Sensual overload can be a tactical disadvantage.
Devlin Grace's experience with child exploitation cases lands him a new assignment with the Special Crimes Investigators unit of the Federal Justice Agency, plus a new partner who could make the job tougher than expected. Connor Hutchens possesses incredible, scientifically enhanced senses...and zero social skills. Word on the street is that his last partner left under a cloud--and it was Connor's fault.
Connor blames himself for losing his previous partner, and wants to do right by his new one. But Devlin confuses and frustrates him, and he struggles to cope with Devlin's swift intelligence, quirky humor and teasing sexuality.
With the dangerous, perplexing case facing them, there's no one Devlin would rather have at his back than Connor. But the longer they work together, the higher the sexual tension rises--until attraction boils over and puts everything at risk. Their careers, the children they're trying to save--and any chance of lasting love.
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April 19, 2010
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Excerpt from Somatesthesia by Ann Somerville
Devlin held his breath as he handed over his newly minted Special Crime Investigator's ID and placed his hand against the reader. Would the machine reject him? Everything else about his application had gone smooth as a dream. He was due for something to screw up.
But the security operator only smiled and handed his card back, along with a building pass.
"Welcome to Eagle Headquarters, Agent Grace. The SCI inductees and their partners are to attend a welcome lecture in Room 405. Directions on your pass."
Devlin pressed the guide key on the building pass and a holographic display showed him which stairs to take. He inserted the pass into his reader, and as he made his way to the stairs, a pleasant female voice in his earpiece ran through the features and safety protocol for this facility. He listened with less than half an ear since he only really wanted to know if his new partner was here already. He hadn't seen him at the Agency hotel. "Eagle, is Agent Connor Hutchens in the building?"
A click as the guide's voice switched off, and the pass's data mediator assessed his question. "Agent Hutchens is not yet in the building, sir. Do you wish to leave a message?"
"No. That's all."
After two seconds, the female voice kicked in right where it left off. That Hutchens wasn't there disappointed Devlin a little, but it gave him a chance to meet his new colleagues. Three other people joined him on the stairs--two women, and a lanky red-haired man--all with the slight air of inattention that came from listening to their earpieces. They exited together on the fourth floor, and when the wall guides lit up to show Devlin the way to 405, the other man chuckled.
"Another SCI trainee, I'm guessing. Tom Pacey, nice to meet you."
Devlin shook his hand. "Devlin Grace. Are you all...?"
The taller of the two women held out her hand. "In the SCI program? Yes. Yvette Cho. Hi, Devlin."
The other woman smiled warmly. "I'm Chandra Patel. First time at the Louisville center, Agent Grace?"
"Actually, yes, and call me Devlin, please. I've been based at Greensboro since I joined, and any training has been there. You?"
"I came here just after the academy opened, but that was six years ago. I never thought I'd make SCI."
"Know the feeling."
Pacey shooed them all ahead of him. "Come on, girls and boys, don't want to be late for the first day of school." He hadn't actually said if he'd been here before.
Room 405 was a mid-sized lecture hall, already half full with men and women chatting. Devlin strained to see if he could tell which ones were "enhanced"--he knew enough about the SCI teams to know the term "cyborg" was a term of abuse--but other than obvious differences of height, build, gender and skin tone and a distinct weighting toward youth and a slight overrepresentation of males, he detected nothing unusual about any of the agents.
Pacey strode past them to claim a blond man with a short, tidy beard. "Thought you were going to wait for me downstairs, Kev."
The man dismissed his complaint with a shrug and they went off together, leaving Devlin with Chandra and Yvette to fend for themselves.
"Uh, have you met your partner?" Devlin asked Yvette.
"No. Have you? Oh, is that her there?" She waved at a black woman across the floor. "Excuse me."
"And then there were two." Chandra smiled politely at Devlin's inane observation. "What's your partner's name?"
"Jacob Gold. Yours?"
Pacey's companion suddenly looked at Devlin, and said something to Pacey, making him scowl. Then Pacey sidled over, his partner behind him. "You scored the superfreak, Devlin? Some luck."
"Tom, that's incredibly rude." The blond man held out his hand. "Kevin Wilton. Another 'superfreak'."
"No, you're just a freak, Kev. Hutchens is..." Pacey twirled his finger beside his ear. "A few violins short of an orchestra."
Chandra, either spotting her new partner or wanting to be gone from a potentially unpleasant discussion, slipped away into the group. Devlin barely noted her departure before frowning at Pacey. "I don't get that. His record's excellent."
"Yeah, but he's still--"
"Here," Wilton said. "Can it, Tom."
Devlin turned. A tall, dark-haired guy stood at the door, peering around hesitantly for someone or something. Devlin, most likely. "Tell me what I need to know," he whispered to Pacey.
"To fit all the enhancements in, they removed his personality. Good luck." Pacey gave him a little shove toward the door.
Devlin grimaced, but continued over to where Hutchens stood. The man still hadn't entered the room. "Agent Hutchens? I'm Devlin Grace."
Up close, Hutchens had the kind of complexion Devlin usually only saw on white children--pale, unblemished and with a hint of high color in his model-sharp cheekbones. His eyes were the most intense blue--real or enhanced, Devlin didn't know, but it shifted his looks from pretty-boy handsome to something almost unearthly. The holographs he'd seen of the guy had been all kinds of miscarriages of justice against the incredibly good looking.
Hutchens held out his hand. "Good morning, Devlin. I'm Connor. The superfreak."
The man's even tone didn't cut Devlin's embarrassment at all. "Crap. You heard."
"I have enhanced auditory capacity. Of course I heard."
Connor stared at him unblinkingly as if assessing him. Cataloguing. "Are you checking me out?" Devlin asked, as the scrutiny showed no signs of stopping.
Connor came back to himself. "Uh, yes, in a manner of speaking. Sorry. You're now registered in my datacore, as is your voice and scent. It'll make detecting you in a crowd somewhat easier."
His scent? Okay, he hadn't expected that. Devlin began to see what Pacey meant. Someone else might have done the same "registration" without making it obvious. "Uh...great. Listen, about what Agent Pacey said--"
"Please don't feel the need to apologize on his behalf."
An amplified female voice interrupted. "Agents, if you'd all take your seats?"
Devlin recognized the speaker at the podium, Senior Agent Angelina Menezes, because she'd interviewed him for the SCI position. "Where do you want to sit?" he whispered to his new partner.
"I can see and hear perfectly wherever I'm placed."
Connor remained exactly where he was, and after no further response, Devlin realized that was as much as he would get from the man.
"Okay. Over here then." He touched Connor's arm and indicated two seats near the front. Tom Pacey caught his eye as they sat down, and smirked. Devlin didn't react. Pacey hadn't cared if Connor could hear the insults made about him, and that was carelessness bordering on malice. So what if Connor was...awkward? His solve rate couldn't be faulted, and who cared if someone with senses so powerful they could hear a mouse fart on the moon was a little strange?
Agent Menezes didn't waste time, addressing them as soon as they were all seated. "Good morning, agents, and welcome to this Special Crime Investigator induction. You may have noted we have close to forty people going through this intake--the Agency has been fortunate to recruit another ten enhanced operatives, who will greatly increase our ability to fight serious and serial criminals. Most of you are going through this for the first time. Those of you who've been through the process before have found it useful, I'm told, so I hope you'll help your newer colleagues settle in."
She shuffled through her notes and looked up at them. "The point of this week-long exercise is two-fold--to let you get to know your new partners and become thoroughly familiar with their enhancements, and to understand exactly how to respond and use enhanced agent abilities. To that end, we have a number of experienced operatives to lead training sessions. This intake, one of our usual instructors, Agent Hutchens, won't be leading any sessions, because he has a new partner to break in. Treat him nice now, Connor."
A few agents laughed. Connor didn't react other than to nod politely at Menezes. Devlin squirmed in embarrassment, disliking being singled out as much as Connor probably did.
"Agent Pacey will take the first session. The schedule and course information has been uploaded to your readers. You're reminded this is a graded course, and you must achieve adequate participation and comprehension scores before you can begin fieldwork with your partners. You're encouraged to help and seek help from your colleagues and your partners. This is intended to build cooperation, not competition. Good luck, agents. Agent Pacey?"
So Pacey wasn't a newbit. How long had he known Connor?
Pacey made his way to the podium. "Good morning, agents. I'm Tom Pacey, class of thirty-four. Agent Hutchens usually gives this introductory lecture--with good reason, since he was our first enhanced agent, inducted at the age of twenty, and is still our most experienced and augmented SCI. Connor, let people see you, will you?"
Hutchens stood and the audience craned around to look at him. Pacey swept his hand toward him as if introducing the prize pig at the county fair. "There you go, people. Living history. Agent Hutchens and his siblings helped pioneer the artificial vision and hearing we take for granted today. His adoptive father, Doctor Tomizawa Toshiyuki, developed the optical nerve bypass, and remains the main force behind most of the enhancements used by our agents and the wider population. Without these inventions, a number of our agents would be conventionally disabled. Agent Hutchens, for example, would be completely blind. With them, of course, they exceed normal human abilities by up to a factor of ten. Thanks, Connor."
Connor sat, his reaction to being on display once again hidden.
"Everything you've read about our enhanced agents--cyborgs as the media insist on calling them--is true. Except for the sex. That's not true. At least, if it is, my partner's been holding out on me. Have you, Kev?"
Wilton shook his head, grinning, as the room erupted into laughter. A little color came into Connor's pale cheeks.
"Hearing of a dog, and sense of smell at least as good. Eyesight of a raptor, touch more sensitive than a catfish's feelers. But none of this would be any use without it all feeding into a highly trained brain and captured so we, the unenhanced partners, can analyze it. We are in fact, the extra enhancement in the team--the second brain. Before this course ends, you'll learn to work with your partner. Think like them, read them, read what they sense. You two will work more closely, more intuitively than any domestic couple. My husband doesn't know me as well as Kev, which is probably just as well."
Another laugh, but Connor's face grew pinker.
"SCIs have a special remit. We work across the Agency's many departments, but we also work across institutions, across state and authority borders. We can intervene in any serial or suspected serial commissions of a felony, regardless of whether it falls under federal jurisdiction or not. We can be called in for assistance by any police force, at any level, and once we are involved, we take charge until the Agency hands back control. This gives us incredible freedom but also incredible responsibility. We're often the last hope in the worst, the most difficult, the most outrageous crimes. Crimes where time is of the essence, where the body counts are piling up, where the safety of communities, even the nation, is dangerously compromised. We offer our experience, our interdepartmental cooperation, but most of all, we offer fresh oversight. We search for evidence overlooked, witnesses discounted, angles unexplored. In this room alone we share centuries of knowledge of serious, serial crimes and investigations. I don't believe it's hubris to state if we can't close a case, that unless the perpetrator hands themselves in, the case won't be closed in our lifetimes. You know our record. You know why we were set up. The British call us the American Flying Squad. We fly in, shake things up, solve the case and retire to the thanks and applause of a grateful nation. Actually, I made that last bit up." The audience chuckled.
"Our enhanced agents weren't chosen because they had the implants. They were chosen because of their superior intelligence and analytical skills, same as those of you without enhancements were. You're agents first and foremost. Ask any one of us who've worked with augmenteds and we'll tell you--it's not the mechanics that solve the crimes. They're tools. You're all highly trained investigators. This job isn't about how we collect the data, it's how we use it."
He cleared his throat. "Okay, the inspirational's over. Now the fun part--live demonstrations. Agents?"
Devlin had done his homework--he doubted a newbit in the room hadn't read everything they could lay their hands on about the enhanced SCIs--but nothing like seeing it for real to drive home just how amazing Connor and his kind truly were. Pacey's partner read the security marks on one woman's reader, held at the back of the room--letters a bare millimeter high and written in ultraviolet ink. Another agent could differentiate between a pencil and a pen being used to write a note on the floor below them, and a third could tell which of the two females sent out to write the note had held the paper, by scent alone. And Connor reproduced what was written on the note by running his fingertips over the last piece of paper in the pad, twenty sheets below the note, all while his enhancements sent a detailed output to the audience's readers and was thrown up on a screen behind the stage.
Pacey took the podium again. "Connor, stay there, would you? Agents, half of you have no augmentations, but you can still see and hear a little of what your partner can. That display on the screen can also be seen through these." He pulled out what appeared to be a pair of ordinary glasses. "With these you can switch to a heads-up display and follow along. They take a bit of practice getting used to. Devlin, come up and try them on."
Devlin obediently went to the stage and put the glasses on his face. "Not my style."
"Too bad, because they're probably worth more than you are, and if you lose them through negligence, you'll be still paying for them when you're drooling in the nursing home. Okay, Connor, look at Kevin's nose."
Suddenly an alien landscape of pits and lurid pink mountains appeared in front of Devlin's face, and he reared back, instinctively ripping the glasses from his face. "Holy shit!"
The audience nearly died laughing. Connor gave Devlin a rueful look. "Too powerful?"
"Are you kidding? That was worse than a horror movie."
Pacey grinned. "Put them back on, Devlin."
This time, Pacey explained how to switch between Connor's vision and Devlin's own, and how to look at various analysis screens projected from a reader accessory to the heads-up display glasses. "The really useful thing is that you don't even have to be in the same room, or the same state, as your partner to use the HUDs. While they're hooked into your phone, or broadcasting to your reader, then you can follow what your partner is seeing and hearing anywhere in the USA. We've used that capability many times to coordinate efforts on a case."
"Can you locate an agent that way?" someone asked from the back.
"Yes, we can and we do."
That was kind of cool. Devlin reluctantly handed the heads-up display glasses back. Pacey told him to take his seat.
"Whether you use this live or you look at data later is entirely between you and your partner. Don't imagine it tells you what it's really like being enhanced, but you'll get some idea. You'll see more of the enhanced abilities over this week, of course. Some are a little hard to demonstrate, like Connor's ability to see infrared, or the higher ranges of his hearing. I'll open it up to questions."
Devlin had hundreds, but he could ask Connor later. So he kept quiet and let others talk. There were plenty of takers.
"Is there any risk of sensory overload?" a woman asked.
Pacey nodded to Connor, who stepped forward. "Yes."
Pacey rolled his eyes. "Connor."
Connor's eyes narrowed slightly. "Yes, there's considerable risk. However, the augmentee can adjust the level of input they receive. Should they be unable to do so, their partner can override some of the internal controls."
Pacey held up the reader accessory. "There's a limited amount of input from this device to the enhancements. The partner can muffle the sensory load, and that's always enough to pull the augmented agent out of any fugue they might get into. That's actually pretty rare. I've never had to do that with Kevin. Connor? You and Becca?"
Connor's eyes narrowed ever so slightly, his fine lips tightening as if the question made him deeply angry in a restrained way. "No," he said, as curtly as before. He and Pacey held a brief but intense glaring match before Pacey looked away.
"Another question? Anyone?" A man raised his hand. "Yes, you."
"Can you turn everything off completely?"
"Do you ever do that?"
"No." Connor's blue eyes bored into the man like lasers. Dumbass, Devlin thought. Pacey had already said Connor would be blind without the enhancements. No one would make himself disabled for fun.
Pacey coughed. "Another one?"
"How do you control the enhancements? Turn them on and off, or down?"
"The augmentee chooses a position for the controllers--mine are in my jaw. I manipulate the muscles--it's mechanical. Some can be turned down, others can only be turned on or off."
The questions went on for another half hour, the majority directed at Connor. He answered coldly, with the bare minimum of detail, and as he sat down finally, his cheeks looked like a kid had splashed him with red paint.
Menezes called for an extended break then, so people could get to know each other before the team-building slot.
"Excuse me," Connor said and walked to the door before Devlin could say "Sure" or "Hey, I need to piss too. I'll come with".
Devlin shook his head. Strange guy.
"I told you. He's a fucking prick."
Devlin turned to Pacey and gave him the stink eye. "You two got something going on or what?"
Connor would gladly have spared himself Tom Pacey's sarcasm. But nearly a lifetime of hearing things about himself he'd rather not have heard and learning not to react, had inured him somewhat to their impact. He was, after all, mildly curious to know how his new partner would respond.
"Nah," Tom said to Devlin's blunt question. "You saw how he was this morning. Acting out because he has to get used to someone else. Connor hates change."
Connor entered the bathroom. When had Tom decided to set himself up as an expert on all things Hutchens? It wasn't like they'd ever been friends. Tom was Becca's friend.
"What happened to his last partner?" Devlin's tone was wary. Hadn't decided to trust Tom, Connor thought. But Tom would convince him. He was trustworthy, after all.
"Connor drove her to a nervous breakdown."
Connor closed his eyes and took a deep breath. It was true. Didn't make it pleasant to hear, but it was true.
"I don't believe that. He'd have been kicked out--"
"Not the superfreak. He'd have to kill someone before they'd let the lab rat go."
"You know he can hear you, right? You always this nice to the enhanced agents?"
"No. Just him."
A pause even Connor's super hearing couldn't interpret. "I've got to go wash my hands. Catch you at the coffee bar."
Connor went over to a urinal, even though he didn't really need to relieve himself. Otou-san had always warned him no good would come of listening in on conversations about himself. The problem was, since Becca's retirement, there were too many conversations to avoid them all.
Devlin came in and stood at the sink, apparently fascinated by a minute flake of dried skin beside his nose. Connor pretended to be busy urinating.
"Pacey's got a real hard-on for you, hasn't he?"
Connor gave up pretending and refastened his trousers. "He's close to my former partner. She was something of a mother figure to many of our agents. A great loss to the Agency."
Devlin turned, still reflected in the large mirror, giving Connor twin views of his dark, rather fine-boned features. "And to you?"
"And to me."
"Did you drive her nuts?"
"Don't you mean 'how'?"
Devlin shook his head. "No, 'why'. Pacey calls you a freak, but if you deliberately drove your partner nuts, you must be a real shit."
Connor's cheeks grew hot. "It wasn't deliberate."
"Could you have stopped it?"
Devlin's question threw him off. No one had asked this. "I don't think so."
"Then Pacey's a prick."
"Look, Connor. You've got history here, and sooner or later, I'm going to have to find out what that is. But right now, I just want to know about you, not your partner. You won't drive me crazy, and now I know you won't try. So let's start clean and fresh. You leave your baggage at the door, and if Tom Pacey drives you to punch his fool face in at any point, you go right ahead. Nothing to do with me."
"I would never strike someone in anger."
Devlin grinned, and his lean features softened. "If it was me, I would."
Connor smiled a little in response. "They're not lying to you. I don't have a personality."
"Bullshit. You can get pissy, and your feelings get hurt. You're not a robot...are you?"
Connor's lips twitched in amusement at Devlin's hopeful tone. "Not yet."
"Damn. That'd be so fucking cool."
Devlin had a rather foul mouth. Connor had always been brought up not to swear, curse, or even use intemperate language. It left him with one less way of relieving his feelings. He envied Devlin the freedom to cut loose.
"Let me piss and we can go get some coffee." Connor nodded. Devlin's expression turned hard. "And Connor? I've got one rule. I don't trash my partners or friends behind their back. There's only one person I want to hear about your past from, and that's you. Same for me. You want to know something about me, you ask. Do you? Want to know? Pacey was kind of being free with your history."
"Yes. Uh." Again Devlin caught Connor off guard. He'd been so busy dreading the whole business of partnering someone new, he hadn't paid a lot of attention to who that person would be. He'd scanned Devlin's record, noted the man's high qualifications and range of experience, but had not given any thought to the person behind them. "Not now."
"Okay. But just ask if you do."
Devlin smiled at him. He had a most expressive face, though Connor didn't actually need to see expressions to detect mood. He'd already logged Devlin's rapid changes of heart rate, sweating and capillary action during the morning session. He was not an emotionally repressed individual. Devlin definitely had a personality.
Not like him.