Just Enough Power
by Tony Noland
Two inches of twenty year old scotch in a chipped glass. A twelve dollar cigar brought to life with a disposable plastic lighter. Aderesto "The Acrobat" Vincelli's big leather chair groaned as he leaned back. He squinted through the first clouds of gray-blue smoke at the woman in front of him. Unlike so many who had been on that hard wooden stool, she wasn't hiding utter terror with a pretense of calm. Her hands, her eyes, her neck: these told the Acrobat that she wasn't pretending. She truly wasn't scared, not of him nor of Benny's 9mm.
Which meant she was either crazy or powerful. The uncertainty was her protection for the next three minutes.
"Sounds like a load of crap to me."
She inclined her head before responding, as though he'd merely voiced an opinion instead of a death sentence.
"Oh? I'm surprised you take that position."
"Shut the fuck up. I had you scanned before you were brought in here, you know that?"
"I assumed as much."
"Then don't try to bullshit me. I know you got nothing. No weapons, either external or internal. No psi-booster circuitry, no nanotech, no artifacts of any kind. So don't tell me you're some kind of messenger assassin when you got nothing to do your killing with."
She nodded. "I see."
"Well? Is that all you got to say? Tell me why I shouldn't duct tape your face and give you to my boys for a week before I send what's left of you back to Meng-Shiu and tell him what he can do with his 'message', whatever it is."
"It's my job to deliver Mr. Tong's message. As it happens, I do have one minor native Talent."
One second later, Benny's nine was up and against her temple, pushing her head slightly to the right.
The tip of the Acrobat's cigar brightened and dimmed.
"Bullshit. The scanners would have spotted any significant concentration of native Talent organelles."
She shrugged with her eyebrows, not moving her head."Like I said, it's a very minor Talent, a rudimentary form of shielding."
Benny's finger pressed against the trigger, held taut and steady.
"Again, I call bullshit. If you had power sufficient to project a bulletproof shield, I'd know it."
"Oh, it's not bulletproof, not even close. However, it's more than strong enough for me to do my job."
The Acrobat's eyes flicked and Benny pulled the trigger. The guide rod shot forward on its spring and the firing pin struck, coming within one sixty-fourth of an inch of the round in the chamber. The impact made an echoing musical note, like that of a small bell rung at the bottom of a lake. The thug drew back his arm to smash the useless pistol across the bridge of her nose. His own momentum carried him backwards as the nerve impulses at the base of his brain met a barrier they could not cross. He hit the floor, twitching.
The woman stood gracefully, taking a moment to watch Benny's eyes widen and weep as his heart and lungs lost their coordination. To her side, the soft ringing echoed as the Acrobat pulled the trigger of the .38 revolver he'd yanked from his desk drawer. He threw the gun at her and missed. Ducking down, he stabbed again and again at the red alarm button under his desk, but the contacts would not close, the signals would not travel down the wires.
She stepped over Benny's twitching soon-to-be-corpse and came around the desk. The Acrobat had stopped moving. His head flopped over as he looked up at her.
"You're a healthy man, Mr. Vincelli. Even after I've finished paralyzing you from the waist down, in all likelihood you'll live another ten or fifteen years. Of course, you won't be aware of them. I'm also going to pinch off the blood supply to some of the more important centers of your brain. In a few minutes, you won't be able to process language, recognize faces or build long-term memories anymore. All of this will be accomplished with a single stroke, if you'll forgive the pun." She smiled.
Around a mouthful of drool, the Acrobat mumbled, "... kill me... instead..."
"I'm afraid I can't do that. Mr. Tong's instructions were quite specific about the message I'm to send."
Intelligence fading, his eyes formed the last question he would ever have the capacity to ask.
"Oh, the message isn't for you. It's for Mr. Tong's other competitors, the ones of actual significance. You are the message, one they'll be able to contemplate for a good long time. Goodbye, Mr. Vincelli."