway. That was me. I can control emotions.” Duanphen flinched as Einar reached out, but all he did was touch her gently on the nose. “But I’m not doing that to you, dear.”
“My new policy is that I don’t use my Legacy against our own kind unless absolutely necessary. I don’t kill them either. Good news for you, yes? But you still have a choice to make. Option one: you deliver a message for me. Tell the Foundation I know who they are and that I’m coming for them. We leave you here, the guards will likely be back soon, they take you to a hospital, fix your leg, and then you find out what the Foundation does to assets who fail at their jobs.”
Duanphen glanced at the executive’s mangled body. This failure was not something the Foundation would forgive. “Option two?”
“Option two,” Einar continued, “is you come with me. Help me out with what I’m doing.”
Duanphen already knew which option she would choose, but she still had to ask.
“What . . . what are you doing?”
“Simple. I’m remaking the world.”